Friday, May 30, 2008

Word Count Rules

Word count is one of those things that’s always a huge issue, for published and unpublished authors. I regularly have discussions about when a book reaches the point of being too long or how short is too short. Of course there are “rules” all over the Internet on the subject (including on this blog), but it never hurts to discuss the matter again.

Before going further I want to stress that there are no “rules” in publishing. Publishing is not like practicing law or medicine; there aren’t textbooks on the subject, and except for grammar there are few rules. What there are, however, are guidelines, rules that can and should be broken, but within reason.

I was asked recently, “How much do you focus on word count if the query letter is interesting? I'm not going to submit it to you with a 175,000 word count, but what range will you reject for word count, even if the query is interesting? How strictly do literary agents and/or publishers view the issue of word count when it comes to considering new manuscripts?”

I reject a lot based on word count, not strictly because I think the range should be 90,000-100,000 words and a 200,000-word contemporary romance is too long, but because a 200,000-word contemporary romance is probably overwritten. Most of the books you see published fall within the word counts I discussed in an earlier post for a couple of reasons. One is that that’s what readers’ expect and the other are costs. Readers want to pay $6.99 for a romance novel, and in order for publishers to meet that price point they need to keep the costs at a certain level; page and binding size feed into those costs. Therefore, word count is important. It’s also important that publishers aren’t charging $6.99 for a book that’s only 40,000 words (paperback). Again, while a long book is probably overwritten, a too short book probably doesn’t have enough detail.

So how far am I willing to stretch that? Within reason, give or take a couple thousand words. Face it, if I’m asking for 100,000 words then 150,000 is too long; it’s a 50% increase. I refuse to give you a range you can stretch to because I think you’re all intelligent enough to figure out what would be acceptable and what wouldn’t. Think of it this way: you ask a friend to bring over 50 eggrolls for a party you are throwing for 40 people and instead she brings 25 eggrolls, or brings 150. You do the math.

I’m going to ask the true experts on writing, my readers, what they’ve learned about word count in their writing process. How do you handle a book that’s too long or too short, and what do you see from the work of other writers when books are either too long or too short—what are the common problems?


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Are Agents also Managers?

I received a question from a reader who has self-published his book. He’s had some great success, including book signings, a write-up in the local paper, and airtime on local TV. His question is, “I am so busy with answering phone calls, booking appointments (not complaining), that I haven't had time to really concentrate on the sequel, which is due out January of 2009! Do I need to hire a manager to take the phone calls and make all these arrangements, or is that what an agent does? Do I need to find an agent for my next book? Because these books are all in a series, would an incoming agent help promote this first book even though it was self-published?”

Unfortunately, this sounds like a job for a publicist and not an agent. I’ll admit that I know very little about what “managers” actually do, but in publishing it’s usually the publisher’s publicist or one hired by the author who handles bookings and publicity events; the agent’s role is really about selling books and managing careers. Granted, the agent’s role these days is growing (we are doing more than ever), but we haven’t yet added publicist to our list of responsibilities.

While what you’re getting is great local exposure, it says nothing about how many books you’ve sold. I think you’ll have difficulty finding an agent who is willing to take on the second book in a series unless the first book has done phenomenally well (thousands of copies in a matter of weeks or months) and the agent thinks she can resell the first book to a larger house as well.

Either way, it’s a mistake to spend all of your time booking events when, yes, you should be writing your second book. See if you can get a family member to take the phone calls and make the arrangements while you sit down and write. It’s a tough balance for any author, self-published or with a major house, but the thing to remember is that what sells books best are more books, not press.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Signing Contracts Without an Agent

I'm about to sign a book contract with a mid-size nonfiction publisher. The book could easily sell to a larger publisher b/c of its mainstream appeal and large target audiences (and my platform). However, I am confident that this publisher knows how to sell in this area, and I'd rather have long-term sales and see my book stay in print than a big advance.

My question is: the publisher approached me and asked me to put together the proposal. I don't have an agent. Am I making a mistake doing this by myself? I would like to write other books, and do foresee having an agent in the long-run.

You have to realize that for some very obvious reasons I’m pro-agent, so it’s going to be difficult for me to ever say that you should go ahead with a book contract without an agent, and, in this case, yes, I do think you are making a mistake. Do I think you’re going to ruin your career? No, the contract is probably fine and probably won’t hamper the possibility of future book projects with other publishers. Of course, I wouldn’t know that for sure without seeing it. That being said, I have seen nonfiction authors ruin any potential career by signing contracts that basically tied them in to small or mid-sized publishers for life. Having an agent would have prevented that.

Since the publisher came to you it would be tricky to sell the book to another house; while not illegal, it is unethical. Of course, it’s also done all the time, especially if an agent feels the publisher is trying to low-ball the author. My concern here isn’t so much the fact that you are going ahead without an agent, although that is a concern, it’s what I feel are your misconceptions. There is no guarantee that a larger publisher equals a larger advance and no guarantee that a mid-sized publisher means long-term sales.

