Friday, July 31, 2009

When in Doubt, Query

I'm considering submitting my manuscript to you, but before I do, I was wondering if you would prefer NOT to see a submission on a book that's already been submitted to a publisher?

Well, that depends . . . is the book with one publisher or has it already been seen and rejected by every publisher I could possibly think of? This isn’t a decision I can make based on a question like this. Like a lot of the questions I receive, this is a decision I would have to make based on the query letter.

While agents have certainly posted a number of rules on query letters over the years, I think if you read them all through you might see that we really aren’t asking for all that much. Sure, things irritate us and yes we often post about them. That’s what a lot of our blogs are for and that might be where the confusion comes in. The truth though is that we don’t know until we’ve read it; sometimes that means the query and sometimes that means the book.

When in doubt, just send the query. The worst that will happen is you’ll get rejected.

Jessica

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Submissions 101

Almost daily new readers are discovering the blog and many of these new readers are also new to the submission process and have lots of questions about where to even begin. Because of that today’s post is really going to be a rudimentary look at how to begin and what to do next. I’m also going to ask many of our more veteran readers to weigh in and give any tips or tricks, so don’t forget to take a look at the comments section.

Before getting started, before even writing a query, you need to make sure your book has been written, rewritten, edited and polished, and, as you have heard from me before, I even suggest you’ve already started writing your next book so you have something to focus on besides just the query process. Fiction and narrative nonfiction (i.e., memoir) writers will need to have completed the full manuscript. Self-help writers can start submitting on proposal.

Once it’s time to sit down and write your query I suggest you spend time on it, and a search on this blog for "query" or "blurb" will give you hundreds of tips and posts on writing a strong query. I’m not going to go into that here; however, I am going to remind you that a query is not typically something that can be thrown together in 15 minutes. Remember, a lot of pressure is placed on this poor query, so I always suggest you spend time really working on it and, if you can, find a group to help you make sure it will sing to agents. I know that online groups like Absolutewrite, WritersNet and Backspace will definitely help hone queries. You also can’t go wrong, as a fiction writer, by joining groups and local chapters of Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, or Science Fiction, Fantasy Writers of America.

Research is essential to finding an agent, but I think research also needs to be done in moderation. There are a number of fabulous web sites and books available that will guide an author through the agent maze and list hundreds of agents and what they are acquiring. There are three places that I recommend you definitely look. The first is Preditors & Editors; this amazing author advocacy group vets agents to make sure you are submitting to only those that are reputable. Do not submit to any agent until you’ve checked this site. The second are agent web sites themselves; this is the best place to find the most up-to-date information on what agents are looking for and an agent’s guidelines. Granted, not all agents have web sites, but it’s important to check. And finally, if you don’t become a subscriber to Publishers Marketplace, you should, at the very least, sign up for their free deal notifications so you can keep up on the news of some (not all) of the publishing deals that are being made. After you’ve checked those sites, sending out queries is a bit of an act of faith. Do enough research to know that the agent you are submitting to represents (or is at least listed as having represented) books in the genre or area you’re writing in. There’s no need to double- and triple-check this with every single listing ever written. One reliable source should be enough. Remember, when querying it’s really easy to get bogged down in things like research or editing your book and at some point you just have to decide that it’s time to make that next step.

Now that you’ve written your query and done your research it’s time to take that leap and send the query out. This is where I’m hoping veteran readers will pop in with their own advice. I think it’s probably best to send a few out (maybe ten) at a time to some agents on your A list, some on your B list, and some on your C list. Get a feel for if the query is working, and a few weeks later (whether you’ve received responses or not) send out ten more queries. Whether or not you get a response will depend on the agent and her guidelines. This is one of those issues that stresses submitting writers out more than anything and, as we learned in Agentfail, causes more than a little anger and frustration. My advice is that if the agency has a “no response means no" policy, note that on your query-tracking sheet and move on the minute the query goes out. If an agency does post that they respond to all queries, note that on your tracking sheet and also when you should check in (I think 4 to 6 weeks is more than reasonable).

Hopefully you’ve written a strong enough query that you’ll immediately start receiving requests for proposals. If not, you might discover that you need to go back to the drawing board and revamp that query before making any new submissions. I believe there’s an evolutionary process to rejection and almost every writer goes through it. If you have revamped the query, are you allowed to requery those same agents who might have already rejected the work? I don’t necessarily advocate you do this. On the other hand, I don’t see a lot wrong with doing it. I don’t love the idea and I suspect most other agents feel the same way. Ultimately, it’s a decision you need to make on your own based on your own feelings about your query and passion for a particular agent. To read more of my thoughts on how to make that decision, I suggest you read Resubmissions and ReQueries from early last year.

Once proposals are being requested I can’t promise anything on timing. Again, it’s up to each individual agent how she responds. You might receive constructive feedback, you might receive little more than a form. Some agents might respond within days, others months. My best advice at this point is to stay the course. Continue querying, continue sending out proposals and hopefully full manuscripts, and, when that offer does come in, please, please use it to your advantage to make sure you are getting the best offer with the best agent for you, because not every agent is right for every author.

Jessica

Please note: In an effort to catch up on the numerous submissions and queries that she's received—and to improve her future response time—Kim will be closed to submissions from August 1st to September 30th. Any queries received during that time will be automatically deleted.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Market News

There is no doubt that the economy has had a huge impact on publishing. Too many editors to count have been laid off and publishers are publicly announcing that they are cutting back on the number of books they are acquiring and subsequently intend to publish. What I’ve noticed most however is that even those houses that are doing well and holding on are taking a much closer look at every book they buy, risks are fewer and farther between, and because of that agents are also becoming more careful about adding new clients to their lists and even about the clients they do already have.

When I talk to editors, few are giving specifics these days on what they are looking for. Primarily I’m hearing about what they are not looking for or what they have too much of. One romance editor talked about the glut of paranormals on their list, and while the books are definitely still selling they aren’t actively seeking any more right now. Mostly though, editors are sticking with what has been working for them, authors and ideas both. They are looking closely at numbers and evaluating why something might be working or not working and basing buying decisions on those.

