Primer, part one

Sometimes I get into industry conversations with brand new writers where I feel like I might be unintentionally scaring the crap out of them. When you’ve been in the business for a while, it’s easy to forget that terms like query, pitch, partial, proposal, etc. are industry-specific jargon. I know that if I hear a lot of unfamiliar jargon all at once, it can be pretty intimidating.

(I was recently in a conversation with a new writer about how to pitch to agents at conferences, and in the middle of my intended fear-allaying comment about how conference pitches weren’ta big deal, I realized that she thought it was the only way to get an agent. She wasn’t aware that she could query. No wonder she was nervous about the pitch!)

Usually, when I post writing advice on this blog, I’m dealing with topics that I’m thinking about myself, and often on stuff that’s making the rounds in the lit blogosphere. I never really covered the basics, because I never meant this blog to be a place for newbies to come and learn about publishing. (We had Miss Snark for stuff like that.) But I do get emails from folks who stumbled across the blog and want advice about the industry, starting from Step One.

There is SO MUCH great information online for new writers — most authors have blogs of their own where they often post about craft or industry topics; several agents have blogs where they do the same; and there are helpful forums like Romance Divas, Absolute Write, and eHarlequin; websites like P&E, Writer Beware; the list goes on and on. But some people don’t know that kind of stuff is even out there, and others have heard bad information and advice from scammers or people pushing the “secret handshake/magic ticket/gotta know someone/there are no debut authors” mythology. Or maybe not, but even those with their eyes on the industry sites might have some mistaken ideas (like the recent poster on the Writer Beware blog who thought that a $10,000 advance for a first-time novelist was “too good to be true.” It’s not.)

So, to start:

  • There is no secret handshake.
  • There is no magic ticket.
  • You don’t need to know anyone.
  • Every author was once a debut author. New authors sell books all the time.

When I first started writing, I did a lot reading on how the biz works. There’s nothing here that can’t be found at a hundred other industry sites or books. I don’t have any kind of secret “for published people only” info, I’ve just been studying up on it for six years.

And in all that time, I’ve met several dozen authors who have gotten agents and made first sales. Only one or two of them “had connections” or made their first sale though some magic fashion like winning a contest (Janice Lynn and the American Title, for example). It’s just not how it happens.

This is how it happens: Write a book; edit a book; do research into how the industry works; look up information on agents and what makes a good agent and how to contact an agent; contact an agent, keeping a stiff upper lip; make it through rejections and rewrites and close calls; sign with an agent; work on the book more; wait while the agent sends the book out to publishers; repeat keeping a stiff upper lip through rejections, rewrites, close calls; sell a book; edit the book more; watch as it comes out. That’s it. There’s no magic. It’s all quite prosaic, which, surprisingly, detracts not a bit from the awesomeness.

So, a little bit of straight dope for those just starting out.

First, a few basic terms:


agent: (n.)

  • An agent is an author’s representative. Their work consists of submitting work to publishing houses on their author’s behalf, negotiating contracts, handling payments, and acting as a go-between for the publisher and author.
  • Agents get paid only on the basis of what they sell for their authors — 15% of all monies received (usually 20% for subsidiary rights like foreign, film, etc.). Agents only get paid when the author receives the money, Usually, a publishing house will send all the money they owe to an agent, who will turn around and cut an author a check for 85%. Other agents will arrange it so that the publisher sends 15% of the author’s money to the agent, and 85% to the author.
  • Legitimate agents do not charge fees of any sort: no manuscript evaluation fees, no “marketing” fees, no “retainers”, no nothing. Period.
  • Yes, it’s much much easier to find an agent if you’ve already published a novel. (It’s also really really hard to publish a novel without an agent. And yet, both happen. What can I say? This biz is tough.) But many first time writers do indeed find agents. You just have to be persistent and professional. It’s how I found an agent. It’s how dozens of writers I know found one.
  • Good agents are agents who have a record of multiple sales to advance-and-royalty paying publishers. (Or they are new agents who work at an agency that does.) This should be easy to discover. I’ve yet to hear a reasonable justification for agents who are deliberately cagey about what they’ve sold and to whom.
  • Some agents have contracts, others work on a handshake, or only contract once a book is sold. When you enter into an agreement with an agent, you are their client.
  • For how to find an agent, see below entries on query and submission. The most common way of finding an agent is to send a query.

publisher: (n.)

