Thursday, April 30, 2009

(Accidental) Networking for Writers

Bella Andre
Wild Heat
Publisher: Dell
Pub date: April 2009
Agent: Jessica Faust

(Click to Buy)

Bella's Web site:

As an econ major in college and then a dot-com marketing director years later, I knew all about professional networking. The whole concept reeked of slimy, smarmy, sucking up. How on earth, I often wondered, could anybody go out and network with a straight face?

Five years ago, when I started writing fiction, networking was the furthest thing from my mind. All I knew was that I'd always loved reading romance and it was a lovely surprise to realize that I loved writing it too! Jessica recently did a post about going to a writer's conference and having the time of her life chatting with other agents and writers and editors about the business. I feel exactly the same way and because, right from the start, I couldn't get enough of talking about writing and publishing and brainstorming, I joined two local RWA chapters and went to conferences and loved every second that I was surrounded by other writers.

In the past five years, several of the women I met at these early meetings have become some of my closest friends. We have a scheduled lunch once a month and several of us talk on the phone or email pretty much every single day. Lunches are social plus brainstorming plus career counseling plus emotional counseling plus laughing like crazy. These women have been there with me to celebrate my career highs and to listen to me cry and then give me a kick in the butt after the lows. They've heeded the call of needing a title within the next thirty minutes, of helping me work through what my next scene should be (or why the current scene isn't working), of doing crucial eleventh-hour read-throughs, and of helping me ask a big-name writer for a cover quote.

Just for fun, I made a list of a dozen of my writing friends and broke us down by type of book and house. Between the twelve of us, we write romantic suspense, women's fiction, historical mysteries, YA, thrillers, time travel, Scottish historicals, regency historicals, contemporary erotic, Christian YA, mysteries, and straight contemporaries. We write for Pocket, Kensington, Berkeley, Ballantine, BantamDell, Avon, Harlequin, Grand Central, and Wild Rose Press. Some of us have been writing for five years. Others for twenty-five. Wow, just reading this list is getting me all excited! What a thrill it is to hang out with these women. That's a hell of a lot of knowledge.

Some might even call it networking.

And you know what? I finally get it. I've finally seen the light. Networking isn't about dragging yourself to a painfully boring dinner or lunch or speech or conference and forcing yourself to shake hands with everyone to try to get ahead. It's about finding something you love and being unable to stop yourself from talking about it.

In Wild Heat, the first book in Bella Andre's Hotshots: Men of Fire series, Logan Cain is a firefighter addicted to risk. Maya Jackson is the sultry beauty he never saw coming, targeting him as her number-one suspect in a string of deadly wildfires. But when Maya's life is threatened, Logan vows to protect the woman sworn to bring him down. And as desire ignites, nothing—not the killer fire or the killer hot on their trail—can douse the flames. . . . Allison Brennan called it "a breathtaking, terrific, hot, hot, hot romantic suspense." Brenda Novak said, "WILD HEAT has one sexy firefighter—and a love that burns up the pages." And according to Catherine Coulter the book is "a roller coaster ride. Don't miss it."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Teenage or Child Writers

I’ve talked before about how unimportant age should be when querying agents and how I feel there’s no need ever to tell an agent how old you are because, whether young or old, ageism does exist and I see no need to make things harder than they already are.

However, I recently received a question from a teenage writer asking if I have any advice for teenagers hoping to break into publishing and compete against adult writers, and it got me thinking on a number of conversations I’ve had about children or teens who’ve written great books and now are seeking publication. My first bit of advice for any teen or child wishing to get published or any parent who is thinking their child has a brilliant book that should be published is to really understand the business first. I suppose in reality it’s not much different than child stars or child talent competitions, but the truth is that you are entering the adult world and as we all know, publishing is not necessarily a kind business. Sure, you might be able to stomach the rejections and deal with the difficulties of agents, but if your book is picked up are you ready to face reviewers and whatever it is they have to say, sales and/or the lack thereof? Are you willing to accept that getting published is easy compared to maintaining a career, and are you really ready to start a career at the age of 10, 12, 15, or even 17? Are you ready to deal with adults who will edit and revise your book, ask you questions about sales and marketing and generally be treating you like an adult author.

The teen who asked the question wanted to know if I could give any advice on how to compete against adult writers, and I think that whether you’re a teen or an adult the answer is always going to be the same. As a writer, as an author seeking publication, you’re going to be required to write an amazing book, you’re going to need to understand, at least on some level, the mechanics of writing, you’re going to need to do some publicity and marketing and you’re going to need to be working on your next book. No matter what, though, the most important thing is that your book is amazing and that your next book is even better.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sally MacKenzie: Some Thoughts on Choosing an Agent

Sally MacKenzie
The Naked Baron
Publisher: Kensington Zebra
Pub date: April 2009
Agent: Jessica Faust

(Click to Buy)

The recent agentfail discussion got me thinking about agents in general and my relationship with Jessica in particular.

In a perfect world, I suppose I’d have had an agent when I made my first sale, but things didn’t work out that way. When I signed with Jessica, I had my second two-book contract on the table—and in some ways this was a good thing. I wasn’t focused on selling, but on finding a person to help me manage my career, and I’d spent a year working with a New York publisher and observing with keen interest—since I knew I would need an agent soon—how my newly and not so newly published pals interacted with their agents.

I was surprised at how many writers seemed to be afraid of their agents—almost as if they were fifth-graders again and their agent was their English teacher. They didn’t want to bother their agent with “dumb” questions or take up their agent’s time or follow up when they didn’t get a response to something. Many were unhappy, but didn’t discuss their problems with their agent. Some wanted to move on, but couldn’t bring themselves to terminate the relationship. They hoped things would get better. Or they were afraid to be without an agent, even though their agent had become an anchor to their career and their spirit. Those who finally did fire their agent usually wished they’d done so much earlier.