In nonfiction I talked to an editor who made a comment that I thought made a lot of sense. She said that her house was looking at books that had need-to-know information versus want-to-know. In other words, they were only looking at topics that they felt readers would think they had to have to survive or take those next steps. Fun, informative books that weren’t essential to a reader’s life were less likely to be considered.

So what does this mean for writers? This means to write the best book you can. Competition is fierce, competition has always been fierce, but in an economy like this you’re not only competing against other authors, but against a buyer’s precious budget constraints as well. That means there’s no room for disappointment. So don’t just come up with a great idea. Come up with a great idea, write a fantastic book, and then edit it to within an inch of its life. At that point, get it out there and start that next book.

It’s not pretty out there, but books are still selling quite regularly. In fact, I’m happy to report that BookEnds has been holding up very well and we’re continuing to sell books as well as take on new clients. We’re just working them all that much harder.

Jessica

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Genre

There’s often a lot of angst from authors about which genre their books might fall into and how to categorize a book when pitching to agents and editors. Let me tell you a little secret. This is not critical to the rejection or acceptance of your book. In fact, it barely matters. The reason agents ask your genre is because it gives us perspective on the vision you have for your book. Think of it this way: if someone tells you about a new author and starts to describe the book, it helps you to know ahead of time whether this is a thriller, mystery, romance, fantasy, or young adult. It helps put the story into perspective and gives you a sense of place (for lack of a better word).

Far too often I’ve discussed a book with an author either over the phone, via email, or at a pitch session, and after explaining why the book didn’t work for me the author’s response was that in the future she was going to be sure to tell agents it was a different genre than what she first described. I hate to say it, but that’s not the problem. I did not reject the book because you told me it was a cozy mystery when in fact it would have better fit in the just plain mystery category. If the book was working I could have figured that out and simply recategorized it myself. In fact, recategorizing happens all the time. I wish I could count the number of times a mystery turned into a romance, a romantic suspense turned into contemporary romance, or women’s fiction turned into romance, all after the publisher bought the book. Okay, you’ll spot a trend there, but I swear the change to romance was coincidental in my writing.

So when all else fails simply pick a general genre—fiction, women’s fiction, romance, fantasy, etc. There’s no need to spend months agonizing over how to categorize your book. If it’s the right book it will find its home no matter which shelf it lands on.

Jessica

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Providing Feedback

When do agents, if ever, “owe” an author feedback? Should an agent who has asked to read a full manuscript always be required to provide constructive, personal feedback as to why the book didn’t work for her? What about an agent who has asked for a partial? Do the same rules apply? Is an agent then required to give feedback?

Obviously (I’ve said this before) I don’t think an agent ever owes an author (other than her own clients) anything. However, it is always nice, extra nice, when an agent can give feedback. I also know that a number of authors feel that if an agent goes to the trouble to request a full manuscript then feedback should be given. Fair enough, I can understand that once you’ve reached that final stage in the “getting an agent gauntlet” you might feel that way. The trouble is, for the agent, it isn’t always that easy.

For example, I know that now, in the age of ereaders, many agents are finding it easy to skip the proposal stage altogether and simply ask for a full manuscript. It doesn’t cost anyone anything monetarily and it allows the agent to simply keep reading if she feels she needs or wants to. In that case the full manuscript is really thought of more as a proposal. If that agent only gets to page 20 before realizing the book isn’t for her, does she need to say anything other than it’s not for her simply because of the number of pages requested?

And what about proposals? When requesting proposals I view it as a testing stage. In other words, all too frequently I’ll request things that I’m not sure about based on the query, but willing to give a shot. If I felt I were required in some way to give personal, constructive feedback as to why it might not be for me, I can tell you right now that I would request fewer partials (and manuscripts). Think of it like trying on clothes. I don’t always try on something I love on the rack, but sometimes I’m intrigued enough just to see how it might look. The really great moment is when you try it on, thinking it will never work, and wammo!, that pair of pants, that manuscript, is the perfect fit.

Okay, so here’s the clincher. What if I read the manuscript, not the entire thing, but I get at least halfway through and I can see the author has talent, I can see the plot has potential, I can even see that another agent might pick it up, but (here it comes) it’s not for me. Really, honestly, sometimes that’s the absolute best answer I can give. Sometimes it just isn’t for me and there was no way to know that ahead of time. Haven’t you ever done that with a book you bought? The plot sounded like something that was up your alley and it was certainly in a genre you like to read, but in the end the book, for whatever reason, just wasn’t for you?

I know these are questions that will never be answered to the satisfaction of all. Ideally authors are going to want as much feedback as possible, and you should. A good author knows that any feedback, from agents, other authors, editors, and beta readers, can help you improve your writing. Agents know that too, and in an ideal world we would be spending lots of time giving all authors revisions and feedback. Of course it’s not possible. I do make every attempt possible to give feedback when I can. If it’s a partial and I see a glaring error I can pass on to the author, I will. Heck, if it’s a query and I can get specific about why it didn’t work for me, I will, and certainly on manuscripts I try to say something, even a little something, beyond the form. What I find, though, at times, is that I’m stretching to find that one thing that didn’t work for me and that’s when authors are getting most frustrated, when my attempt to give you a real reason falls short and sounds like nothing more than a form letter.

Jessica

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Word Count

I swear I must get a question a week relating to word count. It’s an endless discussion here, on the blogs of other agents and on writing loops and boards, so while I’ve posted on this before I’m going to try to make this the complete guide to word count post, everything you need to know. Of course I know that’s never going to happen.

First and foremost, what length should your book be? My answer is when in doubt think 80,000 words, give or take. I don’t think that you can ever go wrong with 80,000 words whether you’re writing mystery, romance, fantasy, literary fiction, or nonfiction. Okay, sure, it’s never going to work for children’s books or poetry, but since I don’t rep those it doesn’t matter (to me anyway). In fact, I think 80,000 words even works for YA. Sure, with some of these genres you’re going to be on the long end and with others the short end, but again this is the “when in doubt word count.” 80,000 words is pretty much safe everywhere.

What about range, I’ll be asked. Can you give us a range or can you be genre specific? I suppose I can, to the best of my abilities.

Mystery: I think that for mysteries you often have the freedom of writing a book that’s a little shorter. In the case of mysteries 70,000 to 90,000 words will likely work for you.

