Books. How do they work? They’re like magnets, y’all.
I get asked at least twice a week how books work – how they go from being in a notebook or on a computer to getting onto a shelf (speaking to traditional publishing, of course – the process for self-pub is still one of great mystery to me.) I know I’ve written about this in the past, in particular when I talk about writer crazy here, when I talk about what being a novelist means here, and right after I got agented here, but this post will hopefully break it down into one, easy-to-digest guide. I’ll add to it or edit it later if any information is incomplete or, you know, WRONG.
Acquisitions Committee: These are “the money people” at a publishing house. Once your book has passed second reads, it is sent to a board who will yay or nay the project based on any number of factors (how other authors in your genre are doing, the strength of your work, the state of the current market, etc.) Acqs boards (sometimes called editorial boards) usually consist of editors and marketing people (and raptors – clearly there are raptors) who will braintrust over your book to decide if it’s profitable to take you on as a debut. As most debuts never earn out to their advances, they’re essentially deciding if they think they can launch your career based on the work in front of them. You might not be profitable right out of the gate, but in the FUTURE, well . . . anything can happen. It’s the future. And the future is awesome.
Advance – The amount of money offered by a publisher to acquire a book (though not all pub houses offer advances.) Even if your book sells poorly, you don’t pay this back. It’s simply the purchase price for the book. Advances are often paid not in bulk but in chunks, like one third at signing (when the author signs on the dotted line to accept an offer), one third at edit acceptance (when the author completes her editor’s editorial requests,) and one third upon publication (the book hitting shelves.)
Agent or Literary Agent: An agent acts as your gateway into the publishing world. They submit your book to editors at publishing houses in hopes of striking a deal. Once there is an offer on your book, they negotiate on your behalf to get you the best deal possible. Later, after your book has sold, agents review contracts and royalty statements to ensure that your finances (and by proxy theirs) are in order. They are a sounding board and “first editor” of any work that’s going on submission. Legit agents will never ask for money to represent you – they take you on “for free” because they believe that your work will one day sell for buckets of money and they’ll get their cut later (most agents take anywhere from ten to twenty percent commission on any sales – ask the agent for their terms before you accept an offer of representation.) As agents work gratis until your book is bought, they tend to be highly selective with who they represent. It is worth noting that — just like everyone else — agents have tastes and specializations to consider. Before you query an agent, make sure they enjoy and/or specialize in your type of fiction. Some agents only want adult literature, for example, so querying them with your YA mystery is a waste of your time and theirs. Others might love paranormal romance, but have so many authors in their stables that write paranormal romance, they aren’t accepting new authors at this time. Research agents, make sure your work is a good match for what they like to represent, and when you do get around to querying, READ THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES AND FOLLOW THEM. Showing an agent that you have basic reading comprehension skills means your query won’t end up in the trash. If they only ask for a query letter, three pages, and a synopsis (and when they ask for three pages, they want your first three pages not some random snippet in the middle), send . . . a query letter, three pages, and a synopsis. Don’t send a full chapter thinking, “But you’ll really love the whole thing so just read it.” They have processes for a reason. As a novice writer, you’re probably not smarter than they are about the industry, so stop being a dink and do as you’re told. It’ll get you cool kid points in the long run.
Auction – If there are multiple houses interested in acquiring your work, it will likely go to auction. The auction is arranged and managed by your agent. Auctions do not necessarily mean a half a million dollars and a pony courtesy of your new editor, though. It might mean a moderate advance but a house ups your marketing budget. It might mean allowing your agent to sell international rights or tweaking the terms of audio book rights. The rules of the auction change from agent to agent (and greatly depend on how many people are involved in the bidding.) Rachelle Gardner does a great job explaining the whole crazy process on her blog. Check it out.
Debut – An author with no previous publishing credentials. Your first book.
Editor – Celestial beings who work their bums off to acquire your work. Once it is acquired, celestial beings who turn your ugly little baby into a bookshelf prom queen.
