Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Getting Published

By Laura Crum

Our new blogger, Janet Huntington, who writes the very popular Mugwump Chronicles blog, has suggested that it would be interesting if we wrote about the various paths we took to publication. This is also a question that comes up at virtually every booksigning and talk I’ve ever done. Many readers are interested in finding out how they can get their own writing published, and who can blame them? Before my first mystery novel was published, this was the thing that I wanted to ask any published author I met. How do I get where you are? I want to walk into my local bookstore and see my own name on the spine of one of those books. What do I have to do?

I wish there were an easy answer I could hand you. Do this and that and you have a good chance of getting published. But it isn’t that clear cut. Unfortunately it’s not the more talented writers who get published, necessarily. Though talent is certainly helpful. I would have to say that luck plays as big a part as talent. By this I mean being in the right place at the right time. To quote a line from a Jerry Jeff Walker song, “And luck is mostly attitude and timing.” Maybe, to some degree, we can make our own luck. But some factors are outside our control.

Anyway, I am happy to tell the story of my own route to publication and to give what insights I have on making your own luck. Jami has already done a good job of describing the various avenues to publication that are available today, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of what she said. Essentially there is traditional publishing, comprised of the big “New York” publishers, and the smaller presses, which are located all over the country. Then there are the various forms of internet publishing, including “print on demand” and “ebooks”..etc. Then there is self publishing, where you pay someone to publish your book. This last is not considered being “published” by anyone involved in traditional publishing. That doesn’t make it wrong. But for those of us involved in the publishing trade, being “published” means that somebody pays you for your work; you are not paying them to publish your book.

Any one can publish a book via self publishing if they have the money to pay for it. So, enough said about that. As for the various versions of internet publishing, I know these are growing in popularity, and Mary and Jami, who are published this way, have explained a lot about it. I truly know nothing about this area of publishing, but understand that more and more authors are turning in this direction, due to the current developments in traditional publishing.

So, on to traditional publishing, which is the only way in which my books have ever been published. First of all, I have to say that my knowledge here is pretty out of date. The time when I was trying to “break in” with my first novel was the early 1990’s, which was a very different climate in the publishing biz. Female protagonist mystery series were just starting to take off and become wildly popular, led by Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. There was great demand for new series of this type. You get where I’m going with this. It was an easy time (relatively) to break in.

As a lifelong fan of Dick Francis, a wanna be author, and a trainer of cutting and team roping horses, I had the bright idea to meld these three passions into a mystery series that featured a female horse vet who operated in a world dominated by western horses, much as Dick Francis’ protagonists operated in a world dominated by the steeple chasing he knew so well. I’ll skip all the convolutions I went through to get to this concept; suffice it to say I’d completed three finished manuscripts over a three year period before I wrote the one about Gail McCarthy, the veterinarian.

In those days there was no such thing as internet publishing and very few small presses that specialized in mysteries. Virtually everyone who got published in the mystery field was published by some New York based house or other. But, in those days there were also a great many more independent New York houses to submit to. They hadn’t all been bought out. Last I heard, today there are half a dozen entities that own all the big publishing houses. But I digress.

In this era no one got published unless he/she acquired a respected literary agent. The New York houses, in general, did not accept submissions from authors. The editors were only interested in submissions from literary agents they trusted. Said agents worked only on commission (things have changed in this area, too, or so I’ve heard). In any case, acquiring a literary agent was possibly the biggest hurdle an aspiring author had to jump. Since the agents worked on commission and didn’t make a dime unless they sold the work, they didn’t take any work that they didn’t truly believe they could sell. This weeded out most of the (excuse my French) crap. Which is why editors only took submissions from literary agents.

So my career as an author really took off when, after plenty of rejections, a literary agent agreed to represent me. How did this happen, you ask, or I imagine that you do. Was I just more talented than all the other aspiring authors submitting manuscripts? I doubt it. I think I had a good and timely concept. I pitched it as a female western spin on Dick Francis. At that time, there was only one other horse oriented female protagonist series out there (as best as I can remember). There were no western horse oriented mystery series at all. The agent liked the concept. I don’t think she was crazy about my writing. She was a former editor (many literary agents are) and it showed. She had me rewrite that ms for an entire year, over and over again, before she would send it out. At one point she told me, “I don’t like the tone, I don’t like the plot, I don’t like the villain and I don’t like the protagonist.”

You can imagine my response. “Uhmmm, what do you like?”

“I like it that its about horses and its set in Santa Cruz.”

Great. Just great. You can see how much rewriting I had to do.

In the end, I managed a version of the book that she found acceptable and she started sending it out. Both she and I conceived of the book as a paperback original and she sent it to all the paperback houses. Imagine our mutual surprise when, a year later, after several rejections, the series was picked up by a woman who was one of the senior (and most respected) editors at St Martin’s Press, one of the big New York hardcover houses. I was thrilled, to say the least. Being published by a big New York house in hardcover is sort of the Holy Grail for most aspiring authors.

My first mystery novel, Cutter, was published by St Martin’s Press in 1994. I could finally walk into my local bookstore and see my name on the spine of one of those books.

Okey dokey. I was now a published author. Things looked very rosy. My books were coming out in hardcover and paperback. I got mostly positive reviews. I was asked to do book signings and book tours. I hung out with other published authors who were much bigger names than I was. Film people made inquiries. I was offered more money with each subsequent contract. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? It was certainly my dream come true. Well…

I’ll skip the long discussion about the difference between the dream version of being an author and the reality. In fact, I really need to get back to work on my 11th novel, so I will continue this story on my next post day. But I’ll leave you with this insight. If you were to ask me why I was able to achieve my goal and become a (relatively) successful published author, when so many others fail, I would have to say that I was lucky. And that my luck was indeed, mostly “attitude and timing”. I pitched a workable concept at the right time. I persevered with my writing through many years of rejections. I would not have succeeded had I not done so. But if I were trying to break in with my mystery series in today’s publishing climate, I wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. At least of being picked up by a big NY publishing house. Why? See Part Two of this post in a couple of weeks. (And feel free to ask any questions you want in the comments.)

