Monday, August 6, 2012

The Art of Getting Published: A FAQ

A year ago last April, the deal went down.  The book deal, that is – so exciting and life-changing that it always requires capital letters, at least in my own head: The Book Deal!  Exclamation point! My editor made an offer on not one but three books (!!), my editor and my agent negotiated and agreed upon the terms of my contract (!!), and then we had a deal (!!!).  I had achieved one of my many lifelong goals.  I was going to be a published author.  Cue the champagne toasts!

And cue the questions.

Like most (if not all) artistic professions, the writing of books can be a mysterious thing, at least to those who’ve never done it or aren’t in the industry.  So when one of us writer types actually lands a deal and begins to travel the long (long, long, long) road to publication, curiosity stirs.  Sometimes this leads to cool questions – the kind that I genuinely have fun answering.  (How do advance payments and royalties work?  Can you tell how invested your publisher is in your book by how much they paid you? Why do you start smiling like a lovelorn teenager whenever the subject of your agent or your editor comes up?)  But, way more often, this leads to the kind of questions where the writer finds herself not in the position of answering, but in the position of having to set the question-asker straight.  Which is a roundabout way of introducing today’s blog post:

Misconceptions About Publishing: The FAQ(!!)

Question: Oh, you got a book deal! That’s awesome! That means you’re quitting your day job, right?

Answer: Some people do!  Me? Not so much.  First of all, while my book deal certainly includes money, it doesn’t include nearly enough money for me to live on (especially since I live in the middle of New York City).  Plus, more importantly, I’d probably go insane without a day job.  I’m sure some people can live without the structure of a nine-to-five, but if I didn’t have mine, my typical days would start to look like this:

8 AM: My alarm clock goes off. I throw it against the wall and go back to sleep.
11:30 AM: I get out of bed, sit in front of the computer, and think about writing.
12:30 PM: I tear myself away from Bejeweled Blitz, and go to the gym for a bit, with an eye toward coming home and showering and feeling mighty refreshed.
2:00 PM: I realize I haven’t eaten anything yet today; time to treat myself to a fancy lunch!
3:30 PM: Oh, maybe I should write something.
5:00 PM: I have four hundred words. Dinner time!
6:00 PM: Hmm, I wonder if there are any good concerts tonight?

And so on.  You get what I mean.  But more to the point, I like my day job.  I’m a literary agent by day, which means 70% of my job is reading other people’s books.  Which, no lie, is pretty awesome.

Question: Ah, so you were in the publishing industry already.  That probably made it super easy for you to get a book deal, right?

Answer: In some ways, yes.  In most ways, no.  The way that my job made getting a book deal easier was this: I already knew how the process of getting published worked.  No research required – and believe me, there’s plenty of research for an unpublished writer to do before she starts seeking publication.

The ways in which my job did not make getting a deal easier were… well, everything else.  I won’t lie and say I didn’t use personal connections to help me out.  I certainly did.  But back when I was querying my first novel (the one that did not get me an agent), the most those connections got me were more personalized rejections than I might have otherwise gotten.  Even my wonderful agent, Brenda Bowen, rejected my first novel.  And her office is across the hall from me.  But though it made me sad at the time, she (along with all the others I queried) was right to reject it.  It wasn’t ready for publication.

What I’m trying to say is, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re in the industry.  No matter what connections you do or do not have, your work will always have to speak for itself, for better or for worse.

Question: Okay, so your work spoke for itself, and you got a book deal.  Why can’t I buy your book yet?

Answer: Because the publishing process takes time. A lot of time.  I have to work with my editor to whip the book into the best possible shape, which (in my case) takes months!  There are copyedits to be done!  Internal layout! Jacket design! Marketing! And those are just the big things.  Add to that the fact that my book is one of a truly huge number of books that my publisher puts out in any given season, and it’s kind of surprising that the whole process doesn’t take longer.

Question: If it takes so long, then why do the whole traditional-publishing thing at all? Why not just self-publish? Your book could already be for sale!

