I’ve recently realized that I’ve been functioning as a consultant about the publishing biz to a lot of people. The dear friend of a dear friend wants to know how to get her book published. My insurance agent’s wife has a master’s degree in English; can I help her break into the editing business? A neighbor wants me to read her teenage nephew’s novel, because “it’s really good.” Strangers find my website and want to know if I can help them find an agent (because I must have a close personal relationship with so many of them). Others want to know what an agent does (here’s a very good article on that; I really can’t improve on it). Someone else wants to know what books about fiction writing I might recommend. True stories, all. (One of “my” authors, Michelle Ule, has written an amusing blog post about this too.)
Others find my website and, well, I guess they think maybe I can figure out what they need. Take this e-mail exchange (all the same correspondent):
Q: I have sent my manuscript to several publishers but am having trouble getting my foot in the door because I am not a published author.
A: Honestly, it’s better to get an agent, and let him do the approaching. Most publishers get so many unsolicited manuscripts that they really aren’t interested in a manuscript unless they get it from an agent. There are two good reasons for this: First, an agent has an established relationship with the publishers, so there is trust built up. The publishers know if an agent brings them a book, it’s already been vetted. Second, an agent knows which publishers publish which kind of books. For example, if you’ve written a science fiction novel, it is more likely to be purchased by a publisher that specializes in sci fi. Agents know this kind of stuff. (I don’t: I’m just an editor.)
Q: Do you honestly think my book will sell?
A: I can help you with a critique; I can make suggestions to improve your manuscript. But it will only be one gal’s opinion. You should go into a bookstore and find books that are similar to your book. You need to understand what books yours will be competing with. Then you need to figure out how to give your book a unique angle, something that sets it apart from the others. For example, if you’ve written a book about surviving cancer, survival itself is not enough (unless you’re famous). :)
Q: Who do you think would publish the book? Could you get me in the door?
A: I’m not an agent. :) These are the sorts of questions for an agent.
Or, perhaps, they’re questions for a publishing consultant. I’m pretty sure there are such folks out there (they’re probably calling themselves agents). In this particular case, I think the author wanted reassurance that what she’d written was, indeed, a book. But she wanted me to answer all these questions on the strength of a book proposal and three chapters. (This potential client wasn’t offering to pay me for any of this—my time or my knowledge. She was thinking about hiring me to edit, but … that’s as far as it got.) Honestly, I just don’t have time to consult gratis.*
Obviously, when I tell folks to get an agent, the next question is, not surprisingly, How do I find an agent? Can you recommend one? and I’m right back in the consulting biz. Do you see how this can go on and on and on? But my joy in the word business isn’t consulting, it’s editing. That’s the work I want to do.
I’ve learned a lot about being in business for myself in the last several years. I’ve toughened up. And I’m still learning. When I finish this post, I’m going to compose a questionnaire that I will send to inquiries from now on (since they aren’t reading the FAQs on my website, apparently). This will keep the focus on what I can do for a client, instead of what I can’t.
* Unless you’re family, and those of you who know me well know I have a pretty broad definition of family. :)
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”