Archive for the ‘Publishing’ Category

Ask the Agent: How does a book get selected by a publisher?

August 18th, 2014 | Current Affairs, Publishing, The Business of Writing | 16 Comments

Several people have written to ask, “What is the process of getting your proposal selected by a publishing house?”


Okay. First, think of a publishing house as being an actual building. Your proposal probably isn’t walking in the front door. More than likely it’s sliding into the building by way of a window known as an acquisitions editor (often an acquaintance of your agent, sometimes a person you met at a conference, or maybe a guy who lost a bet). He or she will read through it, make some suggestions, talk it over with your agent, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it’s worth pursuing.


Most publishers are relying on agents to do the initial filtering of junk, so the slush pile has sort of moved from the publishing house to the agent’s office…which means you’re probably going to have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.


Once it’s actually in the building, if the acquisitions editor likes it he or she will take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around grousing about their pay and making editorial jokes. (“I’m having a DICKENS of a time with this one!” “Yeah, let’s catch a TWAIN out of town!” Editorial types love this sort of humor. That’s why they’re editors and not writers.) Eventually they’ll run out of bad puns and be forced to discuss the merits of your proposal. If it’s a non-fiction book, is it unique? Does it answer a question people are asking? Is there a perceived market for it? Does the writing feel fresh and offer genuine solutions to the question that’s posed? If it’s a novel, does the story have a clear hook? Is there a well-defined audience for it? Does it feel new, or as though it’s a story that’s been told a million times? (The fact is, it probably HAS been told a million times. There are only so many stories. The question is really if the author can make it feel as though he or she has a fresh take on the story.) Most importantly does it have Amish people, zombies, or a spunky girl with a heart of gold? If the whole package passes muster, it moves to the next step…


The Publishing Committee, which is a group generally made up of folks from editorial, marketing, sales, accounting, and administration. They’ll meet somewhere between once a week to once a month, depending on the house, and they’ll have an agenda of books to talk through each time, with the various representatives offering their own perspectives — the editors will talk about the merits of the words; the accountants will figure out the costs and potential dollars in play; the sales guys will begin discussing who they can sell copies to; and the marketing people will sit around trying to think up reasons why they shouldn’t work on THIS one, since they’ve got so many OTHER things to do. The group will talk about the market for the book, if it fits with the rest of the books on their list, what the author’s platform offers, what it would cost to print the book, what the marketing costs would be, and how many sales they think they could generate. This is the group that will explore the feasibility of doing your book. They may send it back to the acquisitions editor to do some more work.


At that point, the editor has to run a Profit & Loss sheet or pro forma, in which they’ll take wild surmises as to how many copies they can expect to sell in the first year, what the hard costs of ink/paper/binding will be, what they’ll spend on marketing, and how much money they’ll have to throw at the money-grubbing author, who, if she really loved words, would write her damn books for free, since we all know the publishers are only in it for the joy of reading and to serve humanity. The editor will take all this information back to the publishing committee, who by now has had all sorts of time to think up NEW reasons why they shouldn’t do the book. They’ll talk about it again, this time with hard numbers attached. Eventually the pub board will be forced to make an actual decision, so they’ll probably throw the Urim and Thummim, maybe pull out an Ouija board, and decide on your book.


I’ve heard people say there are a series of “sales” to get to this point. The author sells the agent. The agent sells the editor. The editor sells the editorial team. The editorial team sells the pub board. Once that group makes a decision to contract the book, they have to negotiate a deal, then put it on a list and make it part of the process — because the sales guys are going to have to sell it to retail accounts, who in turn will attempt to sell it to the reading public. It’s a lot of work. And all of that points to one thing: It’s tough to get published. Each step along the way is an investment, so even the books they say “no” to have had dollars spent on them.


A publishing house has all those filters in place so that they can do the easy thing and say “no” to you. (Really. That’s the reason they exist.) The purpose of the process is to say “no” to most everything. Therefore, if you want to be published, create proposals they can’t say “no” to. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but that’s the basic idea — work on your proposal so that it piques their interest, provides a clear hook, and answers any objections. If you do that, your proposal is much more apt to be selected by a publishing house.

Does that make sense to you? What question would YOU like to ask a literary agent? 

If you’re new to the world of publishing…

July 7th, 2014 | Books, Publishing | 7 Comments

I’m a big supporter of authors trying to self-publish their out-of-print works (and sometimes their new works, depending on the author and situation), and I’ve had a number of authors write to ask questions about publishing terms and traditions. I thought you might find it helpful to know some of the official nomenclature we use in the industry:

The FRONT MATTER is all of the information that goes in the front of the book, between the cover and the actual text. It usually contains a bunch of legal and technical information about the book, and the pages are all numbered, but they often don’t have actual page numbers showing up (at least not on what are called the “display” pages — the title page, the half title page, the copyright page, the dedication page, any blank pages, etc).

There are a number of elements to the Front Matter that require special terms: the title page (which has the complete title, subtitle, author name, and publisher) the half-titlte page (which just has the book’s title), the copyright page, the legal or copyright acknowledgements (if you needed permission for anything in your text), the dedication, acknowledgements, and table of contents. There will also be a colophon, a more recent development in publishing a book that details the font, the printer, and any special production notes about the book.

There are also a number of additional Front Matter pieces that are used less often: a foreword (written by someone other than the author, to introduce the topic), a preface (written by the author to explain HOW the book was written), an introduction (written by the author to explain WHY the book was written), a prologue (written by the narrator or a character in the novel to set the scene or give important background information), an epigraph (usually a poem or quote pertinent to the story), and the author’s acknowledgements (so you can tell everyone how great your editor and agent have been in the process). The fact is, in recent days we’ve seen a decline in much of these. There’s nothing more boring that picking up a book that has a foreword, a prologue, and introduction, and three pages of acknowledgments. By then, the reader has already fallen asleep.

The BODY MATTER is the text of the book — that is, the manuscript created by the author. These pages are all numbered, and the numbers normally show on most every page. Special pages in between for chapter breaks, section breaks, book breaks, or part breaks (that is, a page that says “Part One,” for example) normally don’t have a number on them. Sometimes a publisher will make an artistic decision to leave the page numbers off of blank pages within the text or the first page of each chapter, but that’s not the norm.

The BACK MATTER contains any content that is additional or subsidiary to the text. Examples include footnotes, an index, a glossary, an appendix, or a bibliography. Occasionally the Back Matter will also include an afterword (where the author says something about the creation of the book) or an epilogue (where the author brings closure to the story or explains what happened after the book was written). Other elements of Back Matter include an author bio and a list of other titles from the author. In recent years we’ve seen some of these elements move around — with author titles moved to the Front, or acknowledgements moved to the back, but for the most part this is where the various pieces fit.

The COVER COPY is simply the text that will appear on your front cover — the title, subtitle (even if it is simply the words “a novel”), and author name. Some nonfiction books will have additional information on the topic or the author to buttress the book’s validity.

