Friday, June 11, 2021

Merchants Set Sail

As I’ve mentioned more than once, in addition to my Legends and Songs of Steppe & Forest series, for the last two years I’ve been co-writing The Merchants’ Tale (originally titled These Barbarous Coasts) with fellow historical novelist P.K. Adams. In that vastly different world that preceded the coronavirus pandemic, we met in person, but we communicate mostly via e-mail, Facebook Messenger, and video calls. Through it all, we have established a good working relationship, and the pages flew off our computer screens even before we settled in to polish each chapter until it shone. We revised the book twice, then sent it out to half a dozen willing volunteers and revised it again based on their comments. This week marks a milestone: with that fourth revision essentially complete, we started querying agents. And that in turn sparked some thoughts on the process of finding representation that I thought might be worth sharing here.

This will be my fourth agent search. The first, conducted under conditions that now appear almost medieval, did land me an agent, but in the end he couldn’t sell the book. It wasn’t his fault: one publishing company held the rights to that type of story, and its acquisitions department resisted his efforts to persuade them to take it on. It was the 1990s, when these negotiations still took place through the mail, with printed samples and self-addressed envelopes. Before getting the positive response from the agent who took me on, I accumulated a folder full of rejections, everything from handwritten notes to the already ubiquitous form letters. A few of the form letters were personalized with suggestions for improvement; most were generic. After all, when you want to end a conversation, why risk getting the other person upset?

By the time my next novel was ready (around 2008), my agent had moved away from fiction, so I needed to find someone else. I’d learned a lot about writing, and the second search was both less restrictive in terms of publishing venues and productive of more personalized letters and requests for the full manuscript. In the end, though, I abandoned the search. I could tell from the responses I was receiving that the book was still not ready, even though I had rewritten it several times and even worked with a book doctor, who taught me a great deal about story structure that I have since put to good use. But at the time, I couldn’t figure out what else I might do that would fix it. I had to complete my next novel before I finally saw the solution that had escaped me for years.

By 2008, the technology of querying had already changed: Word attachments replaced printed copies, and communications were via e-mail. But it was still common to get e-mail responses from agents, who were not yet totally overwhelmed by the volume of submissions from hungry authors. When I set out to query The Golden Lynx in January 2012, I found myself in very different circumstances. Website forms and auto-responses (or no responses) had replaced one-on-one e-mail exchanges for everyone in the first stage of querying, a desperate attempt by agents to fend off a deluge of messages. 

Again I moved higher up the query chain, receiving detailed rejections listing potential problems with marketability or objections to specific plot points among the requests for full samples. Some agents swore they would take on the project if they knew an editor who would consider a book set in medieval Russia. (I still don’t understand why Ivan the Terrible isn’t dramatic enough to sell a novel, so perhaps that was just a nicer than average brush-off.) While I was in the midst of querying, though, my writers’ group decided to launch Five Directions Press as an experiment, with The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel—the rewritten object of the 2008 search—as its inaugural publication. So I halted the hunt for an agent and added The Golden Lynx to our originally small list of titles.


Enter 2021, and here we go again. Will it work this time? Hard to tell. On the plus side, I’ve written a lot of novels since 2012, and based on the reviews I get, I have honed my craft enough to be taken seriously. I revised my earlier books, which I can recognize as half-baked in a way I couldn’t twenty years ago, and turned them into something that readers love. I’ve acquired a group of loyal fans, a monthly blog audience of about 10,000 views a month, a podcast with more than 100 episodes, and a co-writer who has serious sales of her self-published books. And with The Merchants’ Tale, we have two built-in audiences: people who can’t get enough of the Tudors and those fascinated by the Romanovs, whose ancestors populate this series alongside our fictional characters. Marketed the right way, this proposal could make a lot of money for someone, and ultimately that’s what publishers want.

On the minus side, the situation with queries doesn’t seem to have improved since 2012. If anything, the pandemic has made things worse: millions of would-be writers in lock-down seizing their chance to produce the Great American/British/Russian/you-name-it Novel. Many US agents are already so overwhelmed they have closed their electronic doors to new submissions; their counterparts in the UK and Europe are beginning to follow suit.

So wish us luck! In the long run, The Merchants’ Tale will find a safe harbor, but let’s hope it doesn’t get battered by storms along the way.

Images: Alexander Litovchenko, Ivan the Terrible Shows His Treasures to the English Envoy Jerome Horsey (1875); Anthony Jenkinson, Map of Russia and Tartary (1562), both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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