I do my best to keep up with all the publishing scuttlebutt through Twitter, agent and editor blogs and writers' websites. This is something that I recommend to all writers who intend to pursue publication, and something I wish I had done while I was writing my first books.
Why? Because it makes an author smarter about the business end of the dream. Full disclosure time: when I was writing my first book, I thought I was doing the hard part. Really. I thought that crafting the plot, unraveling the characters onto a page and creating a setting was going to be the most challenging thing about the whole process. Boy, was I wrong.
A few weeks ago, I 'attended' a webinar on opening pages presented by Writer's Digest. The main speaker, Sara Megibow, clearly delineated the difference between the artistic and business processes, and it was the first time I'd really heard it described so perfectly. She spoke of the actual writing as a time of sunshine and butterflies, with the author inhabiting a world completely of her own making. I found myself nodding in agreement--yes, that's it, totally. And in some ways, it would be far easier to stay in that world and never venture into the business end of writing.
But I wanted to see my books published, and so with what was really very little research (I see this in retrospect), I tripped blithely into querying. I wrote a very rudimentary query letter and sent it off to the agents that seemed to most closely match my needs. And of course, I received basic form rejections.
What was I doing wrong? Well, quite a few things actually. First, my query letter was in no way ready to be sent out into the world. I had read a couple of books about writing the letters, but I hadn't polished it to perfection (I'm still not sure I've done that). Second, when I sent my opening pages, I was making some very amateurish mistakes, such as including the prologue (a rule that should almost never be broken: do NOT include a prologue in opening pages. It won't grab the agent's or editor's attention and it will almost always result in a form rejection).
I burned through some of my most promising agent options by querying them before I had my optimal product prepared. And the rule of the business is that you never re-query an agent with the same material unless you have completely rewritten it since your initial query--and even then, only if the agent has offered you advice on said re-writing which you have taken to heart. Only then is it considered 'okay' to send another letter, explaining what you've done and how grateful you are for that agent's advice. . .
But most of the time, queries result in form rejections, which cannot be redeemed at all. Once you've received a form rejection, you cannot re-query that agent with the same material.
And after a few such rejections and some more research, I was teetering on the edge of bitterness. As I've written here before, it's frustrating to hear conflicting advice from different agents. It can make you crazy to the point of paralysis: you're fearful to send out anything in case this particular letter doesn't match the needs of that specific agent.
But it all boils down to one conclusion. All agents agree on one thing: the rules can be broken IF the letter and/or opening pages have an amazing voice or if the writing is simply spectacular, or if the concept is so unique and well-developed that the agent just can't resist.
As Sara Megibow pointed out in her webinar, while agents appreciate the artistic end of the writing/publishing process, their job is the business end. They can't sign authors whose work won't sell to the publishing houses.
I'm in a querying lull right now, largely because I don't want to waste any more agent opportunities. I'm stepping fully out of that artistic fantasy land and facing facts. Not sure where that's going to lead, but I think it's a good thing, whether I end up e-publishing or continuing along the traditional route.