The BACK COVER COPY is everything that appears on the back cover. For most novels, that’s a short elevator pitch to try and convince readers to get hooked on the story. For most nonfiction books, it’s a selling tool to get the potential reader to crack open the book and look at the table of contents. It may or may not contain a very brief author bio. Most publishers also lump the SPINE COPY in with back cover copy, and refer to it all as “BCC.” Your spine will be limited to the title, author last name, and publisher imprimatur.

If you’re releasing a hard cover book with a dust jacket, you will also have FRONT FLAP COPY and BACK FLAP COPY. The front flap of a novel offers a short synopsis for the story, and often replaces the back cover copy. The back flap of a hardcover novel will offer an author biography. With a nonfiction book, it’s common for the summary to start on the front flap and continue to the back flap, before presenting a very brief author bio.

What are the publishing terms you’d like to ask about? What about the production of book is unclear or do you have questions about?

FINDING, AND TRUSTING, AN AGENT

May 21st, 2014 | Agents, Career, Publishing | 2 Comments

BY CHIP MACGREGOR

Someone wrote to say, “I heard an agent speak at our writing group. He sounded interesting, so I went to his website, which is interesting but I wasn’t sure I could trust it. You have to contract with them for a year and pay an up-front fee of $195, though it’s not clear if that is per project for for all your works. Is that the usual course?

Yikes. Several thoughts come to mind . . .

First, don’t go to any agent that asks for an up-front fee. That screams rip-off. I don’t know of any credible literary agent who asks you to send him or her a check right off the bat. You can’t be a member of AAR by charging fees, and you’ll get listed in “Predators and Editors” if you do. Stay away from fee-based agents. (And if you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book Ten Percent of Nothing, which offers a fine expose’ of scam agents.)

Second, you don’t want to sign up with an agent you know nothing about. Websites are marketing tools, and some of them over-promise when in reality the agent will under-deliver. I can claim anything I want on my website (that I’m the best agent in history, that I’ll make you a million dollars, that I look exactly like Brad Pitt), but if we don’t know each other, and if we’ve never met, HOW IN THE WORLD DO YOU KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE? Be cautious over sites that over-promise. (For the record, I look exactly like Brad Pitt. Especially if you stand far away. And squint. And are blind.)

Third, be wary of agents trolling for business by sending you advertisements. It’s one thing to meet someone at a conference, or to begin a dialogue over a submission you’ve sent in — most of the authors we represent we met somewhere and had a discussion with, or they were introduced to us by current authors we represent. I think that’s true of most agents. What you’re describing is akin to a lawyer chasing ambulances. Sorry to sound negative, but this sounds like a scam.

As a follow-up, someone else wrote to say, “I have heard the best way to contact agents is to attend conferences. I’ve also heard it is possible to schedule a meeting in order to have the agent look at your material at a conference. Is that true? And if so, how does an author find out about conferences? And how does one go about scheduling an appointment with an agent at a conference?

That’s true, in my view. There are few venues left for getting a face-to-face meeting with an agent any more, but a writers’ conference is one of the best. And many conferences will simply post meeting schedules, where you can sign up with an agent either before the conference or on the first day of meetings. Usually you’ll come in with your one-sheet or proposal, make a quick pitch, and have about 15 minutes to talk. You can’t totally “sell” them in such a short time (so don’t think you’re going to land an agent at a conference), but you can certainly start a conversation, make a good impression, and begin the process of working together. To find writing conferences in your area, just google “writers conference” or talk to your local bookseller. You can also check out an online writing group or join a writing association such as Romance Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, American Christian Fiction Writers, and the like. I’m a big fan of writing conferences because it puts writers and agents in touch with each other.

And another person wrote and noted, “A publisher requested my manuscript at a conference. They later sent me an evaluative memo with some editor notes and a request that I rewrite it and send it back. Is this worth mentioning in an agent query?”

Sure it is. Understand that many editors will request a proposal at a writers’ conference. Unfortunately, many time they aren’t really “requests.” They are more “resigns” — as in, “The editor was resigned to saying yes to every author who showed them a proposal.” That’s because the bulk of editors, while exceptionally nice people who know their jobs, are also big weenies. They hate looking you in the eye and saying “no, that doesn’t fit us” or “no, this isn’t ready” or “no, did you stop taking your medication?” Consequently, I’ll often hear authors tell me an editor requested a proposal, when in actuality the editor did nothing more than agree to look at it later, so as to reject it later, by letter, thus saving himself from having to tell the author “no” face to face. (Okay, I’m exaggerating. A bit.) However, if the editor has taken the time to review your work and make notes, then has suggested you do some revising and re-submit, that shows genuine interest. So yes, I’d tell a prospective agent that bit of news. I hope that helps.

What questions do you have about agents and agenting?

Thursdays with Amanda: The Future of Literary Agents in a Digital World

May 1st, 2014 | Career, Publishing, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing, Uncategorized | 52 Comments

2014AmandaAmanda 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.

 

All this talk about hybrid authors and self-publishing, and there’s one question that is bound to surface:

Are agents a dying breed?

Maybe. I mean some freakish thing could happen that changes everything and puts the final set of nails in the Literary Agent coffin, but the way things are shaping up, my answer would be “no.” We aren’t a dying breed, and here’s why…

AGENTS AND SMALL OR INDEPENDENT HOUSES

I’m no expert on the history of the literary agent, but it’s quite clear that the role was developed out of necessity. The typewriter, and later email, made it ridiculously easy for anyone to pound out a terrible novel and send it to the best editors the industry had to offer. Those terrible novels would fill up the queue, thus suffocating the really great publishable novels. Editors, whose time is valuable and limited…and who also have a tendency to spend much more time analyzing a manuscript than an agent does…eventually turned to agents to help weed through the bad and find the good.

While we tend to think that indie and small houses are there for the unagented, the fact of the matter is that these publishers are more than willing to work with agents. In fact, they many times welcome it. They love when someone else has vetted the material before they even have to give it a look. And consequently, an agent can many times get a faster response from them than your typical unagented author. Why? Because there is a sense of professional responsibility. The small house is usually thrilled that the agent considered them, and they want to respond in kind by offering a speedy decision.