You also mentioned wanting to build a career. If that’s the case, why aren’t you getting an agent now? In other words, what are you waiting for? Building a career can happen at any time, not necessarily when you thought it would. If you are getting a book offer it sounds like you are already building that career. Do you want an agent or not? Use this offer as a way to prove your viability in the market and find an agent who will help guide your publishing career from day one rather than one who has to come in and tidy things up and then build it, possibly from scratch.

Whatever you decide, congratulations and good luck!


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Revisions Before Representation

I recently received a question and long explanation from a reader. Rather than reprint the entire question, I’m going to try to summarize as best I can. Ultimately this writer was told by an agent’s assistant that they (she and Agent) really liked Writer’s novel, but felt it would need some work. The assistant went into detail to explain to Writer that they (Assistant and Agent) wanted to send over their notes on the novel and asked if Writer would be willing to work with them. When asked, Assistant clarified that they were not offering representation, at least at this time.

Because I know it will come up, the agent is reputable and works for a very-well-established agency. The question is whether this is common practice, and in general the writer would like me to make the entire thing less confusing.

This sort of situation does happen all the time and, in fact, BookEnds agents regularly give revision suggestions and work with an author without offering representation. It’s a tricky situation for everyone and I think, without knowing who this agent is, I can explain what’s going on.

The agent read your work and really, really liked it. She sees great potential. The problem is, it’s not a book she could sell . . . yet. There are too many problems that would need to be fixed first and, since you’re an (I assume) unproven/unpublished author, she has no proof that you can actually make the changes successfully, or at least in the way she thinks they need to be made. Rather than simply mailing off a revision letter she hopes to get her foot in the door by making a call. This establishes a relationship and hopefully establishes some sense of loyalty from you to this agent. Ultimately she doesn’t want to send you her suggestions if you don’t seem interested in her and have you take them to another agent for a sale, something every agent has had happen to him or her.

I think one of the reasons this feels so confusing to writers is that in the agent submission process you often feel that you are the only one trying to woo and charm an agent,so when an agent calls you and works to woo and charm you, you get confused. Makes sense.

Here’s the deal from the agent’s side. Sending out a revision letter to an author I am not offering representation to is tricky business. I realize each time I do this that I’m taking a risk that Writer will take my suggestions and turn around and offer the book to another agent. Hey, it happens all the time. Earlier this year in fact, I saw a deal on Publishers Marketplace that I’m pretty sure I had a hand in. Last summer the author had sent me the manuscript, I had spoken with her and written a lengthy, multipage revision letter. In the end, when the changes were made, she clearly chose not to send the book to me. Of course, on the other hand, I’ve sent letters a number of times to writers who later became clients, and those who resubmitted and still got rejected. There are no guarantees in this business from either side of the desk.

When giving revisions, the agent always hopes that you will take into consideration the fact that your book is stronger because of that agent and hopefully you’ll see that a working relationship is already in place and clearly working for you. By not offering representation we are not giving false hope. After all, if you couldn’t do the revisions as the agent had hoped, she would probably simply end up firing you, and that would really be unfair.

I think the honorable thing to do is resubmit to the agent if you have taken her revisions and used them to make a stronger book, and while I’d like to say I think you should give that agent an exclusive (in the case where I might be that agent), you all know how I feel about exclusives. When you do get multiple offers of representation because one agent helped make your book stronger, you need to consider that relationship and what she’s already done for you. In the end, however, I’ve preached time and time again that choosing an agent is about making sure the fit feels right for you, and that’s what needs to be foremost in your mind when the ultimate decision is made.

Either way, it sounds like you’re well on your way, so congratulations!


Friday, May 23, 2008

It's Been Two Years

I was just reminded that next week is the second anniversary of the BookEnds Blog. Not only is it hard to believe it’s been two years, but it’s hard to believe I still have things left to say. I just want to take a minute to acknowledge all the writers and readers who have followed the blog and helped to make it a community. I know many of you read it to learn more about the publishing business, but you might be surprised to hear how much we’ve learned from you. Because of your comments we’ve made changes to the blog, the web site, and even some of our operating procedures. I’ve always worked hard to treat all submissions with respect and your comments remind me to do that on an almost daily basis.

I think about forty percent of the blog’s success is what we put into it and the other sixty percent comes from you—from your questions, your comments, and your willingness to come back for more. Thank you.

BookEnds will be closed Friday through Monday in observance of Memorial Day. We wish you all a happy Memorial Day and a relaxing and restful weekend away from writing, querying, and publishing.

We’ll see you Tuesday!


Thursday, May 22, 2008

J. B. Stanley on Mystery Writing

J. B. Stanley
Chili Con Corpses
Publisher: Midnight Ink
Pub date: January 2008
Agent: Jessica Faust

(Click to Buy)

Author Web/Blog links:,,

Mystery writers have so much fun! We do oddball research that can range from how a .22-caliber gun shoots at close range to the Latin names of cattle vaccines to recipes for authentic chicken enchiladas.

