The book business has been changing radically every couple of years for the entire time I’ve been in it, but one thing does seem to remain constant: lots of people still want to break in and sell their novels, and a sizeable number of these folks either haven’t got a clue where to start, or don’t believe what the people in the business have been telling them.
For those of you who haven’t got a clue, the basic process of selling a novel is simple but frustrating: you make a list of potential editors/publishers; you check it over, collect names and addresses, and look up each publisher’s submission requirements; you send the first one whatever version of the novel they want to see (portion-and-outline, query letter, or full ms.; hard copy or electronic); and when your manuscript gets rejected, you send it to the next publisher on your list. Over and over and over, until the thing sells.
That’s it. There are no short cuts. There is no trick or secret handshake. There is no password that only someone in the business can tell you. You send it out, and you keep sending it out until it sells.
So why are there a bazillion articles, discussion groups, blog entries, etc. on How To Sell Your First Novel?
Several reasons. For starters, while there is no trick, password, or big secret method, there are mistakes one can make that will likely get a manuscript bounced within nanoseconds, and a fair amount of the wordage is just reminding people not to make them. Most are common sense: don’t fax the publisher your manuscript; don’t send a sweet Romance novel to a publisher that only does hardboiled detective novels; don’t badger editors at conventions or workshops; don’t turn a page upside down somewhere in the middle; don’t bring your manuscript to your brother’s wedding because you heard that one of the bride’s relatives was an editor and you thought you’d get him to read your novel during the reception. (Yes, that is a true story. No, the editor didn’t buy it.)
Then there are the specifics of How You Make Your List of Editors, which are pretty much the same as the ones I just laid out a couple of posts ago for How To Make A List of Agents (look at who publishes the books you like; get addresses and editor names from Literary Marketplace or Writer’s Market; google for their submission requirements; check them at Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors; do not pay an agent, publisher, or editor to look at your book). That can pretty much fill up a post right there, but I’m assuming that all my readers are smart enough to look at what I said about finding an agent and figure out how to apply it to finding an editor/publisher.
Those two things – trying to prevent basic mistakes and walking people through the process of making their initial list of publishers-to-send-the-manuscript-to – make up about 98% of the posts and articles by the actual published authors, actual editors, and actual agents who give advice to beginners. Unfortunately, the other 2% get most of the attention. These are the how-I-beat-the-system posts by people who used some non-standard submission technique and got lucky, and who mostly haven’t been around long enough to realize that they succeeded in spite of, not because of, whatever they tried.
Because while there is no secret method, password, trick, or short cut to selling, there is such a thing as luck. The trouble is, you can’t control luck. It happens when it happens. Also, it comes in two varieties, and there’s never any saying whether you’ll get the good sort or the bad. Luck is not something you want to depend on.
Most people know that intellectually. But it’s really, really hard to keep believing that it’s true when the ms. keeps going out and coming back, over and over. And all the stories about how Gone With the Wind was rejected forty times before it sold, or how Madeleine L’Engle was about to give up on writing completely when A Wrinkle In Time came back from the very last publisher (except it didn’t come back, that last time) – those stories don’t help much with the discouragement and frustration.
So people look for a second opinion. And they get it from those last 2% of published authors…and from all the rest of the on-line posts and articles and especially forums and discussions by people just like them who haven’t sold anything yet, and who therefore don’t actually know anything first-hand.
This is where you find the folks who claim that “it’s all about who you know,” that you must do certain things (sell short stories first, have an agent, attend conventions, go to workshops, hire an editor/book doctor, etc.), that you’re better off doing something else (self-publishing; starting with the small presses; e-publishing; putting it on your web site; doing a lot of social networking and/or other pre-sale publicity, etc.), that analyzing form rejection letters will tell you something useful, that gaming the system works.
Reading this stuff will make you crazy. Because people argue very plausibly, and there is the niggling feeling that getting published can’t possibly be a matter of make list, send it out, send it out again, repeat over and over til sold. There has to be something more you can do to improve your chances. Doesn’t there?
Well, no, there doesn’t. Because what it all boils down to is, whether your manuscript sells or not depends on somebody else’s decision. Somebody you can’t influence, because you probably don’t know them, and even if you did, it’s their job to not be influenced. Breaking your brains trying to figure out something else to do is like breaking them trying to figure out a way to guarantee you’ll have good weather for Saturday’s picnic. It really doesn’t matter what you come up with; the weather will do whatever it does, and you’ll just have wasted a bunch of time.
There are, admittedly, alternatives to traditional publishing. But that gets back to what you actually want…and anyway, it’s another post.