The most frequently asked question of any author is: Where do you get your ideas? The second most asked question seems to be: How did you get published? Probably the most important part of my answer is that I had a manuscript. A completed manuscript. And a query letter that was written in my voice – which is a whole other discussion.
It was several years ago and I hadn't a clue what I was doing, knew nothing about the publishing industry. But I had written a book of my heart. I had never heard of any of the guides to finding publishers, but I created a list of five publishers based on books they published that were in a similar category to mine. And thankfully, through other author acknowledgements, I pulled together a list of editors whose books I enjoyed so I could send each query letter to a specific editor rather than to a generic Dear Hopefully Pertinent Publishing House. Today this seems an antiquated way of going about things, but at the end of the day, fundamentally, I was doing market research and learning who published what.
Once I had my list, I sent out five query letters. Three of the five asked to see the manuscript. Then six weeks to the day after I mailed the manuscripts I received a call asking to buy the book. It turned out that two of the three publishers wanted it. It sounds like a fairy tale, but what I learned soon after was that I would have been better served with a good agent.
At the time I was unagented and the editor who bought the book promptly jumped ship and moved to another publisher. However, I didn't know she was gone until six months later when another editor called and said, I found this manuscript in Ms. Deserting Editor's stack. Can you give me some history on how we acquired it? Thankfully Ms. New Editor and I hit it off (we are still friends today) and they published the book, and four others after that – though all under different names, different types of books, no rhyme or reason to what I was doing. It took taking the time to write another book of my heart and getting a good agent before I started moving forward.
This has been on my mind recently because a friend is taking a course on getting published. Many in the class already work in some capacity in NYC publishing and half of them have come down firmly in the camp of an agent is a waste of 15%. I couldn't disagree more. Sure, a bad agent is worse than no agent at all. But nothing can take the place of a good agent who will help guide your career. Thankfully I survived my early missteps. But in today's publishing environment that is ruled by sales track and publishing plans, missteps can be fatal.