It must be strange to live with a mystery writer. We are always killing people in print, and when we’re not writing a chapter in which somebody dies, we’re planning to write one in the near future. We scheme on behalf of our villains and stab, shoot, poison, suffocate, and commit vehicular manslaughter on a regular basis.

I often call my father-in-law in Utah (he is an expert on a spectrum of potentially lethal drugs) to ask him for advice on deadly dosages, side effects, and the appearance of cadavers. My husband listens to these conversations with a smirk on his face. He knows how much I enjoy coming up with original murder scenarios and how much his father enjoys pontificating over the negative uses of opiates. If I wasn’t a mystery writer, I’m not sure that his father would even know what to talk to me about.

The other night, after the kids were in bed and the dishwasher was merrily gurgling away as it worked on the caked grease I had created on the stove top an hour earlier, I was surfing on the Internet when I suddenly blurted, “There just isn’t enough clip art showing poisons on the Web! I need some violent drawings for my library presentation.”

My husband replied, “Isn’t that a good thing? The lack of clip art showing poison?”

I scowled and continued to complain. “And all the clip art showing murderers and felons shooting guns are drawings of men! Women kill people too. Sexist clip art. Jeez.”

This comment was followed by my husband swiveling around on his desk chair to ask, “What’s for dessert?”

Poisons cannot compare with dessert, of course, so that was the end of the night’s research.

This is the life we lead. By we, I’m referring to the Cozy Chicks. We are seven rather average women. We cook, clean, care for children, and do a little harmless killing. If you saw one of us in the grocery store, you’d never know that we’re dreaming of the hit-and-run scene we’ll pen as soon as we pick up the dry cleaning. The dumbbells at the gym remind us of the blunt object our killer will use on his second victim, and as we feed the fish in our child’s room, we ponder the possibility of a drowning in the next book in the series.

Okay, so maybe we’re not your average chick, but our time seated in front of the computer screen is never dull.

What is your favorite part about being a writer?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Defining and Honoring Writing Mentors

I thought this was a really interesting question and one I suspect my readers can answer better than I can. . . .

I need a definition of "What is a Writing Mentor." I write Romance, Mystery, and Suspense and have had a critique partner and mentor for the past 4 years. I belong to RWA, and my local chapter wants to give the mentor of the year award, but I need to compile a definition of a writing mentor. Can you help me?

Mentors are such wonderful and amazing people, and let me congratulate you for having found someone who you obviously have been lucky to find. I really don’t think I’d be the person I am today or have the success I have without the many mentors who helped guide me to this place. From teachers who taught me the power of a book to editors who taught me how to recognize good writing, edit, and negotiate, and to fellow agents who took time out of their busy schedules to answer any questions I had, or still have.

I imagine what you’re looking for is a definition that can be used to describe what mentors are for this particular award. I’ll leave it up to the wordsmiths to correct me, but in my mind I think a mentor is someone who takes the time to teach new writers about the craft of writing and the business of publishing. A mentor is someone who helps others succeed in an area where she has already found success.

But what about the readers? Do you have a better definition of a writing mentor? And what about mentors you’ve had? Let’s take a moment to honor them here by telling a little about those people who gave selflessly of their time so that you could all learn about writing and what they did for you.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Formatting Guidelines

When authors are getting ready to submit to agents, I see a lot of them who get caught up in what’s really too ridiculous to stress over, and that’s formatting. Listen, folks, follow the simple term paper formatting rules you had to follow in high school or college and you’ll be fine. But for those who are still worried, here are some guidelines. Guidelines, mind you, and not rules. Every agent is different, but if you follow these guidelines, few are going to reject you without reading a word.

Query Letter
Standard business-letter formatting. If you’re using a word processing program like Microsoft Word you can probably use a template, but here are my suggestions:
  • Single space
  • One page only
  • Include your address, email, phone, and web site if you have one
  • Include the date (and make sure to update this with each letter you send, otherwise it gives a sneak peek into how long you’ve been submitting for)
  • A font that’s comfortable for you to read over and over and over. Times New Roman, Courier, Arial. All are acceptable. Usually 11 or 12 point. Again, think of reading 50 of these in one sitting and avoid eye strain.
Again, standard word processing format works best, but here are some guidelines to help you get started
  • One-inch margins
  • Double space
  • One-sided only
  • Page numbers in a header including your last name (should be the same name as on the letter)
  • A font that’s comfortable for you to read over and over and over. Times New Roman, Courier, Arial. All are acceptable. Usually 11 or 12 point. Again, think of reading 50 of these in one sitting and avoid eye strain.
Listen, I am not going to reject you if your margins are less than one inch or greater. I won’t reject you if your query letter is double-spaced. I might not read as much of your book if it’s single-spaced because my eyes will start to hurt, and I might not read as much of anything you submit if you use a fancy script type that’s hard to read. When formatting a manuscript or when submitting anything to an agent, think logically. There are absolutely no rules in this, no matter what people say, just make sure we can read it.

Anything I missed?


Monday, May 19, 2008

Now the Good Stuff

Thank you everyone who participated in my venting blog post. It was fascinating, disheartening, frustrating, and just sad to read what many of you had to say. And it’s given me a lot of material to write for future posts. Points to address, topics to discuss, and hopefully inspiration to dole out.

I’ve also learned a lot about what frustrates you and I think I would be lying to you and to myself if I said that everything you complained about was what other agents had done and not me. I suspect there were more than a couple in there that fit me. The difficulty of listening to anyone vent—whether it’s you listening to agents or me listening to you—is that none of us are perfect, and when listening to a rant we feel that we should be. I don’t think any of us expects perfection from the other. Sure we preach it because it’s easier to say we want things perfect than that we want things nearly perfect (since the definition of perfect differs from person to person), but in truth I think what we can all agree that we really want is respect, consideration, and professionalism. Unfortunately we don’t always get it. We don’t always get it in publishing, at the doctor’s office, the grocery store, or even our own homes.

However, when all is said and done, I do know that 99% of you work really hard at what you’re doing and your query letters do show that. They are professional and submitted carefully. I hope you know that I too work very hard at professionalism, but because I’m not perfect there are times when things slip through the cracks.

Okay. Now that I’ve let you rant and you’ve listened to my rants on a daily basis, I’d like to cheer us all up a bit and spend some time looking at the good things. The things that make us smile in this business and remind us why we keep plugging away at it. Because while I might complain about the unprofessional query letter or the author who calls just to yell at me after receiving a rejection, the truth is that I really, really love what I do and to love what I do I have to love authors.

So I’m going to start. I’m going to start by sharing some of my favorite things about this business.

I love this blog. I love that it’s become a community unto itself, and one of my favorite things is when the comment boards take on a life of their own. I love meeting my readers at conferences and I love that you are all so willing to honestly share your thoughts and feelings with me (even when I might not want to hear it).

I love going to conferences and interacting with authors. One of my all-time favorite stories was during the Reno RWA conference in 2005. I was sitting in the coffee shop when another author came up to me and asked if I had talked to, we’ll call her Mary Author. Mary had been looking for me because, on the advice of one of my rejection letters, she had sent her book to Harlequin and sold her first novel. It still gives me chills telling that story. I love success and I love to see any author have success—by the way, two years later Mary did officially become a client.

I love receiving queries and submissions. Because let’s face it, they are the lifeblood of this office, and the minute they stop coming in is the minute I need to really start worrying. On a selfish level, your queries boost my confidence. They remind me of how far I’ve come (from those days when we first opened and ten submissions a week was a big deal) and how many wonderful books there are yet to take on. Sometimes the submissions become overwhelming, when I’ve been too busy to really sit down and give them the attention they deserve, but when I’m in the mood to take on a new client, and have the time to do so, there are few things more fun than sitting with a pile of possibilities (submissions) and a hot cup of cocoa.

There is only one “call” in this business and that’s “the call” when your book has sold. However, for an agent there are two calls (which is why it’s more fun to be an agent). I get to make that call to offer representation, that breathless, nerve-wracking call (breathless and nerve-wracking for me, by the way). What if you say no? What if you say yes?

And then there’s “the call” when I get to tell any author, first time or otherwise, that I’ve sold their book. Please, feel free to scream, holler, and rejoice in excitement. I LOVE it.

I have another story that makes me smile and it just happened. I was queried by an author who had an offer from a publisher in hand. We had met a couple of years prior and I knew she was a reader of the blog. While I had rejected her book before, I was happy to take a second look. I did and I still really liked her writing, but I just wasn’t in love with it, and as much as I liked her and wanted to work with her and wanted to love it, it’s not fair to her to have an agent who doesn’t feel breathless with excitement. I turned it down. She was extremely disappointed and asked a second time if I was sure. I explained that I thought she deserved better. Well, the next day she emailed again to say she had found that agent who was breathless with excitement and now she knew what I meant. I was thrilled for her.

Beyond all of that, though, I just love that on a daily basis I get to make books happen. One of my best friends is a fan of a client of mine. She came to this client’s books on her own and reads them the minute they hit the shelves. It’s really, really cool to know that I’m a part of making those books happen and that when I walk into her house I see them on her bookshelves.

So now it’s your turn. Tell us the good of this business, the stories about agents, editors, and publishing that make you smile or give you a warm fuzzy feeling. Because I think right now we could all use a smile.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Lessons Learned from the BookEnds 100-Word Contest

First, let me take care of a little post-contest business. Surprisingly, we’re still waiting on quite a few winners to send us their material for critique. We’re guessing there’s some furious writing and polishing going on. We’d like to request, however, that all winners’ materials be e-mailed to our blog account by June 15th. This seems a reasonable amount of time to polish a synopsis and first chapter, and frankly, I’ll be going on maternity leave a few weeks later and don’t want Jessica to be shouldered with any remaining responsibility.

If your entry didn’t win a free critique, but you’re just dying to know what a BookEnds agent or another agency might think of your work, consider bidding on an evaluation at bestselling author Brenda Novak’s Online Auction to Benefit Diabetes Research. There are some top-notch agents and editors offering critiques there and some other terrific items to bid on. Best of all, it’s going to a great cause!

Moving on . . .

Once the contest ended two things really struck me as I looked back over the results:

1 — The common denominator in all of our winners was a strong voice. Jessica wrote an article about voice a week ago that sparked a great discussion. What seems apparent to me here, though, is that when given only 100 words with which to judge, we always found ourselves reeled in by the voice first and foremost. The hook was secondary.

I think that’s part of the reason we pulled out so many first-person points of view. It can be the toughest perspective to execute well, but can immediately draw the reader into a certain intimacy with the narrator that’s tough to achieve with a third-person POV. Does that mean Jessica and I favor first-person manuscripts? Not at all. While a first-person POV can create that faster connection with the audience, it’s a relationship that can quickly sour. It’s easy for a reader to grow sick of the narrator. That’s why it’s such a tricky skill to master.

Clearly a strong voice is important to a successful book, but I’d also like to clarify that just because a voice may not have struck us in the first 100 words doesn’t mean the manuscript is lacking a great one. It can often be something that builds. In fact, I just signed a client who entered one of our contests and didn’t even make honorable mention. But when I read her submission, I totally fell in love with her voice. I love the story and the characters too, but her writing style is really what hooked me. So please don’t be discouraged from submitting based on the contest results. It was a daunting task to judge based on 100 words, and so we had to make our decisions much differently than we might in the submission process.

2 — This business really is amazingly subjective. I’ll be honest. I really thought to myself while I was judging, “Oh yeah . . . Jessica’s going to pick this one.” I was almost always wrong. Having worked with her over the last four years, I think I have a pretty good idea of her likes and dislikes. I know which projects to pass on to her because they're more up her alley than mine. But even so, there’s a certain something special between a reader and the words on the page that’s impossible for an outsider to understand. I just couldn’t predict how Jessica would react to those words: which ones would strike a chord and which she’d gloss over. That strange chemistry is even harder to pin down when it’s based on so few words.

Personally, I embrace that subjectivity. It’s part of what I love about this business. The unpredictability keeps the industry exciting. Sure, there’s enough common ground among publishing professionals to keep the business running and establish relationships between author, agent, and editor, but taste still plays a huge factor. There are plenty of NYT bestsellers that I just didn’t “get.” I know Jessica and Jacky would say the same (though their examples would likely be different). There are others that totally clicked with me that I know were panned by other publishing professionals. It’s a fun debate and one I’ll talk about soon in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, what did you learn from the BookEnds contest? And once we’ve had our break . . . what would you like to see in the next contest?


Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Change of Punctuation

I recently received the following question from a reader and it made me think of the style in which we write:

My question is about the dialogue dash. I love it. I write historical fiction, and I love the way the dialogue dash (instead of quotation marks) gives the speech a ‘foreign language’ nuance. Quotes seem too contemporary for the speech in my novel. I loved the effect in Cold Mountain and Cry, the Beloved Country.

I wonder, though, if it’s annoying to the reader, or worse—to the agent or editor! Would you reject a “dialogue dash” manuscript out of hand? Do you consider its use to be a barrier? I think my attributions are clear, even with the dash.

Not trying to be a “look at me; I use dashes” kind of writer. But putting my dialogue in quotes just makes it feel . . . different.

What do you think?

I think you should stick with quotation marks.

When we write we like to think that our voice stands out and makes our writing distinctive and many times I see authors try to add other things into their books, different styles of punctuation, art, etc., to make the book unique and different. However, what it comes down to is voice. You can can dress things up all you want, add shiny baubles and glitter, but in the end it’s the voice that’s going to truly matter. My suggestion here is that you should stick with traditional quotation marks. In fact, you should stick with traditional grammar style a la Chicago Manual of Style as much as possible. Once the book sells this is a discussion to be had with your editor. Converting quotation marks to a dialogue dash is easy enough and will come down to a matter of design, not so much writing style.

Part of getting the sense that an author can write is knowing the author has an understanding of basic writing skills. Now, I don’t expect any of you to be perfect. If you’ve read enough blog posts you should know that I am not a perfect grammarian in any sense of the word, but I also don’t want to read and discover that you have no idea where to place an apostrophe, not a clue about where to place dialogue or how to properly format it, or no sense of exclamation point usage (rare, by the way). Grammar is there to make reading easy and comfortable for us. When we see a quotation mark we know someone is talking. When we see a paragraph break in quotations we know someone new is talking. Simple, easy, and understandable. When trying to woo an agent or editor, keep it as simple and easy as possible.

I’d like to hear from readers though. Are you traditionalists or do you also think techniques like dialogue dashes make a difference in tone?


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Time to Vent

As authors you have to listen to it all the time, agents and editors venting and ranting about everything you do wrong and all of the ways you irritate us. Well, now it’s your turn. I’m going to give you an open forum to tell your agent and editor horror stories, to ask kindly that we change the way we do certain things, or just to rant about the business in general. Anonymous posts suggested and recommended. The only thing I ask is that you not include the name of anyone you might be venting or ranting specifically about. If specific agent or editor names or houses or agencies are used, I will probably have to delete the comment. This isn’t meant as a witch hunt, but simply a way to let you let off steam. And I’m always interested in hearing horror stories or learning more about how we can be better agents.

I’m looking forward to hearing what you say!


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

How to Advertise "Editability"

The lines between "mainstream" and "sensual" seem to be blurring these days, as more "mainstream" books include steamy scenes that just get racier as time passes. When I write, I have to decide how far to take the steamy scenes, if I don't just close the bedroom door. But I'm never averse to stepping up the heat level if a publisher wants, or adjusting it down or taking it out entirely. When trying to sign on with an agent, is there some way to say, "I'll be glad to tailor these scenes to suit the market" without sounding wishy-washy? And do you have to do that when you pitch the book?

Whether you’re writing steamy bedroom scenes, gory murder scenes, bloody battle scenes, or fantastical fantasy, I think you always need to do two things. The first is push your own limits and boundaries. Don’t get sucked in to what you think the market wants, editors will want, or agents want. One of the biggest mistakes I see authors make all the time is toning down their own writing because they think that’s what the market dictates. Take a look at some of the bestselling authors out there. One of the things they all have in common is that at the time their first work was published or they started to hit it big they were pushing the boundaries of what was seen as the norm for that time. To succeed you have to be different, and different means thinking outside of the box. Don’t be afraid to do that.

The second thing authors need to always consider is writing the book that works. If you feel a certain scene warrants hot sex or a really gruesome murder, then write it that way. If you feel that it is a tamer sex scene or the murder is off the page, go ahead and do that too. We can tell almost instantly when an author is no longer writing the book she feels should be written. It shows. If an agent really loves everything about your book, but feels the sex is too steamy or the fight too gory, she can easily ask you to tone that down. And trust me, we all assume that anyone submitting their work to us is open to revisions and changes. If not, it’s probably not going to be a good fit, so there’s no need to tell us you’re open to making changes. Write the book as you feel it should be and the rest should follow.


Monday, May 12, 2008

How Do "Bad Books" Get Published?

I received this question recently:

I just don't understand how so many "bad" books make it to the shelves. I might realize how they squeeze past the safeguard of the query, even slightly shrug at skipping through the synopsis, but how do they escape the steel claws of the agent, much less the probing publisher? Are there just too many to read or are agents having too many before they read them? (smile)

And while I’m quoting this particular reader, I do want to say that, sadly, this is something I hear all the time and something I’m not sure I know how to answer or even how to give a response to.

Publishing is subjective. When agents and editors choose to represent and buy a book they like that book. In fact, a lot of times they love that book. I can’t think of anyone who has ever represented or bought a book that they truly felt was bad—maybe not the best book ever written, but not bad. They also feel that there is a market for that book, that the writing and ideas appeal to readers at some level . . . you’ve heard it all before. Sigh

I have to say I think I’ll need some help here from readers. This kind of comment makes me mad, and it tires me out. It implies that editors and agents, those of us in the business, have no taste and don’t know what makes good writing or a good book, and it implies that readers have no taste, because if we’re catering to them, obviously someone likes these so-called bad books. I wrote a while ago in defense of romance writing, but here I think I’m going to have to write in defense of commercial fiction in all genres because, let’s face it, when people criticize what’s being published, they are primarily criticizing commercial fiction.

These books aren’t bad, folks, they are just books that aren’t to your tastes. Sure, there are books where the writing is stronger than others, some have great characterization and others great plot. There are books that can do all three and those that can’t. There are plenty of books that have been published that I just hated and probably thought were bad, but often I could see the appeal to someone, it just wasn’t me.

So please do not try to tell me that a majority of the thousands of books in bookstores are “bad.” To me that sounds like sour grapes.


Friday, May 09, 2008

What Makes Me Say "Yes"

I get asked all the time by authors what, out of all the submissions I receive, makes me say, "Yes! I want to represent this writer." And it’s a fair question. I’ll tell you now though that if you’re looking for the secret to getting an agent you aren’t going to find it in this post. What gets me really excited about a new writer and a new book is first and foremost voice. That one indefinable thing that attracts us all to someone else’s writing. When I pick up a few chapters of a submission I’m usually attracted to the idea initially because, let’s face it, it’s what got me past the query letter and into the chapters. But an idea is only going to take you so far. The one thing that’s really truly going to grab me and hold me is the author’s voice. I have to fall in love almost immediately and want to get to know more about these characters and story. That’s what will take me through to the end of the book.

Once the author has me hooked it’s going to be the execution that makes the final decision. I expect a little editing and have no problem with that, but if there are major errors or inconsistencies you’ll likely lose me early on. If, however, the characters remain engaging from beginning to end and the plot holds up, it will be pretty dang hard for me to say no.

