In my first post in this series, I explained how being published (and by that I mean traditionally published, going the agent-to-publisher route) has been my dream since I was a teenager.
What I didn’t know back then, and what I didn’t realize until I’d already started down the trad-pub path, was that whatever patience it takes to write book-length fiction is just the beginning. If you want to get your book out there on the streets as quickly as possible, trad-pub is probably not for you.
First, of course, you have to write your novel. How long this takes varies widely by person. In my case, setting aside the year or so that my novel concept swirled around in my head before I sat down to actually write it, it took me ninety-four days to write the first draft of my novel, The Road Back From Broken. While I didn’t exactly “fast-draft” the way some folks do for NaNoWriMo, completing a first draft in a single calendar month, banging out a 95,000-word draft in just over three months represents a pretty good clip for a lot of writers. Everybody writes at their own pace. Writers will tell you that some of their books get written more quickly than others. In any event, the first draft took me about three months.
But as I explained in my previous post, typing “The End” is just the beginning.
On the night of April 4th, I closed the document and let it sit for a month, untouched and unedited, so that I could put some distance between me and the actual words that I’d written. The next step was editing, which is a process I took in phases. First, when I picked Road up again on Cinco de Mayo, I edited using the software tool Scrivener. My goal on that first pass was to tighten up the prose: eliminate unnecessary dialogue tags, pare down wordy passages and scenes that don’t advance the plot, and correct obvious boo-boos. That first pass took a couple of weeks. For my second pass, I went to Fedex/Kinkos and printed out a copy of my 2nd-draft manuscript in 14-point Arial font (so that it looked different to my eye than it did while I was writing or first-passing). I went through it with a pen, forcing myself to look at the story on a sentence-by-sentence basis. That took another two weeks to do, and I spent another week after that entering my changes into the Word document.
On June 21st, I sent the third draft to my team of beta-readers, with a target of getting their feedback by Labor Day. I spent the fall of 2014 reviewing the feedback from my beta-readers, making changes to my manuscript per their suggestions, which included adding several new scenes (one of which was a new first chapter), and cutting down other scenes/passages to make room for the additions. I knew that I had to keep my manuscript under 100,000 words in order to have a real shot at being picked up by an agent and publisher. My personal goal was to keep it under 95,000 words. In the end, the manuscript I’m querying with is 93,556 words long, and it took a year to get it into its present, presentable form.
And that’s where the fun begins.
Okay, maybe it’s not “fun” in the usual sense, but this is the part where the trad-pub path and the self-pub path really begin to diverge.
While this would be the part where the self-publishing author would start thinking about cover designs, text layout and formatting, etc., this is the part where those on the trad-pub path get down to the business of finding a literary agent.
And that means querying.
And querying means going through databases of literary agents (the QueryTracker database lists over 1,300 of them), checking each agent’s website and industry sources like Publishers Marketplace, in order to find out which agents you want to pitch your book to.
Then you have to write a query letter. Word for word, writing a query letter is several orders of magnitude more difficult than writing a novel. After spending a year or more writing and honing a 94,000-word novel, distilling the book’s concept into a blurb just 250 to 350 words long is a very tough thing to do. A query is more or less a sales pitch, and for those of us who aren’t natural salesmen, it can feel a bit cheesy and awkward to write.
Next, you have to write a synopsis: a one- to two-page summary of your novel’s plot, which invariably reads like an eighth grader’s book report. The challenge of a synopsis is to summarize the entire plot (including the ending) within the space constraints and yet still give the thing a little bit of punch.
Then you have to format your novel manuscript for submission to agents and editors, which means following a very specific industry format (double-spaced, one-inch margins, starting each chapter one-third the way down the page, and so on). Warning: if your manuscript includes flashbacks, letters, diary entries or any other passages that demand a different font or formatting treatment, save yourself some hassle and use styles.
Having done all of the preliminaries, you’re ready to start querying, which is where the real waiting game begins. You’ll send query letters out to agents (I’m sending all my queries via email—I’m not querying any agent at this stage unless they accept queries via email), and you’ll wait for responses. Some, in my experience, come quickly (the fastest I’ve seen so far is ten minutes), and some will take four to eight weeks. Some agents adhere to a “no response means no” policy, which means you may never hear back from them. At some point, having heard nothing, you’ll mark them down as a de facto rejection. In any case, querying means waiting.
That’s as far as I’ve come in the process thus far, and I know I’ve got a long way to go before I’ve realized my dream of seeing my novel on bookstore shelves. I’ve had friends and family ask me when they’ll be able to read my book. The honest answer is, assuming I sign with an agent sometime this year, and assuming that agent can sell my book, maybe sometime in 2017 or 2018. It might happen more quickly than that, but maybe not. It’s hard to say. Agents are securing publishing deals for their author clients in March 2015 for publication in the summer of 2016. A quick look at the deals being announced in Publisher’s Weekly reveals that for some publishing houses, the lead-time is even longer.
The trad-pub process is anything but quick. If you want to get your book published quickly, trad-pub is not for you.
On the other hand, if you want to ensure your book is available for purchase at major book outlets as well as independent bookstores and libraries (not all of which will acquire self-pubbed titles), then trad-pub may be the best route.
But be prepared to exercise every last bit of patience you have (and then some).