Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Profit Motive

Here's a link to a great article about the financials involved in publishing a book.


Monday, March 19, 2007

We've got the references...

"We've got the references, we know the sites. But most agents just list genre keywords -- literary fiction, scifi, mystery, thriller -- well there's tons of different books for each category. Just listing a few (or many) category names does NOT tell us much about what an agent wants.

How come no agents take the time to pitch writers? Why don't any of them write a one-page summary of what they love (and hate) and make that available on their site, etc? It would help a lot."

As I am a BOOK AGENT, I don't hate any books - there are just some genres that I don't feel passionate or knowledgeable enough about representing - like romance. I also think listing categories is a basic filtering process that helps writers cut down their list immediately.

I can understand though how you'd be unsure about how to narrow down your list more if you're writing in a genre that most agents handle, like lit fiction or mysteries. These are broad subjects and there are tons of different variations, and I intentionally don't get into more detail because it all depends on the book and the writing. I'm not going to say that I only represent quirky literary fiction with unusual settings, even though I'm definitely drawn to that, because I also represent and love more traditional lit fiction too. Coming-of-age fiction is a bit of struggle lately, but I certainly wouldn't preclude representing this type of work just because the market is tougher. The same applies for mysteries - I dig hard-boiled intellectual thrillers and mysteries in the vein of Dennis Lehane, but I'm open to pretty much any idea within either genre (even cozies).

A good book is a good book is a good book.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Donnie Brasco

So you're on the hunt for an agent? Of course, referrals are always the best and fastest way to get an agent to look at your work - so this should always be your first step. Ask your friends, your writing teacher, your mailman, or even your local barista about their agents and see if they'll put in a good word for you. I'm telling you, you get vouched for like Donnie Brasco and it's an immediate bump to the front of the list.

For most people though this isn't an option, so the next step is some general research, and thankfully for writers in recent years this has become much easier. The web is of course the easiest medium - Agent Query, Writers Net, and Publisher's Marketplace are all great websites. Most agents have their own websites too, but just remember that plenty of fantastic ones don't at this point (Curtis Brown, Harold Ober, Susan Golomb). I also suggest going to the library and looking at Literary Marketplace (its $300, so unless you're rolling in it perhaps its better not to buy), or going to the bookstore and picking up Jeff Herman's Guide. While you're there here are some more books to check out if you're serious about this whole "getting published" business.

Michael Korda, ANOTHER LIFE. Now semi-retired, Korda has long been one of the superstar editors in the business. An insider's view that reads like fiction.

Mark Levine, NEGOTIATING A BOOK CONTRACT. I'm telling you, this is publishing's dirty little secret, like that night I.... In this lucid little book Levine addresses each section of a book contract, concerns an author/agent should have, and alternative terms you can ask for. If your agent doesn't have a legal background, an attorney on staff or on retainer, or at least some previous experience with contracts, than they better have this on their shelves. Levine is releasing a new edition in May.

Jonathan Kirsch, KIRSCH'S HANDBOOK OF PUBLISHING LAW. You need to know your rights, and Kirsch spells them out for you.

Noah Lukeman, THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. Full disclosure - I interned for Noah years ago when I was first starting out. Still, I can confidently recommend this without a hint of bias. This handy book gives suggestions on how to avoid all the pitfalls that will cause your manuscript to get immediately rejected.

So now you have a huge list of agents and a pile of books. The next thing is to get the list down to a manageable size. First, make sure to check out SCFW's website about bad agents, as well as the Predators and Editors website. Anyone who charges a fee should immediately be bumped off your list. Anyone who charges more than fifteen percent for domestic sales has to go, as does anyone charging more than twenty-five percent for foreign sales. Anyone who is either not a member of the Association of Author Representatives or doesn't agree to abide by their Canon of Ethics gets the boot too.

You still have a huge list of agents, but we're getting there. I'm a big believer in querying early and often, but with some discretion. I suggest separating the agents left into at least three hierarchical groups. How do you break this down? Well, did that agent represent a book/author you really like? Did you see them at a conference and you dug what they had to say? Do you want an agent who lives in New York? This last one certainly isn't essential (see Peter Ginsburg, Jim Hornfischer, Sandy Dijkstra, Nina Graybill, Elaine English, Kristin Nelson, Ted Weinstein... and many more), but some authors really want an NYC agent.

So lets say now you have an "A" list of agents. Once you have your query together (and that's a completely different topic) you can start making your pitches in accordance with each agency's guidelines. There's no need to send it as an exclusive unless the agent requires it, and if they do than maybe you don't want to try them anyway.

A Capiche?

Friday, March 9, 2007

Proposal Blues - The Overview

There's no right way to write a proposal, and each will vary depending on the author, the author's agent, the subject matter, sample chapters, biography, and more. Still, I'll try over the next few weeks to provide a basic template to work from, starting today with the Overview (a typical proposal consists of an Overview, Marketing, Competitive Titles, Publishing Specifications, Author Bio and Sample Chapters).

The overview can be anywhere from a page to ten pages, though I've seen longer when no sample chapters are going to be available. Basically, you want to summarize your work and the entire proposal in a fluid and captivating manner. You can save some of the detail for the other sections, but I personally feel you need to briefly address marketing, biography, competitive titles, etc.

Besides getting a sense of the overall scope of the project, editors also want to get a sense of your writing skills. If this is a humor book, the proposal needs to be humorous. I know this seems self-evident, but you wouldn't believe how many times I've gotten a proposal or query about an allegedly funny project, and then when I read it it's like swallowing those grinds at the bottom of your coffee cup. In the same vein, if it's a history, it needs to merge multiple elements into a single, cognizant storyline that convinces me that this is a previously unexamined subject or that you're coming at it from a different angle. Writers should remember that often times this is all agents and editors will initially read; if you don't hook 'em here there's little chance they'll continue reading.

