In my last post about the twin demons of denial and desperation, I stressed how important it is for writers to educate themselves about the publishing industry before they dive into it. Over the past few days, I’ve gotten several emails asking for pointers on how to do that. Here are some suggestions.
First and foremost: AVOID THE INTERNET! At least to start. The Internet is an amazing and invaluable research resource, and you will use it heavily in your search for an agent or publisher. Unfortunately, as much excellent information as there is online, there’s at least as much really really bad information. One of the most important of all Internet skills is the ability to filter what you find. Unless you have some basic knowledge about your subject, however, you aren’t going to be able to do that very effectively. That’s why I suggest you begin your investigation into the publishing industry offline.
(I’m aware of the irony here, because I’m telling you this electronically. But ideally, I’d like for people to find Writer Beware after they've learned something about agents and publishers, so they can better put our warnings and advice in context.)
So...go get a book. Yes, I know, very old school. Nevertheless, books offer many advantages. There are fewer of them, so you won’t become overwhelmed by a multitude of choices, as you might online. They’ve been authored by people who actually have credentials that qualify them to write about their subject (unlike many websites, which may have been put together by people who know even less than you), and have been vetted by an editor, who presumably has an interest in producing a product that reflects well on the publisher. They’ve also been researched, which isn’t necessarily something you can say about websites, and they are likely to be up to date--also not something you can count on with websites--which is extremely important in the constantly-changing world of publishing.
There are many books that provide a basic introduction to the publishing process. The Dummies and Idiots lines have decent general guides, as well as more specialized guides to specific markets and genres. Other examples include (for US writers) How to Get Happily Published by Judith Applebaum, How To Be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis, and Agents, Editors, and You by Michelle Howry; and (for UK writers) From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake and The Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Rachael Stock. There are many, many others. Go to a bookstore and spend some time in the area where books on writing are shelved, or type “getting published” into the search box at Amazon; no doubt you’ll find a book to suit you. (Oh dear. I just told you to stay off the Internet, didn't I? Now I’m telling you to go to Amazon. Let’s just agree that Amazon Doesn’t Count, okay?)
(You may notice that I'm not recommending writers' magazines such as The Writer or Writer's Digest or Writing Magazine. These are fine as supplements to your other research, but I don't recommend you rely on them as your primary information source about the publishing world. Many of the articles are puff pieces; others are superficial and shallowly researched, and often gloss over the complexities and the tougher realities of the business. And the ads can be toxic--there's a huge focus on pay-to-publish services, and any agent you find in the Classifieds sections is likely to be a scammer.)
Next: read the book. Don’t cheat. Don’t skim it, don’t dip and pick. Read it cover to cover. This kind of preparatory research is tedious, I know, especially for writers who are on fire to get their work out there--but if you decide to skip it, as many writers do, you will more likely than not have cause to regret your decision later on. Or perhaps you think you already know enough, from information you've picked up here and there, perhaps from writer friends or from hanging out online--but unless you come from a family of authors, I can almost guarantee that you are wrong. Ignorance is the scammer's best ally; knowledge is the writer's best defense. Bite the bullet. Do the prep work. It’s one of the most worthwhile investments in your future writing career that you will ever make.
Now that you have some knowedge and some context, you can get advanced. By this, I mean reading, or at least regularly checking, trade publications such as Publishers’ Weekly (US) or The Bookseller (UK). Subscriptions are expensive, but you can probably find issues at your local library. These journals will not only clue you in on the latest happenings in the publishing industry, they’ll keep you current with the books that are coming out and the deals that are being made. It’s a great way to become familiar with the names of agents, editors, and publishing houses. If you write genre fiction, there may be a magazine oriented to you: for instance, Locus or Vector for SF/fantasy/horror writers, or Romantic Times or Romance Matters for romance writers.
You can also now safely go online. There are many excellent blogs maintained by agents, editors, booksellers, and industry insiders; these provide a wealth of information, direct from the source. You can find some of these--by no means all--in the sidebar of this blog (most of the agents are US-based; agent blogging seems to be much less prevalent in the UK). There are also a number of industry newsletters to which you can subscribe: Publishers Lunch or Book Trade News Digest, which report on publishing, or ShelfAwareness, which covers the world of bookselling.
Another excellent online resource is Publishers Marketplace. A membership costs, but you get a lot for your money, including agent listings, rights listings, the full version of the Publishers Lunch newsletter, and much more. It’s mainly oriented to the US market; I’m not aware of a UK equivalent. Many people seem to swear by the online version of Writer's Market--I’m not really familiar with it, though, and I don’t much like the print version; I find the information superficial, and the listings are not always well-vetted.
Writers’ discussion forums are also worth seeking out--but this should be one of the last things you do in your self-education process, because you really, really need some basic knowledge in order to properly filter the content you’ll find at these sites. Writers’ myths (good agents aren’t interested in new writers, big publishers don’t take risks on debut authors) abound on writers’ message boards, along with misconceptions about the realities of publishing and self-publishing, and inaccurate information about complex subjects such as copyright. The reason is simple: writers’ message boards are heavily populated by writers who skipped the steps described above, and are trying to learn what they need to know piecemeal by looking for it online. Because they don’t know how to evaluate what they find, there’s a lot of parroting of bad information.
That said, discussion forums and message boards can be extremely helpful--for advice, support, even critiques of your work. This is especially true if the membership includes professional writers. Backspace is a good forum, with articles, listings, and an active message board. Ditto for Absolute Write, where both aspiring writers and professionals hang out (I’m the moderator of AW’s Bewares & Background check forum, where you can ask about an agent’s or publisher’s reputation). WritersNet is another popular forum. The John Jarrold Forum, run by UK agent John Jarrold, focuses on speculative fiction; the Mystery Writers' Forum is for mystery and crime authors. There are many, many others. Look around till you find one that suits you.
One thing I suggest--and I imagine there will be disagreement--is that, at least initially, you avoid the blogs of authors who regularly discuss publishing and the publishing process. There are a couple of reasons for this. Authors’ views of the nuts and bolts of publishing tend to vary a great deal, based on their own experiences as well as the differing requirements of the genres within which they work. The divergent information can be confusing if you don’t have a good general knowledge base. Also, some authors adopt a tough-love approach, or spend a lot of time highlighting scary or negative things under the guise of talking straight and telling it like it is. This kind of discourse can be demoralizing and overwhelming for someone who’s new to the publishing game. If you’re just starting to think about researching agents, you don’t really need to be told that you’re doomed if you don’t self-promote, or to find out about the dire things that can happen if the sales figures for your second book drop. There will be plenty of time for all that depressing crap once you actually get a publishing contract.
A final word: don't obsess. Following blogs and participating in writers' forums can turn into a major time sink; those of us with a tendency toward Internet addiction (I'm raising my hand here) need to be especially careful. The sheer amount of information available can become overwhelming rather than empowering, and there are those of us who don't find it an unalloyed delight to get a peek behind the publishing curtain. Once you're beyond the basics, there really is such a thing as knowing too much. If your Internet activities are cutting into your writing time, or if your blogrolling causes you to suffer from information overload, or if keeping up with the latest in publishing becomes less about learning and more about depression and paranoia (I've been there--it's one reason I discontinued my subscriptions to Locus and Chronicle last fall), it may be time to cut back. It's okay: you're not going to miss the Ultimate Secret to Getting Published if you take some time off.
Suggestions are welcome. If there's a book or resource you feel is particularly useful, please post a note in the Comments section.