Archive for the ‘Proposals’ Category

Craft for a Conference: Part 5, The Art of Being Memorable

June 30th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome to what will probably be the conclusion of my “Craft for a Conference” series (unless someone asks a question about an aspect of conference materials that I haven’t addressed already). Through my last four posts on conference craft, I repeated one mantra: that the purpose of any material you take to a conference (including spoken pitches) should be to gain the interest of the person you’re talking to as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd (in a positive way) as much as you can. When I meet with authors at conferences, the thing I see missing from pitches/conference materials more than anything else is that memorability factor– I read a lot of good hooks, some nice one-sheets, but at the end of a day where I’ve taken 20 appointments plus heard pitches at lunch and dinner, I’m often hard-pressed to recall ONE story idea without looking at my notes.

Now, obviously, there’s an element of information fatigue at play there; even a great, memorable story can get lost in the annals of memory if I heard ten forgettable pitches after it, and that’s what my notes are for. But when I read those notes, I want to go, “OH yeah, this one!” because I recognize the unique elements that stood out for me when you pitched it. I want you to have made it easy for me to remember it by pulling out everything that is most unique and most characteristic of that story in your one-sheet or your pitch. The fact that this doesn’t happen more often tells me not that authors aren’t writing memorable stories, but that they don’t always know how to make themselves/their pitches or materials memorable, that they don’t know what elements of their book stand out from the crowd and how to highlight those.

With that in mind, here are some places to start in your quest to make your book or story stand out at a conference (or in a query letter):

  • Identify what makes it unique. What are the elements of your book that are unusual or fresh? What do you bring to your cookbook/memoir/mystery novel/romantic suspense that I haven’t seen in others? One way to identify these unique elements of your book is to ask your beta readers what stood out to them/what elements of the book they found most interesting or exciting. Though readers tend to read within the confines of certain genres, they still appreciate and are drawn to novelty within those genres– that’s why people read more than one of the same type of novel, after all. Do romance readers really want to read the same story over and over? Well, yes, in the sense that they want boy to meet girl, boy and girl to overcome problems, and boy and girl to live happily ever after, but the unique details of each basic romance story are often what determine which novel a romance reader will pick up next– if a reader has a choice between nine romance novels in which a nanny falls in love with the widowed father of one child and one in which a nanny falls in love with the widowed father of eleven children, they’ll probably pick up the one that’s a little more unexpected, a little more surprising, a little less familiar.

    That doesn’t mean that you have to change the story you have written: if you wrote a nanny-falls-in-love-with-father-of-one story, figure out what DOES set it apart from those other eight, and highlight those elements in your pitch and conference materials. Does it have a unique/unusual setting? “Katie Nana isn’t sure how she ended up providing childcare on an archeological dig in Egypt.” Memorable. Does one of the major characters have an interesting/unusual vocation or workplace? “Katie’s mom, a former soap opera star, spends her weekends reminiscing to Katie about her glory days and spends her weekdays gambling away Katie’s inheritance.” What about some quirk or characteristic on the part of a major character that adds color to the story? “Katie Nana’s photographic memory makes her a great lawyer but a lousy girlfriend– who wants to be in a relationship with a woman who can always conclusively prove that she’s right?,” or “Katie’s best friend Valerie, who’s always claimed to be psychic, says that Katie and Clint are destined to be together, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince Katie.” Mine your manuscript for pieces that stand out or that you feel add color– a talent or hobby of the protagonist, an unusual pairing, etc. If you’re having trouble determining what parts of your story are unique, take a look at what else is out there in your genre– the more you read in your genre, the more you’ll pick up on what elements stand out.

  •  Make modified or combined comparisons. One of the best ways you can communicate a lot about your story to me in very few words as well as making it memorable is to make a comparison to something I likely already am familiar with. “It’s like ________ plus ___________,” (“It’s like Pride and Prejudice plus vampires”) or “It’s like ________ meets ___________,” (“It’s like Robinson Crusoe meets The Bachelor”) or “It’s like ___________ in _________” (a different setting– “It’s like Romeo and Juliet in outer space”) or “It’s _________ if ________ were different” (“It’s Bruce Wayne’s story if his parents had never been killed and he’d never become Batman)– etc. Hang your story on a story or franchise that is already in my memory and then tweak it so I remember your part, too, not just the big name. Obviously, you’ll still need to do a little more explaining– “It’s like Robinson Crusoe meets The Bachelor; a sailor is shipwrecked on an island and lives there alone for years until a second shipwreck brings five sheltered New York debutantes on their way to tour Europe to his island.” Beware unrealistic comparisons– don’t drag in a hugely successful franchise just because you think that makes your project sound more salable. It mostly just makes you sound naive. Make sure a comparison is actually justified and that it actually helps describe your book before say that your book is “like Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings,” which doesn’t really tell me anything and makes you sound a bit like a raging egomaniac (and is an excellent example of being memorable for the wrong reasons).
  • Tell me the twist. Think about some of your favorite books or movies with surprise endings or twists to them– chances are, those twists would be some of the first things that came to mind if you were telling a friend how great such-and-such was. No one left “The Sixth Sense” and told their friends that they should go see it because “the single mom storyline was very touching and honest.” The word-of-mouth on that movie was, “YOU WON’T BELIEVE THE TWIST AT THE END!!!” If you’re hoping to make a lasting impression on an agent or an editor and your book has a great twist, a great “wow” moment, tell them about it. I’m not going to remember your cryptic, “There’s a surprise at the end,” I’m going to remember, “My main character is actually dead the whole time!” or “The narrator is actually the murderer!” Tell me right away that cool thing about your story that I would remember vividly after I’d read it, because it will also help me to remember it before I’ve read it.