It's important to know what's going on behind the scenes when your agent submits your proposal to Editors X, Y, and Z... and yes, nowadays your agent should be submitting to multiple editors, unless you have an option or there's special circumstances that just make Editor Y the perfect person for it.

Let's say Editor X likes it. She or he will typically share the work with colleagues (often called back-up reads). Sometimes these colleagues simply don't have the time to read the whole proposal, and so again its essential that the overview kills. This point extends further. Let's say Editor X has got the support of the editorial staff. At some of the bigger houses the marketing people then will weigh in on it. Again, its the overview that is often looked at, and nothing else.

The overview is typically both the most important and the hardest part of the proposal to write. If you find yourself stuck on it, it makes sense to tackle the other sections (such as the outline) to get a better idea of the content you wish to present.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Query Part Two

Well, I had planned to discuss more the ins-and-outs of the query, but recent comments on Miss Snark's blog about agents' lack of response to e-mail queries made me change my plans. I'm a huge fan of hers, but I truly do think she got this one wrong, probably because I'm one of those agents she was talking about.

From what I can gather, the perception is that not responding to e-mail queries is rude. I disagree. I give writers two options - mail or e-mail - but I warn beforehand that you won't get a guaranteed response unless you write by mail and include an SASE. What's complicated about that? And what's rude? I always thought rude was spitting in someone's soup, telling me I should try hair plugs, or only tipping ten percent (unless it's a cabbie, and then I think you should just round up the change).

I really prefer mail queries, but I will accept e-mail queries because it seems that it's the only way some authors communicate today. When you send a query by post and an agent passes with a form rejection that's usually the end of the conversation unless you want to spend another thirty-nine cents. In contrast, rejecting by e-mail creates a direct link for the writer to either chastise you for your decision or request a more detailed rejection, which robs the efficiency out of the form rejection process (i.e. less time for you to work with your clients). From previous experience I've learned that both can and do happen with frequency.

Well, delete these responses you say? Easier said than done. What if they are just writing back with a quick thank you? Well, that could be a nice thing. But how am I to know until I open it? And if a writer responds to a rejection with a request for more details, aren't they still going to think you're rude for not responding to their (second) e-mail? And let's say its not a request for more details, but instead someone wanting to tell me how stupid I am for passing on their work. Yes, this happens all the time. Now I'm pissed. Not raging Hulk pissed, but annoyed enough that I actually contemplate for a second writing this person back and telling them exactly why I passed on their wonderfully original mystery called The Michelangelo Cipher - the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, and a conspiracy within the Roman Catholic Church. I usually restrain myself, but again, this is time that I could be spending with my clients.

Simple, straightforward. I promise to look at both types of queries, but if you want a guaranteed response - send it by mail. If you send it by e-mail and haven't heard back within two weeks, you can safely assume I've passed. There's nothing arrogant about this at all; two options are presented and you're free to choose either.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Query

Since opening my own agency I've received, on average, about 60 queries by post and another 40 queries by e-mail each week. That's 100 total queries a week, or 443 or so queries a month, or about 5,215 queries a year. I've asked some agent friends about this, and these numbers are roughly comparable to what they receive, though a few colleagues at the big agencies get more.

My first priority is to my present clients, and this is what takes up the biggest chunk of my time. On any given day I might be reading a client's new mystery, editing a non-fiction proposal, submitting a debut novel to publishers, conducting an auction, pitching the book to foreign publishers, negotiating an option, chasing down a payment, etc.

My next priority is to read works that were referred to me by clients, agents, or editors. In truth, this is the pool where many of my new clients come from, and it's also necessary to attend to these materials to ensure that your relationships with the referrer remains positive.

If there's a free chunk of time during the week I'll try to tackle the unsolicited queries. Reading queries can be mundane work, so I'll often avoid looking at them until I'm in the correct mindset. I have an assistant that helps sort everything (for example, poetry, romance, science fiction in the far future or set on a different planet, and erotica are almost always immediate rejections), but I do like to give each query a read-through.

If you want to improve your chances, here are some simple things you can do that will avoid agents' ire and insure that your query gets the attention it deserves.

Use standard A4 envelopes or bigger for your SASE (self-adhesive preferred but not essential). Spell the agent and agency's name right (its Jonathan, not Jonathon). Don't shorten an agent's name to present a sense of familiarity (I have never gone by Jon or John, and I know plenty of Richards who don't like to be called Dick, and Christinas who don't want to be called Christ unless they're freaks). Any of the above is just sloppy; authors wanted to work with diligent agents, and the reverse is true as well.

Next, please, please don't tell me that you want to sell your copyright. You are licensing rights to publishers, not selling your copyright (unless it's a work-for-hire). I'm anal-retentive (as my dear friends tell me all the time), but these are your legal rights we're talking about here! You should know what you're getting involved in.

Please, please don't tell me that you think this is an Oprah book. I want all my clients to go on Oprah, and some might be a good fit for her show, but the chances are slimmer than a supermodel that this is going to happen. Also, don't tell me I'll be making the biggest mistake in the world if I don't take you on. Confidence is essential in this business (for both authors and agents), but cockiness isn't.

Read the agent's submission requirements. Some agents like a query and synopsis, some like a query and sample chapters, and some want a whole proposal. Almost all want a SASE. Some only want e-mail queries, some never want e-mail queries, some want you to use their website to submit, and some won't respond to your e-mail query unless the project interests them (like me).

Finally, be patient. Try to remember how many queries an agent gets each week. We can rush through them and get back to you within a few days without properly considering your work, or you can give us time and we can evaluate your query with the proper care.