Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Holidays!

I love this time of year. The books, er I mean gifts, are all wrapped and under the tree, the house smells like gingerbread and chocolate, and people are just in better moods. Well most people anyway.

This year, as we do every year, BookEnds will be closing for the next two weeks. We're taking the time to wrap gifts, bake, deck the halls and generally be festive. Okay, who am I kidding, I'm sure there will also be a fair amount of reading and catching up during this time when we don't have to be working.

Since this is my last post until January 4, and the last day our offices will be open for the year, we'll be having a little holiday party. Just so you don't feel left out I thought I'd share our favorite cocktail.

Courtesy of Gramercy Tavern, the Cranberry Daiquiri (with some of my modifications)

Cranberry Daiquiri
Makes 6 daiquiris

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel
  • 1/2 cup fresh cranberries
  • light rum
  • dark rum
  • cranberry juice
  • lemon juice (fresh squeezed is best)

Preparation:

Combine first four ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Mix in cranberries. Cook till cranberries begin to pop. Cool; discard cinnamon. Pour mixture into a jar and add 1/2 cup light rum. Chill. Strain syrup into a pitcher (reserve cranberries). Add 1/3 cup dark rum, 1/3 cup light rum, 1/3 cup cranberry juice, and 1/3 cup lemon juice. Refrigerate pitcher. Serve in Martini glasses filled. Top with reserved cranberries if desired.


Cheers! We'll see you again in 2010. Have a wonderful holiday season.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Love of Reality TV

I’ll admit it, I love reality TV. While I have been known to watch the truly voyeuristic shows like The Housewives of New Jersey (I mean, does it get any better than the final episode?), my real favorites are shows like Top Chef and Project Runway, shows that highlight the creative process. I’m a cook so I’m fascinated by watching a chef take some crazy, random ingredient like grasshoppers and create something that actually looks tasty.

I also find that watching these shows makes me think about my job, how yes, cooking and fashion are subjective, but when we listen to the judges talk we can see a commonality in what they’re saying, and while I don’t watch American Idol I do often wonder how writers would really fare if the public were given a say in whether or not a book should be published.

Agents are often accused of being the evil gatekeepers of publishing. I’ve been told that I’m only looking for the next Twilight and it’s been implied that I wouldn’t know a good book if I saw it. Obviously I beg to differ (especially since I’ve never even read Twilight), but who’s to argue with “Anonymous.” My real thought when watching these shows is what if we really were able to produce an American Idol for books? Not great TV since I assume people would just sit there and read, but what would happen if the next major publishing contract was chosen by mainstream America? Sure, the judges, an agent, an editor, and a bestselling author, would be there to give their opinions, but the true vote would be done over the phones by the American public (or the public of your country of choice).

When criticizing agents for being gatekeepers, I think it’s important to remember that we’re not rejecting books because we think it’s fun or because it won’t make us millions, few books make us millions; each of us is making a decision based on our experience, our knowledge and our own abilities. We all have different experiences, knowledge and abilities, but in the end we’re really basing our decisions on the market. Sure, we’re sometimes wrong. I don’t think there’s an agent out there who can honestly admit she’s never been wrong. And wrong isn’t always bad. We’ve all had huge surprise successes and disappointing failures. We’ve all passed on books that later became successes and we all wished we’d gotten a project that later we were happy to hear we didn’t. The point is that part of our job is to play American Idol and try to predict what the public wants. An interesting thought and, if you look at bestseller lists, just like pop charts, you might get a better idea of who would win the prize.

Of course that doesn’t mean all books need to be the next American Idol. Certainly I’m glad all music isn’t, but I think the possibility of a contest like that does make you think.

Jessica

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Conflicting Opinions

So I've been querying for awhile now, doing all the research, etc. My query letter's solid, and I have a high concept upmarket thriller. I don't have writing credits to speak of. However, a few months ago, I corresponded with a prominent and best-selling novelist (PEN Faulkner finalist, lots of awards, movie rights, etc.). He read and loved my book. Besides the high concept, I figured adding that to my query would entice agents to ask for a partial. But everyone has rejected me or not responded. I've always been over confident in my work, but when an established voice in contemporary fiction says "yes," why are agents saying "no" without taking a look? I mean, obviously a nod from anyone doesn't guarantee representation or publication, but no one wants to take a look? It's not that my ego's shattered, and I understand differing tastes, but I guess I just don't see the business sense there.

A bestselling novelist, no matter how impressive, is not an agent or editor. Writing books is one thing, selling and marketing them is another. There seems to be this assumption among unpublished authors that the minute you become published you have this insight into the market that you didn’t have the week before. That’s untrue. A quote from a bestselling author is great and definitely something that publishers would eventually want to use on the cover of your book, if, of course, the audience for that author’s work is also the audience for your work. In other words, a Nora Roberts quote, while fabulous, probably won’t sell many books to an audience that sees itself as literary fiction readers only. However, agents are still going to look at your query letter and, despite the quote, make a decision like they would with any other query. Does your book sound like something they would want to read? Or better yet, does you book sound like something they can sell?

I’m not sure why you think agents are making poor business decisions because they’re not wowed by a quote from another author. How is that author going to help you sell the book exactly? Has she agreed to coauthor with you? A quote is just that, a quote. It means one person liked the book. It doesn’t mean agents, editors or readers will buy the book.

There’s no secret way into this business and there are few, if any, people who can just magically open the door for you. My guess is that either your query is faulty, it’s missing that element that really grabs an agent’s attention, or your book doesn’t sound different enough and your voice (from your query) isn’t striking a chord with agents.

We’ve had numerous conversations on this blog about the effectiveness of quotes, with many saying they look at author quotes on books and only listen with half an ear, so to speak. Why do you think agents would be any different? In many ways we’re even more jaded than authors, and certainly more jaded than readers.

Jessica

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Agents for Multiple Genres

My question is about securing an agent when you write in multiple genres. It can be difficult to find one agent who represents all of them. Is it ever possible to have multiple agents? To locate a single agent who represents all of your particular genres can be challenging. It also limits the number of agents you can query - in a field that is already small. Or is it best to look for an agency that represents multiple genres, and hope that you can be represented by more than one agent within the firm?

I think one of the keys to success in this business is to take things one at a time. Just because you are writing in multiple genres doesn’t mean you will be published in multiple genres. What genre are you querying now? Focus on that book and look for agents who would be right for that book. If you’re building a career you’ll need to focus on one thing at a time anyway. If the agent you find happens to represent all of your dreamed-about genres, that’s great. If not, you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it.

One of the things I’ve found is that it’s not uncommon for unpublished authors to have dreams of being published in three or four different genres. Once you’ve sold a book, though, those dreams can change. You might discover that while you thought you were both an inspirational author and an erotic author you really stink at erotic and have found your true calling in inspirational. Or you might simply discover that your inspirational career is keeping you so busy you don’t have time to even think about the many other genres you had once imagined for yourself.

While it’s important to have dreams of your bigger picture, that picture is likely to change over the years. Heck, my vision and the books I represent has changed over the years. I’m continually adding new genres to the list of books I represent and removing others. Focus on one book at a time and you’re likely to have better luck.

Jessica

Monday, December 14, 2009

Negotiating Your Advance

A few different times this year I’ve been asked, through the comments section, whether or not it’s ever beneficial for the author to negotiate a lower advance and higher royalties or if the author should always go for the big money up front.

There are a lot of differing opinions on this subject and ultimately there is no right or wrong. There are agents out there who believe that an advance should never be earned out, that their job is to get the most money possible up front for their clients, and that if an advance is earned out they haven’t done their job. There are others who believe that publishing is a slow and steady climb, that selling your book for a smaller advance is better because with each subsequent deal you can negotiate a bigger advance, better royalties, and hopefully the publisher will stick with you longer and help you build a career.

Personally, while it’s rare I’ll turn down a really big advance, I’m a big fan of the slow and steady climb, especially when it comes to fiction. In my experience, I’ve seen far too many debut authors accept huge advances, write the books as per the contract and disappear from the publishing scene. The publisher had big expectations and they weren’t met, and it usually doesn’t make financial sense to keep throwing money at something that really isn’t working. My opinion on the slow and steady climb is that you will eventually make the money you were meant to make, and if your royalties are big then that only gives you more negotiating power with the next contract. All that being said, in my mind, my job is to guide the author, not make the decision. Ultimately it’s going to come down to how much of a risk taker the author is and what she really believes about her book.

Certainly I’ve been involved in a number of auctions in my time. In some cases the advance offer of one house so far outweighed what others were offering that there was no argument. I’m talking ten times the amount. In a case like that I don’t think there are many authors who would take the lesser advance and I don’t think there are many agents who would advise them differently.

In other cases the offers were almost identical. In those cases I usually encouraged the author to go with the bigger house or the house and editor who I thought were the most enthusiastic.