We also tend to think that small houses have the author’s best interests in mind. While this is generally true, and they many times offer friendlier rates and terms, there are ALWAYS a few sticky points within the contract that are different than anything you’d see from a big house. This is because it’s usually a mom and pop operation and they don’t have the sea of legal advisors there to make sure that their contracts hold up against contracts from other houses. An agent comes in handy at this point, and while yes, you could just as easily hire a lawyer to review the contract, here’s a truth that I’ve discovered…

Every contract that I’ve seen that has been analyzed by a separately paid lawyer comes to us with not much changed except the wording. Nothing is ready to be negotiated. Clauses aren’t flagged and suggestions aren’t made. Nope. Instead, the lawyer has focused his/her time on striking out words and phrases here and there and occasionally adding in a few new ones. They approach is as if the contract will one day need to hold up in court, and they want the terms to be either ridiculously clear or very vague. Agents, on the other hand, approach it as if the contract is the author’s livelihood, and we need to get him/her the best deal possible. We don’t worry about the specific words used so much as we worry about what the author will come away with.  (EDIT: It’s come to my attention that I need to clarify what I mean here…First, my experience does not reflect every lawyer in publishing. Second, lawyers can add value to a contract because they do care so much about the wording. Agents add value because they care about the terms. This doesn’t mean that I completely ignore wording, neither does it mean that all lawyers completely ignore terms. Third, if you decide to work with a lawyer, make sure they are knowledgable in publishing/IP law).

AGENTS AND HYBRID AUTHORS

I think most agents are willing to work with authors who publish both traditionally and independently…so long as the author is consistent about giving the agent projects to shop. So in that sense, we bring the same qualities to the table that we do in a more traditional agent/author relationship.

But is that all? I can’t speak for other agents, but at MacGregor Literary, we have a vested interest in helping our authors become hybrid authors, if that’s what they want. While some of our authors go about this on their own (we don’t take any commission in those instances), others want our help. To earn our share, we’ve launched a number of book lines (Spyglass Lane Mysteries, Playlist YA Fiction, Dusty Trail Books, Forget-Me-Not Romances), and made the process easy for our authors by helping them through step-by-step, taking on some of the more tedious tasks (such as formatting), and teaming them up so that their marketing efforts go farther.

We also are able to help with any subrights deals that may come from their self-publishing ventures. Foreign rights, movie rights, audio rights, and unique digital rights opportunities are all deals that we’ve done for some of our authors’ self-pubbed projects in the past year.

AGENTS AND INDIE AUTHORS

Many feel that the self-pub business model is the one that needs agents the least. But I wholly disagree.

There are a number of successful indie authors out there, telling everyone else that indie publishing is the best and that they should go it alone and forego agents and professionals altogether. But I’d like to offer a reality check…

Being a self-published indie author is like running a business. You’re in charge of accounting and marketing and publicity and packaging and design and editing and writing and formatting and sales and EVERYTHING. Ask any successful indie author how they spend their time, and they’re likely to tell you that managing their business takes up a majority of their day. Writing, then, is done at night or squeezed into the wee hours of the morning. It’s exhausting. But moreover, there’s a big piece of truth here that the overly anti-agent folks fail to tell you…

It requires an entrepreneurial mind and attitude to make something like this work. And most authors don’t have that. Most authors are creatives, who can’t tell you the first thing about marketing and publicity and bookkeeping and managing  and … taxes. They just want to create. And when it comes to figuring everything else out, they need help.

For those who are business-minded, self-publishing and managing that business can be a great option. But for everyone else…for everyone who doesn’t have the time or the skills or the natural ability to keep such a machine going, this is where help becomes essential. (EDIT: An author could choose to learn these skills on their own, and many do. However, there are also many authors who don’t really know where to begin with taking their business to the next level. This is where professional help can become invaluable, whether it’s for the long- or short-term).

And this is also where the role of an agent will change. Some agents may take on the role of bookkeeper and project manager. Others may take on stronger admin roles or marketing roles. Some may be in charge of getting the manuscripts in shape and typeset and uploaded.

While they do these things, they’ll also be shopping rights and looking for opportunities to expand the author’s career. It all depends on the agent, their skills, and the amount of work that they can take on on behalf of the client.

AGENTS AND THE FUTURE

I’ve rambled enough (and please excuse any typos…I’m knocking this out as I’m waiting for a flight), so I’ll leave you with this…

While, yes, the agent’s role will change (we will have to adapt!), and yes you may see fewer of us in the business, I do believe that we’ll continue to be part of authors’ careers. I believe we will continue to offer value, whether it be career advice, deal negotiations, or even just bookkeeping. And I believe that we will be able to help many authors achieve their publishing goals…just like we’re doing now.

AGREE OR DISAGREE? LET ME KNOW!

 

What would you ask a literary agent? (the wrap up)

April 30th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Resources for Writing, The Business of Writing | 10 Comments

A handful of leftover questions from our month of “sitting down with a literary agent” series…

Can a person who does not aspire to fame be a successful writer?

Of course. Some writers are looking for fame, but in my experience most get into writing because they have a story to tell. By the same token, some writers embrace the “fame” aspect of getting published, and love the attention it creates, while others hate it, and just want to write and maintain their privacy. There are plenty of examples of both. Perhaps this is getting skewed today because of social media, which can sometimes make it seem like every author is required to be an extrovert. But my feeling is that there are a lot of introverted writers, who don’t seek to be everywhere, all the time, commenting on everything.

If I have a really well-written book, how can I meet literary agents?

You can go to conferences and meet some agents face to face. You can go to a book show or industry event and get in touch with agents. You can talk to published authors about their current agent. You can look at Chuck Sambucino’s Guide to Literary Agents, or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. You can go to the Association of Author Representatives website, or to AgentResearch.com. You can find out who the busiest agents are, or which agents tend to work in your genre by joining Publishers Marketplace and researching their database. Or I suppose you could do it the old fashioned way and try to get a face-to-face meeting by sending them a fabulous proposal and showing up to talk. No matter what you do, spend some time researching the agent to make sure he or she is a fit, what they require in a proposal, and how they work with authors. You can also go to Predators & Editors and Writer Beware to do some research as to which literary agents have warnings against them from other authors.

I was told at a conference that every fiction genre has “rules.” Is that true? And how would I know what the rules are?

The entire concept of genre fiction holds that each genre has certain rules that most novels must adhere to. So the rules for a traditional romance would include that the hero and heroine must meet early in the book, and that they must get together at the end. The rules for a cozy mystery is that something bad (usually a murder) happens at the start of the story, an amateur sleuth will have some suspicions and start to look into it, and that the mystery will be solved at the end of the story. So, yes, every genre has rules. You can find the rules by doing some research — for example, Harlequin maintains a list of rules for romance writers on their website.

How do you define literary fiction?

Generally speaking, novels that do NOT have rules. More specifically, novels that explore the great questions of life — who am I? why am I here? does my life have meaning? what should I be doing? who is God? why does He allow such pain in the world? Most literary fiction will offer characters I care about who explore the great questions of life and make choices, then examine the ramifications of those choices and their effects on the lives of the characters. It’s a way for me, as a reader, to explore my own life in a deeper way by seeing things through the lives of other people. That’s what great literature does — causes us to think more deeply about life, see things in a new light, and offer some sort of insight into the great questions.

As an author, how do I negotiate a movie option for my novel? Do I give a free option? Do I demand money for the option?