Craft for a Conference: Part 4, The “Why?” of a Writing Sample

June 17th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference. Today, I’m discussing the value of bringing a writing sample with you to a conference and how to make sure it represents you effectively.

Like I said the first week of the series, there isn’t one hard-and-fast rule as to what you should bring to your editor and agent meetings at a conference. Some editors are happy to glance through a full proposal, some agents love to see a one-sheet on your project, and some people don’t want to look at anything on paper, preferring to hear you talk about your project and ask you questions instead. NONE of us wants to leave with a big stack of papers, and word is starting to get around that it’s increasingly difficult to get us to leave with any printed materials you bring us, so the practice of authors carrying around their sample chapters or first 50 pages or, heaven forbid, their full manuscript, has become much less common at conferences.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad fewer authors are trying to send me home with ten extra pounds of paper, but I have been disappointed, on many occasions, when meeting with an author who’s done a good job of hooking me with their story or concept through their one-sheet or pitch, to ask if the author has a writing sample with him and be met with a blank, slightly panicked stare and the stammered apology, “I– I didn’t know– I’ve heard you don’t want– I don’t have–” by which they mean, “No, I don’t have a writing sample, either because I didn’t expect to get this far, or because I’ve been told not to bring a big stack of paper to a meeting like this, or because I thought you would only be interested in hearing about my platform, and now I’m having a heart attack because you’re asking for something and I don’t have it and how could I blow my big chance like that, please excuse me while I go jump off a cliff.” The lesson here is that, while some editors will never ask to see a writing sample in a 15-minute meeting at a conference, some will, and you want to be equipped with a dynamite writing sample in case that happens.

There are several advantages to having a writing sample with you at a conference. As an agent, there are several scenarios in which I’ll ask to see the writing. First, I’m trying to determine whether or not I’ll be able to sell your project, so obviously, the quality of the writing is a factor there– I can’t sell a great story if it’s terribly written. Having a writing sample to show me right away adds to the impression I’m forming of you: when I get home after the conference and look over my notes from the meeting, they say “great idea, solid writing” instead of just “great idea, dot dot dot question mark,” and you have a better chance of standing out from the crowd in my memory and in the flood of material coming in after a conference.

I also want to know whether I connect with your voice as a writer– whether the way you tell your story resonates with me, whether I think I could champion you and your work to a publisher. There have been several times that I’ve met with an author at a conference and been pitched an idea that was only so-so in terms of uniqueness or saleability, but because I loved their writing/voice so much when skimming the writing sample, I’ve requested to see more/talked more with that author after the conference. I made the decision to stay in contact with those authors on the strength of their writing more than on the strength of that one idea/project.

It’s also a possibility that I’ve asked all the questions I need to about your story or your platform and already know your project isn’t going to be a good fit for me, but there’s still 7 minutes left of our meeting– in that scenario, seeing your writing can give me something constructive and concrete to offer you in terms of feedback/suggestions, so that I don’t send you away completely empty-handed. Obviously, this isn’t the ideal result of a meeting with an editor or an agent, but if you have 15 minutes with an industry professional, by all means you should be ready to take full, blatant advantage of having that opportunity to pick their brain/get their feedback on your writing, and having a writing sample with you in this situation could mean the difference between leaving disappointed 8 minutes early, and leaving still-disappointed but with some constructive pointers or specific encouragement– something with takeaway value– because they had the chance to take a look at your writing and give you their initial thoughts/suggestions.

So, you’re going to bring a writing sample to your next conference, “just in case.” What should it look like? Remember (also from the first post in this series) that the purpose of anything you bring to a conference is to get the attention/interest of an agent or editor as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd as much as you can. With that in mind, here are some things to consider when polishing and selecting a writing sample to take to a conference or include in your proposal.

  • Proofread within an inch of your life. This is where a misused word or a poorly-placed comma has the power to break you. We’re using these pages as a representative sample of your command of the English language in print, and we don’t have to find too many errors or typos to conclude that your writing isn’t ready for publication yet.
  • Demonstrate your storytelling ability. Stories are told in action and dialogue. Writing samples that start out with a bunch of descriptive, biographical backstory don’t show us that you can effectively draw the reader in to the current action/conflict, and doesn’t demonstrate your ability to bring your characters to life and make them speak and interact naturally with their environment. This is a big reason to avoid beginning your writing sample with a prologue or a scene-setting chapter– even if this is where you believe your book starts, it’s not necessarily the most effective place to start your writing sample. Show us how quickly you can immerse the reader in your story.
  • Make sure your writing voice is in evidence. Figure out what makes your writing sound like you, and then make sure the sample you’ve picked is full of whatever combination of things comprise your voice– beautiful imagery, conversational tone, dry humor, clever wit, larger-than-life characters, evocative description, raw style, etc. I want a writing sample to excite me and to stand out from the start, so don’t wait until four or five chapters in to really hit your stride/find your voice– I might not make it that far. Show me right away what makes you stand out.

