Friday, October 31, 2008

One Agent's Trash Is Another's Treasure

A reader commenting on one of my posts recently suggested that BookEnds might benefit from a first reader like those that publishers have, saying someone who could “throw out all the worst dreck would save you a lot of valuable time.” And my thought is wouldn’t it be great if it were only that easy. The thing is that like the garbage we throw away or sell at garage sales, one person’s “dreck” is truly another’s treasure. And nothing can prove that point more than the number of times authors are rejected only to later become bestsellers. Does that mean that the agents or editors who rejected that work are idiots? No, not at all, it only means that the right person at the right time can make all the difference.

BookEnds does, in some ways, have readers. We regularly hire interns to help us out throughout the year. In fact, it’s uncommon for us to go even a few months without an intern these days. Not only is it wonderful for us, but most of our interns work for college credit and get a taste of the publishing business besides. In fact, more than a couple have even been in touch to thank us and tell us that the internship they did through BookEnds has pushed them into jobs they love in publishing.

In the end, though, frequently, I still need to be the one to read submissions. Sure, things go out rejected after a reader’s report from the intern or from my assistant, but many times they also require a quick second read from me. Unfortunately, no matter how many times we look into ways to save us time reading, reading is part of the job and one of the most time-intensive pieces of what we do. And sometimes, it’s just something I need to do on my own.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

What I'm Looking for, the Dangerous Outcome

Years ago when erotic romance first became incredibly popular I remember talking with an author, someone who had been published, but was in a difficult place in her career, about the market. Understandably she was upset and looking for concrete reasons as to why her publisher hadn’t picked her up again and why it was hard to find someone else to take her on. Well, this author’s entire focus seemed to be on what was hot and on what she was hearing about what I was doing. Whenever we talked she would repeatedly say, angrily, that she could not do erotica. That wasn’t her style. No matter how much I tried to assure her that I had interests well beyond erotic romance and that there were plenty of publishers buying things besides erotic romance (in fact, at the time only two publishers were interested in this genre), she wouldn’t hear it. The buzz at RWA that year was all about the erotic market, and since I was one of the agents leading the way at the time I probably wasn’t the right person to talk to.

Well, I’ve found that the same holds true every time I write a "What I’m Looking for" blog post. It seems that no matter how many times I say that I’m looking for new clients in every area on my list, the only submissions I receive are those that fit the topics I highlight. Does everyone else go into hiding or does it just feel like that’s what happens? A few weeks ago I posted a "What I’m Looking For" piece, and when perusing my equeries this weekend all I saw were thrillers and urban fantasy. Interesting, because this weekend I was really in the mood for a historical romance.

Authors often say that they wish agents would get more specific about what they’re looking for. That they like those posts because it gives an inside peek. But there is a reason agents like to keep their areas of interest a little vague, and that’s because moods and interests can change in a heartbeat. The minute I get inundated with thriller proposals, for example, I find I want to switch things up. A weekend of reading thriller proposals can quickly wear me out and put me in the mood for something incredibly different. In this case historical romance.

While some agents specialize in very narrow fields, I think most have variety on their list for a reason. I find it refreshes me to change things up. I love everything I represent, but don’t want to be locked into any one of those areas. Today I’m in the mood for historical romance, tomorrow it might be contemporary women’s fiction, and next weekend it could easily be supernatural paranormal.

Another reason that our lists of represented genres sounds too broad to you—romance, mystery, thriller, fantasy, etc.—is because it really is that broad. I can’t tell you specifically what type of romance I want because it is about voice and writing and I’ll know it when I see it. I also can’t tell you in a written list because the market can turn around that fast. I remember when erotic romance first became trendy, I was talking to one publisher who told me that they weren’t looking for any erotic romance at all. Well, literally two weeks later they not only announced that they were looking for the genre but that they were talking about starting an imprint dedicated to it. Was the editor lying? No, things can change that quickly. So while the rejections are difficult, I would advise you to relish in the broad lists. It gives you more opportunities to discover that one person who might be right for you.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Agent Communication

I’ve stressed over and over the importance of communication between an agent and her client, but what is very interesting about communication is that for everyone it’s something different. One of the most interesting things I’ve had to learn as an agent is how to adjust my own communication style according to the person I’m communicating with.

I was asked recently about Client X. The client who is not necessarily a dream client and not a horror client, but falls somewhere in between. She’s the client I just don’t get. I’ll admit, I’ve had clients I communicate marvelously with and those who I find it’s a struggle. Clients who I feel I need to work extra hard to communicate with and understand. Does that mean it’s not a relationship that can work? Not at all, I think people with different communication styles can work very well together as long as they can both make the effort to adapt their styles to match each other and find a middle ground.

For example, I tend to be very direct and up front and I hope that other people feel they can be the same way with me. But for obvious reasons, not everyone knows how to be as up front as I am or is comfortable doing so. With those types of communicators I make an effort to curb my own comments and to coax them into feeling comfortable saying what they need to say to me.

In the end, what it comes down to is this client’s career, and if I feel we can communicate in a place to reach the success this author dreams of and I imagine for her then that’s exactly where we need to be.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Survey . . .

It’s been a long time since I’ve checked in with my readers to hear more about what you want and how I’m doing, so today is as good a day as any.

What subject matters would you like to see me write more about?

What subject matters are you sick of reading about?

What types of posts have you found to be the most helpful? Informative? Interesting?

What types of posts have you found to be the most boring? Useless?

Do you have a favorite post?

Do you have a least favorite post?

Anything else you’d like to add?


Monday, October 27, 2008

The 150+ Queries I Receive Each Week

I have a confession to make. One of my favorite things to blog about are the insane and angry responses I occasionally receive from query letters. If you’ve been reading the blog long enough you’ve surely seen a few by now. Writing the blog posts alleviates the annoyance I sometimes feel at those responses and allows me to sort of respond without really responding and starting a dialogue that is unnecessary. The posts also give you a peek into an agent’s world and into why some agents have gone to a “no response means no” system. And of course I hope they’re entertaining.

I do have a theory on those letters. Of course I’m one of those people who has a theory on a lot of things. However, I think the angry response letters come from basically two places. The first is the author who is brand new to the process and just starting to send out queries. She is enthusiastic and confident about her work and very sure that everyone is going to love it as much as she does and as much as her critique group does. None of that is bad, unless it starts to affect your vision of reality, that’s when it can become harmful. As you all know, she’ll soon learn that getting published isn’t as easy as many think, but hopefully she’ll stick with it and it won’t break her spirit.

My other theory is that the author is at the end of the querying process. She’s been at it for months, possibly years, and for whatever reason my letter is the one that made her snap. Is it something specific about my letter? No, probably not, it was probably just a letter that landed on her desk at the wrong time. So why me? Why do I receive so many more of these responses than Jacky and Kim combined? I blame the blog. The blog makes me seem accessible to authors, it makes many of you feel you know me well and know exactly what I want, and because you know me my rejection might feel a little more harsh than those coming from complete strangers. I don’t mind really (well, most of the time); I’m tough and can take a little rejection myself.

Okay . . . now I’ve bored you and still haven’t gotten to the point of this post. The point is really that these vitriolic responses are few and far between. That of the 150+ queries and equeries I receive each week and of the 25 or so proposals I request each week I only receive one of these emails every month or every other month. Almost every author I engage with is kind, smart, and professional. Occasionally I receive thank-you notes, which are unnecessary, but always appreciated.

So while I won’t stop posting some of those letters for everyone’s enjoyment, I wanted to let you know the truth of the submission process from my side. The reason these letters are so shocking to read and even entertaining at times is because they really are so rare.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Query Letters, an Agent's Perspective

I have spent the last two days crafting the perfect query letter. It’s painful and tedious and is driving Kim crazy because every single incarnation of my pitch paragraph is getting IM’ed to her for feedback. I think by now she probably feels she has read the proposal.

Agents often tell authors that a query letter is just as important as the manuscript and that time should be spent carefully crafting and perfecting the query, but I think few realize how much time is spent on the agent’s side doing the same thing. In this case the letter is for a new book by one of my published clients. She is looking to break out into a new direction, and while this proposal will also be going to her current editor, I’m hoping to shop it around to new editors as well. The problem? I need to get across the tone of the book along with the story and of course the hook without making it sound cheesy. And that’s hard. Is it a cheesy book? Not at all; in fact it’s an incredibly rich urban fantasy/romance with a hook that is so amazing that it’s hard to describe. It’s that new and original.

Once an author and I have a proposal ready to go out on submission the first thing I do is ask the author to send me a blurb for her book, just a short paragraph that can be rough. My purpose is to get the author’s voice and ideas in front of me so that I can reshape and hone the blurb to fit my letter. Now, like anything else, some authors are better at this than others. With many of my clients I’m able to take their blurb almost verbatim and use it as my pitch to editors. With others, I simply read it through and throw it out. It’s not going to work for my purposes or isn’t quite up to the standards I think it needs to be at to grab an editor’s attention.

Now that I have the blurb in hand from the author, whether I’m using it or not, I feel I’m ready to sit down and start writing my letter. Sometimes the blurb helps ground me and get me into “condition” for query writing. When sitting down to craft my query I usually start by writing a powerful opening that will grab the editor’s attention and show them what they would be missing by not jumping on this immediately. In this case I’m highlighting the author’s background as a published author and the successes she’s had.

Then I introduce the editor to the book and that’s where my blurb comes in. Nine times out of ten I try to keep my blurb to one paragraph and keep it as short and concise as possible. In this instance I started with two paragraphs, the first outlining the world, the second focusing on the plot. Kim immediately told me that it needed to be tightened and that I should lose the first paragraph. I did and she was right. So I spent hours working on that second paragraph. Writing, rewriting, changing words and reworking entire sentences. I was almost done when I realized that the first three sentences were great, the last two fell a little flat. I needed a break. I put the letter away for the day and went home. The next day I got into work and spent the morning catching up on usual business—I reviewed contracts, answered email, argued with editors, and finished contract negotiations. Then, sometime after lunch, once I had a fairly clean plate (ha ha, get the pun) and a clear head I went back to work on the letter. This time I focused on the last two sentences. Working and reworking and of course reading the paragraph over and over, which, of course, meant that the more I changed in those sentences the more I changed in the paragraph overall.

Finally, after many hours and two days of work I felt that I had a solid pitch, one that would wow editors.

Once my pitch is perfected I add a paragraph about the author, something to expand on what I may have written earlier, and sign off with a personal note to the editor reminding her that this is something I am over-the-moon excited about.

I actually love writing queries. It’s an opportunity for me to use my creative and my marketing skills, two things I happen to think I’m very good at, and while it’s not easy, it’s certainly a challenge I relish.

I’d love to share my letter with you, but I’m afraid the book is still out on submission and I don’t want to jinx anything. I have a good feeling about this though. It’s a really exciting book.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Power of Criticism

One of the most interesting things for me about writing this blog is the inside look I feel I’ve gotten into what life must be like as a writer. Granted, I’m not writing 100,000 words and putting myself out on bookshelves, but in writing the blog I have faced, like many writers, reviewers. I have regularly received criticism for my postings on my own blog, on message boards, and I can only imagine what the loops say. Most of the time I must say you are all very kind, but there has definitely been a post or two that for whatever reason resulted in an awful lot of backlash. What I have learned from most of these reviews is that it’s best to ignore them. Why? Because it amazes me how much one bad review or piece of criticism can get into my soul and really start to affect me. Not all the time, but once in a while. And for this very reason I often advise my authors not to read the reviews they receive on their own books. If you find that one bad comment or criticism starts to get you down, turn away and ignore them. Some of my authors do this, while others I know regularly keep tabs on their reviews.

But all of this criticism had me thinking . . . have you ever learned anything from a review? It’s interesting, because we encourage writers to take what they can from personalized rejection letters that include feedback, yet tell them to ignore reviews. I know that once in a while I have learned things from my detractors. I have been given new fodder for blog posts and I’ve occasionally even changed some of our policies. But what about writers? Do good reviews ever help you? What about bad reviews? Have you ever learned anything about your own writing from a review?


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

An Agent's Track Record

This question is actually part of yesterday’s question, but I thought I would break them up for space reasons and because it gives me two days of posts instead of one.

It seems like, at the end of the day, the book has to sell itself, but if that's the case why do some agents have strong sales track records while others do not? Are agents with few sales just picking the wrong books to rep?

I agree that a book should, in many ways, sell itself. Let’s look at it this way: Do you want an agent who can “convince” editors to buy your book or an editor who feels passionate enough about your book to fight for it every step of the way? Because editors, unlike agents, don’t work on commission and don’t get paid based on the success of the books they buy. Therefore passion is what you want from an editor.

Does that mean that agents with strong sales records get that way because they have the remarkable ability to strong-arm editors into buying a book? No, not at all, and hopefully no one is strong-arming anyone into buying books. There are a number of reasons agents can have strong sales records. The first is history. If I’ve been in the business for 25 years and have developed the reputation for having solid, well-written submissions, then editors are going to look at me with a different eye than they would someone with two years in the business and submissions that so far have only been okay. Because let’s face it, when buying anything, who the salesman is can make a difference. An editor looking at my submissions will hopefully go into them with enthusiasm knowing she usually likes the books I send.

Another reason why an agent might have a stronger sales record is because of that agent’s eye. I don’t think you can easily teach someone how to be an agent. Sure, you can explain a contract and negotiation techniques, but you can’t explain what makes a good book or a successful book easily. I truly think that some agents, like some editors, have an eye for books that become successful. I guess you could compare it to an author’s voice. Some have it and some don’t. So an agent’s eye and an agent’s ability to work with an author to make a book ready for publication can also help build an agent’s track record. So yes, in this case it could be true that there are agents out there who are just not picking the right projects. Of course it could also be true that they aren’t necessarily getting the right submissions to pick from.

And my last thought on track record is perception. Publishers Marketplace is a fascinating tool, but can sometimes give authors a warped perception on sales records and an agent’s success primarily because not all agents report on Pub Marketplace and not all agents report all deals.

In the end a really great, salable, marketable book is going to find a home. No matter who the agent is.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An Agent's Responsibility

How much responsibility does an agent bear for a book not selling? Is a good agent - like a good query letter - simply responsible for getting the manuscript read? Are there different levels of editorial contacts that agents might have - junior vs senior - with more or less power? I guess what I'm trying to understand is whether who your agent is - provided they truly have contacts - really makes a difference in whether or not you get published.

These are a lot of great questions with a lot of answers. I’m going to try my best to answer all of these as clearly as possible because I think this is a really interesting topic. We talk all of the time about big agencies versus boutique agencies and “big name” agents versus those who are lesser known. And of course I’m always encouraging readers to consider those agents who have recently opened up shop and are hungry for clients. But how much responsibility does an agent bear for the sale of the book, or a book that doesn’t sell?

The truth is that the answer to that question is of course “it depends,” and I’d love to hear, anonymously of course, from some agented authors who’ve had different experiences with this. A good agent’s job is to get your work read by not just any editor, but hopefully the right editor. Is the agent solely responsible if the book doesn’t sell? Well, that’s something only you can determine. Did the agent seem aggressive in getting your book out? Do you feel that the agent had an effective plan, and if you asked your agent about the choices she was making could she give you honest feedback? For example, when making a submission plan there are certain editors I would prefer not to submit to and don’t submit to unless I absolutely have to. Why? Ultimately I don’t feel they are the best advocates for their authors. I also know different editors within different houses. I know some things about their personal interests as well as their reading preferences and I also know something about the style of writing and voice they often gravitate toward. I know the editors who like the same style of writing that I do and I know those that don’t. So when putting together a submission plan I’m not just considering which houses I think would be the best fit, but which editors.

Do the titles "junior" or "senior" come into play when making those decisions? Yes and no. They do in the sense that the longer an editor has been with a house and/or the more experience she has often the more pull or power she has within a house, but not always. I’ve known Senior Editors with little to no power and Assistant Editors with impressive lists and pull within a house. Does experience equal editorial advice? Not at all. When evaluating which editors to choose I think of my client and what I think she needs from an editor, I think of the book and what level I think it has potential to be within a house. Not all books should be judged the same way. Some are bigger books and should go to editors who can make them such, while others aren’t, even though the author eventually might be.

I think that at the end of the day your agent and an editor can be the very best of friends and have very similar interests, but your book has to be able to sell itself, and frankly, that’s what you want. Because even if your agent is powerful enough to convince an editor to buy it, no one is powerful enough to trick enough readers into buying the published book to make it a success. For example, maybe I know that Editor B is desperate for the exact type of women’s fiction I just read. Maybe Women’s Fiction X isn’t that great, but I know I can get her to buy it. Do I offer representation just to sell a book? Well I don’t. Because I don’t think it’s the best deal for the author. Just because I can sell a book doesn’t mean I can build a career, and building careers is my ultimate goal. Selling a book is a thrilling event for an author and for an agent, but you want it to be the start of your career, not one thrilling moment. In that case you don’t want an agent who can “convince” editors to buy a book. You want an agent who has the contacts you need to find the right editor to launch your career with.


Monday, October 20, 2008

When to Put the Finishing Touches on Your Book

I recently received a question from an author about indexing. This particular author is working on her book and would like to include an index. Her question was at what point she should do that.

Indexing is a tedious and difficult process and is one of those things you shouldn’t even begin to think about until the book has been sold, edited, and finished, and, frankly, it’s typically not something the author does herself unless she has previous indexing experience. While a publisher’s contract will sometimes say that the author is responsible for the index, it usually doesn’t mean that the author is responsible for doing the index, but simply for paying for it. Keep in mind, frequently we can make this the publisher’s responsibility. Either way, the publisher will usually hire an indexer to create the index, and this can’t be done until the book is fully edited and laid out in pages because it doesn’t make sense to do an index until you actually have the page numbers to match the references to.

This question also brought to mind other things I frequently see in the early stages of the submission process that I think should never be included, and that’s a cover, a title page, acknowledgments, and a dedication. Let me discuss each of these things individually.

1. As any published author will tell you, it’s rare that a publisher will keep the original title, let alone cover. And while it’s great to have an idea or a vision of what your cover will be, the publisher is the ultimate decision maker. So I don’t suggest spending time creating artwork to submit with your manuscript. Just send in the book, but do include a great title, because even if the publisher ultimately decides to change the title, a great title can catch an editor’s attention.

2. Including acknowledgments in an unpublished manuscript is the true sign of an amateur to me. While many people may have helped you create the manuscript you’re submitting, you’ve just reached the tip of the iceberg in the work that’s needed to be done. Does that mean that I’m mad my name isn’t going to go in? Nah, I don’t care about that. It means I wonder if you have any idea of what an editor might still make you do to this book.

3. While a dedication is unlikely to change I just don’t suggest you include it. Wait until you turn in the full manuscript to your editor.


Friday, October 17, 2008

A Little Downtime

I have about 180 to 200 equeries sitting in my inbox, a stack of requested proposals from as far back as June, and at least two client submissions still awaiting feedback. I’m behind, really far behind. On top of all of that I have contracts to review, calls to return, and everyday projects to complete. Am I complaining? Nope, simply explaining. The scary thing is that I’m behind not because I’ve been goofing off in the office and spending my days playing Scramble on Facebook, but because my weekends and evenings have been filled with a personal life. “What,” you say, “How dare you?” It’s true, I dared to go on vacation, spend a quiet evening watching Project Runway, and I even (gasp) read a book for pleasure.

An agent’s job is never done and it’s one of the first things I need to explain to a new assistant. No matter how hard we work those piles are never, ever going to go away. I guess that’s life for all of us, but what does it say about us? What does it say when I request material and get an apologetic reply that the author is on vacation and won’t be able to send it for another week? Or that I send an email to a client on a Saturday and get a reply five minutes later?

This post is nothing but a reminder to live our lives guilt-free. As a writer you are better when you have time to enjoy the life you are writing about. How are you ever going to get new ideas for characters or plots if you don’t take the time to meet new people or experience new things? How are you going to hone and improve your writing if you can’t take the time to read what others are writing? How am I going to find the time to really appreciate a fabulous submission if I’m reading nothing but submissions? How can I properly edit my clients’ work if I’m not reading published works to see how editors and authors make things sing?

Downtime is important for our mental health and for our personal lives, but it’s equally important to our careers, so if you were planning on working all weekend, don’t. Let’s all promise ourselves to take a little time off and simply enjoy the day.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Books and the Economy

I’ve been holding off on publishing a post on the economy and how it might affect you, since it's something we just talked about in a July post. I think I’ve been in denial, hoping we’d all wake up from this bad dream or wake up to discover a huge jump in market points and world order restored. Alas, one quick call to my financial advisor and I’ve learned that doesn’t at all seem to be the case. Well, the final turning point for me was this article in The New York Observer. Really this article says almost everything I was hoping to say, but to make it easier for those who hate clicking over, let me put it to you in my own words.

The economy stinks and for all of you that stinks. Heck, for me that stinks. From the first drop in the market I’ve already started changing my thinking. I’m eternally grateful for those authors who are in the beginning stages of a new contract or securely under contract. While books are selling and BookEnds has in fact made a number of deals in the past few weeks, publishers are understandably going to start getting tougher and deals are getting smaller. Authors are going to start to seeing lower advance numbers and, yes, lower royalties. And everyone is going to take fewer risks. It was hard to sell a new unpublished, unproven author two months ago, imagine what it must be like now.

I haven’t heard yet that publishers are cutting lists (the number of books published each month), but we’ll see what happens when home budgets are cut and that means book budgets are cut. In other words, you find yourself buying fewer books each month and instead going to the library, or borrowing from friends. When that happens, watch the lists tighten up as well.

In plain English, it’s going to get a whole heck of a lot harder to get and stay published. Agents are going to take fewer chances. We’ll only be looking at authors who we feel are an almost sure thing and we’ll be carefully watching the careers of our clients, prepared to make quick adjustments as necessary. As it is now, when I take on a new client I need to really, really fall in love with the book. With the economy the way it is I think I need to fall dead in love with the book. For published authors, don’t be surprised to see your royalty earnings drop. Read my previous paragraph, but the more budgets tighten up the fewer books you’re going to sell.

The fact of the matter is that this economy is going to affect the way books are published and the careers of many authors. We might also see certain changes, like electronic books, take over faster than was originally predicted. Ebooks are cheaper to buy and cheaper to produce, publishing more books in ebook format would allow publishers to continue publishing more books, and it would also allow readers to continue buying more. I don’t know for sure, but it’s certainly a possibility.

So the economy stinks, but we all still need good books, especially now. So just make sure your books are really, really, really good.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Why do we ask that manuscripts be double-spaced? Obviously it’s easier on the eyes, but actually it’s also easier to edit. Traditionally, copy editing has been done by hand on the page, and for editors to have the space they need to make notes, editing marks, and adjustments the lines need to be double-spaced. It also helps agents edit and critique as well. Often when editing I make notes to either myself or my author on the page, and having more space between lines to do that is easier for everyone to read.

Why do we require page numbers and headers on every page? Have you ever dropped a manuscript all over the floor? Well, that’s obvious, but the other, not-so-obvious reason is that often I print out material to read on the back of old manuscripts. Having a header and page numbers helps me keep track of which side I’m supposed to be reading. Page numbers are also imperative in editing. When writing a revision letter to an author I almost inevitably refer to the page something is on. It makes it easier for us all to find it.

Why do we like submissions unbound? Rarely is reading done in the office and juggling a 400-page manuscript while standing on the subway is nearly impossible. An unbound manuscript can easily be divided and carried around as needed. One piece can go in my checked suitcase while the rest can be carried on.

Why do agents want queries without any other material? Don’t they know that judging a book from a query only is unfair to the author? I receive 25 to 30 email queries each day. Imagine if that were 25 to 30 proposal packages. I wouldn’t have room in my office for anything else. And, truthfully, the query can say a lot. Most of the time I am able to judge the author’s writing, style, and voice from the query alone.

Any other questions?


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Just Send the Query

Periodically I get into an email exchange that takes on a life of its own. Inevitably it starts with someone asking for submission guidelines, which I happily reply to by sending them to the BookEnds Web site. Then suddenly I get a follow-up email asking for clarification that might say something along the lines of, “It says you represent romance, but does that also include fantasy with romantic elements?” To which I’ll reply, “I’d have to know more about your book.” To which I’ll get back, “It’s about a vampire who lives in space. Is that something you’d like to see a query on?”

Just send the dang query!

It makes me wonder if the problem is me or is the Web site unclear? Because what you’ve done now is annoy me enough that when the query comes I’ll probably reject it. Who has time for a client who can’t just simply send the query, because that’s really what you’re doing now in a line-by-line email exchange?

Anyway, that’s my thought for the day.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Picking a Genre for Your Book

Categories, categories. It seems that I can answer these questions a million times over; there never seems to be enough information on how to categorize a book. A recent question asked me this: What do agents mean by General Fiction?

Let’s look at categories from a very basic marketing perspective. Let’s look at it from the point of view of the reader or for the bookstore buyer. The truth is that who categories matter most to, in the end, are readers. Most readers tend to gravitate to one section of the bookstore first, and those sections are usually divided by: Mystery, Romance, SF/Fantasy, Young Adult/Teens, or Fiction. Okay, yes, there are many different sections in the bookstore, but most of those are nonfiction. Fiction categories tend to be a little more narrow. Now some bookstores may deviate from this a little, depending on the store, but for the most part this is what you can expect. So, when choosing a category, the first thing you are going to look at is where in the bookstore does your work best fit? Who can you compare it to? When picking an author to compare your work to, do not pick anyone who has ever hit the New York Times bestseller list. Why? Because inevitably once they hit that list they’ve crossed genres in some way and no longer clearly fit a perfect category. Stephen King, for example, is not a horror writer anymore, he is Stephen King and could easily have his own section of the bookstore. The same could be said for authors like Nora Roberts, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Janet Evanovich. So who else can you choose? Can you find someone new, fresh, and hot to pick from? Keep in mind that this is for your own personal research, you don’t have to share this with anyone else.

So what if after all of that your book falls firmly into the “fiction” section. Can you call it fiction? Yes, absolutely, that’s what it is. Of course that’s what all of those sections are. Typically when an agent calls something general fiction (or mainstream) she is thinking of a book that can’t be categorized in any other way. Often it’s more literary or more generally mainstream. An author who would perfectly fall into that area is Tom Perrotta. His books are not women’s fiction because although they do and will appeal to women in many ways, they enjoy a broader audience and tend to have themes that would appeal to men. Nick Hornsby's books are another example, as is The Kite Runner. Although The Kite Runner might be seen as a little more literary.

In this case the reader thought her book would be better categorized as women’s fiction. So call it that. If the book would appeal more strongly to women, like the books of Elizabeth Berg, Jodi Picoult, or Nicholas Sparks, it should definitely be called women’s fiction. Okay, so you fall into the “fiction” section of the bookstore, but agents and editors aren’t bookstores. They are individuals with more individualized tastes. Calling a book women’s fiction or historical fiction rather than just fiction gives us insight into who the audience is, what the themes of the book might be and, frankly, whether or not it’s a subject that might be of interest to us. The same holds true for you. If you were told you should read a book called Jessica’s Story and that it’s fiction, you probably wouldn’t jump at it because it gives you no description. If, however, Jessica’s Story was described as historical fiction, literary fiction, women’s fiction, or gay & lesbian fiction you immediately get a different image.

Another reason sub-genres are becoming more popular is an increased use of online bookstores. While a physical store doesn’t have room for 15 different fiction sub-genres, an online store does, making it more appealing to readers. When I browsed books on B&, the fiction section came up with the following sub-genres:

  • Anthologies
  • Christian Fiction
  • Drama
  • Erotica
  • Essays
  • Fiction & Literature Classics
  • Fiction Subjects
  • Gay & Lesbian
  • Graphic Novels & Comic Books
  • Historical Fiction
  • Horror
  • Letters
  • Literary Criticism
  • Mystery & Crime
  • Poetry
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy
  • Short Stories
  • Teen Fiction
  • War & Military Fiction
  • Women's Fiction
Interesting. If you don’t know where within the broad spectrum of fiction your book lands, maybe this is the place to start. Where within these sub-genres does your book land? Check to see which authors they are placing there and read some of the books to get a feel for why something might be called war & military fiction versus mystery & crime fiction.

I honestly think one of the reasons authors have so much difficulty with this is because they have a hard time really narrowing in on what their books are. Any book in any of these categories tells a bigger story than just women’s fiction, for example, and we would all like to think that our books appeal to more than just those people shopping in that section or shopping in “gay & lesbian,” for example. But give yourself time to find those audiences. For now, just pick a sub-genre.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Working with Agents, Part II

In an earlier post on Working with Agents, I talked about signing with a new agent who had once been at an established agency. What one reader pointed out, however, is that the question seemed not to be about working with an agent at a new agency, but working with a new agent at an established agency. Oops. She was right. So whether you wanted it or not, you get a two-fer.

Before delving into what you can expect from this new agent and what kind of help the new agent might be getting, let me explain a little how agencies and publishers typically work. Now by typically of course I mean from my own experiences. Every agency and every publisher has their own set of rules and guidelines, but this is probably what you can expect. I’m also looking at this regarding a new/young agent or editor, someone who might not be new to the company but is only recently acquiring. This would not necessarily be the way new agents who have had experience in the business and are simply changing agencies work.

