Commenting on the details of the deal just brokered by Kate Lee, Kevin Wignall makes a very interesting point:
”…stories like this must be very disheartening for would-be published authors who feel like they're trying to get into a closed shop. “On face value, I’d have to agree: here’s a case of an agent befriending her client, having some kind of prior connection to him, then turning around and selling his book to a former co-worker of hers who left the agency to try his luck on the editorial side at the publishing house which released his debut novel some years back. A closed circle? Yes, it does seem that way.
Except that I don’t see this kind of deal in such dire terms for aspiring writers because for one thing, there are still plenty of writers who land agents and/or get their work published without having such an interconnected contact base. And the odds, as a whole, of getting published is still fairly low that even with all the “right” connections, the door may be closed.
But at the same time, I might as well come out and say it: connections are important.
Several months back, not long after I launched the blog, I got an email from a writer who had written over a dozen books, but all were out of print and she was seeking an agent. She was puzzled at how to get one, and in a fit of candidness, I replied that it was probably in her best interest to “get connections.” Not surprisingly, this didn’t meet with her approval and she wrote back, “but how do I get those connections?”
This is where the crux of my argument comes in, which is as follows: the publishing world, at least in my estimation, works just like any kind of corporation, any kind of workplace. In other words, landing a book deal is no different than landing the job of your dreams. So a lot of the same skills that apply in the job hunt should be transferable to getting published.
What’s the top piece of advice for those on the job market? Make use of any and all contacts. Anyone, be it a friend, neighbor, family member, former boss, people you’ve worked with on a project, is a contact. Ask advice, get feedback, meet with your contacts on occasion, follow up and above all, be professional. And don’t abuse your contact base either, because they are people with valuable time who don’t like to be hit up sporadically because you want something.
What gets you an interview? A CV or resume that is polished and stands out, but doesn’t stand out too much. Throw in something extra like a letter of reference or two. What gets an agent to read the first 50 pages? A kickass query letter that is polished and stands out, but doesn’t oversell the product, and maybe some choice blurbs from the right people from your contact base.
If you’re looking for professional employment, then you have to sell yourself in a way that the company wants to hire you and keep you on. So your skills have to be a good fit, and you have to show to your prospective bosses you can work in that particular environment. And if you’re looking to be published, then your book (and you, as well) has to sell itself in a way that the agent wants to represent you, the publishing company wants to take you on, and your book is a good fit and can be worked on by said agent and editor. And you have to show that you can get along with them, work with them, take their advice and not act like a prima donna.
If you only have a year’s experience that relates to the position you’re applying for, then don’t apply if the position requires 3-5 years, because that’s a waste of everybody’s time. Kind of like if you’ve written a mystery, don’t send it to an agent or editor that doesn’t take them, because that’s a waste of everybody’s time.
I keep repeating phrase strings for a good reason—because there really is very little difference. If you get turned down by a job you want, it sucks—believe me, it does—but there are all sorts of reasons which may or may not have anything to do with your ability to do the job. But it’s nothing personal. When it comes to a book, yes, it’s your baby, you’ve slaved all your life, you want the rest of the world to love it—and you—as well. But if the book is turned down, well guess what: it sucks, oh yes, but there are all sorts of reasons which may or may not have anything to do with your abilities as a writer. And those reasons, too, aren’t usually personal ones.
So to get back to that writer’s question of how to get connections, the usual answers probably suffice: conventions, writer’s conferences, mailing lists, newsgroups, hell, even blogs. But, just like in job searches, it seems paramount to remember that each potential contact is a person who doesn’t want to be seen as a mark. The soft sell is always better than the oversell. Yet, at some point, there comes the do-or-die question. And at least in my distantly-related experiences (since I’m not shopping for an agent at the moment and won’t be for some years yet, I suspect) people are happy to help. And if not, well, the worst is over. They said no. Move on to someone else or figure out why they said no.
I guess I just don’t think there’s any sort of mystique to breaking into the publishing world. It’s incredibly difficult and requires some effort, but then, so does looking for work, finding a new career path, changing your life pattern. But self-knowledge helps, as does professionalism, realistic expectations (a pulp novel is not going to sell like THE DA VINCI CODE will) and ultimately, writing the best damned book you can possibly write.
Then the fun starts.