For those of you who have never researched how a book goes from the pen of the author to the hands of the reader, a quick sketch of the process.
Agents represent the author.
Their mission: sell your book to a publisher for the highest possible value. Agents make between 10%-15% of the money the author gets. Which isn't bad work if you're the agent for Stephen King. Having 10% of however many millions of books sold adds up to real money. However, 10% of a ten thousand dollar advance isn't much, and ten thousand isn't a common opening bid for an advance on a book.
Advances are made by the publisher, and tend to be broken up into three parts: signing with the publisher, the arrival of the first draft; prompt delivery of the final draft. The publisher is the one that buys the book from you. That's where the money comes from, that's how the book is distributed.
Editors work for the publisher, and goes over the manuscript with a fine tooth comb. They are generally the people who are the feelers for the book. The agents have to cultivate contacts, pitch the book to editors, convincing them to at least look at it.
Simple, right? The author pitches to an agent. The agent pitches the book to an editor in a publishing company. The editor pitches the book to the company s/he works for. The publisher sells the book to you, the audience. The agent doesn't make money until the author does. The publisher doesn't make money until the books fly off the shelves.
But wait, there's more.
Agents act as a filtering mechanism for editors. If an author comes with his own agent, he has passed the first line of defense. There has to be something marketable about the book, otherwise, a good agent wouldn't be bothered with it. An agent would certainly not touch a first time author's book with a ten foot pole unless it was pretty darn good. Consider it this way—the agent only gets approximately 10% of what the author does, and an unknown author (barring a celebrity) has no selling value by themselves. The book had better be good.
And the editors need the filter. Editors have agents pitching manuscripts at them constantly. There are some stories about editors having a seven course meal for lunch, and with each new course came a new agent, and each agent has multiple books to pitch.
And then, editors have to sort through all of the suggested manuscripts pitched in order to select those that would actually be read. Then an editor has to read all of them. Usually, these are samples of fifty pages and a synopsis, but that's still a lot when you consider their already busy life.
And these editors, after sorting through what projects they think will sell, then have to pitch it up the chain of command.
Welcome to publishing. For any first time author, there are two levels of filtering between you and the top of the food chain.
In my case, after two and a half years of discovering that academic politics and I were not compatible, I started to query agent, publishers, editors, and everyone short of personal secretaries. I would be published by hook or by crook. After three months of querying, I had hooked one.
Enter “Josh.” My first agent. He liked the birth name of the Pope—Joshua Kutjok—and liked the premise. However, the ending to “book one” was a little flat. In the original novel, I wrapped up the henchmen, and let the main villain get away without a confrontation at the end. The only change I made was a one page epilogue after wrapping up the support network.
Josh had a good idea. I had gotten lazy after marking down where the books would separate. I had slapped on something that barely even looked like an end—and did everything but have a “To Be Continued” in great big letters at the end.
So, time to play around.
It was surprisingly easy to rewrite. In a matter of days, I had it all worked out, and succeeded in blowing up parts of Leonardo Da Vinci airport.
Fast forward a year. Stuff happens. Josh is too busy to represent me. No harm, no duck. Time to find another agent. And back to the drawing board on A Pius Man. When in doubt, edit further.
I came to the conclusion that I still had too many people. In the first book, I had Giovanni Figlia, the Secret Service Agent, the Egyptian cop, the Interpol Agent, the crazy mercenary, the sinister priest, the Pope, and two spies. Nine characters already—I already had the opening cast of the Lord of the Rings, and book two had even more to come. Granted, some of them would be dead in short order, but still, character clutter—but I still needed to take out people IN ADDITION to those I had already shot, stabbed, and blown up.
After looking through book two (tentatively titled A Pius Legacy), I looked for the person who had the fewest amount of lines. Who could disappear from the book with no problem at all? I found one character who had been mentioned a whopping half a dozen times. Suddenly, upon a review of A Pius Man, this character had a shiny new target on their back.
Rewriting done, it was time to hit the queries again. I went to www.everyonewhoisanyone.com and... I stopped just short of spamming. When there was a fully detailed website for the agents listed, I looked them over, tailored my query letter to their specific tastes, and sent it off. I literally sent out over a hundred query letters in a dense cluster. If there was contact information without any details or specifics, that agent got a standard boilerplate query—the type no one would recommend sending. But I was going to get their attention.
The week before my birthday, 2009, I get a call. An agent wanted my book. He didn't even send me an email, he just called my house directly. We talked for an hour about my book, marketing, tactics of selling it; he understood what I wanted to do with it, and the two sequels, and liked it all.
Within eight months of Josh's busy schedule messing around with my life, I was signed with another agent.
And the then entire publishing industry was slapped with Mjolnir.
Some people—many of them on the New York Times board of editors—blames the publishing industry itself. They never adapted to new technologies. Kindle sideswiped them and they didn't keep up. Random House “expanded like crazy, despite the rising prices of books—both paperbacks and hardcovers,” and supposedly axed ten thousand people in one month of 2008. According to authors at Dragoncon last year, the Star Trek novels have gone through three editors in one year, and the entire department has been downsized; the Star Trek novels contract renewal date is coming up, and as of September, renewal hasn't even been discussed yet.
And, guess what, fiction has been hit especially hard.
Oh, lucky me.