Answering Questions: Part the Second

Only one question this time around, but it’s a ‘can o’ worms’ question, so lots of meat on its bones: What’s My Advice on How to Get Published? To which my answer is … well, not much, beyond: write the best book you can, submit it to the people who make decisions about such things (agents and/or editors, generally speaking) and cross your fingers.

There’s a bit more to it than that, obviously, and I’ve been asked about various related issues over the last couple of years. Fortunately, others more focused and organised than me have provided many of the answers out there in internetland, so rather than spouting detailed thoughts on all aspects of the ‘getting published’ craziness, I thought I’d just offer a few briefish comments and point you elsewhere for more intelligent commentary.

First, an important caveat: we’re really talking here only about getting picked up by one of the biggish commercial publishers of speculative fiction in print form, since that’s the only thing I know much about and it’s the only thing I really get asked about. One other important cautionary note: the surveys and information I’ll be linking to below has a pretty heavy emphasis on the situation in the USA. I think some aspects of the situation may be slightly different for aspiring authors chasing UK publication. But it probably is only slightly. That said, onward!

Do I need to get an agent first? Not necessarily, since there are a handful of thoroughly respectable publishers of sf/f who are prepared to consider unagented manuscripts (at least in the States, I think the numbers are even more limited in the UK but I could be wrong). But you probably want an agent, for three main reasons: (a) there are many more thoroughly respectable publishers who will only seriously consider manuscripts brought to them by agents, (b) there is plausible evidence, selflessly collected and analysed by Tobias Buckell, that agented writers get higher advances than unagented ones, and (c) if you’re highly motivated, smart, outgoing and time-rich, you could probably do for yourself much of what an agent can do in terms of figuring out what all the details in that 15+ page publishing contract actually mean, whether the terms are industry standard or not, chasing your publisher to make sure you’re getting paid the right amount at the right time, trying to sell foreign translation rights etc. etc. But maybe you can’t, particularly at the start of your career. And even if you can, is it really a sensible or enjoyable use of your precious time?

As can be seen in the results of Jim C Hines’ survey of published novelists (we’ll be linking to this more than once, trust me!), submitting first to an agent and then leaving the publisher-hunting up to them is still the commonest route to first publication amongst authors.

How do I get an agent? Well the way I did it was by identifying agents who appeared to represent genre fiction in one of the many available comprehensive guides to such folk, and making a few phone calls (and then submitting my work, obviously). Interestingly, those phone calls revealed that quite a few of the agents concerned didn’t in fact want to see any fiction of the sort I was trying to sell – some ever, some just not at that particular time – so it just goes to show you can’t entirely rely on the guide books.

But you can also be a bit smarter and more organised about it than I was. Check out the websites and books of writers working in a similar genre/style to your own. They often reveal who their agent is on the website or in the acknowledgements in their books. At least then you can be certain those agents sometimes represent (and more importantly sell) the kind of stuff you’re producing.

Should I write short stories before trying a novel? Depends. If your expectation is that getting some short stories published is going to significantly enhance your chances of then selling a novel to a big publisher, I’d probably say don’t bother. It might help, but the days when it was almost the expected route to publication, at least in the sf field, are long gone I think. (and Mr Hines’ survey would seem to confirm it’s not at all necessary). BUT … I’m personally fairly convinced that writing short stories made me a somewhat better writer. It can be fun, challenging and educational (which is sort of code for ‘difficult, but in a good way’). It’s also less of a mountain to climb: I’ve heard from one or two people really struggling to start, progress and finish what are intended to be great big long novels, for whatever reason, and in such cases there might be something said for turning to the short stuff just to get into the habit (and the discipline) of getting words down on the page in sufficient quantity to be able to the type ‘The End’.

Do I think xxx sub-genre is a good or bad bet for getting published? [Shrugs]. These things change more or less unpredictably and sometimes quite fast. The sub-genre towards which the aspiring writer should be bending all their will and effort is that of ‘fiction of a commercially publishable standard’. If you hit that target, you’re halfway there. Considerably more than halfway, in fact, given the gloomy reports agents give regarding the average quality of the submissions they receive.

As far as I know, fantasy in general still tends to outsell most other varieties of speculative fiction (there are exceptions, of course – individual sf writers who have sales many fantasy authors, including yours truly, can only dream of). Within fantasy, urban fantasy, or paranormal romance or whatever its being called today, has been doing gangbusters in terms of sales and new authors in recent years. How long that’ll last, I don’t suppose anyone knows, but I suspect it’s a trend that’s got a lot of mileage left in it. Does that mean every apsiring author should be writing in that sub-genre? Well, it probably wouldn’t do your chances any harm, but at the end of the day I imagine the best idea is just to write whatever comes most naturally to you, and whatever enthuses you. The results are likely to be better than if you try to shoehorn yourself into a genre that doesn’t instinctively appeal.

How not to get published. Rather than say anything about this, I’ll just point to an interesting site that contains much sensible commentary on how to avoid the numerous traps, scams and cruel delusions that afflict so many as yet unpublished writers: the Absolute Write forums. It’s an intimidatingly vast site, and it might take a lot of time to find your way through to the most useful or relevant bits of info and advice, but one place to start might be the How Real Publishing Works thread. Again, there’s a USA focus to much of the discussion there, so bear that in mind if you’re geographically elsewhere.

And that’s enough of my waffle for now. The full results of Jom C Hines’ survey come in three parts: Part I, Part II, Part III. All interesting, and recommended reading.

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