Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Specifics on What

In a recent blog post about how Timing Counts when sending your material to agents, I said, “At the time of the original query the proposal fit those guidelines. By the time it landed on my desk, however, the holes for that kind of book had been filled.”

And based on that comment one reader asked for more specifics. He said that he would like to see more posts on what exactly those holes are and what hooks are in vogue. He said he doesn’t want to hear vague answers like “looking for more historical romance,” but instead specifics like what hooks editors are looking for and what holes they need to have filled.

Unfortunately, the answers to what those holes are, are vague. Editors don’t say to me, I have a hole on my list, but to fill it I need a historical romance in which the heroine only wears pink dresses, eats donuts, and swears like a sailor. No, all of us, always, are only looking for really great books. What I meant by “holes” is that times have changed and trends have changed. Two years ago, for example, I might have been looking all over the place for really fabulous erotic romance. Now publishers have filled a lot of those holes, and while they are still actively buying new erotic romance, they aren’t buying as actively as they were two years ago. Because of that, the way we all look for and at erotic romance has changed. My guess is that if you look for what I was posting two years ago I was telling readers that publishers were looking for erotic romance.

I think I do keep you up to date on those trends and what those holes might be to the best of my abilities. Unfortunately, there’s no magic answer to getting the timing right. The best thing I can tell you is get out there and do your research. Look at what editors are buying and agents are selling and keep track of the trends that way. Mostly, though, don’t follow the trends at all. Just write your book, submit, and, trust me, you’ll find your time.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Writers Are People Too

While I did not participate in #queryfail, a few weeks ago I did follow some of the feedback/fallout in the aftermath. Much of which can be read here in Nathan Bransford’s comment section. I am not going to get in the middle of the discussion of whether or not those who participated in #queryfail were wrong or what their intentions were. What I do want to address is something that’s stuck in my head since first reading the many discussions on the topic, and that’s that writers are people too.

What seemed to resonate most with me from those who objected to #queryfail was the feeling that agents were not considering the feelings of writers. Now let’s take this fully out of the context of #queryfail, please, because again, I refuse to discuss that. So when looking at the idea that agents don’t think of writers as people, you are, to some degree, entirely correct. When reading queries, proposals, or submissions of any kind I cannot think of the face behind the page. That’s not my job and can’t be my job. It’s my job to think of the words on the page and what they do for me and to me and whether or not I think they translate into sales.

When I first started out as a young editor and later as an agent I remember being touched and confused about how to handle the vast number of queries I received (and still receive) from authors looking to write a memoir based on their own experiences of sexual abuse, cancer, or death of a loved one. For me the toughest ones are always those writing about the death of a spouse or child. But the truth is that I can’t treat those people any differently than I treat the author who has written a romance novel, SF, or business book simply because I know their past.

I don’t think any agent will deny that writers are people and each writer deserves respect and serious consideration, but submissions aren’t people. When considering submissions we don’t think of the people and, to some degree, don’t care about the people behind the page. All we care about, all editors care about, and all your readers are ever going to care about is whether or not you’ve written a good book. And yes, sometimes that blinds us a bit, but I suspect it also protects us from the depressing job of rejecting hundreds upon hundreds of people each week. Because we aren’t rejecting people, we’re rejecting the words on the page.


Friday, March 27, 2009

What Can Authors Do to Sell Books

I suspect that after query letters, the most frequently asked question authors have and the most well-attended workshops at writers conferences are those about publicity. What does an author have to do or what can an author do to help sell books?

When asking around you are going to hear a million and one answers to this question. You are going to hear that you need to spend at least your entire advance on publicity or that you have to have bookmarks. You’re going to hear that a Web site is a must and blogging is essential. Well, do you want to know what I think? I think that no one, not one person out there, knows what works and what doesn’t. What everyone can do is speculate that what they did either worked or didn’t, but the truth is that no one knows for sure whether there is a correlation between what the author did and what actually sold books.

I do think a Web site is essential. I don’t think it needs to cost you thousands and thousands of dollars, but it does need to look professional and it does need to be updated regularly. So yes, it will cost some money. Web sites are where a fan base will first start searching for you. If a reader finishes your book and enjoys it, the first thing she’ll probably do is Google your name, and in any situation the best thing you can do is ensure in a Google search that you provide what the readers what. Every single author Web site should include:
  • jpegs of book covers
  • review blurbs
  • information on upcoming projects
  • author bio
  • contact information for fan mail
Other bonus material that I think readers will enjoy and others might find useful
  • a photo of the author and covers in a downloadable file with high enough resolution that reviewers can use it if needed
  • fun facts, recipes, games, etc., related to the book
  • updates on the author’s progress
  • links to other sources that might relate to your book
Whether or not you join a blog or group blog is entirely up to you. I think guest blogging can be useful and maybe more useful than your own blog, since it will hopefully reach out to people who don’t yet know you. A blog should only be done if you really know you can and want to commit to it. I’m here to tell you firsthand how time-consuming they can be, and the last thing you want to do is spend time writing a blog when what you should really be doing is writing your next book. So yes, go ahead and start or join a blog if it’s something you really want to do, but not because you feel like you have to.

Bookmarks, pens, postcards, and other handouts are only useful if you use them. I don’t think that shipping postcards or pens all around the country or the world to conferences so they can sit on tables and be tossed in the trash later is useful. I do, however, think that if you use your promotional item, whatever it might be, as a way to introduce yourself and make a personal connection with readers, they are worth the money. A client once asked me if I thought she should reorder her promotional items and my response was that she really seemed to enjoy her items. She loved passing them out to readers and potential readers and using them as a way of introduction. She agreed. To her they were fun. She reordered. Promotional items don’t do any good without a personal connection. If they are simply picked up off the table they only become another pen at the bottom of a purse.

Video trailers and other multimedia promotion are something I never understood. I know authors love them and certainly they are a fun way to present your book, but do they really work? You tell me. Have any of you ever bought a book based on a trailer. I think they can be a great addition to your Web site and certainly a different way of presenting the book, but unless you are really going to spend the money and make sure they shine and get out there to the public they are just another thing sitting on your computer.