  • A publisher is a company that edits, prints, and distributes books.
  • There are many different kinds of publishers, and no two operate exactly the same way. Some are huge corporate conglomerates, some are small independent presses, some only put out books in electronic or print on demand form. There are good and bad stories about every kind of publisher.
  • A publisher pays the author for the right to publish a book in a given market in a given form. (for instance: North American paperback rights, electronic rights for 12 months, World English print rights, etc.) An author puts up no money at all. (Any time an author is expected to “pay to publish,” this is considered a “vanity press.” This also goes for requirements that the author guarantee a certain number of books sold, which is paying in a slightly different format.) Remember this maxim: Money flows towards the author.
  • Publisher’s payments usually come in one of two ways: advance and royalties. See below for further information about those.
  • One of the most important things a publisher offers is distribution. All books are sold at consignment to bookstores, which means that if the bookstore doesn’t sell a copy to a customer, they can return the book to the publisher for a refund. Because of this system, bookstores will often only books from publishers they are used to and who will guarantee that they will accept “returns.” Many bookstores will refuse to stock books that can’t be returned, which is the case with many vanity published or self-published books.
  • In addition, an established publisher has many bookstore contacts. If a publisher has no form of established distribution, it is unlikely to sell any copies. Just calling itself “a traditional publisher” does not make them so. Self publishing’s main hurdle is not getting the book printed, it’s getting the book stocked in a bookstore (or more than one bookstore).
  • Publishers do have marketing budgets for books, but they vary wildly. All publishers expect that their authors will do marketing on their own dime, to various degrees. More discussion about this topic is beyond the scope of this glossary. (Trust me, this topic will form the bulk of your writerly discussion for many years to come.)

advance: (n.)

  • The money that a publisher pays an author for the right to publish a book or books. Advances are often determined by the publisher based on the publisher’s speculation about how much the book will eventually earn.
  • Advances are often split into parts and paid at different points in time, such as signing the contract, acceptance of the final manuscript, and publication.
  • It’s called “advance” because it is viewed as an advance against the royalties that the author will receive upon the sale of the copies of the book. An author will not receive royalties until they have “earned back the advance”: i.e., earned as much money from royalties as they were paid in the advance. If you do not “earn out your advance” you are not expected to pay the money back; it’s a risk the publisher took.
  • Some publishers (electronic, and a few mircopresses) do not pay advances, but instead give a larger royalty rate.

royalty: (n.)

  • For every book that is sold, the percentage of the cover price that belongs to the author.
  • Royalty rates can vary by publisher, author, book format, and number of copies sold (called “tiered” royalty rates, i.e., x% to y copies sold, z% thereafter). Common North American rates: Harcover: 10%-15%, trade paperback: 6-8%, mass-market paperback: 4-8%.
  • Royalties are usually paid twice a year by print publishers, in timeframes set out in the book contract. The royalty check comes with a print out called a royalty statement (or the statement comes without the check, if you haven’t earned out the advance) which details the sales of the books covered in the time period.
  • Electronic publishers often give a larger royalty rate, which varies widely. They can do this because they have much lower production costs (no printing, shipping, warehousing, etc.) and never have to deal with returns. I have never been involved with epublishing, nor have I done much research into it, so I know little about the actual numbers involved. For more information about e-publishing, this is an excellent essay.
  • Higher royalty rates are not always the best choice. Remember, the key is distribution. An e-publisher might pay you 35% on a $6.99 book and sell 100 copies ($245, total) whereas a print publisher might pay you 8% on a $6.99 book and sell 10,000 copies ($5,592, total). These numbers are not uncommon. See the above-linked essay for more. Books that are available in only electronic format are likely to sell more electronic copies per title than books that are available in both electronic and print format. I only sold a handful of electronic copies of my debut, which was available in e-book form as well as hardcover.
  • For an in depth look at royalties and advances for one category romance (Harlequin) author, see this excellent blog post.

submission: (n.)

