The search - José Henrique Lamensdorf - translation - tradução

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The search


So I wrote a book.

A narrative of the journey taken by first-time author J. H. Lamensdorf  
to get his book published, with some valuable tips for those who intend to do it.  

For the record, this entire story took place in 2005.
Some information here is likely to be outdated.

So I wrote a book. A lot has been said about doing it, as well as planting a tree and having a child. Though I have three children, I don't remember ever having intentionally planted a tree, so let's stick to the book for now.

Let's go directly to the book itself. If you want to know what it is about, click here. For now, I'll stick to the process of getting it published.

First, I should tell you that I live in São Paulo, Brazil, and that my native language is therefore Portuguese. For reasons explained in the book itself, I had to write it in both English and Portuguese. Having made an assessment of my chances, I decided to publish it in English first. As Frank Sinatra sang in "New York, New York", if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere, so that was the way to go. Well, it could be Los Angeles, Toronto, even London as well, it didn't matter much.


I discovered that in Brazil there were only about a dozen literary agents that their American colleagues would rate as such.
The basis for leaving them aside for the time being was that the good Brazilian literary agents were either already too busy with their present clients, or wanted some US$ 70 to hire some unknown individual to read the book, and then give an opinion on whether it would be worthwhile or not for that agent to invest time in trying to sell it to a publisher.

Maybe because I have been working for a few years in human resources, or perhaps it stemmed from my personal code of ethics, I deepheartedly felt that, after having invested my time in writing the book, it was up to the agent to invest their own in deciding if it was good "merchandise" to work with, or not.

So I tried to learn as much as I could on what happens to a book form having been written to the day it reaches the public.
Okay, I had previous experience in translation and cooperation with publishers in Brazil to know about the publishing process itself, but I had no idea on what takes a publisher to decide upon sending a book to press. And all this experience had been acquired long before e-books came to be.

So I plunged in the www, and searched, and read, and searched for more. The first lesson I learned was that most publishing companies - large, medium, and even small ones - don't have a front desk welcoming writers of all walks of life, as if these were the key to their financial success. They are very choosy, of course. And none of the big ones accepts unsolicited or unagented manuscripts.

Between the author and the publishing house stands the literary agent. Conceptually, he or she is actually a broker, who will analyze the manuscript (which is called so, even if it's a computer file) and, based on their knowledge of the trade, will then try to close a deal between the writer and a publisher.

The agent makes a living from something usually between 10% and 20% of what is paid to the author. Their specialized knowledge basically consists of several things including, however by no means being limited to:

  • Being capable of assessing a manuscript's quality to the extent of knowing whether it's worth publishing at all, if it's adequate for publishing as-is or if someone else should work on it first, and how many copies of it should be expected to sell in the market. Some agents work on this perfectioning of the book for publication, or get this service outsourced.

  • Knowing enough publishers in the trade to the extent of being able to tell what genres each one publishes, how successful they have been, and what are their short- and mid-range plans for new books.

  • Knowing, or having the means to easily discover who are the editors (people) in these publishers who are interested in acquiring the rights for new books.

  • Knowing enough about publishing agreements to write a good one, if ever needed. So stated, this comprises the ability of finding flaws and pitfalls in such an agreement written by someone else. There are many lawyers who double as literary agents.

However the web research revealed a whole new world of literary agents, crowded with heroes and villains, amongst which many average people live as well, so it's not all black-and-white.

There are, of course, the professionals renowned in their trade, but these are usually so busy with their regular best-selling authors that they'd hardly have the time to find the next groundbreaking needle in the haystack, the latter being known as the slush pile (possibly a barn filled up to the roof with unsolicited manuscripts from wannabe writers).

On the other extreme are the crooks. It is indeed very amusing to read their stories.

Just hitting a few highlights, I read the story of one who, after having deprived many prospective writers from a considerable amount of hard-earned cash, was allegedly killed in a car accident in another U.S. state, to later reappear in Canada under a different name.

Another couple of literary agents, unless the word on the web is outdated, is in jail somewhere, but their deceased agency burst into several offsprings who use a similar m.o., using web links from their heavily e-advertised mothership. If you are interested in reading about this kind of thing, browse for [writer beware] on the SWFA web site.

Above this free-for-all, stands the AAR - Association of Authors' Representatives - click here for more info - which tries to ensure some order with their Canon of Ethics. Affiliation to the AAR is not just a matter of paying a fee. One of the requirements is "to have been the agent principally responsible for executed agreements concerning the grant of publication, translation or performance rights in ten different literary properties during the 18-month period preceding application".

