Finding Your Audience (and getting paid)

Your job, after you’ve written, is not to try to get everyone to read your story. Because you will never write something everyone likes. In fact, it’s highly unlikely you’ll write something even most people like. Read these quotes from two old pros.

“An author needs a lot more than one person to succumb to his literarily seductive charms, but, like Saul, he must realize that he doesn’t have to–and indeed cannot–capture the hearts of every possible reader out there. No matter who the writer, his ideal intended audience is only a small fraction of all the living readers. Name the most widely read authors you can think of–from Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens to Robert Waller, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling–and the immense majority of book-buyers out there actively decline to read them” (Thomas McCormack, former CEO and editorial director of St. Martin’s Press, The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist, p8)

The thing Character wants, the danger that threatens fulfillment of this desire, and the decision he makes, determine what specific readers will enjoy the story. One likes sex and violence, another tenderness and love, another the competitive striving for success, another intellectual stimulation. Relatively few college professors are Tarzan fans–and even fewer sharecroppers succumb to Finnegans Wake. The trick, for the writer, is merely to pinpoint audience taste…then to refrain from attempting to inflect his copy on the wrong people.” (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer, p137)

So your job is to try to find the folks that are likely to enjoy your type of story and then to get it in front of as many of them as you can.

How do you do this?

Up until a few years ago, you really only had one path, and that was to get a traditional publisher to license the rights to your book or story. You only had this one path because there was really only one way for customers to purchase a novel or short story, and that was to go to a brick and mortar store, or one that did sales via the mail, and buy it.  Publishers had a lock on that distribution channel, which meant you just weren’t going to get into that channel without them.  With Amazon’s release of the Kindle, that has all changed.

Selling Short Stories to Traditional Publishers

For short stories, you study the market. Where are stories similar to yours published? WritersMarket.com is an excellent resource as are its annual hardcopy publications, which include good articles on the business as well as market listings. Duotrope.com lets you search markets. If you’re writing SF & F, you’ll want to add Ralan.com to your research.

Once you know which places publish stories similar to yours, you send your story to them in the way they’ve asked for it in their submission guidelines.

Selling Novels via Traditional Publishers

I’ve listed the key points below. But I’d recommned you purchase and study Your Novel Proposal by Camenson and Cook and Agents, Editors, and You by Howry. These two books will guide you through the process. While waiting for offers, I strongly recommend you read Kirsch’s Guide to the Book Contract by Jonathan Kirsch and The Copyright Handbook by Stephen Fishman which is published by Nolo press.

1. Get your sales package together

This includes a cover letter, synopsis, and first chapters. See the two books above. You will also want to read the “How to Write a Query” article on AgentQuery.com.

The cover letter includes a hook. This, along with a logline, is an important sales tool. This is the 250’ish word description of the story included in the cover letter, which is designed to induce the editor or agent to want to read the story. The two books above will give you excellent advice on how to write one, but there’s nothing like learning by example, or non-example. Let me recommend you read at least a hundred of the aspiring-author queries posted to Miss Snark. Go to this site: http://misssnark.blogspot.com/search/label/Crapometer-hooks. Click on the “Show Older Posts” link until you get to the 12/30/2006 post titled “HH COM 682” which stands for “Happy Hooker Crap-O-Meter entry 682.” You may or may not agree with Miss Snark’s comments. That’s not the important thing. She is, after all, only one agent with only one agent’s tastes. The key is to identify the queries that draw you in immediately and get you salivating for more and those that don’t. Figure out what makes the good ones work and the bad ones bore you, and then use your insights in writing your own query. 

2. Contact editors

You need to study the publishing houses and editors at each house. Find stories like yours and then find out who publishes them. WritersMarket.com will help. Sometimes, however, you need to know not just the publishers, but the specific editors at the publisher who acquire your type of story. You can sometimes find editors names printed in the front of the book with the copyright information. Sometimes they’re mentioned in the author’s acknowledgements. Sometimes you’ll have to hunt the information down. A good resource for this is Publishers Marketplace, which often lists what’s being sold to different editors.

Once you know which places you think are a good fit for your novel,  you send them what they’ve stipulated in their submission guidelines.

3. Get an agent

Many editors don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Many others fill up their reading queue with referral submissions from agents and writers they trust. So what do you do? You get an agent. Even if you sell directly, you may want a good agent to help with the contract, foreign rights, and many other things. So I wouldn’t wait to start querying agents. In fact, from all the data I’ve seen (sources listed on my business facts and figures page), getting a good agent is one of the best ways to get your novel sold.

Having said that, there are also agent pitfalls you want to avoid. I suggest you read Dean Wesley Smith’s “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing” series to understand what those pitfalls are. 

