It is my hope that the following suggestions, based on my own experience in the world of writer/publisher, will save you from some of the pitfalls you will encounter querying literary agents.
1. The completed first draft of your manuscript begins your odyssey toward publication. Up until now your work has been uniquely personal, something that you have created. Before you can send out query letters telling the world of the birth of the great American novel, your work needs editing. I do not mean having a friend, an English teacher, your boss, or any other nonprofessional read your manuscript; no, I mean that you must engage the services of at least one professional editor, two is better. Thus begins the process of polishing your manuscript until it is the best it can be. This process can involve numerous corrections and rewrites. Do not take it personally; treat the process as a learning experience because that is exactly what it is. The time and expense involved varies with the quality of the work. One hundred thousand words will cost in the neighborhood of $2000.00, or more, by the time you get it right. After all of that effort there will still be errors. The most pervasive and difficult to find are words that sound the same, but have different meanings, e.g. – broach and brooch. The English language is full of such words. I find it easier to correct edits electronically within the Word document rather than by hand with a marked up manuscript. Communication between you and the editor is kept within the document by e-mailing it back and forth. There is less chance of missing necessary changes with the electronic edit and it is easier; edit/rewrite by hand can be a crushing experience for an author. Of course, the choice of methodology is yours to make, just be certain you do not skimp on the capital outlay because this is not the place to save money.
2. Before you begin to query keep professionalism firmly in mind. If you do not have letterhead stationery, design some, including the envelope. Microsoft Publisher makes great looking forms, business cards, and stationery. Remember, you are trying to sell a product, be professional in all of your contacts. Edit religiously, use spell check. Everything that you write is a reflection on you personally, so do it right the first time because the one chance is usually all you will get.
3. As an author, you cannot deal directly with one of the large publishing houses, so your next challenge is to interest a literary agent in your work. Famous people query with a proposal before writing the book. I will assume that you are not yet famous. For you the path to conventional publication begins with the literary agent in almost all circumstances. That accommodation is not an accident. Do your homework on the submission guidelines for any query. All literary agents will have their own submission guidelines; adhere to them absolutely. Query only agencies accepting submissions in your genre and target specific agents within each agency. Do not ever send a manuscript unless it is requested, they will not read it. When the time comes, manuscripts are sent loose-leaf, unbound by request. Manuscript mailing boxes can be purchased online. Again, hire professional editors to edit everything that another person will read, especially the final draft of your manuscript. Remember, you cannot edit your own work you must hire someone. Your professionalism will determine whether you ever make the grade. A shabby cover letter on your submission packet will guarantee its demise. Agents and publishers are busy people and they have no time to waste on people who do not follow their submission guidelines.
4. Dealing with agents is a disheartening undertaking for a writer. Agents act like the writer exists because of them, when in fact it is the other way around. Keep that fact in mind. Use the considerable resources of the Internet to find agents interested in your genre. Do not rely on print lists of agents. The game will have changed before you receive the list. Many agents will require an exclusive submission, unnecessarily extending the period of angst for the author. Many others do not; focus on them. These days they are looking for contentious subjects or manuscripts written by known authors, never mind whether or not they can write. If you find a literary agent, your relationship will be contractual. Do nothing with anyone without a contract. Fully understand your part of the contract before signing or hire an attorney versed in literary contracts to help you understand. I wasted a year trying to find an agent from among those professing to have an interest in my genre only to find that there are not any in existence.
5. If you are fortunate enough to become a published author through the literary agent/publisher/reader sequence of progression, congratulations, you have hit the big time. Your publisher will handle all the details of composition/format, cover design, printing/binding, fulfillment/marketing, and warehouse/distribution, leaving you free to crank out books. You will have little or no input regarding any of the production aspects of your book, nor will you retain any rights other than copyright. The publisher will own the ISBN and all future negotiations for anything concerning that work will be through, or with the permission of the publisher.The road to publication has been a nightmare because of the time and money wasted while I learned the business. I wish I could say that there is lots of help out there for the newbies, but actually, the reverse is true. You are prey swimming in the shark’s pool—take heed. Believe nobody; get everything in writing; and, research, research, research.
J. A. Hunsinger, Vinland Publishing, LLC, http://www.vinlandpublishing.com/©2009 Jerry A. Hunsinger, All Rights Reserved