Archive for the ‘Career’ Category

How do I fire my agent without hurting any feelings?

October 19th, 2015 | Agents, Career, The Business of Writing | 4 Comments

Someone wrote to say, “I have published one nonfiction book, and have a contract for another.  But I’m not happy with my agent, and would like to change. What suggestions can you give me to make this happen without hurting feelings?”

You want advice for ending a relationship with no hurt feelings? I have none. The end of any relationship usually has some hurt feelings. If you’re decided, I’d bet that there will be some pain. But before you move forward with that, I’d like you to consider something… 

Most of the time an author wants to fire an agent it’s because some expectation wasn’t met — the project didn’t go out fast enough, the phone calls weren’t frequent enough, the money wasn’t great enough. The frustration builds, and they eventually get to the point where someone says, “That does it — I’m leaving!” But in my experience, having a good conversation can often clean up the bulk of the problems. (Not always, but a lot of the time.) So go back and talk to your agent before racing into this decision. And by the way, having clear expectations, for what both sides want, can resolve a lot of issues. Frequently a good conversation about the struggles you’re having will give the agent a better picture of how to move forward with you.

Case in point: I once had an author fire me and state, “You can never remember my children’s names!” My response was something along the line of, “Um… you have children?” I didn’t realize that part of the relationship was so important to her — turns out she felt it was critical. Now I try to do a better job of gauging what each author wants. Just so you know, there is no “one right way” to have an agent/author relationship, just like there’s no “one right way” to have any friendship. Each is unique.

So make sure you talk through the issues before you jump into a decision. With that in mind, let me offer a few guidelines for trying to move forward…

First, be clear. If your agent hasn’t emailed you frequently enough, say something like, “I’d prefer if I heard from you more often.” Get the issues out on the table. Last year I had an author complain to me about her agent. I encouraged the author to talk about her expectations clearly with her agent. She did, the two of them worked it out, and all is now well. As in most relationships, if you don’t have a clear airing of issues, it’s just about impossible to resolve the issues. 

Second, be honest. I had an author approach me a few years ago and describe this difficult event she’d had with her agent. That agent happened to be a friend of mine, and when we were chatting one time, the author’s name came up. Turns out that event never actually happened — the author was simply unhappy, and decided to make up a story in order to get out of the relationship. Hey, just tell the truth. If something happened that you didn’t like, talk about it. Perhaps there’s an explanation that will make things better. Maybe there are simply differing assumptions. 

Third, be reasonable. I know an author who wanted to fire her agent because he didn’t get her a deal in 15 days — on a project that smply didn’t merit that sort of pace. They say pride goes before a fall, so try to keep your ego and expectations in check a bit. Sometimes patience is all that’s needed — publishing is a slow business. And decisions I’ve raced into tend to be the ones I regret. A writing project, even a great writing project, can often take some time to sell. Don’t be in a hurry to change agents just because things haven’t gone as fast as you’d hoped. 

Of course, there are times where things just don’t work out. Two people don’t get along the way they thought they would, or an agent has tried and simply can’t sell a particular author. If you’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just not working, then talk about it with your agent. Neither side really wants to stay in a relationship that’s frustrating. In the end, you’ll need to write a polite letter that basically says, “Thanks for all your good efforts, but I’m going to go a different direction.” Make sure you’re contractually clear to move on, then try to end cleanly. Don’t burn bridges in this business.

Got a question about publishing or writing? Send it along and I’ll do my best not to screw up the answer.

I can’t make sense of my royalty statement!

October 12th, 2015 | Career, The Business of Writing | 3 Comments

A regular reader of this blog sent me a note that said, “I get a royalty report twice a year from my publisher, but I don’t really understand it. What tips can you give me for reading a royalty report?”

I swear some companies hire Obfuscation Technicians, just to try and make royalty reports hard to decipher. And remember, each company has their own format for royalty statements, so it doesn’t always pay to compare, say, a Hachette royalty report to a MacMillan royalty report. Many authors simply get confused when trying to dig into the details of the thing. Even an experienced author will complain that the Random House statements don’t look anything like the HarperCollins statements, which are different from the Simon & Schuster statements. And, unfortunately, some of the smaller companies seem to be purposefully trying to make them impossible to read. (One mid-sized publisher just revised theirs — and they are now worse than ever.)