Remember (also from the first post on this series) that the purpose of anything you take to a conference is to catch the interest of the reader and stand out/make a positive impression they’ll remember. Your writing sample is no exception; don’t miss out on an opportunity to give someone more reasons to remember you and your book!

 

Craft for a Conference: Part 3, Common Synopsis Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

June 9th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference, I’m talking more today about the synopsis and how to make sure it’s doing its job for your proposal. We’ll look briefly at format and then look at ways to avoid several common synopsis mistakes.

Synopsis format 

A synopsis is similar to a proposal in that there isn’t one “correct” way to format it. While there are elements that every synopsis should have in common, rarely are you going to be “disqualified” from consideration just because your synopsis isn’t formatted exactly the way that agent or editor prefers. That said, there are still a few fairly standard conventions you should be aware of:

-Synopses are often single-spaced. This may seem strange, since your sample chapters/manuscript should be double-spaced, but remember, an agent or editor is reading your synopsis to get a complete picture of your story from beginning to end– having all the info contained to a single page (as you should 9 times out of 10 be able to do for any book shorter than 100,000 words– see more below) helps us think of the book as a whole because we literally “see” it all in the same place.

-Names are often written in all-caps the first time they appear in a synopsis. Again, this is a way for the reader to visually track when a new player enters the story, and tells them to pay attention, they need to know who this person is.

–Synopses are always written in third-person present tense. Tense discrepancies in a synopsis (such as switching back and forth from past to present) interrupt our experience of the story.

Common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them

I mentioned last week the mistake of being too vague in your synopsis (writing that “tragedy strikes,” rather than “Helen dies of the fever”), but here are a few more repeat offenders from the “synopses I have known” archives:
Too long. Synopses should be comprised of two things: people, and the stuff that happens to them. The vast majority of 80,000 word books can be synopsized on ONE single-spaced page. If your book is truly non-stop action and your plot truly has dozens of twists, you may need more than one page, but we can usually meet your main players and follow the plot from beginning to end in a single page. Common culprits in a synopsis that goes longer than this are description and commentary– this is not the place to elaborate on the characters we meet or to provide extensive insight into their psychology. “JANE EYRE, a sensitive, solemn child whose parents died of typhus when she was very young, has lived all her life in the shadows of her AUNT REED’s house, starved for affection and greedy for books. Her widowed aunt resents the way Jane’s uncle seemed to love her more than he loved his own children and has hated and abused her since his death.” This is all true, but in a synopsis for “Jane Eyre,” all we NEED is “JANE EYRE, an orphan, has lived with her cruel AUNT REED since her parents’ death.” No extra adjectives, no explanation of why Aunt Reed has it out for Jane– just introduce important characters and lay out the plot of the book logically and clearly.
Too confusing. A common method for creating your synopsis is to write a brief summary of each scene in your book, in order. While this is a good place to start, it often results in a synopsis that switches back and forth from different points of view too often, includes an excess of information about minor characters or subplots, or include scenes which require more explanation than belongs a synopsis. Your synopsis doesn’t have to follow the exact structure of your book– consolidate three or four scenes of one storyline that, in the book, appear spaced out in between other scenes into a single summarizing paragraph in your synopsis. This makes for a more readable and more streamlined synopsis. For example, if your book goes back and forth between a man trapped on a desert island and the woman he’s supposed to marry in a month, summarize a week in her life in one paragraph and then a week in his in another, rather than summarizing each character’s individual days in 12 paragraphs alternating between events in the man’s life and events in the woman’s. The same applies for your subplots– provide occasional summary updates rather than trying to track each subplot parallel to the main story all the way through the synopsis.
Too aimless. Like I said, a synopsis should speak to your ability to tell a whole story, and part of that ability includes demonstrating how the events of the plot are moving the story along to the climax. A common side-effect of writing strictly in action is that the events of the plot can start to read like a list of stand-alone, unrelated snippets. Though you want to be careful not to add too much length to a synopsis with too much commentary/framing, it is okay to use a little of your space to identify the growing tension and point the reader toward the coming climax. For example: “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Jane learns from Mrs. Fairfax that Mr. Rochester is supposed to be courting BLANCHE INGRAM. Mr. Rochester leaves Thornfield to spend some time at a house party where Blanche is also a guest.” This list of events is fairly directionless, and I can’t tell from reading it what the point is of all these revelations– they’re just a series of facts to me, and therefore not very engaging. Without taking up too much more space, I can hint at the significance of these events and give the reader a better sense of what to expect from the story and the direction it’s headed and create some interest in finding out more. “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Mr. Rochester then leaves Thornfield to attend a house party where BLANCHE INGRAM is also a guest. Mrs. Fairfax confides in Jane that Blanche and Mr. Rochester are popularly supposed to be courting, and Jane is reminded of the contrast between herself and the worldly women Mr. Rochester seems to prefer.” I don’t have to delve into tons of detail about Jane’s feelings or spell anything out, but now the reader’s radar is tuned to pick up on further evidence that Jane loves Mr. Rochester and has some anticipation about where the story is heading.

Come back next week when I’ll be talking about how to choose and polish a writing sample for a conference. Thanks for reading!

 

Craft for a Conference: Part 2, A Synopsis that Tells, Not Teases

June 3rd, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, Quick Tips, The Writing Craft | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wThis week, I’m continuing my series on how to best channel your craft in your conference materials by talking about your novel’s synopsis. A synopsis is an important part of any proposal– sometimes an agent or editor will read it at the conference when taking a look at your proposal, other times they won’t see it until you send them the requested sample chapters or full manuscript, but whenever they get around to looking at it, they’ll be expecting certain things from the synopsis, and if yours doesn’t deliver, you risk frustrating or confusing that important reader. Remember, agents and editors are looking for reasons to say “no” to a  project– not in a jerky, we-can’t-wait-to-stomp-on-your-dreams kind of way (well, not most of us…), but in a realistic, we-hear-pitches-all-the-time-and-have-trained-ourselves-to-listen-for-certain-dealbreakers-so-as-not-to-waste-our-or-an-author’s-time-by-pursuing-a-project-that-doesn’t-fit-our-guidelines/preferences/areas-of-interest kind of way. A synopsis that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to creates a potential place for us to say “no,” so make sure you understand the function of a synopsis in a proposal and how to make sure it provides what an agent or editor is looking for in a synopsis.

What is the purpose of a synopsis? When an agent or editor looks at a synopsis, they’re looking to get a feel for the WHOLE book, beginning to end. If they’re reading the synopsis, you’ve most likely already “hooked” them with a dynamite paragraph or pitch giving the main idea of the story– “some particular big thing or big problem happens to a main character or two in a particular setting and hijinks ensue as colorful secondary character’s arc or additional subplot unfolds in tandem with the main character’s journey to learning something.” This hook paragraph has given them the basic premise, a hint of your voice, and a feel for the most unique elements of the book, but now they want to find out more. Sometimes, they’ll read the synopsis first; sometimes, they’ll want to look at the writing first, but either way, before an agent or editor commit to reading a manuscript in its entirety, they usually want to find out where it’s going and what’s going to happen.

“Where it’s going,” or the way the plot develops from beginning to end, lets us glimpse your ability to construct a story arc that makes sense, that builds, and that resolves in a way that feels earned. The synopsis is the first impression we get of your storytelling ability. Your writing might be great in those first few chapters, but your ability to tell a story really can’t be proved until we’ve heard the whole story, so it’s to your advantage to tell the whole story in the synopsis. A common mistake I see in synopses created for use at a conference is when authors try to maintain suspense/keep plot twists a secret in the synopsis– this is not the place to perpetuate your aura of mystery. You know what we do when you essentially say (with a vague or teasing or nonspecific synopsis) that we’ll have to read the book if we want to find out what happens? We say, “Okey doke, thanks anyway, here’s your proposal back.” When we’re looking at your materials at a conference, we have time to read MAYBE 5 or 10 pages of your writing. While this can give us a good feel for your voice and let us know whether or not you can put a sentence together, it doesn’t tell us whether you can tell a story— whether you know how to keep the action moving, raise the stakes, develop the relationships, surprise the reader with twists or interesting developments, and tie up all the loose ends. Without knowing where the story is going, we can’t say very well whether we want to follow it there, so fill in all the blanks when writing the synopsis. Spoil the surprises.
“What’s going to happen” differs from “where it’s going” in that, while the latter refers to the overall direction and end resolution of the story arc, “what’s going to happen” refers to the specific events/scenes of a book. Agents and editors are (hopefully) going to be very familiar with the rules for the genre your book belongs to, and before they spend time reading a full manuscript, they want to make sure that you’re playing by those rules. If you pitched romantic suspense and your hook paragraph promises romantic suspense, they’re going to be looking for the “suspense” parts in your synopsis– where are the scenes of danger, the chases, the close calls, the scary parts, the climax? If you pitched Christian romance, they’re going to be checking to make sure your characters’ behavior is appropriate for those publishers’ publishing guidelines. If they personally are not interested in or not accepting certain elements/plot devices, such as teen pregnancy or cancer stories or widower-with-kids-falls-in-love-with-the-nanny stories, it’s better for you both that they are told about these elements in the synopsis as it can save you both from wasting another month waiting for them to run across them halfway into the manuscript. So, again, be specific in the synopsis about the action/events that take place in your book, especially those that really identify your book as belonging to the genre you’ve labeled it as. Be familiar with the characteristics/expectations of the genre you’re writing and make sure that your story’s “credentials” for belonging to that genre show up in the synopsis so the agent or editor doesn’t have any reason to question whether or not the project fits where you say it does.

Next week, I’ll be talking a little about synopsis formatting, as well as discussing common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them. If you have any other synopsis questions you’d like me to address, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Ask the Agent: How can I get ready for my conference pitch?

April 27th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals | 2 Comments

I’ve had leftover questions from our “ask the agent” segment, so I thought I’d do some housecleaning. Always love it when writers send me interesting questions…

How many books does it take to not be considered a new author?

Probably two. By the time you’re releasing your third book, nobody considers you a newbie any more.

If you’re a writer who gets an award or accolade for your work, is it true that these can be used to the writer’s advantage? If so, what can we do to capitalize on the award?

Absolutely. Publishing houses tend to really like award-winners, since it reveals that the work was judged best at whatever contest it was in. So by all means include that in your cover letter, stick the info in your bio or publishing history, and if there is a logo or sticker they give you, put that somewhere in the proposal so it gets noticed. One warning: There are some contests that aren’t really contests… they will give an “award” to everyone who enters, so long as you can pay the entrance fee. These don’t count. Most agents and editors hate scam awards. But most of them love to hear about genuine award-winning writing.

I currently have three titles with a very small publisher. Is there a sense that until an author has a book with a major house, she is always “unproven”? Perhaps on a par with self-published authors? 

Not with me. Some of the best writers in history have remained with small houses. But I think among authors there is more of a pecking order (“You’re with little Coffee House Press? Ah… I’m with Little Brown.”) Listen, don’t buy into the BS. Publishing is hard enough without spending your life comparing the size of your publisher to someone else. My advice? Write what you love and feel called to write, become the best you can at the business side of things, and understand that some authors will be given a chance at a large house while others may always fit best with a smaller house. That’s life.

As an agent, would you prefer an author to have a website and/or illustrations for a novel attached to his/her query? How far should I go? Should I create the page, and start getting the book a name via the internet, even if nothing is published yet? Should I place a few chapters as a sample? 

For a NONFICTION book, a website is almost required, since the publisher is going to want to know that you’re already reaching out to your readership. But for a NOVEL, it doesn’t mean much if you have a website when I look at the query. If I were to take it on and land you a contract, you figure it’s going to be at least a year before there are copies of your novel on store shelves. So you’ve got plenty of time to create that website, and your publisher will probably be interested in having a say about how it looks. And no, having illustrations for your novel means nothing to me.

I’m trying to get my proposal ready for the upcoming RWA conference. My problem: Even though I’ve got some great ideas for books and have a new novel ready to pitch, I always panic right before and completely lose confidence and my train of thought. More than once, I’ve embarrassed myself with a rambling answer to an editor’s or agent’s question. I can’t seem to convey my thoughts clearly, when normally I’m very pulled together. How can I get ready for my pitch meeting at a conference? Do you have any advice for those of us who nerve out at key moments?

Sure: Practice. Out loud. Create a script of what you want to say, and get comfortable saying it, out loud, even if you have to lock yourself in your bathroom to rehearse it. (Don’t worry about your family thinking you’re crazy. You are a writer – which means they already think you’re crazy.) Then practice again while watching yourself in the mirror. Then try doing a mock pitch meeting with a writer friend. Don’t read the script to the agent or editor – just practice it enough so you know what you want to say. Many people find it helpful to create an outline of their words, and have that nearby. It keeps them from sounding “canned,” but helps them move forward in a logical progression.

Got a question you’d like to ask an agent? Send it to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com. 

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.

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? 

Quick and Dirty Tips: Formatting Your Manuscript

September 24th, 2014 | Proposals, Questions from Beginners, Quick Tips | 2 Comments

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Guest writer Holly Lorincz is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary, but she is also a  professional editor and owner of
Lorincz Literary Services
. New York Times Bestselling author Vincent Zandri says of her, “A great editor not only points out the gaffs in a manuscript, but also helps you, as a writer, realize the enormous possibilities that exist within the text. That is Holly Lorincz.”

 

Are you getting ready to send a query?
Attending a conference?
Has a literary agent or acquisition editor asked to see your book? 

Here’s a list of tips on how to whip your manuscript into the right shape.

Agents and acquisition editors often have specific format settings they require on manuscript submissions. Sometimes these paradigms are listed, but, more often, the editors expect you to have ESP, assuming you will magically know what they want (just like you should already know what is expected in query letters and proposals). There are a ton of websites and books devoted to formatting advice, including how to make those changes, so I’m just going to give you a quick and dirty list of things I know, from experience, will be helpful. Please note, these are not the same settings you use when formatting an ebook—just one more example of the war between publishing houses and Amazon.

IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS WORD, AND IT HAD SETTINGS. AND IT WAS GOOD.
And, boy, have these settings evolved. This is not the double-spaced, stretched justification from your (technological) youth. Of course, it’s best to set up your document before you begin . . . but who really does that? You usually hammer out least forty-five pages before you realize you forgot to set chapter headings or change the font from Cambria. So, let’s say you’re a good chunk of the way into your masterpiece, or you’re done. Just “select-all” and make the following changes to your Microsoft Word doc., which you will be sending as an email attachment. One attachment. Meaning, do NOT send the chapters as individual attachments, nor mess around with anything other than Word. Automatic death sentence. And, for the love of our dwindling carbon-sucking trees, do not send a paper version.

This is not a list set on a stone tablet. Always be sure to check for quirky requests on submission forms. For instance, there are probably still two people out there, somewhere, who prefer pdf’s over doc’s, and you know there’s some old guy hunched over a press, demanding 14 point Garmond font. So do what your teachers told you to do, read the instructions. And here’s mine:

• BE CONSISTENT.

• Use 1″ margins. Word comes preset with 1.25″ margins, a programmer’s revenge against Ms. Habernathy and her weekly five page English essays.

• Double-space your text, including the Chapter Headings.

• Single Space and indent block material like letters or speeches, or, in non-fiction only, direct quotes longer than five lines.

• Indent with paragraph returns only; absolutely no tabbing and (grrrr) space-barring to create paragrah indents.

• No extra spaces between paragraphs. Sometimes Word’s default automatically adds the extra line, so you’ll need to re-set that feature.

• Change multiple fonts to one: Times New Roman, 12 point, black. Some editors don’t care about mixed fonts or sizes, but most do. And all editors hate colored, curlicued, specialty fonts for chapter headings, title pages, or, especially, the text. Seriously. All of them. That’s because the hodge-podge of fonts, sizes, colors and random text boxes remind them of their middle school newspaper . . . and editors were book nerds even then, thus they do not have fond memories of the lonely, bruised middle school years.

• At the end of each chapter, insert a page break. Do not tab or space down until the cursor is forced to the next page. This screams, “Hi, I’ve never written a book before.” Unless you’re John Grisham, then it screams, “Hi, that’s what my editor is for.” Are you John Grisham?

• Only one space between sentences. This is a tough one for those of us who grew up with the typing teacher crying out, “The cat ran through the door (period) (space) (space),” as your clumsy fingers clacked away on the typewriter. But, now, the computer  automatically adjusts stuff (my technical term for it), so editors only want one space.

• Chapter titles should be bold, and best if they are in caps and centered. You can increase the size from 12 to 14 point, but totally not necessary. You can create a setting that will automatically do this with your headings after a page break.

• Header: Times New Roman, 12 point, centered: your last name / title

• Footer: page number, bottom center, don’t show on the first page

• Use italics, never underline, not for emphasis or titles.

Some publishing houses have even more specific requests. Knowing houses want these settings, it doesn’t hurt to go ahead and apply them anyway. Frankly, they are only asking that we straighten up, get our act together, and adhere to The Chicago Manual of Style.

• The first line of every chapter (or after an internal transition) must be flush left, with no indent. I’m not a big fan of this requirement, but there ya’ go.

• Transitioning within a chapter (i.e. to show a shift in point of view or time) should not have a bunch of forced spaces, instead there should be a centered string of bold asterisks (******), with no extra line spacing.

• All numbers used within dialogue must be spelled out, and numbers under one hundred used elsewhere should also be spelled out.

• Sticklers will want only the em-dash, with no spaces on either side: ebook—just

• Sticklers will also want you to use the Chicago ellipse: he looked up . . . smoke. Notice it is: (space) period (space) period (space) period(space)

• Quoting/dialogue: I’m not going to get into the various dialogue punctuation rules (see the online Chicago Manual), but your basic dialogue, and dialogue within dialogue, should look like this (pay attention to the spacing): Bob turned to me, continuing his story. “And then I yelled, ‘You are one ignorant fool!’ ” Jennifer interrupted him, saying, “He said you called him a genius at least fourteen times, that you even claimed, ‘I wish I was half as smart as you.’ So, which one of you is the liar?”

• Consider paying for a professional proofreader. If some editors or agents catch one whiff of extra lines, tabs instead of paragraph returns, mixed fonts … well, they may send your manuscript back and ask for it to be formatted properly, but most likely they will set it aside and pick up the next ms from the huge pile in front of them.

• MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL: you are not designing a book. You are submitting the equivalent of a very long essay or paper. The content is the focus, which is why the formatting has become standardized. Designing fancy art for the first letter in each chapter of a suspense novel is a waste of time on a manuscript.

Finally, yes, you can hire a service, like my own Lorincz Literary Services, to create a professionally formatted document . . . but it’s probably not necessary for most writers who’ve used Word for awhile. Most of the above suggestions can be figured out, fairly intuitively, by dinking around in your menus. And don’t forget to use the online Chicago Manual to answer style questions; the search option on their site is a thing of beauty.

You can ignore me, or you can assume you’ve made all the correct setting modifications, or you can get on board the reality train, and recognize that demons live in your computer and will mess with at least one paragraph, somewhere—it’s probably in the first fifty pages, and it will look just fine on your screen.

Holly Lorincz, Editor
Lorincz Literary Services

http://literaryconsulting.com/

Ask the Agent: How long should it take to hear from an agent?

July 28th, 2014 | Agents, Current Affairs, Proposals, Questions from Beginners | 0 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “When is it appropriate to inquire on the status of a submission to an editor or agent? I sent something in to an agent four months ago, but have yet to hear. How long should it take?”

Every agent has his or her own system. I try to get to submissions once every other week, but sometimes I go four or five weeks between looking. And that’s just for a quick look — if I like something, I have to read it through, and that means I could have it for a month or two before I can give the author a firm response. In my experience, most agents would like to have two or three months to consider a proposal before they render a “yes” or “no.” During busy times (like Christmas, summer vacation, and stints in rehab), it may take longer. So if you sent a project to an agent four months ago, and she hasn’t responded to you, it might be appropriate just to drop a friendly note — something like, “Hello, I’m just checking back with you on that proposal I sent you a few months back. I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to look it over yet, and if there’s anything more you need. I know you’re busy, so thanks very much for giving it your consideration.” No need to whine, beg, or wheedle. Just check in, and be polite.

On a related note, one writer sent me a note to complain that an agent hadn’t responded to his proposal in a year… but when I checked with that author, he noted that he’d never actually met the agent, nor had he queried via email or letter. In other words, he had just sent in a proposal cold. And that leads me to ask,“Where is it written that an agent must respond to you just because you wrote to him or her?” Answer: It isn’t. An agent isn’t obligated to respond to everyone who writes him or her. I’ve got a job to do, and time is money, so I really can’t take the time to read every project somebody sends in cold. I don’t feel that’s a deriliction of my duty, either — I simply don’t believe that I owe every writer a favor.  I state very clearly on my company website that I’m not looking for unsolicited proposals. Still, people send them. I also state on my site that I don’t have time to read every project coming in over the transom, and that I don’t return unsolicited proposals, even if they come with a postage-paid envelope. It’s just not my job to take responsibility for someone else’s idea. Still, I have people I’ve never heard of write to complain that I didn’t respond, or that I didn’t return their materials — as though their decision to mail me something puts a burden on me, merely because I work as a literary agent.

Wrong. I generally represent people I know — maybe we met at a conference, or often they were a referral from a current author. But it’s a very rare thing for an agent to yank something out of a slushpile and offer an agency agreement. So make sure you have realistic expectations.

Another person wrote and said, “I’ve noticed more authors using the term bestseller or bestselling author in their materials. Is there a rule about this? Must an author make an established bestseller list in order to use that term?”

Absolutely. An author needs to have a book that hits a recognized bestseller list in order to claim he or she is a “bestselling” author. That would mean your book needs to land on a legitimate bestseller list like the New York Times list, the LA Times, the Denver Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Barnes & Noble’s list, or the Amazon Top 100. (It’s also fine to note that you had a book land in your regional paper — say the Portland Oregonian or the Cincinnati Enquirer, though those lists don’t quite have the same cachet as the major lists.) Several outlets (Publishers Weekly, CBA, etc) release their own bestseller list every month, and a few track the various genres as well as offering an overall “top 50 titles” in terms of sales. So if an author claims to be a “bestseller” in her proposal, she needs to be able to back that up with evidence of hitting a list.

By the way, BookScan is the reporting vehicle for most bookstores. Many religious bookstores use a different tracking system, called Stats. These are supposed to track book sales by ISBN number, and create a reporting data base for publishers. But one of the reasons this can confuse authors is because some books can sell incredibly well and never have their sales reported. Books sold in Sam’s Club and Costco, for example, are not reported to any bestseller tracking system — so you could sell 100,000 copies and never appear on a bestseller list. And, of course, books you sell at personal appearances or through your own website aren’t reported via any channels. The success of The Shack is a good example — the book moved a couple hundred thousand copies through alternative sales channels before any reporting store picked it up and began noting sales, so it had sold a bazillion copies and never appeared on a bestseller list. Once it was trackable, it hit #1 in the religion category. It’s reasonable to ask the question, “Would it have been fair for the author of The Shack to declare himself a bestselling author prior to making the list?” Maybe… but that’s not the way the system works.

And someone wrote and noted, “You have advised authors to spend some serious cash in order to create a dynamite website. Can you tell me how many zeroes serious cash has? And are there templates or places a prospective author could view in order to begin making plans?”

I think a good website can be a great marketing tool. We used to think of sites as akin to a highway billboard — something you drove by, read, and moved on. But now sites are incredibly useful tools — a way to stay on top of the industry, communicate with readers, and let people know about books and speaking events. They have also proven to be content-centered — so if you have a plumbing company, you don’t just say “great rates and quality service” like you might in a yellow pages ad. With a website, you’ll have suggestions for fixing common plumbing problems, a place to ask questions, introductions to the company personnel, a way to schedule an appointment, maybe even a “history of plumbing.” In other words, the site has become the repository for information. It’s why we’ve quickly become a nation of readers again. And it’s always changing. We recently updated our corporate site, have begun doing more on Twitter and Facebook, and updated the software for this blog to the latest WordPress version. Now I’m having people tell me we don’t use Tumblr and Pinterest enough, and we could make better use of video. Like I said, it’s always changing.

If you’re an author who speaks, wants to stay in touch with readers, and can devote time to it, your marketing people will probably encourage you to create a good website. And it will mean you can expect to spend somewhere in the $3000 to $5000 range. You can go cheaper, of course (some places offer a do-it-yourself site for $99), but you get what you pay for. And you can spend a heck of a lot more, too. (I know an author who just invested $10,000 in a fabulous site.) There are thousands of experts you can talk to about establishing a strong site — there’s no reason to have a crummy website any more. If you want to check out author sites, visit some author pages and start clicking. You’ll find all sorts of authors with a variety of styles and choices to their sites.

Got a question about books or writing or publishing? Send it in, and we’ll answer it in a future “Ask an Agent” post.

