We had a very interesting conversation at the Hillcity Writers meeting the other evening (Hillcity Writers is a group of passionate--and often zany--writers in the Lynchburg, Virginia area). The topic? Why isn't good writing enough?
As creative people, we enjoy the rush of filling up the blank page or blank screen with words. We love the process of developing a storyline. For us, it becomes, as Shakespeare said, "the things dreams are made of." We take great care in developing multi-dimensional characters. We craft sentences and passages of realistic dialog. We write and rewrite, paying attention to grammar rules, formatting standards and word count applicable to our intended market. We drive ourselves crazy with details and tracking down every error. Finally we deem our manuscript polished enough to present to an agent--or we're just so fed-up with the book that we get nauseous at the thought of going over it one more time.
Then the process of finding an agent begins. I laugh when writers of magazine articles or agents in a panel at a workshop say, "Do your homework to find an agent that fits your personality." WHOM are they kidding? If you're not a famous author with a proven track record of high sales, most agents won't give you the time of day. If you're unknown, unpublished and untried, your quest truly becomes akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.
First you write the query letter, briefly introducing you and your masterpiece to the agent. Depending on the agency's submission standards, you either snail-mail or e-mail it. Within a mere month or so, an agent might ask to see your first three chapters and a synopsis if you've sparked an interest. Expect the agent to take one to three months to read these items (in all fairness to those harried agents out there, they do typically get a hundred or more queries a day). New literary agents are often more inclined to take on new writers; they know how hard it is to break into the publishing industry (my fabulous agent, Dawn Dowdle, has had her agency, http://www.blueridgeagency.com/, open now for about eighteen months). Once an agent decides to take you on as a client, his or her job begins: getting your manuscript ready to "shop out" to publishers.
Folks, take heed!! There are unscrupulous agents out there. Never, never pay one to read your manuscript or to edit it. An agent gets paid only when he or she sells your book--never, ever before. You pay the agency nothing upfront. When a publisher pays an agented writer an advance on a book or issues a royalty check, that check is made payable to the agency representing you. The agent takes out his or her commission, usually 15%, plus any expenses incurred on your behalf, such as copying and postage costs if hard copies of your manuscript were mailed out. Then the literary agency issues you a check from the agency's bank account for the remainder. This is how an agent is paid. YOU never give them a dime. They earn it through the sale of your book.
Your agent begins contacting editors at various publishing houses that handle your genre--mystery, romance, paranormal, main-stream, etc. What do many editors do when they are presented with a near-perfect manuscript, well crafted query letter and synopsis? They google your name to see if you are "out there." Yeah, I know I've been "out there" for years, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about your presence on the Internet--and thus the world.
So, writing isn't enough. We've got to make a name for ourselves. We've got to be on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Blogs and uTube and bluetooth and houndstooth and all that other stuff I don't understand, so that when we're googled, a publisher sees we've been working at making a name for ourselves. Do you have any idea how much time it takes to do this? Time we writers would rather spend on our craft--writing--is now devoted to "selling ourselves." It boggles one's mind. And as Dutch Henry said in our Hillcity Writers meeting, "I find it damned offensive that good writing isn't enough anymore." Well said, Dutch...well said.