You don’t normally grant an option for free — you negotiate the option for the production company to pay you a certain amount of money, for a certain period of time. What the customer is buying is really the exclusive chance to explore turning your book into a movie. They’ll talk through the idea, figure out if there’s a market for it, how the story might change, who might be possible to direct & star in it, what the costs are, etc. And you normally go through a literary or film agent who has relationships with film and production companies, and who can make sure all the details are done correctly. A note on this: If you think publishing contracts are tricky, just wait until you see a film contract. There are a lot of stories about authors who sold their idea cheaply, then made nothing when the concept moved to the screen. It’s called “Hollywood Accounting,” and if you’re interested in this, just google the horror story of Deborah Gregory, who created The Cheetah Girls for Disney. She made some money on the books, but when they went to the stage, TV, and the big screen, she was promised 4% of net profits… and the accountants have always been able to show there were no net profits. So while Disney has generated millions in cash from the Cheetah Girls, Ms. Gregory has made nothing. Ouch.

What determines if a book is YA or adult?

Normally there are two issues involved: themes and characters. YA novels focus on certain themes — coming of age, the transition to adulthood, exploring sexuality, fostering independence, self-identification, problems at school or with parents, etc. Adult novels focus on more adult themes. In other words, novels have themes that are directly relatable to the intended readership. And YA novels generally have younger characters, so that traditionally the protagonist is the age of the readers. (That’s not always true, since some YA fantasy has very old characters suddenly dealing with independence or self-identity issues, but it’s true more often than not.) Evaluate your novel in light of those two issues, and you can usually figure out where it should land.

Have you run into situations where smaller publishing houses offer very small advances with a higher-than-normal royalty? What’s your take on a deal such as this?

Sure — most of the new micro-publishers that got started doing e-books over the past six or seven years do exactly that. They pay a small advance, or perhaps no advance, but offer a 50% net royalty — twice that of legacy publishers. The risk is that the guarantee is smaller; the reward is that, if the book does well, the author can make more money. Of course, larger publishers will explain that they have an advantage in terms of reach and marketing, while smaller publishers will tout greater author control and a bigger percentage of the take. Every business decision like that is a risk/reward equation. You have to be comfortable with the decision.

There happens to be a lot going on in my family at the moment, and I’m putting together a book of family stories. Can you recommend a self-publishing or POD company that would be good to use for this kind of project? I probably won’t need more than 50 copies.

The easy solution? Go to CreateSpace at Amazon, or to the iBookstore. Both have the capability of creating fun books with lots of photos of your family.

I’ve been at this writing career for a long time, and feel as though I don’t have much to show for it. I’ve done two novels at a small house, then two more at a bigger house, but they didn’t sell well… so now I’m having a hard time landing a contract. I’ve enjoyed myself, but I’m not sure all the time and effort have been worth it. I love my art, but… I wanted more. And I go to conferences and it feels like everyone is having more success than me. Any advice for a writer facing the big question of “Is all this worth it?”

I’ve been agenting a long time, and I’ve had a form of this question thrown at me countless times. An author signs a deal with a small house and does okay, so she signs a deal with a bigger house and, even though she writes good books, those books tank. Maybe the house did no marketing. Maybe the readership couldn’t find her. Maybe the author and publisher didn’t know how to work together. There are a million reasons a book doesn’t work, but suddenly the author finds herself stuck. She has lousy sales numbers, maybe she can’t get a deal, or she CAN get one, but it’s back to SmallTimeVille. Hey, it happens. Does she stick with it? Change her name and start over? Try a new genre? Look for a collaborative job? Go back to the drawing board and try to come up with a blockbuster idea? Self publish? Give up?

There’s no one answer that’s going to fit every situation, of course. And if you hang out at conferences, it will feel like everyone else is going better than you (but they are not — trust me). I love the fact that the writer who emailed me this question was quick to say she had enjoyed the ride and loves to write. Because I think a writer in this situation really needs to look at his or her motivation, and think through goals — what do you want to accomplish? What will constitute success? What will make you happy? Maybe having a good agent to talk with you about career plans could come in handy. So here is some great advice from musician and writer Bill Withers: “One of the things I always tell my kids is that it’s OK to head out for wonderful, but on your way to wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through all right. When you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re gonna go.” Amen, Bill. Some wisdom there.

I’ve loved this month of writers sending in anything they wanted to ask. Thanks to everyone for participating. Make sure to check out Amanda’s wonderful marketing blogs every Thursday. And coming up — our annual Bad Poetry Contest. Another reason to go on living…

Having a Nite-cap with a Literary Agent

April 28th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 6 Comments

We’ve been taking the month of April and inviting writers to send in the questions they’d like to ask a literary agent. So if you could sit down one night, over a nite-cap, and ask a literary agent anything at all, what would you ask? These are the questions I’ve received recently…

How important is it for my agent to be knowledgeable about the specific genre I write in? If he or she have the same contacts at publishing houses as most other agents, is it important to find an agent with genre-specific connections? For example, let’s say I typically write women’s fiction, but want to do a New Adult series, and my agent says she knows nothing about NA. Should I be concerned my proposal won’t get the right treatment from editors?

Agents tend to work in certain genres. So we make connections with editors who work in those genres, and develop great relationships with people and publishers. So yes, it’s nice if you can work with an agent who has relationships with editors in the genres in which you write. That said, most agents are also willing to grow their business. So if you came to me with a really good proposal for a genre I’ve not worked before, I would admit that to you, and either say, “You might want to find another agent to do this one,” OR I might say, “You know, this isn’t a field I’ve done much work in, but I love this proposal — let me do some research, make some calls, and I’ll come back to you so we can develop a plan.”

I noticed you were highly critical of agents who sell services to authors. I approached an agent I met at a conference to discuss my book. He rejected it for representation, but said they had an editor who could work on it, and I paid about $700 to the company. They still decided not to represent it, but when I self-published it on Amazon, they offered to help me with the marketing, again for a fee. Is that wrong?

Here is the official wording from the Association of Author Representatives: “Members pledge themselves to loyal service to their clients’ business and artistic needs, and will allow no conflicts of interest that would interfere with such service.” Turning a potential literary client over to an editor who works for me part-time is a conflict of interest — I’m either an agent or I’m an editorial service, not both. The guidelines go on to state: “The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity.” (They give an exception to agents who get paid for evaluating a proposal through a writing conference, since writers to go there specifically to get a formal evaluation of their work.) I have frequently said to potential authors, “This needs a good edit — here are some editors I like.” But I don’t have any financial tie to those editors, nor do I receive anything back from them for sharing their info with writers. AND the guidelines also note that “Members may not receive a secret profit in connection with any transaction involving a client.” So no kickbacks are allowed. Holly Lorincz works with me part-time, and also runs an editorial business. I don’t profit from her editorial business — in fact, I don’t even know who she is working with. Her business is completely separate from mine. She’s a good editor, and I sometimes suggest her name to people, but I’m always quick to say, “And her editorial company is not tied to MacGregor Literary in any way.” The problem here is the potential to scam people… In essence, to say to a writer, “I don’t believe you’re good enough to be my client, but I’ll turn you over to an editor so I can make some money off of you.” That’s wrong, according to the AAR, of which I’m a longstanding member. Things are changing, and agents are doing more than they used to, but trying to make money directly from their authors by selling them services is not kosher.