Answer: Because if I self-published, I would have to be my own marketing team, my own cover designer, my own editor, and my own copyeditor.  Or I could pay people out-of-pocket to do those jobs for me.  I don’t want to lay out that kind of money, or spend my time doing jobs that I have no interest in doing.  I want to write.  And I want to get paid to write.

Question: But Amanda Hocking! But 50 Shades of Grey!

Answer: Yes.  And they  are two success stories out of a possible… million? Billion? How many people self-publish their books these days, anyway? What I’m saying is, people like Hocking and EL James have stories that are literally one in a million.  They self-published, made a killing, and attracted the attention of traditional publishers as a result.  Good for them!  But the odds were not in their favor – much as the odds would not be in mine, if I’d chosen to go the same route.

Question: Okay, fine.  But back to the work you do with your editor.  How can it take months for things like grammar and punctuation to be fixed?

Answer: What you’re talking about is copyedits.  What I’m talking about is big-picture editing.  There’s a huge difference.

Question: But I thought editors didn’t really edit anymore. That’s what the interwebs keep telling me.

Answer: The interwebs are wrong! Except when they are right!  The thing is, there are all kinds of different editors, all of whom have vastly different ways of working.  Some editors do like to focus only on small-picture edits (grammar, phrasing, etc.), which means they’ll usually only acquire books that are already in extraordinarily good shape.  Some editors will buy a book based on premise alone, even if the execution of said premise is in awful shape, and they’ll work with the authors for however long it takes to rebuild the story from scratch.

Most, though, are somewhere in the middle.  My editor, Kathy Dawson, is very hands-on – which is perfect for me, since I’m a very collaborative writer.  I went through three rounds of big-picture edits with her, in which we tackled giant stuff, miniscule stuff, and everything in between. It took months.  And it was worth every second.

Question: In closing: You write kids’ books! How awesome. So you’re gonna be the next JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer or Rick Riordan, right?

Answer: Nope. I’m not gonna be the next anyone. What I will be is the very first me.

Lindsay Ribar is a literary agent by day, a writer by night, and a concert junkie 24/7.  She is fond of wine, Ireland, musicals, long walks around Manhattan, and the color blue.  Her first novel, The Art of Wishing (Dial Books, March 2013) is about making wishes, making music, and making out.


  1. Terrific post, Lindsay. The last line actually brought tears to my eyes.

  2. Great post! I'm surprised people don't ask why you can't represent yourself. I can see that being a common question among folks who aren't familiar with how publishing works.

  3. Love this post, Lindsay! I especially love the bit about your work having to speak for itself no matter your connections. I knew my agent long before she was my agent and people are always assuming that she gave me a leg up based on our friendship when in reality I had the same gentle rejection from her on my first manuscript that you did from your agent and she never saw the manuscript she signed me on until it was absolutely polished and I sent it to her through the usual guery process...our relationship just got me to the top of the slush pile quicker:-)

  4. Elisabeth - Aww! Thanks!

    Melissa - Actually, I get that all the time! The reason I didn't include that here is that I haven't thought of a better answer than "Arrrrrg." Which, you know, isn't terribly helpful.

    Amy - Yeah, see? Same thing! Connections can speed up the process, but that's about it!

  5. I feel like printing a zillion copies of this and handing one to anyone who asks about the publishing process. A perfect rundown! Thank you!

  6. I feel like printing a zillion copies of this and handing one to anyone who asks about the publishing process. A perfect rundown! Thank you!

  7. excellent post. It's hard to explain to people who don't write how time is different in publishing. It's also hard to REMEMBER that sometimes, too.

    Love the stream of honest but positive posts coming from this blog!

  8. Nicely done, Lindsay--full of great info and to the point. I'm going to link to this on my own blog.

  9. This is truly one of the best posts I've read about the inner workings of publishing. Nice work, lady!

  10. Oh, I love this post! And I love that you are going to be the next you. :)