In addition, there are some companies that do a good job of breaking things down (like Harlequin), but may not do a good job of aggregating the numbers — so you can see a book did great in large print, but you can’t actually see how many copies it has sold overall. Some companies do a wonderful job of telling you how your book did this quarter, but they fail to include life-to-date information. Ugh.
With all that crud in mind, there are about ten questions I need to keep whenever I approach any royalty statement…

1. Who is the author?
2. What is the project?
3. How many copies sold?
4. In what formats?
5. What was the royalty rate(s)?
6. How much money did it earn this period?
7. What was the opening balance?
8. How much is being paid now?
9. Is any being held back? (a provision allows the publisher to retain some of the earned money in case of future returns)
10. Is any money yet to earned out on this title?

Of course, there are some other questions you’ll want to consider:
Is there sub-rights income or other format income?
What was the retail price of the book in this format?
Are there sales descriptions that are helpful?
What are the life-to-date (LTD) sales of the book?
Are the trends for this title going up or down?
Is there some aspect we should be aware of? (For example, it’s exploding as an e-book, or an organization bought 5000 copies.)

Again, each company has its own format for royalty reports. And until very recently, they were all sending them by hard copy (we’re just now seeing several of the publishers go to digital royalty reports, which should be faster and more searchable, as well as being more eco-friendly). So there’s no “one right way” to approach a royalty report. Still, if you go into your royalty statement with those questions, it’ll start to make sense, no matter who sent it. You’ll be able to figure out how many copies sold, how much money it made, how much is being paid to you, and if it’s earned out. (Historically only about one quarter of all books earn out their advances, though that’s changing in the new publishing economy of smaller advances.)

Of course, that’s just the start… because once you have those basic questions, you NOW have to look carefully at the statement, make sure it accurately reflects the royalties promised in the contract, and do the math. Does it add up? They frequently don’t, and you have to figure out why. And yes, for those who are new to the industry, you need to know that we frequently find errors in royalty statements. The rates are wrong, the math has errors, or payments are missing or credited incorrectly. Remember, the people plugging in the numbers are human, and handling thousands of titles, so errors are going to occur.

So, yes, royalty statements have problems. And yes, that’s why someone needs to be in charge of reviewing all your royalty statements — if not your agent, then you do it yourself. There is software that can track it carefully, but it’s generally expensive and, in my view, redundant to what most agents can do quickly.

Hope this helps us have a discussion… You’re welcome to ask follow-up questions!


If I’m a CBA novelist, can I cross over to the general market?

October 5th, 2015 | Career, CBA | 34 Comments

Recently I’ve had several people send me a version of this question: “You seem to be one of the few literary agents who works in the general market (what a lot of people call the ABA) as well as working in the Christian market (the CBA). I’ve published two books in CBA, but think my next book fits more of a general market audience. My question: is ‘crossing over’ from CBA to ABA a reality?”

Okay, I’ve answered this question a couple times, so even if you’re not terribly religious, stay with me for a minute…. I think this stuff is interesting to talk about. First, for those not in the know, I represent books in both the CBA and the general market. There aren’t many agents who do that, so I’m very much in the minority. Second, in case you don’t know, CBA is the Christian Booksellers Association, and it’s the realm of all things faith-based in publishing. ABA is the American Booksellers Association, and it’s sometimes used (though less and less) as a descriptor for the general, non-religious world of publishing. Third, if you’ll indulge me, let me offer a theological reflection that speaks to this issue of CBA and ABA books: Christianity teaches that when you meet God, you are changed. (I don’t care if you believe that or not, just hear the argument.) A Christian would argue that everything about you is different, because you’ve been exposed to God. So, from a theologian’s perspective, a Christian probably won’t be completely understood by those who are not Christians. He or she is speaking a different language. And any cultural anthropologist till tell you that the longer you’re a Christian, the fewer non-Christian friends you have, and therefore the less you have in common. So you’ll have a tough time communicating with non-Christians in language they’ll understand.