At what point — if ever — in the process of grinding out a first novel should one begin to think about securing the services of an agent?

Did you know that most first-time novelists don’t sell their manuscripts? In fact, the industry average is either six or seven, depending on who is doing the telling. That is, most authors can expect to complete six or seven novels before they have something ready to sell. So, um, you may or may not be ready with your first novel. Most are not.

I was sent an e-book contract from a small publisher, and it demands all rights, forever, plus POD rights. Are there things I should look for in an e-book contract?

There are a bunch of things to look for in any publishing contract, including: What rights are you granting them? Is this just US or also foreign rights? Do they want dramatic rights? When is the manuscript due? What are the royalty rates? What is the royalty based on? How often am I paid? Is there a reserve clause? When will they publish it? What’s the process if they don’t like my manuscript? What does the competing works clause look like? What is the duration of this contract? How do rights get reverted to me? What you’re describing sounds like a rights-grab from an unscrupulous publisher. My advice: If you don’t know contracts, talk to someone who does. A contract is a legally binding document that will govern the entire business side of your book for as long as it’s in print. That being the case, you owe it to yourself to get it right. You probably wouldn’t buy a house without having someone knowledgable help you with the contract — treat your books the same way.

Is it advisable to give away printed materials to promote your book — bookmarks, postcards, stickers, posters? My publisher says they don’t have a budget for these types of things, but I have author friends who say they are essential.

They’re only essential if you have some evidence to suggest they’ll help you sell your book. Printed stuff like that used to be all the rage. Nowadays, they may help in certain situations (such as personal appearances or local bookstores), or in national campaigns (having giveaways with every purchase at a chain of stores, for example), but they’ve largely given way to online marketing efforts. If you have some evidence that printed pieces could be useful, then go ahead and invest in them… but my guess is you can find other avenues that will offer more bang for your buck. (And here I’ll invite any marketing types to weigh in on the matter. Do you find bookmarks and stickers to be helpful in promoting a new novel?)

What suggestions would you have to an author who wants to write pieces to boost her platform (in order to support her book)?

Ask yourself where your potential readers are. What are the sites/magazines/journals/blogs/e-zines where they congregate? What online communities do they participate in? Make a list of the top 100 or 200 places where your readers hang out. Then go visit all those sites. How does one participate with them? Do they take freelance articles? Are they interested in profiles? interviews? sidebars? numbers pieces? Would they like an interview with an author? Ask yourself how you can create a piece that fits the site, but promotes you and your book. Once you’ve figured out where readers are going, how you get onto those sites, you write something that’s a fit and send it to them. Put the topic or title in the subject line of your email. Include the piece, give a short bio of yourself at the end, and include links to other things you’ve written. That will get you started.

Are there companies that can help me turn my manuscript into an ebook?

Sure. There are a bunch. You can do it yourself easily enough on Amazon, or go to Smashwords so that it gets onto the iBookstore and B&N.com. BookBaby (whom I’ve never used, but heard nice things about) can do the basics for about a hundred bucks. You may want to find a company that will not only work with Amazon, but will get you onto Oyster and FlipKart and some of the other new book e-railers. But a quick Google search will provide you with several companies that do exactly that sort of work. Ebook assistance is a growing industry.

In the past, you’ve recommended several very funny websites. I haven’t seen you post anything like that in a while –can you recommend anything?

Sure. A good buddy of mine runs Slushpile Hell, which is a HOOT. Check it out at http://slushpilehell.tumblr.com/

This isn’t really a “writing” question, but more of a personal question… You represent a number of books. Can you name a couple titles you’ve represented that are just releasing, and that you’re excited about?

I always fear naming one or two titles, since it leaves me in the position of having some authors feel as though their book is being ignored. But there are several really cool books that are just now hitting the market. Susan Meissner’s first novel at NAL, A Fall of Marigolds, has just released. If you like action, check out Vince Zandri’s The Shroud Key, or Les Edgerton’s brilliantly written The Bitch. Lisa Samson’s latest, Runaway Saint, is just now coming out. If you haven’t been introduced to Jessica Dotta’s rich Price of Privilege trilogy, you’re missing out on a great new historical series. Meg Moseley’s The Stillness of Chimes is a wonderful read. On the popular front, Rachel Hauck has a hit with Princess Ever After, Leslie Gould’s latest, Minding Molly, is a fun twist on Shakespeare, and I always love reading Joyce Magnin’s work, so I’m enjoying Maybelle in Stitches. And there’s a debut novelist from the UK, Luke Wordley, who has done a guy’s novel, The Fight, which is remarkably good. On the nonfiction side, I can’t wait to break open Alton Gansky’s 60 People who Shaped the Church, since I love church history. And one book I think is going to be a huge hit is Bonnie Gray’s memoir, Finding Spiritual Whitespace, which I think is profound and moving. (You can see more of it here: www.thebonniegray.com ) Okay, I’m sure I’ve just made enemies, but those are the books I’m looking at right now.

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.

Thursdays with Amanda: The Future of Publishing According to Me

April 24th, 2014 | Career, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

2014AmandaAmanda 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.

After spending the past number of weeks talking (and hailing) hybrid publishing (see posts here, here, here, and here), it begs a very important question…

What is the future of publishing?

As self-publishing continues to grow, as authors are offered more options to achieve their dreams, as traditional publishers continue to try and crack the e-publishing code, as start-ups focus primarily on e- and POD- publishing for their books, and as America’s reading habits evolve…where does that leave us?

Where does that leave the book? The bookstore? The library?

I’m no Predictor of the Future (well, okay, maybe I am a little), but I do have a few thoughts about where we’re headed…and I think it’s going to be an interesting ride.

