Photo of John D. Cressler
Feb 222013
 

I thought it might interesting to share my experiences between finishing my debut novel, Emeralds of the Alhambra, and actually selling it to Sunbury Press. The process took…gulp…nearly one full year.

First things first. Publishing non-fiction and publishing fiction are completely different propositions. As a professor, most of my non-fiction (5 books and counting) happened like this. For technical non-fiction (i.e., textbooks), Publisher X approaches me, not vice versa, and says, “Hey, we would like you to consider writing a book on topic Y. You write it, and then we will take care of everything else.” Read: mighty easy.

Fiction is a whole ‘nother story! Let me elaborate. With a novel, the “classical” path to publication is the following. First roadblock: major publishing houses (Random house, Simon and Schuster, Scribners, etc.) do not, and will not, talk to authors directly, unless you have some serious network connection and can pull strings behind the scenes. For the debut novelist like myself, even though already published, no dice. The path from manuscript to large publishing house is gated. And locked. Instead, authors must find an agent, sign a contract with the agent, and then the agent is authorized to speak directly with publishing houses (for a fee, of course, typically 10% of your royalties).

Lession #1? When your manuscript is done and you are satisfied with it, forget getting a publisher, and instead focus on getting an agent!

Sounds simple, BUT, the trick is that you first have to convince an agent, any agent, that it is worth their time/energy to represent you. Read: they need to see that they can make money on you. So you go to some source for listings of literary agencies, either on-line or printed (e.g., Writer’s Market), spend hours sifting to get a short list of agencies that: a) seem to fit your goals/vision (right size, right location, the vibe is good, etc.), and b) handle your genre (for me, historical fiction). Then you go to their web site, check them out, find which agent in the agency handles your genre and their contact point (usually an email address, often manned not by the agent, but by their assistant).

Fine. The next step “classically” proceeds by you submitting a single page (no more!) “elevator pitch,” called a “query letter” to the agent, and if they are sold on your idea, you have “hooked them,” then a dance will commence, typically along these lines. Gate 1 is passed – you got an “interested” response not an outright rejection. Gate 2) Agent emails back saying, “liked your query, send me a synopsis, bio, and the first 3 chapters of the book” (this is called a “partial” request). You send this in and wait. A long while. Gate 3) Agents emails back. “I liked this, send me the full manuscript.” You send this in and wait. A longer while. Gate 4) Agent emails back. “I like this and think I can sell it. Let’s talk.” Hopefully that culminates in a signed agent contract. Then, and only then, does your manuscript begin to move forward to being published. Whew! Exhausting just to think about, right? At that stage the agent does the sales work, and hopefully a publishing house loves your book and agrees to publish it. How long do you wait while the agent works their magic? It may be a long while! No timelines are short in this business.

In my case, I went through this agent process 4 separate times, over about 9 months, and in each cycle I contacted about 15 agents (each time with a modified query letter to try and strike gold). I got decent (though not stellar) responses to Gate 1. About 15-20% of my submissions got an “I’m interested” response. Most, however, were numbing rejection form letters. Trust me, that gets old real quick. So I sent my partials. Gate 2. Some agents bailed there for really weird reasons. Examples: 1) “You write really well, but there is just too much history going on here (reminder: it is a historical novel); 2) “Interesting idea, but I have a pet peeve against expository dialogue (look it up, I had to!). I write back. “I have a pet peeve against expository dialogue, too! Can you point to an example, I don’t see any instances in what I sent you?” No response. “I love this, but it just doesn’t jazz me enough to take it on.” You get the idea.

I ended up at Gate 3 with 4 agents who asked for the whole beast, from 4 respectable NY agencies. Some impressions from that process: 1) It took FOREVER to hear back from them. Many months. 2) When I did hear back the responses were again all over the map: “Much to commend it but just does not give the spark I need to move forward. And there were some ‘intangibles’ too.” No comment other than that. Done. Door closed. Hmmm. BUT there was a universal thread in these Gate 3 responses. As an agent, no way, no how do you ever give substantive feedback to the author or respond to an author’s email response to your rejection. “I am sorry to hear that. Intangibles? Can you explain what you mean by that? I would be happy to revise the manuscript.” Universal silence. And it was very clear from the agent’s comments that they in fact had not read the book to its end (“I like it a lot, but the pacing feels slow” – trust me, the last 150 pages are a roller coaster ride). It was amply clear they had not read to the end of the book. After having kept it for several months before rejecting it.

