For every first time author, finding the right publisher for your novel can seem like an impossible feat. I recently had the opportunity to chat with fantasy and science fiction author Terry W. Ervin II, whose debut novel Flank Hawk has received impressive reviews. Terry was kind enough to share his own journey to publication with us.
How did you first become interested in writing fantasy, and at what point did you decide to write a novel and see it through to completion?
I became interested in fantasy around the 7th grade. My sister brought home The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. I read it twice and was hooked on fantasy. A second novel that impacted me was The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson. It captured my imagination and made me wonder if I could write something like that. It never went much further than that, although I continued reading and playing fantasy RPGs.
While in college I kept reading fantasy, including Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and Elizabeth Boyer’s World of the Alfar series. It was then that I promised myself that I’d write a novel someday.
Fast forward to 2000. I sat back while reading a Vlad Taltos novel by Steven Brust and decided that if I was going to keep the promise and write a novel, I’d better get on it. So I did.
It’s conventional wisdom that you need an agent to get published. Once your novel was finished, did you first seek out agents or publishers?
An experienced agent, one who is knowledgeable and respected by editors in the major publishing houses, is a handy person to have representing your work. They can submit a manuscript for consideration where unsolicited manuscripts are not accepted. In many instances, agents are now the gatekeepers to the major publishers, simply because the big houses lack the resources to scour the slush pile for the rare gem.
On the other hand, many authors say finding a good agent to represent their work is more difficult than finding a publisher. And even if you sign with an agent, there is no guarantee that the agent can sell your novel.
Fortunately, most publishers of fantasy, including the major houses in the United States, accept unsolicited manuscripts. It is a slow process (Hint: glaciers move faster). I didn’t go the agent route with Flank Hawk, and I currently have a science fiction novel that has run the slush pile gauntlet at a major publisher and is on the desk of the managing editor. But, remember what I said about glaciers? It took some time to get there, and it’s been awaiting a final decision for a while. Having a connected agent would likely expedite the process.
Virtually every small publishing house accepts unsolicited manuscripts. That doesn’t mean the competition isn’t stiff. They have fewer publishing slots, so they accept fewer manuscripts.
With Flank Hawk, I researched publishers online, read their guidelines and studied what they published. Then I submitted, giving them exactly what they asked for (usually a cover letter, a synopsis and and the first three chapters), and worked on another project while waiting. I kept submitting to other publishers, getting out of the slush pile a couple of times (sending the requested full manuscript), until it was finally accepted by Gryphonwood Press.
Given the stiff competition, how did Flank Hawk get your publisher’s attention, while so many other manuscripts were passed over? Did you take any special steps during the submission process to help your novel to stand out from the crowd?
For the first part of your question, I’ll quote the managing editor of Gryphonwood Press: “The vast majority of the submissions we receive are perfectly good books. The authors are competent, and the stories are fine. That’s the problem… they’re just fine. Due to the unique elements and creative twists you put into the book, Flank Hawk stood out as original and a book that I felt could find an audience in a crowded genre.”
I didn’t take any special steps. I made sure that my cover letter was on target for each publisher and that my synopsis was the absolute best I could make it. I sent the publishers exactly what they requested in their guidelines, in the exact manner/format they requested.
As an editor for a small ezine (MindFlights) I can say that writers following the submission guidelines demonstrate a professional outlook. It makes my job reading slush easier. Not following the guidelines risks making a writer standout in a less than positive light.
You have a science fiction manuscript being considered by another publisher. Is the journey to publication any different in science fiction than it is in fantasy?
The process is much the same with science fiction as it is with fantasy. Although there are exceptions, most of the houses that publish fantasy also publish science fiction.
The process is largely the same across most genres, except that to approach some large publishing houses an agent is required, as they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Again, there are exceptions to this.
It is important to be well versed in the genre you write in, and know what publishers expect. Just as there are different subtypes of fantasy (Urban, High, Magic Realism, etc.) the same can be said of mystery and romance.
Once you began working with a publisher, were there any surprises?
No, I can’t say that there were any major surprises. This might have been because I already had some short stories published, so I had experience working with editors and contracts.
One thing that I will say proved to be an unexpected adventure was seeking out blurbs—quotes by authors praising a work usually found on a novel’s front or back cover. It wasn’t easy. My publisher provided some ARCs (Advance Review Copies) to send out, but being a small publisher, they didn’t have the connections major publishers do. Nor did I have an agent who would have connections. I knew some authors from online contact and such, but many of them didn’t write in the fantasy genre.
