Friday, February 27, 2009

Are Your Ideas Safe?

My question to you is regarding the safety of a nonfiction book proposal. I have heard of situations when a proposal is turned down because the platform is not as strong as one would like (perhaps no previous publication or degrees, but written by a writer with valid experience and a website with 50,000 hits/year) and then the publisher approaches an in-house writer or subject matter expert to write a book based on the idea because of its marketing potential.

There’s no doubt that since the beginning of publishing time authors have been fearful of publishers stealing their ideas, and certainly last year’s lawsuit between authors Jessica Seinfeld and Missy Chase Lapine only perpetuated this fear. But the question is, do publishers really do this?

And since I’ve always been as honest with you as possible I’m going to tell you that no, publishers do not steal ideas . . . sort of. Okay, before you freak out, let me explain.

I haven’t been following the case of Lapine v. Seinfeld lately, but my understanding is that Lapine is accusing Harper of basically taking the book proposal she submitted to them and turning it over to Seinfeld, whom they thought would be a better author. I just don’t buy that. Never once, in all my years of publishing, have I ever seen or heard of an editor stealing a proposal and passing it to another author to rip off. Does that mean it’s never happened? While certainly I can’t say it’s never happened in the history of publishing, frankly it doesn’t make sense. Lapine didn’t have outstanding credentials, but she did have credentials (although not a huge platform) and Seinfeld had no credentials at all, she’s just married to one of the most famous comedians of our time. If Harper was going to steal a book to pass to Seinfeld, why would they chose that one? It’s just ludicrous.

Most important, though, and outside of that particular case, if a book has that much merit, the idea is that brilliant, and the proposal is that well done, a publisher is going to try to make it work with that author. It’s in their best interest to do so. By the time they steal the idea, find an author to write it and publish it, someone else will have already snapped up the book and published it themselves. At this point Crook Publisher is already late to the dance, so to speak, and probably with an inferior project. If the publisher feels the author needs better or stronger credentials or a better platform, they certainly can suggest ways to make that happen. They could bring in a foreword writer with the credentials or even ask the original writer if she might be willing to work with someone with a platform or credentials. They can also help the author create a platform by setting up speaking events, and of course interviews with magazines, etc. The truth is that if the publisher likes the book that much they are going to offer to buy it. If the book is truly that great, the idea is that brilliant, and the execution is that perfect, and you have your platform, it’s not in the author, but in the book.

Now, is it possible that Seinfeld came to Harper with a cookbook idea and Harper didn’t see that as a possibility, but the editor instead suggested she write a book on sneaking vegetables into her child’s food? Absolutely. Is it possible the editor liked the idea Lapine submitted, but for whatever reason didn’t offer on the proposal and, remembering Lapine’s book suggested it to Seinfeld? Absolutely. Is that a punishable offense? Not at all. ***Please note that I have no information on how the book idea came about and personally I don't think the editor tried to rip of Lapine and give the story to Seinfeld. I'm just using this as a hypothesis and no one should think this is fact.*** Ideas are not copyrightable and publishers, like authors, have every right to develop their ideas in whatever way works for them. I know, I know that sounds horrible. But hold up a minute. How else do you explain the number of military fiction thrillers a la Tom Clancy? At one point in time there were none. Until Tom Clancy, this style of book didn’t sell. Or how do you explain the vast number of baby name books on the market? At one point there were no baby name books. Then someone wrote one, someone published it, it was successful and everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. The truth is that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and imitation happens in everything, it happens in publishing, it happens in TV, movies, art (look at the Impressionists), and it happens in business. Does that make it right? Yes and no.

We would certainly have a very limited number of books on the market if we couldn’t steal a little bit of idea here and a little bit there. Wouldn’t you be disappointed to learn that you no longer had a choice when looking for French cookbooks because Julia Child already had that idea and therefore Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris would be a rip-off and can’t be done? Or legal thrillers were assigned to John Grisham only and no one else could write that idea?

It takes a whole heck of a lot more than an idea to make a book and certainly more than just an idea to make a book successful. Fiction or nonfiction, the execution of the idea is far more important than the idea itself, and I’m reminded of that every single day when I’m reading through submissions. Daily, I receive nonfiction proposals for books with brilliant ideas and daily I reject them. Never have I rejected a fabulously executed project simply because of platform. In fact, this month I plan to go out with a new nonfiction submission where I have concerns about the author’s platform, but think the idea has such merit and is so well executed that I’m willing to take the chance. I also know that not just anyone can write this book. These authors have done their research and written a great proposal. They’ve executed something that not just anyone can do.

I have a feeling I’m going to get a lot of flack for this post and I’ve spent a lot more time than normal writing it in the hope that I explained myself properly. I don’t condone plagiarism in any way and I don’t condone thievery of proposals, outlines, or fully executed book plans. However, an idea is a very abstract thing and can be interpreted in many different ways, and it’s that interpretation that makes it unique. So don’t worry about the theft of an idea and don’t worry about the theft of your proposal. Instead concentrate on making your interpretation, your execution, uniquely you, and then there’s no way anyone can steal it (without plagiarizing, that is).


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reader Expectations

When talking about sex in your books one reader commented (and I will paraphrase) that one of the difficulties writers face is that the sexiness factor of your first book often determines what level of sexuality readers expect from you in subsequent titles. She’s right. The difficulty you all face when getting published is living up to the expectations of your readers. There is no publicity as good as the publicity you get when you write a great book, and then your next book is even better. Let’s face it, we’re all fickle readers. We have limited incomes and when an author disappoints it’s often difficult to get us to spend our money on the next book.

Does that mean that if you write a hot, steamy book with six sex scenes (say that ten times fast) your next book needs to be hotter, steamier and include at least seven sex scenes? Not at all, it just means that you’ve set the bar of sensuality your readers are likely to expect. It means that you probably shouldn’t suddenly write about a very prudish heroine who will do little more than kiss, and even that is at the end of the book.

Keep in mind though that this post is about a whole lot more than just sex. Writing suspense? Your readers are going to expect the same level, if not a higher level, of suspense with your next book. What about fantasy? Your world building needs to be just as strong in your second book as it is in your first. The minute you become a published author you are writing for a lot more than yourself. You’re writing for your agent, your editor and, most important, your audience. Does that mean you need to write the books they think you should write? Not at all, but you do need to come as close as possible to matching the expectations you’ve now set for them.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Error-Free Manuscripts

I got a question recently from an author who was distraught about a recent submission he had made. Two different agents had requested his manuscript, and like any good author he carefully went through the work, edited and revised and made sure he had sent his best work out. But, as we all know, mistakes happen, and while one agent received his best work, the other received one that was riddled with errors.

The author in question wanted to know how to handle the situation. Would it be appropriate to email the assistant of the agent with the mistake-riddled manuscript to ask if it would be okay to resubmit? Would it be a mistake to let the agent know you had made the mistake, therefore labeling you as unorganized and careless? I think you need to do what is going to make you feel better. And in all cases I would suspect that’s to get in touch with the agent or her assistant and ask if you can resubmit. The worst they can say is no. The truth is that you’re stressed about this. You’re thinking about it constantly and, if the agent does reject the work, you’re always going to wonder if it’s because she really didn’t like the book or because of the mistakes.

I receive emails like this all the time, and frankly the ones that bother me the most are the ones who have completely rewritten the work. My concern there is that you were sending out material much too prematurely, and I always doubt then that the material I do have is even ready. Just as agents will sometimes put the wrong letter in the wrong SASE, we understand that authors will sometimes put the wrong name at the top of the query or the wrong manuscript in the package. Mistakes happen and we could all do well to remember that none of us is perfect.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Query Statistics

I took a little extra time when reading queries the other day and actually tracked what I was reading, because from the feedback I’m getting from you, you always like a little peek into what we do with our queries.

At the time I sat down to track and read my equeries I had about 201 in my in-box. These were both unsolicited queries and requested proposals. The oldest was three and a half weeks old (those were requested proposals); the newest were obviously coming in as I was reading. I read and tracked the queries on a weekend. It took me roughly two hours to get through 62 queries. None of those queries were requested and none of that reading time included requested material. When reading through queries I often jump around. I did start with the oldest query in my in-box, and it was 13 days old. Again, I do have older material in there, but those are requested proposals. The newest had come in just minutes before I sat down to read.

I’ve also noticed with the new year that my incoming query numbers have risen sharply. I’m now receiving anywhere between 30 and 50 equeries every day, seven days a week. Keep in mind, none of these include the giant stack of snail mail queries I have sitting in my office. I’m actually a little dismayed to read this and look at my tracking statistics. That means that to simply keep up with queries (and that doesn’t include requested proposals or fulls) I have to have about one hour of every day dedicated to reading queries. Sigh. Realization hits that I will never, ever catch up.

Okay, on to the numbers. . .

Queries Rejected: 56
Requested Proposals: 6
One pre-query query in which I replied by sending out submission guidelines: 1
Queries not written in the body of the email, but instead attached (which I don’t recommend): 2
Queries that included an unsolicited manuscript attachment: 2
Queries addressed generally to “dear agent” or another such address: 2
Queries in which unsolicited attachments of some kind were included, but which I didn’t read: 5
Rejected queries that for some reason or another I gave personal feedback for: 9**

I didn’t create as many categories this time as I often do because I thought instead about the queries I was reading and how I was reading them, and here are a few things I noticed.

99% of the time, whether requesting more or rejecting a query, I do not read the entire thing. In other words, I skim. I find the material that’s going to grab my attention and I head straight for that. In other words, I usually skip over the part addressing me and only notice it if you’ve called me Jennifer, Dear Agent, Dear Sirs, or some other incorrect name. I only read the blurb until I feel that you’ve sufficiently caught my attention or lost me, and I look for a bio to see what kind of experience you might have, if any.

If I’m on the fence about asking to see more and you tell me it’s your first novel, I will usually reject it. If I love the blurb I couldn't care less if it’s your first or 101st novel. I’ll request more.

The minute the blurb gets too long and drawn out, you’ve lost me. I have a short attention span and want the heart of the book given to me quickly.

A number of queries were rejected because the grammar was so horrible I could barely slog through it. That being said, an occasional grammar or spelling error doesn’t bother me at all.

