A ham-fisted analogy that I will not give up, but I will painstakingly relate to being a writer, existing in the publishing world, and/or life.
Learn how to make fire
Not only is fire-making a good life skill, it’s preposterous that the show has been on for 40 seasons and yet, without fail, contestants show up without knowing even the basic principle of how to use magnesium.
By this, I mean give yourself an advantage. Learn as much about publishing—the industry and the process—as you can before you start sending out query letters and trying to nab an agent. Admittedly, not everyone has the time or resources to do this! But, if you are able, give yourself this gift. In the game of Survivor, that’s generally building a shelter, fishing, eating something gross as a challenge, swimming, but in publishing that might be familiarizing yourself with agents that represent the genre/category you’re writing in, what the generally accepted word count is, how to write a query letter.
Prepare yourself the best that you are able before you set foot on that island.
Get to know your teammates
In later seasons of Survivor, something called Exile Island is introduced to the game. It’s exactly what it sounds like, an island that unlucky contestants are banished to. When you’re exiled, you have to do everything yourself: collect firewood, boil water, fish, etc. It’s not a great place to be, because you enter the next challenge weaker physically and you’ve potentially missed some big moves or crucial gossip back at camp.
I cannot stress enough how helpful it is to join the writing community. Learn who the other players are (agents, editors, etc.). Find a critique group or trusted beta readers. Join local or national or international writing organizations. Become involved. Create your own community.
Alliances emerge and evolve all the time on Survivor. It’s necessary, as people are voted off, tribes mix, or merges occur. Alliances come in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of different dynamics. What’s important is building a relationship with a person or people you can trust.
The same is true in publishing. Once you’re familiar with your teammates, form your alliance. Find those friends who are at the same spot in your publishing journeys. Build relationships with those who are further along in the journey, so that they can offer advice and feedback. Help those who haven’t made it as far yet, offer a hand up, save them from drowning during a team challenge. What matters is having confidantes you can ask questions, keeping some thoughts offline, and having others to commiserate and/or celebrate with.
Respect island politics
This is basically just Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: sleep, food, water. Do what you can to help provide, give more than you take, and don’t whine. As annoying as it is, if you find yourself doing all the work while everyone around you refuses to contribute, you cannot make a fuss about it.(Related: make yourself necessary around camp, but not *too* necessary)
Listen, publishing is full of politics from the literal (e.g. book deals for politicians) to, well, other types of literal (#PublishingPaidMe, for example). Obviously, this lesson doesn’t directly translate, as publishing is still pretty abysmal at hiring, retaining, contracting, or otherwise working with most marginalized folks. Instead, I’ll say that you should be aware of your privilege. Don’t just be aware of it, though; if you are in a position to, use it.
Keep your secret idol a gd secret
In later seasons of Survivor, a new element is added to the game: personal Immunity Idols. Usually hidden near camp, they can be found by putting together the right clues or, sometimes, luck. These idols are important, because they can completely change the game when deployed correctly. Sometimes, a survivor is caught when they find the idol. Sometimes, it’s revealed when other survivors dig through your personal belongings. And sometimes, the player chooses to share the secret. Some secrets, no matter how exciting, are meant to be kept until the time is right.
Publishing is full of secrets. Secret projects. Book deals that might take forever to be announced. Branching out into a new age category or genre and writing under a pen name. It can all be very exciting, but there’s a lot of hurry up and wait in publishing and a lot of sitting on secrets until they don’t even feel that new or shiny anymore. Still, sometimes you gotta keep those secrets until the time is right.
Make bold moves
An underrated aspect of Survivor is how much storytelling is involved. And I don’t just mean how the show has been edited together in post-production, I mean that, when it comes down to it, you need to prove that you deserve to win. Most often, this comes up when finalists are asked what big moves they made in the game. What did they do to prove themselves? What crucial alliances did they form or break? If you’re going to stab someone in the back, sometimes you’ve got to own it.
Don’t downplay what you want or walk it back. It’s okay to be ambitious. Query your “dream agent.” Enter that contest. Submit that short story. Write in a new category or genre. Experiment with story structure. If you want awards, tell your editor. I think something important here is communicating what you want, and not just expecting things to happen. Manifest your own destiny.
Outwit, outplay, outlast
At the end of every season, when it’s down to the final two or three, the finalists get the chance to pitch themselves to the jury about why they should be the one to be named Sole Survivor (and also win a million dollars). There are three main categories that are judged, the same ones that are on every Survivor flag: Outwit, Outplay, Outlast. These are the basic tenets of publishing, too. (Kind of.)
Everyone has different goals for their publishing careers, but it’s important you keep your eyes on the prize, whatever that means to you. In this case, outwit means know what you want. Have an idea of the strategy you’re going to implement. Know how to pitch yourself and your project(s). To outplay, know that you’re going to get knocked down and you’ll have to get back up again. Survivor is an extremely physical game, but in publishing, this means that you’re going to get rejected again and again and again. Know your limits, balance them with what you want, and persevere. Outlast takes that perseverance and kicks it down the field. So much of publishing is a waiting game, and you have to be willing to be patient.
