QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, October 19, 2009

Writing is a Business

Imagine that you’ve invented something. We’ll call it a MacGuffin because it doesn’t really matter what that something is. You’re really excited about your invention, though, and the entrepreneurial bug has bitten you. You want to mass-produce your MacGuffin and see it in every home across the nation. Of course, you’re not independently wealthy, so you’re going to have to find investors who will back you financially and help you with mass production, shipping, and marketing.

You’ve heard that the first step in interesting investors is to write them a letter asking if you can send them more information about the MacGuffin, so you do that. Of course, nothing is ever easy, and you receive some polite responses suggesting that this company or that one isn’t the best match for your vision, but to keep trying.

What’s your next step? Do you get online online (Facebook, Blog, mySpace, etc.) and publicly

  1. Rant that your MacGuffin has been rejected — again. Update the query stat blurb on your blog/email signature/Facebook: 19 queries sent. 15 rejections. 1 request for more information.
  2. Bash (read: insult) the company that rejected you
  3. Post a copy of the rejection so you can complain about it
  4. Complain that these companies who aren’t falling all over themselves to give you money are clearly stupid — your MacGuffin is brilliant! (And while you’re at it, you mention a few MacGuffins that were bought recently and why they weren’t worth the money the investors paid.)
  5. Complain that this whole process of having to go through investors n the first place is stupid — you deserve to be rich and famous, dammit!

If you’d do any of these things, stop right there. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, and definitely do not go online.

Option 1 is the equivalent of writing up a press release detailing how many companies think you’re a bad investment and sending it to all the major media outlets. Why on earth would you tell the world that someone officially doesn’t think your proposal is the Greatest Idea Since the Invent of Language Itself? Why would you create bad press for yourself? Because let’s face it – who wants to invest in someone with all that bad press?

Onto Options 2-5.

Now let’s pretend that the head of one of the companies you wrote to loves the internet. She gets Google Alerts to let her know whenever her company is mentioned. Or maybe she has a friend who likes to read inventors’ blogs. So it’s only a day or two between your post going live and it showing up in her email inbox.

As the head of a company, she’s well-connected in town. She sees both friends and competitors at conventions, charity dinners, and at the local country club. You’ve insulted her, her company, and her graciousness, and when one of the other business leaders in town mentions that someone did the same thing to him, your name comes up. In less than two minutes, you’ve been blackballed over cocktails. Not because your MacGuffin isn’t any good — it may be great — but because you haven’t appreciated that it’s all just business.

Now, wasn’t that stupid?

I’m sure it’s obvious that what I’m really talking about here is writing. The MacGuffin is your manuscript, and your business letter is your query. The business leaders are agents and editors.

And you can blackball yourself. SCBWI recounts Wendy Loggia’s keynote speech, which included the following gem:

The writer seems like a difficult person to work with. Wendy always Googles an author’s name before offering a contract. She says she may be prompted to change her mind about signing up an author if they share too much information in their blog, if they tend to blog a lot about how hard writing is, if they blog about being rejected many times, if they publicly bash a book she’s worked on, or if they bash a colleague in the business who is her friend.

Writing is a business. When you send out a query or a manuscript, you are asking someone to invest their time, energy, and money in you and your vision. If the person who gets your letter isn’t falling over herself with excitement, why would she agree to partner with you?

A literary agent only gets paid if she sells your project. Legitimate agents don’t make money on editing, submitting, or anything else. They make money when they make a sale, and then they only get 15% to 20% of whatever you get. Of course they’re going to choose only the very best projects and the ones they believe are going to sell well. Otherwise they literally can’t eat or pay their rent!

Some writers say they don’t need to be paid — they’d be happy to get published for free! Why would an agent want to represent them, either? Your agent needs to make a living. Publishers need to make a living. They only buy projects that they believe will fly off the shelves and make a profit so they can stay in business.

The Pimp My Novel blogger puts it this way:

I mean, think about your current job: would you make an acquisition or other career move that you thought would bleed money everywhere? How would you justify something like that to your colleagues and superiors? And, if you're nodding along with me now and admitting that you couldn't: what makes that any different from buying a nice book that just won't sell?

Writers need to do less of behaviors 1 to 5 and start focusing more on option 6:

6. Decide that you’re either not explaining your MacGuffin well enough or that the MacGuffin might need tweaked to truly be marketable — it’s a tough market out there, and you need to really shine!

Always keep these things in mind when you try to get your work published.

  1. Writing is a business.
  2. Your query letter introduces your vision/project and asks the receiver to consider investing her valuable resources in that vision/project.
  3. If she says no, accept it with grace and move on to your next possibility.
  4. If you get a LOT of no’s, consider the possibility that you’re either not conveying your vision well or perhaps that vision needs tweaked. In other words, maybe it’s not the process that’s flawed — maybe it’s your project. Go back to the drawing board.
  5. If she says yes, send her the very best vision/project you can possibly come up with. Realize that lots of people have visions/projects, so yours better be presented as well as possible.
  6. If she suggests revisions, realize that she knows the business and consider them seriously.
  7. Continue to do what you can to make your project even better. Even if the agent agrees to represent you, she only gets paid if she sells your project.


Anonymous said...

Great advice for any writer no matter where they are in the publishing journey.

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Loved this, Carolyn. Thanks.

Suzette Saxton said...

Fantastic article - I will always, always, always keep these points in mind.