Use AgentQuery.com, QueryTracker.net, and Publishers Marketplace to identify the agents who represent your type of stories. Yeah, PM costs some money. Big deal. This is business. Did you think you could go into business for yourself for free?

You’ll want to consult a few other sites as well. Many agents have websites and blogs. Follow an agent’s blog for a while. You can get a good idea about them from what they write. You’ll also want to go to sites that provide some warnings about specific agents; for the SF&F genre there are places like Preditors and Editors

Once you’ve identified a list of agents you think will be a good fit, you send them what they’ve stipulated in their submission guidelines.

4. Meet editors and agents in person by going to conventions and workshops

You can certainly conduct your search for editors and agents through the mail and internet. A lot of the interaction between authors and their agents and editors is long distance. In fact, most authors don’t find an agent or editor by meeting them in person first. Nevertheless, some do. Furthermore, some editors and agents who don’t accept unsolicited queries from complete strangers, might be willing to consider one from someone they’ve met at a convention or workshop. In fact, some conventions provide formal pitch sessions with agents and editors. So you might want to seriously consider going to some of these events.   

For example, if I wanted to break into the YA market, then I’d look for YA conventions and workshops. And when I started looking, I’d see that, good golly, a local university hosts an annual “Writing and Illustrating For Young Readers Workshop” that’s loaded with pros (authors, editors, and agents). And so I’d do whatever it took to get my hiney to that workshop. And as many others I could afford. Then I’d make sure I chatted with all those that interested me. You’ll have similar events in your area, even if that area includes places eight to twelve hours away.

Of course, the personal approach doesn’t always work.  First, some agents and editors don’t attend many of these events. For example, it happens that my own agent, Caitlin Blasdell, has four small children and so rarely attends writers conferences or conventions.  She relies on her clients to point promising new writers her way.  Second, some agents and editors who do attend prefer not to be approached about sales. For example, my editor, David Hartwell at Tor, is at a stage now where he knows so many experienced writers and has so many appearances and appointments at conventions that he strongly prefers not to have authors approach him to pitch their books in any manner–unless it is a scheduled appearance for that purpose. Nevertheless, while this method won’t work with everyone, there are other agents and editors who do attend these events who are open to authors approaching them on this matter.

So how do you do this?

First of all, you are going to be polite and considerate. You’re not going to stalk and hunt these folks. You’re not corner them in the bathrooms, hallways, or anywhere else. You’re NOT going to butt in on conversations! Such behavior is annoying and sometimes alarming. It projects desperation. And there are few people who want to start a business relationship with folks who are annoying, alarming, or desperate.

So you’ll calmly wait in line to talk to them after a panel, at a party, or when you see them in the hall. Or if you see them standing alone, you’ll walk up and introduce yourself. You’ll make sure you’re presenting your best self–sober, groomed, and smiling 🙂 

And you’ll remember this one key thing–your goal at these events is NOT to sell your book.

What?!

Think about it. Who would commit thousands of dollars to buy something they haven’t read? Nobody. Who would promise to invest hours and hours to read your full manuscript without seeing a sample? Nobody. Who would want to spend the time looking at a sample if they’re not interested in the idea? Um, that same nobody. And who would even look at the idea if they’re not currently interested in representing or buying a new book? Again, nobody (unless they’re just trying to put you off).

This is like dating and marriage. You don’t start out popping the question the first time you see someone. In fact, you don’t even start off by asking someone out on a date. It all starts much more simply. It starts with checking to see if the person you’re interested in is open to an advance. People almost always do this with a little eye-contact and a smile (even when they don’t know what they’re doing). If the other person responds with a genuine smile and inviting eye-contact, you initiate some talk. It that goes well, maybe you suggest lunch. After lunch, hey, you’re getting together with some friends to go hiking. After the hike, who knows? But the marriage commitment is still a number of steps down the line.

So just as your goal in finding a spouse is NOT to commit someone to marriage or even a date the first time you see them, your goal with your book is NOT to sell it or even commit someone to read it.

Your goal is to identify folks who are willing to consider new authors and books–identify those who are open to an advance. You identify these people by asking them if they’re willing to look at a query (for some editors and agents, that’s a query letter and nothing more; for others it’s a letter, a synopsis, and the first three chapters or fifty pages). But you’re not going to ask them to look at it right then. You’re not going to ask them to look at it sometime later at the convention. No, you’re going to ask if you can send them one they can consider when they get back home. That’s it. That’s all you’re trying to do. 

Do you see how low-stress that is for both you and the editor or agent? You’re not asking them to buy your story or sign you up as a client. You’re not even asking them to make a yes/no decision on your story idea. You’re just seeing if they’re open to queries from authors they don’t know or haven’t been referred to them. They don’t have to accept or reject you on the spot with a meeting to get to and you standing there looking at them, your heart in your hands. You don’t have to face rejection with everyone looking on. It puts everyone at ease.