Exclusive – When an agent or editor is asking to be the ONLY person you consider for your book (whether that’s representation or doing rewrites and pre-offer edits). Agents do this less and less it seems, but some might still ask you for it. Think long and hard about any exclusive before you consent. The moment you agree, you are saying no one else can look at your work or touch it for X number of time. If an editor is offering to do a rewrite with you (essentially pro bono editing work) it might behoove you, but it depends on your circumstances. There are many fish in the publishing sea.
International Rights – The short explanation: international rights dictate how your book gets in the hands of the rest of the world after it’s been purchased in the American market. Whether your publisher controls that or you and your agent control that depends on your deal. For example, if your publishing house only asked for North American rights, that means your agent can offer the book for distribution to European and Asian markets. These rights are purchased and mean more money in an author’s pocket.
Manuscript – Your draft of your book. A book in larvae form.
Offer – When a publishing house has decided to acquire your book, this is the “package” they offer you to get you to sign on the line. Initial offers are where you start. Counteroffers are offers given to try and beat out another house’s offer, etc.
Partial – When an agent likes your query letter enough to want to see a portion of your book. Sometimes it’s three chapters. Sometimes it’s more. They will tell you what they want. FOLLOW THEIR INSTRUCTIONS.
Royalties – The amount of money/percentages you make once you’ve earned out to your advance. An author gets a percentage of a book’s sales once the book’s advance has been met. This means if a book got a $20,000 advance, the book has to “earn out” that $20,000 before you see any royalty money.
Second Reads – An agent sends your book to an editor. Said editor loves the book and would like to purchase it one day. To get support for this, they go to what is called Second Reads. Second Reads is a group of people at the publishing house who will read your manuscript and weigh in on it. They essentially tell the editor what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of the work. If the strengths outweigh the weaknesses and the Second Reads panel gives it a resounding thumbs up, it will go to the raptors (aka Acquistions.)
Slushpile: The slushpile means you submitted a book or query letter as a general submission, as in the editor or agent didn’t specifically ask you for it and you’re throwing your hat in the ring along with the rest of the unknown scrubs (please note: I, too, was a slushpile scrub. I say this fondly because BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, HAVE THE TEE SHIRT.)
Submission or On Sub: When your book has been sent to editors and you are waiting to hear back from them. Also known as the fourth level of Hell.
Synopsis: Your book’s story compacted into two or three pages. It explains what happens over the course of the book and reveals all major characters and plot points.
Query or Query Letter: This is a one page letter you write to agents (usually – editors will sometimes be open to queries but most prefer you filter through a literary agent first) that tells the agent/editor what your book is about. It’s the first thing any agent sees of your work, so make sure it’s really, really shiny. Don’t use superfluous words. Watch spelling and punctuation. Clearly outline the plot and MAIN characters so they can really grasp what you’re peddling. The key here is surgical precision. As the ultimate goal of the query is to entice an agent to want to see your full manuscript, do not tell them you’re the next Stephen King because that’s a waste of words (and they’ve heard it a zillion times before.) Streamline the meat and potatoes of your story. You can include a brief “about you” paragraph at the end of the letter if you’re so inclined, but keep it pertinent to your potential writing career. They don’t care that you have a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from Innsmouth University. They WILL care if you have something that will help get the work bought, though, like previous publishing credits or a blog that gets 50,000 hits a day. Note: a great resource for query writing is Janet Reid’s Query Shark. You can learn a ton from this lady. Read the archives. It’s worth it.
STEP ONE: Victory Through Prose. Write AND FINISH A Book.
I know, I know. You have six chapters that you’re sure are THE BEST six chapters in the history of history and everyone in the world should see them. You’ll send them to agents and editors and all of them will be so impressed with your writing that they’ll faint, puke on themselves, and give you buckets of money. They’ll beg to name their first child after you.