So newcomers to this trade are kept out of the AAR until they have demonstrated their competence with actual results.

However some of these non-members clearly state that, though they are not affiliated to the AAR yet, they abide by its Canon of Ethics. But... beware! There are a few of these who, in spite of saying so, by means of tricky wording, manage to evade the principles embodied therein by things that are legally correct, however which would fail under a scrutiny by the AAR itself. The bottom line is: Always read carefully the fine print... and the innuendoes too!

At this time, if you are an aspiring writer, you might have become slightly concerned about finding a literary agent. The best ones are too busy, and the other ones might be crooks or not. How can one tell them apart?

I'm not advocating for the AAR, but their members definitely have some hard-earned thing to lose by going bad. And there must be a lot of good agents on their way to become AAR members. As a prospective published writer, you stand a chance to be one of the ten that will help them make it.

So we have to concentrate on what can deviate a literary agent from being it exactly as the profession was conceived. You may call it anything from the basic human need for survival to sheer greed, but it won't make the slightest difference to our purpose here. The fact is that a true literary agent only gets money after the book whose rights he or she sold to a publisher reaches the paying public. Okay, sometimes there are up-front lump payments, but this is more the exception than the rule for new writers.

Some literary agents who have the skill to do so, or who can outsource it for profit, immediate offer paid services, generally known as "book doctoring". I am not saying that this is dishonest at all.

Many great ideas are so poorly written that they won't get anywhere. Book doctoring goes beyond proofreading and editing, it covers transforming the scribbling of a wannabe writer into a potentially successful book. But it shouldn't be a mandatory item in the bill. Some people can and do write well enough for publication.

The other option is to sell self-publishing, which also generates immediate cash for the literary agent. Either on top of the book doctoring or not, self-publishing means that the author will foot the bill for the whole publishing process. Modern technology, known as POD - Print On Demand, allows people to virtually insert a floppy disk at one end of a machine, key in the quantity desired - which might perfectly be "just one!" and get that quantity of books printed, collated, and bound at the other end. There is no longer the need to print thousands of copies to get books at a saleable cost.

There are several ways to self-publish, we'll see more about it later, however the easiest job for a self-claimed literary agent is to sell an author a self-publishing package, whereby the author simply buys so many hundred copies of their book. All right, the package includes listing in so many online bookstores, but unless the book has tremendous market potential, chances are that most of these copies will age in the writer's garage, attic, or basement.

There is one special kind of self-publishing that deserves attention. It's usually called "vanity press". Like all vanities, it is often restricted to the more affluent. Two (hypothetic) cases of successful vanity publishing:
  • Jimmy Doe is showing a remarkable writing talent in college, and worked on, say, the saga of his grandparents across three continents to turn it into a book. His parents can afford it, and they think it's a neat souvenir to give all the 600 guests at Jimmy's grandparents' golden wedding party. Word of mouth might spread as far as bookstores getting interested in having it for sale, and some day a large publishing house might contact Jimmy to ask if he has written anything else. A nice fairy tale, however perfectly possible.
  • In another setting, a teacher might have collected his or her class notes in a way that students seek photocopies of them year after year. This is not actually vanity, but actually a sound investment, since there is an almost guaranteed public that will buy the book now and then. Even if the teacher sets the selling price low enough to make it accessible for students, the fact that the book is advertised somewhere on the web might make him or her famous... and there goes yet another fairy tale.

Getting back on track, you should hire (and pay for) what you need, and not for what anyone has decided to shove down your throat. If you have written a book, get someone to read it. Warn that person in advance that you want a thoroughly honest opinion, without the slightest fear of hurting your feelings.

The person is expected to judge the book, and not you as a person. If it stinks, you want to know precisely if the stench resembles a skunk, manure, rotten fish, or what.

In my specific case, I had no reason to hire book doctoring services for Engineers of Fate. I had previously read a sizeable quantity of books in my life, but above all, I had successfully translated enough of them to their final printing state to know how the Brazilian Portuguese version should be.

As a professional translator, I'm expected to write flawless English - at least as perfect as a well-educated native speaker would do. But there was one additional point to consider, which led me to hire someone qualified to go over my book with a fine-tooth comb. This was well put by one of the first people to read it on paper (a computer printout): Though I can write properly in English, nothing ensures that I would state my ideas in the same way an average American would do it today.