  1. Eventually, it’s going to be fairly easy to get successful self-published books into bookstores. Someone, somewhere, with a ton of the right connections and enough money to give it a go is going to start a company that finds the best of the best in the self-publishing world and then presents those books to the buyers at B&N, Books-A-Million, Wal-Mart, etc. And because of this individual’s reputation and their product list of tried-and-true Amazon bestsellers, those stores are going to buy. And they’re going to shelve those books. This means that successful indie authors won’t ever have to partner with a publisher again to get their books into stores. They’ll just have to partner with an indie-friendly distributor. It‘s worth saying that there ARE venues that promise this kind of service, but I’ve never actually seen it come through in a way that gets massive distribution for top indie titles.
  2. Platform will become more important for new fiction authors. We’re at a point in which platform is essential for nonfiction authors to get published, but it’s not as much of a big deal for fiction authors. Publishers tend to check to see if the author has a website and a Facebook Page or Twitter Handle and that’s about it. They just want to be reassured that the author knows how to use such channels. They don’t actually expect large numbers associated with them. But as self-publishing grows and as it changes the industry, we’re going to see publishers expecting more of a platform from their fiction authors. This is because there will be other new fiction authors out there who have already developed a following. Authors who have self-pubbed some novellas and consequently have substantial RSS subscriptions or something of the sort. The gist here is that as more and more authors work hard to peddle their self-published careers, it’ll put the pressure on new novelists to also have something of a platform in place. Hence making way for the Hybrid Author. I’ve already begun to see this come into play…new novelists with platforms are being chosen over new novelists without platforms, and publishers are starting to say that without a following, they can’t justify bringing a debut novelist on board.
  3. The giant publishers will become pickier than ever, while start-ups, micro-publishers, and small houses will see profits grow. If you think the surge of successful indies and the number of authors going solo will get the gatekeepers to widen the gate, you’re mistaken. Those particular gates will narrow, making it tougher for authors to get in with the biggest houses. Which also means that as giant publishers require bigger platforms and more polished books, there will be smaller houses that rise up to serve authors who don’t want to self publish and who don’t have big platforms. The way these publishers split earnings with authors will continue to be different than what you’d get with a big house. 70/30, 60/40, and 50/50 royalty splits will become more and more normal among smaller houses, and if bookstores want to stay afloat, they will be buying from these smaller houses as well.

And probably the most exciting point…

4. Authors will get smarter than ever and find ways to work the system. We already see this in bundled boxed sets from indie authors and promotional campaigns that include a handful of Amazon bestselling authors…but I guarantee these strategies will only get more creative. Some could argue that sites like Kickstarter.com have more opportunity to offer authors than a traditional publisher (please note that if you go with Kickstarter to fund your book, it’s going to be a heck of a lot more work than publishing with a traditional publisher). Imagine if an Indie author wanted to do a hardcover launch of a new book…but not only that, she wanted to get the book into independent bookstores and embark on a coinciding US tour. Kickstarter makes this possible. The author can earn the funds (whether solo or with a group of authors) to give her fans what they want. She could even fund movies or webisodes or Comic-Con booths or national book launch parties. The sky is the limit…well, actually, the author’s energy level is the limit. This stuff is grueling and requires business savvy.

It’s a really neat option, and the best part is that this isn’t limited to indie authors. Traditionally published authors can also use sites like Kickstarter to fund promotional campaigns and other things that their publisher may not be focusing on.

So what does this mean? It means that every writer will have a chance at success. Every writer will have self-publishing, hybrid-publishing, Kickstarter options that they can use to make their careers happen.

Some will succeed. Some will fail.

But more than anything I predict the result of all this is that authors will once again be seen as superstars. They will be their brand–they will be the draw just as much as their books.

This is happening in the music industry as we speak…record labels aren’t in the business of churning out great music. They’re in the business of creating stars. The movie industry seems to also be seeing a sort of revolution as industry professionals strike out on their own to make their dreams come true (*cough* Zach Braff *cough*). These professionals are raising gobs of money just based on their clout and brand alone. They have fans who will fund them…regardless of whether or not the latest project is any good. The fans believe in the artist, and therefore they want his art.

Sometimes these individuals will partner with a big company. Sometimes not.

It doesn’t mean the big companies are any less important or valuable or successful. It just means the way we do business is changing. And the gatekeepers will continue to keep their gates and determine who gets in and who stays out of their very important clubs, but while this is happening, new gates are being constructed. And it’s an exciting time when an author gets to decide which gate is right for him.

I realize this may sound like a big fat hip-hurray for “sticking it to the man” and going independent, but we’re still in a state of flux. These predictions haven’t fully come to fruition yet, and to be honest, the best business model out there right now is the one of being a Hybrid. Either that, or hitting it HUGE on the indie scene OR on the traditional scene. Either of those work as well.

But for now, we’re learning. Things are shifting. And it’s a great time to be an author.

_____________

Like what I have to say? Check out my book on building a platform!

Extroverted Banner

If you could sit down to dinner with a literary agent…

April 22nd, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Conferences, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 9 Comments

Imagine this: You get to sit down to have dinner with the literary agent of your choosing. You can ask anything you want? So… what would you ask? I’ve been taking the entire month of April to let people send in the questions they’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent. Recent questions include…

A friend of mine in our writers’ group asked me if she can be sued if she uses the name of a real town — i.e., Witch Hazel, Oregon, in her novel. Is that true?

Okay– I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not giving you legal advice. If you need legal advice, go talk to an attorney. What you’re getting is my take as an agent… Sued? For what? No. You can be sued for defaming or libeling someone, but you can’t be sued for simply using the name of a town. Does she think she can’t say, “The plane flew to New York”? (But thanks for the call-out to my hometown of Witch Hazel!)

It’s my understanding that publishers will often pay higher royalties for hardcover than softcover. Why is this?

It’s true. The standard book contracts pays 10% of the retail price on the first 5000 hardcopies sold, 12.5% on the next 5000 copies, and 15% thereafter. A trade paper pays a flat 7.5%. The cost of the hardcover is higher, the production costs are a bit higher, people are willing to pay more, so there is more money to divide. Thus the royalties are higher. (By the way, most CBA publishers pay on net contracts, so it’s a bit different.)

I’d like to know what goes on in a Pub Board meeting, and why does it sometimes take so long for them to make a decision on a book?

The pub board is where a decision is made to publish or not publish a book. Usually it includes the editor presenting the project, the head of editorial, the head of sales, the head of marketing, somebody from accounting, the publisher, and, depending on the house, it can include a publicist, a special markets person, an online specialist, someone from production, and a trained monkey. The editorial people are there to present the book and explain why it’s a good idea. The sales people do some research so they can explain to everyone how the retail accounts will react to it. The publisher gives strategic direction to the line. The accounting guy will look bored a lot and wonder why they’re not doing another book with James Patterson, since “his books always make us a lot of money.” The marketing people are there to explain why, no matter how hard they try, they won’t be able to get any marketing for the book. So they debate the merits of the book in the marketplace — will it get attention? Does it speak to a particular need or fill an opening? The sales and marketing reps may ask for more time to go back and talk to accounts, to see if Wal-Mart wants to buy 3000 copes, or if Good Morning America wants to have the author visit. All that takes time. And every book has a profit-and-loss sheet, which spells out the hard costs for producing the book, plus the marketing and overhead. Sometimes they want more time to re-jigger the numbers on the P&L, in order to make sure they can project a profit with the book. But the conversation that happens in a pub board meeting is pretty much like any other meeting — the editor presents the book, tells about the author, explains the story or concept, and people discuss the merits. At most houses they disperse the proposal and sample chapters before the meeting, so everyone involved in the discussion can read the author’s words before making a decision. Then, at some point, they vote. In my experience, most pub board decisions tend to be “most everyone agrees to do this” or “none of us can really get behind this.” In other words, there aren’t a ton of split decisions. The group usually comes to some sort of consensus. (That’s not always the case. There are a few publishers who dominate their companies, and if they don’t like a book, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. But those are more rare than you might think.) In other words, the pub board is a business committee meeting, with everybody involved trying to make money for the company and keep them afloat. At larger companies they meet every week, at medium sized companies they meet once or twice a month. At a small company they may only meet when they have something to discuss.