Romance: 80,000 to 100,000, and no, I’m not counting category. If you’re writing category you’ll need to follow the very specific word count requirements of that line.

Fantasy or SF: Here you can go a little bit longer. Some publishers will accept books in the 80,000 to 125,000 range.

YA: 50,000 to 75,000, and yes, this is an area that can get really fudgy (I made that up), but again, in the 80,000 range is good. **I corrected these numbers after feedback from others (and comment from Kim) although I do think with YA these days you can still be safe in 80,000 words although maybe a tad high. Fantasy YA of course can be higher.

Women’s fiction, literary fiction or anything I failed to mention above: 80,000 to 100,000 (sometimes 125,000, especially in the case of literary fiction).

Now all of these are ranges and estimations. You are unlikely to be rejected simply because you’re at 78,000 for your women’s fiction or 110,000 for your romance. That being said, if you start coming in at 175,000 words, 200,000 words, or 41,000 words, you better take a close look at your book. No one in their right mind would think you’re somewhat close to range. Let’s put it this way, we give a range so that you know what the fudge factor is. We’re all smart people and we all know that when we ask something to be within a range we’ll allow for some leeway. Just think about how much leeway you’d allow and keep it at that.

I think the biggest thing about word count to remember is that it’s more than just an arbitrary number that publishers set down to make your life hard. For one thing, this is what readers tend to expect and yes, let’s face it, we all know a reader who will avoid a book simply because it looks too long or even too short. We humans tend to be creatures of habit, and if we’re used to reading 100,000 words give or take we expect 100,000 words. The other thing to consider is that as long as we’re still selling books primarily in a paper format, it’s an expense issue. A book costs more if it has more pages and somewhere along the line those costs have to be passed on to readers. Are you prepared to be the most expensive book on the market just because you insist that not one of those 300,000 words can be cut? Trust me, it’s hard enough to sell a book without out-pricing yourself.

So how do you count your words? In the days before computers it was 250 words per double-spaced page. This was the way I was taught to count, and back in my days as an editor this was still the way (roughly) production people counted to predict how big a book would be. Why? Because a 200-page book filled with short snappy dialogue is going to have far fewer words than a 200-page book filled with long descriptive paragraphs. In other words, it’s about figuring page space and not word count. That being said, I’ve seen a lot of conflicting opinions from agents on how word count should be done—whether it’s using the word count key on your computer word processing program or counting pages. Frankly, I don’t think it matters. No one is going to check and no one is going to criticize you because you were 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 words off in your count. It’s just to give us an idea of where things stand, so do what works for you.

There, I hope I did it, but I’m sure I didn’t. I hope I answered, finally, questions on word count.

Jessica

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

I Stop Reading When

I’ll confess, I stole this idea from Janet Reid, but it’s a brilliant post and one that I think might be a little different for every agent. So what about a query letter results in an instant, or near instant, rejection? Here we go....

1. Every single agent on earth is included in the “to” section of the email. I know you’re querying widely, heck, I tell you to query widely, but at least make us all think you’re querying us individually or that you care who might become your agent. I don’t bother to even respond to these emails, they just get deleted.

2. You query Jacky, Kim, and me simultaneously. I delete, figuring one of the others will answer (can’t guarantee they do, though).

3. A query letter is beneath you and instead you send a rambling email about how hard you worked to write this next great piece of literature and you’ve attached your synopsis and sample chapters. My guidelines say query letter and I want a query letter. I don’t bother reading the attachments unless they’re requested. I make my decision based on your query letter, therefore I make my decision based on what you tell me in that email, whether it has anything to do with your book or not. Most likely this is an instant reject.

4. Attaching the query letter instead of cutting and pasting it into the email. I’ll admit I’ll read the query in most cases, but asking me to take this extra step doesn’t help your case. By the time Microsoft Word opens and the letter opens I could have gotten through three other queries. Now you’re wasting my time. Ultimately I’m reading as a courtesy at this point.

5. Disparaging all other books published or yourself or your book. I am insulted by those who think that everything published is nothing but a load of crap and I don’t want to work with anyone who has an attitude like that. I also can’t figure out why you’d want to be published. Instant reject. I have no patience for people who can’t believe in themselves or their books. My thought is that I’ll be spending all my time as your agent trying to convince you that you are good enough, and frankly, if you can’t believe in yourself or your work I can’t either. Instant reject.

6. The query is sent through a query service, your husband, your grandmother, your daughter, your lawyer, your doctor, or your dog (and yes, it has happened). Nearly instant reject. I’ll read the query, but I go in skeptically and you darn well will have to knock my socks off and throw them across the room before I can be convinced you can actually do the rest of the work on your own.

7. The query is addressed to my dog. Sure he’s on the web site and yes he’s adorable and smart. No, he can’t read. Instant reject.

8. Your book or proposal is incomplete or you are pitching nothing but an idea. Self-help nonfiction writers can submit a proposal, but that proposal better be complete before you query me, and don’t even think of querying until your fiction or narrative nonfiction (for unpublished authors) is fully written, edited, and revised. And you have an idea and want to know whether or not it’s viable before wasting your time writing? Write it and find out then. Instant reject.

9. Lack of knowledge of the English language, proper sentence structure, or word usage. And yes, I can tell the difference between a typo and knowledge of the English language. Instant reject.

At least once a day I get queries addressed to Jennifer, to whom it may concern, or another agent entirely. I can live with that. Mistakes happen. I regularly see typos, formatting and editing errors, and I can live with that. I can live with the fact that you might occasionally misuse a word or use the wrong word. In other words, I can accept the fact that you’re human (if you can accept the fact that I am too).

Jessica

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What to Ask Who

What are questions for your agent, and what are questions for your editor? I don't want to step on my agent's toes by circumventing her, but at the same time, I don't want to make her work harder for her 15% than I have to. If, for example, I want to know whether a book will be released as a hardback or a trade paperback, to whom do I direct that question?