So I would say voice first and execution later. I would suspect that this is the same thing that attracts all of you to someone you would call one of your favorite authors.


Thursday, May 08, 2008

Does an Agent's Gender Matter?

I received a very interesting question recently, one I had never really thought of. A reader asked if choosing an agent is anything like choosing a doctor; do you consider an agent’s gender when submitting or making that final decision? Does it make you more comfortable to think you might have an agent of a certain gender or does the track record and method of doing business trump all of that?

I had never really considered that gender might play into the equation when an author chooses an agent, and I’m not sure why, because there are plenty of times when gender comes into play for us. For example, when choosing which editors to submit a project to, there are plenty of occasions when we feel that maybe a certain book would have greater appeal to male versus female editors or vice versa.

I would imagine that for some people gender might be an issue, whether you consciously realize it or not. Often I preach that choosing an agent is a very personal decision, and in addition to finding a reputable agent it’s important to make your decision based on comfort, and it’s very likely gender could play into that.

But what about readers? When putting together your submission list or when you finally said yes to your agent, did gender play a role? Do you feel your book would appeal to a certain gender agent or editor, and do you prepare your lists accordingly? Or do you think this entire discussion is ridiculous—gender shouldn’t or doesn’t matter at all if the agent is good at his or her job?


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Choosing Your Genre

What genre would ‘ghost story’ belong to? I know paranormal would apply on one level, but what other factors determine its true ‘nature’? There can be arguments made for mystery/thriller/suspense/horror/romance depending on the storyline, I suppose, but when deciding which agents to query it can get a little confusing, especially for a first time author. In my case, for example, there is no romance, possibly a mystery in that the MC is trying to determine who/what/why is haunting her, but not a mystery in the traditional sense. I hope there is suspense, and a few thrills, but I don’t think I’d consider it horror, although I could be wrong. Hence my confusion!

An interesting question, since I really have no idea what a ghost story would be, other than those creepy tales we told around the campfire as kids. I suspect your book belongs in general fiction, but for anyone who isn’t sure where their book fits in bookstores, my advice is to do your research. Whose writing would you compare yourself to, and most important, what individual books or stories would you compare yours to. Who would buy this book? Readers of what authors would be interested in your story? When you do this exercise, I urge you not to look at any author who was published more than five to ten years ago or any author or book that has become a New York Times bestseller. The market is a very different thing than it was five years ago, it’s very different than it was two years ago, and going too far back in time taints your research. Books published that long ago might not even be considered in today’s market and it might not be shelved in the same section. Bestselling books are no longer one of the masses. They are now celebrity books and can’t be compared to a title written by a new author. The genre of Stephen King’s titles, for example, is Stephen King. He’s a genre all on his own, as are Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, Tom Clancy, and any other authors who are regulars on the bestseller lists.

If all else fails, label your book fiction with paranormal elements. It gets the idea across.

I’m curious to hear from readers. Because I get asked so often how a book should be categorized I’m curious to know how you decided on a label or genre for your book.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Pitching Multiple Characters

After my pitch critiques I received a number of questions about how readers should pitch books with multiple characters. Should you write one paragraph for each character or simply focus on one or two?

I think the important thing to know when pitching is that a pitch is not necessarily about your characters, a pitch is about what makes your book come alive, what’s the conflict and what brings these characters together. I’m not sure I’ve read any book that’s strictly about three or four different characters with no connection between them, therefore your pitch is probably about the connection and not the characters themselves.

For example, if I were writing a book about four different women and their failing marriages, my book is not about each individual woman, but about how four women each come together to cope with the failure of their marriage—even if the women never really come together in the book, but live side by side, so to speak. Obviously, having a book might help me write a stronger pitch, but I think you get the idea.

The best piece of advice for a question like this actually comes from my readers. If you’ve written a book with multiple protagonists, how do you pitch it? And would anyone be brave enough to share their pitch as well as a bit of backstory to give readers a visual of what you’ve done?


Monday, May 05, 2008

Re-querying Agents

I wrote a book two years ago, and queried your company for representation. It got as far as a partial request, but the novel was turned down. Several other queries were sent out to the agencies that I thought would best fit myself and my writing style over the next year, but all got no farther than the partial request, and were eventually rejected. The book was later rewritten, and got a full manuscript request and an offer from a New York house. I would like to use this opportunity to get an agent and of course have the agent negotiate on my behalf. I really like some of the agents who have rejected the work, so would it be okay to requery them even though they rejected the partial, and if I do should I mention the previous version?

I say go for it. With an offer in hand you are in the driver’s seat more than ever. What’s the worst that can happen? These agents say “no” again? You’ve got an offer from a publisher, you can easily get over that rejection. If these are agents you really like and feel you could work well with, then I say keep knocking on their doors, with one caveat: Don’t rule out that there are a lot of great agents out there, and in addition to those who may have already rejected you, you should also consider some fresh names on your list.

