If you want to publish today, your work must be impeccable. Whether you have a novel manuscript that has been slaved over for years, or are an expert in your field with a non-fiction book proposal, the case is the same. Your writing must be in the best shape possible to win the attention of an agent. The current state of the market demands that your work be practically ready to pitch to book editors.
This is not to say that an agent will not work with you on making edits to your manuscript or proposal. The best agents edit too, and can be very, very good at improving the publish-ability of your work. Yet agents dream about the perfect manuscript, an immaculate submission that is ready to go out to book editors. While we may be more likely to take on a project that is closer to ready than one that is not, agents are realistic about the amount of editing a writer can do on their own.
I often ask authors who they’ve worked with to edit their manuscript, not because I do not trust their own editing skills, but to learn about the level of investment authors puts into sharing their work. And to clarify, I do not expect a writer to go out and engage the services of a professional editor. While that can be a game changer in getting a manuscript ready for publishers, it’s by no means how many great projects come together. However, it can be a valuable indicator of how serious an author is about the process of getting their work in the best shape possible to publish.
The market today is competitive, inundated, full of manuscripts that stand very little chance of getting published. A majority of writers fall far short of putting together a successful novel or non-fiction project. Sometimes it’s practice; an author is just not there yet. Other times, an author has a passion for a particular story or subject, but lacks the ability to represent it on the page as well as they can imagine it. Writing isn’t easy. It takes time, a lot of practice, and unexpected efforts. As a poet, I know the madness of taking hours to compose just a few lines, then cutting them from the poem the next day. None of this will be daunting to the author who has a strong and clear vision for their work, who is also willing to put in the time to make it so.
And this is the best advice I can give you, as an agent who is looking for that immaculate submission. Share your work with others. Take your time to make it right. Find a good editor or editors, a trusted colleague or relative, someone that knows you and literature, who understands what you are trying to accomplish with your writing. Realism is a balm for the soul when it comes to big book deal dreams. People write books and get them published… it’s that easy, right? Publishing is a massive collaboration between author and agent and editor, then a small army of devoted publicity, sales and marketing people at a publishing company. At least, that’s the big picture.
The book market is vast, and the ways of getting published are many. Yet the tried and true method of writing a manuscript and finding an agent who sells it to a publisher remains the path of distinction. It’s a simple law of numbers: the more people you have behind your work, the better chance your book has to succeed. And while there are numerous exceptions to the rule, I haven’t seen authors rise to the top of their field without the assistance of many talented and discerning others. Success in the market is collaboration between author and agent and editor. It’s a three-way relationship that goes beyond words to become a meaningful partnership with a common interest: seeing your work published to the best of everyone’s ability, getting it to the audience you deserve.
If you’re looking to publish your work in the market today, make sure you have a good team around you. You may sit at your writing desk alone, just as your reader may one day laze alone in bed with your book. But that’s only the beginning and the end. All that happens in between is based on how ready your manuscript is to meet the demands of the publishing world, which may seem many, but are actually few. Write a book, write a very good book, and edit it well.
(Image used with permission courtesy of Ginny.)