On the advice of a fellow author (Sandra Kring) I went for it and contacted some of my favorite authors that I felt might enjoy my novel. It’s not as easy as you might expect. Contact information other than generic email addresses through publishers is difficult to locate. (Does anybody on the other end even check those email accounts?) I ended up finding out what agents represented the authors I’d targeted. What I found was that the same few agents represented most of the authors I was hoping to contact. So, rather than appear as a ‘spammer’ requesting blurbs, I narrowed my selection.
Just like you would do with a potential employer, I geared each letter of request to each individual author. So the research took time, writing the letters took time, and getting responses took time. Then there was the deadline that had to be met so that the blurbs received could be included.
Most of the authors contacted politely declined through their agent. They were simply too busy—and this I fully understand. For a couple, by the time they received my contact and replied, the deadline of a little over two months was too short. One of my favorite authors did agree, but in the end apparently wasn’t impressed enough. Don’t fret. If you ever see the front and back cover of Flank Hawk, you’ll see I did get some excellent blurbs from some solid authors—one of them very much a long time favorite of mine.
When my next novel is ready (working title is Blood Sword, a standalone sequel to Flank Hawk), I hope to do even better. I’ve already made contacts with authors I’ve met at signing events, conferences, conventions and online. Networking.
Always remember, however: They (the authors) have to really like a novel to provide a blurb. Their name (and thus, reputation) is going to be attached to it. I sent out what was my best work and hoped for the best. And when one of my favorite authors declined to offer a blurb after reading Flank Hawk, I didn’t get angry or insulted. It’s the way life is. Writing is a business. Always be professional. If nothing else, learn from the experience.
Now that you’re a published novelist, is it easier to get agents or publishers to consider your manuscripts?
I cannot really say if it’s easier to get agents/publishers to consider my work. It hasn’t moved my SF novel any faster. I’ve continued to sell some short stories when I get a chance to write them, but nothing major. Having a published novel, even through a small publisher, may encourage an editor to look a little closer. But, in the end, the quality of the work will sell it.
A fellow author did read and really enjoyed Flank Hawk. In a phone conversation he mentioned my novel to his agent and suggested that I contact her after his introduction. I very much appreciate his support. We’ll see if anything comes of it.
What has been the most rewarding thing about having your novel published? Has this experience lived up to your expectations?
I write because I think I have interesting stories to tell. That people read and have enjoyed Flank Hawk—that’s important to me. Sure, finding a good publisher was cool, but it was a means to an end.
I guess the experience has lived up to my expectations, but I don’t generally get too excited or worked up about most things. It’s just part of my nature. At book festivals and signing events, especially where there are multiple authors, if a reader stops at my table, I’m not in for the hard sell. I see it as the difference between a potential buyer and a potential reader. A subtle difference, but for me it’s important. Sure, I might somehow get the person to buy one of my novels, but will they read it?
To be certain, I do my best to politely engage people as they walk by, but I watch a person’s eyes when I talk to them. You can generally tell if they have an interest or are just being polite. Then, if I’m at a SF/Fantasy convention for example, we might discuss movies or RPGs for a moment before they move on. That’s okay. In the end, I’m just as happy to say, “Horror’s your thing, right?” Then I’ll point out an author at the festival who’s written a good horror novel. It’s the best thing that I can do for a reader.
Now that your book is out there, how have things changed? Has your perspective as a writer been altered by this experience?
Things haven’t changed much. The royalties help make a truck payment every now and then, which is handy. Some people around town know me as an author and will come up while I’m pumping gas and say they read my novel. Things like that are pretty cool.
My perspective as a writer hasn’t changed much, but it has helped me to become a more effective English teacher. Having gone through the process of writing a novel and getting it published, I have better insight with respect to presenting topics such as characterization, symbolism, POV, themes and the like. As an author, students tend to give what I say a little more credibility. I usually use one of my short stories with each class early in the school year to cover part of the curriculum. “The Scene of My Second Murder,” “Accelerated Justice,” and “The Exchange Box” have proven pretty popular. Some of the other English teachers at my school use one of my stories every now and then as well. Pretty cool, if you ask me.
Do you have any advice for authors who wish to get published?
A lot of people talk about writing a novel. A few of them even start. But only a fraction ever finish the first draft. And of those that do, an even smaller number revise, edit and do what it takes to make it the best that it can be. And even among those writers many, for whatever reason, never submit their novel for publication. And if they do, more than a few give up after the first rejection. They never submit their work elsewhere and never write a second novel.
Even if a writer does everything right, the competition is stiff and the odds are against them. But remember: You have absolutely no chance of success if you don’t complete a work and submit it—and write something else while you’re waiting.
Finally, thanks for the great questions and the opportunity to answer them for visitors and members of Mythic Scribes.