The Selling of
by Mike Brotherton
By the start of 2001 I'd finally finished revising my first novel, Star Dragon. Now I had to figure out how to sell it. Several of my Clarion West classmates had sold books by then, and my wife Leah Cutter would sell her first novel, Paper Mage, later that year. All of them first secured agents who then sold their books.
I didn't do that.
With so many publishers refusing unagented manuscripts, the slush pile has shifted from editors to agents. Getting a good agent can be harder than finding a publisher; few would claim that it's much easier. An agent does know the tastes of different editors, giving them the ability to put a manuscript quickly in front of the person with the best odds of buying it. I could match that: I had my personal contact from Clarion West, Beth Meacham at Tor. Over the years since Clarion, I saw Beth at conventions and invariably her first words would be "How's the novel coming?" She likes space-based SF and had already blessed the synopsis. I would have been crazy to do anything but put the book in front of her first. I decided not to worry about what I would do if she turned it down.
I submitted Star Dragon to her and waited over a year. Yes, over a year. Publishing is glacial.
Of course, there were extenuating circumstances. By sending the manuscript directly to Beth, I secured a spot in her queue, but there were books in front of mine. Then it got worse. David Brin jumped to Tor with a new novel (the fun and fine Kiln People) that had to be on the shelves by year's end, and Beth was tapped to be the editor who would make that happen. There went the queue. Bumped by a multiple Hugo winner, I supposed I could wait.
Around month 13 Beth emailed that she liked the book but wanted revisions. If I were willing to make those revisions, she'd see about making me an offer. When an editor who can pay you real money and publish your book asks for revisions, do it. After reading through her suggestions, I could see that they would improve my novel.
Several more months passed.
I picked at the revisions, busy with work and another job search, this time for a permanent position. I landed a tenure-track faculty position, the Holy Grail for most astronomers, at the University of Wyoming.
Beth eventually emailed me an offer. Real money, a real publisher, I was downright giddy. Yes, writers of hard SF get giddy, too. She suggested that she could walk me through the contract, if I wanted, so I could avoid agent fees. One of the lessons I recalled from Beth's week teaching us at Clarion West was to never negotiate a contract yourself. Always get an agent.
At conventions, on those "how to get an agent" panels, someone always says something like, "I got an offer for my book and fifteen minutes later I had an agent." If you want to get a good agent, the right agent, you can't do that in fifteen minutes. I'd been hoping for an offer and knew I'd want an agent, and had done some research. SFWA publishes a member directory that lists agencies and their clients. It is only available to members, but when you get an offer it's time to secure a copy and take a look. I had it easy -- I borrowed my wife's copy.
I made a short list of agents representing writers who wrote books like mine. Then I emailed some of their clients, primarily the ones I had some acquaintance with from Clarion West or conventions -- the field is small and friendly, and those connections are useful and fulfilling. I also solicited opinions from some other writers I knew.
On a Friday morning in June 2002 I reduced my list to two (big agencies with high-powered clients who described them both as "the best"), then I made a mistake. I knew I could send out multiple queries to agents (that's acceptable practice), but I also needed to find someone quickly. I should have called the agencies and talked to someone there about their policies and response times given my situation. I didn't expect to hire someone with a phone call, however, since I wanted an agent who would actually read my work and like it. An agent who would take me on without reading my book wasn't an agent I wanted, even if I already had an offer. So I Fedexed manuscripts to my two first-choice agencies. And waited some more.
The Tuesday of the following week Ralph Vicinanza called to tell me he wouldn't read Star Dragon if I had it under consideration by another agency. He represents David Brin and was already negotiating with Beth about Brin's next book, and had discussed my book with her, so he was interested. I'd been told he was taking on new clients very selectively, if at all, but that's true of most good agents. Anyway, I felt awful and unprofessional, because in essence I had simultaneously submitted. I told Ralph he was my first choice. I called the other agency to withdraw my book and was told that they were just putting a rejection letter in the mail, so I'd escaped.
A week later Ralph called to say he liked my book and we discussed him representing my work. He asked me several questions, trying to determine how prolific I intended to be. Editors/agents don't want to buy/represent a single book, they're interested in careers. First novels rarely make anyone much money, but fourth ones can. I'd given this some thought. I think an ideal writer produces a book a year, but with my astronomy career and the faculty position, I knew I would have trouble with that pace. However, I figured I could manage a book every two years. Ralph agreed to represent me. One hour after we got off the phone, he called me back with the details about the completed deal he'd negotiated. It was better than the initial offer. Don't worry about that 15% commission -- a good agent is more than worth it.
I revised in a blaze now. I added scenes to illustrate some things I had only hinted at, added explanatory text to ease readers into my future, and fixed problem scenes. The word count swelled from 92k to 100k. I finished in mid-August two days before we moved to Wyoming.
I received the contract in September 2002, and the first advance installment shortly thereafter. I immediately sank $500 into a tax-deductible lifetime SFWA membership. Finding large tax-deductions was suddenly an important and worthwhile activity.
A novelist's work is ongoing. This past year I've made head shots, corrected copy edits and galley proofs, and set up signings and convention appearances to support the novel. I've currently got a synopsis for a second hard SF, space-based novel under consideration by Tor, and am waiting to find out what panels I'll be on at Worldcon. I think back to my first Worldcon, New Orleans 1988, where I picked up a SF&FW flyer, and realize what a long voyage it has been. It can be done. At 35, however, I'm still a young writer with plenty of books in me. When I was six or seven, I told my grandmother that "a book can be your best friend." I'm pleased that I finally get my chance to extend my friendship to all the SF readers out there.
A teaser from the dust jacket of Star Dragon appears on amazon.com. More information about me and the novel, including sample chapters, is available at http://www.sff.net/users/mbrother.
Copyright 2003, Michael Brotherton