I knew I did not want an agent I’d be afraid of, but what did I want? Did I want an agent who read my work and gave me editorial feedback or one who considered her job only to sell? Was it important to me to be with a Big Name Agency? Would I mind being a small fish in a big pond? Would I care if I didn’t work with my Big Name Agent but with her assistant instead? How did I want to communicate with my agent—snail mail, phone, email—and how quickly did I want to hear back from her? Was she based in New York City—and did I think her location was at all important? Did I care if my agent was male or female?

It was also important to me to meet—or at least observe—the agent in person, to see what “vibe” I got, what my gut told me. I eliminated one agent because I knew her voice would drive me crazy. Another had a limp handshake. Still another didn’t make eye contact. All these agents are well respected, wonderful agents, but I didn’t think they would be wonderful for me.

During this time I didn’t actually query any agents. I didn’t yet know what I wanted, and I was still working on the second book of my first contract, so I didn’t have anything to sell—though I was beginning to realize I could definitely use an agent’s help deciphering the publishing business. And then the day came when my editor called with this offer of a second contract, and the agent issue suddenly moved from the back burner to boiling over on the front of the stove.

I knew there must be many, many good agents out there in publishing-land, but I wasn’t going to be able to meet each of them in the week or two my editor had given me to decide on her offer. And I was getting the glimmer of a clue that there was probably no one perfect agent for me, but a number of agents with whom I could work.

I’d recently had an interview with Jessica. I’d liked her. She had a firm handshake and a pleasant voice and seemed very smart. I checked the writer grapevine and heard good things, so I called her, reminded her who I was, explained my situation, and asked if she’d like to read some of my work to see if she might be interested in representing me. She went out and got my published book, and I sent her my next manuscript so she could see where I was going. It was really important to me that she got my writing—and, happily, it was important to her, too. I asked her for the names of a couple of her clients, and I called or emailed them to see what they had to say about her and the way she worked. It was all good, and Jessica offered to represent me. Now I had to make the decision.

Jumping into an agent relationship blindly or in desperation is not a good idea. Not only it is hard emotionally to break off the agent-writer relationship—or at least it seems to be difficult for many writers I’ve talked to—but you’ll have a legal and financial relationship with this person for as long as the books she represented stay in print. Yet even making a considered decision is nerve-wracking. No matter how carefully you do your homework, when you finally chose an agent it’s still a leap of faith. You can’t know for certain you’ll be a good team until you’ve worked together.

I took that leap when I signed with Jessica in July 2005, and I’m delighted to report I’m even happier with my decision today.

USA Today bestselling author Sally MacKenzie writes funny, hot Regency-set historicals for Kensington’s Zebra line, and her books have been translated into Czech, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian. Her fifth book, The Naked Baron, arrives on bookstore shelves April 28 and is a Romantic Times BOOKreviews Top Pick for May, with the baron himself receiving a K.I.S.S. award. A native of Washington, D. C., she still lives in suburban Maryland with her husband and whichever of her four sons are stopping back in the nest. To find out more about Sally and her books, visit her website at

Monday, April 27, 2009

Grammar in Books

This was such a great question and so different from what I usually get that, obviously, I was excited . . .

About the post on typos and errors after publication: you say the author is responsible for handing in a MS that is polished and ready to publish, and the editors are responsible for cleaning up typos, grammar, and a few other things.

What if you're Canadian and you've used all the spellings you're used to in your book, like colour, centre, and cheque. If the publisher you end up with is US-ian, will the editors change all those spellings thinking they're incorrect? I like my Canadian spellings, especially when my stories take place in Canada.

Also, I've read many recently published books that use myself/yourself/ourselves incorrectly in the place of I/me/you/our etc. All the grammar books I've checked agree on this rule, so I'm always wondering why book editors aren't catching the mistake. If they're checking grammar, shouldn't they be really awesome at grammar? I know you're not an editor at a publishing house, but I'm wondering if you have an idea about this?

Does the author get to see what corrections the editors have made before the book goes to print?

Before I answer the real question let me clarify a few things. The editorial process is complicated and involves a number of people with a number of levels of expertise. I go into more detail on exactly what you can expect and what your role is in the process in this post. I also want to clarify that I did spend more than five years as an editor in major publishing houses so my answer to this question does come from experience.

If you’re Canadian, or any non-American English speaker/writer, feel free to use the spellings you’re most comfortable with when submitting your book to agents. I suspect most of us will know where you’re coming from and not assume that you can’t spell (although I do suspect that an agent or two will disagree with me on this and suggest you use American spellings). However, what a publisher does with the grammar and spellings in a book is almost entirely up to the publisher. In fact, there is typically a clause in the contract that states that the publisher will edit the book to conform to that publisher’s style and I believe most use Chicago Manual of Style. That being said, you certainly get a say in how the final product looks. If, for example, you would rather have your book maintain the Canadian spellings that’s something you should talk over with your editor early on in the process. She may have her own reasons for saying no (often based on marketing and sales), but the conversation is worth having.

As for the errors you often see in books, you’ll definitely have the ability to “stet” these if they are made by the copyeditor. In some cases (the ones you site, for example) it might be the author’s choice to write that way, even if the copyeditor changes them. Either way, you do see the editing at every stage in the process so you will know how the final product looks before anyone else sees it.

One suggestion for those who have specific grammar/style opinions, for example those who write a series or paranormal, don’t be afraid to send along a style sheet of your own. For example, do you have a new species with a specific spelling? A style sheet will help editors know what you intend so they can help keep it consistent throughout, and it will probably save you a lot of stetting later on.