  • The actual item under consideration by an agent or an editor at a publisher. It can take many forms: a query, a partial, a proposal, a full manuscript. See below for more information.
  • Many publishers will not accept unagented submissions. This means that they won’t read anything that does not come through an agent. This is why it’s very hard to publish a book without an agent.
  • Some publishers will not accept unsolicited submissions. This means that they will not accept anything without having first requested it. (Many publishers or agents who say this will still read one page queries, however.)

query: (n. or v.)

  • Noun: A one page description of you, and your novel. Also: “query letter.” Think of this as being similar to the cover letter you would send with a resume to a potential employer. Be concise and professional.
  • Verb: “To query” someone means to contact them with a query letter. (see above)
  • Format for a query (varies widely, but this is the basics):
  1. First paragraph: State reason for sending the query (i.e., searching for a representative for you novel, how you found out about the agent, why you think this agent would be a good fit for your book). State title of your book, genre (general, not specific), and word count.
  2. Second paragraph: Description of your book. Do not talk about themes. Short description is: Character, character’s problem, complications, main plot thrust of book,etc. think of story descriptions on the back cover of published books.
  3. Third paragraph: Talk about yourself in terms that are relevant to the query letter. Do you have any unique experience that makes you a perfect person to write a book like this? (Note: if you are writing a romance and have been in love, this doesn’t count. If you are writing a romance about a fighter pilot and you are a fighter pilot, then it does count.) Have you had anything else published? Have you won any awards for your writing? Do you have anything that could be considered “platform?” (i.e., you’re actually an international pop star, or your family owns Barnes & Noble).
  • Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (for snail mail queries) for the agent or editor to return a response. this is often called a SASE.
  • You can query anyone, unless they have given specific instructions that they are not accepting queries.
  • Query widely, but research who you query. This helps in that first paragraph.
  • Try to avoid being rude, whiny, grovelling, or desperate in your query letter. This is not the place to discuss what is wrong with publishing today, why your book is better than any other book they publisher/represent, that they probably won’t like it, but you thought you’d send it anyway, that you don’t care if they take all the money, you just need to see your book in print, or that if they reject you you’ll hurt yourself. I’d like to say that I’m joking here, but I’ve seen each of these in people’s query letters, and I’m not even an agent.
  • Unless you have published a book under your pseudonym of choice, use your real name to sign the letter.

synopsis: (n.)

  • A longer description of what exactly happens in your novel and why. An indispensable sales tool for writers at all stages.
  • Synopses are usually several pages long (from 2-20, though one page for every 10,000 words of a book is about average).
  • Includes major plot points, twists, and the ending. It is very important to include the ending. “If you want to know more, you’ll have to read the book,” is not acceptable.
  • Good website for information on writing a synopsis is Kathy Carmichael’s synopsis workshop.
  • The synopsis will be used by every department of your publishing company, from the person in charge of writing the back cover copy of your book to the art department who is choosing your cover to the marketing people who decide how to pitch it to bookstores or for promotion. This is why it’s important to havea good one.
  • A good way to practice synopsis-writing is to write a synopsis for a book or movie that you’ve seen or read. You’re more likely to focus on the main characters and storyline if it’s someone else’s project. Then, apply those tools to your own story. Alternately, force yourself to write one sentence/two lines about every chapter in your book.

Okay, that’s enough for tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll do the glossary for partials, proposals, fulls, pitches, group pitches, simultaneous submissions, and exclusives.

Posted in writing advice

13 Responses to Primer, part one

  1. Heather says:

    The fact that you took the time to write such a clear and helpful post is just one more example of the generosity of people in this business.

    I’ve been studying the publishing industry for only one year, but what has astounded me over and over is the openness of its authors — and you’re one of the best.

    I’ve learned so much from you in the past year. You’ve made the process of getting published seem difficult, time-consuming, wearying, and joyful, but always so, so worth it.

    Thanks, Diana.

  2. Sophisticated Writer says:

    Diana, your blog is such a wonderful writing resource for aspiring and published authors, alike. I’ve learned a lot from you. So again thanks for your time and effort.

