I'm attending my first writers' conference this weekend. Over the next couple of days, I'll be spending time with other people who think they can write. I count myself among the "think they can" group because I've yet to prove differently, where proving differently is becoming a published author. The conference consists of: a keynote speaker (novelist), several breakout sessions (led by authors, agents, people involved in publishing), a cocktail party, and a ten-minute pitch session with an agent - which is like a query letter, in person. Basically, you tell the agent about your completed novel, and they tell you whether or not they might be interested enough to read some of it.
Most people don't understand how difficult it is to become one of the (traditionally) published few. Stroll through any major bookseller and glance around. There are so many books on the shelves! It looks as though practically anyone can do it! Right? No.
For novel writers, here's the deal: A few years ago, publishing houses and editors decided that they were being overrun by (crappy, for the most part) unsolicited manuscripts. (This is what's known as a "slush pile.") So most of them stopped accepting these at all. Now, if you send a manuscript directly to an editor, it goes directly into the trash.
In the new publishing world, you must find an agent to represent, introduce, and submit your work to editors/publishers. Yay! That's easier, right? Um, no.
It's pretty much exactly the same as before, but now prospective writers have another layer to survive on their way to possible publication. Even as I lament having to jump the hurdles myself, I know it's necessary. (Whining and railing against these barriers and/or trying to circumvent them because you're so brilliant won't change a thing, except to put you straight into crazyland camp, as far as publishing folk are concerned.)
Queries: Agents get a lot of query letters. Most report that they request partials (5-50 pages) from about 1% of the queries received. Of that 1%, a fraction are invited to send in the entire manuscript (most will not read a single page if you send it without being invited to do so). Of these, a fraction are signed as clients. If an agent gets, say, 200 queries a week, the end result is 3-4 new clients a year. So if you get an agent, congratulations!!!
I got an agent! Yay! I'm going to be published, right? Um, no.
First, there's revision. Time and effort on this varies, of course, depending on how polished the manuscript is and whether or not the agent feels he or she can sell the story as written. You may receive an email to the effect of: "Attached is the revised manuscript. Please ax this character, revise chapter one accordingly, add a chapter in the middle, and reduce the overall MS by 10,000 words. Also rewrite the ending - it's so cliché - and delete about 495 instances of the word breathed because it's in there 500 times. Okaythanksbye, please let me know when you're done with that."
If you survive agent revision (sadly, I imagine some don't), then it's time for submission. Time for your agent to get out there and pound the pavement in your honor - to call up, email, and visit editors with whom they have established relationships. To do whatever it takes to sell your book. They expect interest - they were interested in your work, after all. But they pray for an auction.
Yay! I'm going to be published now?
You already know the answer. Though chances of getting published are ginormously improved once you have an agent and the agenting revisions are completed to his or her liking, submission is usually one of the roughest parts for the writer. (Oh hell, what am I saying, there is no easy part. This is just difficult in a different way.) The reason: there is nothing the writer can do. The entire thing is out of your hands at this point, and in the hands of your trusted representative. You're finished writing, revising, polishing, wooing agents with query letters and initial pages, revising again. Your hands are good for nothing but being sat upon.
If you're able, you'll follow your agent's instructions, which undoubtedly will be, "Start writing the next book." You will not call, text, email, or facebook chat him or her every few days asking if anything has changed. If something changes, you will know about it.
So do I look forward to enduring all of this? Yes. Which is why today, I'm getting down in my head the 4-5 lines describing my story, and tomorrow, I'll pitch my novel, with a shaky voice and a smiling face, to the agent I chose to meet with out of the ten who will be there. Wish me luck.