Thursday, November 13, 2014

Back to business

James O. Born

This is pt 1 of 3 of my personal story of getting an agent and ultimately a publisher.  I try not to shade the truth and hope it doesn't discourage anyone.  It is the truth and every writer should know the truth.

It's been almost a year since we started our discussion on writing and the business of publishing.  We have covered a lot of ground in that time.  Personally, I like to focus on the writing aspect more than the business.  Elmore Leonard used to say, "If you write a good book, someone will buy it."  I believe that is true to a degree, but after talking to hundreds of unpublished authors, I know that it is not universally correct.  That is why today were going to start a conversation about how to find an agent.

I’m occasionally approached by unpublished authors who ask for help in obtaining an agent.  This is a tricky situation.  I want to read at least part of the manuscript before I can, in good faith, recommend it to an agent.  The Catch-22 is that, if you don't know the writer personally and pretty well, it's not a good idea to accept unpublished manuscripts.  One of the reasons is legal, so they can't claim that you stole any ideas from them, the other is practical; if you're constantly reading other people's manuscripts you don't have time to write the ones that keep a roof over your head.  I can't stress enough what an awkward situation this is for most authors who truly want to help aspiring writers.

The first step for a novel is to have a completed manuscript.  Not an idea, not a partial manuscript, not even a rough draft.  But a well thought out, well written, properly formatted manuscript.  I understand that content, including dialogue and plotting are completely subjective, but there are certain criteria that must be met in the general marketplace.  That includes a reasonable length (which I would say is between 75,000 and 120,000 words), properly formatted by industry standards, which can be found with the minimum amount of research on the Internet, an opening that grabs the reader's attention, whether it is by action, interesting setting, compelling characters or just flat out elegant writing, and a query letter that succinctly explains who you are, why your background is important to the book, a brief synopsis of the book and your contact information.

Over the course of the next few weeks we’ll discuss each of these elements and bring in help from other published authors as well.  For now, I will tell you my own story on the road to finding an agent and then publication. 

In the mid-1990s (yes you read that correctly, it was about twenty years ago), I started to shop my first novel to agents.  Back then that required the exchange of U.S. Postal Service delivered letters and mailing printed out manuscripts.  It was my first novel, still unpublished, about a group of DEA agents trying to make a case.  I started working on the novel on June 10, 1989.  A little more than two weeks before the birth of my first child.  I had just purchased a Tandy 1000, which was in 8086 processor and had no hard drive in ran at a whopping 8 mhz..  I had no idea what I was doing, I just wanted to write a novel that was more realistic than what I was reading at the time.  The result showed me why there weren't more realistic novels on the market.  That is why it took more than five years before I had the manuscript to the point that it could be shown to agents.  I give you all this background to show you it has never been easy to break into publishing.

I would go to the library, because for the most part this was pre-Internet, and would read Writers Market as well as other books related to finding an agent.  I developed several versions of a query letter and a list of potential agents who were interested in crime novels.  I devised a method of printing up several packets to go out to agents one after another, as soon as one of them declined further interest.  It was both a fatalistic view and a pragmatic one.  In some ways it was soul crushing.  Finally, I got interest enough to start sending out the actual manuscript.

Time after time, over the course of several years, I would spend the money to print out the manuscript at the local Kinko's, the same one I use now on the rare occasion I have to print out a manuscript, and I would mail it invariably to an agent in New York.  Several weeks to several months later I would receive the manuscript back with a pleasant, but firm letter of rejection.  I can still remember my stomach fluttering when I would open the mailbox.  It was brutal.  It hurt as much as any punch I have ever taken.  Emotionally, it scarred me.  I have recovered, but I still remember the pain acutely.  Every writer does.  Rejection is no fun.

I seem to be droning on, but there's a lot to say on the subject, so like any thriller writer, I'm going to leave you at this point and hope you pick up again next Thursday when I continue this tale of woe and redemption.


  1. Oh my gosh, you make me laugh. I too started with a Tandy. And yes, to the mail and SASEs. And yes, to waiting and waiting and oh joy, receiving an actual response from an agent. When I did get several requests that ultimately resulted in acquiring my current agent, I discovered I had filed three letters requesting more in my rejected file folder, I'd become so accustomed to rejections.

  2. Thanks, James O. I'm going through this process at the moment and the long long long wait IS frustrating. You give me hope. Sort of.

  3. James O. Born11/13/2014 12:07 PM

    This was fun to write. I only broke it up into three segments so I didn't have to write more before Thanksgiving. It is all the truth. No exaggeration.

  4. from Jacqueline: Thanks for this post, Jim. If I had loads of space, I would tell you my little tale, in which everything went pretty well.
    I was in sales before I became a writer, and I never believed that submitting a manuscript to agents was anything but a numbers game. I bought Jeff Herman's Guide (to editors/publishers/agents, maybe not in that order) as it was the best for really finding out about agents and what they were interested in. From that I started "profiling" and pulled out 30 names - 10 each in my A, B and C group. I also went along to bookstores and read the Acknowledgments page of books I liked, just to see who liked their agents enough to thank them in print. I sent out 10 proposals to my A group of agents, hoping for a hit - I was recovering from a really bad riding accident, had given up my job and I was seriously worried about money! I don't think I could have afforded to send out proposals to the B group! Luckily, I got three hits with the first mailing, so I was able to take my time in making a decision - and I have been with the same agent since then. My advice is not to listen to anyone who advises you to only send one proposal at a time - heck, you've got to look after yourself - send out as many as you can and then send out more - but study the agents, see your book fitting in with their stable of authors/publications.