Seeking an agent is, of course, optional. Nevertheless, sending your work “over the transom” to publishing houses frequently lands it in their circular files. Publishing houses say they do not have time to review every manuscript they receive. But even finding an agent can be challenging. So what are ink-stained minions to do?
Various books such as Literary Digest exist with the names and locations of agents. These can be sought out and agents identified willing to review material from new authors as well as their expertise in the genre you write.
For me, I found two potential agents at the Harvard Medical Writer’s Conference. The conference had distilled down the pool of agents to those interested in doctor stories. I submitted to these two and, to my surprise, both wanted to represent me. This represents the only time the time frame of the publishing process was shorter than anticipated. I know my ease in finding an agent is not the norm. Good luck!
I quickly learned from my experienced agent, Don Fehr, at Trident Media in NYC that publishers did not buy books, they only buy well-written and compelling book proposals. While I had labored mightily to complete my book proposal, Don with his knowledge had several suggestions that helped it. I lengthened the proposal to seventy-five pages, bolstered several sections (especially the comparative literature section), and cut off one sample chapter. An agent possesses knowledge about to whom the proposal should be sent. I didn’t have a clue about this and the fifteen percent fee charged by my agent seemed entirely reasonable.
My agent submitted the proposal serially in three lots. I learned from observing these acts of literary commerce that all publishers are not necessarily timely in responding, even from agents whom they know well. Months became years. The waiting time for me crept by like a caterpillar with sore feet.
The initial responses when they finally arrived consisted of “we do not have experience or expertise with this kind of book,” or “we are having to limit ourselves to only a few publications this year, or similar “passes.” “Passes”, hell, each and every one felt like a searing, bald-faced rejection, a real punch in the groin. So what if thirty-three rejections occurred before the final ACCEPTANCE? How sweet the acceptance.
Texas Tech University Press received my proposal with enthusiasm and asked me to submit the full manuscript. Another six months unfortunately slipped by when the then Director of Tech Press unexpectedly retired and failed to pass my book to a colleague or to even download it into their system. When eventually the error was discovered, my submitted book took flight, winging its way to two external reviewers. Both mercifully provided prompt and strongly positive endorsements.
My wonderful editor at Tech Press, Joanna Conrad, made several deft observations and tactful requests. I worked for three months responding to her requests that consisted largely of personalizing the manuscript more. What had been a combination memoir and medical narrative became a stronger physician’s memoir. After addressing her edits, the manuscript was re-submitted and was better for the extra effort.
A final editorial committee (you just knew there would be a committee at a university publishing house somewhere) gave the book a big thumbs up along with a positive recommendation from the Editor at Texas Tech University Press. Voila! I am at last to be published! Praise the Lord and pass the champagne!
At this point I thought my portion of the publishing process was largely completed. Again, my assumption would be proved wrong.