When in doubt I always feel it’s best to ask the agent. I know many times when a client asks me a question that I feel would be better asked of the editor I’ll simply suggest she go directly to the editor; at other times I can easily go and find the answer for her (if I don’t already know). I don’t think you should ever worry about making your agent work too hard for her 15%. Over time, as you become more comfortable with the publishing process and get to know your editor better, you’ll have a better sense of who you want to go to for your answers. In the beginning, though, go with the person you feel most comfortable with. Questions like whether the book will be published as hardcover or trade might be determined at the time the contract is signed, but not always. In many cases it’s not a tough question for your agent to answer. If, however, the publisher hasn’t decided yet, it’s something your agent will want to know as well and would probably have no issues checking on for you.

One of the the things I often discuss with my clients is not whether they should be coming to me with their questions but whether it’s best I ask the editor or they ask their editors. When an agent goes to an editor with a concern or a complaint it brings things to an entirely new level, sort of like your mom going to your teacher to address your test scores versus you talking to your teacher yourself. There are times when a client will come to me with a question or concern and we’ll openly discuss how it should best be handled, what’s the best way to get an answer, and who should do the asking.

You can never go wrong with asking your agent questions. Are you worried about annoying your agent? Then try to keep your list of questions concise. In other words, don’t send a new email with a new question hourly or even daily. Instead, try to compile the list over time and send it all (or most of it) at once. That way, when your agent has time, she can sit down and either email you back or call to answer as many questions as possible.

Questions are how we learn and take control of our own careers. Don’t ever hesitate to ask them no matter who you need to go to to do the asking.

Jessica

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Stand Proud

Lately there has been a rash of queries that start out by saying things like, “Since this is my first query it’s very likely I’m getting it all wrong” or “I’m not the strongest writer in the world” or “I know how busy you are so I hope you can take the time to read my query,” and none of these statements or other similar negative statements are helping your cause.

Think of it this way: You go to buy a house and the realtor takes you out to see the one she thinks you should buy. It fits your price range and has everything you asked for. On the way there she turns to you and says, “Well, it’s not the best house in the world, especially with how many houses we’re driving by right now, but I think it’s definitely good enough for someone to live in and it seems to fit your qualifications.” Are you really going to fall in love with that house the minute you walk in the door or are you more likely to see nothing but the flaws? Are you even going to want to bother seeing the house after that glowing recommendation or would you rather spend the rest of the sunny afternoon doing something you enjoy?

A query that starts out by telling an agent how not up to par the book is has the same affect. I’ll tell you right now that if you can’t stand by your book and tell me it’s the greatest thing I’m going to read all day then I’m not going to bother asking for more. If you, the author, the book’s biggest advocate, can’t convince me to drop everything I’m doing right now and stay up all night to read this next great work, then how is anyone else going to believe in your book? That doesn’t mean you should actually say, “This is the greatest book ever,” because overselling never works either, but you do need to stand proud and confidently by your book and your query. If you really feel it’s subpar then you shouldn’t bother submitting. Subpar is not going to get published.

Since this is the year of no excuses I’m not going to accept anyone complaining that you are not salespeople and that’s the whole point of getting an agent, because if you expect to be a published author you better darn well learn how to become a salesperson. While I’m more than happy to take over the reins when it comes to selling your book to publishers, I am certainly not going to follow you around all day so you can talk your book up to potential readers or bookstore salespeople. Buzz is the best form of sales and the one person who can create the best buzz about a book is the author, so start now, with your query, and remember, every single time you talk about your book, from the first query to all your readers, you need to stand proud.

Jessica

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Good Enough Is Never Enough

I don’t believe in the words “it’s good enough” because I will tell you right now that if you ever say to your agent, your critique partner, or your editor that “it’s good enough,” it’s not. Nothing should ever go out on submission or be dropped into the hands of your editor until you deem it’s perfect or as perfect as you’re ever going to get it without her guidance. Of course, “with her guidance” means perfect because you should never expect that someone else is going to fix it for you simply because it’s good enough.

Lately I’ve heard these words and other similar shocking phrases come out of the mouths of authors and it’s made me wonder how seriously they really are about getting published. Many of you have the warped idea that you’re up against evil agents when seeking publication, and that’s as far from the truth as it can get. We are not your competition. Your competition is that gal sitting next to you in your critique group and that fellow who just commented on this post, both of whom are well past good enough, teetering on the precipice of perfect.

I will tell you right now that “it’s good enough” will never, ever cut it in this business, and it’s not just the writing that always needs to be better than good enough, it’s your attitude. If you’re not willing to work your fingers to the bone to make it really happen in the biggest way possible, it won’t. It just plain won’t. You won’t grow, you won’t learn, and you won’t get published.

Want to know the other phrase that’s killing me these days? It’s something along the lines of “I only really saw it as a rough draft anyway” after the proposal has been sent to editors and/or agents. Really!? My question to you is why would you want anyone to ever read what you deem as nothing but a rough draft? Wait, not just read it, but make decisions about your publishing career based on that rough draft. A rough draft or “good enough” can cancel a contract, kill a potential deal, or just plain stall any possibility of publication.

So let’s all remember that “good enough” is never enough. We’re all striving for perfect. I work daily to negotiate the most perfect deals and contracts on your behalf, I send revision letters seeking perfection and I think you should never expect less of yourself than perfect.

Jessica

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Friday, July 17, 2009

RWA--Friday--Publishing News

Yesterday I told you about my panel with Abby Zidle from Pocket, agent Kevan Lyon, Deb Werksman from Sourcebooks, Tracy Ferrell from Harlequin and agent Emmanuelle Alspaugh (today I corrected all spellings. ouch.) and mentioned that the one common theme I’m hearing at the conference, from editors and agents alike, is that publishing is struggling these days. In fact, in my conversations yesterday with colleagues many were saying the same things.

My advice during this time is to continue what you are doing and that means continue to submit, continue to write, and keep moving forward. Many of you asked why? What are agents doing during this time and why doesn’t it make sense to wait a year until the economy recovers?

As usual I can only speak for one agent and what she’s doing and that’s me, but here are my thoughts on the subject. Publishing is in a huge period of transition and change and sure some of it is based on the economy and some of it is based on the success of e-readers like the Kindle, but the truth is that some of this has been coming for a long time. Changes have been needed and expected and while everyone has her own theory on what needs to be done and what will become of publishing over the next five to ten years the truth is that no one really knows. What I do think we can all agree on is that the book as a creative art form is here to stay, but how readers read and obtain books and how books are published is changing.