And in some cases, the advance was bigger at one house, but the other house was offering more on the backend (royalties and rights offerings). In those cases it was up to the author and me to really talk about what she was most comfortable with. Did she want to take the chance that she would make back the difference down the road? And how did she (and I) feel about the editors and the overall enthusiasm the house had for the work? In one case, we actually went with the house that offered the lower advance for a couple of reasons. This particular house was not able to come up with more money up front, but their royalty offer far outweighed what the other house was offering. More important, though, there was a level of enthusiasm and commitment the smaller house was willing to make that the other house wasn’t. We felt that commitment was much, much more important than money.

In other cases, I’ve had situations where we knew we were short-changing ourselves in terms of how much of an advance was being paid per book, but the author felt that she would rather feel locked in with a certain number of books (say, a four or five book deal) rather than simply a three book deal. She felt that the number of books the publisher was buying showed their commitment even though she might be slightly underpaid for the later books in the series. Her feeling was that she would make the money in royalties anyway.

There are so many things to consider when negotiating a contract that there’s no easy answer to this question. In the end, yes, I do think it makes sense to sometimes take a lesser advance if it means higher royalties. Other times, however, I’d say take the money and run.

Jessica

Friday, December 11, 2009

Conference Suggestions

I’m frequently asked which conferences I would recommend authors attend, and while I’ve been to many, there are just as many more I have yet to be invited to. In addition, what I look for in a successful conference might be different from what authors look for. I’d also need to know what you are writing, at what level you’re writing, and what exactly you’re looking to learn. And then of course you need to take into account the volunteers for that year and the faculty they’ve been able to bring in. Sometimes I think a conference is fantastic one year because they’ve brought in fantastic agents and editors. The next year they might not have the same luck.

Since this is a question I frequently receive, I’d like to hear from the writers. What conferences, and I’m not talking the big nationals like Bouchercon, RWA-National, or Worldcon, have you had success at or enjoyed? Which did you find were the most educational and informative? And which would you recommend to authors looking to network and learn about both writing and publishing?

Jessica

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Editor Request

I recently won a small contest. First prize in each category is a guaranteed full read by a particular agent and a particular editor. I know promising to receive a full manuscript isn't the same as promising to LIKE the book, but I am very excited to have this opportunity. How do I go about submitting my material? Do I send a regular query letter and say, "Oh, by the way, will you read this?" Do I send the full manuscript and label it "Requested material"? Or do I email the whole thing and say, "Here ya go!"? Also, in your opinion, what is the time limit on things like this? Do I need to send in my manuscript right away, or just sometime before Christmas, or do I put the whole thing under my bed for six months just on principle?

First of all let me send along my congratulations. Any time you get a full read through a contest, an auction win, or a query request you’re being given a fabulous opportunity. So let me go ahead and see if I can answer all of your questions.

When submitting any material at all, in any of the instances I mention above, you always need to include your query letter. Once the material gets requested, the query becomes a cover letter but should include the same basic information. I would start out the letter by mentioning why you are sending it. Something along the lines of, “as per your request,” or “I was thrilled to win the contest, and as per their rules I’m sending along,” will work sufficiently. Then you’ll need to include your title, genre, blurb, and bio. Basically the rest of the information that appears in your standard query.

If you’re not sure whether the agent or editor would prefer an email or snail mail submission, I would ask the contest coordinators. They might have a set of guidelines for their winners to follow. If not, I would send a professional email to the agent or editor asking what she prefers.

While I can’t guarantee the agent or editor will react in a super-timely manner (that’s going to depend on her schedule), I would submit the material within a few weeks of winning. Some contests have a timeline of when you have to submit material by, but I think four to eight weeks is longer than you should need. While certainly you want to show your best work, it also tends to throw our schedules off when a contest submission arrives months and months after the contest has ended. Also, as more time goes on, we tend to forget what made us request the material in the first place, and are less excited about receiving it.

Jessica

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sell Yourself

On a recent blog post one of the infamous anonymous comments accused me of being offended by an author’s belief that an agent does nothing more than submit material and negotiate the contract only because I didn’t want to actually have to sell myself or convince the author otherwise.

I know upon reading this I laughed out loud and I would imagine other agents did as well. The thought that we don’t sell ourselves to authors is ridiculous and only comes from someone who has never met with an agent at a conference or been offered representation. Every single time I make a call to offer representation I’m going into it with a sales pitch of sorts. I have never once called an author with the assumption that this was an easy “get.” Whether I’m the first agent offering or the fifth I know that my job is to convincingly tell that author that I’m the best agent for her.

The same holds true of any public interaction with authors. Sure, I write this blog and I try to remain as honest as possible, but if you don’t think I’m editing myself daily to ensure I don’t offend potential clients you’ve got to be kidding. And conferences? Conferences are all about looking my best, acting my best, and being “on” as much as possible. Every author I meet is a potential client, which means I need to show my best and most professional side. Have you ever sat in on a pitch session with me? One of the first things I ask authors is whether or not you have any questions for me. If you do, my goal is to sell myself.

If you’re a regular reader of the blog you’ll see posts I’ve done on how difficult it can be to lose out on an opportunity to win over a new client, and if you’ve ever read blog posts from other agents you’ll see similar posts. An agent’s job is to sell. We sell our clients and we sell ourselves. We sell ourselves to authors and we sell ourselves to editors. If I can’t convince editors that I’m a good agent I can’t convince them that I have good clients.

To assume that agents don’t have to sell themselves to potential clients is short-sighted, but also I think doing yourself a disservice. I’ve said it over and over and over on this blog: When you get an offer of representation the very first thing you need to do is leverage that offer as much as possible. Give yourself the chance to choose the agent you feel is best for you. Doesn’t that statement alone prove that I’m encouraging authors to ask agents to sell themselves?

And yes, this post is a bit of a rant, but after a while I get tired (as do many of the readers who honestly post, learn, and give constructive opinions) of the anonymous who feel they know so much more than the rest of us. I can understand where this business can get discouraging, but bitterness toward those who only want success for you is not going to help you succeed.

Jessica

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Respecting Each Other

There’s a delicate balancing act that needs to be played in the author-agent relationship, and while we’ve touched on it a few times I’m not sure we’ve addressed it in quite this way.

I’m often asked how I handle a situation when the author and I disagree on the merits of a proposal. If, for example, an author is hot on a new idea that I’m a little cold on, how should that be handled? Like everything else, of course there’s no answer to this question. Much would depend on the author and the agent and the relationship they have built, some of it would depend on the agent’s knowledge of that market, and of course a lot of it would really depend on the idea. If the book is a completely new direction for the author and an unfamiliar direction for the agent, maybe she’s not the right agent for it. If the idea or proposal is something the agent just feels isn’t the author’s best work, but the author is insistent it needs to go out, maybe she’ll give in and let editors make the decision. However it’s handled, I think that it’s important for both people to come to the situation with a mutual feeling of respect and trust for what the other has to offer.

There have been only a small handful of times in my career when I really felt I had to dig my heels in and tell an author that I would absolutely not submit the proposal or do whatever it was she wanted me to do. In all instances I really felt like the situation had gotten out of control, not because I was unwilling to compromise, but because there was a lack of respect. One thing I think authors need to remember is that agents are only as successful as their reputations. Editors depend on us to send them great projects, to negotiate respectfully, and to help them, as well as our authors, should problems arise. If I want to do the best job for my clients I need to maintain the reputation I’ve built, and of course I need to balance that with the work I’m doing for you.

I strongly believe that the only way I can be successful as an agent is to be as honest as possible with my clients. Typically I think this is appreciated. If you send me something that’s not your best work it’s my job to tell you and to give suggestions on what I think needs to be done to make it your best work. It’s also my job to tell you what I believe the market can and will support and whether or not what you’re writing might be a more difficult sell, or an impossible sell, than other ideas you have. Presumably when you’re hiring an agent you’re hiring someone for her expertise and knowledge of publishing and not simply a middleman who can shuffle papers on your behalf.

Let me tell you something that will not work for me and, if you really want the best representation, shouldn’t work for you either. It will not work if I send you a list of revision suggestions, edits, or concerns about your proposal and instead of looking carefully at what I’m saying, you respond with something along the lines of, “I disagree. Submit it anyway.” Nope. That won’t work with me. You might disagree and I can respect that. I even welcome a discussion on how we can make the proposal work, if possible. In fact, I think a number of my clients can tell stories of when we disagreed on something. I don’t expect to be blindly followed. I don’t want to be blindly followed. Selling a book takes teamwork and a good team listens to the ideas of all of its members. I also don’t expect to be ordered around. I’m not here at your beck and call. I don’t even get paid until something sells, so if I thought it would sell why wouldn’t I want to get paid?

I come to this job with experience, and while I don’t have a crystal ball any more than you do, I have to be honest with you and with myself about what my limitations are. If I really don’t think something can sell then there’s a pretty good possibility that I won’t be the agent to sell it. Most important, though, I’ve spent years working with authors, publishers, other agents, and editors. I’ve spent years learning the ins and outs of this industry and making connections to keep on top of what’s happening, and certainly I hope that you have respect for that.

