With considerable expertise derived from my vast experience (three and a half days at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association conference), I will now describe how the fiction book publishing process works.
Step one: Write the book you love, and make it perfect.
Step two: Pitch it to a literary agent, or actually, to hundreds of agents, until you find one who love love loves it. Step two-a is the query letter and synopsis; step two-b is the first two to three chapters or twenty to fifty pages, depending on the agent’s preference; step two-c is the full manuscript, which you have bled yourself dry to make perfect.
Step three: The literary agent who love love loves your book and agrees to represent it will now give you dozens of revisions, anything from “correct your overuse of the word ‘looked’” to “change the ending, it’s too dark.” You must complete these revisions cheerfully to avoid what agents call “the asshole factor.”
Step four: Once you and your literary agent make your book perfect (again), she will pitch it to acquisitions editors at various publishing houses. All agents say “I have a book that is exactly right for you” to editors. No editors really believe them. Your agent will pitch your book until she finds an editor who love love loves it.
Step five: The editor who love love loves your book enough to bestow a few thousand dollars of her publishing house’s money on your advance, spread out over at least nine months, will now give you dozens of revisions, anything from “this work would benefit from more use of the word ‘looked’” to “change the ending, it’s too up.” You must complete these revisions cheerfully to avoid what editors call “the cancelled publication date factor.”
(Side note: There are at least three kinds of editors. Acquisitions editors decide what books to purchase for their publishers; they all say they do quite a bit of editing of the works they acquire, while most agents say they do very little. Developmental editors help an author shape and form a manuscript in the revision stage, usually prior to submission for publication, usually hired freelance by the author. They work on story structure, character arc, and other big-picture things. Line editors and copy editors work on the grammar, spelling, syntax, punctuation of a work. They might be hired by the author to polish the manuscript or they might work for the publisher. Developmental and line/copy editors do not have to love love love your book, although it helps if they like it, and you also have to be cheerful when you work with them, so as to avoid the “I’ve just wasted a lot of time and perhaps my own money getting professional help I refuse to apply factor.”)
Step six: Once you and your acquisitions editor make your book perfect (again), she will pitch it to her publishing house’s sales and marketing force. More accurately, she will remind them why they agreed it would sell when she was considering whether to buy it in the first place. By now you, your agent, and your editor have perfected your book’s slogan: “Grisham’s The Client meets Nick Sparks’ The Letter, with a dash of Harry Potter,” perhaps; or “The Stand meets The House at Pooh Corner with a touch of Bukowski.” The sales and marketing force will craft a crackerjack marketing campaign that fulfills the promise of the publisher to “support this book with every resource available, we believe in it that much,” as long as the entire campaign costs the publisher less than five hundred dollars. “Well, of course, as the author, you have to help, after all, who can be more eloquent about your own work than you?” You will remember these words as you carry a dozen copies around the bookstores in your town, begging the young clerks to place them on a shelf somewhere, anywhere.
Step seven: Write the (next) book you love, and make it perfect.