A reader wrote to me today:
I am just finishing a thriller; well, it's finished, about 100,000 words, so I'm wondering where I can send it to. It needs a little editing. It's my second book. Who would I trust to check it out for me?
Thing is, you read all the bumph about copyright and people being taken; then others say unless you're known you have no chance , so how do you know if no one reads it? Friends and family don't want to know.
I have written many songs with the lyrics and tunes, even made a CD as a song writer, but no one seems to want to know. I have to write; it hurts if I don't.
So finding a publisher is not easy. Then some say get an agent, but which one. So, I hope you don't mind me asking you, so could you help please.
You raise some important points. Let's deal with the small one first: Don't worry about someone stealing your novel. The place to worry about that kind of plagiarism is in the movie industry, where the potential payoff makes it (to some people) worth the gamble.
The hard truth is that 99% of novels aren't worth stealing, because they don't make any money. We've all heard the stories about best-sellers that first got rejected by a couple of dozen publishers; they couldn't see the value in such novels, so they're not likely to see the value in yours. Besides, publishers have reputations to think about. If word got out that they were stealing unknown writers' stuff, they'd be ruined.
But a first novel by an unknown writer probably won't even earn out its advance. That is, the publisher will lose money by bringing out your book. In the old days of the 1970s and 80s, publishers were willing to do this because they liked the book and had hopes that the author's next few books would be more successful. Nowadays, unfortunately, few publishers are willing to make that kind of long-term investment. If the new book doesn't look like a blockbuster, they won't touch it.
Books are undergoing what stage plays experienced maybe 60 years ago. When my grandfather was an actor, New York City was full of small theaters where dozens of new plays appeared every season. The audience was so huge that a play could run all season on a half-full house.
But the movies and then TV created brutal competition for live theater, and rents went up. By the 1960s, rents for Broadway theaters were enormous; producers couldn't even think about putting on a play or musical unless it was a guaranteed smash hit by famous writers, and full of expensive stars. My grandfather migrated back to Los Angeles and character parts in TV.
Now book publishers are either merging into media conglomerates or perishing. But they still don't know what the hell will sell, so they rely on star authors and heavy marketing. Most don't even accept unsolicited manuscripts, because they'd have to pay some wretched English major to read them, and the poor kid wouldn't know what will sell either. Yes, occasionally they take a mad chance on some unknown writer, but it's rare. They even build their marketing around "Million-dollar advance for 22-year-old writer," though it's likely that writer's novel will lose every penny.
So what do you do? You've already invested years of thought and energy into planning and writing your book. Now invest in making it as attractive as possible. Hire a freelance editor to critique your plot and clean up your grammar. Sure, it's expensive—that's why publishers hate to buy sloppy manuscripts, because editing them will cost a fortune.
Meanwhile, research publishers. Haunt their websites, especially their "For authors" pages. Most will be brutally discouraging. Don't waste your time on them. But some publisher, somewhere, might be interested. Study that publisher's advice for authors. Read other recent titles from them. If you think your book might appeal to them, because they publish your genre and know how to market it, consider them a possibility.
What if they say "no unagented manuscripts"? Then repeat your research with agents. They too are very specialized; some do only young-adult, or fantasy but not science fiction. Don't bother with contacting those who don't deal with your genre. And don't deal with those who want you to pay them to read your stuff. That's basically a racket, though some reading-fee agents may give you a crash course in what's wrong with your manuscript.
What if you can't find an agent? You can consider self-publishing, which is becoming easier all the time. It's a field I'd like to learn more about, if only to bring some of my old out-of-print novels back to a potential audience. But there again, you'll have to invest a lot of time and energy in learning the ropes of creating an e-book or paying some house to publish out a print-on-demand version of your book.
Yes, it's discouraging. It was just a little better when I was starting out in the 1960s, and I didn't publish my first novel until 1978. But I thought about my mentor, Dalton Trumbo, who worked the night shift in a Los Angeles bakery in the 1930s while he wrote six novels and over 80 short stories—all rejected. Finally he sold a short story, and one thing led to another: Not only several published novels and many short stories, but a remarkable career as a screenwriter.
"All a writer needs," he told me when I was 12 or 13 and he'd read my first awful novelette, "is ego and energy." He certainly had both, and I guess I eventually did too.
I published my eleventh novel in 1995, and while I've worked on other novels since then, no publisher has expressed any interest in them. That's fine with me; I have nothing to prove as a novelist, and I'm having too much fun blogging and writing for online media like The Tyee. Those new media are both a stumbling-block and a stepping-stone for today's aspiring novelists: They've killed many publishers, and taken the old audience for print fiction. But they're still reading on their iPads and Kindles, and they will always want another good story.