Let me clarify again that respect doesn’t mean blindly following someone, it doesn’t mean keeping your mouth shut when you disagree and it doesn’t mean doing whatever someone else says. Respect means really taking the time to listen to what the other person has to say, and sometimes respect means compromise. Certainly there have been times when I’ve compromised with my authors, and definitely I know they’ve made compromises for me. However, what you should know is that the biggest compromises I think most of us make are to the publishers. If we can’t handle respecting each other and coming to a middle ground now, we’re never going to make it once we’re in the middle of contract negotiations, cover discussions, editorial work, or sales, marketing and publicity decisions. Trust me, the work you do with your agent is the easy stuff.

I think all of us have seen that there are authors out there with a real lack of respect for agents and what agents can bring to the table. And certainly, yes, there are agents out there with a lack of respect for the work an author does. Presumably you don’t want an agent who disrespects authors. Well, here’s a newsflash: I don’t want authors who disrespect me.

Jessica

Monday, December 07, 2009

No Simultaneous Submissions

Obviously writers can't query one agent at a time - no one would ever get published in his or her lifetime. But several agencies are asking for not only a query letter but also for pages, anywhere from 5-50 (and I have to say, asking for 50 boggles my mind). I recently got a response from an agent asking for a partial (just 20 pages or so) and states that simultaneous submissions aren't considered. I don't know how to handle this. Technically the other queries are just that - queries. The agencies just happen to ask for more than just a single letter. So while the agent reads the partial, I still have chunks of manuscript at other houses waiting to be sorted through. I don't really know what to think of this. Any thoughts on how to handle it?

Before I get to the real question, let me clarify that 50 pages is basically a proposal. These are agents who are asking for more than just a query letter, but accept unsolicited proposals. Back in the day, and for quite a number of years, BookEnds had this same policy. At the time we were a fairly new agency and had more time to read submissions. We were also still feeling our way and learning what we liked, and of course it hopefully gave us a bit of an edge in that we got to see the writer’s work before everyone else.

It’s not uncommon for agents to ask that pages be included with the query. I don’t. I find that typically I’ll only read the pages if I would have requested them anyway, so I just ask for the query and request the pages when I want more. While I won’t reject authors for sending pages, I rarely read them anyway. However, I think it’s becoming more common and simply depends on the agent.

I think not accepting simultaneous submissions is the same thing as asking for an exclusive. Do a search on the blog for "exclusive" or "exclusives" and you’ll see a great deal of information. However, my suggestion is to simply send along the material and note in your cover letter that other agents are reviewing at this time, but you’ll do your best to keep her apprised if anything should happen. If she chooses not to read it, frankly, it’s her loss. I really think, though, that, in most cases, asking for exclusives or saying you don’t accept simultaneous submissions is nothing but a scare tactic on the agent’s part. She wants to make sure she doesn’t have competition, which to me says she doesn’t think highly enough of herself to think she can compete. Obviously these two issues are hot buttons for me. I think authors should have the chance to choose an agent if possible, and not accepting simultaneous submissions or asking for exclusives takes the power out of an author’s hand, power you should have since it’s your career.

So in case I didn’t make myself clear, send it anyway and let her know other agents are reviewing. And of course if any agent offers representation, my suggestion is always get in touch with all agents who have pages or material and any agents who still have a query, but who you are really interested in. Give yourself the opportunity to choose an agent rather than simply waiting for someone to choose you.

Jessica

Friday, December 04, 2009

Likeable Characters

I have a question about likeability in a character, because it is something many readers and agents mention. What does it take for a character to be likeable? I was reading a writing-for-romance book, and it said your heroine needs to have a best friend to show the reader that she is likeable. Is that true? Does the reader have to be able to relate to a character for them to be liked? Is it possible to write about someone who is completely unlikeable and still have an interesting story? Isn't likeability subjective?

Thanks for the great question. I think this is one of the many things all authors have to struggle with because it is subjective. Certainly I have submitted and sold novels in which some of the rejections we received from other houses were that the characters weren’t likeable enough. That being said, I do think in the revisions, the author worked on making her characters more likeable.

I do believe that characters have to be likeable for a book to work. That doesn’t mean, however, that characters can’t have flaws or unlikeable characteristics. I tend to use Hannibal Lecter a lot as an example, but I think he’s such a fabulous example and tends to be a character most people are familiar with. Who could imagine creating a horrific serial killer who is actually likeable? On paper that doesn’t make any sense. On the book page you see how it works. Okay, maybe he’s not entirely “likeable,” but he’s certainly fascinating enough that you need to keep reading about him. Sure, he eats people, but he’s also brilliant and oddly, in his own way, kind to Clarice Starling.

I don’t think there are any easy fixes to make a character likeable. There are plenty of people in this world I don’t like, and as far as I know they all have best friends. That doesn’t make me like them or even want to like them, frankly. I think that what makes a character likeable isn’t a list of specific qualities or outside influences; what makes a character likeable is allowing the reader to see a softer side. Scarlett O’Hara is a fabulous example. She’s selfish, vain, and conniving. And yet she’s likeable. We want to keep reading about her and we want her to succeed. We see that while she’s always selfish her vanity also hides her insecurities and her fears. It makes her a well-rounded, true, and likeable character.

I don’t believe it’s possible to create a character who works and who is completely unlikeable. Have you ever met someone like that? I know I have and certainly it’s not someone I want to invite into my home or spend time with. I have, however, met a lot of people in my life with completely unlikeable characteristics, people that as I got to know I realized were interesting and fun and much more complex than they appeared. I think it’s that complexity that makes really good characters. They aren’t perfect and not everyone loves them, but we can’t help but be drawn to them.

Jessica

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Writer's Process

Not too long ago a client was going through some revisions with her editor and called me for a pep talk. She was confident that she could get the revisions done and even felt good about how she planned to do them. What upset her was that the editor had to point out these things in the first place. She really felt it was all so obvious, something she should have seen before even sending in the material, and she was feeling a little down on herself about the entire thing.

What I told her, and what I’m going to tell you now, is that these revisions and working with her editor this way, as well as working with me and her critique partners, was simply a part of her writing process. It was how she worked to create the books she wrote and to make them the best they could be. I also told her that I’ve rarely met an author who was happy with her writing process.

Some of you plot, write, and work out the entire book in your head before even putting word to page. You struggle at the beginning because you feel like you do nothing but stare at a computer screen for weeks and nothing comes out. You panic and yet, once you finally have that story established, it flows from your fingers, nearly perfect the minute the words hit the screen.

Some of you carefully create outlines for each chapter and work up studies of each character. You practically write the book in outline form before you even start writing the book, and it’s not uncommon for your outline to be one hundred or so pages. The days to your deadline slowly tick away and you worry that you’ll never meet it because you haven’t actually written the book. However, once it is time to start writing you already have the details planned, the plot is cohesive and the characters are well drawn.

Some of you simply sit down and start to write. The words flow, the characters do their own thing and in a few short weeks or months you’ve got a book. That is, until you reread the book. That’s when you decide that everything you’ve written is crap and now you spend twice as long going over each word, each sentence, and each chapter and revising and editing it into shape.

And then I’m sure there’s a myriad of other writing processes that I haven’t even touched on yet, ways in which you all create or are forced to create, but which, at some point or another, frustrate you.

The truth is that there is no perfect way to write a book. Nearly every author I talk with looks at a critique partner or friend and wishes she could write like that. Someone else always makes it look easy, especially when they manage to tackle what we most struggle with. Writing is creative, writing a book is a creative process, and when it comes to creativity there is no perfect answer to how it should be done.

There’s no doubt we can always seek to improve ourselves and the way we do things, and while I would urge you to do that, I would also urge you to embrace your process, the highs and the lows. No one writes a book with ease, no one writes a blog with ease. We all struggle at certain moments, but sometimes those struggles are exactly what bring us our best ideas.

Jessica

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Nonfiction Proposals

I’ve found that quite a few agents who are open to representing nonfiction self-help books request a query and the proposal in the same email. My query contains a brief description of the book, how it differs from competitive titles, and a little about me. The proposal contains the same information, although in more detail (as well as sample chapters, marketing plans, competitive titles, etc.). A friend (a published narrative nonfiction author) said there should be no repetition in the proposal of anything that was in the query, so if I’m sending the proposal and the query at the same time, I need to remove all repetition of information. Is my friend correct?

A reminder to everyone, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction: there are guidelines to submitting material and there’s advice on making your submissions stronger, but there are very, very few “rules” and, believe it or not, very, very few things that authors do to result in “instant rejection.” Why am I reminding you of this? Because ultimately the answer to your question has no right or wrong, and doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

Anytime you submit anything to anyone you are going to be required to write a query. I represent nonfiction self-help and my standard is that I want a query first. If I like the query then I’ll typically ask for the proposal to be sent as an email attachment with the query included, just as you describe. Having the query helps me refresh my memory and reminds me of who you are.

In my mind, there’s no way to write a query without including the same information. Your proposal should include everything about you and your book that you deem important to showing agents why your book is needed, how it’s different and what makes you the only author to write such a great and necessary work. Your query is what’s going to grab my attention and make me want to read more. To properly write that you’re going to have to condense what you’ve written in your proposal. In other words, it’s the best of the best of the proposal.

To make the answer short and sweet: there’s no way to write the query without repeating the same information that’s in your proposal. Hopefully, though, you’ll find a new way to write some of it.

