Archive for the ‘Agents’ Category

Ask the Agent: If I have a contract in hand…

March 25th, 2015 | Agents, Current Affairs, The Business of Writing | 2 Comments

Some fascinating questions have come in recently…

“I know of several agents who edit or write on the side. Is there anything wrong with that?”

I’m on record as having said, “You’ll do best if you find a full-time agent.” But I also recognize the times are changing – now we’re seeing agents help authors self-publish, or help with marketing plans, or have some other part-time position, so I know our role has changed. An agent who also edits or writes on the side has become fairly common. My feeling is that those agents need to be careful not to mix the two – and I’ll use myself as an example. While I will always go through a proposal and make sure it’s strong, editing and tweaking as necessary, I don’t freelance edit. I tell authors that my company is not an editorial service, so if they need a full-blown developmental edit, they’re better off hiring a freelance editor. I generally will give authors three or four names of editors who I like and trust… but I always explain that I don’t care which editor the author approaches, and I’m always quick to say these people don’t work for me, and I don’t get a kickback for recommending any particular editor. So if an agent wants to do some freelance editing, I think they have to create a bright line about separating the two aspects of their business (I recently saw one agent tell authors, “I’ll represent this if you’ll hire me to edit it first”). They have to be very careful that they don’t try to sell their editorial services to clients, which will get them kicked out of the AAR. Similarly, I know of a few agents who also work as freelance writers. So long as they’re not selling their writing services to clients, and basically running two separate businesses, I think they can make that work. I understand why they need to do that financially, but I think they have to be very careful that the two services don’t sell each other. The same holds true for an agent who works part time as a publicist – you don’t try to sell your marketing services to your agency clients. The bottom line seems clear to me: If I am paid to edit or write it, I shouldn’t also try to represent it. To do so is unethical.

 

“I’ve heard it said that one way to get an agent is to get a contract. Let’s say an agent was willing to look at a contract and offered representation. Am I correct in assuming the agent would take the usual cut on that first contract, although the agent didn’t shop the manuscript? Or does this type of thing even happen?”

This is a question that I am frequently asked at conferences, so I’m glad to see it come up on the blog. Yes, there are agents who will step into a deal that’s already in place. (In fact, I know of one agent who has publicly stated, “If you’ve got a contract offer, call me!”) Is that acceptable? Maybe… but if an author ever comes to me with a deal in hand, my first advice to him or her is to say, “Check out a good contract review service, or research getting an experienced publishing lawyer to review your contract.” You see, once you have a deal in hand, the hard work has been done. The agent didn’t help you concept the book; didn’t help shape your proposal; didn’t shop it to publishers. All they’re doing is stepping in to read the contract and get paid. So in my view the agent should not be taking a full 15% commission. Maybe the agent can help improve the deal, or help with the marketing of the book. Certainly he or she ought to help you with career choices. But I’ve regularly seen authors pay 15% to an agent who did almost nothing to earn the money, and that bugs me. I think authors need to check out other sources. (And I think agents need to have the integrity to recognize when they don’t deserve a full commission.)

 

“I need some advice about USA Book News Awards. Is this a legitimate contest or some sort of scam? I’m curious about them and other contests like this, where you have to pay a tidy sum to enter the contest, and there sure are a lot of finalists.”

I don’t know that the USA Book News Awards are a scam, but they are a vanity award. You pay a fee (I think it’s currently $69), you’re sent stickers to put on your book, and some unknown entity selects the winners. (For the record, the USA Book News Awards are owned by a PR firm, JPX Media.) There are a bunch of these, and have been criticized for creating numerous categories so that everyone who enters wins some sort of award. Just so we’re clear, there are certainly legitimate writing contests and awards. But if you’re paying a fee and are guaranteed an award, that’s a scam, not legitimate contest.

 

“I recently read somewhere that you don’t necessarily need an agent if you write for children, and that it might be better use of your time to submit directly to a publisher. Is that true?”

I’ve never been an agent evangelist – the type of person who insists that EVERY author have an agent. The fact is, you might be able to survive just fine as an author without an agent. Certainly there are children’s authors (as well as adult authors) who do. The children’s publishing market is its own world, quite separate from that of adult publishing. Right now it’s certainly possible to work directly with an editor with your children’s book… but in my view, it’s getting harder. If you’re simply talking to an agent to try and land a deal, you may want to simply go to a good Society of Children’s Book Writers and Editors conference, and try pitching your idea to some editors. But if you’re looking for story help, editorial direction, career advice, contract experience, and connections to the industry, an agent may be what helps you move forward.

 

“With the novel I wrote, I took on the role of a packager and hired editors, illustrators, photographers, graphic artists, and then put it all together in Adobe Indesign. I was only thinking of myself as a self published author, but your blog makes me wonder if I should try to attract the attention of a publisher. Would a publisher consider this, particularly if my novel is similar to a recent hit movie?”

If the movie you’re referencing is already out, it’ll be too late to tie your novel to it – but you might be able to reference the movie as something trending in the culture, and therefore link your novel’s appeal to that same trend. But overall, interest in previously-published novels goes up and down. For a while you couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to a book that had already been released. Then things changed, and publishers were looking for novels that had been self-published and had some success. Now it’s turned again, and you’ll find it hard to have a publisher pay close attention to your self-pubbed novel, unless it’s done very well… and the problem with that is simple: If your self-published novel has done well, what’s your motivation for giving it over to a traditional publisher and making less money on each copy sold? To do that, you’ll need to think carefully over all the issues – can a traditional publisher reach people you’re not reaching? Can they improve the product? Can they take it off your hands, and thus free you to do more writing? If not, you may not have much incentive to go with a legacy publisher.