When starting in publishing you usually start as an assistant. That means working closely with an agent or editor who has more seniority. This means you do things like write rejection letters, read through the slush pile, answer the phone, and file. It could also mean you get coffee (thank you, Katelynn!). When an assistant starts acquiring they are often seen to the outside world as new to the business when in truth they have been slowly learning about the business for quite some time. When it’s time for a “new” agent to start submitting, it’s only natural that she’ll be receiving a lot of guidance, on everything from which editors to submit to to how to handle contract negotiations, from her senior agent/boss. In fact, when submitting here at BookEnds we often receive a lot of guidance from each other. I don’t know how often we ask each other for recommendations or suggestions when it comes to submitting certain projects.

So, I would assume if you have a young/new agent that she is working with others at the agency to make sure that she’s doing the best for your work that she can. However, I still stand by my earlier statement that if you have any concerns at all you should be talking to her about it, and if you don’t trust that this agent has the instincts to do the best she can for your work, no matter how big the agency she’s with, it might be time to cut and run.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Bittersweet Email

I received an email the other day that can best be described as bittersweet. The author took the time out of a busy day to simply thank me; thank me for a rejection letter/email I had sent one year earlier. Apparently, according to this writer, not all agents are as kind in their rejections, and the author was feeling disheartened and discouraged.

I so appreciated the thank-you. Who doesn’t? Any time you’ve been able to give people a smile or a note of kindness it’s so nice to hear back. I think like all people I don’t always know if I’m helping or if I’m coming across as kindly as I would like to. I was honored and impressed that this author was willing to take the time to drop a note a year later. However, I was also saddened. Saddened that rejection letters can come off so harshly and mostly saddened that they can start to eat away at a writer’s self-esteem. I know a lot of agents, and most of those I know are sincerely nice people. They try to be as kind as possible in a form rejection and will sometimes even give personal advice, again as kindly as possible. I’m aware that sometimes perception is different from reality. I can try to be kind, but the letter doesn’t always come off that way, or doesn’t read that way at the time. However, the flip side is that there are agents, like there are people in every profession, who don’t see a need to be kind to an author’s feelings. That’s fine. That’s their way of doing things and it doesn’t mean they aren’t fabulous to their clients as well as warm and caring. They just don’t have time or feel the inclination to be a warm and fuzzy agent to all writers. It’s just sad if anyone is beyond cold and downright mean. That’s not right.

I’m not sure that I can give any real advice here. What I can say, and what this author is attempting to do, is ignore it the best you can. But this is also where a writer’s support group can come in beautifully. Don’t forget to celebrate every success—a finished chapter, a finished book, a nice rejection letter. I think it’s so much easier to focus on the negative than the positive and it’s hard, really hard. But focus on the positive and keep at it. I strongly believe that 90% of success is persistence in all things.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Reader's Coming of Age

When I first started in publishing I was fresh-faced and fresh out of college. While I had spent my summer reading commercial fiction like John Grisham, Michael Connelly, and, yes, Bridges of Madison County, I somehow had the impression that as a recent college grad, or just an intelligent woman, I should be reading more intelligent books (whatever that means). In other words, I should be catching up on the classics I missed out on as a journalism major or reading only books that incited great philosophical discussions. The irony of that sort of thinking is that one of the reasons I got my first job as an editorial assistant with Berkley Publishing is that I was reading exactly the types of books they published. I was reading commercial fiction and they were looking for someone just like me. They didn’t want to hire someone who had spent the summer reading The Celestine Prophecy, Dickens, or To Kill a Mockingbird. They wanted an editor who understood the market for the books they were publishing.

Well, it took me a long time to accept and advertise the fact that I was a commercial fiction girl. Some of that could be because of the reactions I received when hired for my new job (laughter and disdain about romance novels), and some of that could have been my age. See, like all young women (like all young people), I think it took me a while to come into my own and really accept myself for who I am. Sure, I can read and enjoy Dickens just as easily as the rest of you. But I don’t have to. Because what I really want to read, when I have the chance to read, is what some of you might refer to as a good old-fashioned bodice ripper, or what others have called “trash.” I’m no longer embarrassed to carry a steamy book on the subway or to the doctor’s office. In fact, often I’ll carry the steamiest book I can find, simply to advertise my clients. It helps now to be confident in who I am and prepared to defend the books I love. It also helps that I make a good living off of them [wink].

I think all readers evolve and grow over time and eventually find their niche. I hear often from those who read only fantasy as young people and now have grown to read different kinds of fiction, and I hear from others who still can’t stomach commercial fiction but love nothing more than to cuddle into a long classic. Some typically enjoy longer literary works, but when life is tough or getting them down, they will pull out a favorite romance or thriller. What we read and when we’re reading it can say a lot about who we are in that time of our life, just like the music we listen to and the movies we watch. Did I ever tell you how much Sex Pistols I listened to in my angst-ridden teen years or the number of times I’ve seen The Breakfast Club?


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

No Writing Courses, Please

On a recent blog post I mentioned advice that is often given by writing instructors and how the advice can hinder an author rather than help her. One of the reactions I received from a number of readers was to avoid writing classes. And while I don’t entirely agree with that advice, I do think writing classes should be taken with a measure of caution.

As I’m sure many will agree, writing courses can be incredibly helpful and useful. They can help you discover or break free of what’s been holding you back. They can also trap you and become your biggest obstacle. I see it all the time at conferences, on message boards, and in blog comments. Authors telling me why they can’t do something and referring back to a writing course or a critique group. Why again can’t you do it? With any creative pursuit, like writing, painting, pottery, or photography, a class can be incredibly useful in helping you learn new techniques or see things a different way. However, you need to remember that unlike accounting, these pursuits are not cut and dry. In other words, there is more than one way to write a book or paint a picture. There is rarely more than one way to keep the books (legally, that is).

So take your writing courses. Sometimes it helps to listen to what others have to say, but remember that you need to take what you learn and see first if it fits your style before running ahead and simply changing everything because your instructor said so.