Voice is everything. If I loved your voice I requested material no matter what the blurb said. If the hook was really great, but the voice stunk, I would sometimes request material with hesitation. Sometimes I would just reject.

Oftentimes I’ll start to read a query, realize I don’t have the attention span or patience for it, and come back to it later. Almost every query in my in-box gets scanned once, put on hold, and read more carefully later. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. If a query grabs me and I feel I love the blurb and voice I’ll request the book immediately. If the book is far outside of what I represent or just doesn’t and won’t interest me no matter what, I’ll reject it immediately. However, that does not mean you should ever read anything into a speedy rejection. Sometimes it just means that you sent in your book at a time when I was reading queries and I was able to get to it right away.

Nonfiction is easier to judge quickly.

I still have 141 queries in my in-box and the oldest is two and a half weeks old. The newest just came in.

**A side note on the queries that received personal feedback. Most of them received feedback for very specific reasons. Some had such a terrible format that I suggested the author go back and rework the query before approaching other agents, while others were querying me outside of the genres in which I represent.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Networking through Submissions

I have always believed that networking in publishing is done with each and every query letter or submission you send out, that making a connection with agents doesn’t mean you have to attend conferences or meet them in person, it can happen and, frankly, should happen, through the work you are giving them. Which is why it’s always a bad idea to rail on an agent after receiving a rejection.

That being said, I’m always amazed when authors don’t want to use those networking opportunities to put themselves at the top of the pack. So here are some suggestions for networking through submissions:

  1. If an agent gave you positive feedback on a previous work and asked to see any future works, always, always include them in your next round of submissions (obviously as long as it fits their tastes). Think of it as a cocktail party on paper (or via email). When seeing an agent you met once before, maybe in a pitch appointment, you would probably go up to her at a cocktail party, reintroduce yourself, give some insight into your first meeting and then start a conversation. Submission networking is no different. Reintroduce yourself, remind the agent why you’re querying again and that she liked your work, and begin the conversation.
  2. Any time an agent gives you personal feedback or inspiration you should submit to them again. There’s nothing more frustrating for an agent than to hear that she really changed a person’s work and that the author later found another agent and sold. If you liked someone, felt a connection, and used her advice to make your next work stronger, or even your current work, go ahead and query again and let her know why. And yes, do so even if she didn’t specifically ask to see the work again. It’s networking, and as I’ve always said, what’s the worst that can happen?
  3. When making a connection or a reconnection give as much information as possible. We all have limited memories and it never hurts to have enough reminders so that we know exactly who someone is.
  4. No excuses!! I hear so often that writers are for the most part introverts and getting out there and networking is hard. Well, buck up, folks, networking is hard for everyone and you can sit around and use that as an excuse or you can learn to grow beyond it. If you want success in any business you need to learn how to network and put yourself out there. Publishing is no different.
  5. And lastly, have fun with it.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Agent Recommendation

I get asked a lot if, after a rejection, I have a recommendation for another agent who might be a better candidate for the book. I also get asked in the “real world” if I have recommendations for agents of children’s books, science fiction, or other genres I don’t represent. And sadly, the answer is almost always no.

Let’s put it this way: it’s a very, very rare occasion that I will recommend another agent, and when I do it’s only because I knew the minute I read the work that it would be a perfect fit for someone else, at which point I’ll tell you in my initial rejection letter. For the most part, though, all agents are swamped with queries and submissions and it’s rare that I know exactly what other agents are looking for and that what I’ve read is a fit for one specific person. In addition to that, I really feel that if you’ve done your homework and are submitting in a smart professional manner, you’ll hit that agent anyway.

The other thing to consider is that if I was really wowed by it I’m going to offer myself, which means I really wasn’t wowed enough to recommend the work to editors, and therefore not wowed enough to recommend it to other agents. They are all my colleagues and I would only send them work that knocks my socks off.

As for agents outside of the genres I represent, frankly, I don’t know that many and I certainly don’t know their specific wants, needs or tastes.

So, while it can’t hurt you to ask for a recommendation, it’s unlikely you’ll get one from me.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Query Overview

Some time ago I did a week’s worth of posts on query letters, and for a while now I’ve been putting together (in my head, of course) a response to many of your questions and thoughts on the queries I posted.

One of the reasons I chose the queries I did is because they were all so different, and one of the things I should have discussed in more detail was when they came in. Bella Andre, for example, became a client almost five years ago, at a time when the market was very different and just starting to look for sexy, erotic romances. What was interesting about the comments I received on her query was how many of you would have been so unwilling to take a chance at even looking at her work because you saw it as ridiculous. Clearly you wouldn’t have been the right agents for it. Sound familiar?

I think I mentioned on J. B. Stanley’s that the hook is what really grabbed me and that, again, the timing was perfect. When she submitted to me there were no antiquing or collectibles mysteries on the market. But times have changed and now there are or have been dozens. It’s not as strong a hook anymore, and if her query came in today I probably wouldn’t bother taking a second look (although I’m sure glad I did).