In spite of numerous such offers, I didn't hire an unknown expert thousands of miles away, but a well-qualified pro, incidentally just 3 miles away: a native Canadian who works as a content advisor for a network of language schools in my home town. We were able to exchange ideas by e-mail, by phone, and even face-to-face.

Criticism on web-based book doctors on the Internet says that some of these service providers ask for the book and the advance payment of a fee, only to provide in return a standard general text on book writing. At its best, any word processor can put the customer's name in the right places and pretend it was written ad-hoc.

The key advantage of this direct contact with my book "proofer" was that he could ask me at specific points what I meant by this or that.

Furthermore, he could give me options to choose, and I could also ask for more alternatives, in case I didn't like any of those offered. In my particular case, as the book was written in two languages, he even pointed me a couple of places where the ideas in Portuguese were not clear enough.

At this stage, I had the book ready for publishing. Since this process takes time, I submitted its Portuguese version for registration at the Brazilian Fundação Biblioteca Nacional, and its American counterpart at the U.S. Library of Congress.

The Brazilian process took two weeks, and the American one took 5 months (this is just for your timing, no comment on demand on or efficiency of either institution).

There is reassurance everywhere that a publication is copyrighted on the moment it hits the paper with the author's name, however this registration means official evidence that such author wrote it first if there is ever any dispute over it. It is good to include such registration number on the publication itself.

While the registration processes were under way, it was time to let the great search begin. I knew I had to find ONE literary agent in this world who would be willing to take my book to selected publishers. This agent would have to find ONE publishing house willing to invest in (at least) paper, printing, and logistics to take it to the reading market.

However before starting the search, I made copies of the book with my computer printer, and gave them to a few people who could give me useful feedback.

One of them, as I said, praised the soundness of having someone to check it professionally. Another, incidentally raised an important point: my book - specifically - would be quite difficult to pigeonhole into any existing genre... this might lead too many agents/publishers to feelings of cold feet, as forecasting any outcome would be a somewhat nebulous endeavor.

Any web search for [literary agent] will yield thousands of times more links than anyone could handle, as well as a few commented directories, which are quite useful. Some focus is necessary, as there isn't much use in ostensibly spamming everyone in the trade to find that ONE agent - this would only generate ill-will and inclusion in spam-catching devices.

A targeted approach is needed. To select agents for querying about Engineers of Fate, I boiled my screening criteria down to these, for the reasons that follow each one:
    1. They should accept fiction. - If you read the book, I leave the reader with the option to take it as fiction or non-fiction. However it stands a chance of becoming non-fiction only after the reader's departure from this world. No matter what are your beliefs regarding ghosts, it is a fact that deceased people don't buy books, so all prospective buyers will be alive, hence the book is definitely fiction. Quod erat demonstrandum.
    2. They should accept unsolicited queries. - As an unpublished author, it is totally unlikely that anyone would actually ask me to entrust them with my new or next book. Some agents only want to work with published (and successful) writers.
    3. They should accept queries by e-mail. - Considering the distance, if I had to query them by snail-mail, it would take a long time before I started getting their rejection letters. Also, most agents who work through conventional mail unconditionally require the inclusion of a SASE (self-addressed, stamped, envelope), so that they won't go bankrupt from mailing hundreds of rejection letters every month. In my case, buying U.S. stamps in Brazil was not that easy. An international coupon réponse is sold here for US$ 2, which might drive me bankrupt in the very same way.
    4. They should accept multiple submissions. - This means they should tolerate the fact that I would be querying their competitors at the same time. Some of them openly state that they don't. The fact is that I queried a total of 170 agents. In average, they ask for three months to evaluate a book. Disregarding the time the communication process takes, if I didn't do it all at once (actually the process was spread over a period of six months), but sequentially, it would take 170 x 3 = 510 months = more than 42 years to get to my last rejection!
    5. They should be true literary agents. - In other words, they shouldn't be openly advertising themselves as book doctors nor vanity publishers.
    6. They shouldn't require any substantial up-front payment. - If you read the AAR Canon of Ethics or any of the numerous interpretations of it on the web, you already know that the money should flow to the authors, and not from them.
    7. Of course, there were some desirable criteria as well, some of them pretty obvious, like these:
    8. They should have a clean record. - Of course, I was not in a position to demand only the best in the trade, but I'd definitely stay far away from the known scammers, bad-mouthed all over the web.
    9. They should display some interest in rather offbeat or less conventional books like mine.
    10. They shouldn't abhor electronic communication (and many literary agents do, believe me!).

