Tuesday, June 01, 2010

My advice? Get a thick skin

The most common question I get asked - I don't do fiction much so am spared the 'Where do you get your ideas from?' conversations - is 'How did you get published?' I've had a glut of these recently and I'm happy to answer that question and share what I know, such as it is. So, here we go.

First things first ... you'll need an agent. I'm sorry but it's pretty much a necessity these days. Such is the instability within the industry that almost nothing gets looked at by publishers unless (a) you're a celeb, (b) you have an agent, or (c) you have some gimmick, such as a huge internet presence, or (d) excellent sales of a self-published title, or (d) you win a new writing competition. Therefore, your pitch should be aimed at getting an agent to look at it. That means using every underhand and imaginative trick at your disposal. How else to get them to read your submission?

What did I do? I cheekily sought out some celebrity endorsements for my first book. I sent synopses and sample chapters to people I respected and asked them to comment. Many didn't answer. Some did. That was enough to make my submission stand out from the pile (my agent gets in excess of 80-150 manuscripts per week). I also played the 'unusual spelling of a name' card and changed Stephen to the Cornish spelling of Stevyn. As I say, this is just to grab the agents' eye - you can always revert to your own name once you have a contract. A good title helps hugely too.

Your pitch should be solely aimed at getting an agent interested and not, at this time, to sell the book so you don't need to do a huge document. A synopsis and a couple of sample chapters should do. But accompanying it should be a letter explaining who you are, why you've written the book, why it should be on the bookshelves and why the agency should take you on. This is tough to do; you're selling yourself and you have to do it well. Singing our own praises is something most of us find uncomfortable. It can be hard finding a middle point between underselling ourselves and appearing cocky. The aim of your letter is intrigue them enough to invite you in for interview. Once you get that, you can hopefully win them over with your charm and knowledge. Remember, your book is likely to change a little as it goes through the editorial process. What you are selling to an agent is not your manuscript but its author - YOU. Think about it ... an agent earns a living by syphoning off 15% of what you earn; consequently they want you to have a suvccessful career and not to be some one book wonder. They hitch their wagons to people they believe in.

If an agent takes you on, the next thing is to write a good proposal for them to punt around potential publishers. Your agent will help with this. As my agent explained to me, proposals sell books and, in the case of non-fiction, 95% of books sell on a good proposal. The basic structure should be along the following lines:

1) THE BIG IDEA – (BANG – upbeat, general)

2-6 will overlap and you can play around with the order, so long as you face the questions head-on

2) WHY A BOOK ON SAID IDEA (you might say, who cares?), WHY NOW? WHY YOU (your passion for said subject)?

3) HOW WILL THE BOOK BE WRITTEN/BE TOLD/ITS ARCHITECTURE ?

4) WHAT WILL IT BE LIKE – other books etc?

5) CRIT OF SIMILAR BOOKS/BOOKS IN THE SAME AREA – WHAT THEY DO AND DON’T DO?

6) IS THERE A MARKET? WHO MIGHT THE READER BE AND WHAT WILL MAKE THEM PICK THIS UP?

7) WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT YOURS?

8) SAMPLE INTRO

9) CHAPTER BY CHAPTER BREAKDOWN

The proposal for my next book is a mind-buggering 36 pages long, almost a book in itself, but my agent likes it and is convinced it will sell the book to a publisher.

So that's it really. I hope that's of some help. Of course, you may have written the Next Big Thing and could bypass all of this rigmarole. That's the way life goes sometimes. But for most of you, be prepared for rejection. It hurts like a kick in the cods - especially when the rejection slip gives you no indication why. It will simply be that, for some reason, you didn't catch their eye. Pick yourself up, dust yourself down, take a deep breath, review your submission and send it out again. Some old-fashioned agents say that it's 'bad form' to submit to more than one agent at a time. Arse to that. Take the scattergun approach and send it to as many as you like. I sent out 12 and got interest from three. I chose the agent who, I felt, was most in tune with me and what I want to write. If you do get a constructive and personalised rejection slip, take the advice where it's given, be prepared to be flexible and send it out again. Meanwhile, write the best that you possibly can, keep writing and keep hitting the agents. One will crack eventually. It took me a few years but I got there in the end.

You will too.

4 comments:

John said...

Great stuff, oddly-spelt-Steven. Thanks!

Jhon (this is actually how Italian's spell my name. Really. What you reckon??). Course, my full name's John Fox, and people always like that for some reason, so I think I'll just stick with that.

Now, the great script...

Stevyn Colgan said...

John Fox is a great name! If I'd been called that I wouldn't have needed to arse about.

@Angpang said...

Brilliant no-nonsense advice, thank you, I shall be Tweeting a link to this!

Alan Leishman said...

Thanks Stevyn, really useful advice and without any bullshit too. Much appreciated.