Monday, October 06, 2008

Helen Coronato on Reviews

Helen Coronato
Eco-Friendly Families
Publisher: Penguin/Alpha
Pub date: August 2008
Agent: Jacky Sach

(Click to Buy)

Author Web site:

The Reviews Are In! (Is It Safe to Come Out?)

At the beginning of August my third nonfiction book, Eco-Friendly Families, was released by Penguin/Alpha Books. Since my first two books were series titles, this standalone felt a little different–it really felt like mine. I was, and still am, really excited about this user-friendly guide for going green as a family; but I was (still am) also nervous over reviews. Were my recommendations too out there? Or not committed enough? Were my suggestions manageable? Or over the top? Was the author photo okay? Or should I have worn the blue scarf? Pressing issues. And pressure that I hadn’t really considered.

When I was writing the book, I concentrated on the content, the writing, and the deadlines. I worked hard weeding through environmental sites and sources to find accurate, reliable research, then combine it with my experience and expertise to create a handbook of commonsense, family-friendly ideas. I picked through mountains of information while picking up dinner, crayons, dry cleaning, socks, shoes, and Legos. And then I put it out there for anyone, anyone, to pick up, pick apart, poke and prod at. Whew, we’re a brave lot, us authors.

What’s been so interesting since the publication of Eco-Friendly Families has been reading about which suggestions and strategies struck a chord with reviewers. Whenever you write a chapter, announce an opinion, include a recipe, or make a recommendation, you do so knowing it excludes other options. You can’t travel two roads at the same time–you gotta make a choice. Those choices set the tone, the pace, the feel of your book. And then it is just out there. (Did I mention how brave we are?)

So far, the responses I have gotten for the book have been extremely rewarding. Since I spend the better part of my day Googling my own name, I have learned that readers and reviewers love the easy-to-follow twelve-month calendar of environmental ideas (starting on page 30), the numerous ways to save gas money (page 67), what to do with a unmatched sock (page 78), why precycling works wonders (page 94), seasonal, locally inspired recipes (page 140), inventive ways to think outside of the holiday gift box (page 183), the “five minute makeovers” peppered throughout the book, and, most of all, the underlying theme that yes, you can make a difference, and no, it’s not too late.

Today, the book (and author) is doing well. And that makes me proud, humble, happy, and a little nauseous. They say the farther up the ladder you go the more people who can see your ass hanging out. Right now, even though I'm only on the first few rungs up, it feels like I’m leaping buildings in a single bound . . . without pants. At least I’m giving people something to talk about.

I should go check. . . .

Happy Writing,
Helen Coronato

When not Googling herself, Helen is helping to spread the word about all of the little things you can do today to make a big difference for tomorrow. Eco-Friendly Families is available everywhere books are sold. Pick up a copy today and join the discussion at

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Way I Read

I’m always asked if I actually read for pleasure given that my job entails doing a whole heck of a lot of reading, and I’m actually surprised that others are surprised when I say yes. However, one of the things I’m not sure I’ve ever explained to anyone is I read differently for each thing I read. For example . . .

Query Letters

To clarify, these are the one-page equeries that I receive each day (by the way, we’re now up to about 25 to 30 a day in my inbox alone). When I read queries I often skim through the introductory material, title, and even genre, because I’m looking for the meat of the query. I want to know what the book is about and I want to be excited about it. In other words, I’m reading through the query to be stopped. I want to get to the point where I think, “Wait a minute. I need to read that again.” When I get to that point it’s very likely that unless there are any real bumps in the road (a word count of 7,000, for example) I will be requesting more material. Queries take a lot longer to read than one would think, and even if I can read one query every two minutes, I certainly can’t read 50 queries in a row. Which is why I now have nearly 200 queries sitting in my query folder.


This is almost always material I’ve requested from a query letter. Typically a proposal should include the first three chapters of your book and a synopsis. Now here’s the big one . . . never do I read the synopsis first, and I always wonder why people put the synopsis on the top of the chapters since the chapters are what you really want me to read, but that’s a post for another time. When reading proposals the first thing I do is read the attached letter (attached because my assistant probably clipped the entire packet together). Proposals that either don’t include letters or don’t include letters that give me any information about the book (usually the same information that was in the query is best) usually get put back down to be read at a later date. When I finally have time to sit and read proposals I want to pick up proposals that I know I’ll be excited to read. So I go through and read all the letters first. Which proposals do I remember requesting and which grab me just as much the second time around as they did the first? Those are the proposals that are likely to go home with me first. From that point I flip through until I get to the first chapter and then I sit down to read. Often when reading proposals I’m distracted. I’m reading at home, at night, and dinner is on, or the TV is on, or there is just chaos. A good three chapters is going to make that chaos disappear. Like most readers I don’t have the opportunity for a peaceful few hours to sit quietly and read. Instead I’m counting on the book to take me to that peaceful place. Okay, full disclosure time: When reading proposals I’m looking for that first reason to reject. I get 25 queries a day and probably 25 or so proposal packets a week. I can’t possibly take on that many new clients, and in my years of experience I know that there are not going to be that many winners in there. So I’m skeptical (as are all agents and editors), but I want to be wowed. Because there’s nothing more exciting than finding something amazing when you least expect it.

Requested Manuscripts

I don’t request many full manuscripts, so when I do I usually remember it and watch for it. However, the true test of the full manuscript for me is whether or not it holds up. I’ve already read the first three chapters, so when the full crosses my desk, do I have to read those first three chapters again or do I remember them so clearly that all I need to do is skim through anxiously awaiting the material I haven’t yet read? If I have to read them again to remind myself about the book and if I feel weighted down by the time I get to chapter five, I can easily reject the book. If, however, chapter four grabs me as well as chapter three and the next thing I know dinner is burning and infomercials are playing, I know I have a winner. Requested manuscripts are something that often hang over my head. I’ve got three client manuscripts right now I need to read (and I’m excited about reading) as well as numerous proposals and other things, so while I’m always excited to find a new client, the thought of finding time to read another 400 pages is intimidating. So again, I’m looking for a reason to reject and get this task off my desk.

