Monday, June 13, 2011

On Writing — Part XI, Publishers, Agents and Publicists

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the eleventh in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

The sad truth that most new writers are surprised to discover is that finding an agent is as difficult as finding a publisher. Any agent worth his or her salt is picky. They get paid when they sell a book. They are not likely to spend a lot of time with writers they don’t believe are marketable or with manuscripts that require work before they are sellable. And one can’t really fault them. They have to earn a living.

You should understand that. They are not, primarily, there to help you.

What agents have brought to the equation is damn near a requirement. Unless you are established, most publishers will not even entertain the idea of your manuscript unless it has been through a recognized agent. Why? For many reasons. For one, an agent is an unpaid filter. If they send schlock to publishers, they won’t last long. So a good agent will gain the trust of acquisition editors. A book they suggest will at least get read. Also, a good agent has good connections. They know who buys what. They are also in touch with the marketplace, understand when the publishing community goes batty over vampires or Swedish authors and cold over serial killers in Omaha and detectives who also happen to be archangels. Also, they know — and you should know — that publishers don’t want to deal with the petty, whiney demands writers may make or the hurt feelings when that particularly beautiful chapter about lilies of the valley has to be cut. Publishers don’t want to spend hours talking to a writer, who has yet to sell one book, about why the cover should have a dachshund featured prominently. The agent often takes the heat from both sides.

Both the agent and the publisher are engaged in a business. And whether you like it or not, or want to be or not, so are you. So when that day comes and you get an agent and/or a publisher, don’t let that happy drug that washes over your brain keep you from reading sub paragraph 302(a) in the agent contract indicating that you may be liable for photo copy costs and messenger fees. The same goes for contracts with the publisher. READ every single word.

The unfortunate truth is that you have little power as an unknown writer. But there’s really no excuse for not understanding the exact limits of your power and a cold, hard acceptance of that reality before signing your name to an agreement that could affect you for years.

Finally, don’t confuse the roles of agents, publishers and publicists. It is not the agent’s job to promote you to the public. Also, unless it is in the contract — and it isn’t — there isn’t a word about the publisher doing ANYTHING to promote or advertise your book. They might. They might not. Chances are if you want your book promoted, you will have to do it yourself or hire it done. And now you are back at square one. If you hire a publicist, you will have to sign a contract and you will have to read every word. Unlike having your house painted the end product is not likely to be clearly defined. In the case of a publicist’s work, one might be able to measure the effort, but they will not guarantee results because they cannot guarantee results. If your book doesn’t sell despite your PR expenditure, you will have no argument against theirs: “We did the best we could.”

To contradict my earlier cautions regarding a community of writers (though I stick to them regarding the act of writing), being able to communicate with your peers can be very helpful in such practical matters as contracts, copyrights and picking a publicist. Joining such organizations as Mystery Writers of America (they have chapters all over the US) and/or Sisters in Crime might be a great way to gain greater insight into mystery writing as a business as well as a passion.

Even if you get by the gatekeepers, you might not be allowed in. What do you do? Easy, if you are a writer, you keep writing until your scrawny, bony, wrinkled fingers can no longer tap out your name as author.

The image is the Mystery Writers of America logo.

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