Before going further, in case you are new to this thing, two concepts must be defined: queries and submissions.

A query is merely a message (letter, e-mail, fax) from you to a literary agent telling briefly, in most cases: what is your book all about, how long it is (in thousands of words - most word processors will tell you this), who you are (a short bio, including what you have written and published so far, if anything), and a well crafted text, capable of drawing anyone's interest into it.

A submission is the whole book, in most cases printed (or at least laid-out in a PDF file) to very strict standards set by each agent individually. Most of such standards include: letter-sized paper, 1" margin all around, printed in double-spaced Courier 12-pt, title and/or author's name on every (numbered!!!) page, contact info on first page.

Most agents ask writers to send a query first. If they are interested, they'll request a complete submission. Attention should be paid to agents who don't accept queries by e-mail. There is no use in forcing an e-mail query onto someone that explicitly says they don't accept it. (I tried... just once!)

Some want a complete printed submission right away, but they insist on the inclusion of a SASE, "otherwise the submission paper will be recycled, unread". This always makes me wonder if these are actually agents or paper recyclers. Venomous gossip says that some of them make a living from steaming out and selling unused stamps from the submitters' return envelopes.

And there are few, very few, of them who actually want electronic submissions. They show environmental concern for the trees that modern technology could save by using electronic files instead.

In view of my criteria and constraints above, I decided to send e-queries only, restricted to those who accepted them. The importance of a query cannot be overstated. If you have never been involved with customer service training, I can tell you this, which applies to any situation: "You have only ONE chance to cause a good FIRST impression on anybody."

If your kwery has mispelings or is poorley written, you will be out of the game at once and for all. On top of displaying your writing at its best, it must really sell your book, make it desirable. Many literary agents' web sites have valuable tips on how to write a query. Read them, learn the technique.

As Engineers of Fate is rather out of the ordinary as a book, I had to grab the agent's attention to its uniqueness. At the same time I had to be straightforward and brief, showing respect for their time and weary eyes.

I also prepared a PDF (Acrobat Reader) file for those who requested the whole book. I used an easily on-screen readable format. However few agents requested it.

And then I started the search. The most productive way I found to locate agents' web sites was through web directories, such as:
NOTE: As the links here were ancient, several changed their focus in the meantime, others went dead and were deleted, so keep in mind that they may no longer work now as they did then.

  • Some fresher ideas (2018) may be found at Readsy.

As Engineers of Fate is rather out of the ordinary as a book, I had to grab the agent's attention to its uniqueness. At the same time I had to be straightforward and brief, showing respect for their time and weary eyes.

I also prepared a PDF (Acrobat Reader) file for those who requested the whole book. I used an easily on-screen readable format. However few agents requested it.

These should give you enough agents to select and query. I got organized early, so it was easy to get everything in place.

I use Netscape (now it's called SeaMonkey) for e-mail. So I made a template with my query, and put a Bcc: to myself in it. Whenever I wanted to send a query, all I had to do was to copy the agent's address, Edit as new the template, paste it on the right spot, and send it. The organization came later, when I built an Excel spreadsheet with columns for contact name (if available), agency, e-mail address, and the following columns for successive exchanges (e.g. e-mailed query/online form, rejection/request for complete text, and so on), and dates.

Another discovery I made was RoseDog. For a modest fee, one can have as many of their writings posted on the web for a whole year. It's a good and inexpensive place to put a sample of a book or any stuff you have written. It serves as a showcase for agents/publishers who are scared stiff of opening e-mail attachments, as well as for those who just wanted a query, got interested, but don't want to tip off that they would really like to see a sample. As RoseDog no longer exists, and ever since I built my own web site, I chose to have the first quarter of my book published here.

Considering what I read on some literary agents' web sites, it seems that there are many writers out there who can be a real pain. These agents beg people who sent submissions not to phone or email them every other day to ask if their book has been read, approved, sold, or whatever.

Back to RoseDog (and now my own web site), they suggested themselves that you shouldn't put the whole book there if your intention is to have someone publish it. A prospective publisher might well realize that once it's been out for free, it's no longer worth investing in its paper version. You should select the proper cutting point, a good cliffhanger, to leave the reader desperately willing to read the rest of it.