So what is my feeling on what you can do to sell your book? The truth is that the best thing you can do is write the best book of your life and follow it up with an even better book. The rest, the Web site, the blog, the pens, the postcards . . . should only be done if they are fun for you. If you use them to make a personal connection with potential readers. Remember, the point of promotion is not just to pass things out to those who love you and your work already, it’s to introduce yourself to someone new.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Getting a Job in Publishing

Spring is in the air and so is college graduation, and with impending graduations I’m getting a lot of questions from students with dreams of working in publishing. Typically what they want to know is how I got into publishing and what they can do if they are interested in publishing. Since I’m on the career alumni board or something like that at Marquette University, most of my queries are coming from the Midwest.

But for anyone interested in a job in publishing, here are a few tips.

While there are a number of smaller publishing houses throughout the country, my first bit of advice is to really consider what you want from a publishing career. For me it was go big or don’t go at all. In other words, I wanted to work with one of the major houses and, as you might know, all, or most, of those houses are based in New York City. And by those houses I mean Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Harper, etc.

I also recommend that college graduates consider literary agencies. When I first considered publishing it never dawned on me to consider agencies because, ultimately, I didn’t know such a thing existed. A publishing house and an agency are two different but very similar businesses and either will get your foot in the publishing door. From there you will be able to make a switch if you feel that you are better suited to one over the other and, really, there’s no way to know that until you’ve tried it out.

Since most of the nation’s literary agencies and publishers are located in NYC you will probably have to consider moving this way and, yes, you’ll probably have to start by joining forces with the actors, models, and comedians of the world and find a job bartending or waiting tables until that dream job comes along (or pays a livable wage).

My best advice is that a few weeks before graduation (I wouldn’t bother job hunting before then) become vigilant about checking the Publishers Marketplace job board and applying for every entry-level position. I also suggest that you semi-blindly send resumes to every literary agency and publishing house with a job opening. You might have to consider a work-for-free internship because, let’s face it, without something to make you stand out your resume probably looks like 100 others.

Just like getting published, there are no secrets to working in publishing. You just need to get out there and do it.

Good luck!


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Don't Get Twitter

I like to think that I’m technically savvy. I’m usually the one people come to for help with their computer (Apple only) problems, I have the blog, the BookEnds Web site (although someone else manages those for me), and a Facebook account, but when someone asked me recently if I was thinking of opening a Twitter account, I just couldn’t see it. I don’t get it and I don’t get how it would work for me, in real life or work life. Frankly, it makes me feel a little old, because I just get confused.

The Web site exists for obvious reasons, but let’s state them anyway. The BookEnds Web site helps give clients, prospective clients, and writers as much information as possible about BookEnds. I would guess that our busiest page is probably submission guidelines, but by looking at our site you’ll also glean personal information about each of our agents, a peek into our client list, and answers to the many frequently asked questions we get regularly. And of course you’ll get a link to our blog.

The blog is, hopefully, useful as well. The intent of the blog is to teach. Publishing is a weird business and I think sometimes it’s easier to find (or used to be easier to find) misinformation than real information. My goal with the blog is to give out the information I usually present at conferences and make it more accessible to all writers. The problem with that is that it’s a lot easier to come up with a one-hour workshop than it is 300 or so posts a year. And sometimes, I just get it wrong. And sometimes the blog stresses me out and gives me headaches and makes me anxious and makes me angry and just makes me crazy. Most of the time, though, I love it. It’s a lot of work, but I love it.

The Facebook account is still a work in progress. Between the blog and the work I’m actually supposed to be doing I don’t have a lot of time for much else, so the Facebook account is really just for staying in touch with the many writers I’ve crossed paths with over the years. Of course I’m friends with many of my clients and I do frequently update my status. Other than that, though, I use it as another source of information. Whenever I read an interesting bit of publishing news it’s easy enough for me to hit “share” and spread that news to my Facebook friends. So far that’s all I’ve found it useful for.

But Twittering. I don’t think it’s for me. I tried MySpace once too, very briefly. It wasn’t for me.

What’s my point? you’re asking. My point is that when choosing your road to publicity and the many, many marketing and networking opportunities that are available to writers these days, you need to choose what’s best for you. Just because every published author you know is blogging these days doesn’t mean you need to jump on the bandwagon. Publicity and marketing doesn’t work unless the author’s heart is in it, and if you’re just Twittering because you’re “supposed to,” it’s not working for you and, in all likelihood, it’s just making you miserable.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Just Do It

I was talking recently with a new author, someone who had just completed her first book and was cautiously trying to figure out what to do next. One of the things she said was that she had decided that in order to get published she was going to have to know editors, and since she didn’t know anyone she figured there was no way she would get published. I was really surprised by this because while it’s probably a common thought among new authors, I had never heard this line of thinking before and frankly, I think it's a cop-out.

When I was 22 years old I had a dream of living in New York City. I had no idea what I wanted to do there and I had never been farther than Memphis, Tennessee. I was a small-town Midwestern girl from Minnesota. And I was determined to chase my dreams. So after college graduation I packed my little Honda Civic (red, very cute) and made my way to the big City (via an internship in Newport, Rhode Island).

I remember walking out of Grand Central Station for the first time. It was Spring in New York and I was wearing a very ill-fitting, awful, '80s-looking interview suit. I was going to a headhunter's office to meet with someone about possible jobs in publishing and advertising (I’d already ruled out newspapers and magazines after a variety of hated jobs). I wandered out of Grand Central and down Park Avenue. I walked to 40th Street and asked a stranger how to get to Lexington Avenue (one short block to my left for those who don’t know the City). He looked at me like I was a little crazy, or maybe that was the suit, and pointed me in the right direction. Telling this story now gives me heart palpitations. I was so out of my element, so scared, so overwhelmed and so blown away. This was me, small-town girl in the big city, and I was doing it. Step by step through those city streets I was going to meet people who were going to make those dreams happen. Or so I thought.