And one last note, something I really feel the need to say . . . make sure you understand where your advice is coming from and how the advice giver knows. Querying, selling, and writing narrative nonfiction is extremely different from self-help nonfiction. While I’m not saying your friend doesn’t know what she’s talking about, I am saying that her experience will likely be very different from yours.

Jessica

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Self-Censoring

In a rather controversial blog post (that I won’t link to) I was accused of encouraging writers to self-censor, and while I don’t think the reader was talking at all about what I’m going to talk about today, the comment really got me thinking. After all, as writers or, more important, as businesspeople, publishing professionals, isn’t it part of your job to know how to censor yourself? I know that when I undertook the challenge of writing this blog that was one of the things I had to think about and have to think about on a daily basis. What do I think is appropriate content for my readers and what isn’t? What do you want to hear me say and what is, truthfully, none of your business? Most important, though, if I want to build a readership, self-censorship is imperative.

Certainly a topic that’s frequently discussed in writing circles are writer blogs and what authors should and shouldn’t be writing about. I don’t think there’s a specific list of course, but I do think that it’s important to know that as a writer you are building a brand and your name is that brand. Many of you know this already, which is why you only post anonymously on the blog; others have discussed removing some content from your blogs, or are starting a second blog for your personal opinions, one not connected to your business name.

Self-censorship also happens in fiction. It’s called editing. If you are writing a specific genre you are writing for a very specific audience. They have certain expectations about what they will find in your book and, yes, whether we want to admit it or not, many have certain expectations about who the author is. This can be especially true for those writing for a Christian or inspirational market.

Certainly I don’t support censorship. I think we should all have the right to read what we want, express our beliefs and opinions, and be who we are. That being said, I think it’s na├»ve to think that others don’t judge us or make opinions about us and our work based on their own beliefs, opinions and, yes, prejudices. I’ve said it over and over. Writing is a craft or hobby, publishing is a business, and whether you want to admit it or not, building a career in publishing sometimes means censoring yourself.

Jessica

Monday, November 30, 2009

What Would You Do?

One of those questions that comes with a variety of answers . . .

Let's say you're an agent who has fairly specific tastes for what you like to represent. You have a client for whom you've already sold three of these type of books. This client then comes to you with a book that has very little to do with the kind of fiction you normally represent. (Not genre-jumping, but a different style.) It's a perfectly good book, just not to your taste. If this had come via query, you'd turn it down.

What do you do? Farm it out to a junior agent? Tell the writer to shelve it? Learn to love it even though it's not your cup of tea?


The first thing I’m going to grab on to is the phrase “not to your taste.” If that’s a phrase that comes from me, if I tell my client that her book isn’t to my taste, it probably means that I really don’t like it, that the writing, the style of the book, and the book itself didn’t grab me and ultimately I don’t feel I’m the right agent for it. How I handle it will be dependent on many things.

Do I feel this is a direction that doesn’t work for the author? If this is the case then I’m going to discuss my concerns with my client. If it’s a book I don’t feel is that strong or the right direction for the author’s voice or the market, I feel it’s my job to let the writer know that. How she wants to handle the next step is up to her. Does she want to consider my opinion and put the book away for something else? Or would she rather find someone else to work with?

Do I feel that there’s something there, but the execution is off? If this is the case then I’m going to talk to the author about possible revisions and what we can both do to make the book stronger.

Do I feel it has potential, but I’m not the right agent for it? If this is the case then I’m probably going to suggest that I shouldn’t be representing the book. I need to do what’s best for my client and her career, and sometimes that means stepping aside.

One of the other phrases I want to latch on to is “perfectly good book.” That’s not a term that screams sale to me. In fact, it’s a term that leaves me a little cold. See, “perfectly good books” don’t tend to sell, especially in this market. Great books sell. If this book is only “perfectly good” it sounds to me like it’s not quite enough to hang a career on. Sure, others might hear that phrase differently, but it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. If someone told you about a book she just read and called it “perfectly good,” would you run out to buy it?

And would I pass it on to another agent? If I feel the book has merit, but I’m not the right agent for it, it is likely I would talk about it with the other agents at BookEnds and ask if any of them, junior or not, might be interested. Of course, whether or not the client wants to work with that agent on the book would have to be a decision she would need to make.

As for learning to love something that’s not my cup of tea, well, it’s a little more than love. I try and love new teas all the time. In fact, I credit many of my own clients for introducing me to genres, sub-genres and writing styles that I might never have considered in the past. The issue for me comes not from loving the tea, but from being able to do what I feel is right for the author, and that means giving her the best agent possible. If I really get excited about something it doesn’t matter if it’s something I thought I might have rejected in a query; what matters is if I can do my best for it.

So I hope that variety of answers helps you. There’s no right or wrong to how an agent or a client might handle this situation and, as always, without knowing the book, the client, and the entire scope of the career it’s really a hard question to answer.

Jessica

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving

Here in the United States we’re coming up on Thanksgiving weekend, a long weekend for everyone, and for that alone we should all give thanks. However, instead I wanted to give thanks to something that’s near and dear to all of our hearts. Books.

Because of books I have been able to explore worlds and lives I never imagined existed. I have been able to travel through wardrobes, I survived the Civil War, grieved the loss of “my sister” Beth, and solved murders armed with only Forensics for Dummies. I have fallen in love with vampires, werewolves, lords, dukes, a Griffin, a hockey player, and yes, just a normal, everyday, handsome man with an attitude problem.

I’ve been able to learn things and change the way I do things. I’ve studied business books and parenting books, wedding books and health books. I’ve scoured books for advice and new ways of thinking and learned about the world from a perspective I don’t get on a daily basis.

So today I salute all books, those I read as a child and those that can still take me to new places today. And of course, I thank all of the writers who continue to bring me something new and fresh and introduce me to worlds that have been nothing but pure joy.

This weekend I’m hoping to spend time with my friends and family and yes, I think I’m going to find a book to share the holiday with.

A Happy Thanksgiving to all. Our offices are closed for the weekend, but we’ll be back on Monday.

Jessica

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Time Is Money

I have just signed with a well known commercial agency. The trouble is, the manuscript isn't finished yet. I met the agent at a writing convention, and pitched them the book. They asked me to send them the first three chapters as soon as possible. They offered me representation straight away and I signed the contract after sending them about 15,000 words (all I have so far). They were completely aware from the start that it is unfinished, but are really excited to see the rest.

My question is, do I spend as long as it takes to get the manuscript word-perfect or should I just finish it as quickly as possible and worry about any imperfections later?

I've read your blogs on 'timing' and am worried that if I take too long, the marketplace will have changed. I am generally a slow writer, and like to edit as I go along. The book is a supernatural fantasy/horror for 9-12 year olds by the way.


Congratulations are definitely in order. You must have a fantastic and unique idea and must have written 15,000 words that blew your agent away. As always when I receive a question from an agented author, I urge you to open discussions with your agent and talk with her not only about your concerns, but about her expectations. Every agent is different, and of course without knowing what your idea is it’s difficult for me to know how timely it really is. I also wonder if your agent expects you to finish the entire book or is hoping to sell on proposal. My guess is that most editors will want or need to see the finished product, but this is something only your agent will know.

All that being said, I will of course answer your question. First of all, slow writers drive me nuts, not because I have anything against them but because I’m impatient, and when I get excited about something I want it yesterday. You should see how much batter I eat when I’m craving chocolate cheesecake. That being said, waiting the hour for the cheesecake to cook and the eight hours for it to chill properly is like a little slice of heaven. The batter might have been good, but the finished product is so, so worth the wait. So is a great book. While I might get impatient with a slow writer, it’s so much better to give her the time she needs to create the perfect book than it is to rush her through and be disappointed in the end. Half-baked cheesecake misses the mark; so does a hastily written book, and I’ve definitely learned the art of patience.

Moving away from my craving for chocolate cheesecake, let me give it to you straight. Take the time to write the best book possible. Yes, there’s always the possibility that the market will change, but a poorly written book isn’t going to sell well (to publishers or readers) just because the market is looking for that. A really great book can actually create its own market.

Jessica

Monday, November 23, 2009

What Will You Do to Publish?

There’s a difference between writing and publishing. It’s something we’ve discussed before and something that will inevitably come up over and over again on this and other blogs. Writing is a craft or a hobby, publishing is a business and for many your career.

One of the distinct differences I see between authors, those I represent and those who comment on or read the blog, are those who will do anything to be published and those who simply want to write. Now, before I go any further, let me make it clear that there’s nothing wrong with either. Some of you write simply to write and allow your creativity to flow. Others, however, have made the decision to write as a career. This means working on books, writing for magazines or writing for newspapers. I know many or all of you will say that you write because you have to. That it’s not a choice. Publishing, however, is a choice, or can be. Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s not a choice we can make on our own. But what if it is? What if you found out that there was an easy way into the publishing world? Would you take it or would you still prefer to write?