Your query (idea), if it’s written well and a good match for the agent or editor, will induce the agent or editor ask to see a sample (or larger sample) of your manuscript. That sample will convince them to look at the full manuscript. And the full manuscript will sell itself.

Now that you know you’re not trying to convince anyone to do anything, that should make this easier. All you’ve got to do is identify if an agent or editor is open to considering new authors and books. And you do this one one of two ways: you either ask them directly OR you take a conversational approach and hope the opportunity to ask presents itself later.

THE DIRECT APPROACH

In the direct approach, you simply say something like: “I’ve been researching the market and you and your agency (“publishing house” if they’re an editor) in particular, and I think my novel might be a fit. It’s a [fill in the genre]. Are you currently considering queries from new authors?” 

Or you could say something like: “I’ve got a question for you. I’m shopping a [insert genre] novel and have compiled a list of editors [“agents” if that’s who you’re talking to] who I think would be a good fit. You, of course, are one of them, but are you currently considering queries by new authors?”

You job now is to let them answer. Let them tell you if they’re currently open to taking on new authors and books. If they say yes, you’re in business. You simply say, “Great, can I send you one?” They’ll say yes, and then you need to verify what exactly they want in the query package, e.g. “So what would you like, a query letter and the first three chapters, or something else?” If they state what they want on their website, just confirm what you read there. And you will have read up on every agent and editor you plan to meet at the conference BEFORE you go.  Don’t forget to find out how they want you to send it to them (email or hardcopy) and which address they want it sent to.

Make sure you send exactly what they requested. If it’s in hardcopy, send the query in a big flat envelope (don’t be folding and stuffing your query in a regular envelope). Write a cover letter reminding them where and when you met. And write “Requested Material” on the front of the envelope. You can also at the same time send an email thanking them again for their time and notifying them the package is in the mail. Finally, wait. Do not harrangue them with emails and calls. If you don’t hear anything in two or three months, email and verify they got the package.

What if they say they’re not currently considering queries from new authors?

You don’t get depressed. That’s the first thing. This isn’t a rejection of you or anything else. They’re telling you they’re just not interested in taking on new authors or prefer to find their clients in other ways. That’s fine. No big deal. You’re just trying to find those who are willing to look at a query. At this point you ask them if they know any other editors or agents who might be open to new authors and a good fit for your type of story. They might give you a lead, they might not, but thank them for whatever info they do give you. At this point you might chat a bit more, or you might excuse yourself.

What if the agent or editor asks you what the story is about?

You tell them. In this context, they’re probably asking to evaluate the idea, although they might be asking just to be polite. So just give them the short, short, short version (not the saga). There are a few different ways to present the idea.  The two-sentence version is a standard way, e.g. “It’s a finished [insert your genre:epic fantasy, paranormal, thriller, western, police procedural, YA, etc.]. It’s about [insert the short description].

If you don’t know what a two-sentence description is, go and read the Rowland articles I link to below. And don’t stress if it’s three or five sentences. The key is keeping it short! There are other ways to present the idea.  The books above will discuss a few of these.

Once you share the idea, ask them if that sounds like something they’d be interested in seeing a partial of (partials are usually a query letter and a few sample chapters). Again, confirm exactly what they want in the partial.

That’s all there is to it.

THE CONVERSATIONAL APPROACH

In the conversational approach, you’re as interested in having an interesting conversation as you are finding out if they’re open to queries from new authors. The key here is to be sincere. If you’re faking building rapport just so you can pop the question, people will feel that insincerity.

So ask for advice on something you really want advice on, e.g. “I’m wondering if you have a minute now or sometime later during the conference when you could give me some advice.” 

Or you might for insight or information on a topic you really want insight or information on, e.g. “I have a couple of questions about [you fill in the topic]; do you have a minute to chat?”

Or you might talk about a part of the business that truly intrigues you, e.g. “Geez, you’re Bob Editor, I really love what you and Bill Author have been doing; what are the plans for the series?”

Or you can talk about them, e.g. “So how did you get into editing? Was this something you always wanted to do?”

Again, in this approach you’re not worrying about popping a question or making a pitch. You’re certainly not worried about selling your book. All you want to do is find out who is open to queries and who isn’t. And you assume an appropriate moment will present itself later to find that out. Now, you might not find the right time in a specific conversation.  That’s okay. You may seek the editor or agent out again later in the conference when you can be a bit more one-on-one. Or you may email them after the conference.

If at some time during the conversation they ask you what your story’s about, that’s your cue to tell them. So give them the short version as discussed above. However, in this situation it’s more likely they might not be asking to evaluate the idea. Even if they ask you more about the story or your efforts to sell, they might just be asking to be polite. You’ll just have to gauge the situation and their intent. If you think they are interested, ask them if they’d be open to receiving a query or partial on it.