So why do I suggest you continue submitting and not wait a year until the economy rights itself? IBecause there’s no guarantee that the economy will right itself in a year, but more importantly, we don’t know that just because the economy starts an upswing publishing will too. In addition, what you’re writing today is for today’s market and tomorrow’s market might change. Most importantly though, I don't think it makes sense for anyone to put a career on hold because of situations you can't control.

You also asked what I’m doing and I’ll tell you about a conversation I had with a new client this weekend and yes, I said new client. I’m continuing forward almost as if the publishing world is in the same shape it was a year ago or even two years ago, I’m controlling what I can control. This client and I discussed the importance of time and how frequently agents might say that sometimes timing counts and while that’s true what’s the even more important is quality. I’m still actively submitting, I’m still actively taking on new clients, but I’m pickier. I’m working my clients hard and sometimes proposals and manuscripts are going through one, two or even three or more rounds of revisions before we even consider pitching publishers. I’m demanding that books we submit aren’t just perfect, but one step above perfect. And personally, I’m taking on more nonfiction these days since I’ve found that nonfiction is easier to judge (for many publishers), it’s less subjective and easier to compare a nonfiction project to a currently published book and get a feel for numbers and finally, I’m not worrying about something I can’t control, but instead focusing on those things I can.

Despite blog posts like this I see myself as a Pollyanna. I hear lots of people complaining about the economy and how it’s effecting them and while I can’t hide from the numbers (there’s no doubt book sales are down and bookstores are in trouble) I think it’s about change and frankly, I’m not scared. It means we all have to work harder, but the truth is we all love books and books have been around for a really, really long time. That’s not going to change. The stories you write are always going to be wanted and needed and (hopefully) someone to support you through whatever the publishing process is will be needed too. If not, maybe I could become a shoe salesman.

Kim would like to point out here that before I become a shoe salesman I need to learn to walk in my shoes. See, this is why I typically don’t share my blog posts until they’re posted [wink].

So other then the bad news what did I see yesterday at RWA? I saw thousands of people flocking to a book signing to meet and buy from their favorite writers (okay that was Wednesday night). I saw authors who were enthusiastic and confident about their careers. In fact, I met a young agent yesterday from another agency who really buoyed my confidence in the writing community. At one of the many awards events (this one served chocolate fondue which was to die for) this agent came to introduce herself to me because she is a daily reader of the blog which I so appreciate. You know for a long time I pretended I blogged in a bubble and that only aspiring writers read my words. Ha! I think I’ve been outed. What was really neat about this agent was the enthusiasm she had. She was literally bouncing out of her seat at the excitement of being an agent and meeting the authors she has admired and loved for years. It was sweet, it was inspiring and I think I might love her. Because this is what it’s all about and this is why we’re all here, at the conference and reading this blog. We love books and we love what we do and in the end that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

And as if this blog post wasn't long enough already I thought I'd leave you with one final conference tale. All day yesterday I wore these rocking red patten leather pumps. I mean rockin'. After a full day of running through the gigantic hotel and a few walks outside to various restaurants my feet were a little tired and while I'd like to blame this experience on the shoes or maybe even Kim, I suspect it was all me. While heading to dinner last night Kim and I were walking down Connecticut Ave chatting when all of a sudden, out of the blue, I found myself on my hands and knees on the sidewalk in front of a very crowded outdoor dining area. I'm pretty sure my skirt stayed down this time and I flashed no one, but if in fact I did, I apologize. I'm seeing a common theme here and it's making me a little nervous about how today might play out.


--Jessica

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

RWA--Thursday--Publishing News

It's never any good to start your first full day of a conference exhausted. Kim is mainlining coffee as we speak. Apparently we were given the loudest room in the hotel. There's something outside of our window that sounds like a train or a large box truck that "drives by" every three minutes and sometime in the middle of the night there was a lot of banging of doors outside our room. At least I imagine that tonight we'll both be so exhausted we'll sleep through even a fire alarm.


Speaking of fire alarms, some of our long time readers might remember our conference two years ago when we had to run out in the middle of the night for a fire alarm. Needless to say, traveling with Kim and me always results in an adventure. While I never profess to be a humor writer I will attempt to share how our trip started out yesterday. Pulling into the parking lot at the train station, Kim and I knew we were cutting our time close. We had only about 5-10 minutes to get to our train, but we were in the parking garage so how hard could it be? Well, apparently a parking garage at a commuter train station on a Wednesday morning is a little full and a little crowded (obviously I've been out of the commuter world for quite some time). It took 5-10 minutes to park the car. Once we found our space, we grabbed our bags and hustled down six flights of stairs. The minute we hit the sidewalk outside we saw our train pull in. Figuring we missed it, we went straight to the ticket counter thinking we were going to simply change our tickets for the next train. Nope, according to the nice ticketman we still had time. Run!!!!! I dashed off first, ticket in hand, yelling back to Kim that I wouldn't get on board until she was there. Dashing through the tunnel, dragging my gigantic shoe-filled suitcase behind me, I flew up two flights of stairs and made it to the platform and train door just as the conductor announced to stand clear of the closing doors so what do I do? What any New Yorker would do? I threw my suitcase into the train vestibule and stood right in front of the closing door. At that point I saw Kim's head pop up the staircase at which time I proceeded to hollar, "hurry, hurry" and Kim, moving as fast as she could (although it looked a little like a slow-motion scene in a movie) ran for the train, the doors banging against my back in an attempt to close. Finally, Kim made it to the door. I grabbed her bag, tossed it inside with Kim pushing inside behind it, knocking me over in the process. I flew over the two bags landing on top of them in the train vestibule. As I glanced up to see if anyone noticed (how could they not) I could see heads popping out from behind seats to see what the commotion was. Needless to say, other then a bruise on the shin, we made it on the train in two pieces. Although I'm not sure Amtrak is going to want us back.

