Mike Underwood is with Angry Robot Books, a British publisher of some pretty fantastic science fiction and fantasy. In a recent post, Mike addressed some “secrets” of the publishing industry that every aspiring author should know.
Now it’s no real secret that literary agents act as Gatekeepers, or that publishing houses employ people whose sole function is Gatekeeping. Every author knows about these soul-less villains who automatically reject our precious work, adding computer-generated best wishes for getting through a gateway somewhere else.
But Mike maintains that the job of a Gatekeeper is not to keep people out, but to let people in. (Do I detect a little skepticism in my readers? Read on anyway, please.)
The problem seems to be with numbers. Hundreds if not thousands of potentially great books on one side of the gate and perhaps only a dozen actually published books on the other. On the face of it, someone is doing a pretty good job of not letting books through.
Underwood begs us to look at it another way. “The editors aren’t keeping you out, they’re looking for the right publishing partners to fulfill their own business and creative agenda.” What does that mean? In publishing-speak, it means that editors are looking for “a mix of genres, a mix of debuts and more established names, a mix of more commercial and more adventurous titles, in order to keep their imprint’s list viable.”
In other words, if the house already has several debut authors slotted for the next 18 months, they’re going to be reluctant to look at another debut—no matter how good it might be. Say the slot that’s standing wide open, the one they really really want to fill, is for a big name author who’s starting a new series. Only if they give up hope will they send someone else to that reserved table.
How can you fight that? The easy answer is you don’t. You find a publisher whose Gatekeeper is holding open an empty slot with your name on it. (More on that, later.)
The same advice holds for agents. According to Underwood (and common sense), “Most can only reasonably support a few dozen clients, since they’re going to be doing a bunch of different things for their clients, from chasing down royalty payments to selling books to negotiating contracts to helping with publicity to working on selling sub-rights.” It would be nothing short of miraculous if one of the most famous, well-established agents had an open spot with your name on it. You need to look somewhere else. You need to look for a Gatekeeper agent who’s looking for you.
WHAT’S A WRITER TO DO?
Even seasoned authors occasionally need to look for a new agent or new publisher. They know the key to getting through the Gate lies in being realistic.
If you’re looking for an agent, try the newest one at each agency that’s right for you. They’re hungry to build their stable of clients and willing to look at unpublished authors.
If you’ve been rejected by the major publishers, try the midsize and small (legitimate) ones, especially if your book falls into a “niche” that a smaller press is known for (such as funny science fiction, teen horror, cozy mystery, chick lit romance, etc.)
- The Big Five: Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Publishers, Macmillian U.S., Hachette Book Group
- The Midsize Publishers: Harlequin, Kensington, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., W.W. Norton & Company, Hyperion, The Perseus Books Group
- Small Presses: too numerous to mention!
GET GOOD GATE INFORMATION
I write for young adults. One of the newsletters I subscribe to is Adventures in Children’s Publishing. This outstanding newsletter frequently spotlights a new agent who is looking for exactly what I write.
I also subscribe to the FREE edition of Publishers Marketplace: Publishers Lunch. After the announcements of new contract deals (a good source for who’s buying what), there is publishing news. Here’s where you can find out about new imprints at a publishing house and who the primary editor will be; agents who’ve moved to a different house; and even editors who’ve decided to go into the agency business. These announcements are very timely—you can be the first to know about a new agency or new publishing house.
Another excellent source of agent information is WritersDigest.com’s New Agency Alerts.
And finally, there is QueryTracker, a site I’ve mentioned before. Here you can find writer-reported information on agents and editors, their track records, affiliations, and so much more.
Using these and other good sources of information, you can OPEN YOUR OWN GATE!