I'm trying to catch up with a bunch of questions on the basics of writing and publishing. Here's another batch of questions I've had sent my way…
"How many words does a typical book have?" — That depends on the genre of the book you're writing. A contemporary genre romance novel has about 55,000 words. A historical romance will have about 75,000. A novel outside of the genre houses will probably run between 85,000 and 90,000. Some literary fiction and family sagas can be as long as 110,000 (but I don't recommend starting there). With nonfiction, we see some shorter business books, mom books, and self-improvement books in the 45,000 range, but 55,000 to 65,000 is more common with commerical projects. I keep having people send me 23,000-word books — which I can do nothing with. There's no market for that short of a book. In a lousy economy, people want value for their money, and that means a big chunk of dead trees.
"I write both fiction and nonfiction. Should I have two agents?" – I rarely see this work. I've shared a client on occasion, when there was a clear delineation of markets (for example, I worked with a humor writer who had a separate agent for the textbook market). But for the most part, it's too messy. Both agents want to help shape the author's career. And since I do a lot of business in the Christian market, I'll tell you that, yes, some people have one agent for their Christian books and another for their general market books — but that's always seemed awkward to me. I represent both religious and non-religious books, so working in both CBA and the general market isn't mutually exclusive.
"Should I write a proposal before approaching an agent?" — Absolutely. In fact, in this sort of lousy economy, you will probably want to create a proposal and sample chapters. When times are hard, do as much as you can in order to keep the prospective agent from saying "no thanks."
"I just submitted my proposal to an agent. How long will I wait before hearing from them?" — Everybody's different, but it's certainly reasonable to think you can expect a response in two or three months.
"Should I include my age when I query agents?" — I don't know why you would. I just turned 51, in case anyone is keeping track.
"I just submitted my project to a publisher. If they agree to publish it, what are the next steps?" — The next step for the publisher is to send you or your agent a deal memo, which starts the negotiation process. The next step for you is to jump up and down and scream with excitement. Then talk over the deal memo with your agent, so that you can begin to create a writing calendar.
"My book was published by my local newspaper, but they've now gone out of business. Who owns the rights to it?" — Check your contract — it should tell you what happens if the publisher goes out of business. Most likely the rights revert to you, but if not, rights to the book will be considered an asset of the company and will go through probate. In that case, buy yourself a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. You're going to need several stiff drinks.
"My book has gone out of print. Is it possible to get it republished with someone else?" — In theory, yes. In reality, you'll discover there's not much of a market for reprints these days. If your book was with a small publisher, and received very little distribution, you might be able to sell it as a new book. Otherwise, your best bet may be to self-publish, talk to an e-publisher, or simply use the content on your website.
"Are there any writers' organizations you think authors should belong to?" — The Writers Guild. You may also be close to a regional or local writers' group that could prove valuable. If you write Christian fiction, by all means join ACFW (and Chi Libris, if you're already published). If you write Christian nonfiction, check into TheWritersView, an online Yahoo group that is really good. There are doubtless others.
"I'd like to submit some of my blog posts as part of my book proposal. Will an editor frown on that idea, since the material is already available on my blog?" — It used to be that editors didn't care much about material taken from blogs, but now that's generally considered "previously published material," so be sure to reveal what has already seen the light of day. Your book contract will ask you to warranty that the material you submit is unpublished, so you'll want to be up-front with them about what's been widely read.
"How can writers find security when publishing electronically when there is so much piracy going on in other countries?" — Publishers are working to keep e-books from being widely pirated, but yes, that's a concern. Piracy really hurt the music industry — specifically the performers. What can an author do about it? Not much. If you don't want it stolen, don't post it. I've learned not to worry too much about piracy. It's happened to me in the past, and doubtless will in the future. When I catch someone using my words without my permission, I threaten to whack the person with a board. If they ask politely, I generally say yes.
"On my royalty statement, there's a line that says the publisher is holding a 'reserve against returns.' Can you tell me what that means?" — Your publisher sells books, puts your earned royalties into an account for you, then holds back a percentage in case retailers return books and expect a credit. That's the publishers' way of protecting themselves against high returns.
"What is the industry standard for the reserve taken out of my royalties?" — Somewhere in the neighborhood of 20%.
Regarding my statement that "an unearned advance does not mean the publisher lost money, " two publishers wrote to say that tax laws require publishers to write off unearned advances within a specified period of time. That means the unearned advance is taken out of the profit, therefore they're arguing the publisher does lose money on an unearned advance. Um… in a way, that's true. I mean, an unearned advance means the publisher makes less profit. But there's a difference between "making less profit" and actually "losing money." My point was that a publisher can still make a profit on a book that did not earn back its advance. The Hillary Clinton book a few years ago is the perfect case in point — the publisher paid a huge advance, with no intention of earning that back, but they still found the book to be profitable. In one sense, they simply treated the advance as a cost of doing business. (That said, you still want your books to earn back their advances. As one publisher noted to me, "Regularly having books that don't earn out will get you into trouble with the Powers That Be.")
Finally, someone wrote to ask me, "Is it true you see really awful proposals?" — Good grief. Absolutely. I just had someone send me a proposal that states, "I have published several pomes." (No kidding.) I state clearly on my website that I don't represent poetry, children's books, or fantasy novels, but yesterday I had someone submit a children's fairy tale book to me (and yes, it was filled with poems — or maybe "pomes"). I'm constantly amazed that people won't take five minutes to research a project before sending it out. However, you'll be happy to know that I'm about to make a killing, since yesterday I had someone write to me these words: "I have written a novel about everything." That pretty well sums it up, I think.