Okay, on to real publishing news. Yesterday was busy of course. I spoke on a terrific panel for the Golden Network with Abby Zidle from Pocket, agent Kevan Lyons, Deb Werksman from Sourcebooks, Tracy Ferrell from Harlequin and agent Emmanual Alspath (I know I got spellings wrong and sincerely apologize. I'll try to correct later, but I'm blasting this out before getting to a breakfast meeting and won't be back until this evening). In a nutshell, publishing news is not pretty these days. Agents have gotten pickier and editors are having a really, really difficult time getting projects through. In other words, buying a new book or even an option book is hard these days. Sales are down, bookstores are in trouble and everyone, from buyers to publishers, are cautious with their money. So what does that mean? Do you delay submissions for now? I don't think so. I think it simply means you have to make sure your book is even better then your best work.

The literacy signing was chaotic and full of people which is fabulous. Kim and I made a quick entrance, but it was hot and crowded so we choose to spend out time chatting with authors in the bar instead.

And from there we headed to the Bookseller's Best Awards where BookEnds authors Elizabeth Amber, Terry McLaughlin, Sally MacKenzie, and Stacey Kayne were all finalists. Congrats to them!

I'm off for a full day of appointments with clients and will be back soon with more news. Sorry, for the brief report and any and all typos and errors today, but I'm really trying to run out the door

--Jessica

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Romance of the Train

As you read this Kim and I are boarding Amtrak for Washington, D.C.’s, Union Station. Today is the start of the RWA National conference and I love that I get to take the most romantic form of transportation to get there. There’s something about a train that just calms, relaxes, and excites me. Have you ever noticed that nearly all children, at some point or another, fall in love with trains? Amazing since so few actually get to ride or even see them regularly. Well, I for one have never outgrown that fascination.

Like trains, I think books hold their own form of romance and I think that for many, the hesitation toward ebooks, ereaders, and epublishing is the loss of romance. Will a book still hold the same fascination when 90% of what we’re reading comes electronically? Or will ebooks be the air travel of today? No more peanuts, no more toothbrush, and no more waving to friends and family from the jetway, just serving the purpose we need them to serve? There’s no way of knowing for sure what is going to happen to books. Only time will tell, right? The one thing I do know is that for those of us involved in publishing (and that means those of you who read the blog too), no matter what happens our romantic fascination with reading and the written word will never go away. In fact, I’m not even convinced that the bound paper book we know today will go away. Just like trains, those paper books will have their problems, but hopefully, at least for the romance of it all, they’ll stick around in some fashion or another, because, while I love my Kindle, nothing beats the smell, feel, and versatility of paper.

For the next two days (three if you’re lucky) I’ll be posting directly from the conference. For those of you who are not part of the romance community, or have no interest in it, I will try to make sure my posts cross genre lines as much as possible. For now, though, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the clickety-click of the train as we head through the cities and countryside of the Northeastern United States.

Jessica

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Passion Isn't Everything

All the time you hear about agents who reject a book because we simply aren’t passionate enough about it. Certainly this reasoning has incited numerous discussions on this and other blogs from authors who couldn't care less whether or not an agent feels passion, but just wants someone to sell the book. I’ve even seen comments from those who feel they’ve never been passionate about a book so don’t get this line of reasoning. Luckily, those people aren’t agents.

Recently I read a book that I really was passionate about. Early on in the manuscript I saw flaws (I often see the flaws), but I still couldn’t stop reading. The subject matter was right up my alley, perfectly in tune with my own interests, and I loved the voice. Before I knew it I had finished the book and then I had a big decision to make. I enjoyed the book immensely. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I did have passion for it. Unfortunately, the book also had a number of flaws, big flaws. The biggest problem was that, as it was written, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell it. It needed a lot of work and I’m not sure this author was capable of doing it. I sat and thought, and thought and thought. I debated and made lists, and no matter how I felt about that book I couldn’t get myself to make the call and offer representation. I just knew it wasn’t ready.

In the end I did call the author and we talked for some time and I’m afraid I passed. I explained what I thought were her true strengths and why the book worked for me. I also explained what I thought she needed to do to bring this up to be marketable to publishers. In my mind the book would need an almost complete rewrite. It’s very possible she’ll find another agent willing to take the plunge. She’s great. I just felt that, while I had passion, that was only one element of what I needed to sell the book.

So while agents discuss the need for passion on a regular basis, making it sound like that’s the biggest near miss authors often face, I wanted to show another side. That sometimes it is possible to have passion for a book you know isn’t quite there anyway.

Jessica

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Monday, July 13, 2009

What Constitutes a Title?

What constitutes whether or not you are a writer or an author? An unpublished reader preparing business cards for a writers conference recently asked this question, and while it never dawned on me to do a blog post about it, it is something that has often niggled at the back of my mind when speaking at conferences or writing posts.

While I try to use the terms interchangeably I know that somewhere along the line I have decided that "author" is best used for those who are published and "writer" for those who remain unpublished. I’m not sure that’s fair though. Does it imply that if you are a writer you’re less than an author? Or does it simply give the distinction of having reached the goal of publication that published authors deserve?

When it comes to business cards or how you define yourself in a bio I’m not so sure it matters. In fact, I know it doesn’t matter. No one is going to look at your business card and berate you for using the word "author" when you’re unpublished. I’m not sure anyone cares that much. But those are my thoughts, and while I like to think I might be a writer, I certainly don’t think I’m an author. What about you? Do you think of yourself as an author or a writer and what distinguishes the separation for you? If you are an author do you feel that’s because you’ve reached a certain point in your career that others should also reach before using the moniker? Do you even think it matters?

Jessica

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Rhetorical Questions

Have you ever wondered what would happen if an agent’s answer to your rhetorical question was no? Or how rhetorical questions are really just filler and tell a reader nothing about your book? Have you thought about the fact that query letters should be informative and substantive and rhetorical questions are neither of those?

Agent Jessica Faust thought of these things and more as she rejected yet another query letter peppered with rhetorical questions. This letter, this author actually, asked if she ever wondered what it would be like if the world were run by goats. Since her answer was no she figured she didn’t have to read any further.

Strangely enough I remember the very moment I learned about the rhetorical question. Choir practice, sixth grade. The director asked a question and some smart-mouth from the back row answered, at which point we learned that the question was rhetorical. I wondered then and wonder now what is the point of a question you don’t expect or want an answer to?

