I wrote this page before indie publishing became the phenomenon that it is today. I plan to update this info realsoonnow, to reflect the new options all writers have. In the meantime, I think the rest is still pretty sound advice.
SELLING THAT FIRST BOOK
Selling your first book is hard, no question about it. Most first novelists feel lost at sea, not knowing where to start. Do I need an agent, or not? Should I self-publish, or publish on the web? (To the former I would say, yes, probably, if you are aiming for traditional publication. My answers to the latter are part of what I will update real soon.)
WRITE ME A BLURB, PLEASE?
The most common email I get from new writers goes something like this:
“I am getting ready to self-publish my first novel. [Or sometimes, “My online publisher is getting ready to publish my first novel.”] Can you tell me how to get a famous author to read it and give me a cover blurb, or write me a blurb yourself?”
The short answer is: “No.”
The long answer is: “Most writers, including me, don’t have time to respond to very many such requests, even when they come from editors we know. (And yes, requests for quotes come from the editor, not the author.) If a book is self published, the chances we will respond are just about nil. The automatic question in the busy writer’s mind is, why isn’t the book coming from a regular publisher? The most common answer is, because it isn’t good enough. There are exceptions, sure, but how many? The publishing process, while hardly flawless, is on the whole a pretty good filter for a certain basic level of quality.”
It’s not easy to find an agent, but it’s not impossible. Start by learning all you can. Read the articles at sfwa.org, and in particular, the pieces on writing at http://sfwa.org/writing/. Most books on writing have sections on agents and dealing with them. Agent Richard Curtis has written several books on publishing and dealing with agents. The web is full of resources to help writers find agents. Here are two, to get you going: The Association of Authors’ Representatives, and a good page on agents from SF writer Robert Sawyer. And here’s a third, from Neil Gaiman’s journal, which quotes at length advice from Theresa Nielson Hayden, a long-time professional in SF publishing. And finally, an excellent article by Victoria Strauss, founder of SFWA’s Writer Beware.
In case I didn’t mention it, read Writer Beware in its entirety.
Some publishers still look at unagented manuscripts, by the way. My own publisher did, the last time I looked. Research the market. Study publishers’ web sites for submission guidelines.
If you submit on your own, and a publisher makes an offer, ask them to please sit tight while you hire an agent. (Your odds of finding an agent will have just risen dramatically.) Most publishers would much rather negotiate with an agent than with a new writer who’s just learning the ropes.
It’s a challenge, and anyone who says otherwise is lying or crazy. But the only way to start is to start. Dig in and do the research. Start pursuing contacts and/or writing query letters.
A query letter to a prospective agent should be short. Say a few words about yourself, and mention publishing credits if you have them. Presumably you have a finished manuscript you hope to interest the agent in representing. Don’t try to summarize the plot. Do try to capture the gist in a couple of sentences. If your letter is longer than a page, it’s too long. Remember, you’re trying to pique the agent’s interest. If you then get a request to see the manuscript, the work must sell itself.
REAL AGENTS DON’T ASK YOU FOR MONEY
The agent’s job is to sell your book and earn you money, thus earning him or herself a commission. If the agent asks for money upfront, tiptoe or run, but get away fast.
ASK AROUND, GET CONNECTED
Try to find ways to get to writing workshops or conventions where you can ask and share advice, and possibly even meet editors and agents. If your interest is in science fiction or fantasy, get yourself to some SF cons. Most of them have writers in attendance, and many have editors and agents, as well. The annual worldcon is an obvious large one. But there are cons in just about every corner of the universe, so find one that looks good.