Everything about getting an agent publishing is daunting. From outlining a new project, to writing “THE END”, to querying and beyond. It can all be terrifying and exhilarating but one of the things I was nervous about was checking my offering agent’s references. Our emails had been positive and promising, our chat on the phone was comfortable and enlightening. As soon as I hung up I thought, “Yeah, I want to sign with her.”
But it’s always, always smart to check an offering agent’s references. If the agent offering to represent you doesn’t offer a list of their clients for you to chat with, it’s fine (and good!) to ask for one. That does not make you difficult, or demanding, it just means that you’re looking out for your best interests.
Checking an agents’ references is good for a few reasons. On one end of the spectrum, they could be a schmagent—do they charge a reading fee? Did they start their agency alone, with no prior agenting or editorial experience? Those are huge red flags. On the other end of the spectrum, they could be a superstar agent, but have a completely different communication style than you want/need, or are not editorial and you know you want an editorial agent, or just have a vision for your book that doesn’t align with your own, et cetera, et cetera
To me, checking in with a my now-agent’s clients wasn’t about vetting her so much as it was trying to figure out if we would work well together, and if I would be happy with her over the course of my career. I did a lot of googling, checked in with my most-trusted resources (read: writer friends), and eventually compiled a list of questions that were important to me. As ever, your mileage may vary, but here is the list of questions I ultimately settled on asking my offering agent’s clients:
What’s their response time like for emails?
How long does it take for them to read and give feedback on a new MS?
Have they been responsive re: any problems that might have come up or questions you have?
What’s their editorial style?
When they give you feedback, is it clear? Do you get edit letters or in-line comments, etc?
If you start revising and find that things aren’t working, have they been willing to reassess?
Have they been open to brainstorming new projects with you?
If you’ve been on submission with them, how many rounds of revisions did you do before submitting?
How was the submission process in terms of discussing publishers or editors beforehand? How communicative have they been while on sub?
Is there anything they don’t do that you wish they did or expected them to?
Overall, I wanted to know if the client was happy with their agent, because every agent-client relationship is going to be different. And you need to keep your best interests in mind. Good luck!
The Call (n): Writing term. When an agent responds positively to your query and full manuscript and wants to talk to discuss the possibility of representation.
Even though a lot of my Pitch Wars class had received The Call ahead of me and put together a list of questions and even though I googled high and low to see what both agents and represented authors recommended you ask on The Call, I was nervous and sure my list was going to be completely terrible. It was exhaustive, though, and I was happy with it. I knew I might not need to ask every question, because my agent is gracious and smart and shared most of the info I wanted with me before I even had to ask. Superstar, honestly. But I still wished I could have had a handy list of questions, so here is one for you. This is only a suggestion, there are so many other wonderful resources. Go forth and google.
As for me, I printed these out over four pieces of paper, giving myself tons of blank space to take notes while chatting so I didn’t have to type while we talked.
Something to keep in mind: I signed with a newer agent, so I wanted to ask a lot of questions about her plan for her career, what her support system was like at her agency, and things like that. Your mileage may vary. I hope these questions are at all helpful. Congrats on your call!
THE CALL: [Agent], [Agency]
What did you like / respond to about my book?
What do you think needs work?
What do you think my strengths / weaknesses are as a writer?
What would our relationship / partnership look like?
If you become my agent, do you have an idea of how we would manage my author brand / books to come?
How many clients do you currently have? _____ Ideally? ______
Are you looking to represent: ____ this book ____ whole career
Do you have a written agency agreement I could see?
What’s the commission structure like at your agency?
How are sub rights handled?
What’s your support system like in the agency?
What’s your vision for your career?
If down the line you switch agencies or leave agenting, what would you foresee happening to your clients?
Do you have any other roles / jobs in the agency?
What’s something you find challenging about being an agent and / or want to improve on?
If I do sign with you, what would our next steps be?
What’s your communication style / preference?
When do you prefer to hear about my upcoming projects? Idea phase? Outline? Draft? Once it’s been through betas?
What’s your editorial style like?
What’s your relationship with Big 5 editors like?
Submission strategy? (Big 5, small press, etc.)
How many rounds of sub before we shelve it?
What happens if this book doesn’t sell?
What’s your communication like when a project is on submission?
Do you have an idea of what the average length of a contract negotiation is like at your agency? From offer of pub to finalizing/signing the contract?
Like I said, I was thorough. And I didn’t ask everything on my list! We covered a lot of ground organically in the course of our conversation, which was nice. But it’s important to ask the questions you have in your head! And if you don’t think of everything during the call, that’s okay too! I emailed my agent after our call to ask a follow-up about IP work that had been floating around my head. You might want to ask if the agent is willing to represent your work in multiple genres or age groups.
If the agent doesn’t offer it up on their own, it’s also worth asking for the contact information of a few of their clients so you can ask what it’s like to work with them. Ideally, you’ll be able to talk/email with clients (current or former) who write in the same genre/category as you. A mix of writers who have sold their books and some who haven’t is a great way to gauge the full spectrum of your prospective agent’s dealings. I’ll share my list of questions I asked clients here sometime soon.
Everyone has specific needs from their agent, and it’s important to figure out if you’ll be a good match. You need to trust your agent, and sometimes the only way to do that is to ask some tough / uncomfortable questions! As long as you remain professional and respectful, you’re probably good.
To maintain my extremely professional demeanor, I leave you with this: