Saturday, May 05, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Learning the Ropes

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.

26 comments:

Linda said...

These are all excellent points. One of the things I like to add is about Publishers Weekly. I've subscribed to it for about three years. When I got it, I really wasn't too sure about it. I read the issues and didn't feel like I was getting much out of it. But I did read every issue, and I gradually realized I was getting something out of it. But reading PW didn't give me an immediate "Ah ha! That's how you do!" It really was something gradual that I put together over time. PW really is something that needs to be absorbed over a long period of time.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with getting off the internet. If I had followed that rule, I would have missed a lot of great sources. I wouldn't have known where to start, would not know about PW or Writer Beware or AW at all. I've only recently found the only other writer in my town, through the internet.

So I vote for trolling the 'net, but bring your sh*t detector.

crack-pot girl said...

I just wanted to say thank you for your insightful, informative posts.

Scott Oden said...

A book I've found useful is Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees, especially the chapters on What To Expect (both what you should expect from a publisher and what a publisher expects from you). Ms. Lerner has credentials from both sides of the desk -- as an editor and an agent.

Simon Haynes said...

Good advice. I have a shelf full of books on writing, agents, publishing, editing and more, and I've read every one of them cover to cover, most of them multiple times.

Writing a book and getting published should be approached in the same way as a university degree, and I don't mean lounging in the tavern and skipping class. It's a lot of very hard work, often several years of it, and unlike university there's nobody marking your work, keeping score or threatening to chuck you out if you don't meet deadlines.

If you just want to bask in the published author aura, attend someone else's book signings.

Southern Writer said...

Well said -- especially the last paragraph.

pjd said...

Writing a book and getting published should be approached in the same way as a university degree, and I don't mean lounging in the tavern and skipping class.

There's another way to approach a university degree? I'm sure as hell glad no one told me about it when I was in college.

As a "beginner" (only a few short stories published so far), I find I have three challenges: First, the writing. Second, the getting published. Third, the motivation to persevere under the heavy strain of job, family, home, volunteer, and other commitments. For the first and last, I have found a good writer's group to be invaluable. For the middle one (the getting published part), I've been trying the approach of lounging around the tavern and skipping class. So far it hasn't worked very well.

But I agree with anonymous 7:14 that the internet is valuable to newcomers. Don't just bring your sh*t detector, though--adjust it to the maximum operable setting. (It should not take the observant internetgoer long to see that for every topic there are multiple conflicting opinions available. It becomes an exercise in identifying authoritative sources.)

Anonymous said...

Just this to offer about Writer's Market: I bought the book and got $10 off on the on-line version, so I subscribed. Discovered at least one questionable agent in both versions. Search function could be improved. As far as I could discover, you can't search by an agent's name, only the agency name. Also, some glitches. When deleting folders, kept timing out and I had to go out and back in to make it work. That said, it does allow you to search by genre, and it's a place to start. But Agent Query is better and free. :)

djchuang said...

Wise words for writers trying to connect with the popular market via traditional publishing; just found this blog and hope to stay tuned in on your wisdom and experience in navigating the publishing world. Having edited and self-published 2 books last year, I'm realizing that much of the stuff I write/edit will not (yet?) have mass appeal, and so traditional publishing will be a disconnect for what I feel I need to do for getting my writings and thoughts out there. I'm glad technologies like the internet and print-on-demand are now available, and opening more opportunities and options for connecting niche writers to niche audiences.

inge said...

After finding, in the public library, books by vanity presses on why you should publish by vanity presses, I feel that for everyone with some experience in online research the internet might be a better choice...

John B said...

Next you'll be telling us Wikipedia isn't the end-all be-all...

Diana Celesky said...

Excellent post. Lots of great resources listed. I especially liked the warning about the Internet. Wish I would have heeded that when I started out, would have saved me lots of time.

lorra laven said...

Victoria, obviously this post took a great deal of time to organize and write because it is wonderful advice.

I started with the books and I also attended a couple of writer's conferences. I now use the internet extensively and I subscribe to PW and also to the online Publishers Marketplace that posts the daily deals.

agentquery.com is an excellent resource as is everyonewhosanyone.com when compiling a list of agents to query.

HOWEVER - nobody stays on my list if they don't pass muster on the preditors and editors website or the absolute write forum on agents. Life is too short to shoot myself in the foot.

I hope a lot of writers who are just getting started in the agent search marathon read your current post and follow your advice. Otherwise, the least that will happen is they will waste valuable time and the worst is that they will submit to someone like Barbara Bauer and her ilk.

Thanks for a great post.

WinterRose said...

*raises hand with you* Internet addiction... I can totally relate. I'll open my powerbook with the intention of writing, and then end up completely at the opposite end. =P

dpatrick said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Victoria. I've started on the journey of getting my first book published, and your information is on the nose--except for a little internet surfing, but you have to have some savvy about it. There are an unbelievable (well . . . I believe it now) number of bozos and bimbos and ripoffs and thieves out there. Actually, the easiest part of the whole trip is what we all probably thought would always be the most difficult when we started out "to write" or be "a writer"--the writing. Once that is accomplished, I found the journey: editor, agent/manager, publisher, to be the real challenge.

Thanks for the informative post

Margaret said...

I haven't seen anyone mention it yet, but Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing by Coser, Kadushin, and Powell is an excellent. It was originally published in 1982 (and three different authors have written a follow-up volume just recently) but it gives great insight into the way the industry works.

The book is a sociological study based on interviews with editors, agents, and other publishing professionals. There isn't any direct information on how to get published, but the background knowledge is invaluable.

Anonymous said...

Are the books that you suggested the same books you would recommend to a script writer?

Victoria Strauss said...

The Dummies and Idiots lines have guides to everything, but the other books recommended in my post are all for book writers. I'll be honest and say that I'm not knowledgeable enough about the movie industry to be able to recommend specific how-to-books for script writers. Sorry not to be more helpful!

Looking4Trth said...

I have sent two emails to Victoria, asked two questions, and I already have more information, that makes sense, than I have found in my obsessive searches on the Internet! "Stay off the Internet" was the best suggestion I have ever received. I also feel that I can now approach getting my book published in a more orderly fashion.

Jennifer said...

Whew...my sh*t detector is starting to get stinky! I just finished writing an entire manuscript. (I know what you're thinking- newbie with giant flashing red lights.) It started out as a "just for fun" thing, but it snowballed to the point where the characters and plot developed into something, well, REAL. Now, some 351 pages and less than a year later, I'm actually considering getting it published. And I'm feeling like I'm getting into something way over my head. I haven't done anything stupid yet, namely because I haven't done much of anything yet aside from trolling the internet for hours before finding this site. Besides hopping over to Barnes&Noble to get a list of books on how to publish and avoid fradulent agents, what other advice can any of you give to an obviously green writer? (Have I mentioned that I'm a second year college student who has minimal time?? After reading several of the sections on this website I am now mortally terrified of becoming a sucker!)

Victoria Strauss said...

Besides hopping over to Barnes&Noble to get a list of books on how to publish and avoid fradulent agents, what other advice can any of you give to an obviously green writer?

Jennifer, if you follow the very detailed suggestions in my post, you will no longer be so green, and many of your questions will be answered.

One of the traps new writers fall into, I think, is that once their manuscripts are done, they're so afire with the desire to get their work out there that they don't want to delay another minute. But in order to learn what you need to know, you really do have to put the submission process off until you've done some research. Trying to teach yourself "on the job"--i.e., trying to submit and learn at the same time--is the second worst way to go about it (the first worst is to submit without making any effort to learn at all).

If you have minimal time to do the research now because of your course load (and it's not just the initial learning curve that requires research; identifying appropriate agents and publishers, if done right, is a pretty intensive research process), it might be better to put off submitting your work until after you've graduated. There really are no shortcuts.

As for becoming a sucker--it's actually very easy to avoid questionable agents and publishers, once you know how things are supposed to work. Absolutely the best defense against getting taken is knowledge. The more you know, the better defended you will be.

Jennifer said...

Thank you so much! I've read more of the Writer Beware blogs (plus several others along the same vein) and I've already been able to cross potential agents off my list that wanted upfront "reading" fees and weren't members of AAR. You're right--when you know what you're looking for, the pitfalls are easy to avoid! Thanks again!

helen said...

Hello, what about writers who want to self publish. I want to produce and sell my children's story book as I think it had is ia niche product and I can market it myself. Who then should I print the book with? Is artbook bindery reliable and good quality? I have a published book in another field (educational) but this is a children's picture book. Is it possible to find ditributors as a self publisher?

Many thanks!

JACK HENDERSON said...

All of this information has started to bog me down but no worse so than having just spent the last six years+ getting form rejections for my first novel TDROMC, The Dirt Roads of Madison County: Road of Confusion, now published as an E-book on Smashwords.com. I thought that would give me some much needed exposure as an aspiring author but guess what...if it has made any real difference then you'll have to hear it from someone besides me. Tomorrow, I do bookstores then off to the local library until I attain the knowledge I need or the money to buy the books the library doesn't have. God knows I would be happy just to be able to put ten gallons of gas in my old truck...at only one stop!
My Grandfather once told me "Son,if someone calls you a horse's ass don't worry about it. But if ten people call you a horse's ass, well..." On the way to the bookstore I'm going to stop and buy myself a bridle!

Jorge Macapugay said...

Thanks Victoria for answering emails, and all your time and effort in helping others. My email mentioned a "traditional" publishing house that is on the Beware List,would like to know if they are on the "up and up," as some on the blog said they were. Thanks so much!

JM

Kathy said...

I'm so glad I read this. I've just spent one year writing my book and another year working with my editor re-writing it.

I read Writer's Market which was overwhelming. Then I "internetted" myself into nausea, and developed an almost overwhelming desire to buy a gun and eat it. I was mighty discouraged.

Yours is the first encouraging article I've read.

Thank you for giving me some hope that my last two years of work, of approximately sixty hours a week, was not, for certain sure, in vain.

Kathy