After a series of fruitless interviews through the headhunter's office, all in really cool advertising agencies, I struck out on my own again and spent a day in the library poring over the LMP. I made a list of all the publishing houses that included the actual names of the Human Resources contact (because I didn’t like sending resumes “to whom it may concern”). I went home and I sent out five resumes. I once again made my way into NYC for two interviews and finally got the job of my dreams. Yes, wearing the ill-fitting suit.

It was scary, it was out of my comfort zone and yes, I probably looked ridiculous. But the truth is I had a dream and no one, nothing, not one heart palpitation was going to stop that dream from coming through.

Do you have a dream? Do you really want to get published? Then quit with the excuses, get off your butt, and make the dream happen.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Liking Your Clients' Work

I think one of the biggest fears/paranoias of authors is what happens next. I was recently asked how I handle a client’s next project if I don’t like it. Do I simply send it out anyway, do I throw the client to the curb and how does that project come about?

First things first. I like to stay in regular communication with my clients, and if all goes well I should rarely be surprised. In other words, my hope is that before my clients start any project we have a conversation about it. We talk about the idea, the execution, and the author’s vision as well as my own. If we both agree that it seems like a viable project, then she’ll move forward and start writing. And yes, there have been times, with some clients, that we’ve gone round after round in discussions about what happens next, not disagreeably, just trying to find the right fit.

But what happens if a client is hell-bent on a certain project that I’m just not as keen on or the project comes in and it isn’t at all what I envisioned. What do I do then? Well, you all know the answer to this by now. It depends.

It really depends on the client’s situation and what’s wrong with the book. Is the client published? Does she have an established career to consider and is the book just plain crap? No matter the case, I’m going to be as delicately honest as possible (at least I hope I’m delicate about it). My goal is to help my clients build careers, and sometimes that means saying things they don’t want to hear. If I think the book is salvageable I’ll definitely talk over revisions with the client. If not, the client and I, together, will come up with a plan on what to do next. Sometimes it’s the client who decides the project can’t be saved, and sometimes we are both amazed with what it ends up becoming.

If the author has not yet sold I have a little more leeway. I’m never going to send out a book I think is just terrible. This is my reputation we’re talking about, and my clients are depending on my reputation, but after some revisions and candid conversations, I may send out a book that a client thoroughly believes in even though I’m not sure. In these cases it’s usually less about it being a bad book or bad writing and more a disagreement on whether or not it will sell and, let’s be honest, sometimes you just don’t know, so it can’t hurt to try.

In terms of how long will I go, how many books will I “reject” before parting ways with a client, I don’t have a number. If a client is actively working on new projects and new ideas and I still believe she can do it, I’m willing to stick by her side. If for some reason I’ve learned that book one must have been some sort of anomaly and demons have taken over my client’s writing ability, I might, very kindly, suggest that maybe we’re no longer a good fit. Honestly though, I’ve never let a client go because I couldn’t sell her work. I have parted ways with clients because of a shift in writing—she might no longer be writing something I represent, or because, for whatever reason, there seems to be a loss of faith in the relationship.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Paper v. Electronic

Through the comment section a reader recently asked why so many agents request hard copies of a manuscript via snail mail when most editors prefer email.

Now the first thing I need to tell you is that all editors and agents are different and we do different things for different reasons. But there are a couple of different answers to your question. In no particular order...

  1. Not all agents and editors have ereaders, and for those who don't it’s easier having a hard copy manuscript to read from because, frankly, reading off a computer screen is difficult.
  2. Editing is easier, for me anyway, to do on hard copy. When reading submissions I will often read off my Kindle. When doing edits, however, I will often read off hard copy.
  3. My interns and assistants don’t have Kindles. I handle every single submission I get, but I am not necessarily the first reader on every single submission I get. I have interns and a fabulous assistant for that. In addition to generally keeping me in check, their jobs are to give me a first read and a reader’s report on many of the submissions I read. And, since they don’t have ereaders, and I don’t think it’s fair for anyone to try to read on a computer, I often request materials via hard copy.
The reader also suggested that paper manuscripts were easier to ignore and take longer to reply to. Maybe, maybe not. I guess that would depend on the agent. For me, I put all electronic queries and submissions in a special folder in my email program. A folder that’s very easy to ignore. Submissions are in tall piles directly in my line of sight on the other side of the office. As easy to ignore as I want them to be.

I don’t think it matters how your material was requested or why it was requested in a certain format. What you should keep in mind is that all of us are different, and while some agents are happily embracing new technology, others are a little more old-fashioned and prefer to read the same way they’ve been reading for years. I don’t think one is right or one is wrong. In the same way, there’s no difference between those reading books electronically or paperbound. Hey, at least people are reading books.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Michele Dunaway: Ten Lessons

Michele Dunaway
Twins for the Teacher
Publisher: Harlequin American Romance
Pub date: March 2009
Agent: Jessica Faust

(Click to Buy)

Author Web/Blog links: www.micheledunaway.com & www.micheledunaway.blogspot.com

I hit a milestone this month, and it wasn’t a birthday. I saw the publication of my twentieth book, Twins for the Teacher. It seems like yesterday, not October 2000, that my first book hit the shelves. I also realized that Jessica and I had been together since book 15, and that a few years had flown by.

Where did the time go?

I’ve learned a few things since I first started, and thought I’d share ten things with you.

1. Trust your voice and your vision. That old "if it feels right, don’t change it, or if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it," has kept me out of a lot of trouble over the years.

2. Don’t get hung up on the rules. They’ll say don’t break them, and then someone always does. So again, trust your gut. You’ll know when it’s your turn to be a wild child. Although remember that there are a few cardinal sins, like sliding your manuscript under a bathroom door, that are never ever excusable.

3. Be persistent. Too many people give up the first time things get rough. I’ve written through divorce, job changes, and child angst. If you are a writer, you write. Don’t let one or one hundred rejections get you down.

4. Prioritize. It’s the only way I get things done. When my priorities are out of whack, things don’t go right. Writing is #3 on my list, after family and day job.