What if they don’t ask about your book at all?

That might mean they don’t want to hear about it. Remember, some editors and agents DON’T want to hear about your book. But, some do. It’s just that they might be so buried in queries they don’t feel the need to aggressively search for new ones. So don’t leave it up to them. Your job is to find out who will be willing to consider a query in the most polite manner. This means that at some point, even if you haven’t talked about your book, you’ll want to see if they’re open to queries. To turn the conversation that way, you simply switch over to the direct approach above: “So, I’ve got a question for you. . . ”

MORE INFO

Let me recommend you review these resources before you go to your first convention:

One aspiring author asked if you can make contacts with agents and editors even if you’re not quite ready with a finished manuscript. Of course! You’ll be taking the conversational approach. In all likelihood, however, the editor will forget you very soon after the event, even if you have an excellent hour-long conversation. They just meet too many people. So send a polite note the following week saying it was nice to meet them and thanks for the tips (see Rowland–it’s easiest to find both articles here: http://www.sfwa.org/category/networking-and-self-promotion/ ).  I’d do a short email. Phone calls from people you barely know demand immediate attention and can be a huge annoyance to some editors and agents.

Ultimately, you must finish your book. Editors and agents will not want to waste time considering a story that’s not done or an author who hasn’t demonstrated they have what it takes to actually produce. Yes, there are stories of people who pitched, leading the agent or editor on, got an invite to submit, then went home and wrote like madmen. There are stories of some of these people finishing the manuscript and then getting a contract. But there are not many. Besides, do you want to work that way? Do you want the pressure? Do you want to start off a partnership this way? Just finish. This is business. You want to go to market with an actual product, not vaporware.

I know some people might find approaching editors and agents in person to be nerve-wracking. It can be. If you find it extremely stressful, just start small by asking for advice and information. Just chat. And remember that some agents and editors who wouldn’t be interested in a query from a total stranger might be willing to consider one after they’ve been able to chat with you for a bit.

Regardless of whether you take the direct or the conversational approach, when the time comes to see if an agent or editor is open to a query, don’t be fearful or pleading. This is business. All you’re doing is finding out if they’re open to considering an idea. No strings attached. If your book is good, you’re going to be making them some money. You don’t need to beg, plead, or feel like you’re wasting their time. After all, you just might be the next Stephenie Meyer.

5. Join writers associations and groups

Writer’s associations can often provide opportunities with editors and agents you can’t get anywhere else. For example, if I wanted to break into the romance genre, then I would be an idiot not to join the Romance Writers of America. It is one of the best organizations for writers, period, providing plenty of tips and opportunities to meet editors, agents, and other writers. But it’s not the only good one out there. There are associations of all types for all genres. Find one that suits you.

However, avoid joining these groups just to network. Nobody wants to be networked. More important is to join to make friends with other writers. The value of one writing buddy cannot be overstated. Not because they might have valuable connections (although they sometimes do), but because buddies help you learn, they cheer for you, they challenge you, they keep you motivated. There’s nothing like a whole group of buddies cheering for you when you make a sale or when you get another rejection. And you do the same for them. Friendship is its own reward.

6. Be professional and nice

This is a job you’re looking for. Nobody cares about or has time for jerks, know-it-alls, and whiners. So keep your promises, shine your shoes, and make friends when you can.

7. Don’t give up

You might have to write a few novels before one of them sells. You might have to query fifty agents to find the handful who like your stuff. It takes the vast majority of writers a number of years to break in. So keep writing. Keep knocking on agent and editor doors. Eventually, someone will open to you, look at your stuff, and invite you in with a smile.

Selling Novels and Shorts Independently

This is now a totally viable way to publish. A number of the national best-sellers for the last few years were independently published. Watch the weekly USA Today weekly list of the 150 best-selling books to see examples. To sell independently, you need to: 

  1. Develop a cover or have someone do it for you. It’s critical it does what great covers do–grabs the target audience’s attention and communicates the type of story it will be.
  2. Edit the book. This includes a (a) development (story edit), (b) line edit, and (c) copy edit. Find some excellent readers or hire a pro. For example, I mention Marco Palmieri at the bottom of my On Writing page. Some readers do some edits well and others not so well.
  3. Write a good sales blurb that will show up with your book on the sales site.
  4. Format the book for the various venues, Kindle, Nook, Sony, etc. Make sure it looks great.
  5. Upload and price it right.
  6. Get on with the next project 🙂

For more information on indie publishing, I strongly suggest you read:  

Eventually, if you’re diligent and use some business sense, your stories will find their audience.

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