Letter to An Aspiring Novelist
I’ve been corresponding a bit with an aspiring novelist who finished his first novel and is likely going to self publish it, after some frustration with trying to find an agent and publisher. He wants to be a professional writer and is very eager to get published; it’s a feeling I remember well. He also feels a bit remote from the scene because he doesn’t live in an English-speaking country.
I gave him some advice. I don’t claim to be an expert, but this is based on my experience with traditional publishing, self publishing, working for an industry trade magazine, etc. This is pretty much practical publishing stuff, which is actually my least favorite kind of advice to give; I’d rather talk about writing better stories, but this stuff is important too.
Here’s what I wrote him, with the identifying info stripped out (and some typos corrected and bits clarified):
Well, sure it could take several books until you write one good enough to sell. Some people sell the first book they write, but it’s not common. You wouldn’t open a restaurant the first time you cooked a recipe. You wouldn’t buy a shiny new scalpel and declare yourself ready to perform brain surgery after perusing an anatomy textbook. Writing novels isn’t easy. (That thing about how it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to attain mastery of any subject is probably more or less correct. Writers also talk about the “million words of crap” — until you’ve written a million words or so of fiction, you probably still have a lot of the basics left to master.)
What’s your hurry? You want this to be your career, so do the work. I started writing seriously when I was 14 — I mean, I was writing from age 7 or so, but I was submitting and revising and researching markets from age 14 on. I sold my first small-press stories when I was 19 or 20, and had my first pro sales in my early twenties. When I was 30, I won a Hugo and got reprinted in the Best American Short Stories and after that I could sell pretty much any story I finished (if I thought it was good enough to send out). Only took me 16 years of steady effort. And that’s stories — I’m still figuring out how to write novels, after selling about 20 of them, and writing about 25.
If you write in English and have a reliable internet connection, it doesn’t matter if you live in [land far away from the US]. (I’ve met my agent maybe twice in person in the ten years we’ve been working together. I’ve met very few of my editors and publishers in person.) Everything is done via e-mail.
Since just looking at lists of agents can be intimidating, I recommend trying to find agents who’ve sold books similar to the ones you write. Find the websites of authors who are in the same genre you are and see if they mention who represents them. Look in the acknowledgments of books broadly similar to yours and see if the authors mention their agents. Or subscribe to Publishers Marketplace for a month and search in their deals database, to see which agents are selling novels in your genres — especially first novels. (If they just sold a first novel, odds are good they’re open to new clients.)
Then google their websites, which will almost always have submission guidelines. Some want a query and thirty pages, some want a query and two pages, some just want a query, some want attachments, some will reject submissions with attachments unread — just follow the individual guidelines. A lot of people are lazy and send out mass e-mails that ignore individual guidelines and agents will mostly ignore those e-mails; who wants a client who can’t follow even basic instructions? (A sufficiently brilliant book can trump everything else, of course… but I’ve never written a book so brilliant I could ignore the standards of professionalism.)
Yes, it’s a lot of work. If it were easy, everyone would do it. The odds are probably better for a high school basketball player to be drafted to play professionally than for an aspiring writer to get signed by a major publisher. (There are a LOT of aspiring writers.) But then, most aspiring writers are not good enough to be published professionally, just as most high school basketball players aren’t good enough to play professionally. If you’re good, you’re not competing with every writer that submits to an agent or a publisher — because 90% of those submissions are simply not good enough. If you’re good, you’re competing with the 10% that are also good. And if you’re in that 10%, you will eventually get a deal.
Your first novel is, frankly, probably not in that 10%. I know nothing at all about your work, and maybe you’re the exception, but statistically, probably not. I was sure my first novel was brilliant when I wrote it, and looking back, I’m so glad the e-book/self-publishing revolution hadn’t happened in 1996, or I would have published that disaster of a novel, because I truly believed the publishers who rejected me just weren’t capable of understanding my genius. Nope. Turns out I was just suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, and radically overestimating my own competence.
I’ve got nothing against self publishing, of course. I’ve done it, and it’s great for some projects. But traditional publishers still have distribution on their side, and all the “e-book revolution!” stuff to the contrary, most people who buy books still buy actual printed books, and many of them buy those books in actual bookstores. (Hard to believe, I know. And in some genres, especially romance and thrillers, e-books are making up as much of half of sales — but for most genres print still wins handily.) That may change, but for now, there are definite advantages to signing with a real publisher. Real editing. Good covers. Advances. And it’s far easier to sell foreign and sub rights if you were published traditionally, and for many writers, that’s where you make your real money.
Anyway. Do whatever feels right to you, of course. But that’s what I think on the subject.