Friday, February 10, 2023

Referrals--The Networking of the Publishing Industry

As in any business world, referrals matter in publishing. I wish I could say that books are bought by publishers on merit alone, that it doesn't matter who you know. But I've learned the hard way that your network, something you may or may not have developed as you wrote your book, is a very useful element when you release that new baby into the world.

People help people, and no more so than in this tight-knit industry. A fellow writer commented decades ago that everyone knows everyone else at the agented-manuscript level. While this may not be totally true, the marketplace does operate on subjectivity--which comes down to who you know, and what their opinion is.

Of course, there's business smarts too. An editor may love a manuscript but her sales team isn't convinced because of the numbers. But that editor's enthusiasm is still the first spark, the necessary one that starts the process. How does that editor get sparked? Usually, someone presents the book to her, the concept catches her attention, and she reads the manuscript. That someone might be an agent or a fellow editor or even a friend. People helping people.

A former student emailed this week with a good question. She has a memoir she's ready to shop to agents. She wants to query an agency she likes but their website lists a few of the agents as "referral only." These agents don't accept unsolicited manuscripts, direct from the author. They require someone they know to vet it.

The author would need to know another author who has been represented by this agent, and ask that author if he or she would refer. Then the author would email the agent with this in the subject line: "Referred by [name of published author]."

Finding out who is represented by this agent might be the first step. Look at the agency's website for their list of authors. Then check out the author's books, specifically the acknowledgement page, for the agent's name. A bold but not unheard-of move might be to read the author's book then write a fan note on social media or message on Facebook that compliments the author and perhaps even asks for the referral--"I've written a book that I know [name of agent] would enjoy--would you be willing to let me say you referred me?"

Better--much better--is to work at developing your own network of fellow authors and reach out to help them, creating the connections you will need later.

I did this once with a fellow instructor at one of the writing schools where I taught. I admired her work and let her know, repeatedly. With no agenda other than sending my thanks for a great read. Years later, when my own novel was seeking an agent, I asked this author if she'd be willing to refer me to her agent. She said yes. She had not read my work, but there was the connection from our past exchanges. The referral got me in the door to that agency.

I like this approach better because it feels more authentic to me--build the community and connections before you need them.

How does a writer, writing in relative isolation, find and build such a community? It takes time and effort. I always recommend:

Classes (online or otherwise) are a great first step.
Writing conferences.
Joining online discussion groups such as Hattie Crisell's In Writing (google her name--she has a Substack newsletter and just started an online community which is very fun and useful).
Just reaching out to other writers, even ones you don't know, by reading their social media or websites (and of course their books) in an effort to expand your community

I am keenly aware that this part is hard. I also know it took me quite a few years (decades) to feel like I was finally in a community I could lean on for support. It's an important part of the journey, though.

Granted, the writing itself is hard enough. Plus so many of us writers are introverts, loathe to engage in what feels like uncreative efforts--the networking required to get a book out there. The only way through it, for me, was reaching beyond my natural tendency to self-isolate to do my creative work. I also had to learn the skill of networking, of connecting, of building a deliberate community. From this, referrals can happen.

A very long and roundabout answer to my former student's question, but perhaps some of this will help others too.

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