Ask the Agent: Piracy, Careers, and Marketing

March 23rd, 2015 | Agents, Career, Marketing and Platforms | 10 Comments

A bunch of interesting questions have come in, so let’s get to them…

“Every couple months I find one of my novels online illegally as a free download. I complain, they usually take it down, and then someone puts it back up soon after. My publisher says they’re sorry, but it’s part of the biz. (I assume that’s true because they’re losing money too.) Are there any tech innovations that might prevent this?”

There are tech innovations that will locate a pirated manuscript, but I don’t know of any that will prevent it. And yes, this is a growing and annoying (and potentially expensive) problem in the industry. Pirated tracks helped kill the music business, and publishers tend to come down hard by threatening legal action against those who violate copyright. Publishers tried to protect themselves by using DRM with ebooks, but that has proven to be ineffective to stopping piracy. My guess is that the government will continue to seek out methods for strengthening copyright, just as pirates will continue to look for ways to cheat authors out of their rightful income. (I’m one of those who has no patience with people who want to illegally give away the artistic creations of others.)pen and ink

At the age of fifty I began writing professionally. I’m now past sixty, and over the last decade I have typically been able to bring in between $1500 and $12,000 a year via my writing, mostly through articles. I enjoy my full time job, and it fits well with my writing, so I do not foresee ever having a writing career or a platform sufficient to make an agent beg. Do I have a shot at getting an agent? If so, what can I do to improve the odds?”

If you are mainly writing articles, you don’t stand a great chance of landing an agent in today’s publishing world. But I know from your note to me that you’ve got a couple completed nonfiction books you are pitching, and for those I would say, “Of course you stand a chance of landing an agent.” Most agents are looking for writers who work hard, sell books, and have a track record. Your article writing has proven that. So I think you can significantly improve your odds if you were to craft a well-written book that offers insightful answers to a perceived need, demonstrate to the agent that you are the right person to be writing on the topic, and (most importantly) be able to show that you have a significant enough platform to reach the readers of that book. In my view, if you focus on those three things, you stand a very good chance to landing an agent.

“Do you think a Facebook tour can be useful for marketing your novel? I had a friend offer to post things on FB, because she doesn’t have a blog, and I wondered if it might be helpful.”

 I’ve seen a bunch of novelists market their book on Facebook, and it’s certainly one part of an overall strategy. You can use it to announce the book, to solicit participation, to get the team excited. So it can be effective, but there are limitations… It tends to only reach your friends. It can be annoying if it comes across as pushing too hard to sell a product. It’s usually not the type of thing that will be shared. But when taken as a part of the overall marketing plan, it can certainly useful.FB-f-Logo__blue_512

 I recently left my full-time job to follow my dream of becoming a freelance writer and author. The transition has been both thrilling and overwhelming. I’m working on a non-fiction, self-help book. So much of the information I read on publishing is for fiction. Where does a non-fiction author begin to network and find the right fit for representation?”

 There are a number of ways a nonfiction writer can network with other writers. First, you can hook up with a local writing group, which you may be able to find through friends or your local bookstore. Or you could see if there is a local writing class at a community college or a nearby university – such classes often see a lot of local writers participate. You can also check into national writing organizations, such as the American Society of Journalists and Authors or American Business Media (check out the list of national writing organizations at Writers Write). There are also many online writing groups for nonfiction writers, including The Writers Café, Absolute Write, The Write Idea, The Writers Beat, and a host of others. Just a bit of searching online will reveal more than a dozen. Another great way to hook up with other writers is via writing conferences, which you can easily find online. Some conferences focus on one type of writing or genre, but many are great for making connections with other nonfiction writers. As for finding representation, the process for a nonfiction writer isn’t much different from that of a novelist – you built your platform, create a great proposal, and seek out an agent either at a conference or by doing some research to see who represents works in your field. Again, with a nonfiction manuscript, the first two questions an editor is going to ask an agent are, “What’s the author’s platform?” and “What are the author’s qualifications for writing on this topic?”, so make sure you can answer those adequately before going to talk with an agent.

And a favorite question of mine: “What 10 editorial mistakes do most novice authors make?”

 I suppose if you asked this of ten agents, you’d probably get a hundred total answers, but here are my pet peeves with newbie authors:

  • Too many exclamation points!!!
  • A proposal that has not been proof-red
  • Overpromising, as in “This proposal will sell a billion copies!”
  • FEELING A NEED TO PUT LOTS OF WORDS IN ALL CAPS.coloredpencils
  • Random numbering in an outline.
  • I did this, I did that, I did this other thing, I, I, I.
  • Random commas, that make no, sense.
  • A failure to understand how to properly use “quotation” marks. (Also parentheses. And their attached punctuation).
  • Failing to understand the difference between its and it’s (or there and their and they’re).
  • The manuscript is passive due to the author.

 

Hint for the humor impaired: There are intentional errors in that list. If you see one, don’t send me a scolding note or you’ll be banned from the blog. It’s a joke. I know you don’t get it. Just trust me – others find it funny.

Ask the Agent: Working with agents and others

March 18th, 2015 | Agents | 3 Comments

We’ve been getting a variety of questions about working with agents…

“I am seeking an agent for my new book and have created a website to promote it. What does an agent want to see on that website?”

