Let it be known that there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns in war, and also in publishing. I know I’m borrowing from a hawkish, 8-year-old concept, and I’m no friend of Rummy, but in all of his convolutions, he did make a wee bit of sense regarding the limitations of planning.
We write the best books we can muster, and the rest of the process is unknown. The known unknowns are the agents, publishing houses, and editors we think will be amenable to our project. Unknown unknowns are things like changes in the marketplace (I see you, indie publishing) and audience demand (zombie transformers have only got to be just around the corner). It can be frustrating to acknowledge that a lot of the path to publishing is outside our control, but there are a few shifts we writers can make to accommodate at least a little of this environment.
Here’s what’s worked for me:
Don’t get stuck on a single agent, or even method of publication—If we do our homework, we can identify agents and publishers who look like good matches for our work, either by searching the support behind a book we like that is similar to ours, or reading through publishing professionals’ Web sites and forums. But just because we don’t send our sex change memoir to an agent who only reps Christian historical novels doesn’t mean we’re going to find our advocate at the snap of our fingers. And it may turn out that traditional publishing isn’t ready for whatever ahead-of-our-time book we’ve created. There are real alternatives these days, if we’re looking to get our work on the market no matter what.
Have more than one project to pitch—I know I’m a broken record on this point. (Does anyone under 30 even know what that metaphor means anymore?) Publishing is under enough pressure at this point that some genres or markets are less inclined to pick up new writers than others. While I wouldn’t suggest we spread ourselves too thin, I do think it’s a good idea to have more than one area of writing expertise/prowress so that we can better appeal to upswings across the field. Is the vampire diary market saturated? Then maybe it’s a good time to break out that upmarket women’s lit story about the admin assistant who takes over the floral syndicate in Seattle. Yes, there really is a floral syndicate in Seattle. Same advice for short vs. long form.
Be willing to put finished manuscripts away for a while and work on something new—I reached the conclusion last year that a humorous memoir about my gender transition wasn’t mainstream enough to be the lead for my writing career, but if I made more of a name for myself, it would grow multiple kinds of interest. No, I’m not hunting for glory or trying to become famous. I’m trying to sell the things I write. I now think that my YA novel is an easier project for an agent to represent, given that I’m an emerging writer. And if I can land an agent but still face resistance to selling the memoir later, I’m okay with self-publishing it. And I say this because I really believe, deep from my heart, that it needs to be out there for people to read. That said…
Find interesting publishing hybrids and be willing to go that route, if publishing is a priority—BookCountry lets writers and readers converse about their work, and agents are watching it. It isn’t, as I understand it, a first publication, so it won’t affect your ability to sell those rights. BookTrope has publishing professionals as gatekeepers like a traditional publishing house, but is based on a more indie model with few of the brick & mortar limitations of the big NYC houses. And they have publicity support, something that new writers certainly need to get sales rolling.
Stay freaking positive—It makes sense that there will be some level of resentment when someone from our peer group lands an agent or a book deal, or we read about the beacoup de bucks Amanda Hocking is raking in while we read The New York Times. Chances are, these folks paid their dues, too. Succumbing to the green-eyed monster is inherently problematic; either we’re not cut out for writing, we need more maturity, or we’re going to signal to others that we’re a horrible writer to work with. So find what works to get yourself back on track and into your own writing, or consider that jealousy only wastes your time.
I know the environment these days feels next to impossible and can be soul-crushing. But consider that more books are published in the US than ever before, more than one million titles at this point. Most of those only sell 100 or fewer copies. Sure, we can only control so much, but what we do control—our words and our attitudes—are two rather pivotal pieces to the process. My plan is to make those as strong as they can be, and believe that my work in those areas will get me through to the other side.
It can’t be as hard as a sex change, after all.