Monday 19 November 2012

[Guest Post] Stepping clear of a black hole

If you want to get published, and you don't want to put out your work yourself, then you really have no option but to query agents, or small publishing presses, to find the one that suits you. It can be a nightmare process, and there have been rumblings online about discontent within a particular independent press who doesn't have the money to pay author royalties. I've asked the very awesome Nerine Dorman to give some advice on what to do - and, more importantly, what not to do, when sending out your work into the big bad world of publishing...

* * *

So, you’re treading the submissions mill, looking for that literary agent or publisher of your dreams are you? Working your way through or a following up on names you found at the forums?

Yes, it’s a disheartening process. If an agent or a publisher even bothers to get back to your query, (less than half most of the time) there’s a fair chance you’ll receive a polite form rejection of “Dear Mary Jane, we thank you for your query, but…”

That wonderful word: BUT. It doesn’t get any easier the longer you’ve been in this game and yes, we know this isn’t a personal but, blah blah blah, face it, sweetie, are you really the industry’s next EL James or Ms Meyer? What agents and publishers look for is highly subjective. There’s no getting around that. That’s why you need to query widely.

Often, when an agent or a publisher does come back to you with a “Dear Mary Jane, we are delighted to inform you…” it’s easy to rush into signing away all your rights without thinking, and end up taking the short end of the stick at the end of the day.

This post is beyond the scope to give exhaustive details of all that can go wrong. (Just go check out as a basic picture of all the horrible pitfalls.) But I am going to give you two very important pieces of advice most new authors ignore. 1) DON’T RUSH INTO SIGNING ANYTHING. 2) DO YOUR BACKGROUND CHECKS BEFORE YOU QUERY.

And, in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t listen to this advice either when I was first starting out. Luckily the agent that I’d briefly had (who wasn’t right for me, BTW) let me down nicely. We’d really been wasting each other’s time. Here’s a mantra: No agent is better than a bad agent (paste a little post-it note somewhere on your desk for that one.)

Before we got a wee bit distracted, let’s get back to those two aforementioned pieces of advice which should be branded onto your left and right hands. That way you can see the words when you type. Actually, even better, do your background checks BEFORE you even get to the point where you’re going to have to sign anything. Look at it this way, if you’re picking an agent or a publisher to query, it’s kinda like getting into a relationship with another person. You don’t want to entrust your baby to a remorseless gun-wielding gangster, do you?

Nope, didn’t think so. So the process of querying can look something like this:

1) Make a list of agents/publishers;
2) Go read each agent/publisher’s submission guidelines. Are they open for submissions? What genres are they looking for? Who are their clients? When was their most recent sale/release?

If an agent/publisher doesn’t have any recent activity, it’s a reason to be suspicious (sure, sometimes they’re tardy and they don’t update their sites, but rather be safe than sorry). That’s when I go to two websites. Preditors and Editors might not always be up to date, but there’s still loads of information there. Go check up your chosen agent/publisher. Then, run a search on the Absolute Write forums. Don’t see what you’re looking for? Sign up and start a thread. See what sort of answers you can turn up. Everyone who is anyone in the publishing industry pretty much hangs out there from time to time.

Still don’t know anything? Proceed with caution, and if said agent/publisher seems too good to be true, they probably are. Another golden rule: If anyone asks for money upfront, RUN AWAY AS FAR AND FAST AS YOU CAN. Just don’t go down that road. A reputable agent/publisher will never charge you money for services like reading your manuscript, or editing it, for that matter.

Lastly, one of the best things you can do is make friends with other authors. This will happen in places like Absolute Write. Find out about authors’ good experiences and their bad, especially in the chosen genre that you’re writing. They’ll be able to tell you how royalty payments work, which publishers are good about communicating with their authors, which aren’t.

The hallmarks of a good publisher is a company that will provide you with value-added services. Nowadays it’s not career suicide if you decide to self-publish. Maybe your book is hard to classify, or you might already have a niche you can market to. Just remember, without a publisher, there’s a lot of stuff you’re going to have to do yourself (like cover art, editing and formatting).

So, there are loads of publishers you can still approach that don’t require you to have a literary agent. Check out for potential markets. Remember to do your background checks.

The publishing industry is changing at a rapid rate nowadays. It pays, therefore, to keep up to date with news. Follow agents and the editors of your favourite imprints on Twitter or subscribe to their blogs or newsletters. Keep yourself informed, so that the choices you make aren’t harebrained. You’ve spent ages polishing that manuscript. You really want your novel to be the absolute best when it eventually gets released into the world.

Bio: Nerine Dorman is a South African editor and (mostly) dark fantasy author. She is the editor of the annual Bloody Parchment short story competition and anthology (eKhaya/Random House Struik), among other projects. Authors are welcome to query her for her editing rates at


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the sage advice, Nerine. Always good to hear how things work. I'm still a way away from the query stage, but I'm building a handy resource bank of advice of those who have been there before me.
Adam B @revhappiness

Icy Sedgwick said...

I asked Nerine to write this because at some point I'm going to want to send out submissions, and I wanted to make sure I avoided any pitfalls! There are so many presses out there who should be avoided.

nerinedorman said...

Thanks for asking me over, Icy. Yeah, these are all important factoids that folks need to consider. I've been on the receiving end of all manner of strange submissions. If authors did their homework first they'd save themselves a lot of future heartache.

Carrie Clevenger said...

Excellent advice for all types of writers. Background checks are super recommended especially in these times of potential economic instability within the publishing industry. Otherwise, your work could end up locked in for years with no recourse.

Post a Comment