A great design, that fits your brand, and makes potential readers like you. Specifically, I’d probably like to see some background or biographical material, introductory material on your books, your book covers and ordering information, media links, social media connections, and some sort of contact information.Old Books

If an agent rejects your manuscript and has given some idea as to why, is it okay, after having done substantial revision, to re-query the same agent?”

It depends on the agent and the situation. In my experience, most people who have said “no thanks” aren’t going to be terribly excited about looking at the same project again, even if it’s revised. That’s why, if something intrigues me but just isn’t quite right or isn’t ready yet, I’ll often reject it and include a note that says, “When you’ve made your changes, feel free to run this by me again.” I like to make sure authors know when it’s okay to revise and come back. But what’s wearying is the author who sends something in, gets rejected, revises, sends it in again, gets rejected again, revises again, sends it in again… The fact is, some ideas don’t need revising – they need to be set aside so the author can write something else.

“I am working with a ghostwriter for my memoir.  Will agents work with authors who use ghostwriters?”

Sure they will, if it’s done well. But the contemporary publishing scene is probably going to suggest the writer’s name is on the cover or title page as a collaborative writer, rather than having it hidden as a ghost writer. There’s nothing at all wrong with getting help on your manuscript from a collaborative writer.

“When collaborating with other writers on a series and the contract ends, can someone use your characters in another book? For example, could someone create a suburb of Mitford and have Father Tim and other characters show up?”

Nope. The characters are the artistic creation of the author, and another writer can’t borrow them to use in his or her own stories. (So no “Harry Potter Comes to Dinner.”) Sometimes a publishing contract will even prohibit the creator from using those characters anywhere else – the license calls for the author to only use those characters at one house.

“What are the pros and cons of creating books with other authors?”

The pros of working with another writer: Another creative mind at work on the project. Someone to fill in your gaps, give the manuscript a fresh set of eyes, or to talk through questions. Someone to lift you up or protect your back during difficult times. Someone to blame if it all falls apart, I suppose.

The cons of working with another writer: You don’t get to make all the decisions. You have to rely on someone else, and trust they’ll do their part. It takes longer, since there are two people who have to read and decide on the book. Most people who have done this will tell you it’s harder to collaborate with another person on a book. I think it takes a certain type of author to make it work.

What have you always wanted to ask an agent? Send me your question and I’ll try to get to it this month. 

Ask the Agent: Children’s books, writing coaches, & agents

March 17th, 2015 | Agents, Career, The Writing Craft | 3 Comments

We had a bunch of questions come in this past week, so let me get to several of them…

This came from a reader in the Midwest: I’m at the point where I think I’d like to work with a writing coach. How can find someone reputable? Is there some sort of accreditation out there? Do you have any recommendations?”

That’s a wonderful question. I think a writing coach or mentor is a GREAT idea. Getting another set of eyes on your manuscript is always helpful, and finding someone who has experience, who is a little farther down the path, is one of the best ways to move forward in your writing career. I don’t know if there is any accreditation service of note (but I’d love to hear from readers who can suggest such a service), but there are a ton of experienced writers who serve in this capacity part-time, helping other writers who can benefit from their wisdom. I know of several, but it probably wouldn’t be fair to name one or two. Going through a reputable writing organization like RWA or SCBWI or ACFW is one way to find a good writing coach. Exploring some of the people available through Writers Digest or a good conference is another. But you may want to simply start asking around through writing friends or those at the next big conference you’re attending.

This question came in on the website: “I recently read somewhere that you don’t necessarily need an agent if you write for children, and that it might be better use of your time to submit directly to a publisher. Is that true?”

We have our own in-house expert on children’s books. Erin Buterbaugh handles all the chldren’s stuff for MacGregor Literary, so I posed this question to her. Here is Erin’s response:

 

I wouldn’t say having an agent is any more or less vital for a children’s writer than it is for any other writer. If you have the connections to get your manuscripts in front of the right editor, the know-how to package/position your manuscript and your brand in the way the editor expects, and the confidence to negotiate your own contracts, then certainly, go ahead and submit directly to a publisher (keeping in mind that some editors flat-out don’t accept unagented manuscripts). Some areas where a children’s writer needs to be especially savvy (and where having an agent who knows the children’s arena is a big advantage) include presenting your brand as a children’s author and knowing the requirements/characteristics of the imprint you’re submitting to. 

For instance, rather than receiving a single picture book manuscript from a debut author, most editors prefer to see two or three manuscripts (or at least ideas) that demonstrate some understanding on the part of the author as to her “brand,” or the themes/characteristics/voice that make her picture books distinct and recognizable, such as a zany sense of humor, or whimsical subject matter, or multicultural family tales. Because picture books are so expensive to publish, an editor prefers to make that investment in an author who has more than one idea along the same lines, the hope being that if the publisher is successful in pairing a complementary illustrator with a story and finding an audience for it, that same audience will seek out future stories from that team looking for similar themes or subjects, rather than the publisher doing all that work to find out that the author’s next ideas are completely dissimilar. An agent can help you refine and develop your brand as a picture book author and advise you as to which manuscripts to present together in order to give the editor the best overview of your work and the best idea of the kind of audience you’ll appeal to. 

Regarding the specific characteristics of various imprints, if you don’t know that a certain picture book line only publishes books under 300 words, you’re wasting your time submitting your 900-word manuscript, no matter how good it is, just as an imprint that only publishes middle-grade isn’t going to have a place for your early reader series. A good children’s agent is familiar with the parameters of the various imprints/lines and will help you avoid wasted submissions and dead-ends. 