Still with me? Okay (done with the theology lesson), from an agent’s perspective, many faith-based writers simply don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to writing for non-Christian readers. They aren’t part of the non-fatih world, they don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with non-Christian people, they don’t watch non-religious TV or listen to radio programming that’s antithetical to their beliefs. In essence, they CAN’T speak to that group, because they don’t know the language. Picture this for a minute — imagine a Moslem, who had been raised in an Islamic home, who lives his entire life surrounded with Islamic influences, suddenly announcing he wants to write a book that appeals to a Christian audience, since there seem to be so many Christians who need to hear the message of Islam. Or imagine a novelist who has never been a church-goer, who doesn’t know the first thing about organized religion, suddenly being asked to write a novel about the pastor of a small-town congregation.

See the problem? It’s hard to cross cultural lines. I was in a meeting a few years ago with a well-known Christian personality who wanted to “write a book for the general market.” She was big news, so we were all excited… until we saw her idea. It was basically an outline drawn from the book of James, with verses to support every point. When I tried to explain to her why that book would NEVER be picked up by the general public, she didn’t understand me. “But it’s TRUTH,” she argued. “It’s GOD’S truth, and people will see that if they would pick it up and read it!” You see, she just didn’t grasp the fact that the majority of readers won’t listen to that argument (just as she wouldn’t listen if a moslem author wrote a book explaining why Mohammed was God’s prophet). The general book culture isn’t interested in books from a strict evangelical viewpoint. Other Christians may be, but the general reading public is not. And that’s an issue I face regularly with faith-based authors.

So no, for most religious writers, “crossing over” is a very, very difficult task. Sure, it happens occasionally, but it’s rare. Nobody really thought Left Behind or The Purpose Driven Life were going to sell millions of copies to non-religious readers. Those books did, but I know the publishers didn’t have any clue that was going to happen when they first contracted those books. Maybe (if you’re a Christian) that’s the sovereignty of God at work. Maybe (if you’re not a Christian) that was end times lunacy and dumb luck. 90 Minutes in Heaven has sold millions of copies to people who are interested in the concept of an afterlife, but I happen to know the publisher was shocked at the public’s embracing of that book. The Shack has sold 6 million copies or so, to Christians as well as non-Christians who were interested in spiritual things. So it happens occasionally. And sometimes a very good writer (a Sue Monk Kidd or a Susan Meissner) will write a book that moves them out of the CBA market and into a broader readership. But, generally speaking, the Christian writers who are read by a non-religious audience [a list that would include CS Lewis, L’Engle, LaMott, O’Connor, Percy, Sayers, Tolkein, Wangerin, et al] are not writing “Christian” books. They’re simply writing great stories.

Nobody thought the Harry Potter books were going to have such a wide appeal to adults, or that a YA novel like The Hunger Games would break out to such an extent. But that’s the beauty of publishing — you write your best book, aim it at your audience, and sometimes you get surprised. In my view you don’t normally design a book to sell to both the religious and the non-religious market. Why? Because, most of the time, it just won’t work.

Happy to respond to questions or read your comments on the topic…

How much should I charge when I speak?

September 28th, 2015 | Career | 2 Comments

I’ve had several people write to me recently and ask about what to charge when they speak. I’ve talked about a system for thinking this through in the past, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to re-play a blog post from a couple years ago… When someone wrote to say, “I’ve been asked to speak several times since my book came out — some large venues, some very small. My problem is that I don’t know what to charge when I speak? A flat fee? A sliding scale? Is there some guidance you can give me?”
Happy to begin this conversation. Okay… start to think about creating a matrix for your speaking events:
First, there are certain topics you speak about. (We’ll name those A, B, C, D.)
Second, there are lengths of time you can do each one — for example, let’s say you can talk about Topic A for 30 minutes, for 2 hours, or for an entire weekend retreat, but you can only talk about Topic B in a couple one-hour blocks of time, so you could do a one-hour or two-hour chunk of content; and Topic C is nothing more than a 20 to 40 minute casual talk.
Third, you create a list of those options… You’ve got A1 (30 minutes of Topic A), A2 (2 hours on Topic A), A3 (a whole day on Topic A), B1, B2, and C1, etc. Still with me? That starts to give you a matrix to figure out the topics and times.
Fourth, you need to consider how many times you speak. If they want you to just show up and give a speech, that’s X. If they want you to teach several workshops, that’s Y. If they want you for a weekend retreat, that’s Z. (This will start to get confusing, but it means you’d be doing a Y Day — several workshops, where you’ll do A2, B2, and C1, for example. If you hate my numbering, create your own that makes more sense.)
Fifth, you need to consider the venue. The bigger the venue, the more you charge. Most speakers have one to three tiers (small setting, medium sized setting, large or arena setting). Some only have two tiers, and some have a couple tiers and a retreat setting. And my friend Holly Lorincz, who spent 15 years as a speech coach, wants me to add that when you ask about the venue, make sure you ask who will be in the audience and what the controlling organization considers the goal of the speech.
Sixth and last, you need to make sure they cover your travel expenses.

Got all that?

Now when somebody calls you to speak, you or your assistant simply asks a series of questions:
–on what topic(s)?
–for how long each time?
–how many times will I speak?
–how big is the expected audience?
–and where is it?
Once you have those questions answered, it’s easy — because you have a grid you use. You just fill in the components, and you begin to see how much work is involved. Now let’s talk money…
The key money issue is called base pay. How much is your base pay for a one hour talk? Let’s say it’s $500 for an hour, or $300 for a half hour. If you make, for example, $300 for speaking one time, for 30 minutes, to a small group, and you’ve been asked to speak several times, you just have to map out the extra costs. They want you to speak once to a large group for an hour, then lead a workshop to a smaller group, then sit on a panel. It will take an entire day. And you have to fly to Atlanta to do it. I do some quick math… $500 to speak to the big group, another $400 to do the seminar, maybe $200 to do the panel. So I say to them, “That will be about a thousand dollars, plus you need to fly me coach to Atlanta and put me up for two nights. I think we can do the whole thing for about $1600.” Then they offer you $1200… and you have to decide if it’s worth it to you.
I hope I didn’t over-complicate this, but that’s the basics of how to think about charging. Once you know your base pay, it’s fairly simple: Topic + time + number + venue + travel = cost.
Does that help? Feel free to ask me questions.

What can a new writer do to get noticed by an agent?

September 21st, 2015 | Career | 4 Comments

A regular reader of the blog sent in this question: What can a new author do to get noticed by an agent or editor?

The most essential thing you can do as someone new to the industry is to be a great writer, of course. All the agents and editors have seen wannabe writers who are anxious to get published, but haven’t put in the time to really learn the craft. We see stories that have plot problems, shallow story lines, weak characters, bad dialogue, tons of description… And the surprising thing to me is that I’ll sometimes see that from a writer at a conference who is pushing hard for representation.

It’s why I’ll frequently ask people at a face-to-face meeting, “What’s your goal for this meeting?” I mean, some people at a conference are looking for me to react to their story. Others want to show me some writing and interact a bit on it. Some people just have questions about the business or their career. But if a writer sits down at a ten minute meeting and expects an agent to offer representation, that’s probably unrealistic. A much more realistic goal would be to have a discussion about the salability of your work, and see if the agent or editor wants to take a more in-depth look at some later date. Maybe have you email the manuscript to him or her.

If you want to get noticed at a conference, show up for your appointment on time. Dress professionally. Have a brief pitch prepared, and make sure you’ve actually practiced it out loud, so you know what you’re going to say. (Your family will think you’ve gone crazy for talking to yourself in the basement… but that’s okay. If you want to be a writer, you probably already qualify as “crazy.”) Do some research on the agents, to make sure you can target your pitch. (I’ve lost count how many times people have set up meetings with me at conference to talk about their poetry, or their children’s book, or their fantasy novel… even though it says clearly on our website that I don’t represent those genres.) And try to relax. Most of the editors and agents you meet at a conference are volunteering their time to be there, so they WANT to find a good writer to work with. Just think of it as a conversation, and try to engage the editor or agent a bit.

A couple other things to keep in mind: Have a great bio of yourself, and include all your writing experience — if someone is really interested in you, they’ll ask for that, so have it ready. Make sure you talk honestly about your platform — all the avenues you have for helping promote your book. It’s best if you have a story that stands out, rather than version 137 of The Same Old Thing. And be ready to talk more in-depth about your book if someone wants to have a side conversation later in the bar or restaurant — something beyond retelling the story. And, of course, if the editor suggests you make a change to your manuscript, show that you’re easy to work with and actually make the change. No manuscript is perfect — we’re all still learning and growing.

One thing to keep in mind at conferences (and I’m struggling to say this the right way)… Be pleasant. Don’t be The Weirdo We’re All Talking About In The Back Room. There’s frequently somebody like that at a conference — too friendly, too overbearing, too in-your-face. I remember one conference in Chicago where I had this guy right behind me ALL DAY LONG. Every time I turned around — BANG! There he was, smiling. The conference staff finally had to pull him aside and ask him to tone it down before I felt the need to stab him with a pencil. Another time I had a guy follow me into the men’s room, rambling on about his manuscript, and he actually slid it in front of my face as I was standing at the urinal. Let me repeat: As I was standing at the urinal. (That’s a true story, by the way. It’s become sort of apocryphal in the industry, but it really did happen to me at Seattle Pacific University about twelve years ago. I yelled at the guy, “NOT NOW!” But I wish I’d turned to face him when I said it…)

There’s really not a magic bullet for all this. We like pleasant people who we get along with and who show an ability with words. I think you stand your best chance to get noticed by an agent or editor if you spend time preparing to be that person.

All right, everyone: What advice would YOU give to a new writer?


What’s the best step for my novel writing career?

September 10th, 2015 | Career | 2 Comments

Someone wrote to me, “What do you think is the one best step I could take in my novel writing career?”  

I’ve thought about this a lot, since I represent a number of novelists. I suppose part of me wants to say to beginners, “Take a class so you’re forced to write” or “find a writing partner so you’ve got someone to hold you accountable.” But, after having mulled it over, here’s my response: Spend some time hanging out with other successful writers.  I just believe there’s value in doing that, if you want to take the next step in your career. How to do that?

First, attend a great writing conference, then force yourself to attend stuff and meet people. It just seems like most of the novelists I know (not all, but most) found their careers moved forward by a writing conference. They got a chance to learn from really good writing instructors, they got to hear about the bigger industry, and they got to rub shoulders with a bunch of other writers.

That last part is part is particularly important. Writing is a solitary business, and it’s easy to go into your cave, produce something, and have no context for knowing if it’s any good (besides having a firm belief in your own abilities, and a loving partner who tells you how wonderful you are). So being able to sit and talk with other writers is a blessing — you find out they are facing some of the same obstacles you are, and you’ll be encouraged by the people who overcame those problems and moved on to the next step. You’ll discover creative people who you like, and who inspire you, and who sometimes have great solutions to suggest to you. I don’t do a bunch of conferences any more, because my schedule won’t allow it, but I try to go to RWA and ACFW every year, and get to Thrillerfest or West Coast Crime or Bouchercon or one of the suspense-writers gatherings. Every other year I aim to be at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, since it’s such a fabulous gathering of great minds. And once in a while I’ll speak at a smaller conference (I did one in Portland this year), just to meet with authors and try to give back a bit. This is the end of conference season, but there will surely be a good writing conference close to you sometime in the next year — so try attending one and participating fully. It will make a difference.

The second thing I’d suggest is that you read great books. It’s another way to hang out with great writers. Don’t just read in your genre, though that’s a good place to start. Pick up GREAT literature and read it. There’s a reason a classic is called that, or why an influential book has staying power — it speaks to people about the art. Recently I’ve read a half-dozen titles that I think are wonderful novels — Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I also just read Lisa Samson’s latest, The Sky Beneath my Feet, Vince Zandri’s The Remains, and I just re-read Susan Meissner’s Girl in the Glass and Mark Bertrand’s Pattern of Wounds. All were well-written and interesting. I also read a debut novel, Holly Lorincz’s Smart Mouth (which, if you haven’t read, you should check out on Amazon — the first chapter will have you laughing out loud). And if you want a difficult, edgy bit of reading that will astound you, pick up Les Edgerton’s The Rapist. Tough title, but a fabulously well-written book. If you want to be a great writer, hang out with other great writers. My advice. (And yes, I got to represent several of these titles. I’m biased, but these are all great writers.)