I recently turned in a contracted book with a publisher, and have started working on my next book idea. But I think this new book might be a better fit at another house. Do you think I’m obligated to show it to my current publisher? Or is it an industry courtesy to submit the new book to my current publisher first? There are no first refusal rights in the contract.

If your current contract doesn’t have any sort of option or first-look clause, you’re probably free to show it to others. However, if your current publisher is doing a good job with you, you may want to show it to them first, just to be polite and maintain the relationship. In my experience, newer authors frequently want to bounce around to various houses, but the happiest authors I know are those who have been at one house for a long time. Having several books at one publishing house allows them to cross-sell your various titles, and builds a stronger relationship with them over time.

How do you feel about using a pen-name when writing a novel? Is it worth it? I imagine there is extra red-tape and lots of questions?

In these days when even J.K. Rowling can’t keep a pen name secret, I think it’s hard to make this work. Doubly hard if you expect to keep it up with multiple books — you have to have another identity, you can’t use author photos or do appearances, and of course radio and TV become very difficult. Nora Roberts writes as J.D. Robb, but she’s very open about it. I’d probably ask you why you feel a need to write under a pseudonym. Usually writers simply want to do this because they want to stay hidden, and staying hidden in this day and age is tough. Of course, if you want to use a pen name simply because your real name is “Hepsiba Von Schlossenpfepfer” or “Ferral Cronk,” I’ll understand, and encourage you to pick something salable and stick with it. But in those cases, you maintain that as your writing identity long-term. (And yes, I once knew a woman named Ferral Cronk.)

Are the online writer’s conferences worthwhile for those on a limited budget?

I like writing conferences in general, since they’re a place to meet people — you rub shoulders with other writers in your genre, you talk with people who are facing some of the same struggles you’re facing, you get introduced to editors, you hear some good idea. Writing is a solitary endeavor, and meeting other people in the industry is the single best part of a conference. But, of course, the “other” reason for attending a conference is for the training they offer. There will be workshops on creating characters or outlining or building suspense or negotiating contracts — all interesting, usually taught by people with good experience. But that’s when you’re going to a regular conference. An online conference? The value is strictly in the content, since there is no rubbing shoulders with others. You attend so that you can get solid information on specific subjects. So check to see who is teaching, and ask yourself if you need the information. Then look at the price and determine if it’s worth the cost, or if you’d be money ahead to simply buy a book from Writers Digest on the topic. Without great content, offered by an experienced and knowledgeable instructor, I question the value of an online conference.

I once heard writer and writing guru Cecil Murphey say that an author shouldn’t get an agent too early in her career. Do you agree? And when does an author need to get an agent?

I asked my buddy Cec Murphey about that quote, and he said, “Too many writers think that because they’ve finished their first book, the next step is to get an agent. They’re probably not ready and need someone else to go over their manuscript. From my earliest days as a writer, I paid someone to read my first drafts. It was an investment in my career. And I learned from their comments. One of the cliches in publishing says, ‘Your first book is probably your fourth.’ That is, it takes time to learn the craft and to be ready to publish. Too many just-finished-my-first-book writers are so eager for acceptance and approval, they refuse to hold back and truly learn to write.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Cecil. In my view, an author needs an agent when he or she is ready to move forward in a writing career, and many newbies aren’t ready yet. For some, “being ready” means the manuscript is completed and the author’s platform has taken shape, so they’re probably about to begin dealing with publishers. For others it means they need to be introduced to US and foreign publishers, to movie producers, and to other people in the industry. For still others they’re ready when they have interest in their book, but don’t understand contracts or negotiation or marketing. There’s no one right answer, but I get what Cec was saying — that too many writers jump the gun, and seek out an agent before they’re ready to get published.

What makes a great cover?

A great cover grabs the attention of potential readers, who can tell from the mood and images on the cover what the book is about. It has something visual — a focal point which draws the reader in, leading them to the book title. It’s easily readable, fits in with other bestselling books in its genre, and matches up with the author’s brand. I tend to like covers that are simple but still able to stand out. I look at them and think, “What an interesting cover.” Covers are essential for selling books in our visual society, but too many self-published ebooks have either bad color, bad stock art, or images that don’t fit the story.

I sent a proposal to an agent, who acknowledged receiving it, but the next day I heard from an editor I’d met at a conference. That editor didn’t want the book as it is, but had some suggestions for improving the text. My question for you: Now that I’ve made those changes, should I re-send my revised/updated proposal to the agent, or let him continue to review the old version? And if I send him the new one, what do I say?

Yes, send the new one. Just include a note that says, “I had a talk with so-and-so, a wonderful editor at Big Publishing House. She had some very helpful suggestions for me, and I’ve been revising my proposal to reflect those changes. I thought you might find it helpful to see my revised/updated proposal. Do you mind taking a look?”

I read your answers the other day, and have a question for you: Let’s say a writer has a platform that reaches twenty thousand people. What do they need a publisher for? If I can hire someone to do the cover, to help with the editing, and to help set up things with Lulu to print off copies, why bother giving all that away to a publishing house? I even know of an order fulfillment company who could manage to send the purchased copies off to readers. So why would I want to hand off all that power to someone else?

You may not want to. If you’ve read my blog regularly, you know that I’m supportive of authors working to self-publish. If you’re entrepreneurial and you don’t mind working with a developmental editor, hiring a copyeditor, arranging to have somebody manage your print files, paying an editor or a service like BookBaby to upload your ebook, and coordinating with a fulfillment company to manage orders and sending, you can set yourself up as your own micro-publishing house. You may even hire a marketing firm to assist with the publicity for your book. For some, that scenario is a perfectly valid option. Just realize that not every author is cut from the same cloth. Not every writer wants to do that, has the knowledge or drive to do that, nor has the money to do that. There’s no one “right” way to be an author today. But why turn a manuscript over to a publisher? Because there are far more success stories from authors who worked with publishers than from authors who posted a book on Amazon and waited for success to come find them. Traditional publishers still have validity in today’s publishing market. They have reach, they offer great editing, they produce a quality product, they take care of things like production and fulfillment, and they have a long track record of success working with chains and independent bookstores. I’ve nothing against an author going indie, but I’m starting to tire of the folks who are prophesying the death of traditional publishers… Legacy publishers still have a role in our industry.