What I saw most in the comments were lightbulb moments that I hope helped all of you. I hope you were able to get a glimpse of an agent’s in-box and see why something stands out for us. I hope you were able to see how very important it is to write a great query and let yourself be seen. Let your voice shine through.

One reader asked how frequently queries like this, or queries that grab us, really come through, and eventually I’ll do another post on query statistics, but to give you an example, I’m writing this post at 9 a.m. on a Saturday and I already have 16 queries in my in-box; all arrived after midnight, and after reviewing them, not one had that special something that made me want to see more. Most of them were well written and most of them followed standard business format, but frankly, none of them had a voice that made me want to read the author forever, or even for 100 pages.

One reader had always been told to write a business letter and wondered if agents had preferences over a business letter versus the letters I posted (letters with voice). And, well, I think all of these letters were business letters. They were professional, well written, and none of them started off with, “Hey Girlfriend.” What made them shine, though, was the voice, or, in some cases, the hook. Remember, publishing is a business, but a creative business, and while we do want professionals and writers who can act professionally, we also want to know that creatively they can distinguish themselves from others, and your letter needs to show that.

I enjoyed doing this series and will collect some more letters from my clients and try continuing it again.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Devil's Advocate

I have to admit that I was rather surprised by the number of comments Jessica received in her “Well Played” post from writers who felt she should have offered representation on a proposal she liked but for which she didn’t feel she was the best agent.

A lot was said about the writer’s point of view, but few seemed to consider the agent’s perspective.

Why would an agent ever want to go into a new partnership with an author feeling at a disadvantage? The publishing industry is tough enough as it is. When I take on a new project, I want to feel supremely confident in my ability to sell it. Time spent worrying over a project I’m not sure I was the right advocate for could be used finding another perfect fit. And there’s a ton of perfect fit manuscripts out there for me, just as there are a lot of agents out there that could be your perfect fit — if not with this project, then your next.

Agenting is a business like any other. I’m looking for the best chance of return on the risks that I take. I think that writers often get caught up in thinking that means agents don’t like risks, period. Every book I take on is a risk. There’s no “sure thing.” Even the author that comes to me with a deal in hand isn’t necessarily going to turn into a lucrative partnership over time. There’s a huge difference between taking a risk on a book that’s not an “easy sell” and taking a risk on a book that I don’t think I’m the best agent to represent. I’ve taken on plenty of authors that I loved but knew I had an uphill battle in front of me. Early in my agenting career I read a manuscript that just knocked me off my feet. There was no question I was going to offer on it. The voice just spoke to me in a way that was really special. At the same time, I recognized that it was a quirky book in a lot of ways. It was a really satisfying commercial read, yet dealing with a lot of issues that weren’t popular in the mainstream. I was right. The book was rejected just about everywhere. After many, many disappointments, I got the book into just the right hands (the perfect editorial advocate is just as important as the perfect agent) and Elizabeth Arnold’s PIECES OF MY SISTER’S LIFE went on to be a USA Today bestseller. I believed in the book and my ability to sell it, or I wouldn’t have taken the risk. But when I think my odds of selling something aren’t as good as another agent’s, those aren’t good odds. It’s just bad business sense.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Subjects in Writing to Avoid

I’ve mentioned in passing a few things that agents often don’t want to see any more of because we’ve seen so much of it before. In one of my more recent posts I briefly mentioned Greek gods and insurance adjusters. Those “reasons for rejection” prompted a reader to ask me if I could give a list of those types of things that often lead to a rejection letter from an agent. And I refuse.

The truth is that not all Greek gods are an instant rejection, and while I haven’t yet seen an insurance adjuster that worked, it doesn’t mean someone else won’t come up with the perfect execution or another agent won’t feel differently. In fact, I want to say that just recently I asked to see more of a proposal from someone who was writing an insurance adjuster sleuth.

Nothing is an instant rejection in the publishing world; the point is that a lot of these things have been seen before or haven’t worked particularly well in the past. I’ve had a lot of editors tell me that they’ve tried to publish Greek gods and they haven’t worked. And yet, with the right execution, with the right idea, they might be a smash hit.

Try not to think too much about what an agent might be thinking or wanting. It will make you absolutely crazy. My best advice is to work as hard as you possibly can to think outside of the box. Push yourself and write a great book.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Writing Sex

I received a question recently that I think is more for authors than it is for me. However, I’m going to attempt to answer anyway and then open up the boards to you, because I think in many cases the best answers to the questions I receive can be found in the comments section and not in the response I give.

How do your authors whose work is more bluntly physical in its descriptions of intimate interaction handle people's inevitable tendency to assume the prose is recollected experience? Is it safer to become pseudonymous than have your friends and relatives start greeting you with "knowing smiles" and a cringeworthy nudge-nudge-wink-wink?

I assume you’re talking about the erotic romance authors I represent more than anything else. What’s interesting though is that a lot of my authors use pseudonyms and for a lot of very different reasons. However, it’s never dawned on me that some would use a pseudonym for fear that others might assume they write the sex scenes from experience. Now that you say that though, I think I admire a lot of my clients a whole heck of a lot more than I did before [wink]. Yes, I would imagine there are a lot of people out there who think my erotic romance authors, and many of my other authors, for that matter, have pretty adventurous lives. However, why would one assume that because you write about sex you’ve experienced it? Do you assume that a mystery author has discovered a dead body or that a fantasy author has traveled to another dimension?

I think the answer to your question, though, has to come from within. It seems to me that you might be uncomfortable with the sex in your book or the sex you’re writing, and if that’s the case then I have to ask whether you should be writing it at all. Even if you write under a pseudonym the goal is to be successful, which means that at some point people are going to connect you with that name. However, if you determine that what you are writing is in fact right for you and yet you are still uncomfortable with using your given name, then by all means use a pseudonym.

But let’s open this up to readers and authors. How do you handle this sort of reaction from readers?


Friday, February 13, 2009

Living in a Portable World

It’s always interesting to me to talk to authors and find out about their processes. When do they write? How do they write and where do they write? Well, some of you might be surprised to note that these days agents aren’t much different. I have a wonderful office painted in blues and greens, a big comfy desk chair and a huge L-shaped desk. I love sitting at my desk with my telephone headset on, iTunes playing, Kindle at my side, and two monitors going at once. However, I also love sitting at home with the laptop on the coffee table and my Kindle in my lap.

As you’ve heard all agents say, most reading is done at home, but what you might be surprised to hear is that home is not always literally at home. It usually means anywhere outside of the office. Heading into the city for a lunch usually means plenty of time to read. Before my subway car even pulls into the station I have my Kindle out on the platform, reading submissions and client manuscripts. I read in waiting rooms, while getting my hair done, and even at the table or at a bar in restaurants waiting for my lunch or dinner date. Actually, one of my favorite places to read is on an airplane. For me it’s one of the few times in life where I can actually find peace and uninterrupted quiet.

Queries are another thing that I rarely read in the office and, as I’m sure many of you can attest, I rarely read during “normal” hours. I live a strange schedule and actually get to most of my queries on the weekend or before the sun has even risen. It’s not uncommon for me to respond to an email at three or four in the morning.

Office time for me is about phone calls. Sure I can and have made numerous business calls from airports, train stations, and my kitchen, but I prefer to make my phone calls at my desk. I like my office phone and feel like I can focus better on the conversation at hand if I have easy access to everything I might need. And the same definitely holds true for negotiating a contract. Again, I’ve done a number of contracts from all over the country (I seem to have considerable success at a friend’s house in Arizona), but if given the choice I prefer to be in business mode in my office.

What about you? I imagine most authors have a working space somewhere they call office, but where do you really do most of your writing?


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Rules of Writing

I have a new rule on my blog and that’s that you can’t ask me any more about the rules. I don’t want to be asked questions like whether or not the hero’s story can be the opening scene in a romance or how many pages of action an action-adventure needs to have. I don’t want to be asked at what page a body needs to be discovered in a mystery or how many pints of blood is too much.

The only rule of writing you need to know is to throw out all of the dang rules. I can’t answer any of the above questions because it depends on your work. Typically, yes, a cozy mystery should have a body within the first three chapters. But, if your first three chapters feel like a mystery and are engaging, then throw that body into the fifth chapter. It’s not about the number of pages or exact rules, it’s about the flow of the story. Do the hero and heroine have to have sex by page 20 in an erotic romance? Not necessarily, it depends on your story.

So the rule is, write what works for you and your book. If someone is telling you the murder should happen earlier don’t look at their advice as a genre rule, look at it as it pertains to your book. What they are probably saying is that the opening pages drag and they want something to happen. They are mystery readers and want the mystery. When writers ask me for rules I get the feeling they’re asking because they are looking for the magical in to publishing, that knowing the rules will make it all easier. It won’t, it will only make your job more complicated because it will hinder your ability to just write the story.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Meeting Clients

I’ve seen a lot of questions and comments about authors actually meeting with their agents and some concern that when an author does get an agent she doesn’t have the money to fly to New York to sign the contract. Well, don’t worry. It is possible to go your entire career without ever meeting your agent or editor in person.

For genre fiction authors meeting your agent or editor is often fairly easy if you plan to attend any of the national conferences. I meet with my romance clients every year at RWA National and I meet with my mystery writers at conferences like Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, or Thrillerfest. And of course there’s Worldcon for SF/Fantasy authors, etc. I’m also invited to conferences and writing events all over the world throughout the year and give priority to those events or chapters where I know a client will be attending.

Meeting with your agent, if you have the chance, is a wonderful experience. Okay, it’s a great experience for me. I like the one-on-one time and feel that it gives us the opportunity to really talk through career goals and plans as well as any concerns or worries the author might have. But a relationship can be just as successful if the only way you can meet is over the phone or though email.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sincerely, Mom

Dear Jessica Faust:

My son is a smart, handsome and a fantastically well-spoken recent college graduate. He went to The University of Mom here in Bubbletown, MN, and I just love him loads.

The reason I’m contacting you today is because of the job post you had in Publishing Jobs News. I think Son would be perfect for the position. He loves to read books, he writes the most beautiful letters you’ve ever seen and he’s motivated.

I’ve attached his resume for your perusal.

Please don’t hesitate to call me if you have any questions.



