Peg the niche in which your novel falls before approaching the publisher. And then wait for the suspense to follow.
Last month I started talking to you about editors and publishing. This month I will tell you a little more about them, using the prism of my personal experience to pass on a few tips that will hopefully help you in your bid for success.
When it comes to contacting editors and/or agents, the first thing you have to be clear about is the kind of novel you have written. Is it a literary novel? A romance? A mystery? A crime novel? Only after pegging the niche in which your novel places should you get in touch with people in the industry.
Most editors and/or agents have a specialisation. Beginning writers are often so hungry to be published that they can make the mistake of attaching themselves to someone who is completely wrong for them.
I once knew a novelist who was over the moon because she had landed a well-known literary agent.
As it turned out, that agent had made his name handling nonfiction and was trying his hand at fiction to see if he could make a few extra bucks. Since the industry had him pegged as a nonfiction agent, he never sold anything for her and in the end she had to go looking for another agent.
The last thing you want is to be someone's guinea pig. For them it may be an experiment. For you it is your career.
Making a list
You can compile a list of the right agents/editors by looking at the acknowledgements pages of published books that are similar to yours. Writers normally acknowledge their editors and agents there. Those are the people you should query.
The most important piece of prose you will ever write to an editor or an agent is your query letter. The whole point of the query letter is to get them interested in your project. In it you should present a brief biography of yourself which should include anything you have published, even if it were for your school or college newspaper, and your pitch. Make sure there are no typos in the query letter. You can get away with the odd typo in the manuscript but the query letter must be clean.
The thinking in the publishing industry is if this person cannot give due attention to a query letter then he or she cannot be trusted to produce a saleable manuscript.
Generally, the query letter is accompanied by a two or three page synopsis and the first two or three chapters of the novel.
Sometimes you can circumvent the querying process by getting a meeting arranged with an editor or agent through a contact and pitch your novel in person. When I was a very young writer grappling with my first novel, I landed a meeting with a former publisher of Penguin India. He agreed to meet and talk about the novel and we were together for almost an hour.
About halfway through the meeting he took a phone call from a noted filmmaker in Mumbai and the two of them discussed the possibility of a series of celebrity biographies about Bollywood stars. That went on for close to 20 minutes.
When he was not on the phone, I narrated the plot of the novel and outlined the main characters. He seemed genuinely interested in the project and made all the right noises. I left the place on a high. I had just had an audience with a publishing bigwig and he appeared keen on what I had to offer. I had told him that I would be done with the novel in a month and could already see my name in big, bold letters on the jacket of a book.
Right on cue I called him a month later and found I couldn't get past his secretary. I left messages but never got a call back. What happened? To this day I don't know. May be he changed his mind. May be there was a message that I missed in the fact he took a phone call in the midst of a meeting. May be he did it because he could; he was, after all, the one with the power to appoint or disappoint and he chose to disappoint without feeling the need to explain.
The whole episode taught me something about the publishing industry which is best expressed by the lyrics of a song by the American singer/songwriter Richard Marx. The song “Don't Mean Nothing” is based on Marx's early experiences in show business which could just as easily apply to the publishing business. The lyrics go: “Don't you open your heart/ Oh. No/ Lots of promises in the dark/ The words that they say/ Cause it don't mean nothing/ These games people play/ Don't mean nothing/ No victim, no crime/ Till you sign on that dotted line.”
More on this theme next month.