There are other steps — join a writing group, develop a writing partner, write a lot, etc. But I think those are answers you’ve probably heard a bunch of times. From my perspective, the one thing that doesn’t get talked about enough with writers is the importance of hanging out with other writers and their words. You’ll get exposed to great thoughts, see words and stories in new ways, and be encouraged that there are other people just as strange as you.

Never Give up (a guest blog from Cameron Bane)

August 7th, 2015 | Career | 2 Comments

Cameron Bane is the pen-name for an author who has written several thrillers, seen mild success but a bit more failure, and is finally starting to see some movement forward in his career. We wanted to let him have the floor, to speak to those authors who have been trying for years, but have yet to see big success…

A few years ago I wrote a couple inspirational novels that sold well, but don’t really reflect my style now. The split came when I wanted to explore darker, more mature themes than that market would allow, and rather than force the issue, I simply left it. With my newer works, including PITFALL, I was looking for a pen-name that was memorable and a little dangerous-sounding; thus, Cameron Bane.

I’ve been writing professionally for more a couple of decades, with six novels commercially published. I’m also a member of the Authors Guild, and for three years I was on faculty at a nationally ranked writers conference held near Santa Fe. There I taught tracks on plotting, theme, dialogue, and character development. Also, with a background in broadcasting and journalism, I’m very comfortable in dealing with all aspects of the media. I have an active on-line presence, and I’m a member of such diverse sites as AbsoluteWrite, deCompose, and James Lileks’ blog, who’s a popular columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Finally, I’m close friends with my mentor, writer James Scott Bell, author of the popular Plot and Structure, published by Writers Digest Books.

I’ve been at this game for a long time now, and people sometimes ask me how I got started. Glad to oblige. The truth is, I’ve always liked to write, even from my early teen years when as a seventh-grader our English class was challenged by our teacher to write a one-page story each week. “Challenged” is probably the wrong word — a “requirement” is what it was, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable. After that year was over I still noodled around with writing, even starting a science fiction novel that died a squirming and well-deserved death.

Then in college I majored in film and minored in journalism, and so was handed the thankless job of student affairs editor for the school paper (“Yeah, is this Eata Bitta Pi? Cameron Bane for the Progress. You guys still planning that kegger this weekend at Marsh’s Creek? Cool…” or “Yeah, is this Tappa Kegga Bru?  Cameron Bane here for the Progress. You still planning that pool shoot-out this Friday at Dirty Ernie’s? Yeah, if it’s open competition I’ll bring my stick…” or “Yeah, is this I Felta Thi? Cameron Bane here for the Progress. You guys… ?” You get the idea. Real Pulitzer Prize stuff.

But then college was over. I got married to the best woman on the planet (still am, 46 years later), fathered two fine sons, and began running a financial planning firm (“Yeah, is this J. Jonah Gotbux? Cameron Bane here from Financial Freedom. Say, have you ever…?”)

Time passed, and my love for writing seemed to fade. But on New Year’s Day a few years later it came roaring back in an unexpected way. I was watching one of the bowl games on TV when suddenly I started seeing something different on the screen. Don’t laugh, but it was almost like I was watching a movie. During that fugue I was unaware of the passing of time. When I roused myself I found only a few minutes had passed, but amazingly I had the entire plot of a sci-fi thriller completely lined up in my head. Then it was just a matter of putting it down on paper and editing it. (Yeah… “just.”) The process took about a year.

Finding a house that would take such a controversial novel proved to be a challenge though, and it wasn’t until some time later it was eventually sold to a small house, now defunct, God-bless-their-incompetent-hearts. Once the publisher assumed room temperature, the rights were returned to me, and a year or so ago I completely revised and re-edited it, putting it up on Kindle and CreateSpace, where it’s doing very nicely, thank you. In the intervening time I wrote and sold a series of thrillers, plus for three years I taught fiction tracks at writers conferences in the Southwest. But then all the stars aligned when my uber-agent Chip Macgregor began marketing my latest novel — the first of my John Brenner suspense/thriller series. In April of this year it was picked up by WildBlue Press, and I know it’s going to soar.