One of the reasons you might be getting rejected is because you’re not actually the good fit you thought you were. By talking to agents beyond those who’ve already seen your work you are giving yourself a better chance of finding the perfect agent, and not just a great agent.

As for whether or not you should mention that the agents had previously seen the work, honesty is always the best policy. Absolutely let them know. They might figure it out anyway, and it’s better coming from you. If that means an automatic rejection, it wasn’t meant to be, but if your revisions fix exactly what they thought needed fixing, then you’re in great shape.



Friday, May 02, 2008

Why Do You Blog?

A post I did on whether or not you read author blogs had me thinking about why authors blog. If you’re a blogger it’s likely that, like me, you’re asked fairly frequently why you blog. When I’m asked I give my stock answer, “Because I’m not doing as many writers' conferences as I used to, the blog is a way for me to continue to share my knowledge of the publishing community without the travel.”

Which is true. One of the many reasons I started the blog is because I’m saying no to so many writers' conferences, but still do want to help writers understand the game of publishing. But let’s lay the cards on the table here. Why do I really blog?

If I had to dig deep down and acknowledge the true reasons I blog, continue to blog, and like to blog, sharing knowledge with the publishing community comes in second. The real reason I blog is because it allows me to share my many opinions with the world at large and it gives me some semblance of fame. And yes, this is almost embarrassing to admit. The truth, though, is that my reasons for blogging aren’t entirely altruistic. I mean, let’s face it, success in publishing is hugely about who you are. Authors talk all the time about their “dream agents” and dream agents often come about because they are the names most often repeated. I’m sometimes amazed by who the authors think are the “big agents,” because those agents aren’t always the ones with the biggest-name authors. They are just the agents with the biggest names.

My true reason for blogging is about marketing. Marketing myself and BookEnds. I want to become a household name in the publishing world, because the bigger my name the better the writers are who come knocking on my door, and it’s those writers who are going to build my reputation at publishing houses. But to become the name on everyone’s tongue at writers' conferences and critique groups it’s up to me and the blog is one of the best venues I’ve found so far to promote me.

So what about you? If you do blog, why? What are your real reasons? And if you aren’t a blogger and have chosen not to become one, what makes you stay away? Why do you choose not to blog?


Thursday, May 01, 2008

How Much to Tell

I get a lot of questions about how much to tell an agent. If an agent previously reviewed your material and liked it enough to ask you to keep her in mind for other work, should you remind her of this rejection? If your work is currently under consideration at a publisher, should you let agents know? If your full has been requested by another agent, should you let agents know? If you’ve received an offer from either an agent or publisher, should you let agents know? And last, if you have received and accepted an offer of representation, how should you let the others know?

So here are my guidelines. Not rules, guidelines. I’m sure many of you will be able to tell me that other agents have told you differently and that might very well be true. Agents are people too and have different opinions on many things—which is one of the reasons this business is so subjective. Ultimately, whatever you decide, you need to go with your gut and your own level of comfort. Some of you might feel the need to share more than others, and that’s fine. Ultimately there’s no right or wrong. However, since I’ve been asked these questions by numerous readers, I’m going to give you my opinion. After all, that’s really what this blog is about, my opinion.

I think that any time an agent expresses interest in you or your work, you need to remind her of that. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with rejection. You need to learn that to survive in this business and agents know that too. Hey, agents send out work that gets rejected all the time. It’s part of the business and doesn’t mean we think any less of any of our authors. In fact, it usually just makes us more determined. So when you are resubmitting to an agent, whether it’s something fresh or a revision she helped influence, you need to let her know. Your name might not be enough to spark her memory, but reminding her that she asked to see more of your work will. It’s all about networking, and this is your way of using that connection.

Getting a request for a full manuscript from a publisher is a big deal, and if you have one, I think it’s important to let agents know. A couple of caveats, though: I think it’s good to know how you got that request. A red flag will go up if an agent is led to believe that you’ve been submitting to publishers as well as agents. However, if after reading your work in a contest a publisher made a request, or after a pitch appointment, that’s a different thing. The second caveat is who the publisher is. An e-publisher will not impress agents in the same way a major New York house will. So my advice: tell an agent you’re under consideration only if it’s a major house.

I would not, however, tell agents that other agents have requested the full. It’s not necessary and can backfire. Some might just wait around to see if an offer comes through, and others might just get annoyed because, remember, we all want to believe we are the first and only on your list. Let us live that fantasy. When an offer comes through from an agent, that’s the time to get everyone jumping. Now the ball is in your court and, well, I’ve written many times on how to handle this. . . .

And finally, what to do when you’ve accepted that offer of representation from your dream agent and need to notify other agents that your work is no longer under consideration? Email, snail mail, it’s up to you. All you need to do is send a polite note thanking them for their consideration, but letting them know that you are pulling the work (include title) you sent on such and such date from consideration. There’s no need to let anyone know who you accepted representation from, although if you want to tell, we are all dying of curiosity.

Hopefully this will help answer those sticky etiquette questions so many of you have.