Friday, April 24, 2009

How Long to Query

I know I’ve answered this before, but it’s a question that comes up again and again and it’s something I frequently think about. At one of my recent conferences a discussion came up about how authors should query and for how long. When should they quit? I made the suggestion that authors should never even start querying until they finish their first book and have started on the second. At that point, continue querying until the second book is done and ready to go, if you still have no bites, put the first book under the bed and start querying the second while writing the third.

Tough advice, I know, but after much thought another agent did admit that he agreed with my plan. So let me explain.

Hands down one of the biggest mistakes I see authors making is spending all their time and energy revising, rewriting and reworking that first book. I know from experience that over time you can do more damage than good with all of that revising. Most important, the goal is to move forward, and I fear that by not working on that second book you are instead spinning your wheels.

In addition, by working on that second book you are back to doing what you love and that’s writing. So when the querying starts to get you down you can go back to something you enjoy and learn and grow through that next book. Since I have no answer for how many agents to query, the best answer I can give about when to quit is when that next book is ready to go out. It gives you a goal and a clear indication of what’s next.

There are of course still things you should be working on with that first book. The query, for example. If you’re not getting any bites, you’ll want to rework your query, and if you get revision suggestions from an agent, suggestions you strongly believe in, you should definitely go back and make the changes. Otherwise, let it be. Take all of your newfound writing knowledge and focus it on your next work. Trust me, I think you’ll benefit more from that than you will working on the same book.

Certainly this is not a perfect plan, but for those of you who need to know when or how long, I think it’s a plan that makes sense. More important, I hope it’s a plan that keeps you writing because in the end the best path to a publishing career is just to keep on writing.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Query Letters

I’ve been thinking a lot about query letters lately. I’ve been talking about them in my class at NYU, at conferences and of course on the blog, and you know what I’ve decided? I’ve decided that if you can’t get at least one request (because you’ve researched the agents you’re submitting to) out of every 20 to 25 queries you send, you need to stop, sit back and reevaluate.

Let’s cut off the excuses now (this is the year of no excuses if you remember), you can whine and complain all you want about how hard a query is to write and how you are not a salesperson, or you can decide that you’re a writer and as a writer your job is to learn and grow and that might mean learning how to really sell your book. Do you love your book? Do you feel passion for it? Do you know that you have an amazing idea that should sell? Well then, you need to learn how to convey that because it doesn’t end with the query. How do you think you’re going to pitch or sell your book to readers if you can’t even sell it to agents? Because I’ll tell you right now, readers make agents look easy.

In this year of no excuses I’m going to give you only two reasons why your query is being rejected. You can choose to listen or you can complain. That’s up to you.

Reason #1: Your query is weak. Listen carefully, because here we go, every single book, no matter how crappy or how brilliant, should get a request from your query because here’s the deal, if you can write a 400 page book you can learn to sell that book in one paragraph. Newsflash for you, querying doesn’t always come naturally to agents either, it’s something we’ve been required to learn because we want editors to at least read the material we have. Do you want agents to read your book? Learn to write a query. And sure, we could all request you send along five pages or so, but if we don’t have the time to keep up with the queries, how are we going to find the time to add five pages to our piles. You can complain about the system or you can learn to beat it. You choose.

Right now, every single one of you, whether you’re querying or thinking of querying, needs to pull back and take a close look at your letter. Have you received any requests at all? If the answer is no then you need to stop querying, find a group of writers who have NOT read your book, start a query critique group and rewrite your letter. The best thing you can do is see if other writers are intrigued enough by your letter to ask to read more of your book. Be brutally honest with each other, make it a big group—50 or so people. The more you sit and feel like agents reading query after query, the tougher you’re going to be on yourselves and on each other, and the more successful you’ll all be.

I’m going to repeat this, there is no reason, absolutely no reason at all, that you shouldn’t be getting requests from your query. Unless . . .

Reason #2: Okay, maybe there is one other reason and this one is a much bigger issue and the one authors so frequently refuse to see, but the truth is that if you can’t tell your story in one paragraph or if you’ve written the strongest query you can possibly write and you still aren’t getting bites, the problem isn’t your query, it’s your book. You don’t have a book, at least not one that’s ready to query. Selling a book to agents, to editors and to readers is more than just good writing. You have to have a story that distinguishes itself from other stories. You have to have something that will convince readers that they need to spend their hard-earned cash on someone who is unproven (at least on their bookshelves), and at this point you’re unproven. Readers base buying decisions on little more than a query (except it’s called back-cover copy). When thinking about what distinguishes your book from others, do some research. Head out to the bookstore and make the decision to find a new book from an author you’ve never heard of in the genre you’re writing. What finally makes you pick up that book? Not what makes you buy it, because to do that you might have read some of the pages, but what makes you actually open the front cover and decide to read a little more? That’s an agent looking at your query.

Put the time and energy into your query because doing so will save you a lot of time and energy later on.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Complaints or Excuses?

I frequently hear authors complain about the reasons their work is getting rejected and how strict agent guidelines are, making it so much more difficult to get published. But are these really valid complaints or just excuses?

I hate when people use the wrong name on a query. I actually don’t mind misspellings so much and understand how easy it might be to get Foust from Faust (Faust is correct, by the way), but am a little irked by Jennifer (a pet peeve) or Dear Sirs. That being said, it’s never, ever been enough to reject a query. I still read the blurb, I understand that mistakes happen, and frankly, I’ve had my own clients mistakenly call me Jennifer. It happens.

I hate mass queries. There’s just something wrong about seeing 50+ names in the “to” section of my email header; that being said, I understand, respect and encourage multiple submissions and understand why sometimes Janet Reid’s name ends up on my query letter (or are you just taunting me?). I won’t reject you for that. I’ll still read the dang query. C’mon!

