The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black (or why you need an agent)
I’m currently reading a wonderful novel, Elizabeth Black’s The Drowning House. It’s a debut novel that will be published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in January. I received the book from the publisher a few days ago and, since the moment I opened it, I’ve had a difficult time putting it down.
The novel is set in Galveston, Texas. I’ve never been to Galveston, but the setting nevertheless feels eerily familiar. I’m from Alabama’s Gulf Coast, and Black skillfully evokes the heat, humidity, and the languid desire to do nothing that pervades Gulf Coast life. The Drowning House is a mystery that works on several levels, and it’s also a beautifully realized story about grief. The narrator, a photographer, has returned home to Galveston after the death of her young daughter to do research for an exhibition. She finds herself drawn into the circle of an old family friend who is also the town’s wealthiest citizen, and is compelled to ask questions that no one in this closed-off community wants to answer.
Elizabeth Black’s post about her own road to publication, which began at the Writers League of Texas Agents Conference, serves as a great primer on how to meet an agent, and why it’s so important to have one. It’s also a very realistic account of the long slog to publication.
We spent almost two years making revisions to The Drowning House, beginning with some larger changes (like eliminating a plot line to allow other key elements to emerge) and proceeding through two line edits. I’m a single mother with a full-time job, and my older daughter was married last fall, so it was a busy time for me.
A good agent doesn’t just act as a middleman between writer and publisher. A good agent helps you make the book the best it can be before putting it in the right hands. A good agent knows what editor might be on the lookout for a book like yours, and her relationships with publishers are invaluable. A good agent will help you get through the tough times when it seems as though the book might never be published. Without my agent, whom I trust implicitly and who has been a tremendously savvy advocate for my work, I’d be utterly adrift in the publishing world.
Of course, anyone can forgo the agent and publishing house these days and upload a book to Smashwords, Kindle, Nook, or iTunes. But the reality is that a self-published book simply doesn’t have the same level of editorial vetting as a book that goes the traditional route; nor does it have the all-important marketing that, in many cases, can make a book.
One crucial element of marketing is the distribution of the ARC (advanced reading copies) not only to reviewers and booksellers, but also to other authors, with a request that they read the book and, if they like it, offer a cover quote. Self-published books rarely, if ever, get reviewed in The New York Times or the San Francisco Chronicle, and very few will ever have the advantage of the booksellers’ interest pre-publication. The Drowning House came to me unsolicited, and I’ve never met the author; but because it came from an imprint I respect, and because it came in paperback (not as lines of text on an e-reader), I opened it and began reading. And I kept reading, and I imagine I’ll finish it tonight. It’s a terrific novel, and I suspect there are a number of other potential supporters feeling the same way I’m feeling about this book right now. The fact that the book will likely hit the stands with rave reviews, and that it will be available in brick-and-mortar bookstores, where huge numbers of readers still go to browse and buy the booksellers’ recommended reads, will give it a far better chance of success than most self-published novels ever have.
So, if you’re really serious about your novel, before you slap it up on Amazon and leave it to swim with the sharks, consider what you might be missing. Consider the readers you might lose by not giving your book a chance it deserves.