 

And a related question about children’s books:I am a kidlit author & illustrator. Over the years I went from picture books to chapter books to novels and most recently to board books. I do the full span of kidlit formats, and it’s rare to find agents who are willing to represent all of them, and of those who do there can be specifications: only funny picture books, etc. It keeps me from submitting to them since not every picture I’ve written is funny. Should I submit anyway? Is there a way past this obstacle?”

You have to understand that nobody can represent everything. I don’t even review children’s books, since I don’t sell them, wI don’t have the background with them to feel terribly competent in exploring them, and don’t have the contacts in publishing to really sell them. So sending me a children’s manuscript is on par with sending me poetry – it’s pearls before swine. It might be great, but I wouldn’t know it. So my advice for you would be to do some research on the agents who represent the types of projects you write. If you’re not involved with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI, called “squibby”), check them out. They do local, regional, and national conferences, and are the leader in getting together authors and agents for children’s projects.

If I’ve published 2 books on my own, without an agent, does that make me more valuable or less valuable to a potential agent?”

Generally that would make you more valuable to a literary agent. It shows experience and the fact that publishers want to work with you. Of course, if you’re a novelist and both the books bombed, you may find it tough. Right now publishers are staying away from writers (even good writers) who have had a bad track record. (And I don’t say that to be negative, by the way – just pointing out the facts.)

“Will an agent represent a book that is actually two novellas in one volume? One POV character crosses over from the first book into the second.”

Beats me. They might if the writing was really good. Most agents aren’t looking at the format so much as the genre, the quality of the writing, and the personality of the writer. That said… I’m not sure this particular idea will appeal to agents. Are there some good comparable titles you could list, to show this has been done a bit?

“What is the single most important factor in your decision to rep and work with a new writer?”

Hmmm… There are several factors that are important to me – the voice in the writing, the importance of the book, the fact that the writer isn’t crazy… But if I had to pick one thing, for me it would probably be the salability of the project. If I don’t think I can sell it, then I’m not going to represent it, no matter how much I like the author or his/her work.

 

Got a question you’ve always wanted to ask an agent? Send it to me, and I’ll try to get to it this month!

 

Ask the Agent: On Memoir, Bookspan, Facebook, and Writing Resources

March 11th, 2015 | Agents, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms | 26 Comments

I thought this was a very insightful question: “Can you clear something up for me? You have said you thought memoir was a growing category in publishing. But you’ve also said personal stories are hard to sell. How can that be?”

 

We have to define our terms. A memoir is the thoughts or reminiscences of a writer – usually based on celebrity (Justin Timberlake is doing a book!), significant events in the culture (I shot Osama bin Laden!), or fabulous writing (Have you seen what Jeannette Walls just released?). It doesn’t have to be linear. It usually touches on a number of significant themes. In the last couple of years we’ve seen huge growth in the memoir category, in all of those areas. We’ve had good celebrity memoirs (Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, etc), good event-based memoir (American Sniper, Lone Survivor, etc), and good memoirs from writers (Ann LaMott, Annie Dillard, etc).

 

When I saw to be wary of “personal stories,” I’m talking about people who aren’t creating a memoir, but wanting to write a book that basically says, “Here is what happened to me, and it’s cool.” It’s generally linear. It might have some lessons to share, but rarely touches on many deeper themes. The writing is pedestrian – more of a prescriptive how-to book than reflective musing. These aren’t discreet categories, of course – is Lone Survivor a deeper memoir or simply a scary retelling of how Marcus Luttrell survived? But by and large we see personal stories as someone who has gone through something they found profound, and they want to tell their story because their friends have said to them, “You should write a book!” And, in my view, those books rarely get picked up.

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Someone asked, “What is Bookspan? What all do they do? And how do you get picked up by them?”

 

Do you remember the old Book of the Month Club? Or the Literary Guild? Well, Bookspan purchased and combined those companies, along with the History Book Club, the Mystery Guild, the Military Book Club, Crossing Christian books, and just about every other mail-order book club. They own 19 of those, at last count, are privately owned, and they contract with all the major publishers to produce and sell books. They have on very rare occasions contracted a couple of self-published books, but that is not how they normally acquire titles.

 

Someone sent this: “Do you think a Facebook tour can be useful for marketing your novel? I had a friend offer to post things on FB, because she doesn’t have a blog, and I wondered if it might be helpful.”

 

I want to think that Facebook can be useful for marketing a novel, but I’m not seeing much empirical evidence that confirms it (and believe me, I’ve looked). My guess is that Facebook is one good strategy for getting the word out to your friends upon your novel’s release. Used in conjunction with other marketing strategies, it probably helps. But does a Facebook-focused marketing strategy work? Not in a big way, in my view. It needs to be one plank in a larger platform. But I tell you what… I’m going to ask a couple marketing professionals what they think about this question, and come back to it, okay?FB-f-Logo__blue_512

 

And here’s one that’s a bit off the beaten path: “Do you have any counsel on how to edit systematically–with a goal of editing the same document a dozen times (or less) rather than twenty, thirty, or forty?”

 

Hmmm… I could think of a few tricks that might make the editing process easier. First, put other eyes on it. That is, get some other people to read it and comment, or simply hire a freelance editor to clean it up. That will speed things up. Second, create an editorial list of things you want to check for each time – homonyms, numbers, the use of the word “that,” circle all your adjectives, etc. Your list will be different than mine, of course, but figuring out what you need to check for can be helpful, and can speed things up.

 

A fascinating question from an author: “How do I know a good agent from a bad one? I’m unpublished, but looking for an agent for a teen girl book. Any advice?”

