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Getting Published – Second Steps

Author: D Field

I have suggested a couple of ways to get published in earlier articles. There is the standard route of submitting endlessly to publishers. Or there is the less orthodox route, described in the previous article, of impersonating a famous author. There are no doubt several other still less orthodox routes than this last, each of them with their attendant requirements for luck, finite or vanishing probability of success and associated risk of arrest and imprisonment (or at least a hefty fine).

I have not yet mentioned the acquisition of an agent. It turns out that an agent is about as difficult to acquire as a publisher. It used to be the standard wisdom that you had to have an agent to get to a publisher. One may imagine that if a book comes through a familiar agent, then a publisher may be more likely to look at it. The work has been pre-vetted to some extent. Therefore, it’s obvious: try to acquire an agent. But if an agent is as tricky to find as a publisher, then what’s the difference? You might as well go to a publisher directly. After that you might, I suppose, get an agent! It is just one more eternal chicken and egg problem for authors.

Let’s say that you do decide, as I did a couple of years or so ago, that you should try to get an agent. There is a book called the Writer’s Handbook. This is a book which every writer must have. At least that is what the publishers of the Writer’s Handbook say and various authors and others whom they quote. For the life of me I cannot see what use it is for the unpublished writer. The basic message emerging from that book is very simple. If you know someone in publishing or you are somehow connected to the publishing world, you should exploit that connection for all that it is worth. If you do not know anybody, then you are doomed (to something – lots of disappointments, I suppose). You hardly need a book to tell you that. In fairness, you may find it fun to read how J.K.Rowling, or whoever, made it. Actually, all these famous writers made it in different ways! By the way, for this latter stuff, the rival Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is better than the Writer’s Handbook.

Let’s return to getting an agent. I wrote to a dozen agents, culled from the Writer’s Handbook. You are told in that book that it is terrifically important to choose to write to agents who handle the sort of book that you write. I could only find about twelve that apparently handle young adult literature, my area. I was a bit surprised that the world over – UK, USA, Canada, Australia for my purposes – there are only about twelve, but there you are. You can probably find them all on the internet without spending money on the Writer’s Handbook. You need to write a ghastly ‘query letter’ which is basically a letter introducing yourself and your work. You are expected to ‘sell yourself’. This is horrid stuff and used to go under another name. Since this is the only writing that you are likely to get any professionals to read – although it is not put to you in that way in the Writer’s Handbook – you are told that you had better be very careful how you write this ‘query letter’. As we say in the world of physics and astronomy, in which I work, if you have nothing to say, you must be very careful how you say it. The advice to ‘sell yourself’ is almost an incitement to dress up the truth to such an extent that you are telling porkies – fibs, lies, showing economy with the truth, call it what you like!

At all events, I used the following prescription:

1. Phone up an agent to ask whom you should be making an approach to in the company. Ask if they are actively looking for new authors at the moment? Recently founded agencies may be a better bet. Be ready to answer questions. Research the firm first. See whom they already have on their books, whom they are already agents for. Look at what a few of these authors have written (synopses on Amazon, say). You could even mention how this or that book fits in well with yours and therefore with their profile as agents for you etc.

2. Ask what you should submit (i.e. whole manuscript, a chapter etc.).

3. Ask how would they would like your submission to be made? (e-mail attachment or snail-mail? Do they want single sided A4? Agents seem to be very fussy and as bad as scientific journals – single spaced double column for submission, double spaced single column for proofs and must be in tex.)

4. Having done 1,2,3, we come to the Short Covering Letter – the ‘query letter’ mentioned above: this should contain (i) what the book is (ii) why did you write it (iii) intended audience (iv) why you are uniquely placed and qualified to write the book (!) (v) CV – keep it relevant! i.e. photos of your children should not be included, or at least, probably not.

Another bit of advice was that the query letter should be short and snappy despite the enormous amount of material it is intended to encompass. Presumably it should be short and snappy to give the impression that you realise that these agents are terribly overworked and you do not want to impose on their time more than absolutely necessary. Also there was an additional suggestion that you should make sure that the query letter mentions (briefly, of course) every promotion angle that you can think of. This last one had me puzzled. I thought that it was their job to promote your book. Perhaps they just meant more window dressing on your part.

Having followed all this professional advice, I then received over a period of a couple of months twelve rejections. It is interesting in this respect that agents will sometimes ask that you submit to them alone and not make multiple submissions. If I had adhered to that request, it would have taken me a couple of years or more to fail to find an agent instead of a few months. Of the twelve rejections that I received, it was pretty clear that there was only one agent who had actually looked at my work. Nice comments were made but they said that they were too full up at the moment to take on anybody. All the rest issued standard rejection slips with which many will be familiar from publishers. In fact it was just like dealing with publishers. A long delay and then a printed card saying ‘no thank you.’ You may now be asking yourself, why follow the advice in this article since it didn’t work? My only excuse is, I’m just telling you what I found out! Advice is a supermarket. You may see something that you want.

My feeling therefore is that, while it would nice to have an agent, this is just one more water jump for the unpublished author. Try to find an agent perhaps, but do not make it a pre-requisite. A good agent must surely be a great asset, but since I have neither a good or even a bad agent, I cannot say more.

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About the Author
David Field is a professor of Astrophysics at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. He has published numerous articles in many Astronomy and Physics journals. His most recent novel, The Fairest Star, the third installment of his Friends and Enemies Trilogy, has just been published. For more information, please visit:

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