Imagine having anyone else submit your job application for you. Now imagine what it feels like from my side of things when the query letter comes not from the author herself but from a mother, husband, daughter, coworker, publicist, or lawyer. I think we can all agree that it’s probably best (unless you are working through a headhunter) to submit your own resumes, and for that same reason it’s probably always best to submit your own query letters.


Monday, February 09, 2009

The Synopsis

It’s probably one of the most dreaded words in publishing. Any time I tell any author she has to submit or write a synopsis, I invariably get a loud groan. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, and I know of very few authors who like writing them.

But what makes a good synopsis and how much do they really matter?

A synopsis can matter not at all and it can matter greatly depending on the editor and on the situation. To make things easier on you, I think you should always assume that a synopsis matters a great deal. If you’re submitting a full manuscript with a synopsis, the synopsis probably won’t matter as much (most of us would prefer just to read the manuscript). However, if you have reached the stage in your career where you are selling on proposal and no longer need to write a full manuscript before sending to editors, a synopsis is crucial. In this case, it’s the only thing an editor has to judge the rest of your book by. The synopsis is used as a guide to see if the plot and characterization follows through as strongly as it did in your chapters.

If you are submitting a proposal first (as many agents will ask you to do) you better have a strong synopsis. In that case, we often use the synopsis as a guide to see if we should be requesting the rest of the manuscript or not. We might love the chapters, but I’ve read some really screwy synopses (in which the plot took a dramatic turn in the wrong direction) that have pushed me to reject the book rather than ask for more.

How long should a synopsis be?

Well, for the most part that depends on the requirements of the house, the line, or the agent or editor. For me, my answer is to always tell you to send whatever you have. However, that being said, I prefer something shorter and more succinct (if you have it). I think the perfect length of a synopsis is 3 to 5 pages. That should be enough for you to give all of the important details of the story. To reiterate here, it doesn’t matter how long your synopsis is as long as it is strong and tells the story: 10 pages is fine too.

What do agents/editors look for in a synopsis?

And this is what you’re really here to read. Because believe it or not, a synopsis can make or break your ability to get a book deal. Numerous times I’ve received rejection letters from editors who were basing their feedback on the synopsis, because quite simply what they were commenting on wasn’t even in the chapters we submitted. When trying to sell on proposal (and yes, it is possible to sell fiction on proposal), an editor is going to place a great deal of emphasis on the synopsis. It’s the only way for her to figure out how the book plays out.

So how can you be sure your synopsis sings?

  • The writing. Like your book, your chapters, and your query, your synopsis needs to be well-written and strong. A weak, hastily written synopsis is going to give the editor the impression that you’re a weak writer who doesn’t or won’t take the time necessary to really make sure that what you’re turning in is the best it can be.
  • The voice. It’s not as easy to make your voice come through in a synopsis, but it should still be evident, at least to a small degree. The synopsis should not be a dull, dry play-by-play (or even chapter breakdown) of your book. It should never say something like, “Chapter three begins with . . .” Instead it should be your retelling of the story, in your voice. It should be a short narrative of your story.
  • Showing, not telling. Like the writing in your manuscript, the synopsis should show the highlights of what is important to your book, what scenes move the story forward and show how the characters grow. We don’t need to know about every single secondary character and we don’t need to be told what happens every step of the way. We do however need to know how the core of the story plays out, the heart of the story.
  • Conflict. This is a bit of a repeat of what I said above, but sometimes people hear things different, so let me reiterate, the synopsis should show the conflicts and challenges faced by your characters and in your plot. What is keeping your characters apart or bringing them together? What challenges does your sleuth face or your warrior? How is the crime solved, what are the red herrings?
  • Genre. If you are writing a paranormal romance, for example, make sure that your synopsis has an equal balance of showing how both the paranormal and the romance come into play. Editors are buying your book partly based on hook, which is the paranormal element, but also want to make sure that the romance is strong enough to place this on the the romance list. If you’re writing a mystery or suspense, you want to show how the characters solve the crime, and in suspense, you want to show the suspense. If you’re writing fantasy you want to show the world building, but you also want to make sure the plot is equally strong.
I have to admit, I hate a synopsis as much as you do, but they are a necessary evil of the business, especially when you reach the point in your career where you get to sell on proposal, and because many of my clients are now at that stage I’m working more and more with them on creating a synopsis that’s as strong as the chapters they’ve written.

As with everything else you’re doing besides writing the book, make sure you take the time to write a strong synopsis, but throw all the rules out the window. Write a synopsis that sounds like you and that works with your book and for your story. That’s the synopsis we want to see.


Friday, February 06, 2009

What Agents Read

In my post on An Agent’s Taste a reader made a comment that I started to respond to, and then I thought later that more people could benefit from it, so I created this post instead.

To either refresh your memory or bring it to your attention if you don’t read the comments, the reader said,

I've noticed that now that Twilight and its sister novels are mega-hits with editors and readers, that many agents, especially those who blog, have mentioned that they are now reading them. I find this interesting and weirdly disingenuous. And I wonder if they would have read the manuscripts had they come across their desks. Probably not.

So why bother reading them now?