 

Sure. Let’s set some basic rules: First, I think there’s no one agent that’s a fit for every author. Second, you’ll do best if you know what you need in an agent, in order to find who is a “good” agent for you. So I think to find a good agent, you need to know yourself and how an agent can best help you. Do you need someone with whom you can talk through ideas? Do you most need an editor? Do you need someone who focuses on contracts and negotiations? Do you need a career counselor? Do you need a personal manager? Do you need someone who can manage things beyond book contracts – speaking engagements, money management, etc.? Figuring out who you are and what you need allows you to start doing some substantive research on the various agents out there. It can even help you decide that you don’t need an agent at all.pen and ink

 

But third, there are certainly some basic expectations every author should expect from a “good” literary agent: A knowledge of the current market. An ability to evaluate the salability of your idea. Some sort of helpfulness on your ideas and writing. Connections to editors and publishers. Experience with publishing contracts. An ability to negotiate. A willingness to take your part and handle the difficult discussions that tend to arise in every author/publisher relationship. Perspective on the big picture of your career and the current market. Integrity in handling author monies. Honesty with you about your manuscript and your place in the world of publishing. A guarantee that they won’t charge you a fee or make a secret profit from any transaction on your work. If you’re interested in this topic, I urge you to visit the Association of Author Representatives website at aaronline.org, and check out the “agent’s code of ethics” on the first page. It lays out what every author should expect (and, um… NOT every agent abides by it).

 

And this reader offers a wonderful suggestion: “I think it would be fun to ask your readers to write in and compile a ‘best of’ blog with a list of favorite books or writing resources. My favorite books on the craft of writing are Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne MaMott’s Bird by Bird, and I would be interested to hear what other informed blog readers think. For that matter, it would be fun to find out their favorite conference is.”

 

Love the idea. So to readers of this blog, what’s your favorite writing resource? And what is the best writing conference you’ve attended?

 

Ask the Agent: Are things getting better? (and other questions)

March 9th, 2015 | Agents, Current Affairs, Proposals | 5 Comments

This question was sent to my personal email: “Do you think there is any rush for an established writer to get his/her next book published in the current climate? That is, are things likely to get better or worse in the next few months?”

 

My crystal ball is in the repair shop, so I don’t know what the next few months will bring. If I guessed, I’d probably get it wrong. But no, I don’t think there’s any rush to get your next book published. Every writer who has worked with me has heard me say something numerous times: Good is better than fast. I’d rather an author took the time to make something really good than to rush it out quickly.

 

And this came in as well: “I was wondering what your advice would be to an unpublished writer interested in writing a 3-book series. I understand those are much harder to sell, and publishers prefer if each book ties up the story enough that they can be read individually/out-of-order.”

 

What’s easier to sell – a car, or a fleet of cars? When you’re starting out, it’s much easier to sell ONE book. That doesn’t mean it can’t be the first part of a series (and you may very well want to mention that when you create your proposal, pointing out the sequel possibilities so that the publisher knows what would come next if they were to contract the book). But keep in mind when creating a series that most publishers want each book to stand on its own. So the first book in your proposed series needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And your second book needs to be the sort of project that readers can pick up, get into the story, and appreciate without feeling as though they’re stepping into the middle of something they don’t understand, or that doesn’t really offer a satisfying ending. It’s not impossible to start your career with a series, but the bar is set higher – the publisher is going to look for outstanding writing and a very salable story.

 

This question was a bit out of the ordinary: “Would you please tell me how to set up a proper proposal for a gift book?”

 

A gift book proposal will have many of the same elements that any other nonfiction book proposal will include: title, overview of the book, a description of the takeaway, notes on the audience, author bio, an outline or table of contents, comparable titles, and some sample text. If there is artwork or some sort of high design element, you may include some thoughts on the look of the finished project, but I wouldn’t get married to any particular concept – most gift book publishers have art directors that understand the look their audience is going for. The key questions with most gift books are “what is the gift-giving occasion?” and “who is going to purchase this book?” Gift book publishers are looking for book ideas that have clear answers to those questions. A high school or college graduation is a clear gift-giving occasion. So is a wedding or the birth of a baby. “People who might need some encouragement” is not a clear gift-giving occasion, and will need to have something special for it to merit consideration.

 

Someone came onto the website and said this: “I see that you are not taking manuscripts from unpublished authors, which I can respect. But can you suggest a place that an unpublished author can submit work or search for an agent?”

 

We stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts several years ago, when it became clear that we needed a part-time editor to do nothing but respond to the hundreds of proposals being sent our way. That isn’t cost-effective – particularly when you consider very few of the over-the-transom proposals were projects we wound up representing. So most of the people I represent were recommended by someone I’m already working with. These days, the best place to connect with an agent is probably at a writing conference or an industry event. If you write romance, for example, there are dozens of agents at the RWA national conference in July each year. Do some research, figure out who might be a good fit for your work, and set up a time to meet with them.

 

A good friend sent me this (and gave me permission to use it on the blog): “I’d love to have a bestseller, but the reality is I’d settle for a decent living… is that still within reach?”

 

Sure it is. But writing is art, and it’s never been easy to make a living at art. (How many people who can dance well make a living at dance? How many people who can sing well or play the piano make a living at music?) Publishing, like every other art form, is dominated by a few who do extremely well. You can count the number of million-selling novelists over the past few years on two hands, but I think there are more writers than ever who are actually making a living with their words. Most of them are hybrid – that is, they do some traditional publishing as well as selling a bunch of copies of their self-pubbed titles – and many are doing short form writing such as essays and articles, as well as writing books. It’s hard, and if you’re one of the people who read this blog writing fiction for CBA, it’s become exceptionally hard due to the decline of the inspirational fiction market. But that’s tidal. The tide has gone out… it will come back in, given time.