I hate when I request a submission via email and the author doesn’t bother to read the clearly posted submission guidelines on the web site. It’s irritating when I have to reformat the submission so I can easily send it to my Kindle to read it. I’ve requested the material, I’m clearly interested, I would be an idiot to not take a little bit of effort to read it.

I think that before querying, authors should make absolutely sure the agent they are querying accepts the type of book they are querying. It’s a huge waste of your time and mine to send me a children’s picture book and my suggestion that you do research is, yes, part of the rejection, but also a suggestion that you make yourself look professional. It’s obvious when your book is so outside of an agent’s expertise that you have no idea how publishing works and probably haven’t done proper research on what it takes to write a book.

Word count does matter. That being said, if the book really, really sounds amazing I will request no matter the word count; however, it’s more than an industry standard, it’s an editing issue. Ninety-nine percent of the time a 30,000 word book needs an edit and yes, we know this because we’ve seen a lot of them and 30,000 words is just not enough to fill a novel.

Here’s the deal, you can blame the agents and their stupid guidelines and policies or you can take a serious look at what you’re doing and see if something needs to be changed. “Why am I not grabbing an agent’s attention?” should probably be your first question and it would be a lot more productive than saying, “agents are a bunch of idiots with stupid guidelines meant to hold an author down.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, getting published and staying published is hard enough without making it harder on yourself.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

An Agent's Passion

Earlier this month I attended the Northern Colorado Writers Conference in Fort Collins, Colorado (and followed it up with some much-needed vacation). The conference immediately followed my post on Agentfail, so I was feeling a little bruised, battered and unsure if I had done the right thing. Obviously this post sticks with me since I can’t seem to let it go.

One of the things that struck me about this conference was how much agents really, truly love our jobs. The first night there, conference director Kerrie Flanagan took agents Jeffrey McGraw, Jon Sternfeld, and me out to dinner. I felt a little bad for Kerrie because immediately upon getting three agents together all we did was talk shop. We shared stories of how we handle submissions we love, how we handle those we’re on the fence over, and what we do when we think a submission needs too much work to offer representation on, but we love it anyway. We shared client horror stories and experiences on how to deal with difficult clients as well as discussed what makes a great client. We talked about publishing news and gossip, and we offered advice to each other. Good grief, we just talked and talked and talked shop. Dinner lasted an hour, but since we weren’t even close to done, we moved to an amazing chocolate cafĂ© for dessert. Poor Kerrie.

On Friday we had pitch appointments and I have to say, this was one of the best-prepared groups I had ever met with. Every single author I met with came in prepared to give a pitch and talk about themselves. More important, though, every author had a list of questions prepared in case the pitch ended early and there was time to just chat. Kudos to Kerrie, who revealed later that she had offered a three-hour pitch workshop. It really showed, she needs to take that workshop on the road. I heard some great pitches and was, hopefully, able to give some constructive advice. One author, at the suggestion of another agent at the conference, asked my advice on how to handle a difficult situation with her agent, while others wanted to know my thoughts on what genre they should be targeting or looking into (not based on trends, but based on the description of the story). I found that, throughout the conference, the writers were warm, engaging and intelligent. The questions they asked were great and the conversations were always lively.

Friday night after dinner, and I really have to shake my head, Jon Sternfeld and I dragged a group of writers into the bar where, yes, we could just talk and talk and talk some more about publishing. It’s a little embarrassing really and makes me wonder, do we just love to hear ourselves talk? I swear, if I get a captive audience (hello, blog readers) I can really talk forever about publishing. I love sharing my knowledge and experiences and I think most other agents do too. The truth is we want to see publishing success whether we’re part of the journey or not, and the more we can do to help authors along the way the happier we are. I remember sitting there and thinking how much fun Jon and I were having. We had never met before, but our common love of publishing created an instant connection. We were in our element. It was great!

I was asked during the cocktail party why I do conferences; the author wanted to know if it was for the pay. LOL. Newsflash, except in very, very, very rare instances, agents do not get paid to attend writer’s conferences. Typically hotel, conference fees, and airfare are covered, but we still need to somehow get to and from the airport, pay for meals that aren’t included and cover any other incidentals we might need (Internet access at the hotel, for example). I don’t do conferences expecting to sign new clients and I certainly don’t do them for money. I’m not going to pretend I’m a saint and attendance at conferences is completely altruistic. Sure, I never know who I will meet or what that will lead to, but primarily I speak at conferences because I love being surrounded by others who have a passion for books, who love to write and who really, truly want to learn more about publishing.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Don't Fail Yourself

I’ve been thinking a lot about my AgentFail post of a few weeks ago and the anger and frustration that went along with it. I’m glad I did the post. It was good to hear from authors about what really frustrates you. What I’m worried about, though, is that the frustration overshadowed the real stories of agents who fail. It seems to me that what most people complained about or what the biggest stress was eventually placed on was the response agents give to queries, whether it’s "no response means no" or a lack of response. And the truth is that while these are sound complaints, I’m not really sure these are the stories in which the agents really failed.

The stories that struck me, shocked me, horrified me, and made me actually groan were those of the agents who truly failed their clients. The stories of agents acting outright unprofessionally and stalling a client’s career. These are true stories of agents failing. The truth is, in some of these instances, the author failed as well.

In the cases where an agent sat on a manuscript for months and months, not giving feedback to the author and not submitting the work, the agent certainly failed, and in a big way. But what about the author? Why do you sit there for months and months and allow someone else to put your career on hold? Listen, I know how hard it is to get an agent and I know that once you do you just want to sit back and be able to relax. But this is your publishing career and no one, not one single person out there cares about it as much as you do, so the minute you start to feel that agent is failing you it’s time for you to step up and make sure you aren’t also failing yourself. Talk to the agent, prod her to get moving. If it doesn’t work, terminate that relationship and get moving again. A bad agent is worse than no agent at all.

In life, in your “real” jobs, in publishing there are always going to be people who fail you. There are going to be managers who pass you over for a well-deserved raise, significant others who treat you as less of a person, friends who take advantage of your kindness. We have a choice in life and in our publishing careers. We can choose how people treat us. The only person you can control is you. If others fail you, get angry, but don’t fail yourself.


Friday, April 17, 2009


Very frequently things happen at the office that keep us talking and laughing for weeks to come, so to spread the wealth I thought I’d share a few with you.

I rarely say that there’s anything in a query letter that is an automatic, instant rejection, because truthfully you just never know. However, this particular line really did floor me, and made me burst out in laughter: “I do not think my book is a work of art but honestly I have read worse.”

Or how about this paraphrased reply to my rejection and suggestion that maybe the author work on strengthening the query: “your sniveling, self-indulgent reply to my query . . . I suspect your 'literary agency' is nothing more than a hobby that you use to make yourself feel superior to anyone unfortunate enough to ask you to read their work.” Oh, and it was signed off with a very professional, “go F--- yourself.”

Apparently our Web site isn’t nearly as clear as we think it is since I’ve received numerous emails of late asking for submission guidelines because the reader claimed that after reviewing the Web site she wasn’t able to find any. Maybe the link labeled “submissions” wasn’t big enough.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Rise in Queries

I read your recent blog post about the economy being responsible for the increase in queries that most agents have experienced lately, and while your reasoning is logical, I’m not convinced the economy has much of an impact. I’d like you to consider the possibility that the Internet is responsible for the rash of queries.

I recently joined a forum, Absolute Write Water Cooler, that has many interesting sub-fora that are great resources for writers, both those who want to learn the business and those who want to learn to write—and there, I think, is the problem. Every day I read posts by people who ask questions that no real writer, by which I mean a skilled and talented master of the craft (or even master in the making), has any business asking. Yet these people—people who seem not to know the difference between first and third person, how to fill holes in their stories that shouldn’t be there in the first place, how to control pace or how to motivate their characters to get them where they need them—are submitting queries to agents. Let me rephrase that . . . people whose posts indicate they have no business writing at all except for their own amusement and that of their friends and family (if they are good enough to get that much) are filling the inboxes of agents, and they are actually encouraged to do so by other members of the forum!

This particular forum is not alone, there are many others. Do you think it is possible that the growth of the Internet, along with the enforced politeness and tolerance that it fosters, could be responsible for people that have no business writing suddenly getting the idea that they are special too and that they should search for an agent?

Well, actually, the Internet has been responsible for an increase in queries for years. To agents and editors this reasoning is nothing new and certainly it’s something we talk about all the time on our blogs, at conferences, and with each other over lunch. There is no doubt that in the past 20 or so years the number of people writing books has exploded. It’s easier. Almost everyone has a computer now and the ability to, with word processing programs, write a book. It’s easy through forums and online agent listings to find the names of agents and even easier to submit when you don’t even have to buy a stamp, all you have to do is toss out an email. In fact, it’s funny when authors complain so loudly about agents who require them to pay to submit by actually using the U.S. Postal Service. In some respects maybe we should all go back to the old-fashioned way of submitting just to weed out those who don’t want to make the effort.

I’m glad you’re expressing your frustration at those writers you’re meeting on forums who you feel have no business writing, let alone submitting to agents. Now you can imagine my frustration, because I’m getting queries from those people as well as the many others who haven’t even been able to take the time to look for forums or other groups to learn from. At least the people asking questions on the Absolute Write Forums and other writers forums are taking the time to learn about the business and ask questions.

I agree that the Internet has certainly added to the number of submissions we all see, but the Internet didn’t just “open” in January 2009. We’re not just seeing an overall increase, we’re all seeing a massive jump as of January of this year, and the jump is much greater than we’ve ever seen in previous years. As far as I’m concerned that’s not the Internet, but the economy.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pitch Appointments

While traveling to a conference recently I got to thinking about pitch appointments. For those who haven’t yet had the opportunity to attend a conference, pitch appointments are brief, 10-minute assigned meetings between an author and an agent or an editor. Typically to have a pitch appointment you need to have signed up ahead of time and you need to have a completed manuscript.

My thoughts aren’t so much about how authors could better conduct themselves in these appointments, but how they’re often handled from the perspective of conference coordinators. Should pitch appointments be a perk or should they be something that you ensure every attendee is able to get? I can only imagine the headache that goes into handling pitch appointments. I would imagine it’s probably one of the more difficult jobs of volunteer organizers and I have always done my best to respect those who planned the appointments as well as those who manned the desks during my appointments.

Now I know that every author who attends a conference is going to feel that with the money they are paying they should all get appointments with as many of the agents and editors as they want. I disagree. I think organizers should plan ahead of time how many appointments each agent and editor will take (and I do not think anyone should be required to take more than two hours of appointments in a day) and from there you’ll need to figure out how appointments get assigned. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have spent up to eight straight hours in a room taking appointment after appointment because organizers wanted to make sure that everyone who wanted an appointment got one. In fact, I’ve even been told by conference organizers that they brought me in to work me and that’s fully what they intend to do. I realize that the agents, the editors and the bestselling authors are usually the draw for conference attendees. I also ask organizers to remember that agents and editors talk too, and you’ll find it more and more difficult to find attendees when we tell others how hard we were worked.