I know other agents have blogged about a dislike for the rhetorical question, and while, truthfully, I have nothing against it, I just don’t see the point. At least once a week I receive a query in which the first paragraph is a laundry list of rhetorical questions, and I’ll tell you that, yes, I have rejected queries simply on the basis that my answer to those questions is a no. My assumption? If I have never wondered what would happen if goats ruled the world, then I would assume I have no interest in reading your book.

In a query you have one page to give all the pertinent information about your book that you can. One page to wow and entice an agent, so don’t waste any of that page with a paragraph of filler, and no matter how you spin it, those rhetorical questions are nothing but filler.

Jessica

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Trouble with "Respond By" Times

One of the more frequent complaints I see from unagented authors is that agents seem to rarely respond to proposals and manuscripts in the time frames specified on our Web sites and I can certainly understand your frustration. From my side of things, you have no idea how many times I am told by an editor that I’ll hear something in a week, and yet a week comes and goes and so does another and then another. I think we can all agree this is frustrating and maddening and just plain annoying.

So if agents can’t meet those dates, why do we bother posting them at all? Because you ask for it and because it’s only fair to you to give ourselves some sort of deadline. The truth is that authors want to have some sort of time frame and we don’t blame them. We’d like some sort of time frame too, and having that out there pushes us to try to meet those deadlines, but at certain times of the year, or certain times in business, other things (like those pesky clients, for example) get in the way and meeting those deadlines falls to the bottom of our priority lists.

Summer for me is typically a great time for catching up on submissions. Sure I’m still behind and apologize for that, and I’m certainly farther behind than I intended to be, but I now have summer Fridays. Those glorious afternoons when everyone in publishing is rushing off to the Hamptons. Me? I’m sitting on my patio with a stack of submissions, a cold glass of water, and my feet in the baby pool (a purple elephant, if you must know).

I think the best thing about those time frames is that it gives you a concrete date in which you can start bugging agents and feel comfortable checking in. Our Web site currently states that we will respond in 10 to 12 weeks on partials and fulls and 2 to 4 weeks on queries; some of us are hitting those better than others and some are hitting them better at certain times than others. I know right now I’m a little outside of those. However, the minute 12 (or maybe 13) weeks pass from the time you submitted, it’s time to check in. Hopefully the agent you check in with will respond. I know at BookEnds we do our best to keep you updated when you check in. If you haven’t heard in another 3 to 4 weeks, check in again.

Since this discussion seems to come up so much I’ve made the decision to change the wording of our response time answer on the Web site. When I sat down to write this post, the answer read:

Each BookEnds agent receives roughly 100 submissions a week. Because of the high volume, you can expect to wait 10 to 12 weeks before receiving a reply on requested partials or fulls, 2 to 4 weeks on e-mail queries. At that time, if you still haven't heard, please feel free to drop us an e-mail with the following information: which agent the submission was sent to, the date it was sent, the title and author name.


It has now been changed to:
Because of the vast number of queries and partials each BookEnds agent receives we will work our hardest to respond in a timely manner. Our goal is to respond to all e-mail queries in 2 to 4 weeks and all requested partials and fulls in 10 to 12 weeks. Unfortunately, at times, circumstances mean we fall behind in our responses. If you haven’t received a response in the time estimations given above, please don’t hesitate to send an email requesting a status update. The email should include the title of the work, date the submission or query was sent, and the name of the author. Any other information you have that might help us remember your book is helpful. We understand that waiting can certainly be the hardest part and thank you for not only giving us the chance to review your work, but for your patience.


I know this doesn’t remedy the problem of agents taking a long time to respond to authors, but hopefully it will help give authors better perspective on what to expect.


Jessica

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

How Do you Know?

I think one of the biggest fears of authors reading agent blogs, those who do their research and diligently learn about the business and about agents, is the fear of picking the wrong agent anyway. Sure you can conduct your interviews, ask around and talk to an agent before signing on the dotted line, but still, how do you know this agent will work her best for you? We’ve all heard the horror stories and we have all felt the pain of those who feel they were wronged by an agent. Because of that I think the number-one question I’m asked is, When it comes right down to it, how do you really know?

We’ve often compared the author-agent relationship to a marriage and I don’t think this example is any different. When agreeing to form a partnership both author and agent are taking a leap of faith. You’ve done your research, asked your questions and the only thing left to do is jump in with the faith that the agent you’re jumping in with will follow through on the many promises she’s making. She’ll work hard to sell your book and stick by you through sales or no sales. She’ll be honest and encouraging and she’ll communicate when needed. Most important, she’ll respond to the emails and phone calls you’re making and give feedback on material you’ve sent in a timely manner.

The agent on the other hand has faith that you’ll work hard to revise and perfect the work she originally saw and work twice as hard to write, revise and perfect your next book and the next one after that. She has faith that you’ll meet any and all deadlines and if not, that you’ll have a really strong reason (death, dismemberment, near death, etc.) if you don’t. She also has faith that you’ll communicate with her, that you’ll let her know if you’ve decided to go in a completely different direction with your writing or if you aren’t happy with something she’s done or said.

Like many marriages, an author-agent relationship will have its disagreements and its ups and downs. There will certainly be rocky roads as well as wonderfully joyous moments and, sadly, not all partners will hold up their end of the bargain. But once the research is done, the books are read, and we’ve all talked and asked all the questions we could, the only thing to do next is have faith.

Jessica

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Help a Girl Out

It seems that often enough an author makes the agent work so hard that it’s not worth the effort. For example, instead of a query letter, I simply get a one-sentence description and a link to a web site that really includes very little information about the book. For some reason I’m still interested, so I write the author back asking for more description. I’m still not really given any information and instead am sent to another place where I can read something. This something still doesn’t include the information I was requesting. At this point it’s just become too hard. Why am I chasing this book all over the Internet when I still don’t really know what the book is about? More important, though, I suspect that this particular author and I simply cannot communicate. No matter how many times I ask I’m not able to get the information I need, and that doesn’t bode well for future editorial feedback or requests from the publisher.

