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the drink and the ink
a primer on pursuing publication
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

There's a speakeasy in New York City you can only get into through a phone booth in the wall of a hot dog joint. You step into the booth and close the glass door behind you. Two of the three remaining walls are featureless, blank. In front of you there's a phone. Pick it up. Press its only button. One of the walls will slide open. Say the right thing to the hostess and, ta-da! You're in.

Getting a book published is like that.

The internet is jam-packed with authors, like me, who are trying to break into print. We're working on a novel. Or two. Or three. Or more. And some days, it feels like success is just around the corner -- or on the other side of that phone booth. Other days it feels like the impossible goal is farther away than ever -- you're tongue-tied and uncertain, and even if you could find your way to the hostess she'd roll her eyes and slam the door, and how come there's a phone involved anyway, and a hot dog joint? Where is it and why is it and also, huh? Couldn't there just be a front door or something?

For those of us who have spent quite a while trying to get published -- a decade, for me, hard as that is (also for me) to believe -- the rules seem pretty straightforward. It's all very logical and consistent. And you will see lots of scoffing on the 'net about people trying to break the rules. Doing things that are unthinkable to the experienced and the jaded. Calling agents up on the phone and asking to chat. Sending entire unsolicited handwritten manuscripts express mail.

Okay. So you don't know where the phone booth is. Sure. So you're walking around the hot dog joint trying to get to the bar by sliding under a table or climbing through a hole in the ceiling or scoring a perfect game on the Ms. Pac-Man machine. It's understandable to do these things if you don't know better.

If you want to get published? It's your job to know better.

As hard as it is for an author to hear, writing your book is probably only half of the work of getting published. Less, even. And unless you've got author friends who are ready to give you a referral, or Binky Urban was your mom's college roommate, you're going to have to do the hard work of figuring out what agent you want to represent you, and approach them through a query letter.

I can tell you right now there is not a person in this world who loves writing queries. Deal with it. Every minute you spend complaining about how hard it is to write a query letter is a minute you are not spending on making that query letter airtight. Your book is too complex to summarize in two paragraphs? Of course it is. It takes a while to customize the letter to every agent you're approaching? Of course it does. If you don't have a great query letter, even if your book is pure awesome, you're not likely to get published. Think of it like this: you're running the 200-meter hurdles, and writing a query is the first hurdle. Doesn't matter if you could sail clear over #2 and #3 and beyond with air to spare. Not if you trip over #1 and bite track.

There are plenty of resources to help you improve your query. Use them.

Then, pick the agents you want to query. Use whatever criteria you feel are appropriate. Check out their deals in Publishers Weekly, or read their blogs, or whatever. There is a huge amount of information on the web now about agents. It's not hard to find out who the reputable ones are, what types of books they represent, and in what form they prefer to receive submissions. (Note that some want sample pages and some don't, some want E-mail and some snail mail, but there is not a single one who wants you to send them the whole damn book up front. Not a one.) But you're going to have to get properly calibrated for this. We're not talking about picking two or three agents. More like 10. Or 20. Or more. One source recommends you pick 60... for starters.

When you send your queries, you will get rejected. You might get E-mails back that essentially say, "Thanks, but no thanks." Sometimes you won't hear back at all. Sometimes agents will ask to see sample chapters and then reject you; sometimes they'll ask to see the whole book, and read it, and reject you after that.

In the immortal words of The Man In Black, "Get used to disappointment."

And now, the big question: is it worth it? The work, the rejection, the silly feeling you get standing inside a phone booth in a hot dog joint waiting for someone to answer your ring?

That's not a question I can answer. A lot of people give up before they reach the goal. Most, actually. I'm still working. But I haven't gotten inside that metaphorical speakeasy yet. I'm not ready to stop trying.

I've been inside that literal speakeasy, though, and I can tell you this. The rigamarole out front provides a far superior experience once you're inside. It's blessedly cool and uncrowded. Everybody's smiling. And few drinks have ever tasted so sweet.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


mantra for the novelist
a novel approach to motivation
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 2.3.06

the green-eyed author
dissecting and dodging professional jealousy
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 3.4.11


andrea augustine
7.7.08 @ 10:23a

I'm going to make all my friends in music industry read this column. This is such sound advice for people in unorthodox professions such as writing, art, music, and even tattooing (getting an apprenticeship alone is quite a task if you want to be a well respected member of the community). Getting where you want to go in such professions is the 20 year overnight success and that "phone-booth" call is the unattainable yet realistic goal that only the most tenacious,slightly or totally crazy, and somewhat lucky people survive. Thanks for writing this!

joe procopio
7.7.08 @ 4:30p

I've had the pleasure of being rejected personally by Binky Urban. Don't ask me how I did it, but it does lead to my point.

I agree wholeheartedly with Jael, and I have one thing to add. If you want to get noticed, some of the rules have to be broken, but you have to do it without looking like you broke the rules. Think 1980s business comedy... you have to be in the right place at the right time and that takes a lot of work. Yes, you should never call an agent out of the blue and ask to chat, but if you somehow happen to be where that agent is at the right time and can find a perfectly legitimate excuse to strike up a conversation and can somehow swing that conversation to your book without looking like the other thousands of aspiring writers who tried the same thing, then you have a foot in the door.

It's like they saym, you have to get out there and pound the pavement.

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