5. Be kind and polite. That old “you catch more flies with honey” adage is true, true true. If you can’t say something nice, bite your tongue and keep quiet. That way it won’t come back later and bite your butt.

6. Say no. While being kind is important, you don’t have to say yes to everything. You don’t have to attend every meeting. The wrong offer can be a bad offer, the wrong agent can hurt your career. Agreeing to every committee or social engagement can keep you from writing.

7. Say thank you. Thank everyone and let them know how grateful you are for the opportunities you’ve had.

8. Respect yourself. This goes along with #1. Don’t try to be something you’re not just to make a sale. Think long term.

9. Writing should be fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re burning out. And PS—have friends from outside of the world of writing.

10. Write. You don’t have to write every day, but you do have to write. Whether you submit or not, that’s up to you.

Also, if you’re interested, I have a 20 questions interview at www.harauthors.blogspot.com. It was posted on March 12.

Twins for the Teacher is Michele Dunaway’s 20th book for Harlequin. Michele is currently revising her 22nd novel, all while balancing teaching full-time, writing an article for Communication: Journalism Education Today, and, most important, being a mom. Her next release is this July’s Bachelor CEO.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What Are Conferences Really About

It’s conference season. At least for me it is. For the next few weeks I’m going to be very busy literally jetting around the country attending and speaking at various writers conferences, which, along with a reader’s question, has me thinking about the way we think of conferences.

Why do we go to conferences? I would bet that nearly all of you answered that question by saying that you go to meet editors and agents. Wrong! We go to conferences to network, and editors and agents are just a small sampling of the people we can network with. Do you know that networking with other writers can be just as important as networking with agents?

A reader recently wrote in to tell me that he is planning to attend two conferences this spring and wants to know whether or not he should hold off on querying until after the conference. Why? His feeling is that if he gets an agent before his conferences then he would feel like he wasted his money.

Really? You have an agent. Who cares when it happens? Isn’t getting an agent your goal, or is it feeling like you didn’t waste money? Listen, there are roughly 400 conference attendees trying to get the attention of, maybe, four exhausted, overworked and chatted-out agents. Out in the big cold query world there are hundreds of agents all snug at their desks looking for a talented writer with a great book. So what if you get an agent before you go to the conference? Then doesn’t that take the pressure off? Now you’re allowed to relax, sit back, enjoy yourself and network with other authors because, frankly, you’re going to need them. You’re going to need them when your editor asks if you know of anyone who might be able to give you a quote. You’re going to need them when your editor or agent sends back painful revisions. You’re going to need them when you’re the featured speaker at a conference and just want to see a familiar face. You’re going to need that reviewer you shared a drink with and that bookseller you chatted with at breakfast.

Conferences are all about networking, they are not about getting an agent. Sure, getting an agent at or through a conference would be thrilling and certainly it would make life easier, but you can’t go into it thinking that’s your plan. You need to go into the conference with a more global career outlook. You need to build contacts—agents, editors, other writers, bookstore owners, reviewers, and those who plan future conferences. You need to look at the conference as a path, not one stepping-stone.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Timing Counts

A while back I posted a series on the query letters that first introduced me to a number of my clients. One of the comments I made on J. B. Stanley’s query was that while the hook grabbed my attention four years ago, if she submitted today I’m not sure it would even be a blip on the radar screen. Yes, like much of life, timing can be everything in publishing, and in J. B. Stanley’s case, the timing worked in her favor. She had a hook that hadn’t yet been done, but now it’s been done more than a number of times.

Timing is important in so much of life and publishing is not immune to that. A number of you commented on the timing of her letter in the comments section and one reader was inspired to email me a question. In her email she shared the story about a request she received from me about a year ago, a request for a full manuscript. For various reasons, primarily based on fear, the author has yet to send the requested material and wants to know what to do now. She still wants to send the book, but wonders if it’s too late.

The thing is, when material is requested we are excited about it and anxious to read it. Think of it this way, when you’re reading a book you’re excited about you can’t wait to get back to it anytime you put it down. What if you had to put it down after the first three chapters and weren’t allowed to come back to it for another year? Do you think you would have the same level of anxious anticipation to get back to it as you would if it was only a matter of hours or days? Moving quickly on a request works to your benefit because the agent, presumably, is still excited to read it.

That being said, and luckily for all of you, there is no statute of limitations on agent requests. You are allowed to submit requested material whenever you feel it’s ready. In fact, just recently I received a proposal I had requested, not kidding, two years ago.

The problem that author faced and the problem many of you face if waiting too long to send out the requested material is that the magical window called timing had closed. When I requested the proposal that took two years to create I was looking for a different kind of book and publishers were looking for a different kind of book. At the time of the original query the proposal fit those guidelines. By the time it landed on my desk, however, the holes for that kind of book had been filled. The books that publishers were looking for had been bought and published and we had all moved on to something new and fresh. Does that mean the author with the two-year-old proposal or the authors asking the question shouldn’t send their work, no matter when it’s finished? No. I think that if you have a request you should use it. It’s sort of like having a gift certificate that doesn’t expire. Use it, whenever you feel ready. Just be aware of the fact that the market may have changed in that time and the book may no longer be as viable as it was a year or two ago.


Monday, March 16, 2009

An Economic Effect

I know that both Nathan Bransford and I have mentioned that 2009 must be the Year of the Query. It’s unbelievable how many more queries we’re both seeing this year, and I can’t imagine we’re alone in the situation. I hadn’t thought too much about it, figuring it’s just the beginning of the year influx, until I started talking to an editor over lunch. I’m not even sure how it even came up, but this editor casually mentioned that she is, for some reason, receiving more submissions than ever before. She has actually had to alter her schedule to get up earlier in the morning just to stay on top of the piles.

And that’s when it hit me, really hit me, it’s the economy, stupid. Sure, I think there are a number of unpublished authors who are hoping that a quick advance check [hear me snorting with laughter here] might help tide them over until the stimulus package kicks in [fingers crossed], but I think the real scary truth is that a lot of these submissions are coming from published authors who have found themselves dumped by their publishers in an economic house-cleaning. What does that mean? That means that publishers are looking more carefully at the sales numbers of their authors and trying to determine how financially viable they still are. Some publishers are trimming lists (which means publishing fewer of one kind of book each month), while others are just cutting authors (which means not buying more books from them).

