8/24/2012

When asked that question, my first reaction was a good consulting answer which starts with the phrase “it depends…” That phrase is appropriate because “it depends” on where I was in the process of:
1. Writing BIG MOTHER 40; or
2. Trying to figure out whether or not it was good enough to be published; or
3. Finding an agent and/or publisher; or
4. Generating publicity so people will buy it.

Each of these could and might be the subject of a separate blog or even another book, but at this moment in time I’m in the process of learning about #4 which leaves the other three. For this blog, I’ll select number three. Here’s why.

Writing the first pass of the manuscript that had all the plot elements in it took about a year working on airplanes and in hotel rooms on business trips and Sunday mornings. It was a labor of love and finding the energy and self-discipline was not hard. While working out on elliptical machines, I’d let my mind run through scenes and develop characters so that when I sat down at my laptop, I had an idea of where to start and then let the people in the book tell the story through their eyes.

Finding out whether BIG MOTHER 40 was good enough kind of evolved. The first people I asked to read it were professional writers/editors. All said yes and each told me to go find an agent. I also sent it to a couple of close friends who I knew would give me candid opinions and with their votes of confidence, I bought a book that had a list of agents and publishers and started the process of finding either an agent or publisher.

And that’s when I ran into the first major challenge – writing an effective query letter. The books that I read had all kinds of useful suggestions but here’s the process that evolved which, oh by the way, isn’t in any of the many books (there were at least six) that I read.

First step was to confirm by visiting the agency’s web site to confirm what was in the reference books with the web site and to make sure they were still looking for first time novelists. If they still (because there is a lag between the information used in the books and the present) handled military fiction and had agents who “specialized” in the genre, the next step was an internet search on the agent or agents to see if I could find a hook for the query that would spur the agent’s interest.

Armed with something about the agency, the agent and the format, I’d write a customized query each of which had a synopsis of the plot styled as if I was writing the blurb on the back cover that you would read at a book store to get you spend your hard earned money on my book. Next were three items on why I was qualified to write the book and the third was an excerpt from a marketing plan that I planned (and am following) to help sell BIG MOTHER 40.

Each query was highly customized and while I used the same general text, between the research, editing and proofing, it took a couple hours to generate one query letter. My plan was to send out five or six, wait about three weeks or so and then send out another batch.

To my total surprise, out of the first twenty, five agents actually asked for the manuscript and ultimately all turned it down. Knowing that Margaret Mitchell had twenty nine agents turn down GONE WITH THE WIND before one said yes, I wanted to know why. Ultimately, I talked to three out of the five and the remaining two were horrified that I actually called and wanted to know what changes I needed to make in the manuscript to make it more saleable. They acted as if I had broken some cardinal rule about not talking to a potential literary agent.

I had five questions prepared and the conversations after the first two could have been scripted for a call center because they were so alike.

Me – “I understand your agency turned the book down. I can accept that but I’d like to learn more about why so I can improve my chances with another agency.”

Agent sounding like he/she was caught and couldn’t find a way to get off the phone other than be rude and hang up. “OK, I am short on time.”

Me – “Did you like the plot?” I ignored the “I’m busy” comment because we all are.

Agent – “Yes, we thought it was well developed and a good story?”

Me – “How does my writing style need to improve?”

Agent – “Your writing is fine. In the publishing process, we’d polish it a bit, but that is expected with new authors.”

Me – “Were the characters sufficiently developed? If no, do you have any suggestions?”

Agent – “Yes. I liked them because they were believable and different. No, at this time, I don’t have any suggestions?”

Me – “So if it wasn’t the plot, the characters or the writing, what was the real reason for turning it down?” Keep in mind this was early 2008 and the Dow Jones was plummeting on a daily basis as we were entering a deep recession.

Agent – “Two reasons. First, we’re being cautious due to the recession. Book sales are way down so unless you came to us with a brand and a track record successful book sales, we’re not making investments in new authors. Second, the publishing industry is undergoing a fundamental change because of the advent of e-books and we’re not sure of what is going to happen or how it is going to affect our business. Right now, we’re trying to figure that out.”

These two reasons actually made sense. Two lessons learned. One, even though the agency said they were looking for new authors, they weren’t. Second, to get their attention, you needed a track record of success and a brand. Hmmmm… That’s a classic chicken and egg question.

So how did I overcome this challenge? Great question. Stay tuned and just like novel, I’ll answer it in another chapter, errr, blog!

Marc Liebman
8/26/2012