So I had some success early in another genre, then saw everything fall apart, and now, after several years in a dry season, I’m making a comeback. Which brings me to the thing I’ve been wanting to say to writers: I’ve been asked if I’ve ever come close to giving up on the dream. Admittedly, sometimes, the line between throwing in the towel and coming up with one more killer sentence can be vanishingly thin. That’s then I tell those good people a story I once heard about Winston Churchill.

The time was the late fifties, and by then Churchill was quite elderly when he was asked to give the commencement address at Harrow School, where he had attended as a boy. The day came, and the auditorium was packed with students and alumni wanting to hear strong words of wisdom from the man who’d basically saved Britain during the darkest days the country had ever known.

Slowly Sir Winston took the platform. Then standing behind the podium he gazed out at the sea of faces, and setting his famous bulldog jaw he ground out these words: “Never give up. Never, never, never give up.” He fixed them with a gaze of iron. “Never.”

He said other things that day, but that’s the part of the speech everyone remembers.  And it’s the bit of wisdom I want to tell other writers who are thinking of giving up.

Never give up.

Just that.

Thursdays with Amanda: Impatient Readers Are Not The Boss of You

April 30th, 2015 | Career, Quick Tips | 4 Comments

Amanda LuedekeAmanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Have you ever said or heard a published author friend say the following?

“I have to write this spin-off book because my fans are demanding it.”

“I don’t have time for marketing right now, because my fans are going to kill me if I don’t get them the sequel asap.”

“My readers won’t stop bothering me about my character Jack! They want a book about him and I’m stressing out because I don’t know how to fit it into my schedule.”

The pressure readers can create is impressive. But it can also be distracting. 

Let’s say you’re a rock star and you’re in a big arena doing a concert. You get done with a song and are about to move on to the next one on your set list when a group of fans in row two demand a very particular song from one of your lesser-known albums. What do you do? Do you obey them at the risk of making everyone else in the stadium frustrated at you for replacing a known and loved song with one of your b-side tunes?

Or let’s get even more specific. Let’s say you were a writer for the show The Office. From season one, fans were chiding you about getting Jim and Pam together. Would you have given in to their demands even though you knew that if you dragged it out for a few seasons, it would be even more rewarding?

In both of these cases, it’s easy for us to answer with resounding NO’s. Of course you wouldn’t force a stadium full of people to listen to requests made by a few. And DUH you wouldn’t rush an on-screen romance just because avid fans are demanding it. Doing what people want when they want it is rarely the best option.

So why do new authors bend to the pressure put on them by readers?

You may think I’m joking, but I’m not! I’ve talked with countless authors who are very vocal about how their fans are demanding this or that. And in those conversations, the author, if their fan base is modest or if they’re relatively new, want to rush to comply.

But doing what fans want when they want it can derail your author career.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great when readers are so passionate about and connected to a work that they feel entitled to more of it. BUT! An author should never forego career goals or marketing efforts or other important goal-related things for the sake of appeasing a few fans. 

Whenever I hear authors talk about this pressure that their fans have created, I tell them to do three things:

  1. Remember their long-term goals. Pursuing long-term goals is much more important than throwing energy at short-term crowd-pleasers. It’s your career that is at stake here, not your readers’! So you should never do anything that deviates from your overall plan.
  2. Remember that YOU are the creator here, not them. As the example of The Office suggests, YOU know which of your ideas is strongest and YOU determine what is worth pursuing. Not your fans. You. You are the expert, the master, the artist.
  3. Stop to consider how many people are making these demands. If authors would step back and look at the number of emails and messages they’re getting from demanding readers, they would probably find that this group of fans demanding x or y is much smaller than it feels. So, this small, squeaky-wheel group is causing a disproportionate amount of guilt and responsibility and obligation for the author. When you find yourself in this kind of situation, think about what is best for your fans as a whole—not just the fans who are trying to get their way.

Remember! A few emails should not take precedence over your career.

Have you struggled with feeling as though you should appease readers? How did you handle it?

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!”
  • 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: Children’s books, writing coaches, & agents

March 17th, 2015 | Agents, Career, The Writing Craft | 4 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!