Client Manuscript for Revisions

When reading client material, whether a full or partial, for revisions I need to be in a completely different mind-set. I need to be able to focus, which means I need to have my desk as cleared off as possible with no other projects hanging over my head. The phone can’t be ringing and I can’t be checking email. The best thing for me to do when reading for revisions is sequester myself (wouldn’t that be nice). When reading for revisions I always have pen in hand and a notebook at my side and I make notes. Notes to myself and notes I will share with the author. I am reading with an incredibly critical eye. Not skeptical, but critical. I need to concentrate and follow the story carefully and I need to be willing to be judgmental. To tell my client what is or isn’t working and to give suggestions. I need to have my editor’s hat on, which means a creative hat as well as critical. Reading for revisions is actually very tiring for me. It’s not like sitting down to read queries or to simply read an already published book. Instead it involves carefully thinking about every word and phrase.

Reading for Pleasure

Which, let’s face it, is the best reading of all. There is nothing better for me than being able to just sit down and read a book. I’m not going to be asked for my opinion and I’m not going to be asked to judge the book. All I need to do is lose myself in the story and read. I can put it down and never pick it up again if I don’t want to or I can pick it up weeks later when I have the time.


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Life's Too Short

All too frequently agents will receive nasty replies to rejection letters. While this occasionally happened in the days of snail mail only, I suspect it happens much more frequently now that email makes communication so easy. Well, a very interesting thing happened this week. I received a query that sounded interesting, but was far outside of my area of expertise. Naturally I rejected it, but thinking it might be right for a colleague of mine I forwarded the email on to her explaining that I had passed, but if she was interested she should certainly get in touch. Why did I reject it rather than simply pass it on? All agents I know are inundated with queries and I feel uncomfortable passing along more work to any of my colleagues, especially my work. My feeling is that I’ll reject it so that I’m sure the author received a response from the agent she queried, and then pass it along just in case someone else finds it interesting. That way the agents I’m passing it along to are under no obligation to reply, but can if they are interested.

Well, in this case the author immediately sent me back a very nasty reply. She called me names and implied that I was an idiot for throwing away what others were calling a bestseller. That may be, but clearly I’m not the agent to represent it and help make it a bestseller. My other thought is that if she had so many agents already interested as she claimed, why would she care about one rejection?

Anyway, I immediately forwarded the author’s response to my colleague. Not surprisingly, after seeing the author’s remarks, my fellow agent determined that this was not someone who would be easy to work with or with whom she would want to work.

It may be a bestseller, but many of my colleagues work under the belief that life’s too short. Life’s too short to work with people who you know going into the relationship will make things more difficult than they need to be.

And frankly, I just think the possibilities of “bestseller” are slim.


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Does Your Hook Match Your Genre?

In September I had the honor of speaking to the NYC chapter of Sisters in Crime, and one of the things that so often comes up when discussing mysteries is the importance of hook. Hook is what usually grabs an agent’s, editor’s, and even a reader’s attention. It’s what makes us pick up a new book by a new author and what makes your mystery, romance, or fantasy stand out from all the others on the bookshelf.

But is a hook enough? No. One of the things I so often see, especially in the mystery world, is a hook that doesn’t match the mystery. I think there are three basic types of mystery. There’s the cozy, the mystery, and the suspense/thriller. Each type has “rules” or guidelines and an audience of a certain type.

Cozy mysteries are just that, cozy little books that might make you think of your grandmother. Now I realize I’m oversimplifying and there are many non-grandmotherly types reading cozies voraciously, but a cozy doesn’t include a lot of blood and guts, usually doesn’t show the villain’s point of view, and rarely do we see more than one or maybe two bodies. Cozy sleuths are amateur sleuths and often have a love outside sleuthing. The trend these days is a craft or hobby like knitting, crochet, glassworks, rubber stamping, quilting, a bible study group, or bunco.

Mysteries are one step up on the darkness scale from cozies. They are still a mystery, which means the goal is to solve the case one clue at a time. A mystery can still involve an amateur sleuth, but typically the amateur sleuth has a little bit more experience in something that might help solve the mysteries. For example, the sleuth could be a doctor who understands something about diseases or a PI who is obviously not an amateur sleuth, but has the background to actually solve crimes. A mystery can be grittier and darker then a cozy and can definitely include blood and gore.

Suspense/Thriller is the darkest of the three and has a different plot setup. While cozies and mysteries tend to be about solving the crime, suspense/thrillers tend to be about stopping a killer or crime. In other words, often we know who the killer is, it’s not necessarily a whodunnit, but now we must find him or find a way to stop him. Suspense/thrillers can include a potential victim who’s forced to help solve the crime and someone who doesn’t see herself as a crime solver, but has the background experience necessary to help. Typically, however, suspense/thrillers have at least one protagonist who is connected to law enforcement in some way.

Okay, so where am I going with all of this? Each of these mysteries is very different in tone, and just because you are writing an amateur sleuth doesn’t mean you are writing a cozy. A protagonist who is, for example, a medical reporter, might have some interesting things to contribute to a case, but is probably not a cozy sleuth. It’s just not a cozy career. A medical reporter, however, would make a fabulous mystery protagonist. Imagine the things the reporter could uncover that others might not be able to find or even understand. A medical reporter would also be a great protagonist to stumble into a thriller situation where she finds something she wasn’t supposed to and is now on the run.

What if you decided to write a book about a knitter, she’s in her sixties and retired and she likes to garden and knit? What’s the appropriate genre or plotline for that book? I’ll tell you right now, it’s unlikely that she’s going to be hunting a savage serial killer through the Cajun bayous. It just doesn’t fit.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Picking a hook is really important, but it’s even more important to pick a hook that suits your audience. If you are determined to write about that medical reporter, go ahead, but something is going to have to give. You can’t do it as a cozy. So you have to decide what’s more important to you. Are you better at writing cozies and need to come up with a fresh hook or are you attached to your medical reporter and need to consider writing a new sub-genre?