It’s “Ask an Agent” time!

March 2nd, 2015 | Agents, Career, Deep Thoughts, Questions from Beginners, The Writing Craft | 8 Comments

I’ve got a new book coming out very soon — How can I find an agent? (and 101 other questions asked by writers). In celebration of that, I thought we’d take the month of March and just answer the agent questions you’ve got. So if there’s something you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent, this is your chance. Drop a note in the “comments” section, or send me an email at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com. I’ll try to get to as many questions as I can. So let’s get started with some of the questions people have already sent in…

A friend wrote to say, “I’ve noticed that agents at conferences will list several genres they’re interested in, but rarely see any specifications about the exact type of books that interest them. I write YA – can I pitch them ANY YA novel?”

 

The conference often asks agents to briefly list what we’re looking for. They usually don’t give us room to offer a lot of detail. So, for example, I represent romance novels, but there are some areas of romance I don’t really work with (paranormal, for example). There’s no method for offering much beyond a quick description, so I’m always happy to talk with any romance writer who stops by, and will try to help or steer him or her in the right direction, if I can. From my perspective, if an agent says he or she represents YA, then set up an appointment to go talk through your project and ask questions.

 

This came in on my Facebook page: “How do I get what’s in my head onto paper in a way that will grab the reader’s attention?”

 

Great voice… and that’s easier said than done. I’ve never been sure if we can teach an author how to have great voice. We can help writers improve, help them use better technique, better structure, a more active voice. We can help them come up with a stronger story, more interesting characters, and a better setting. But what sets a book apart in my view is usually the voice of the writer, and I’m just not sure we can make an author sound different (though I do think that, with practice, we can sometimes help an author discover his or her voice). To get a better handle on this, think about American Idol, which, as I write this, has just started to shrink their list of singers. All of the singers in the current 24 can sing. But some have a more interesting, more powerful, or more unique voices. God just made them that way. They all can train to improve their sound, or use better breathing technique or something, but the basic quality of their voice is God-given. I’ve often wondered if writers are the same way.

 

This also came in on Facebook: “What makes a ‘killer’ One Sheet?”

 

You may not like my answer: I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “killer” one-sheet. That is, they don’t land you a deal, they just help you take the next step. For those who don’t know, a one-sheet is a one page overview of your novel. It offers a brief description of your story, gives some detail on genre, word count, and audience, and tells something about the author. Often it’ll have some sort of graphic element to make it visually interesting. They tend to be used as a means of introducing a novel to an editor or agent at a conference. But they’re just an introduction – if they’re good, they will encourage the editor to look at the formal proposal. So I guess the best one-sheets are the ones that make the story sound interesting enough they get me to take the next step.

 

And this question was asked on my Facebook page: “Every agent I talk to says they can’t sell what I write. How do I overcome that?”

 

Um… write something else? I’m not trying to sound snotty, but if you keep hearing people say they can’t sell it, you’re either going to have to self-publish it, wait and hope to meet someone else, or write something they CAN sell.

 

Someone sent me this: “As an avid reader–about two thrillers a week–I am curious what your thoughts are about something. How does a poorly written book make it to the NY Times bestseller list, and riveting page-turners languish in obscurity? I just read a so called ‘thriller’ that has garnered close to 400 good reviews on Amazon and is on the NYT bestseller list. Besides the fact that the book reads like a rough first draft, as an ex-NYC cop I can attest to the fact that the author knows absolutely nothing about his subject matter, and even less about how police officers interact with the public and each other. On the other hand, I recently read two great thrillers by a new author who has garnered about 50 reviews on Amazon but no one seems to have heard of him. This sort of thing puzzles me. Thoughts?”cartoon

 

Life ain’t fair. Every agent can tell you of great authors he or she has represented that languished, and of weak writers who surprised us all by hitting a bestseller list. EL James sold millions of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book I felt could have been written by a world-wise fifth grader, while Abha Dawesar’s fabulous Family Values is far more interesting and entertaining, written with polish and grace, and, while recognized by reviewers as a wonderfully written piece, has never hit a bestseller list. Like I said, life ain’t fair. Or, as the wonderful essayist HL Mencken once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

 

 

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What does a Good Agent/Author Relationship Look Like?

November 10th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Questions from Beginners | 5 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “Can you tell me what a good author/agent relationship should look like?”

I can try. Keep in mind that there’s no “perfect agent style” that suits everyone. One writer needs an agent who is a strong editor-and-story-idea person, another writer needs an agent who is a contracts-and-negotiation person, and a third writer needs an agent who is counselor-and-chief-supporter. It’s why I always encourage authors to think carefully about what they need in a literary agent. I consider myself a good agent, having done this job for a long time, contracted a lot of books, and developed a good track record of success. But I’ll be the first to say I’m not the agent for everybody. My style doesn’t fit every author, nor can I provide everything each author needs. So sometimes I’ll meet a writer whose work I like, but we’ll both feel the vibe is wrong. We have to get along personally as well as professionally. Other times the author has expectations I know I can’t meet (such as wanting me to edit their entire manuscript). So finding a good agent is like finding a good friend — what works for you might not work for your neighbor.

A good author/agent relationship is usually one in which expectations are clear, and the agent helps the author succeed in those areas they’ve decided to focus on. It might be story development, or editing and fine-tuning a manuscript, or support and encouragement, or career management, or contract advice, or… the list is as varied as authors want to make it. If you don’t really know what you need, you’ll find yourself just going with someone you like, or someone your friends like.