Pitch appointments are useless if the agents are so tired they can’t see straight, let alone listen. If instead of looking at the next author as a potential client we’re looking for the door, a pillow, and a quiet room where no one knows us, you’re in trouble. Pitch appointments are exhausting for the agents and I think by now you’ve all come to realize that they are probably my least favorite part of conferences. So when scheduling appointments and trying hard to please all the authors who want an appointment with a certain agent, please don’t forget the agent and that the best thing you can do for everyone is give her a break too.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Random Questions

I get a ton of questions emailed to me for the blog and I appreciate each and every one. I apologize if I haven’t yet gotten to yours, but I’m working on it. Some are hard and I haven’t figured out how to answer them yet, while others are too short and don’t necessarily warrant a full post. So today’s blog is dedicated to those that are just too short.

Here’s a collection of random blog questions and answers.

How long should women’s fiction be? Is 270,000 words too long?

In the author’s own words, “yikes!” 200,000 words is too long. Women’s fiction is general fiction, mainstream, whatever you want to call it, it should be like most novels, in the range of 80,000 to 100,000 words. Of course there’s always some leeway in there, but keep in mind in this crazy economy, publishers are really not happy to see longer books. They’re more expensive for everyone.

If an agent’s Web site doesn’t specifically mention to send snail mail or email queries, but provides both addresses, how should the query be sent? How can I ensure my query gets more face time?

However you want to send it, and as for guaranteeing more face time, that’s on your shoulders. Write a really great query.

When you (or another agent) ask for a chapter or pages to be pasted into the body of an email, does it need to be in any certain format? When I paste from Word into my email program, all formatting is lost. I've tried plain text and rich text with negligible results.

First let me clarify that I would never ask for material to be pasted into the email (other than the query itself). If I did, though, and even with queries, I want it to read as if it were the email. Maybe the best thing to do is paste it in and then reformat it using your email program? I don’t have an answer to this, but maybe other readers have some advice?

Earlier this year you mentioned that an editor was looking for “strong, poignant, commercial women’s fiction, not chick lit.” Can you elaborate a little on what type of stories we're talking about? What sort of heroines? What are the editors looking for?

What do you have? They would like to see older, younger, married, single, divorced, widowed, grandmothers, mothers, childless. . . . The key to these types of books isn’t necessarily that editors are looking for a particular story, but they want a story and characters that evoke certain feelings. How that’s done is up to the writer, that’s the beauty of a book.

Can you interpret the phrase: "I didn't make a strong enough connection with the manuscript in order to offer representation." I've had three agents respond in this way after reading my full manuscript and one agent respond this way after reading fifty pages. Is there some revision work I should be considering based on this information?

You’ve been rejected with a form rejection. Make revisions if you see the need, otherwise simply continue to plug away.

I have completed 41,00 words of my manuscript, which is approximately 50% of my book. At what point should I begin to contact literary agents?

When the book is done.

Several of us were comparing agent responses and noticed a weird trend . . . or lack of trend . . . with some agents and wonder if there was a rationale behind it. A group of us use the same query tracking system and have noticed that there will be huge gaps on no-response and we'll never hear back (we're talking 12+ months). But scattered in there will be a couple of rejections. When checked, these rejections are form letters that state nothing more than the typical "not for me" rejection. I'm all for the form letter. Is there a reason a very small number receive the rejection but the majority receive nothing? Is there something going on we don't know as writers?

I want so bad to say something really funny and snarky here, but I don’t think I’ve got it in me. What I will say is quit over-analyzing. Agents just don’t have that much time to plan elaborate ruses. I’m sure it’s just a fluke.

I have finished writing my first fiction novel. However, when I typed it out it ended up being about 75 pages. Is it me or does that seem a bit short? Of course, I haven't gone through and edited but the point of the story is completely in there. Can anyone give me any advice on this?

Let me clarify first that “fiction novel” is redundant. Learn to erase that phrase from your vocabulary. Second, even if you still need to double-space, 75 pages is far too short. I think the best advice I can give you is keep writing and join a writer’s group. You have about 250 pages to go before you have a book.

My professors keep telling me that student publications count as a publication, but I was wondering if they were worth mentioning in a query letter? What about writing articles for internships?

I’d definitely mention them, but only if you are newly out of school. Ten years later they aren’t going to have the same significance.

I have a question regarding query etiquette. Is it appropriate to mention, in a query letter, work that has not been published yet if the author has it on good authority that their work will be featured in a future magazine publication?

If by good authority you mean a contract, then yes, go ahead and mention it. Otherwise I would just be patient.


Monday, April 13, 2009

The Easy Writer

As a first-time author, I'm trying to get my brain around query letters. Maybe I'm just thinking of it too much like a resume or a CV, but I feel that I need to include something that says "I'm easy." That is, I know that:

  1. I'm a first-time author.
  2. Pretty much everyone else is going to have a better concept of "the right thing" than I will.
  3. I have a day job so I'm not starving and freaking out trying to get published.
  4. I'm willing to shut up, listen, and do what it takes to enjoy the ride.
  5. Whether it takes 2 weeks or 2 years, 2 or 200 rounds of revisions, I'm cool with that.

But . . . I'm having trouble coming up with a way of saying all of that so it doesn't also sound like "I'm doing the writing thing as a lark and don't really care about it." It's not that I don't care -- I care quite a bit -- but I'm smart enough to not let my ego get in the way. I'll save the crazy high-maintenance stuff for when I've published 20 books and optioned them all to movie studios.

Is there a concise way of saying all of that? Or am I on the exact wrong track?

You are on the wrong track. Here’s the deal: note to all of you aspiring writers out there, you better all be “easy.” It’s not an option. Here are my thoughts on your list.

