The author sits down, her jaw set in determination, and writes a book. Then she wraps it in brown paper and mails it to publisher.
Three or four times, she gets it back with a rejection letter. She collects the rejection letters, still bundling up that manuscript and mailing it out. Six, seven, ten…
One day, it happens. She’s given up hope, but checks the mail and finds a letter. “We read your manuscript,” it says. “We love it.”
And the book is published.
This beautiful story is a writer’s dream. The only thing missing in this scenario is a few words of introduction, namely, Once upon a time.
I mean, it’s true, the author sits down and writes. After that, it’s sheer fantasy.
Although I’ve been published both in print and online for a good bit of my adult life, I’m still reaching for my cherished dream of being a published novelist. This year I’m closer than I’ve ever been before. I’ve gotten through a lot of the initial steps, and I’ve spent hours reading up on what’s ahead.
Here’s how it really goes:
The author (we’ll call her Sarah) sits down and writes a book. She emails it to generous friends, who read it and come back with enthusiastic praise, plus mentioning a couple of parts they didn’t quite understand. There might even be a couple of dedicated friends who go through the manuscript line by line and return detailed comments. Sarah takes the comments, goes back to her document, and realizes that it means she’s got to rewrite the entire novel.
Repeat this process twice, three times, eight times… however long it takes her to realize that there might be something in the idea of plotting out a story and fleshing out the characters before trying to write the novel. She also owes a lot of friends a dinner out.
At last — as in, two years later — this aspiring author is confident enough of her story that she’s ready to hire a professional editor. (We’ll call her Pen.) While Pen polishes up the manuscript, Sarah looks up literary agencies.
She discovers that, because of her genre and subject matter, her options are pretty limited. She is depressed and puts away the agent listings for now.
Pen emails her comments on the manuscript. Seven pages of them, all highlighting weaknesses in the story, uneven character development, and clumsy storytelling. The author cries.
But she picks herself back up and gets to work. Three months later, she sends the revised manuscript back to the editor. They begin the process of polishing it up, only to run into more plot snags, more weak character development, and the author’s tendency to overuse eye-rolling, eyebrow raising, and unexciting descriptions of food.
A year and two more revisions later, Pen returns only five chapters with extensive notes. They’re the soggy middle chapters, which always need more work. Sarah fixes the problems — she’s getting good at that. She also pulls out those agent listings again.
These days, authors don’t send their books straight to publishers. No, their hopes are pinned on being accepted by a literary agency. It’s the agent who will sell the book to the publisher. The author chooses her favorite option, and writes a query letter.
Authors also don’t send full manuscripts to agents — they send the all-important query letter. This letter is more than just a summary of the novel. It’s got to sell the book. It’s got to be quick, eye-catching, and persuasive. It proves that the author knows the market, and it’s got to convince the agent that the book has enough marketing potential to be a good financial bet. Oh, and the ideal query letter is one page long.
No pressure, though.
So Sarah emails the query letter with trepidation and prayer. Then she watches the days fall away. Most agencies say to wait six to eight weeks to hear a response, good or bad. A particularly busy agency, though, responds to a query only if it’s accepted. If there’s no answer within 30 days, the author can consider her query rejected.
She’ll then move to the next few options on her short list, although the names will blur a little because of the tears.
Still ahead is landing an agent, getting the book sold, signing a contract, waiting and waiting and waiting until it’s published. Not to mention figuring out how to promote it, because a publishing house devotes actual marketing funds to only four or five big titles a year.
So, that’s the traditional route, the road I’m walking right now. (Okay, this is really my experience. I know I threw you off by spelling Sara with an H.) I emailed my query thirteen days ago, and am waiting for a response. As in, I wake up every morning wondering if I’ll get an email, and I reluctantly give up hope around 6:00 every evening.
It’s already been a long haul, and I haven’t even sold my book yet. Since there’s no guarantee that I’ll land a contract with a traditional publishing house, I may be looking into self-publishing and ebooks, which have their own host of advantages and struggles.
But I will be a published author. I haven’t held onto this dream since age nine just to give up on it thirty years later.
So I guess that fairy tale at the beginning isn’t pure fantasy. After all, I sat down and wrote a book. And I’ll end by holding a copy in my hands. I guess I’m just in the soggy middle chapters right now. And they always need a little extra work.