It's not like there aren't fresh manuscripts with unique premises to read. WHY do agents read the latest hot tomes, then say they want something different? Aren't agents looking for something other than Twilight look-alikes? Personally, I doubt it. I think very many want Twilight, Harry Potter, Inkheart, etc., and that's okay, but I wish agents were honest about this part of the business and what they're really looking for from new authors.

Agents are reading Twilight, read other hit novels, and just plain read for a number of reasons, the biggest probably being that it’s for their own enjoyment. I read books all the time that I probably would have rejected as an agent, or have no interest in representing, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the book. For agents who represent that genre or aren’t reading strictly for pleasure, they are probably reading for market research.

Just like readers, there is no way agents and editors can read every book that’s published, but when something becomes a hit and much talked about, not just by the publishing community, we want to know why. It’s important for us to read these books to gain a better understanding of what is grabbing readers. For me, reading published books also helps my editing skills. I will often pick up tidbits like what’s working for a character or a plot or not working and learn to hone my own editing skills.

You should also know that there are a number of books I read now that I would never read in manuscript form or never have requested had they crossed my desk. Some aren’t my taste, some are genres I’m not interested in agenting, even if I do like to read, and some were published or sold years ago and at the time it definitely didn’t fit my style.

I appreciate your questions, but wish you trusted agents a little more. It’s going to be awfully difficult to work with one when you trust them so little. Just because we read what’s hot in the market doesn’t mean we don’t want something different.


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Post-Rejection Protocol

I think it’s not surprising that a lot of authors wonder what to do next after rejection: How do you handle a rejection letter if it’s clear it was more than a form letter, and can you use that to your benefit when it comes to finding another agent?

The first thing I want to say is that it is absolutely, perfectly acceptable to send a thank-you note or a thank-you email if you felt truly touched or learned something from a rejection letter. In fact, I have a file of thank-you notes that authors have sent me over the years. Not only are they appreciated, but I actually use them to track some authors and their future careers. It’s fun to see success even if I have no part in it, or just a tiny part.

In a recent post comment, though, a reader specifically told the story of her experience with an agent who worked with her on a project for six months before eventually deciding to pass. The author was wondering if it would be okay to mention this experience with other agents. And my very strong answer is no, absolutely not. Don’t ever share a rejection, no matter how kind it might be, with other agents. Listen, we can be an egotistical bunch and each of us likes to think that we’re your first and only pick. Most important, though, is why would you want us to go into your proposal wondering why someone else already rejected it? Think about it this way, if you read a really scathing book review by a reviewer you trust, aren’t you going to go into that book (if you read it at all) looking for what’s wrong with the book?

My other bit of advice on this subject has to do with resubmissions. If an agent sends you a kind rejection letter with advice that you find you can use and do use to revise (heavy revisions) and strengthen the book, always, always give that agent the option of seeing the book again (even if she didn’t specifically ask for it). Unless you really feel this is not the agent for you, why not send the book to someone you know has already expressed an appreciation for your work. The worst that can happen is she can say no a second time.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Rolling with the Punches

As an entrepreneur I frequently am asked for my advice on starting a new business, and while I’ve shared my so-called wisdom with dozens of future business owners, I’m not sure I’ve ever passed it along to my blog readers who, as writers, are all entrepreneurs and business owners.

There are really only two tips I ever pass out, both of which I think can easily apply to any of you in any stage of your writing career.

Tip #1: Give It Five Years
I’m not sure why, but somehow I feel that five years is the magic number. No business grows overnight and a writing career is no exception. When starting a business you need to give yourself time to have and enjoy your successes and then build on them. In my opinion, five years is the time you need to really be able to judge whether or not your business is working. For BookEnds, I know that 2004 was a real turning point for us. It doesn’t mean that we were making it rich by then, but by 2004 I remember feeling as if we had firmly established ourselves as an agency to watch by both writers and editors, we were consistently selling the books we really wanted to be selling, and had taken on clients we knew we could help grow into household names. At five years I knew that we were here to stay.

So does that mean if you’ve been writing for five years and haven’t sold you need to quit? Not at all. Success doesn’t always mean reaching that ultimate goal, but at five years you do need to check to see your rate of growth. If you’ve been seeking a publishing career (and keep in mind that’s different than writing) for five years and still feel that you are in the exact same place you were five years ago (working on the same book, getting the exact same form rejections and not even finaling in contests), I would ask that you seriously reconsider your business plan. However, if you can see real change in where you are now from where you were five years ago (change in your writing, change in your publishing network, and a string of successes like an agent, or personal rejection letters from agents, full request, or contest wins or finals) then you’re probably on the right path.

Tip #2: Be Ready to Roll with the Punches
When Jacky and I started BookEnds we never dreamed that we were starting a literary agency. We thought we were book packagers. We joined the ABPA and attended each and every monthly meeting to learn as much as possible about book packaging. Heck, just a few short months after starting the business we even made our first two-book deal. If I do say so myself, it was an instant success story. The problem was that book packaging wasn’t quite what we thought it was and, most important, we weren’t enthusiastic about taking BookEnds to the level we needed to to make it the success we wanted it to be.