Keep in mind that most working literary agents come from one of four backgrounds. They are either (1) a former editor, so they have strong words skills, or (2) a former writer, so they understand what it’s like to make a living with words, or (3) a lawyer or someone attached to a lawyer’s office, so they have good experience with contracts, or (4) a former agent assistant, who came up through the ranks of the agency and has never worked outside of the agency (this last category is relatively new, but over the last 15 or 20 years we’ve seen bright college grads hired as Junior Associates and work their way up to become a full-fledged literary agents). I suppose the most common type is “former editor” and the least common is “former writer.” I was a Senior Editor a couple places and an Associate Publisher with Time-Warner, but my real training for this job was as a freelance writer. Amanda Luedeke got her start in corporate marketing, which is a bit different, but at the same time, her marketing career was due to her way with words. You could say she made her living as a writer before becoming an agent. Erin Buterbaugh interned with an agency and then spent some years doing freelance writing for curriculum companies. So she would be a mix of numbers two and four.

So perhaps one of the uniquenesses of our agency is that we all made our living at writing, and we understand what it’s like to cobble together a living by writing. (I’m sorry if that sounds like a commercial — it’s not meant that way.) My point is that you’ll be better off if you’ve done some research and figured out what sort of skills you may be looking for in an agent, as well as what sort of relationship you expect to have.

Of course, each writer has strengths and weaknesses, and each agent has strengths and weaknesses, and you try to match things up so that you’re a fit. My style may be a bit too blunt for one author, and too laid-back for another. But that’s part of what picking friends is all about — finding someone who fits. This is a business relationship, in many ways almost a partnership, and you don’t want to partner with just anybody.

Ask the Agent: What do you look for in a query?

October 8th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Proposals, The Writing Craft | 4 Comments

I recently had an online discussion with a writers’ group, and they had several questions for me…

What are the three most important things you look for in a query?

A strong writing voice, clarity of argument (if nonfiction) or story (if fiction), and author platform.

How important are queries to your agency? 

I use them as ways to look for talent. Of the queries that come in cold (that is, not introduced by authors I already represent, and not someone I met and spoke with at a conference), the percentage of queries that turn into clients is very low.

What experience is worth mentioning in a query?

Anything you’ve had published is worth mentioning. Anything that reveals a big platform is worth mentioning.

Do you think going to conferences and making connections is a better way to meet agents than querying them?

Absolutely. Being face to face with someone, in order to gauge personality and likability and trust, is far more important than choosing someone off the web. I think going to conferences is a GREAT way to connect with agents and editors.

What subjects and genres are currently overdone in the queries you see?

I don’t know that anything is overdone at the moment. Tastes change. Every generation needs its own voices. We see new ideas break out, and we’re always surprised. I know some people will say “dystopian is overdone,” or “Amish fiction is overdone.” They might be… until somebody creates one that sells well. (Having noted this, I’ll admit I hate the question, which get frequently. The fact is, we’re always surprised at the latest breakout hit.)

Which genres do you deserve a comeback? What genres would you like to see in queries?

Beats me what deserves a comeback. Chick-lit is making a comeback as romantic comedy. I suppose I’d like to see westerns and spy novels make a comeback.

Which genres will the public never tire of?

We love romance. We love redemption stories. We love justice. We love seeing characters we like grapple with powers greater than themselves and win against long odds. We love a great, pulse-pounding thriller. We love mysteries getting solved, whether by smart amateurs or methodical types. We love people making sacrifices for something greater than themselves. We love people facing the great questions of life and making choices, then exploring the ramifications of those choices.

So when thinking about queries coming across your desk, should we follow the trends or write what we want to write?

I think authors are given stories, and must write the stories they are given. That said, I think authors who read widely, and who read great writing of others, are given more and greater stories. Following trends might get you a deal sometime, but writing what you want to write will help you create a career. My two cents.

What five things do you consider “must haves” when you are reviewing a query or manuscript?

Great, unique voice. Interesting characters that I like. A story structure I can follow. A significant plot or conflict. A great theme.

What five things guarantee a trip to the trash bin?

Grammar/spelling/punctuation errors. Guaranteeing me this will be a blockbuster, or that God told you to write to me. Weird fonts and formats. An arrogant attitude (particularly people who don’t want to listen to advice). Sending me poetry and other stuff I don’t represent. (true story: I just got an email that read, “While I know you don’t normally represent poetry, I thought you might be interested in my epic poem about…” — yeah, because making it longer will get me to love it.)

How much does a killer first line matter to you? Is it a deal breaker?

It’s not a deal breaker, but I LOVE a great opening line. I collect great opening lines. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of great writing. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” “It was bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (I could go on.)

What do you recommend for a writer who wants to improve his or her craft?

Write more. (I find most writers write a bit, but the best writers tend to have written a LOT.) Read more. (I find most every writer reads some, but the best writers tend to have read a LOT, and have read WIDELY and not just in their genre.) Shut up and listen to advice. Learn to mimmic others, just to see what it’s like to be someone else. (Great art tends to be derivative.) Study great writers, to see what you can glean from them.

What inner qualities do you see in your most successful authors?

What a fabulous question. Um…. a longing for truth. A willingness to work hard. A desire to improve. An attitude that listens and doesn’t get whiny every time somebody suggests an editorial change. A desire to explore the big questions. A boldness to be brave and try something new.

What attitudes are career killers for writers?

