How to Sell a Novel, Part 1

I occasionally get questions from people about the process of selling one’s first novel, so here’s a quick and dirty explanation. I’ll go into further detail in future posts.

First and foremost, you need to have written the novel. This may seem obvious, but it’s very common for aspiring writers to have an idea for a novel they’d like to sell, but an idea is not sellable, at least not to publishers of fiction when your name isn’t Stephen King or Nora Roberts.

And really, why wouldn’t you want to write the book first? If your hope is to get rich or at least considerably less poor by selling a book, you might want to try collecting recycling as a more lucrative pass-time. Presumably, you want to write a book because you love to write, you are driven to write, the demons in your head insist that you cannot be content unless you write, and/or you can’t not write.

I can’t think of any other good reasons for writing fiction.

So you’ve risen before dawn every day to slave for a year–or ten–over your first novel, and now you want to sell it. You’ll first need to write a query letter that describes, in a paragraph or so, who you are and what your book is about. It should be such a compelling paragraph that agents can’t help but ask to see a few chapters or the entire book.

Some agents will also accept partial manuscripts. This is the first three chapters of your book, along with a synopsis of the entire story. In this case, your query letter should still be entertaining and compelling, but you also have a chance to dazzle the agent with your actual manuscript.

The next step is to query agents who represent the kind of book you’ve written. You can do a google search for agents of fiction, and thank goodness plenty of agents these days have websites with their client lists and preferences stated. This makes finding an agent, at least theoretically, easier than it used to be.

You should look for agents whose client list includes books you enjoy, and you should probably target newer agents over the established heads of literary agencies. The more established agents tend to have fuller client lists, making them far more selective about whom they represent. Newer agents are looking for authors whose careers they can grow along with their own careers, so it can be a beneficial relationship for you both.

A few publishers, such as Harlequin, do accept unagented submissions, and it is indeed possible to sell to them without an agent. But should you? Maybe. I have always had an agent partly because I found a few willing to represent me and partly because I didn’t want to sell only a single book–I wanted to build a writing career. An agent can help with that. An good agent can help you navigate contracts and can get you access to all the editors who don’t give serious consideration to unagented manuscripts.

I think it’s always smart to approach agents first. That will help you get a sense of whether your book is ready for the world. If you query a handful of agents and get nothing but form rejection letters back, you might want to rewrite your query letter and/or revise your proposal. You are not going to be a good judge of your own work, and while it’s possible you’ve written something that won’t sell, it’s also possible you’ve written something that will be so in demand by publishers that your new agent will have to oversee a bidding war. You can’t do that yourself.

If you find an agent, that agent will then discuss with you options for submitting your work to publishers. A submission plan will be developed, the manuscript is submitted by your agent, and you just sit back and bite your nails while you wait to hear responses from editors. This is the part where writers must develop nerves of steel. Many editors will not like your work and will not want to buy it. That’s just a fact of publishing. In fact, all the editors may not like your work and may not want to buy it, even though your agent likes it.

(This is why it’s important that you write because the demons in your head command you to and not because you fully intend to retire at the age of 30 on your book sales.)

So what if you can’t get an agent? You might want to read some books on the craft of writing and figure out if you’ve got some revising to do on your manuscript before you continue trying to sell it. You can also submit directly to publishers. Another option is to attend writers’ conferences where you can meet agents and editors, learn more about the craft of writing, and commiserate with other writers in the same plight as yourself.

At the same time, you should be getting to work on your next novel, because really, the more you write, the better your chances of writing something worthy of publication.

This is a general overview of the process of selling a novel. Stay tuned for more posts on specifics of the process.

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