I should have posted this last year sometime, but better late than never, I suppose.
My publishing story is fairly straightforward. I sent query letters to top agents (ten of them). Within a few days, three of them requested my manuscript. Steven Malk with Writer's House responded first (that same day) and asked for a two week exclusive, which I gave. When the next two requests came in later that week, from two more outstanding agents, I started wringing my hands--not the greedy Mr. Burns sort of wringing. It was more the "what have I done by giving someone a two week exclusive" kind of wringing (it's a very unique sort of wringing, and looks hilarious if you can get it on camera).
Steve came back with a soft offer: good book, needs work, I'll work with you to get it ready for publishers. This was not a formal offer of representation, and I was left with a dilemma: submit the manuscript to the other two agents or accept Steve's soft offer. I decided to work with Steve and it turned out to be a serendipitous fit.
With more hand wringing (still not the greedy kind) I delivered the second draft to Steve several months later. He was ecstatic about the changes, many of which had come about as a direct result of his extensive notes. I had kept one paragraph and a few character names from the original submission, and nothing else--no scenes, no plots, not anything. The book went from a lighthearted and humorous 300 page romp to a 512 page monster, with depth, complex plotting, a fantastic yet believable milieu, and detailed characters with compelling motivations.
It had become epic.
After submitting to publishers, and much hand wringing (the greedy kind), we had interest within a few days. After a week and a half or so, Courtney Bongiolatti (my awesome editor), at Simon & Schuster BFYR (my awesome publisher), came in with a pre-empt (an offer high enough to dissuade other publishers from entering an auction). This put the other interested publishers on the fence, and we nearly had an auction anyway, but the pre-empt was high enough to serve its purpose. We took the offer after a bit of negotiation. The release date was set for 1 1/2 years later (September 6, 2011)--an accelerated schedule in fiction (most the time it's two years, I think).
Now, a few things you should know if you are trying to find an agent and get into writing:
1. My case is unusual. Most agents (especially top agents) get hundreds of query letters each week, and out of those hundreds, they might request one or two manuscripts, which they usually reject. In a given year, and after somewhere around 20,000 queries, by my estimates (feel free to correct me if you know otherwise), a top agent might pick up ten clients, depending on their existing list. My agent (Steven Malk) is a top five agent in children's lit (usually he's number one depending on the week--go Steve!). Children's lit and YA is just about all he reps. Most agents have a specialty and it's important to find an agent that specializes in your category.
2. Though everyone will tell you that query letters don't work, and that you should try networking and conferences, I have two friends (Dave Butler and Platte Clark) who have recently been picked up by agents because of query letters, and one of them (Platte Clark) got a three book deal with Aladdin last week. I referred both of these friends to my agent, and he passed. Networking didn't work. All three of us got representation purely based on the strength of our query letter and writing, so while odds are definitely stacked against you, query letters can work.
3. Nearly every major fiction imprint will not accept manuscripts unless they are submitted by an agent. In fiction these days, you have to have an agent, or you will be limited to small presses or self-publishing, which isn't a bad thing, it just means you have fewer options. Agents will more than make up for their fees during negotiations with the publisher and having an agent will increase your range of options.
4. Subscribe to Publishers Marketplace for at least a month ($20) and browse through recent deals. Publishers Marketplace lists many of the book sales at major publishers, and some of the smaller publishers. Find books similar to yours. Search for the publisher that bought the book, and then find the agent who sold it (all of this info is on Publishers Marketplace). You can also find rankings on which agents have sold the most books in a specific category (like middle grade or YA). These are the agents you want to query. Research these agents and make sure you follow their submission guidelines.
5. In a query letter, do your best to demonstrate how your story is better than what's in the market, how it's different, and yet also how its recognizable within a category. Ask yourself, who would read this? Why? What's the heart of the story? What drives a reader to keep turning the page? What is the source of conflict (not fighting and arguing--but a strong character, with a strong need and strong, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles in her way)? Answering these questions and then putting those answers in your query in a compelling fashion will get an agent's attention. Also, figure out how your book would be categorized, where it would sit in a store, or online retailer, and what books it would sit next to, and then read those other books. Referencing these other books will help agents know where you fit and who to sell your book to. My query referenced Harry Potter. The line was something like "my book has the same audience, and is in the same genre as Harry Potter, or any other book you happen to like."
Finally, don't give up unless you're a sucky writer or you're feeling lazy. How do you know if you're a sucky writer? Because you're lazy. Your first book will almost always suck. Write it, and then toss it in the garbage and write something good. Okay, that's a bit harsh, but recognize that your first draft of your first book will be bad. You'll be tempted to cling to what you've done, or try some minor revisions. It won't work. You've learned much by writing it. Now, use that knowledge to visualize a better way and get to work. Use an axe, not a razor. You may even want to start with a blender. Then, switch to a carving knife, and then a small steak knife with a pretty handle, and then... well, you get the idea.
But don't inundate agents with queries for first draft sucky books. You'll only be disappointed and agents are busy enough as it is.
If you have any questions, corrections, or advice for getting published, feel free to make a comment.