Getting involved in the book industry is one way to establish yourself as an author. Even if you have already published a book or several, I find that authors can sometimes be book industry loners when it is just as easy to make these vital connections. This linking can mean going to academic conferences and meeting successful editors in your scholarly field (I'll share my trademark pub meeting method later), or hosting university press editors at your campus for book talks. However you go about it, there's no substitute for befriending members of that group of superb professionals before you need them. Of course, friendships alone won't get you an academic book deal, but once you have a scholarly product worth selling, these esteemed colleagues can be pure gold when it comes to helping you take the next step.
This worked for me in an interesting way. This weekend I signed with an agent, and I wasn't even looking for one. She is actually my second agent -- my first was a wonderful man who represented me from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s when my writing was going a completely different direction. Back then I dreamed of mainstream media success (newspapers, radio, television), but when it began to happen I discovered that I missed the academy and traditional scholarship, so I completely switched direction (name change, all of it). The agent remains a good friend, but he manages a different type of literary career than the one I'm building now. We let each other go in the kindest way possible -- and I have since sent him other authors.
This new agent as of two days ago is an industry veteran just like the first, but she is more on the scholarly side of the aisle, and she represents a number of academics. By coincidence she is also very good friends with the previous agent. Usually scholarly books don't make money, which is why I didn't expect to find representation, but she has always kept a few of us on her list for (I guess) the prestige factor (something quite valuable in its own way).
The most interesting part of this, however, is that I didn't ask her to represent my book. I didn't even ask her to read it! We met through this business and bonded as colleagues and eventually friends. We enjoy one another's minds and spirits outside of work-related matters, but of course we also see eye-to-eye on most of those. When she asked to read the sample chapter and proposal of the book I've been blogging about here, I sent it to her thinking she'd have a glance and tell me what university press editors might want it. When she actually offered to represent it, as the Brits would say "I was gobsmacked." Add to that I was honored, pleased, shy about it, you name it.
Surprise connections like this one are what I also want for some of you as readers of this blog -- literary friendships that may grow into wonderful partnerships (I'm well aware that others of you have more industry connections than I could ever hope for... but I'm speaking to those of us who can be more reticent about such matters). So often book writing devolves to an exercise in jumping university press hoops for tenure or full professorship, or trying to satisfy trade editors in order to make money, but books can connect people in larger ways -- they can link authors, presses, agents, and editors, all of whom (we hope) love books and the creation of them. The best agent will care about your career, and that can only happen if she or he gets to know you dimensionally. The nervousness and sometimes neediness that so often accompanies agent submissions can be antithetical to a comfortable and easy collaboration.
I highly recommend it this way instead -- get to know many editors and agents as people, and develop your book at the same time. Then when you have something to share, you'll have a number of colleagues from whom to choose, and one of them might just step forward and say "Please, allow me . . ."