    I’ve been studying the publishing industry for more than a couple of years now. Your words make me feel like I can do it.

    Thanks again.

  3. TJBrown says:

    This is a fabulous post, Diana. I, too, forget that many newbies have no idea what I’m talking about when I blather on about query letters, submisions, etc. And then there is the whole writing of the book vocabulary-GMC, story arc, character arc, black moment, etc. It’s kind of like when an engineer tells you about his job- the eyes just kind of glaze over. The difference is that someone who wants to publish books really needs to know about this stuff!

    But you didn’t have to kill the whole secret handshake myth. I kinda likes that one;-)

  4. Rosemary says:

    Thanks Diana for the helpful advice. Question about agents charging fees. I just researched the Sligo Literary Agency and this is what I found on their site:

    Note: Approved by Writer’s Digest Magazine, and as a standard trade policy, new writers are asked to reimburse us for a portion of our postage and photocopying costs when we sign our author/agent contract.

    This is on their contract:

    9. In addition to commissions due you, I shall pay you for reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses, including photocopying of manuscripts, postage, long distance calls, and books and galleys ordered from publishers for film, T.V., serial and foreign submissions. I will send you a deposit on account for these expenses in the amount of $175.00 upon execution of this contract. Documented expenses above that deposit may be deducted and retained from gross monies and other consideration payable to me upon the sale of my work.

    What are your thoughts on this? Is this normal? Thanks!


  5. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Rosemary, Sligo Literary Agency is a scam. They are on the Preditors & Editors (an industry watchdog site) NOT RECOMMENDED list. Writer Beware blogs about their fees here.

    If you have quick questions about any agency or publisher, visit P&E:

    That being said, I think that these copying and postage fees are stupid. this should be what is known as “overhead” in any business. Why should I pay the agent for his or her overhead?

    Many agents have a clause in their contract specifying reimbursement for certain large photocopying or mailing fees (my agent retains the right to charge for overnight overseas mainlings, but in all the time we’ve been together, and the four overseas sales she and her co-agents have made on my behalf, I’ve never once been charged) — but it is standard practice to NOT charge the client up front, to ONLY charge upon successful sale, and only up to some small but reasonable amount (say, $100), and to deduct it from the advance check the author receives.

    Most authors I know report that their agents have never actually charged for this. In the days of electronic submissions, I think most of the time, the agents aren’t actually accruing any major copying or postal charges.

    What is going on here is that this scam “agency” is using the standard “photocopy and mailing fees” that many legitimate agents do charge their clients and *deduct* (to a reasonable amount, sometimes) from advances and calling what is their fee and has always (since 1994, says Writer beware) been their fee. the key word here is deduct.

    NEVER cut your agent a check. Never ever ever ever ever. Money goes towards you. Agents get paid by taking a percentage of the money coming TOWARDS you.

    and RUN from this agency.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Bill Clark says:

    What, no Monday giveaway? 😉

    Diana, I hate to sound like a broken record (and I know I do), but I would like to say, yet again, that your blogs provide some of the best (and best-written) advice to writers at all stages of career development. O, that you would reconsider and someday (soon) publish them in book form!

    OK, I’m done now. (For today, at least.) 😉

  7. Rosemary says:

    It helps A LOT. Thank you so much for the advice. You are awesome!!

  8. Vicki says:

    Thanks Diana for another great blog. I love that you are willing to take your time to give us unpublished the road maps needed in this business.

  9. I. M. Bitter says:

    Very well written and thanks!

    Lucky for us Fantasy writers out here Tobias Buckell is in the process of updating his survey info. 🙂

  10. domestika says:

    A terrific primer! Speaking as an editor who works mostly for publishers to guide their anxious first-book authors, I wish this piece (your whole blog, in fact) could be “required reading.” You do a great service by de-mystifying the industry and the publishing process.

  11. Williebee says:

    My thanks to you for your considerable time and efforts on this.

    A princessly sum is not within my means, although you deserve it.

    Would you settle for dinner… or a car wash… maybe some pet-sitting….

  12. Anonymous says:

    Was steered to your web site by Veronica. Excellent help for everyone who has been published, wants to be published and is praying to be published.

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