  1. I couldn't care less if you’re a first-time or fiftieth-time author; if the book wows me, I want you. From there, each book is a new experience and we’ll ride that wave together if necessary.
  2. I’m not sure I have a better concept of “the right thing” than you do. Heck, I don’t even know what you mean by that. This whole crazy business is subjective and what’s right for one isn’t always right for another. What you have to know is your book and your characters and what’s right for them.
  3. Starving and freaking out about getting published are two different things. If you’re starving and published you’re likely to still be starving. If you’re freaking out about getting published you’re a writer.
  4. We should all be willing to shut up and listen and do what it takes to enjoy the ride. If you’re not, get off the bus now, I don’t want you. Publishing a book is not the job of one person, it’s a team effort, and the better you are at playing with the team the more successful you’ll be.
  5. Time is your friend in the publishing world. It will take 2 weeks, 2 years and 200 years (oh, sorry, you said rounds of revisions), and whether you’re cool with it or not you don’t have a choice. So buckle in, write until your fingers ache, and work on your blurb, because that’s what the query is all about.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Building a Platform for Fiction

I’ve received a lot of questions about the importance of building a platform for fiction writers. Should you write platform-building pieces under your real name or the pseudonym you want to use? What if you wrote mystery short stories, but now want to write romance novels? Do those short stories even count toward your platform? Do you need to worry about blogging now to build a platform or should you just write?

Holy cow, folks! Just write and write and write and write. If you are someone who writes short stories very well and wants to submit them to literary magazines while working on your novel, go ahead. It’s a bonus to have a writing platform like that, but not every novelist can write short stories and not every short story writer can write a novel. It just isn’t that easy, so if you’re someone who doesn’t feel strongly that you can do both, why are you wasting your time focusing on your weakness instead of your strength or instead of on what you really want to do?

As for blogs, I’ve said it over and over and over again, but I’ll say it again. Go ahead and write a blog if you really want to, but don’t feel that it will necessary do anything for a future publishing career. The only thing that’s going to do that is the book you’re writing or the book after that or the one after that. And frankly, at this point, I don’t care what name you do it all under.

Let’s worry less about the peripherals of publishing—platform, credentials, etc.—and more about our writing. Because that’s really what’s important.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

Earning Royalties

What's the story with earning out/royalties?

I have often heard that only 1 in 5 novels earns out its advance. I've always wondered about this figure, because if publishers were paying too much for 80% of their books, they should presumably know that and start offering lower advances across the board. But, at the same time, I read that "very, very few books make much on royalties" (this is from your Contracts 101: More on Advances post), so I wonder if maybe it's true after all that most books either don't earn out or earn 50 cents over the advance.

What's going on here? Are publishers overpaying for their books? Or is the answer that the publisher can make a profit even if the author doesn't earn out his advance, so the fact that the *author* makes no royalties doesn't mean the *publisher* is doing poorly? What should an author realistically expect (or hope for), on average, on the royalties front?

I have heard all sorts of crazy figures when it comes to the number of books that earn out. The truth, though, is that I’ve never, in all my years of publishing, actually seen any facts. That means that I can’t tell you for sure what the statistics are on books that earn out. I haven’t even gone through the titles I’ve sold over the years to determine how those figures might compare. I do know that a good number of our books are earning or have earned royalties at some point, even if some of those books haven’t made much over $100 or so. At least they earn something, right?

While we’ve all seen million-dollar deals posted and wonder how those books will ever earn out, I think the truth is that most of the time, for most of the books, publishers are fairly conservative with their money and I’m sure many of my published readers will agree that “overpaying” hardly seems to be the problem. I think the real problem is that every single book is a risk. If a publisher is buying a book by an established author they already have sales figures to look at and can base estimates on those—estimates of how many books will sell and how much a book will earn. With debut authors, however, and there are a lot of debut authors every year, those estimates are really more of a guessing game based on how other similar books have done in the market and the publisher’s enthusiasm for the project. Sometimes those estimates are just plain wrong and other times the market changes so dramatically (think our recent recession) from the time a book is sold to the time it is published that outside forces change the estimated success of the book.

I can’t say what an author can realistically expect or hope for from royalties. That depends on what you’re writing, how much of an advance you were paid, and what the market is doing. I think the smart thing for an author to do is worry about selling books and not making royalties, at least at first, and to not expect that the royalties you earn will pay much more than a utility bill or two. It’s always nicer to be surprised with a bigger than expected check than it is with a smaller check.

When you sell your book, ask your agent if she has any idea what you might expect. Knowing the inside workings of a contract can help in making that estimation. Also keep in mind that royalties usually include subsidiary rights sales from foreign rights to book club rights, serial rights, etc., and the more of those your agent or publisher sells on your behalf the higher your “royalty” check will be. There are a lot of variables into how royalties work and how they’re paid out that I haven’t even touched on here, but if you work at writing really good books, know your market, and do some publicity, I would hope that most of you will see some additional money down the line.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

What Other Agents Do

I get a lot of blog questions from authors asking me to give them an idea of what they can expect from their agent. For example, “My agent is submitting my material. How many houses can I expect her to submit to?” How should I know? I’m not your agent and I haven’t read your book.

My biggest concern about questions like this is why are you asking? Are you asking just to get a comparison for what you know your agent is planning or are you asking because you really want to know the answer, but for some reason think it’s better to ask me than your agent? If your answer is the latter, I would suggest you get a new agent. The author-agent relationship is probably one of the more important relationships in your career, and if you want it to work you need to start off on the right foot and be able to communicate effectively and honestly with your agent, and I implore all of you to learn to do just that.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Read Your Contract

One of the best things about having a literary agent is having someone with knowledge and experience in publishing contracts. For anyone who has ever done a deal with a publisher, you know what I mean. It doesn’t take more than a few paragraphs before your eyes start to cross and your mind freezes. Not only are they filled with a whole heck of a lot of legal jargon, but to the layman it’s legal jargon few truly understand.