From the editor's perspective, she’s seeing a lot of submissions from authors (through agents) who are looking for a new house for their new ideas. From my perspective, I’m seeing submissions from published authors seeking new representation, unpublished authors seeking first-time representation, and everyone in between. How does that bode for all of you? Other than slowing response times it really shouldn’t matter. You are competing against all of these people anyway. If you’re not competing for an agent, you’re competing for an editor; if not an editor, a reader. So please be patient with all of the bogged-down agents and editors out there and continue to submit your best work, because despite the news above, houses are still buying, agents are still offering representation, and great books are still in demand.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Dealing with Requests

I got two questions recently that are very similar so I’m going to try to address them both in one post.

The first was from a nonfiction author who was approached by an editor at a reputable publishing house (and this is very, very common in the world of nonfiction) and asked to submit a book proposal. The author spent a great deal of time and energy creating a book proposal and now, only a short three weeks later, she’s nervously waiting for an answer. The question the author asks is whether she’s being impatient and what she should do next.

When it comes to selling to publishing houses certainly books can and are sold overnight all the time. However, it’s more typical for the process to take at least a couple of weeks, whether it’s requested, unsolicited, or coming from an agent. Why? Because like any major decision a company makes when purchasing (for lack of a better word) something, these things take time.

Typically the editor is not the only one reading the proposal. The project will need to go through the process of being read and evaluated by a number of people, including other editors, sales and marketing. In the meantime, however, my suggestion to this author is get that proposal out to agents. The best thing you can do for yourself is open up to as many opportunities as possible and be prepared when the offer does come in. In your query letter, let agents know of the interest you have and send out the proposal to as many prospective agents as possible. If the house does offer, you are ready with a strong negotiator on your side. If not, you have someone who can immediately get that book out to other houses on your behalf.

The second question came from an author who had interest from an agent. To make a long story short, she had met an agent at a conference and sent her material on an exclusive basis. The exclusive was not requested, and being new to the business she had offered it of her own volition. Eventually (about six weeks after submission) the agent did get back to her. He said he wouldn’t be offering representation, but had suggestions for revisions. After completing the revisions she sent it back and gave him a two-week exclusive. Very, very kind of her. Two weeks are up, so now what? Now what is to get that book out to other agents. There’s no harm in that. You obviously have a lot of respect for this agent and rightfully appreciate the help he’s given you, which is why there’s no harm in querying others. If you do get another offer, you can let him know and he still has the opportunity to offer himself. If he does and you know that you will work well together, you can sign with him. If not, you’re moving forward on obtaining representation.

What this author fears is that she screwed up by only giving him two weeks this time and he’ll be offended. Ridiculous. Agents just aren’t that sensitive. Okay, maybe some are, but if they are that’s just ludicrous. In all likelihood he’s been bogged down with client work or other things and hasn’t even had time to get to submissions.

What both of these authors are doing is fabulous and neither has made any mistakes. My advice is to continue being proactive and be careful not to just sit around and wait.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Selling Yourself

What would you do if you found out this is the query your agent was sending out to editors?

Dear Editor:

I know how incredibly busy you are so thank you so much for taking the time to read this query. I’ll try to make it as short as possible because I know you get hundreds of submissions each day from agents who are more important than I am. I have an author that you might want to read. She doesn’t have much experience and she’s pretty young, only about 22, but she’s written a book that I think will probably appeal to your tastes, well it might anyway. Now the market is tough, I realize that, and publishing houses are cutting back on buying books but I still hope you’ll want to at least look at this and tell me what you think.

Well, if you aren’t appalled, you should be. Besides the fact that it’s just bad writing, you would never expect or ask your agent to do anything less than send out a stellar query announcing to the world that she’s just taken on an author that everyone must read, everyone wants to read, and everyone will seriously miss the boat on if they don’t read. So why is it that authors, when touting their own work, so frequently send out queries that sound more like the example above?

Day in and day out I receive queries that are self-deprecating and, frankly, disadvantageous.

DO NOT start your query by reminding me how busy I am or groveling for my attention (thank you so much for taking the time out of your very busy day. I’ll keep this short since I know how much work you have to do.) Remember, I am privileged to read your query. Honored that you are submitting to me and excited to find another great author to add to my list.

DO NOT share your age as if it’s a negative. I don’t care how old you are. I don’t care if you’re 15, 22, 44, or 88. Age is relative. If I’m 90 and get a submission from a 50-year-old I might think, “Wow, she’s only 50.” If I’m 40 and get a query from a 22-year-old, I might think, “Wow, she’s only 22.” Who cares? Did you write a good book that I can sell and people will be excited about? That’s all I care about.

DO NOT remind me that the economy stinks and it’s hard to sell books. It’s always hard to sell books. Let me be wowed and excited by yours and blinded by its brilliance.

If you really do need to tell me something that you don’t have, for example, you want to say you don’t have any writing credits, bury it at the bottom of your letter (never, ever start with the negative) and round it out with the positive. Say something like, “While I don’t yet have any writing credits to my name I am a member of RWA, etc.” Doesn’t that sound a lot better than starting your letter with, “I’m an unpublished author who can’t get anyone to read my query. I know you’re busy, so thank you for taking the time to acknowledge me”?

Selling is all about wowing the customer with what you have that no one else has. That doesn’t mean I need a huge list of how fantastic you and your book are; what it means is that I want to be wowed by the book itself and the blurb you’ve written.

And since I’ve decided that 2009 is the year of no excuses, there are no excuses. DO NOT start commenting about how hard it is to sell yourself. What I say about that is waaa, waaa. It’s hard to sell anything, but if you truly believe that you are ready to be published and your book is something agents and editors want to read, then show it. If you don’t think it’s ready or that you’re old enough to be a published author or that I’m too busy to take on new clients or even read queries, then you shouldn’t be submitting in the first place.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Interviewing an Editor

Would it be unheard of for an author to request a writing sample from an editor, so that they could gain a better understanding as to who they are, personally? I know you could reference other books they have edited (to see their editing style), but if you were concerned they might not be sensitive to the material and wanted a glimpse into their "artistic voice," would it be unreasonable to request something they had written (magazine article, short story, etc.)? On a similar note, what are the strangest requests you've known an author to make before they begin working with an editor?

I have to admit, this is the strangest request I’ve ever had from an author, and I’m not sure how you would go about doing this because, for one thing, by asking this question you are assuming that all editors write. The timing on this question is actually quite interesting, because just the other day I was having lunch with an editor and we were talking about a colleague who had left the business to become a writer. As part of the conversation we were talking about the incorrect assumption that a lot of writers make that all agents and editors are frustrated writers. This particular editor found that laughable since she said she had absolutely no desire to be a writer. What she really loved doing was editing.

The other assumption you’re making is that if the editor does write, the voice she writes in has anything to do with her editing, and I can’t imagine that’s the case. Good editors know and understand that each writer has her own unique voice, and falling in love with that voice was the first step to falling in love with the book. Editing does not involve or should not involve editing an author’s voice. Editing means helping the author create the best book possible by enhancing and building upon what’s already there.

I’m not sure there’s any way to really find out what an editor does to a book, especially since a good editor won’t leave a mark. Sure, you can read the books the editor has edited, but all that does is show the final product, and you can never be sure what exactly the editor did to make that happen. The best thing you can do is talk to other authors who have worked with the editor you’re talking about, but even then you’re getting personal opinions and experiences, and so much more plays into that than just editing.

Frankly, the only time I’ve ever had authors really debate one editor over the other is in an auction situation where all things are equal—the money is the same, etc. In that case we will have in-depth talks about my experiences as well as the experiences of other authors at the house as well as with the editor. I’ll also set up phone conversations between the author and the editor so the author can get a personal feeling from the editor about her vision for the author’s career and her book, because in all honesty, this is the best way to find out what an editor might do for you.

It’s very rare that an author has the opportunity to interview and choose the editor she’ll work with, and even if she does, editors quit and move jobs all the time. I can’t even begin to count the number of authors I have who have lost an editor and been reassigned someone new. This is one reason I stress finding the right agent so strongly. With the right agent you know you can choose the person you want and need on your team, and if editing is an issue or concern, then hopefully you’ve chosen an agent who can help you through that part of the process as well.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nonfiction Query Sample

Regular blog readers probably remember the queries I posted in January (and if you missed them, check them out). Since they were all for fiction, one of my readers made a special request to include a nonfiction query, so here it is, a query by Cynthia Shapiro. Cynthia submitted this book to me in 2003 and I put her through hell. She would be the one to know for sure, but I think we went through something like 12 rounds of revisions on the proposal before I felt it was ready to send out. Ultimately, I thought Cynthia had the platform and a great idea, but needed a lot of extra oomph before publishers would think the same thing. In the end, it worked out well. We had multiple offers and ended up selling not only to St. Martin’s Press, but to a number of publishers throughout the world. Corporate Confidential is, in fact, a bestseller in Korea, and Cynthia’s follow-up title, What Does Somebody Have to Do to Get a Job Around Here? is a timely and valuable resource for today’s tough job market. So, to give you insight on what catches an agent’s eye in nonfiction, here’s the letter that launched Cynthia’s career.

September 24, 2003

Ms. Jessica Faust
Bookends, LLC
136 Long Hill Road
Gillette, New Jersey 07933

Ms. Faust,

My name is Cynthia Shapiro. I am a Human Resources and Career Strategy Consultant on the West Coast. My insider approach to career advice has been published in 44 newspapers including the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and Newsday NY. My most recent interview for publication will be in an upcoming issue of Entrepreneur magazine.

Every day I field questions from frustrated and confused employees. I’ve seen too many with promising futures accidentally derail their hard-earned careers with easily avoidable mistakes. I know firsthand there is a better way to succeed and I feel passionately about sharing this information.

A few years ago, I realized the only way to help employees was to step out of the “corporate spin” and give them the truth companies can’t tell them. This insight forced me to make a difficult decision. I chose to leave my comfortable Vice President of Human Resources position, and “blow the whistle” on Corporate America.

I could no longer tolerate the duplicity of internal HR: appearing to be an employee advocate while protecting the company from the very same employees! Rather than helping people, I was required to withhold information from them that could have made a real difference in their career. I could not continue to practice a role I had begun to question. I chose to make a positive difference by giving working people the information they need.

I’ve put my future career and earnings on the line to deliver this powerful message. After almost five years of research, direct employee contact and executive level interviews, this message is now a 75,000-word manuscript titled: All the Right Moves.

A career advice book like no other, All the Right Moves reveals some of the most closely guarded corporate secrets affecting workers' careers today. For the first time, the questions employees ask over and over, without getting a straight answer, are revealed – openly and honestly.

This book raises the bar for career guides and simply leaps over the “skills approach” other books preach. It’s like having your own personal employee advocate, telling you exactly the right moves to make at the right time, to achieve the greatest possible results. This timely gem of a book will change the way people behave at work by providing a clear track to recognition, advancement, higher pay, and greater job security.

I have included the proposal for All the Right Moves, and will be happy to send sample chapters at your request.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to working with you on this exciting and provocative project.


Cynthia Shapiro, PHR
Phone number

Nonfiction is an interesting genre to critique since so much depends not on the blurb but on the author’s platform. In this case, Cynthia caught my attention immediately by using her platform right off the bat. I would caution her not to start the letter with “my name is,” but in the end those little things don’t matter if the bigger things are there. What I want to point out here is that platform and credentials are two very different things. Cynthia tells me what her credentials are, which is that she’s a human resources consultant, but her platform is that she’s been published in over 44 newspapers. That’s huge.