 

If you could sit down for an after-dinner drink with an agent…

April 25th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Proposals, Publishing, Questions from Beginners | 4 Comments

Okay, so all month I’ve been having readers send in questions they would ask if they could just sit down and be face to face with a literary agent. Here’s the most recent batch of questions I’ve received…

Is it standard for most debut authors to have their manuscripts read by an outside copy-editor before submitting to a publisher? I’ve heard this is now common practice, but with the low advances publishers are now paying, it seems unfair to insist on the author funding the cost of an outside edit.

I think it’s an exaggeration to say publishers “insist” on an outside copyedit. The author is best protected when a manuscript comes in clean, since they’re not relying on some minimum wage, entry-level person to do the edit. And as the business has gotten harder, publishers seem to be doing less editing, and they love having their costs cut by having manuscripts come in as clean as possible. But I don’t believe we can say that’s any sort of official standard, except perhaps with mom-and-pop ebook publishers who can’t afford a good copy editor.

When it comes to book proposals, should a narrative non-fiction proposal follow the rules for a novel, or for a nonfiction book?

It’s a nonfiction book, so it should basically follow a nonfiction proposal format. But this is a great question, since narrative nonfiction is really a blend of the two. Still, you’ll find the core of a narrative book is telling a nonfiction story, so stick with the nonfiction proposal model.

I’ve seen contradicting opinions on using blog content in books… If I write a blog, does a publisher consider all content “published,” and therefore unusable in a future book?

If you write a blog post and stick it on your website, it has, in fact, been “published.” But no, that doesn’t preclude you from using that material in a future book, assuming you own it. It’s just that a publisher won’t want to do a book that contains 100% blog content, since that’s already been out there and is available for anyone to read for free. So the publisher will tell you they want somewhere between 30% and 70% “new” content in the book. (By the way, if you write an article and sell it to someone else’s site or to an e-zine, you may in fact no longer own the rights to it, and then you’d be unable to use it. Make sure to check your contract before using pieces you’ve sold to others.)

How do you find out who represents a particular author? And if I know an author who writes in my genre, is it okay to approach his/her agent? Or will they likely say no, since they already represent books in that genre?

To find out who represents an author, you can go to AARonline.org (the website for the Association of Author Representatives) and look it up. Or you can go to an author’s website and see if he or she has the agent referenced somewhere. But yes, agents tend to look for projects in the same genre — I represent several suspense writers, a bunch of inspirational novelists, and several literary novelists. Since I’m doing deals with editors at publishing houses who work in those genres, it only makes sense that I’d represent several authors in those genres.

When a publisher requests a “complete manuscript” at a conference, does an author include the acknowledgements, dedication, and personal author notes?

Nope. At that point they just want to read the book. All the personal asides can come later — they’ll only detract from the larger concept of the story.

I have an agent who I signed with six months ago. Is it fair for me to think he will respond to my direct questions? (Questions like “Who did you send my proposal to?” and “When did it go out?”) Those don’t seem unreasonable to me, but he never responds. Is there something about the relationship that I’m not understanding?

My advice: Call and have a chat with your agent about expectations. Agents are just people, and they come in all types. Some agents keep in touch regularly. Others choose to stay away and only show up when there is news. I’d suggest that a good agent should keep an author apprised of where you are in the process, but perhaps the two of you could simply have a discussion and clear up how each of you work.

Do editors at large houses ever look at the books at small houses and pick them up? What would get the attention of a larger publishing house? And would it be bad form to approach an editor at a conference and suggest they look at my already-published book?

It’s rare for an editor to look at the books at small houses with the intent of picking them up. Once a book is contracted, it tends to remain at that house (which is why you want to be careful of contracting your book at some small, crappy house). It happens occasionally, but almost exclusively because the book has busted out in a big way, or the author is suddenly famous. When I was a publisher at Time-Warner, we were doing books with several TV preachers (Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, etc). I noticed there were some other famous TV preachers who were gaining a large following, but who had done their books at a very small press. We approached that publisher and bought out the contracts for those books, in hopes of getting backlist titles for up-and-coming TV personalities. So it happens… but it would be a rare instance for an author to approach a big house to suggest they buy the rights to their book from a small house. The only reason you’d do it would be because your book is going nuts and the small publisher can’t handle it, or you’ve suddenly landed a measure of fame that requires a larger publisher to maximize.

I’ve been contemplating getting an agent, but I’ve also thought about starting my own publishing company. What are the biggest rewards for each?

The biggest rewards for starting your own publishing company would be that (1) you’re the boss and can make all the decisions, (2) you’ll make roughly three times as much money on each book sold, (3) it’s faster to do your books yourself, and (4) you have creative control. And, of course, the downside is that you have to do it all yourself. Some people love running a business, others couldn’t run a business if their life depended on it.

The biggest rewards for working with an agent would include (1) having an experienced person offer counsel on things like contracts and negotiations, (2) having someone make introductions to you with both foreign and domestic publishers, as well as with subsidiary companies like movie people, (3) having someone with specialized knowledge assist you in your career, your marketing, your covers, your brand, etc, (4) having someone encourage you, as well as having someone plead your case for you when there’s a problem, and (5) having someone who knows the business seek out new opportunities. I suppose there are other things (editorial help, etc), but those are some of the first things that come to mind. Again, I’m not here to serve as a commercial for literary agents — I think most of the authors I represent feel I provide a good service for them, but I understand why some authors want to go another route, and that’s fine.