If you’re an unknown (like me and most of my writer friends were) you’re going to be a slushpile kid. That means to be considered for publication, you need to complete the WHOLE BOOK first. Edit that WHOLE BOOK until it gleams. Give it to people who won’t tell you it’s awesome because they love you, but will tell you where it sucks, how it sucks, and what they think you can do to desuckify it. Then, after you drink a twelve pack of beer and avoid drowning in your I’M A TALENTLESS HACK tears, you put your nose to the grindstone, check your ego, and edit that sumbitch until it’s faaaaantastic.
STEP TWO: Grow A Thick Skin. Rejection Round One Cometh.
The book is written and polished and you’re shaking dat ass because you’ve accomplished something marvelous. It is now time to get yourself an agent. Research agents, research their guidelines. Write a KICK ASS query letter and email away. Don’t be a tool and send one email to six hundred agents. No one likes spam emails and this makes you look like a spammer. Mind you, it’s okay to query six hundred agents if you want (most agents don’t expect exclusives most of the time) but make sure you take the time to send individual emails to everyone. Oh, and make sure you address it to the right person? Sending a query over to Tom FatBottom that’s attentioned to Missy LovesPizza doesn’t look very good.
Now wait. And wait. Stare at your inbox forever. Refresh inbox a trillion times an hour.
Some agents get back fast. Others take two to three months. Some agents will flat out tell you if you’ve heard nothing from them in two months it’s a no so move on. There will likely be LOTS AND LOTS of rejections on the horizon – the trick is to not take them personally (and never, ever answer one with attitude – that’s career suicide.) This is a business, after all, and yeah, you took a year to write this book they should AT LEAST read it, but so did everyone else. I don’t remember where or when I read this, but for a point of reference? Irene Goodman (my agency) gets something like 40,000 query letters a year. My agent accepts one or two clients a year. Do that math.
STEP THREE: Rejoice! And Edit.
After partial manuscript requests and full manuscript requests and however long it took you to score your agent, you’ve got one, and the agent is as excited to represent you as you are to be represented. They have wonderful ideas for your career, you’re a special snowflake, blah-blah-blah, and OH, YEAH, CAN YOU DO THESE SMALLLLLL CHANGES. Said changes could potentially take you a while to complete. An agent will often times have tweaks and edits they want you to make before taking your work out on submission. Don’t argue. Unless it’s going to totally alter the work and make you hate it beyond belief, suck it up and do as you’re told. Your agent’s livelihood is selling books. If he or she doesn’t sell them, he or she might not have nice things like food and electricity so they probably know a thing or two about the industry. For the most part? Listen to the experts.
STEP FOUR: It’s Out of Your Hands.
Post your editing frenzy, the agent will take your book out when he or she deems it strategically smart. It’s sort of an industry “DUH” that August is when a lot of agents and editors step back from the biz to either vacation or catch-up on their backlog. Deals still happen, but not as frequently, so not a lot of things go out on submission in August. November and December can get a bit hazy, too, as holiday rushes and end of year budgets are a concern, so your book might sit for a couple months before it’s sent out to editors. Be cool. It’ll get there.
Now, depending on your agent, the book gets in the hands of the publishing houses one of two ways. Some agents have to essentially query editors like you queried your agent. They put together a mini-proposal so the editor will consider the work. Other agents basically say HEY I HAVE THIS and everyone green lights them to send it over without that proposal. At this point in the publishing process? The writer is uninvolved. That book is your agent’s problem, not yours. You’re officially on submission.
STEP FIVE: Wait. Waiting. Still Waiting.
Being on submission is a weird, weird thing, dudes. Sometimes, you’ll wait for six months to hear anything. Sometimes, it can take even longer for editors to send it to seconds or pass on it. Sometimes, you’ll hear in two or three weeks. The waiting can be agonizing AND unpredictable. Some people will wait forever for a deal, some will wait twelve minutes. There’s no way to know where you’re gonna fall. Whatever the case, wait as gracefully as you can (while losing your hair and clawing the walls and becoming a total freakazoid.)