Here at BookEnds we pride ourselves on our ideas and enjoy brainstorming with our authors. Sometimes we come up with ideas in-house that we think would make a perfect mystery series or untapped romance idea. Sometimes one of these ideas is perfect for a particular author and at other times it goes on a list that we keep at hand for the author who might need an idea down the road. Editors aren’t much different. It’s common in both fiction and nonfiction for editors to have terrific ideas and search for authors to write them. I know that during my days as an editor I prepared a number of series bibles for different types of books and worked with agents to find the writers. In fact, more than ten years later, some of those series are still alive and doing very well.

How you deal with an idea that’s handed to you is really up to you and has to be a personal decision. Are you willing to write anything to build a publishing career or would you prefer to develop your own ideas and wait it out if necessary? Again, there’s no wrong answer to either of these questions. There have been many times when I’ve talked to authors about ideas I’ve had or editors have had and they’ve chosen to walk away, feeling the idea wasn’t exciting enough or wasn’t for them. I respect that. What I tell my clients any time an idea comes up is that you need to really feel passionate about it, because it’s the one idea, the one book series, you’ll be writing for the next twenty years. On top of that, there really are no guarantees. I’ve had authors write book proposals based on ideas from editors but fail to sell the book anyway, primarily because the visions the editor and author had for the book differed. I’ve had ideas I’ve given to authors that have sold, but didn’t sell well, and I’ve given authors ideas that didn’t sell.

Career writers often find that they sometimes need to write books they aren’t necessarily passionate about, but might enjoy anyway, and many have great success at it. My one bit of advice is that if you are ever offered the opportunity to write a book that comes from an agent or an editor, make sure it’s something you’re excited about no matter what and make sure you know why you write. Know if it’s more important to write your own ideas and create your own stories or know if being a career writer is what you really want. If a career is the path you choose then sometimes it’s important to remember that career writing, like any career, sometimes means doing things we aren’t necessarily passionate about, but that pays the bills.

Jessica

Friday, November 20, 2009

Pseudonyms

Over the years I’ve received a lot of questions about pseudonyms, mostly related to query letters or at what point in an author’s career a pseudonym should be chosen. One of the things I’m not sure many authors understand is that a pseudonym isn’t always a choice you get to make yourself. Many times when an author makes a book deal or decides to use a pseudonym, there are discussions with her editor on name choices and what they can agree on would be a strong pseudonym and suit the genre and audience you are targeting.

Recently a reader asked the following question: I'm considering writing under a pseudonym, of sorts, because my name is orally very similar to that of a wildly popular author. I'm thinking of just adding an initial somewhere, but I'm wondering what the legal ramifications of that are. I know that with normal pseudonyms, the contracts all have to be signed under normal names, but would it be requisite to legally change a name for just an initial? Is adding an initial even the best route to go? Or does it even matter if my name sounds similar but maybe it really doesn't sound like it?

It’s difficult to answer this question without knowing exactly how similar your name is to another’s and who that other author is. It seems like adding an initial might not be a big enough change, but again, without knowing how similar your name is, what your plans are for that initial, or what you’re writing I really am not sure. All that being said, there is no need to ever legally change your name to a pseudonym whether you are using an entirely new name or just an initial. No matter what you choose your contract will be in your legal name and the pseudonym will be noted as the name you are writing under.

Since you came to me with this question I’m going to assume you’re unagented and unpublished, in which case I think you’re getting ahead of yourself. Worry about writing your book. Finding the name to write under can be something you discuss with your agent and your editor. I know many authors feel they need to choose a pseudonym now so any other writings they do can be under that name, and while that’s not a bad plan, it also doesn’t mean your publisher will want you to use that name when the time comes.

My best advice is to worry more about the writing and less about the name. If you achieve name branding success before finding an agent and a publisher they will likely want you to keep that name. If not, it’s not going to be a big deal to find another.

Jessica

Thursday, November 19, 2009

My Dream Client

I’m often asked what my dream client would be, I think, primarily, from those hoping that when they do get an agent they can do nothing but make the agent happy. Well, just like all of you have different visions of what your dream agent would be and do for you, I think all agents have different visions of what a dream client would be.

I think there’s no doubt that there are probably some attributes about my dream client that have changed over the years, probably even since the time I first started writing these types of posts for the blog. That will be no different for you as an author. What you envision your dream agent to be like now, as an unpublished author, will change as your career changes. Those of you who have had agents and are back in the search again probably have very different criteria for what you’re looking for than you did the first time around. Those of you still with agents probably find that the criteria you had when you first signed with your agent had none of the things that you are (hopefully) thankful she does for you now.

Before I get into what I want out of a dream client, let’s clear up a little about what I don’t care about or expect. I don’t expect a client to be perfect and I don’t expect her to be a lemming. In other words, I don’t want her to blindly follow my lead and agree to everything I say. I don’t want her to yes me to death or hide when things go wrong for fear that I might get angry. In other words, the very first thing I want from my dream client is a feeling of freedom to be as open and honest as need be. When it’s wonderful, fantastic news I want to hear you squeal over the phone; when it’s the last thing you want to hear and you’re not sure you can take another round of revisions, I want you to call and vent and scream and let your frustrations out; and when you just need to spend time talking about revisions, ideas, concerns, or career goals I really want to be as involved as you want me. In other words, I want an open line of communication.

In exchange I want you to want honesty from me. I don’t want to feel like I have to couch my opinions when you ask for them. If you want my honest thoughts on your next book I’m going to give them, whether or not you want to hear them. If you want my honest thoughts on the direction you see your career going I want you to be able to hear what I have to say and not just listen and ignore later. Most important, though, my dream client will respect my professional opinion. It doesn’t always mean we’ll see eye-to-eye of course, but hopefully you’ve hired me because you’ll trust me to guide you and tell you the truth.

The last thing that popped into my head when I thought about the dream client, and I think one of the things authors should expect from dream agents as well, is the need for flexibility. Publishing is not a straight line and it’s not a circle either. It’s a series of bumps and bruises, hills and valleys, and for an author to really succeed she needs to have flexibility. She needs to be ready to shift her goals and change directions, sometimes with the market and sometimes because publishers and readers decide it for us. I’ve seen mystery authors become romance authors and romance authors become fantasy authors. I’m sure for many it wasn’t where they saw themselves, but it was where life led them, and because of the ability to be flexible and follow a new path they’ve been able to achieve the success they wanted, just not in the way they expected.

I don’t think there’s any set list of who the dream client is or what she’s like, there’s no such thing as perfection. What we can do to make a relationship work is be honest, communicate, and be the best we can be.

Jessica

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Benefit of Critique Groups

A while back on the blog one of my readers said something about critique groups that really got me thinking. Her comment was that while she loved her critique group she didn’t always trust their feedback. She had mixed feelings about that since she has learned a lot from them, but wasn’t sure they were always steering her in the right direction.

While I’ve never been in a critique group I think in some ways this is a great sign. A good critique group, like a good editor, shouldn’t always be telling you how to write or fix your book, they shouldn’t even always be able to identify what exactly is wrong. What a good critique group should do is help guide you, point out concerns, and get you thinking about your writing in different ways.

The truth about editing and edits, whether they are from an agent, an editor, a good friend or a critique group is that it’s all subjective. The dream editing partner is someone who understands you and understands your writing, but is still willing to address concerns even if she thinks you won’t be receptive to them. For example, I might tell you that the hero in your book is too manly and not sympathetic enough. Ultimately, just because I said it doesn’t make it right or doesn’t mean other agents, editors, and readers won’t feel differently. It’s just my opinion. Whether or not you make changes has to be up to you. However, if it even gets you thinking about your characterization, then I’ve done my job.

The very first step to success in this business is learning to trust yourself. Take everything you’re given from agents, editors, and critique partners and absorb it, weed through it, and decide what works for you and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, there’s never a guarantee in this business and that goes for edits too.

Okay, all of that being said, to have a good critique group I do feel you need to be getting something out of it, and that isn’t just on critiques of your own work. I honestly believe you can learn more from reading and critiquing the work of others than you can from the critiques you’re receiving.

There’s no magic answer in the arts. That goes for writing, painting, quilting, cooking, or photography. We all come to an art with our own ideas and our own baggage. Let others and their ideas help you learn, grow, and reevaluate your writing, but don’t expect someone else to tell you how to do it.

Jessica

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Writing Without Chapters

I'm writing a light fantasy, and was wondering if having chapters is absolutely necessary. So often do I read that people have to send in "their first three chapters" or some such thing. I never think in chapters, and just write as it comes to me, frequently alternating between different points of view. Do I have to put in the chapters later? If so, where do I put them?

Based on your question I’m going to assume that you’re still writing the book and haven’t reached the point where you’re revising or even finished yet. This is one of those tricky questions to answer because without reading the book myself I don’t know how your book without chapters is flowing. On top of that, it’s a stylistic issue, and when agents are asked general stylistic issues about books we haven’t read our answer is going to be advice about what generally works and what doesn’t. Of course that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try your own things, it just means you’re probably paving a more difficult road for yourself.