Certainly, the reasonable person might legitimately say, “Well, if the agent didn’t bother to finish your book, maybe that is indictment enough of how lousy your book is!” Perhaps. In my own case, I used a diverse audience of 25 readers to give me feedback at the draft stage. I was pretty confident it was a compelling read. In one case, I asked the agent directly. “What did you think of my ending?” That universal silence.

I found out from the web site for one of my agents the kind of numbers you are up against in the hooking an agent in this game. She put them in a presentation she gave. It is sobering, so brace yourself. She personally receives 7000 queries per year (she is one of a dozen agents in that agency). You read that right…a 7 and 3 zeros. Of those she will invite 5% to submit 3 chapters (350). Her assistant weeds these before she sees the final cut. Of those, she will ask 10% (35) for full manuscripts. Her assistant weeds these before the final cut. Of those she typically takes on 10% (3-4) to represent. In her case, I made it to the last round, but was not selected. Heavy sigh. No wonder this is such a slog!

So what to do? In my case, I was so disheartened by the whole numbing process that I took a breather, threw all my agent stuff in a drawer and started on book two in my trilogy. Now THAT was fun!

When I had cooled down (took weeks) I did a bit more researching on the topic and found that some folks actually advise skipping this whole agent mess and going after small traditional publishing houses; importantly, there are some of those that actually encourage authors to directly send their manuscripts directly to them, no agent needed. Imagine?!

Fine. One last shot. I decided that if this didn’t pan out I would just publish the dang thing myself. So I went back to Writer’s Market and researched my top 10 small publishing houses that fit my vision, re-crafted my query letter and shipped them the letter and partials (they typically want more than just the query). Within a week I had heard from editors at 3 (3!) publishers saying that they liked my idea and wanted more. Within two weeks, I had the most welcomed news an author can imagine. “…struck an immediate chord — a very timely novel…  We love the trilogy idea and would like to offer you a contract for all three books.”

May you? MAY YOU?! Are you kidding?! PLEASE!

The rest is history. I signed with Sunbury Press, to whom I will always be indebted, and Emeralds of the Alhambra is due out late spring. And I already have a publisher for books two and three. HOORAY!

There you have it!

Moral #1: This whole agent scene leaves a lot to be desired. I am putting that mildly.

Moral #2: You can get your novel published without an agent.

Moral #3: Publishing novels is a crazy business!

 

Curious about my query letter that did the trick? See below:

 

Cressler’s Winning Query Letter:

*****

Dear Mr. Publisher:

How could we forget? We live in a world being torn apart by religious tensions and fanaticism, yet we managed to forget that for hundreds of years Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in peace, sharing languages and customs, embracing a level of tolerance and mutual respect unheard of today. Working together, these three peoples spawned one of the great intellectual and cultural flowerings of history. When and where? Medieval Spain. Our aching world desperately needs to recall this forgotten fact, these rich possibilities.

Emeralds of the Alhambra, a historical novel, reawakens this remarkable era via the relationship between William Chandon, a wounded Christian knight brought to the Sultan’s court in Granada, and the strong-willed Layla al-Khatib, who is on a quest to become the first female Sufi Muslim mystic in a male-dominated society. As Chandon’s influence at court grows, he becomes trapped between his forbidden love for Layla, his Christian heritage, the demands of chivalry, and political expediency. Chandon must make a choice between love and honor, peace and war, life and death, a choice which ultimately will seal Granada’s fate as the last surviving stronghold of Muslim Spain.

Emeralds is set in the resplendent Alhambra Palace in Granada during the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369), a time when, improbably, Muslims took up their swords to fight alongside Christians.

Emeralds of the Alhambra is the first book in the trilogy Anthems of al-Andalus (I am presently 150 pages into book two). I am a professor at Georgia Tech and have won international awards for my writing (George E. Smith Award, 2007), my teaching (Leon Kirchmayer Award, 2011), and my research (elected Fellow of the IEEE, 2001). I am Editor-in-Chief of a leading technical journal (IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices). I have published five non-fiction books (two for general audiences). Emeralds is my debut novel. I am well-versed in the use of web resources and social media for book promotion, I have conducted book signings (which include presentations), and I routinely speak to large crowds on a variety of topics (both technical and nontechnical). I have appeared twice on TV (CNN and AIB-TV).

The completed 126,000 word manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

*****

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