A couple tips that got me through the horrendous wait (and I’ve been on both sides of the fence — waiting forever AND the whirlwind — so I know a thing or two about this): one, a “no” is a fast, easy way to clear an editor’s desk. They might not like writing rejection letters, but if a project’s not for them, passing on it frees them up to get to something else in their mammoth workload. If they’re NOT saying no and just staying quiet, it might mean they’re sitting on your manuscript and thinking about it or maybe waiting for the right time to bring it to second reads or acquisitions. Silence is not always a bad thing. The no is easy to do, guys. If they’ve read it and were going to reject it, they’d just reject it. Remember that.
Second tip? Write something else while you’re waiting. Stalking editors on social media programs or biting your fingernails to the quick in the interim does nothing for you. Concentrate on another project to keep yourself afloat. Writing is a great way to channel your angst about the wordless abyss that is being on submission. Also, writing’s what you supposedly want to do so, like, do it.
(Also, this should be something I shouldn’t have to say, but having had a ringside seat for this – don’t poke editors or agents on Twitter just to see if they’ve read your stuff. Don’t try to woo them or romance them by sucking up. And by all that is holy, if you have even a moment’s hesitation as to whether or not something is appropriate to say to an industry professional, DON’T SAY IT. ABORT MISSION. It’s okay to interact with publishing folks if they have a public profile, but be careful with it. Don’t cram yourself down their throats or they’ll remember you for THAT instead of the quality of your work. Chill, Honey Bunny. Just chill.)
STEP SIX: Survive Second Reads, Acquistions. MORE REJECTION? WTF?
An editor decides they simply MUST have your work for themselves. They want to sweep it away to Vegas and make an honest book out of it. COOL! Your book will go from being on submission with that house to second reads wherein other editors (most of the time) also read your book and give their two cents on the project. Generally speaking, second reads must be in favor of the book for it to progress from here out. It’s great if the editor loves your book, but if other editors think it’s too flawed or simply don’t like it, it won’t go anywhere and the author and the editor must resign themselves to this not being an ideal match. HOWEVER. If the second reads consensus is WOO HA, MARRY THIS SUCKA! The book goes to acquisitions. Acquisitions will then do whatever it is raptors do and determine if the house is going to make an offer.
MEANWHILE! While all this craziness is going down on the publishing house side of things, your agent will take the news of a book going to second reads to other houses to try to stir up interest. They’ll tell the other editors with the project that they have strong interest. If an editor hasn’t read the book, they’ll likely prioritize it so they don’t miss out on something potentially awesome. If they’ve been sitting or waffling on it, they’ll make up their minds right around now. Going to second reads or acquisitions is a great way to launch a book from “quietly on submission” to FEEDING FRENZY. SHAAAARK. Lots of long-awaited answers come in at once. More rejection is likely, but so, too, are other editors falling in love with your book. Brace yourself. Shit just got REAL.
STEP SEVEN: Rejoice. Victory Is At Hand.
So, an offer comes in. Your book survived the editor, second reads, and acquisitions with its dignity intact. An initial offer is presented to your agent which means you will one day be on shelves. After your agent does his or her Victory Butt Wiggle and you hyperventilate into a bag and weep openly at your success, your agent will take the offer to the other houses still in play to shake out last minute answers. If the initial offer is the Last Man Standing, the agent will negotiate to tweak the deal, considering not only your advance but also royalties and some of those aforementioned marketing strategies and international/audio right things.
If, however, multiple houses want to offer, you’ll likely go to auction and that changes the dynamic. The offers will get better, though as I said before, not necessarily all on advance money. There might be other perks included and perks can make or break a debut. More advertising or marketing backing is never a bad thing as it could guarantee a more prominent position in a bookstore or on a website. Visibility is key! Your agent will consider the whole package each house offers before advising you where they think you should go.
Hopefully this answers some questions and/or debunks some mystery about the publishing industry. There’s more to the process (like editorial notes and galleys and ARCs and what’s an ISBN and such) but I can tackle those at another time. If there are questions, drop them in comments. If I don’t have immediate answers, I’ll get them for you. I KNOW PEOPLE WHO KNOW PEOPLE, YO. I’m connected.)