Vicki Hinze © 2000-2011
Q. I read that before looking for an agent a writer should have 5-7 manuscripts ready to sell. Is that right? I’ve only written two so far and maybe I shouldn’t start the search for an agent right now. Please advise. Should I enter contests or get published in a small, local market? I’d like to go about this the right way and not waste my time and I’m sure there are others who feel the same way.
A. First, we’d better dispel the myths.
1. There is no set number of manuscripts you should have ready to sell before approaching an agent.
2. There is no “right way” path to fiction publication, only different ways.
Some authors have exceptional talent and skills coming out of the gate. Their first novel is salable. For others, it’s the second, or fifth, or seventeenth. It depends not only on talent and skill but on the marketability of the work.
When you write to sell, you must remember that you can have a fantastic story that is masterfully executed, but if it doesn’t have a marketing niche, you’ve greatly diminished the probability of selling it. I’m not saying it can’t be done–I have done it. But it takes longer to do, and often, the writer has to wait for the market to catch up to it. A book will spur an editor’s imagination, and she will look at it and think that she can or can’t sell it to her existing reader base. If she doesn’t have an existing reader base but can see an inroad, where her existing readers might take the leap and embrace an unusual book, then she might take a chance on it. This happened with Harry Potter, with Diana Gabaldon’s time travels, with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s, Mists of Avalon.
My point is that creative books without an existing market can be sold if an editor with vision can see a potential market for them. That, by nature, can take longer for the writer to find. Or not. The writer might get lucky on the first submission, even with an extremely unusual book, and find that imaginative visionary of an editor.
First books are typically full of mechanical and technical challenges that broadcast them as first books. But not all of them suffer those challenges. So it’s impossible to say if your first or second book is “ready” or it isn’t. Typically, the author is too invested to be able to see what’s actually there, so it’s beneficial to have an objective reader’s feedback.
An agent needs a complete manuscript to sell. That’s the important part of this equation to remember. Editors typically don’t buy partial manuscripts from new authors. (Note that typically, because new author partial sales have happened. There are no absolutes in this business!)
Editors typically don’t buy partial manuscripts from established authors who switch genres, either. On occasion, they will, but more often than not, when an author changes genre, s/he starts on the same footing as a new author. The exception is that the editor knows the writer has the discipline to finish a book.
It is important not to approach an agent before your work is salable. It goes back to the “you have one chance to make a first impression.” So my best advice is this:
1.1. Work the manuscript until it reflects your personal best work. You can’t think of a thing to do to it to make it stronger.
2.2. Get someone (not related to you, or deemed a best friend who feels compelled to spare your feelings) to read the book. Another writer is a good idea because they often can tell you in technical terms where you have problems and how to fix them. With readers, you often have to translate what they say to craft.
3.3. Let the book rest. After you’ve finished and can’t think of another thing to do to it, set the book aside for a while, so you forget all the intricate details of the book. That might take you a week or a month; it depends on the writer. But give yourself time and distance from it. Then, read the book again. If you still can change nothing to make it stronger, it’s time to go to the next step.
4. Here, you can submit directly to an agent(s) or to contests. I’d choose the contest option for more feedback. But be persnickety about which contests you enter. You’re interested in feedback, so contests that don’t allow judges comments are of little value to you. Contests where editors you would like to approach with the book are a good bet, too. Many writers have sold their books to editors who judged them in contests.
5. When you feel confident the book is your personal best and it is ready, then is the time to submit to an agent. You don’t have to have a set number of novels, but you should be working on another similar novel. If you’re a new writer and you’re writing different types of books, you’re a difficult client for an agent to place. The usual path is that an editor knows s/he is going to have to build an author. To do that, the editor needs books that are similar and will appeal to the same readers. Writing all over the board is fun, but it’s not the easiest or most efficient way to build a career. It’s extremely problematic for an editor.
6. Affiliating with professional writing organizations, such as Writer’s Union, Romance or Mystery or Science Fiction Fantasy or Horror Writers of America can help get the agent/editor’s attention. Placing in contests can help get the agent/editor’s attention. (How much depends on the reputation of the contest.) Having short stories or other fiction published can help get that attention.
Before being published, I had written dozens of articles and interviews for writer’s groups’ newsletters. That got their attention. Actually, it led to the sale of my first book. I interviewed an editor for a newsletter. She let another editor read it, who said she liked my writing. The interviewed editor called and told me that. I submitted a complete to that editor and in two weeks she bought the book.
So there are benefits in all of the things you asked about, but this truth rests at the bottom line. Those things can open doors. Only the quality of the work closes it with you standing on the other side. It’s all about the book.
The editor asks two questions about the book. So does the agent. To succeed with either, both require a resounding yes response.
Does she love it? And can she sell it?
If she does and can, then your odds have jumped enormously. You’ll be asked about work habits, production times, career goals and strategies. Those play important roles in the decision-making, too. So if you haven’t considered them, you should.
In a few weeks, I’ll post the “Goals” sheet I do each year to help you sort this out. In the interim, do remember there is no right or wrong way to go about this.
If you spoke with a dozen authors about the paths of their careers, you’d have a dozen different experiences with little in common except that at some point, they all began selling books.
As for wasting time, I totally understand what you’re saying but that too is a hard call. As you progress, you learn. You acquire new skills, master old ones, gain more insight into how the business works. Yet you don’t want to spend five or six years making mistakes and shooting yourself in the foot.
The most important thing to remember is that it all rests on the book. Quality work, marketable work.*