Wednesday, March 9, 2016
I have no success finding a book agent, but I am close to having an editor
Lucy and I have been rather reclusive during our first month back in Italy. This could be attributed to the winter weather in Tuscany, which is nearly as rainy and cold as it is in Western Washington. But it’s more than that: We are residents here (though officially still waiting for my paperwork), not tourists, so we’re just living our lives. Lucy is already working on a second quilt. I am revising a book manuscript, which has kept me happily busy.
Over the last couple of years, I have written and revised a 141,000-word travel memoir on our experiences in Italy, beginning with our year in Padova in 2001-02 and ending with our adventures of living in Tuscany and eventually purchasing a house in 2015. Last year I started seeking an agent, as the advice I had read about being an author said this was the best way to go. An agent would have a better chance of catching the attention of a publisher. In fact, most publishers won’t even consider query letters from new authors who don’t have agents, because publishers know that agents won’t represent a manuscript unless it shows promise.
The book publishing industry has undergone massive changes in recent years, and part of this is because of the ease of word processing programs, and especially the ease of electronic communications. I was able to send queries to 50 agents that included sample chapters of my manuscript. In a previous age, this would have meant a large outlay of money for copies and postage. My queries cost me nothing but time.
However, it’s not easy to obtain an agent, because thousands of other hopeful authors are seeking them in the same way. Writerstype.com notes that an agent could receive 15,000 query letters a year, adding that “only a few dozen might be accepted and forwarded to a publisher, with only 15 or so to be accepted by a publisher for printing. Thus, in this example, an author has only a 1 in 1,000 chance of being published.” These are not encouraging odds, and I had no luck getting to first base in my attempts to attract an agent.
So what next? I met in January with local author Elizabeth Murray, who did successfully find a publisher for her travel memoir A Long Way from Paris (although she too first tried unsuccessfully to procure an agent). Her advice: Hire a professional editor to refine my manuscript. Then, if I still can’t find an agent, try querying small publishers who will consider works from authors without agents. It worked for Elizabeth.
Now that I am living the slow life, I have had time to look online for potential editors. The first one I queried suggested cutting my manuscript down to 50,000 words.
“I’d say straight off that 140,000 is too long for one book,” she wrote, “so you may have two books on your hands or even three if there is enough of narrative arc going on to create an exciting one or two end points. Many memoirists are going this route so that they have two or three products to sell; they even offer book one for free or a low entry price in order to find fans who then buy the subsequent books at regular prices.”
I knew she was right. Lucy had already told me this, and I knew it made sense, but a big part of my story had to do with seeking my family’s origins. The first quarter of my manuscript, about 34,000 words, only told the story of my year teaching in Padova, before I even started any genealogical research. I had thought of leaving Padova out, but I would still have more than 100,000 words without it. In addition, the first few chapters included some of the most interesting incidents, and I didn’t want to cut those out.
Now I took a new look at the manuscript. By adding a few more details and moving some observations about life in Italy from the latter pages of the manuscript to the earlier pages, I was able to bring the Padova experiences up to 42,000 words, or about 150 pages. That might be enough, so I queried two more editors, and they did sample edits of my first 10 pages. The results were encouraging.
They made some minor but helpful suggestions for improvement. One wrote: “You have a really nice, flowing writing style, and I just love the subject matter.” The other was even more positive: “ . . . what I’ve read so far seems as though it might fit the 'uniqueness’ requirements that the market is demanding. Your voice sounds very original, indeed. Through self-deprecating humor, you’ve managed to make us care about you and your story in only a few pages. You’ve opened the book with great use of language and thought and haven’t bogged it down with back-story, a common mistake. Your writing is solid. I don’t hand out false praise, because I never want to set anyone up for disappointment, but I feel your writing will be well received.”
I’m still waiting for a sample edit from the first editor, the one who suggested dividing the book into three. She wrote that she would not be able this for at least another week. I’m not happy having to wait this long, but I feel I owe her this for her suggestion to split my book. Besides, I just read her own memoir, and it was really, really good.
Once I pick my editor, I’ll have a month-long wait for results, so I’ll be able to enjoy the soon-to-come spring weather here and start getting out more.