I have to say, situations like this happen almost weekly, and if I have to work this hard and it’s this difficult before I even know if it’s a book I want to represent, it’s only going to get worse. The reason there are so many guidelines out there on query letters, proposals, etc., is not because agents are looking to make your lives more difficult, but we’re looking for insight into your book and future working relationships. We don’t expect perfection, but we do hope it can go as smoothly as possible.

Jessica

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Monday, July 06, 2009

The Meaning of Different

Let’s pretend for a minute that you’re an ice cream maker. Your job is to create delicious, interesting and unique flavors for the Yummy Ice Cream ice cream company. Of course the goal is to come up with something different, but it is also to keep your job, and that means to come up with a flavor that makes your company money, lots and lots of money.

The possibilities are endless. What about Roasted Eggplant ice cream or Beef Stew? Those are really, really different. Or you could try something like Black Raspberry Chocolate Cheesecake or maybe Strawberry Marscapone with Chunks of Sugar Cookie. Those are different, haven’t been done (or done much), but yet fall along the same lines as what is already popular in the ice cream world.

Writing a book, no, publishing a book, is not much different from making ice cream. It’s a business. I hear authors complain all the time that agents say we’re looking for something different when really we aren’t. We’re just looking for the same old thing. Well, folks. Here in the year of no complaints my response to you is boo-hoo. Blame the agents all you want, but the truth is we can only sell to publishers what readers want to buy, and let’s be honest, I doubt there’s anyone out there with a craving for Beef Stew Ice Cream.

We are looking for something different, and I truly believe that each book I sell is different. The voice is remarkable, the idea is unique, fun, interesting and saleable and the execution is wonderful. The question is how different is different. Different means you still have to appeal to readers. A book that the author labels as a mystery, romance, science fiction is not different, it’s ridiculous. In the same way Beef Stew Ice Cream is ridiculous. Who is going to read that? Where in the bookstore is that going to be placed? Who exactly is your audience? And who would ever crave beef stew ice cream? How would you order it? With hot fudge?

The other problem with different is that different to you is not necessarily different to me. I’m amazed sometimes by how truly under-read some of those who claim to be authors are. I think that as a publishing professional I will always feel under-read because there’s always more to read, but if you are making the decision to write books you need to know your competition and know how to make your book different from others. Your competition is not every single other book in the bookstore. It’s every single other book in the genre or section you’re writing in. Often I’m accused of not really wanting anything different, when the truth is that I don’t feel the book pitched to me was really all that different.

Different still has to make sense and it still has to make money. To make money you have to find an audience. We all do truly want different, but even different has to have its limitations.

Jessica

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Trust Yourself

I was wandering around the Internet this week reading and catching up on blog posts written by my colleagues and the one thing that really struck me, in all the advice we’re giving and the guidance we’re providing, is that the key to all of this is you really have to trust yourself. Simply because you’re here reading this blog I assume that you’re one step ahead of many writers out there. In other words, you’re taking the time to learn what industry professionals think and understand the business. Presumably you’re reading this blog as well as others and participating in things like writer’s forums or critique groups. In other words, whether you realize it or not, you have become a student of publishing and, to some degree, have taken a role in the publishing business.

You know what each of us thinks about certain practices and procedures and you’ve learned firsthand how subjective everything can be, from whether or not we like a book to how we like our query letters. Therefore, when push comes to shove there’s only one person you should be listening to, and that’s you. When it comes time to write your query, choose an agent, find a publisher, sign a contract, and write the next great American novel, you need to trust that you can take all you’ve learned and are continuing to learn and do what’s best for you and your career, and do it with your own personal flare and style.

Jessica

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Fiction with Nonfiction Characters

Can one write a story with historical figures with plotlines involving these characters including historical truths as well as substantial fictional elements? And if so when submitting it does one say it is a fictional story based on true characters…or do you just leave it alone?

Absolutely! In fact, I think the best historical fiction includes a great number of facts, and the occasional historical figure or two. It only make sense really. How would you write about the Civil War without including at least some reference to some of the most famous generals this country has ever seen?

You didn’t make it very clear in your question, but do you plan to write a fictional story based on a real-life character or include real-life characters in the book you are writing about someone else? Certainly both have been done, done a lot and done well, but I’m just wondering. If you are writing about more famous historical characters, like, for example, Abraham Lincoln, and the story is really about him, I think you’re going to have a much bigger challenge. This is someone whose life has been written about numerous times and true fans might have trouble with the fictionalized tale. If, however, you are writing about John Jones, a fictional character during the Civil War, and Lincoln makes an appearance or has a regular role in the story, I think fans of Lincoln and the Civil War will likely be more forgiving.

Jessica

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Waiting by the Phone

In February I attended a writer's conference, pitched to an agent and he asked for my full MS. We had a very pleasant and positive meeting. Eight weeks later I followed up and he quickly and warmly replied that he'd get to it ASAP. Two weeks later I contacted him again because another agent requested a partial, but as an exclusive. I let the first agent know, because I wasn't sure how I was supposed to handle the issue and to try and nudge him for an answer since he'd had my MS for ten weeks. Once again I received a prompt and warm reply. He encouraged me to send my partial to the other agent and said he was still "looking forward" to reading MS. That was four week ago.

Am I being naive thinking this guy will ever read my work? Other than not getting an answer, all my communication with him has been positive. Do I contact him again or move on?


Anything is possible. What I would focus on is moving on. It’s hard, I know, not to try to put all of your eggs in one basket, but since you are getting requests for partials from other agents I would keep querying, keep submitting and continue to touch base with Agent #1 every 3 to 4 weeks or so. By my calculations he’s had the material for about 12 weeks now. That’s about when I would think you should be hearing from most agents. While I know many will say he’s probably just not that interested if he hasn’t gotten to it yet, and certainly that’s sound advice, it also doesn’t mean he won’t be all over you with interest once he’s finally had a chance to read it. I know that frequently I’m overwhelmed by the submissions that are taunting me (and yes, they do taunt) and sometimes I find myself frozen by their glaring eyes. Even though I’m excited to read a certain submission, the shear numbers of submissions I should be reading overwhelm me. What finally breaks it for me is that one book that gets me excited to offer representation again.

Never give up, but keep moving on and checking in, with everyone who is reviewing your work. You never know when that offer will come, who it will come from or what it will spark from other agents.

Jessica

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