Here’s to all aspiring authors: May you all be as lucky as I was!
Cheers—Laura Crum


Shanster said...

When editors say that writers need to research the various publishing houses... what do they mean? You google them and look for what exactly?

Sounds like now, you don't have a literary agent but you submit to publishers via their guidelines and you wait for them to wade thru all the slush piles? So what happened to literary agents? Do they work for the publishers now and sponsor authors once they have been chosen to write for said publisher?

It's a bit overwhelming to think about ALL the manuscripts/stories they get and what you would have to do in order to make yours stand out.

Anonymous said...

Shanster, As far as I know, to get published by a big NY house, you must still acquire a respected literary agent first. The NY houses aren't usually interested in ms submitted by authors. I do know a few first time authors who have been taken on by literary agents who are working to find them a publisher. So, it can still be done. You are just submiting your work to agents, rather than publishers. Times are tough right now in publishing, though (see my next post).

Smaller presses often prefer to work with authors sans agent. And the number of smaller presses is growing. These are presses that you might research by topic, say, and submit to directly. Typically, these are not big operations, with only a few employees. They can be anywhere, while the big houses are mostly in New York.

As I said in my post, my info on "breaking in" is pretty out of date, since its been so long since I jumped through those hoops.

mugwump said...

Am I correct in thinking the first approach (for a book anyway) would be to try for an agent first?
Would it help to be published in a magazine first?
How about the endless books out there, "Writer's Market" etc. are they any help?

Shanster said...

Oh - ok... I was reading this blog posted by an anonymous editor for children's book. It's really interesting and talks a lot about publisher guidelines, slush piles etc...

I dunno if I ever want to write a book. It IS definately a new "lingo" to try and figure out! Here it is if anyone was interested... it's a different audience I suppose than adult books but I thought still a very interesting glimpse into what editors look for.

Maybe THIS person is a literary agent talking about the submissions she gets?

Leslie said...

Thanks for sharing your experience Laura. It's been great to read everyone's experiences with publishing/writing here in EI.

Anonymous said...

mugwump/Janet--I had all those books. Writer's Market, Guide to Literary Agents...etc. I used them to get the addresses of literary agents who were open to new clients. I mailed my ms off to said agents. I didn't know any one in the business or have any connections. I was rejected by many agents before one took me on. As far as I know, if this route will work for you, (ie an agent does finally take you on), its still the best route. I know authors who are following this path, have yet to be published, but are "with" respected literary agents. So, its still possible to go this way.

I think being published in a magazine couldn't hurt. I honestly don't know how much weight a literary agent or publisher would give that. But, as I know I've said to you, this business of finding the "niche" that fits your work--that's big. At the time I pitched my series (as I describe in the post) it was something "they" (the publishing biz) were very interested in. What gets published (at least by big NY houses) tends to be about the trends in the industry (naturally there are exceptions). And I still believe that if the writing is really good, it will eventually find a publisher. But you do have to keep trying and you may have to look at many different paths. More on this next post....

Heidi the Hick said...

Hi, Mugwump sent me!

I've been sending out queries to literary agents for years. Actually I'm embarrassed by some of the very bad stuff I've sent... but this is my 4th book, and it's the best I've ever written (not necessarily saying much???) and I've learned a lot about this biz.

Like you Laura, I don't have any connections in the publishing business. I started out with Writer's Market. However, because things change so fast now, I do all my searching through the internet. I've dug up lots of informative websites and blogs.

I;m still trying the agent route, mostly because I want somebody to guide me through and help me understand all the processes. However, in the last year I've sent over a hundred queries and gotten about 60 rejections. I've rewritten my query letter so many times, making it interesting but not too detailed, friendly but not sucky, professional but not arrogant... whew. So far only 4 have asked to see more and 3 of those passed.

It could be the concept. Maybe it's because this story doens't have horses in it!!!

I'm not giving up though, because I believe I just haven't hit on the right combination of agent/ timing/ right query letter. I'm researching more agents these days. Some people call it stalking, I call it part of the job. I also think I"ll hit up some independent small publishers here in Canada. These do very well in this country. It could mean getting through paperwork and contracts on my own but if that's what it takes to get my book out there I'll do it.

I hope this wasn't too long and boring. I really truly hope someday I can tell a "Getting Published story" with an actual result!

Laura, I have to say, your concept for you mystery novels is brilliant. Also, I'm glad your working on #11!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Heidi, for the kind words. I've read your blog and think you are a talented writer. And I know how hard it is to "break in" in the current publishing climate. My next post will definitely focus on what's happening in publishing now. Not that that's any help. It sounds like you are doing the most that can be done. Small presses often prefer to work with writers directly, sans agent, and if they are good people, the press itself can help answer many of your questions and guide you through the process. I know that it sounds intimidating, but the contracts are pretty standard, and in general, it isn't as complicated as it seems. Feel free to fire away with any questions that come up....I'll help if I can.

mugwump said...

Heidi, You are loaded with information for those of us who are wannagetthere's. Just your stick-to-it attitude is a help. I think agent stalking should become a televised sport....

joycemocha said...

Or, as we like to say in the SF field--it takes luck, timing, and a stroke of lightning. Along with a LOT of hard work.

I'm still trying. I do have two Writers of the Future placements now--an Honorable Mention and a SemiFinalist. That and 5 bucks might buy a drink for an editor at Worldcon...maybe.

mugwump said...

JoyceMocha-What's a writer of the future???