A little over a year ago, I became active in the Twitter YA community. I had this little manuscript called Between, and I was looking for critique partners. Up until that point, writing had been a pretty solitary experience for me. The only thing I really knew about publishing was that I needed to know more about it.
I am DEFINITELY not an expert now. (For instance, I had to double-check one of my statements below with Dahlia just to make sure I was correct.) But I have learned a few things that I think are important enough to share with those of you who may be newer to the process than others.
1. "A Bad Agent is Worse than No Agent At All."
Ok. I hear this phrase all the time. And six months ago, I'd hear it, nod, and say something like, "Oh yeah. Totally. Absolutely. Right-o." But in my head I would be screaming, "WHATEVER! IF AN AGENT WANTS MY BOOK THEY CAN HAVE IT! ANY AGENT! ANY AGENT AT ALL! ANY AGENT IS BETTER THAN NO AGENT! RIGHT? RIIIIIIGHT?"
Bad agents ruin your book's chances, guys. I've seen it happen. I'm not just talking about "bad" as in they're crooked or trying to take money from you or anything like that. Those are usually easy to spot. I'm talking about the ones who may not even realize that they're not ready to be agents. I'm sure (I HOPE) their intentions are good. They're as excited to call themselves "agents" as you are to sign with them. But if they don't have the contacts and the right experience, the odds are against them as well as your book.
Here's the thing: you don't get a second chance. If you sign with an agent who's not ready, and your book gets rejected by all the publishing houses...that's it. You can't get a new agent and send the same book out. You've put so much work into your book. Don't blow that by getting so excited about the "I have an agent!" party that you ignore the possible warning signs.
(I'm not at all saying to avoid new agents. But do your research. Where'd that new agent come from? Does he/she have publishing experience? Did he/she work for a substantial period of time with a successful, respected literary agency, or in some other publishing job that qualifies him/her to represent your book? What do his/her publishing contacts look like? Is his/her agency a reputable one?)
2. There will always be another contest.
Look. I get it. There's an amazing contest on a well-respected blog and every agent in the mix is one that you would love to have. And sure, the guidelines say "Finished manuscripts only," but yours is close enough, right? You're almost through your first draft and no one else has read it but by the time the agent were to actually request it you'd at least have a finished first draft and that's probably ok.
Don't do it. It happened to me, too. I'd see an amazing agent line-up and get some sort of weird tunnel vision where I was convinced that THIS WOULD NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN. I was wrong. There's ALWAYS another contest. If your premise catches attention and you don't have the polished manuscript to back it up, you've just blown your chance with a whole slew of amazing agents. Again--there are no second chances. Once an agent rejects your manuscript, you don't get to query him or her again. You get one shot at your dream agent, and I just told you how important it is to have a solid agent. Do not blow your chances just because you're in a hurry. Nothing in publishing moves fast. Do not rush this.
3. Not everyone thinks the way you think.
This is sort of a life lesson, but it's something I'm constantly talking about online too. When I first got started, I thought the only way to get published was to get an agent. I knew you could self-publish, but I'd heard you didn't do that if you wanted to be taken seriously. I knew NOTHING about small presses, you guys. I didn't even know they existed. (Hi Spencer Hill, I FREAKING LOVE YOU.)
If you know me at all, you know I don't believe any of those things now. But at the time, I didn't know any better. Now, I know that there are publishers that have open submission periods. I learned there are all kind of authors who self-publish and are extremely successful, talented, and well-respected. And obviously, I was introduced to small presses. (Hi again, Spencer Hill. YOU'RE SO PRETTY.)
While my beliefs have changed--that doesn't mean that every other writer I talk to shares my views. We all have our reasons for pursuing some methods of publication over others, just like we all have our own reasons for writing at all. Some writers have zero interest in publishing with a publisher, just like some writers don't want to self-publish. Some writers dream of seeing their names on bestseller lists, and other writers are just hoping for fan mail. Some writers want to get rich, others are simply hoping not to lose money.
Before you judge any of these choices or motivations behind writing, remember--nobody has to be right or wrong. You do what's right for you, and let everyone else do what's right for them. Cheer each other on while keeping in mind that success for one person may mean something completely different than it does to you. There's no reason to tear apart someone else because his or her goals are different from yours. We have a pretty great writing community, built and strengthened by the support we give each other. I LOVE THAT. Let's keep it up.