Cynthia’s second paragraph, which I know many of you will be happy to point out, is not the best written paragraph I’ve ever read. However, it has great energy and immediately sparks my interest. My thought is what are these mistakes and how scary it is that they are ruining entire careers. I also love in the paragraphs that follow that she identifies herself as a whistle-blower and, once again, it’s her voice and energy that really grab me. I think she could have made it easier on herself, and simpler to read, by combining paragraphs three and four. However, nonfiction writers are not necessarily “writers,” and editors and I know that. These are mistakes of finesse (and some grammar) that can be easily remedied. At this point, I’m not worried.

While I don’t mind the paragraph about putting her future career and earnings on hold, I would advise against including something like that. Agents hear all too frequently from authors with an overly inflated sense of what publishing one book can do for them (pay off a house or make them rich), and a sentence like this can scream overconfidence. Instead I think Cynthia would have been safe to simply delete that sentence and start with her years of research. She could then combine this with the paragraph that follows and give us insight into what the book is really about and how her previous paragraphs connect with the book.

I would also skip “a career book like no other,” because my response is that it better be. I don’t want to waste my time on any book that sounds like all the other books.

The rest is great.


Monday, March 09, 2009

Rejections We Can't Stop Talking About

You hear stories all the time of authors who can’t take no for an answer and insist on responding to rejection letters in an angry manner. Well, we’ve had more than our fair share of these letters and some of them are just downright hysterical. So, to lighten the mood today I thought I’d share some of our funnier moments in rejection history.

The Author who became incensed that I would call her work spam. As I’ve frequently reminded you, no matter what we do, queries will end up in our mail server’s spam folder and, as most of you probably know, that means the server marks the subject line with the word “spam.” In this case I fished the letter out, read it, and responded (obviously with a rejection). Well, the author was hurt and angry that I would accuse her of spamming, reminding me that she was a struggling writer who wrote better books than most of the “debris that litters bookshelves.” Reminder to writers: you never charm agents by calling everything else being published trash. The real irony is that the author’s irate response also ended up in the spam filter, so when I responded again to explain the misunderstanding it was marked as “[spam] [spam].” I hope I didn’t hurt her feeling twice.

In response to a query for a YA (young adult) novel, I replied that I’m not taking on any new YA or middle-grade novels at this time. Unfortunately, the author had obviously not done market research or understood that middle-grade is actually a category in the book publishing world (it’s for middle-grade readers) and, once again, was offended. In this case I received an irate email accusing me of calling her work "middle grade" (I guess mid-level) and suggesting that in the future I try to temper my wording. This is still one of my all-time favorite replies because it never once dawned on me that someone would take offense at the fact that I’m not looking for middle-grade books and frankly, no matter how you define the term, I’m really not. Once again I tried to kindly explain my wording, and of course I hope in the future this author has a better understanding of the market she is targeting.

I often try to remind authors in my rejection letters that publishing is a subjective business and hopefully they’ll find another agent who feels differently than I do (not the exact wording). Now, the truth about this is that I’ve struggled with that phrasing over the years and changed it a number of times because I just wasn’t always happy with it. Well, apparently I was right to be concerned. One author, not reading carefully, assumed that I was telling her to forget submitting to anyone else because there wouldn’t be anyone else who would be interested in her book. Again I attempted to explain myself.

Funny thing, while the authors were all quite quick on the draw to point out my flaws, none seemed as inclined to thank me for my explanation.


Friday, March 06, 2009

Publishing Advice

Like many of you, I have a number of social network profiles. Amazing how much time we could spend in those places, isn’t it? While I don’t go to them daily, I do try to check in regularly and keep my contacts up. On my linkedin profile, for example, I try to check in on the Writing and Editing Question and Answer Boards and answer any questions people might have on publishing, how to get published, and the publishing process. And I can’t even begin to tell you how frustrating it can be.

You all feel that the publishing process is mind-boggling, confusing, and frustrating, and in many ways it is, but I’m here to tell you that you are already miles, years, heck light-years ahead of many other people when it comes to getting published. Why? Because you read this blog, and because you read this blog, I assume you read other blogs, belong to writing groups or organizations, or just generally have some idea of what publishing means. Let’s face it, I live in a publishing bubble. This is my life, so it surprises me at times what people don’t know. It’s actually not the questions I worry about. Questions are fine. In fact, questions are great and heck, we all have to start somewhere. We all, at some point, had no idea what the first step was to get published. All we had was an idea, and to learn we have to ask. It’s the answers that kill me and, obviously, make me a little angry. No wonder you are all so confused and frustrated. Ugh!!

For example, in a recent question I answered the person asked, quite simply, how to get published. There was no mention of fiction or nonfiction and he wanted to know additionally if he needed a literary agent. If I were in a room with the people giving the answers, I swear my face would be beet red and I’d be yelling. The answers were astounding and horrifying and frankly, I really hope this isn’t the only place this writer goes for his answers.

I read that you should only consider self-publishing because all publishers are going out of business and no one is buying books. I read that waiting for an agent is ridiculous and that getting a publisher is a waste of time because by the time they’re done with the book it doesn’t resemble what you wrote anyway. I read that since War and Peace was self-published you should definitely consider that route. I read that a publisher takes your copyright and I read that publishers won’t allow you to include contact information in your book so that readers wanting to reach you need to go through the publisher.

Huh?! While there was some good advice there (in the answers, not in my examples) and of course I added my fifty cents, I worry which advice the author will really follow and I worry how frequently people identify themselves as experts and yet don’t know anything about publishing.

So just when you think you know nothing about this business, I think you can happily pat yourself on the back and remind yourself how far you’ve come. You know where to go for great information and you know what a literary agent can do for you and hopefully you know that the publishing process that War and Peace went through does not translate to today’s market.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Breaking Protocol

My question is this: say there's a real swanky high powered agent who doesn't accept queries (Binky Urban or the like), however you've actually got something that fits with his/her interests. Say also it's backed with the endorsement of someone equally high powered from the artist's end, someone along the lines of a Cormac McCarthy. What would be the protocol of just sending a note about the situation versus a full fledged query? The easy answer, but not always applicable, might be just have the super-author give the agent a heads up. But in reality, an author like that can't really be expected to run administrative errands for an unknown, especially if they already did you the enormous favor of reading the manuscript in question. So, what do you think: totally out of bounds, a small but potentially fruitful risk, or no big deal--go for it?