I know it all. I don’t have to listen. I can write now so I’ll wait for my muse. My work is better than all those schmucks selling books because it’s Great Art.

Do you ever tell anyone they do not possess talent for writing?

Not often. But yes, I have, and it’s always hard. And sometimes I just have to say, “There’s nothing I can really do with this. It’s not a fit for me. Sorry.” Think of this as singing — if the person really can’t carry a tune, or has no sense of rhythm, at some point they need to hear, “You can’t sing — there’s no career here. There’s not even a hobby here. Let me suggest you get off the stage and look for something else.”

Do you believe that writing skills taught are more important than raw talent?

Sure. Raw talent puts you ahead in high school. After that it won’t get you very far. You write more, you train, you improve, you develop your skills. Who wants to be 40 and still a fine high school writer?

How much does an author platform play into your decision to represent an author?

For nonfiction, it’s the first question I’ll be asked, so it matters. And now I’m starting to be asked that question of fiction authors. So platform matters to novelists as well. You have to mention it in your nonfiction query — you may or may not in a fiction query. And a “platform” is just a number — how many people read your blog? how many read your articles? your newspaper column? how many hear you speak at conferences? how many listen to you on the radio? how many are you connected to through Pinterest? through your organizations? through [fill in the blank]? Those are all numbers. Add them up, and you have your platform. (And here’s a hint: the bigger the number; the happier the publisher will be.)

If I have a growing platform and a number of 5-star Amazon reviews, how do I make the leap from a small, internet-based publisher to a larger, traditional publisher?

That’s a very fair question, but you may or may not like my response… You either sell a boatload of books and say to a publisher, “See? I can sell a lot of books!” (which may mean you don’t need the publisher anyway; that you can just self-pub and make the money you need), OR you put together a great book and proposal, get an agent who believes in you, and approach publishers with it. But, um, I have to tell you that publishers and agents tend to be less than impressed with five-star reviews on Amazon these days. Too many have been generated by the author (or the author’s best buddies), so that they aren’t genuine. They’re nice, of course, but no publisher buys your next book because your last one got a pile of five star reviews. They need THIS book to be great. (And, of course, the first thing they’ll ask is, “Can you tell us about that growing platform you mentioned?”)

If there are no new ideas for writers, how do we come up with original stories?

Who said there are no new ideas? For that matter, who says we need new ideas? Every romance is about two people meeting, getting pulled apart by something, but needing to be together because… geez, because we ALL want to have a magical romantic story like that. Every health book is about eating less and moving more. Every finance book is about spending less and saving more. I think chasing after the latest idea is a trap. You’ll all be better off becoming great writers, and writing the best story you have, in my view. I hope this helps.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask an agent? 

Ask the Agent: How has the role of an agent changed?

October 6th, 2014 | Agents | 11 Comments

I’ve had several people write me to ask, “How has the role of a literary agent changed in the new world of publishing?” 

I was happy to get this question (and several similar questions), because I was at a conference a while back, and someone asked it of a panel I was on. As soon as it was asked, I was thinking the agents would jump in and start talking about the changes to our role… but then I realized that, on this particular panel, I was sitting with several newer agents, and I don’t know if they had the work experience to offer a good response. The microphone was at the far end of the stage, and I listened to four people say, “I think the role of the agent is still the same as it always was.”

I just sat there, shocked. But after four people had responded, I didn’t feel I could jump in and say, “Everyone here is wrong! They don’t know what they’re doing!” In retrospect, I should have found a way to say something. You see, I’ve been agenting for sixteen years now, and my role has changed completely. The job isn’t at all the same as it was when I started. I think every aspect of publishing is in a state of evolution (perhaps a state of revolution) at the moment. The role of authors has changed — they are now marketers and business persons. The roles of the bookseller, the editor, and the publisher have all been changing. So it would only make sense that the role of the agent would also have been significantly changed.

I spend a lot of my time talking with authors about marketing and platforms. I spend a fair bit of time talking with authors their careers, their indie or hybrid publishing plans. Career and list management, marketing and platform development, are all things that take up a lot of my day – and things we rarely discussed fifteen years ago. Sure, I still have to sharpen proposals, meet with editors, show them projects I think are a fit, and negotiate deals, but the role has changed considerably.

Remember, there’s no one correct way to agent (just as there’s no one correct way to edit or sell or write), but I’d say any good agent these days should be able to do several things:

-recognize good, salable writing (and help the author focus his or her time on those projects),

-know the market and have relationships with the people who are decision makers in the industry,

-be able to develop and package a proposal and manuscript,

-assist with the overall planning of a career, and offer guidance on career management (including branding and strategic direction),

-offer input into marketing and brand management,

-know contracts and be able to negotiate effectively,

-be able to sell sub rights, dramatic rights, and foreign rights,

-and step in and handle disagreements or say the hard things.

 

Of course, not all agents do everything (or do everything well). And not all authors need the same thing. One author needs an agent to be a coach and encourager; another needs an agent to be a business manager.

And yes, to answer the question that’s the elephant in the room, I think there are times an author doesn’t need an agent at all. I’m not an Agent Evangelist. Some people can manage this without an agent, though they will probably want marketing, career, and technical help at time. (And I think it’s only fair to note that nearly every big, successful author has an agent. Even today, in the age of hybrid authors, and with stories of authors making piles of cash on Amazon.) So for some writers, I’m becoming the indie-publishing career assistant and sometime-consultant. Amanda, who works with me, fulfills that same role with authors. I’m not afraid of it – I just think that’s the way the role of literary agent has moved.

 

What question do YOU have of literary agents?