Okay, now that we’ve cleared that up let’s get to your actual question. Honestly, it sounds to me like you are still very much in the beginning stages of writing your book and that you’re going to have a lot of work to do before it’s finished. Why do I think that? Phrases like “write as it comes to me” and “frequently alternating between different points of view” gives me the sense that your style of writing is just to sit down and free-write, which means, basically, write as it comes to you. Once you reach the end of the book, I suspect you’re going to spend a lot of time doing serious edits and revisions to shape the book, and at that point you’ll probably find that chapters will make sense.

While I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head, I’m sure there have been books published without chapters. Unfortunately chapters aren’t always just a convenience to readers, giving us an easy place to put the book down and fetch another cup of coffee; they are also a part of building the story. One of the things new authors learn early on is the importance of ending a chapter at a point of tension in your story to make the reader want to come back for more. There’s a pacing to every book and chapter breaks can help add to that pacing. They can also help make things like shifting points of view easier for a reader to follow.

So yes, I think that at some point you’ll probably have to add chapters later. However, if for some reason you find that your book is more magical without them then you can probably just send along the first 35 to 50 pages, wherever you can find an appropriate break in your book that makes sense to readers.

Jessica

Monday, November 16, 2009

Trusting Your Editor

In an article I posted on Editing and Authors, one reader commented that she was having trouble trusting editors and agents. Her question was, How do you trust an agent or editor when they make an obvious (not subjective opinion) mistake? How do you communicate with them professionally if you feel like you can't say a word or else? How do you clean the coffee off your computer screen when they suggest you rewrite history? And it's not an alternate history novel?

Well, first of all I don’t ever think you should have an editor you don’t feel you should be able to say a word to. You said you don’t feel you could say anything or else. Or else what? An author-editor relationship is a partnership. You’re both trying to make your book stronger. While the author is often primarily focused on the story, the editor has a secondary concern, and that’s your audience. If you really have concerns about suggestions your editor made, then you have to have a conversation addressing your concerns and, most important, really finding out from her what her concerns are. It’s all too easy for an author to misinterpret the suggestions an editor has made. Maybe she had no intention of rewriting history, but was using that as an example of what could be done in an attempt to make the book stronger in other ways.

Every editor is different and edits differently. My style is that I typically tell the author what isn’t working for me, and in my attempt to explain why something isn’t working I give suggestions for how it can be fixed. Frankly, I couldn't care less if the author takes my suggestions or not. The reason I give suggestions isn’t because I think it’s the only way to fix something or because I want to put my stamp on the book; the reason I give suggestions is to better show the author what I’m thinking and hopefully help the author start thinking in a different direction herself. It’s brainstorming for me and the author. I use the suggestions as a way to explain myself and hopefully as a way to help the author start thinking of other possibilities and in other directions and to ultimately make her book stronger.

I think your question is a clear case of why agents can be so helpful. If you find you’re really in a battle with your editor, then it’s time to call in the big guns, your agent. Hopefully your agent can take a look at the book, if she hasn’t done so already, and mediate a solution that will make your book stronger and please both you and the editor. Another option is to get a second opinion from your agent. More often than not a client of mine will get edits from her editor and then ask me to take a look and give edits as well. It’s never that she’s hoping to pit us against each other, it’s that sometimes the problem the editor has can be easily solved by a suggestion from the agent.

As to how you trust an editor when she makes an obvious mistake, I guess you’d have to ask yourself how big the mistake is. I make mistakes daily and I’m thankful my clients don’t hold them against me, just as I don’t hold mistakes against them when I see errors in their manuscripts. None of us is perfect and editing is subjective. Communication, however, can make all the difference.

Jessica

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Query Hiatus

Since the beginning of October I have officially been on a query hiatus. In my ten years as an agent it’s something I’ve never done and was very reluctant to do. Yes, part of the reason for my reluctance is fear that I’ll miss out on something great, but another part is the fear that the queries won’t come back once I return. Probably a totally insane thought, but one I’ve had nonetheless.

I have to tell you, this hiatus is nothing like I ever expected. I’ve done query statistics reports for you where I tracked how much time it takes me to read and respond to queries—roughly two hours for 60 letters—but even with that I don’t think I knew how much time queries took out of my day. It’s enlightening and it’s unbelievably lightening. Without queries flooding my inbox I have an amazing amount of extra time in every day. I had no idea how much time I was spending just opening, sorting and responding to queries. No clue. I would guarantee you that on my hiatus there’s at least an extra hour in every day to work with my clients, get my office organized or even, on those rare evenings, put my feet up and read something I don’t have to. More then that though, it's been a really nice mental break for me. Queries are something that, no matter how much we love the possibility of a new client, always hang over our heads. They never stop coming and we will never get caught up. Taking this break is like a mini-vacation. I'm getting time to renew and refresh.

In January (not until the end, folks) I’ll be opening again to queries and I’m sure I’ll be looking forward to the discovery again. For now, though, I’m enjoying the time to get so much more done and accomplished in a day and I think that this query hiatus might become a regular thing for me. Why not take a month off here or there just to unwind from query stress and focus on what I really need to be focusing on, which is my clients?

Kim Lionetti will also be closed to submissions from 11/15 to 1/17. Therefore, BookEnds will not be accepting any queries for the next two months.

Jessica

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Who Does This?

***Warning to all reading this: It’s full of sarcasm and nothing but a rant, but I had a really good time writing it.

Not too long ago somebody (I’m not sure if it was a man or woman, or even using her real name, so we’ll go with “she”) thought it would be a good idea to send an angry diatribe of an email to roughly 400 publishing professionals. How do I know 400? Because all of our email addresses were there for the world, or at least 400 publishing professionals, to see.

The email was entitled “confidential memo.” I mean, really, how confidential can anything be when it’s from a stranger and blindly sent to 400 people, many, or most, at generic submission addresses? But if that’s what you think, I’ll respect that. Okay, no I won’t.

The email started by telling us all how much writers disregard the publishing industry and hold us all in contempt. My first thought was that you must not disregard us all that much if you’ve gone to the effort to collect 400+ email addresses and send this email, but I’ll keep reading. Apparently, according to this writer, bestseller lists only promote shallow and marketable books and there’s nothing being published that’s written by anyone with any lasting talent. Interesting, the same was said of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, but what do I know? Maybe they’re just hacks.

The funny thing about bestseller lists is that publishers don’t actually place the books on the lists themselves. They are there because readers love those books, buy them in mass quantities and, lo and behold, they become bestsellers. I guess it would be better if we only published books readers didn’t want to read or buy? Ah, so many things I’ll have to consider.

And then of course there were the usual complaints about expecting writers to “sell” their books to agents and how writers aren’t salespeople and that the system needs to change. Blah, blah, blah. How do you think we’re going to find authors if you in some way can’t at least tell me about your book in a way that’s enticing? Because if people are getting published daily, new authors, it’s somehow the system’s fault that you’re not?

Okay, so this was my favorite part. The part about how it was a crime that hardworking people spend years writing a manuscript only to get it rejected. Newsflash! I never asked you to write that manuscript. If it’s a crime, it’s a crime you perpetrated on yourself. Don’t blame me, or should I say the 400 of us, because what you wrote isn’t publishable (or at least that’s why I’m assuming I got this email).

And then of course there was a lot of misinformation about how unethical agents are, how writers who are successful are whores, how publishers only want books by actors and politicians and then something about if I liked Vanilla Ice or MC Hammer then I’m nothing but a sheep.

I really only have one thing to say to this person: insult me all you want, but insult my authors and you are a complete fool. Don’t ever assume any of the clients I represent are thieves, whores, or hacks. They are talented writers who have worked hard to get to where they are. I’m not representing them because I’m looking for easy money or to fill bestseller lists (although we’re hoping to do that too), I’m representing them because I like the books they write. No, I love what they write, and this might surprise you, so do thousands of other people.

Don’t worry, it’s people like this who only give other idiots a bad name. Oh, and give me something to rant about. I mean, seriously?!

Jessica

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Author's Credentials

When you're reading query letters for fiction books, does the background - or lack thereof - of the writer ever help or hinder a request for a partial? I realize with my query letter it probably helped considering I have a background in the subject matter I'm addressing, but what other things are you looking for that writers should potentially discuss? What would turn you away?

Luckily, for all of you authors trying to find something to put in that author bio section of your query, my answer to this is really nothing but good news.

If you have no background other than working with a critique group or being a member of one of the major writing organizations, you’re in fine shape and have nothing to worry about. In fact, I don’t even care if your only background is that you’ve been writing books. What I care about when it comes to fiction is the book, and if your query resonates with me I might not even read that final paragraph before jumping to request more.

However, if you have a background in the subject matter, writing credentials with literary magazines, have won numerous awards or are previously published that might help, especially if I’m on the fence. If I’m wowed by your query I’m not going to care about you as the author. If, however, I like your query but wasn’t wowed, those credentials will probably push me to request more simply because it looks like you can write, so I’m curious if maybe your book is more impressive than your query.

There are only a few things that really turn me off when it comes to author credentials and most of them are done by those who haven’t properly done their research before submitting. It’s the author who tries to convince me that winning a third-grade writing contest or spelling bee (and yes, it happens) qualifies you to suddenly be a published author, or the author who tells me more about her personal life and how she’s writing to fill the time than focuses on writing.