I’m getting flooded with questions. So what’s yours? If you could sit down and have dinner with a literary agent, to ask all those questions about writing and publishing that you’ve always wanted to ask, what would your questions be? You can drop them into the “comments” section or send them to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com — and a hint for those of you who struggled with that… No, you don’t really use the words (at) or (dot). Sorry to be unclear about that…

Sitting down for a martini with a literary agent…

April 21st, 2014 | Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 12 Comments

Okay, so this month I’ve invited writers to send in the question they’d love to ask a literary agent, if only they could sit down over, say, a martini. Pretend the two of you are face to face. Relax. Take a deep breath. What would you ask? Here are several of the questions people sent…

When a contract with a publisher expires, I assume the rights to the book revert back to the author. Does the author then have to get a new cover, ISBN number, etc, to put the book out as an e-book or POD? And is that something usually covered in a contract?

Great question. First, with most publishing contracts these days, the rights do NOT automatically revert to the author when the book goes out of print. Instead, the book stays with that publisher as an e-book, and they’ll want to keep it as long as it’s selling some copies and making money. Even when it’s not, you’ll have to write and request your rights back. So let’s say the publisher does indeed revert rights — all that gets reverted to you is your text. You’ll need to create a new cover (unless it’s the rare instance where you own the cover art or can buy it from the publisher), get a new ISBN (since this is a new edition of the book), probably re-edit the book (to make it clean and up to date), then load it to Amazon, Smashwords, etc. And no, your current publishing contract won’t say much of anything about this process, other than to offer some confusing, multi-step process to try and get your rights back.

Is there any chance of getting an agent when you DON’T have a platform? And if I’m just starting, how long do you feel it will take for me to build a platform?

Sure there is. It’s just easier when you have a platform — and the bigger the platform, the easier it is. When I pitch a nonfiction book, the FIRST question the publisher will ask me is, “What’s the author’s platform?” We used to rarely hear that question with novelists, but now it’s routinely part of the conversation. But can you be successful without a platform? Yes. A fabulous idea expressed via great writing can still get noticed by publishers. So can celebrity or expertise. As for building a platform, that’s unique for each author, but it’s not uncommon for an author to be told by a publisher who is interested in a manuscript, “This is a great idea — now spend the next year building your platform.”

You noted a few weeks back that Amazon had purchased the largest of the audio book companies, and immediately cut their royalty rates. That spooked me. Although I’m with a small press and am paid a great royalty, I’m paid after Amazon takes their 30%, and the publisher takes half of the revenue. How long do you think before Amazon increases their cut of the ebook market?

No idea. Amazon currently owns a large part of the ebook market, but if they corner that market, you can bet the percentage they keep will go up, and authors will be making less. THAT’S why I’m always rooting for Barnes & Noble.com and the iBookstore to remain in business. Traditionally, monopolies are terrible for consumers, and therefore for those who produce the material consumers want. I love Amazon, but an Amazon monopoly wouldn’t be good for authors.

You’ve made a point of saying you represent both Christian books and non-religious books. Are there a lot of Christian books? Is religious publishing a big part of the overall publishing picture?

Christian publishing is a huge part of the overall book market — and it’s going up. Just last week Publishers Lunch reported that the religious book market was $572-million dollars last year, which was up $10.5-million from the previous year. (Overall publishing was up 1% in 2013.) Christian publishing has its own stores, its own e-tail operations, its own dedicated space in most bookstores, and it is supported by a lot of churches. The fact is, people of faith read books — both fiction and nonfiction. It’s a big part of the American market, and it’s not going away.

What does an author do when she gets a really ugly Amazon review?

If you ask the folks at Amazon, they’ll tell you there are three things to do: leave a specific response to the review, send a note to the reviewer (and maybe ask him or her to remove it), or simply ignore it and let it go. This has been much in the news lately, with some people offering really ugly or negative reviews, apparently for the sake of getting noticed. (Almost any author who writes Christian fiction can tell you stories of people coming on to leave anti-religious rants. It gets old.) Apparently when you cannot be seen it’s much easier to be jerk. Still, the best thing is probably to ignore them and focus on the positive reviews. By the way, it was reported last week that bestselling author Anne Rice had sent Amazon a petition, asking them to block anonymous reviews, since she feels they are filled with “bullying and harassment.” Publishers Marketplace reported that she was complaining of “gangster bullies,” and noted that Amazon’s own guidelines proscribe insults, bad language, and harassing notes in reviews. Glad to see a notable author like that take a stand — I’ve seen the most vile crud posted on Amazon, and they’ve tended to let that stuff slide.

How do you feel about an author hiring her own publicist? I’m very outgoing, don’t mind at all asking people to buy my book, and I struggle with the thought of paying someone else a couple thousand dollars to encourage readers to take a look at me.

Then hiring an outside publicist may not be for you. But many writers aren’t as extroverted, or they simply don’t know where to go or what to do, or they don’t have the contacts, or (more than likely) they simply don’t have the time, since they want to be writing. So I tend to think freelance publicists are an option many authors need to look into. But some cautions: Check them out — there are a bunch of lousy publicists who continue to get work because they are cheap… you get what you pay for. Get a contract, and have them spell out exactly what they’re going to do and how much it’s going to cost. Get comparative bids, just to find out what another company will charge to do the same thing. Ask a lot of questions – I find too many authors hired a freelancer without asking everything they wanted to know. And don’t expect miracles… not everything in marketing works. In my view, you think about it the way you would baseball, and hope you hit about .300 (for my readers overseas, that means “hope about 30% of the marketing you do is effective at selling books).

I’m a junior and an English major at a college in the Midwest, hoping to land a career as an editor in New York. I work at the school paper, What advice would you have for me?

First, I’d look for some real training in editing, whether that’s at your own college, a class from another local college, a summer program, or even an online class. (Check with Writers Digest to see who offers these.) Second, I’d look for some real-world training. You’re getting that with your student newspaper, so maybe ask if the university has any other publications, or there are business or organizations close by that could use some volunteer editorial help with their publications or websites. Third, I’d check to see if there were people in the area who do freelance editing, or remote editing, and talk with them. If there are any writing or editing conferences you can attend, by all means try to make it and rub shoulders with people. Make friends with editors and see what you can glean from them. Fourth, I’d check into the NYU Summer Publishing Institute in New York (they also offer them in Denver and… somewhere else). A GREAT opportunity to find out the real world of editing, and to meet people in the industry. Fifth, you could apply for one of the internships that every publishing house makes available in the summers.

Those are the questions I received late last week. Just one more week of this, answering whatever anyone sends. So tell me… If YOU could sit down with a literary agent over a martini, what questions would you ask? Send them to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com.