In any profession, having contacts can help you succeed. Yet most of us don’t start off knowing anyone who can help us get published. I’ve often said, “It isn’t who you know, it’s who you get to know.”
Successful writers read books and blogs, join writers’ groups, attend conferences, and somehow eventually connect with the people who can make a difference in their careers. You don’t have to start off knowing them. You can find them. With attention and effort, you can connect with that editor who likes your style or that agent who falls in love with your novel.
But what does “with attention and effort” mean, exactly? I mean: use the opportunities that arise in your life and your work to connect with members of the community of writers, editors, and agents. That’s all.
One of the simplest ways to do this is by pitch (query) letter. I sold more than fifteen books to publishers without having an agent. All of the editors I sold to had never heard of me before. (Once they’d acquired one of my books, though, we had a relationship, and they were more easily persuaded to publish another of my books.)
The publishing world has changed since I started writing books, but the mundane pitch letter is still worth a lot more than most writers realize. The pitch letter is the cornerstone of a lot of relationships. If your pitch letter ends up yielding a request for pages and eventually an offer, yay you.
More often, though, you get a form rejection, which is just discouraging. But sometimes you spark an editor’s (or agent’s) interest, it’s just that this book isn’t the one. That is a tremendous opportunity for you. An editor or agent who says, “not this book but maybe the next one” is one you need to treasure — and to send the next book to.
The agent who says, “this doesn’t quite work for me, but if you revise, I will look again,” is a treasure, too. Don’t underestimate these kinds of exchanges. Editors and agents don’t say these things lightly. It’s way easier to say, “thanks, but no thanks” and then not have any further hassle.
When I was working as a literary agent, I was always amazed at the number of people I made encouraging noises at who then fell off the face of the earth. Now, not everyone who queried me was going to want to sign with me even if I made an offer, and not everyone weas going to want to revise the way I thought their work needed to be revised, and so on. But here’s the thing: Someone who is interested in your work is a colleague to be cultivated, not ignored.
So don’t ignore signs of interest. Build on them. Conferences are a good way of meeting editors, agents, and other colleagues (writers) face-to-face, though it’s important to realize that most of the time you’re not going to get a publishing or representation offer from one of these events.
I also like good, professional writers’ groups (which may be more affordable than flying off to conferences), especially local chapters of well-established organizations. You’re not necessarily going to meet an editor this way, but you’ll meet other writers, and maybe they’ll connect you with their editors, or let you know that a certain agent they know is looking for new clients, or what have you.
Some of these groups are online, and that makes them even easier to join and attend. Remember that the world of publishing is fluid: I’ve been a writer, an agent, and an acquisitions editor; now I teach developmental editing. This happens all the time: editors become agents, writers become editors, etc. You never know what the next step of someone’s career will be. Being friendly and helpful with colleagues pays off not only in a warm fuzzy feeling, but it may actually boost your career.
Just as important as any of that, though, is being out there in the world, hanging out with writers and other creative types. If you’re on Twitter, follow editors and agents. Comment on agent’s blogs. Start a blog of your own. Have a website. Make it easy for people to find out about you and make an effort to find out about them.