My answer to this is seemingly simple, and that’s go for it. I’m a big fan of breaking the rules within reason because you truly never know until you try. That being said, I do have some tips and some insider thoughts on the entire subject of querying when an agent clearly states she doesn’t take queries.

1. Send a query, not a short note simply asking if you can approach. If you plan on querying then you need to go all-out and query. If you’re going to take up an agent’s time sending correspondence she doesn’t want in the first place, then make sure you don’t take up more of her time by making it two emails or letters instead of one. So write up the best dang query you can, including all of the information you want to include, and get it in the mail.

2. Don’t expect an answer. Many agents these days will only respond if interested. If you plan on querying any agent, big or small, who says they aren’t accepting queries, then you shouldn’t expect any answer at all and, frankly, have no right to get upset when you don’t get one. Let’s face it, I might be telling you to go for it, but the truth is that you might just be simply irritating someone.

3. Be aware of what agents see every day. Congratulations on receiving an impressive endorsement and I certainly don’t want to take any of the joy of that away from you. However, agents see impressive endorsements in query letters on a daily basis. What wows us isn’t an endorsement, but the work itself. What might get us to read it faster is if one of our clients calls and specifically recommends a writer. An endorsement, while great, isn’t uncommon.

4. Don’t get caught up on the hype. There are hundreds of amazing agents out there selling big-name and small-name authors. Certain agents have made names for themselves in the author community, while others, repping equally big names, have been able to stay relatively anonymous. Don’t search for an agent you want everyone to know you have; instead, make sure you find the agent that works the best for you and your work.

5. Good luck and query widely.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

And You Think Agents Are Slow

If you’ve ever read Editorial Ass, you know the key to getting an editor to read your work is to check in. Editorial Ass has admitted numerous times on her blog that she rarely reads anything unless an agent calls to give her a nudge. Which is why I spend so much time calling and emailing editors just to kindly nudge.

However, no manner of nudging will help get through to those editors who have been unfortunate enough to be assigned offices in a black hole. It’s a freak of nature, I tell you. Each and every publisher has one, an office that somehow sucks things in, never to spit them out again. No matter how frequently you call or how many henchmen you send, that submission will just not be responded to.

As an editor I was also very familiar with those offices and remember cleaning them out on occasion. The unwritten rule at those times was that if a submission was more than two years old it was simply recycled.

Well, just the other day I was in the fortunate situation to have something come flying out of one of those black holes. Luckily for me, I ducked before it whacked me in the head. A submission I had sent out three years and nine months ago appeared. The editor informed me they were passing.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Reading Outside of What I Represent

A question came to me recently asking why I might enjoy reading a particular genre, like, for example, memoirs, but have no interest in representing it, or at least don’t list it as a genre I represent? The reader also wanted more clarification on why I wouldn’t want to represent all the genres I enjoy reading.

Like many readers I vary my tastes regularly. For example, just off the top of my head, recent reads include Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Dark Lover by JR Ward, Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas, Every Which Way But Dead by Kim Harrison, and What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. Some of these I loved instantly and others I didn’t care for, but finished so I could get a feel for what readers were talking about. In all cases I could see why readers were attracted to the book whether I felt the same level of affection for it or not.

While I took pleasure in reading all of the books, I’m not necessarily drawn to all of the genres in the same way I am to those genres I represent. Nothing makes me happier than commercial fiction. I never tire of sitting down to read romances, mysteries, women’s fiction, thrillers, and fantasy. Memoirs and literary works, however, take more effort for me. They are not, for lack of better phrasing, necessarily in my comfort zone. They don’t come naturally to me.

So while I read a variety of books in all genres and enjoy them all (some of my favorite books and writers are actually memoirists) I don’t necessarily have a love of the genre in the same way I do with those genres I represent. I also think that as an agent I have to specialize in some way. I can’t try to represent everything and be successful at it. I need to find those things I have a special affinity for and that I can do the best work with.

Luckily for all of us, age, life experiences, and life in general can alter the way we read and the way we work, and what’s really great about my job is that because I represent one thing now it doesn’t mean I can’t represent another later. I’m always on the lookout for something new and exciting and will never rule out the possibility that someday the perfect memoir or literary work will grab my attention and I’ll know that I’m the right agent for it. But for now I need to focus on what I feel I can do best for my authors, and I do commercial fiction really well.


Monday, March 02, 2009

Quotes on Books

If you’re a published author you know how important it is or how much stress some publishers place on getting quotes for your book. For those who aren’t published, this means using the network you’ve created through writing groups, conferences, and other events to humbly approach bestselling authors and ask if they’ll read your manuscript (because you have a publishing contract in hand) for a quote to be put on the cover of your book. It could also mean asking your agent to send your book to authors within her network and hoping your editor does the same, but frankly, I think quote requests are better coming from the author.

When I was a young editor I was confounded by the idea of quotes. I never understood why they mattered so much or who would care. As I reader I never cared who said what on the cover of a book, and certainly I didn’t understand why anyone else would. But times have changed and after 15 years in the business I get it. The lightbulb moment for me was when I actually bought a book based on a quote. I was perusing the bookshelves when I saw a debut title with a quote from an author I had just read and really enjoyed. I snapped it up. I figured that if Author X liked the book I might too. And guess what? I did. Since then, quotes have actually worked both ways for me. When finishing a book I really like I will sometimes look to see who quoted on it and buy that person’s book as well.

Which is why I always remind my authors, when giving quotes, to only give them to authors you really believe in, and why editors and agents, when seeking quotes for our books, look for authors who write in a style similar to the book we’re looking for a quote on.

But what about you? As a reader, has a quote ever made a difference in your buying decision? And for all authors, are you building your network for those future quotes?