by Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Sam BarryJuly, 2009
All in good time
With more than 25 years of experience, Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Sam Barry have the inside scoop on writing and publishing. Email your questions (along with your name and hometown), or visit their new blog.
Dear Author Enablers:
I am a published writer working on my first novel. I have read numerous articles and books and have attended conferences regarding agents, editors, publishers, etc. While I have a lot of information, much of it is conflicting. I know that everyone proceeds differently depending on their skill level and needs, but do you have a suggested timeline for publishing a novel?
It’s true that there is no one timeline or template for publishing a novel. Decades passed after Ralph Ellison published his first novel, Invisible Man, and his second, Juneteenth, did not appear until after his death. On the other end of the spectrum, Joyce Carol Oates publishes a novel every seven weeks. If you’ve been to writers’ conferences, I’m sure you’re aware that these timelines can vary greatly. It’s those pesky apocryphal “one agent submission/immediately goes to auction/six-figure advance” stories that happen just often enough to throw off the averages, and also give us all a glimmer of hope.
The general rule is that it takes a couple of years to go through the whole process. For a first work of fiction, you need to complete your manuscript. Once that is done, here is a possible timeline:
• Immediately: Go to Literary Market Place (visit your library or local bookstore for more info) and research agents that suit your book.
• One Month: Finish a beautifully crafted query letter to the select agents you have chosen to pursue.
• Two to six months: Send out your query letter and await responses.
• Six months to a year: Send out partial or whole manuscripts to agents as requested and patiently await their response. If necessary, pursue more agents.
• One to two years: Work with your agent to change manuscript and other materials as needed. Hold breath while agent sends manuscript to publishers.
• Two to three years: Sign contract and complete requested editorial revisions. Books are usually published about a year (or sometimes a little more) after they are acquired, depending on how much revision is needed. For timely, news-related topics, books can be slammed out much, much faster.
Dear Author Enablers:
Why do you think agents are so important? Aren’t agents only needed more by already-established authors? At what point does a writer get an agent? Is the agent’s main job to submit, or negotiate? Does an agent work on a commission basis? Who pays him? Is the agent paid after the fact—a certain amount based on the number of book sales? What percentage of the money does the agent receive in the process? Will the agent still be expecting $$ even if the book doesn’t end up getting published after all or the novel does get published but turns into a dud? Are there publishers who work directly with authors without an agent?
Sorry, but I’m wondering if y’all have “friends in the business” (agents) and that’s why you push them! Or, are you enabling authors with the facts?
L. W. Smith
Well, you caught us! We do have friends who are agents, but we don’t concern ourselves with how much money they make, unless they are our agents and making money from the sale of our own books.
A reputable agent works on a percentage basis, most often taking 15 percent of an author’s advance and royalties. Agents submit manuscripts to publishers and negotiate contracts when books are sold, but the good ones also do a lot more. Many offer first-line editorial guidance, making sure their authors’ manuscripts are in the best possible shape before submission. Most also serve as advocates and even de facto publicists for published authors. Agents know the lay of the land; they know which acquiring editors might be most interested in a particular book, and they know where and with whom not to waste everyone’s time.
It is definitely possible to sell a book to an established publisher without an agent, but unless you are a lawyer yourself, it’s unlikely you’ll wind up with as good a deal as you would have had with representation. Some publishers will not consider manuscripts that are submitted “over the transom” (meaning, without agent representation), and if you have an agent, you get to be the sweetie-pie while your agent plays hardball with your publisher, in the ever-popular good cop/bad cop scenario.