While having an agent relieves you of the pressure of negotiating a contract, it does not excuse you from reading the contract. While your literary agent should and will do her absolute best to make sure that what you sign is as fair as it can possibly be, in the end she is not responsible for the paper you are signing. In other words, she’s not responsible for turning in a manuscript by the due date you’ve just committed to. She’s not responsible for the art and illustrations you’ve just agreed to provide, and she’s not responsible for the word count you’ve just said you’d meet. And once that paper is signed you’re committed. Not even the best agent is going to be able to suddenly cut your word count in half or eliminate 90% of the illustrations that you conveniently forgot about.

The beauty of having an agent is you can ask about anything you really don’t understand or if there’s anything you should know, but do ask, please ask, before signing your contract.


Monday, April 06, 2009

He v. She

Some of you have noticed and have pointed out that in the blog I regularly use “she” when talking generally about readers, editors, clients, and pretty much anyone. I find it interesting that I’ve been criticized for this or questioned on it. I use “she” because “he/she” is awkward, and I was taught as a writer and an editor that readers prefer you choose a pronoun and stick to it. I’m a woman, and while I represent both men and women, I feel that it makes it more interesting to use “she.” This was actually a conscious decision when I started writing the blog. I wanted to make sure when talking generally and using pronouns that I would always use feminine pronouns. What I find most interesting is that this even has to be a discussion and that I am even questioned on it. Would I be questioned if I had used “he”? Would anyone have even noticed? Would someone have asked me if I had any female clients? Would someone have criticized me for clearly only representing men because I used “he”?


Friday, April 03, 2009

Authorpass and Agentpass Day

A few days ago I gave you the opportunity to share your gripes about agents, and I have to admit it gave me a bit of the agida. It’s really easy to read your comments and wonder whether or not I’ve done something like what you’ve described, and since I’m not perfect I’m sure I have committed more than an error or two. However, with every moment of complaining we all need and deserve a moment of positive, and as one reader requested, “any way we can also have an agentawesome day where we can give props to those agents who went above and beyond?”

And I’m happy to oblige. It’s always easy to complain, sometimes harder to share stories about the good things that happen. I’m going to start by sharing some of the stories about the authors who I think really have had their acts together. . . .

Kudos to the authors who remember that an offer of representation is an opportunity to make sure you pick the agent that’s right for you. While I always hate losing and of course hate the possibility that I might lose, I respect the author who gives me the opportunity to reply to a submission when she has an offer of representation and I respect the author who’s willing to say to me that she wants to talk to other agents.

Kudos to the authors who see the author-agent relationship as a team relationship, and just as I try to give updates and feedback to you, you keep me posted on what’s going on from your end. What feedback you’re getting from your editors, where things stand with revisions and what, if anything, you need from me along the way.

Kudos to the authors who take the time to listen and learn, who do the research ahead of time and to the best of their abilities who know and understand that publishing is a business and treat it as such.

Kudos to the authors who take a minute to approach me at conferences just to say hi, to reintroduce themselves or share a success story.

Kudos to all of you who posted your gripes and complaints. I’m not perfect, but I strive to be better at what I do every day, and while I’ll never read submissions fast enough and I’ll always feel behind in my client reading, your feedback helps me acknowledge my faults and work to correct them.

Kudos to everyone who sits down and writes a book and then writes another. Kudos to you for putting your dreams on paper and then sending them out there to be judged, critiqued, reviewed and hopefully enjoyed.

This is a frustrating and heartbreaking business at times, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I love this crazy job.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Is This Standard?

In teaching my class this semester at NYU and in talking to authors, I’m often struck by how often I am asked whether something is typical or standard within the industry, and this is probably one of the most frustrating things that writers have to deal with. While certainly with publishers there are a lot of things that are considered industry standard, this isn’t always the case with agents.

Just recently, for example, I was asked by a reader whether or not it’s standard for an author-agent agreement to be in effect for one year. And my answer is yes, and no. For some agents and agencies it is; some do contracts that are for a certain number of books and for a certain time frame, allowing what the agent feels is sufficient time for them to have to sell the project. Other agencies, BookEnds included, has a contract that is unlimited and hopefully for the life of your career. While we don’t have a time frame on our contract we do have a rather easy termination clause to allow any party the ability to get out of the contract at any time.

So if few things are standard between authors and agents, what are they? Typically commissions are standard. Most agencies take a 15% commission on domestic sales and rights sold through the publisher and 20% on foreign rights. It is standard that you should not be paying any upfront fees to your agent for any reason. Not only is it standard, but it’s part of the AAR’s Canon of Ethics.

And I think that’s it. The rest is a matter of comfort to you and if there’s ever anything in the author-agent agreement you are not comfortable with or don’t fully understand, you should talk to the agent about it. If you’re not comfortable doing that then maybe you should first question whether this is the agent for you.


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Agentfail Right Here

In the aftermath of #queryfail, there was some discussion of whether or not authors should start #authorfail, their own Twitter ranting of what agents do that make them fail in an author’s eyes. I’ve heard many times of authors who after having met agents, having corresponded with agents, or just having heard about agents decided to drop them from their list of agents to query.

Janet Reid did a fabulous post on this on her blog. I highly, highly recommend everyone read this if you haven’t already. But I do think it’s possible for authors to do an #agentfail and I think to some degree I’ve allowed you to do it in the past. Wasn’t it just last year that I opened up the blog to all of your complaints about agents? Well, let’s do it again. Here you are, an entire day, on an agent’s blog, devoted to complaining about agents. We all want to hear it (or maybe we don’t): tell us how or why we are failing you or have failed you (and post anonymously, of course, unless you don’t want to).