Jessica

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

It's Not for Me

If you were to put a percentage on the reasons you most often reject queries, what would they be? (ie: the writing, the premise, the wrong genre, etc.). Knowing that feedback from agents regarding rejections is next to impossible, considering their excessive workload, I'm just trying to get a feel for the most common problems.

Without keeping a tally while I’m reading queries, I don’t know if I could give a percentage of the reasons. I can give you some overall thoughts though.

While there are definitely times when I get an influx of inappropriate queries—wrong genre, wrong agent, unprofessional—for the most part I think the queries I receive are serious and well thought out. There’s no doubt that agent blogs, writer forums and the Internet in general has given writers an edge. While it’s probably making you all more anxious, it’s also giving you the knowledge you need to succeed.

I think the biggest reason I reject something is that it just doesn’t excite me. The idea might be okay, the writing good, the query fine, but the idea just feels done, like I’ve seen it a million times. In all the research you do on querying and all the work you do on writing the query, there’s one thing that writers will never be able to fully grasp unless you sit on my side of the desk and read the queries, and that’s what everyone else is doing. If I get 50 queries a day and 35 of them are vampire romances you’re going to have to work really hard to convince me that your vampire romance is going to excite me. After a while they all start to sound the same. I’ve talked before on the blog about insurance adjustor mysteries. How, to the best of my knowledge, there’s never been one published and yet regularly I receive a query for a mystery featuring an insurance adjustor as the sleuth. This just does not excite me.

That does not mean it’s all about the idea because certainly in reading the queries there can always be that one author who, with her voice, writing, and the presentation of her idea, can convince me that everyone wants to read about a vampire insurance adjustor.

So I think the most common problem is that the query just doesn’t resonate with the agent for some reason and often that reason is nothing more than “while I found it intriguing I don’t think it’s for me.” The truth more times than I can count.

Jessica

Monday, November 09, 2009

Licensing Your Rights

In lit sales (books and screenwriting) there is always "the sale" of the material, which is normally an outright sale, wherein a writer gets a flat or projected agreement of residuals, but loses all power to make other sales off the same material; say to TV or games, etc. Are there attempts to update the writer's rights and to license material more instead of out right "sale"? As in licensing a "Harry Potter" or "Twilight" for x-amount of films within x-amount of time, spin-offs, TV, games, toys, novelties, etc?

To limit use of material, say by a Random House, that if sales drop below a certain number the property comes back to the writer?


In reading this email what I discovered is that my response was going to be less about answering your questions and more about correcting your misinformation. Whenever we talk about signing a contract with a publisher we discuss it in terms of “selling” the book, which is really the wrong term. Except in very rare instances (writer for hire projects), an author does not sell a publisher her book, she licenses to the publisher the right for the publisher to publish her work. What additional rights the author licenses are really up to the terms of the negotiation.

If the deal made with the publisher is for World rights that means she is giving the publisher the right to act on her behalf when licensing publication rights throughout the world. In this instance the publisher and the author both share in any earnings made on those books. What the split is (whether it’s equal or the author gets a majority) depends on the publisher and the deal made. There are other variations of how the book might be sold, North American Rights for example, in which the publisher only has the right to sell the book in North America and it is up to the author (and her agent) to find other licensees to sell the book around the world. In those cases, when the author holds the rights, the Publisher does not share in any of the earnings.

The same holds true for gaming, movie, TV and any other rights you can think of. How these are handled depends on the terms of the negotiation. Typically though an author will hold on to all performance rights (TV, movie, etc.) as well as merchandising and commercial rights (calendars, games, etc.). In these cases she and her agent will approach the appropriate parties to make the “sale” and the publisher does not share in any of the earnings (other than the increase in book sales, of course).

As for your question for limiting use, this is why you want an agent: there are frequently clauses in contracts that revert the rights back to the author if a book isn’t selling over a certain period of time, and in many cases agents can add a clause into a contract reverting any licensing possibilities if the publisher has not made any sales. For example, if the publisher has not sold any foreign rights after a certain period of time, the right to sell those reverts to the author.

I hope I was able to clarify without confusing, and please don’t worry about Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowling, the two are doing quite well on every product and movie you see based on their books.

Jessica

Friday, November 06, 2009

National Bookstore Day









Tomorrow is Publishers Weekly’s first annual National Bookstore Day, “a day devoted to celebrating bookselling and the vibrant culture of bookstores.” And who doesn’t love a bookstore?

So check out the Publishers Weekly web site for a list of participating bookstores, and even if you can’t find one in your area, take a moment to stop in to your favorite store, pick up a book or two (the holidays are right around the corner) and thank the store for hanging on in this stinky economy and giving us a place to go to satisfy our cravings.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Choosing Your Genre

As I write Science Fantasy, Science Fiction and Fantasy it makes sense to focus on one if I want to succeed as a writer. But which? Fantasy has more shelf space, but there’s more competition: Does an agent take more Fantasy novels on knowing there’s the market for them ready and waiting? In comparison Science Fantasy seems criminally under represented, but does that mean Agents can afford to wait for the guaranteed blockbuster before taking a punt on a smaller genre? Is the truth somewhere closer to Science Fiction which lies somewhere in the middle?

Of course this applies to all genres. Paranormal romance seems to be everywhere at the moment, much like Fantasy. Crime thriller series, the Pattersons and the Deavers, appear to still be massive. Or is it simply because agents receive more MS’s in one genre from another? They just take on a similar proportion of all genres received and I’m reading too much into it?


I think you’re reading too much into it. The trick isn’t to go for a genre that you think is hotter or easier to break into, the trick is to figure out which of your ideas is the most unique and which you think you can execute the best.

I suspect the reason you’re seeing so many more agents representing Fantasy than Science Fiction these days is because of the recent crossover between Fantasy and Romance. When I was an editor there were agents who represented SF and Fantasy and those who represented Romance. While there was some crossover, it was rare. In fact, I remember when Jennifer Jackson started representing Romance in addition to her SF/Fantasy list and I remember thinking that was unusual. I suspect because of the crossover between Paranormal Romance and Fantasy there are more books in those genres being published, represented, and bought right now. However that doesn’t make it an easier area to break into; in fact, the competition can often make it more difficult. Crime thrillers are the same way. While it might seem to you that this is a massive market, the truth is that it probably seems that way because those are many of our bestsellers. I find it to be a very difficult market for debut authors to break into.

This is one of those classic situations where I would tell you not to chase the trends or, in your case, the agents. Sit down and write down your ideas and find the one that resonates best with you, the one that you think will help you stand out the most in the market and the one you’re most excited to write. That’s the genre you should be pursuing.

Jessica

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Query Length

I’m currently trying to write a query, but can’t decide on its length. When short and concise, it leaves the plot open for wide interpretation. The setting has certain elements that lend it to books with similar settings, but it truly does not follow those. I don’t want agents imagining something they're not going to get, and I don’t want to waste my time or theirs with fruitless submissions. Yet, the longer version seems overly detailed with little mystery. As an agent what do you recommend? What do you expect from a query?

I suspect that your query length belongs somewhere in the middle, although it’s really hard to critique a query I haven’t read. My very first suggestion is that you scroll through the Must-Read Posts section of the blog and take a look at some of the queries I have posted from my clients. I think, or I hope, the first thing you’ll notice is that none of them are the same. There’s no cookie cutter formula to writing a query and, if you ask me, that’s a good thing. A query, like a book, should follow general guidelines, not strict rules.

The only length I would suggest you stick to is keeping your query to one page. Beyond that, how long the blurb is, is really up to you. That being said, it sounds like you’re struggling with the two biggest mistakes I see in queries. The query that doesn’t tell me enough, that sounds more like a movie tagline and doesn’t help your book stand out from the pack, and the query that’s so long and wordy that by the time I’m done I’m actually more confused than when I got started.

My best advice is to find a trusted group of people to share your two queries with, preferably people who haven’t read your book before. Get their opinions and advice. Would they want to read your book after reading either query? If not, then it’s back to the drawing board for something that really shares the essence of your book, but not every detail.

Jessica

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Fixing a Stalled Career

Let's say you have a client who has published a handful of novels, all of which failed to earn out. The client's working on a new project. Do you recommend that she finish the new novel on spec, and submit the whole thing? Or do a handful of chapters/outline? Do you tend to get more/better offers for full manuscripts than partials, all else being equal?

Honestly there is no way to answer this question since it’s going to be different for each and every client. If all of your novels failed to earn out and you are working on a new project, I’m going to assume that you aren’t going back to your previous publisher with the book or that your publisher has already passed on your option material. It means that you are starting from scratch, except that you have those numbers dragging you down.

What this author doesn’t say, but I want to make clear, is that earning out isn’t necessarily the sign of an author who's a good or bad risk. Earning out your advance only matters to the publisher who paid the advance. What others are going to be interested in is your sales track record. Let’s say you were paid an advance in the mid-six figures, your advance didn’t earn out because the publisher only got orders for 50,000 copies of your book. However, you sold 40,000 copies. That’s not bad at all. Well, it is to the publisher who isn’t recouping the advance, but to other publishers those are pretty decent numbers, and if they like your next book it’s likely they’ll snap you up and pay an advance comparable to those 40,000 copies you sold.