As soon as I started sending out queries - and each of them was an individual message To:, not a long addressee list in Bcc: - I began getting rejections. Most of these were personalized... they had my name and the book title on them. Most of them were also apologetic: in spite of having liked the idea, the agent felt Engineers of Fate would be best served by someone else.

A few agents requested the whole book in PDF, which I sent, and later got a rejection letter. Another few, actually just two, asked for it on hardcopy, in the submission layout I already described. International airmail was pretty expensive, some $ 16, so I wouldn't be able to afford doing it for all them... especially because they sent me rejection letters too. Of course I told these two to recycle the paper in the USA, as the cost of having my submissions mailed back to Brazil would be much higher than printing more copies.

Finally, and this was near the end of the querying period, I got some positive responses. Agents who were actually willing to take my book! Before celebrating with expensive champagne, I did it with a can of domestic beer (35¢), and checked them further.

These specific agents were bad-mouthed everywhere on the web, had little or no past accomplishments to show, and took a shady alley to detour the AAR Canon of Ethics... they were known to request a sizeable refundable deposit upon signing the agreement. It was supposed to show the author's determination in having them submit the book to publishers. The refund would come with the first royalty payment if it ever came. In case the agency didn't make a dime from the book, it would compensate the agents for their efforts. And if they made no effort at all, the deposit would ensure them a good living. Pretty slick!


And then I came across BookSurge (later renamed CreateSpace). A division of is certainly not a fly-by-nite operation. I checked it on the web, and couldn't find anybody bad-mouthing it. So I queried them. The first Publishing Consultant assigned to me was Jessica Beasley. Only time will tell if my query describing the book was so impressive, or if she is so enthusiastic about everything all the time. The fact is that I really felt as if I were her only client in the world.

Behind all this determination, BookSurge offers an amazingly wide array of choices. After the author has written the book, they can do absolutely everything to make it take off, or just publish it. The bill can be several thousand dollars, or just $ 99, depending on what the author can do him or herself, and what is requested from them. Of course, it's a matter of balancing how much to invest initially and how fast a return is expected.

As an old hand at DTP (my first PageMaker ran on a PC-XT) I'm used to deliver a book ready to print. So I chose the absolutely bare essential: just publishing, for $ 99. Jessica sent me very detailed guidelines on how I should prepare the book and the cover in PDF, I followed them to the dot, and uploaded the book. In a matter of days, in spite of their longer timeline, my book was on the web for sale. It is not widely marketed yet. As I write this, the very first copy is coming via snail-mail for my final approval. After I sign it, things will start to happen.

Looking at BookSurge's and web sites, it's easy to reason why they don't have to push 250 copies at my expense. They'll certainly print them just as they are sold, as there will be many others waiting in line to print and deliver.

Only the future will be able to tell the success of my book. If it ever makes it great, the agreement with BookSurge is non-exclusive; a conventional publisher may take it over from there.


Before signing out, there is one burning question, though: Does this all mean that literary agents are not necessary?

Reserving my right to be wrong, I'd say that they are necessary indeed. If a successful published writer has written a new book, a good literary agent might help make the most of it faster, and in a way that the person will have time to write another one, instead of soliciting publishers. If a first-time writer has written something good that fits in one of the popular genres, an agent who knows the ropes can take it to success on the fast track. And if the work lends itself to a screen or stage play, the author might be a babe in the woods to negotiate its rights properly. So, there is plenty for good literary agents to do. And there are many great ones among them, of course!

Book doctors certainly have their place in this world as well. Some people have brilliant ideas, however they are not endowed with the skill to properly put them into words. Book doctors can turn these people into great writers.

In a nutshell, if you read my book (otherwise this might not make much sense) and the Engineer of Fate assigned to you ever puts in your mind ideas of writing a book and getting it published, I hope this input from my experience will be useful.

J. H. Lamensdorf
São Paulo, Brazil
15th August 2005

Notice: No part of this text should not be construed as any kind of slanderous representation against any individual, group, or organization. It is merely based on the conclusions drawn by the author as resulting from his perception of miscellaneous findings on the Internet. Anyone who feels directly insulted from any such statement herein should use the web search engines available, to find the original sources, seek correction there and/or take legal action against such parties. The author waives all liability to the statements therein, urging readers to use their own judgment on the ideas expressed and, if necessary, to check the facts for themselves.


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