Publishing 101 with BJ Muntain

This week I asked my good friend BJ Muntain to come in and share a bit of her experience in the publishing world with you all! Since BJ has a wealth of great knowledge, her guest post will be in two parts, shared this week and next week. Hope you enjoy!


Publishing 101 

with BJ Muntain 

I recently read a blog post about a query service, on Janet Reid’s excellent publishing industry blog, and I had a huge Aha! moment.

People just starting out don’t know enough about the publishing industry, so they are easy prey for such ‘services.’ Unfortunately, the only thing these services are able to do is take a writer’s money.

The one thing to keep in mind is, the number one rule of dealing with the publishing industry is the adage known as ‘Yog’s Law’: The money flows TO the writer.

I’m not talking about self-publishing. That’s a huge area, and not where my experience lies. I’m talking about traditional publishing. I’m also talking fiction (and memoirs, which are treated like fiction in the publishing process). Non-fiction has a few differences in the query process, which you’ll need to research separately.

Here’s a quick guide to how the publishing industry really works:

  • Author writes a novel. Then revises it. Then edits it. Then takes more training, and revises again. Then learns something new, and revises again. And again, ad nauseum, until the novel is the absolutely best it can be. Author may even hire an editor to help.
  • Author then sends queries to agents. (See below for information on queries.)
  • Agent may respond in one of three ways: 1. asking to read more, 2. offering representation, or 3. rejecting the query. Rejections are far more common than the other responses. Some agents will suggest revisions, in which case you can send it back to them for a second chance (called an R&R – Revise and Resend).
  • Once Agent offers representation, there will probably be more editing and revising.
  • Agent will send the novel to publishers that might be interested. Publishers will either reject or accept the novel.
  • Then there’s THE CONTRACT negotiations – which, if Agent is good, won’t be as scary as it sounds.
  • Then Publisher will go through it, and the author will have more revisions and editing to do.
  • By this time, the author is now working on the next novel. Or the next. Or even the next.
  • In a couple years after the contract is signed, the novel will be published and the author will be busy doing marketing and publicity in order to sell it. While writing the next novel.

Yes. I said TWO years. Publishers often have all their publishing spots scheduled for two years by the time they buy yours, and editing takes time. Some publishing houses may work quicker. Most smaller publishing houses will accept your submission without an agent. Most of the big ones will not.

While you can possibly skip numbers 3 and 4 by not seeking an agent, don’t try any other shortcuts. By the way, ‘not seeking an agent’ is not a shortcut. Be prepared for a lot of work.

So why do you need an agent?

First, if you want to sell your novel to a large publisher, you almost always need an agent. There are a few large publishers and many smaller ones that will accept unagented novels, but it’s still a good idea to have an agent.

There’s a lot of work that goes into selling a novel. Some agents will help you edit your book. They mediate between the publisher and the author, making sure the author is getting paid and the publisher is getting the revisions on time. They make sure both parties are living up to the contract they negotiated.

Because agents know contracts. They know what to look for in a contract. They know how to make sure a contract is fair – and they’re the ones who will do your negotiating for you. Unless you are a publishing lawyer, it can be pretty complicated to negotiate your own contract. And an agent can get you a better advance than you can get yourself.

And all an agent wants from the deal is 15% of the money you make. That may seem like a lot, but if an agent can get you a bigger advance AND make sure you’re not selling your soul and your first born along with your novel, it’s definitely worth it.

If you don’t have an agent, get a publishing lawyer (or someone well-versed in publishing contracts) to go over everything before you sign. Signing without understanding what you’re signing can get your career stuck in cement-hard muck. Someone who knows the publishing industry will know what needs to be in a contract for it to be fair for the client. There are horror stories about non-publishing lawyers being asked to go over publishing contracts, objecting to things that are industry standard while allowing grievous harm to be done to their client in other areas.

An agent is worth their 15%.

Some tips on choosing agents to query

Research agents. Make sure they’re the people you want representing you.

Unfortunately, there are some bad agents and bad publishers out there, and some real crooks. Here are the three most important links you’ll find:

  • Preditors & Editors – Always take any agent (and their agency) through the site, to see if there are any warnings. Publishers, too, and any other person or business you plan on doing business with. If there are no warnings, then they’re probably okay. If the site says the agent or agency is recommended, they’re a great choice. P&E doesn’t give recommendations easily. They have a lot more information there, too, about writing, publishing, and so forth.
  • The Absolute Write Water Cooler, specifically their CheckBewares, Recommendations & Background Check forum
    • Note: most agents and businesses listed here will be treated with suspicion at first. Read all the posts on an agent or publisher right to the end, because once an agent or publisher gets to be better known, the suspicions fade (or, if the agent/agency/publisher is really bad, you’ll find proof.)
  • Writer Beware — This service, housed on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website, is headed by Victoria Strauss and is supported by other writing organizations. You’ll only find the bad agents, agencies, publishers, and services here, so chances are you won’t find the agent you’re looking for – and that’s good. Victoria and the others are very passionate about their work, even so far as to be sued by the unscrupulous people they’ve outed. I have the highest regard for Victoria.

You also want to research agents to make sure they’re a good fit for your novel. And if you’re thorough, you might have a better chance at attracting them.

Places to find out more about an agent and their needs are:

  • Their blogs
  • Their agency’s website
  • Writers’ Digest – especially if you can find a recent interview.
  • Other interviews on blogs, etc. – Search by the agent’s name. If it’s not a unique name, add ‘literary agent’ to your search.

Find every agent’s and agency’s submission guidelines, and follow those guidelines when querying. If you’re going directly to publishers, then find the publisher’s guidelines. Publishers that don’t accept unagented submissions might make it difficult to find their guidelines, and they’ll only say something like, “We’re sorry, but we only accept manuscript submissions from agents.” Agents know how to submit to those publishers, so they don’t need to put the guidelines on their website.


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2 thoughts on “Publishing 101 with BJ Muntain

  1. Pingback: PTSD and First Responders – a guest post by Kelsey J. Mills » BJ Muntain

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