Now that’s the good news. Based on your question, my guess is you got a smallish advance (say $10,000), and not earning out $10,000 means not a lot of copies were sold, essentially stalling your career. So do you need to write the full book or would a partial work? The problem isn’t going to be what you submit, it’s going to be overcoming those numbers. If I were your agent it would depend on what you’re writing. If it’s in the same vein as your previous books I don’t think you’d need a full manuscript. You might however need a pseudonym. If you’re writing something completely different (going from mystery to women’s fiction, for example) you’d probably need to complete the full manuscript, not because of your numbers, but because you are making a dramatic shift in style and editors will want to see that you can do that successfully.

The only person who can really answer this question is your agent, and the answer is going to depend on the agent, the work and you as the author.

Jessica

Monday, November 02, 2009

Random Questions

I can’t even begin to tell you how thankful I am for all of you who continue to send questions for the blog. It certainly makes my life easier when I don’t always have to come up with a topic on my own. That being said, frequently there are questions that have merit but are not lengthy enough for a full post. And that’s what we have here. A grouping of random questions sent in by readers.

After reading your blog, I was wondering is copyrighting one's material before sending it out for proposals something I should consider? Is that even done?

It is done all the time, but I don’t think it’s necessary. For one thing, the material will likely change drastically from the time you copyright it to the time it’s published, and for another, a copyright date will show an agent exactly how long the book has been shopped for, and if I were you, I’d like to keep something like that a secret.


I'm currently writing a humorous narrative based on my blog. When I submit my work to you, do I submit a Query letter and a Proposal for non fiction? I think I understand both processes, but the proposal seems very scientific for a collection of humorous short stories.

The “scientific” proposal, as you put it, is for non-narrative nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction, whether a collection of short stories, a memoir, or a collection of essays, should typically be submitted as if it were a fiction proposal. That means you will likely submit the first 50 pages or so and a synopsis. Keep in mind, the only time you send a proposal to BookEnds is if it’s requested. We ask for simply a query first.


If you don’t mind, I am wondering if it is appropriate to send a query letter with proof of delivery? Or would that be considered rude?

I don’t think it’s rude, just a matter of peace of mind. Just make sure no one has to sign for anything, ever. It makes an agent’s life easier. All that being said, it might just be cheaper to send out your queries and requery in the specified amount of time if no answer is received (and you know you’re following guidelines).


I am currently unpublished, but I have a background in business and marketing. For work I write one of the blogs for our younger customers, as well as the product descriptions for the newsletter and promo blurbs for when we launch new products and for when we send out press kits. I never thought of actually mentioning this in my author bio. Do you think I should?

I think it’s up to you. Certainly you can mention them because they are writing credits, but if you’re currently writing fiction I don’t think it’s going to give you an edge either way. Let’s put it this way, it can’t hurt, but it’s not necessarily going to help either.

Jessica

Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Halloween

I love Halloween. It’s so fun for me to dress up and pretend to be someone else for the day. Planning this year’s Halloween costume had me thinking of all the great characters of literature and how much fun it would be to be them for the day, not just in dress, but to actually become one of those characters for the day.

The choices are endless and not easy. If I choose the self-serving and vain Scarlett O’Hara it means that for a day, just one day, it’s all about “me, me, me.” While I might dread the fight to find an 18-inch waist, stomping around with gads of admiring boys in a hoop skirt could be fun.

Hannibal Lecter, while one of the creepiest characters in literature, is also fascinating and brilliant. What would it be like to be this mastermind for the day? I’ll promise you one thing: if this is my final choice, I’ll only try it if I can avoid eating.

While Sherlock Holmes probably would not be my choice, I know that you amateur sleuths might immediately be drawn to this clever and highly observant gentleman. One of the most appealing factors about Holmes to me would be the time period. I mean, we’re dreaming, right? So that means to actually become these characters we’re also traveling into their worlds.

And whether you were a fan of the books or not, I don’t think anyone can argue that Harry Potter would be so much fun that a day might not be enough. I don’t know about you, but I think I might need at least a week to master that game of Quidditch.

What about you? If dreaming about those great characters in literature, who would you like to become for a day, just one day?

Jessica

Thursday, October 29, 2009

How Long Is Too Long to Wait

If I’ve learned anything from writing this blog it’s what an anxiety-inducing process getting published is, and while the unpublished think it gets easier once you have an agent, I think I’ll have to disagree. It seems to me that having an agent, but still seeking publication and, heck, even having a publishing contract can still be equally anxiety-producing.

An agented author recently got in touch to ask how long is too long to wait for minor revisions and does silence from an agent mean the agent has lost interest.

Sadly there’s absolutely no way to answer this question without holding a couples counseling session with the author and agent. How long is too long? Is it a proposal or a full manuscript? What is your definition of minor revisions? How many rounds of revisions have you already been through with the agent? What else does the agent have on her plate during that time and has the agent given you a due date? Without knowing at least some of that information I probably can’t answer your question as clearly and concisely as I should. That being said, let me give you some guidelines so you have a time frame in which you should feel comfortable checking in.

I think that if you have only a proposal you should hear within four weeks. I know that seems long, but I’m giving all agents the benefit here. One week is too short. If I don’t have advance notice that your material is coming I can’t promise a one-week turnaround because I might already have two proposals scheduled for revisions that week. Two weeks seems very reasonable to me, except that it could take me a week to even get to the proposal and another full week to get my feedback together (sometimes I will have to read the material a couple of times and frequently I have to sit on it and think about it). Three weeks probably makes the most sense, so four weeks gives everyone a safety net. If you haven’t heard within four weeks, definitely check in.

What about a full manuscript? Well, the same timeline holds true in terms of how long it might take an agent to actually get to the book, the difference is that it’s 400 pages versus 50. It takes a lot longer to read and put together notes on, and if any parts need to be reread, it’s going to take even longer. I still think however that it’s reasonable to check in after four weeks. That seems plenty long to me and at least by that point you should be able to get a time from your agent for when she will get back to you.

Minor revisions means the work you’re doing should be minor. It means that presumably you won’t be recreating characters or deleting entire plot points. It does not mean the work the agent is doing is any less than if you were getting major revisions. In fact, in my experience minor revisions often mean more work for the agent. While major revisions are often a short letter telling you to go back to the drawing board, a minor revision letter can go through the manuscript point by point and often end up being 15 to 20 pages in length.

As for whether an agent has lost interest. There’s absolutely no way to know unless I’m in that relationship, but waiting for revisions doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of interest, just not enough time.

My very best advice is get to work on your next book. Lose yourself in another project so those weeks fly by as quickly for you as they always do for the agent.

Jessica

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Writer's Insecurities

These questions came to me from a group of writers. Apparently it’s a topic frequently discussed on forums and blogs and I suppose shared anxiously through emails and phone calls. These authors, all agented, wanted to know if I am aware, or other agents are aware, of the insecurities and concerns of a writer. In this case they were specifically talking about those long stretches of silence when they are waiting to get feedback on revisions, waiting to hear that the book is going out on submission or just waiting for a response to an email or phone call.

I think that most agents are aware of a writer’s anxieties and insecurities, it’s probably even easier to be aware now with blogs and the Internet than it ever was before. I know that I’ve learned a lot from my readers and what is posted in the comments. I’ve also learned a lot from perusing writing groups and forums. However, being aware of general writer worries and reacting to them are two different things. As an agent I need to be considerate of the feelings of my clients, but I also can’t assume that all of them feel the same way. What I try hardest to do is be considerate. I try to let my clients know roughly when I’ll get to the material I have to read, I try to keep them in the loop as much as possible on their submissions, and I let them know that at any point if they are feeling insecure or worried they should feel free to get in touch.

The difficult thing about insecurities is that you can’t expect someone else to take care of them for you. We all have them and yes, agents experience times of insecurity too. Who wouldn’t? It’s a business where you fall in love with something with all of your heart and then have to try to find that one other person who feels the same way. That’s enough to make all of us batty.

My suggestion for dealing with your insecurities is to figure out how to calm yourself without making others crazy. Easier said than done, I know. The trick to quelling anxiety is to take control. No you can’t go to your agent’s office and force her to read your material or send it out on submission, but you can talk openly and frankly about timelines. When does she think she’ll have feedback to you or what is her thought on when the submission process will start? Getting an agreement on dates might not necessarily mean it will happen by the date chosen. I know for example there are times I’ll tell an author I’m starting the submission process the next day, only to discover it’s taken me two days just to finalize the query and another day to get my head wrapped around which editors I think would be most enthusiastic about the work. I have no problem with the author checking in though, especially if I had told her I was going to be starting.

I know that some of you are going to immediately chime in about how this is all well and good if you have a good agent who does communicate, but what about the bad agents? We talk about the “bad” agents a lot and we hear the horror stories of those who were lost in piles and never hear from the agents they work with. Those are horror stories and hopefully not as common as the good stories. I got the impression from this group of readers that all were happy with their agents, just anxious, and being anxious about working with an agent certainly does not mean the job isn’t getting done.

Jessica