During the first year or so of business we were also getting a lot of requests from authors to represent their work. Well, guess what: that didn’t seem like such a bad idea. So after a little more than a year, we called an agent friend of ours and took him to lunch to pick his brain and learn what we could about the literary agency side of things. We asked every detail we could think of about agenting, how he started his agency and what we were getting into. Now keep in mind, we weren’t starting with no experience, we already had connections and an understanding of the contract, we just needed to talk to an expert to get tips and tricks. About a week or two after that lunch we made the announcement that we were changing our status from packager to agent and we haven’t looked back since. However, we also haven’t settled in. While from the outside it appears that the agency has remained consistent, from the inside we are continually going through changes and making alterations. For example, what we represent is ever-changing. Certainly in 2001 I wasn’t representing a lot of erotic romance (in 2001 erotic romance didn’t “exist” per se), but I was actively looking for chick lit (something I’m not seeking now). And as many of you know, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I opened up my list to fantasy. Just as a reader’s tastes might change over the years, so do an agent’s, and yes, the market makes its own set of changes. In my mind, to be successful, I need to be willing and able to roll with these changes and make adjustments as necessary. And obviously, it’s proven successful for me.

Does that mean a writer should chase the market? No, never, ever chase the market. What it does mean though is that you need to be willing to roll with the punches. You might sit down with a plan to write fantasy and realize halfway through your book that what you’re really writing or what you’re really good at is romance. So go with that. Don’t force yourself to be a fantasy writer or a literary writer or a mystery writer if you really aren’t. If it seems that romance might be your thing, join RWA and learn about romance. If books are getting sexier and you’re comfortable writing sexy, then go with that, stretch yourself, and I can almost guarantee you’ll find success.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What the Editors are Saying

It’s a new year and with that comes new news from editors . . .

One editor (and she’s not alone) would love to see strong, poignant, commercial women’s fiction, not chick lit.

A nonfiction editor is actively looking for lifestyle books—inspirational, parenting, healthy living, etc. While this particular publisher (like most) has a pretty full parenting list, all publishers seem to be actively seeking new, high-profile titles that are problem specific (ADHD, Autism, etc).

In discussions with one editor about the economy (just before we broke for the holidays), she told me that they are seeing a 25% drop in sales from the previous year. Ouch!

Another nonfiction author is actively looking for management, leadership, and HR titles.


Monday, February 02, 2009

Sex and Fiction

When I first started in publishing 15+ years ago, the demand for historical romances leaned toward sweet, family-type books set in the American West. Well, we’ve come a long way, baby. Any time I talk to editors now about historicals, one of the first questions they ask is, “Is it sexy?” Does that mean everything you write has to be filled with sex, sex, and more sex? Not at all, but certainly the trend these days is leaning toward the sexier book. And the sex in books isn’t limited to romance; in fact, I think that whatever you’re reading, the level of sex or sexual tension has increased. Thrillers, SF, fantasy, and even mysteries all have or can have a sexual element, which means how much sex is enough or too much is on the mind of many writers.

Which is why one reader wrote in to ask where the line is drawn between fiction with sex scenes and something that would be called “adult” or, I’m assuming, porn. The trouble I have with a question like this is that there is really no line. The line between a sexy romance, an erotic romance, and porn differs more today than it did 30, 20, 10, or even 5 years ago. And the line is very different for every single person. In fact, I gather from the terminology this particular reader used that the line for her is very different than the line for many of my other readers or even for me. For example she said, “If the interaction between characters is more detailed or quantified than the kind of 'warm, womanly glow' so typical in the trite potboilers of yore, does that earn it the fictional equivalent of an NC-17 movie rating? I'm not talking about the stuff which is deliberately sexual first and fiction afterwards, as some of the 'erotic' imprints seem to be, but rather how much 'real sex' is acceptable to editors and publishers of mainstream, literary, or women's fiction.” It seems to me that the reader feels that the erotic imprints she talks about lean more toward porn and that the “real sex” she is discussing is something different than the sex found in romances or erotic romances. Of course I know a number of my readers would beg to differ (and I imagine we’ll hear from them) and say that the sex they write about is well-researched and as real as it gets. And I think that this proves and will prove my point perfectly.

When you are talking about something like sex or violence or even offensive language, it’s difficult to say what is too much since everyone has a different threshold. The movie industry obviously has a rating system but even that, to the best of my very limited knowledge, is based on the judgment of a few, and could and has changed over the years in terms of what is acceptable within certain ratings.

My answer to this question is the same as the answer I would give to many questions when asked how much you can or should or need to do in your book. It has to fit the story. If you feel that a particular character in your story is very sexual and you need to show those scenes to make the book work, then it works to do so. Anything that’s gratuitous, whether it’s sex or violence, never works: it never works for editors and it never works for readers. The reader asked how much “real sex” is acceptable to editors and publishers of mainstream literary or women’s fiction, and frankly I’m not sure what that means. Every editor is going to be different and I don’t think any of us would ever tell an author you can only have x number of sex scenes. It has to work for the book.

When writing or not writing sex in books you will always have people who disagree with what you’ve done. You’ll have some complain that you needed more and others complain that you had too much. The trick isn’t to figure out what will satisfy everyone else, but what satisfies you and makes you comfortable and proud of your book.