Monday, August 31, 2009

Most Interesting Conference Experiences

I can’t even begin to count the number of conferences I’ve been to. Since starting the agency ten years ago I have attended anywhere from five to ten each year, and prior to that I attended a number as an editor. Needless to say, I’ve had more than my share of interesting experiences. I’ve had terrific moments where I met future clients. I’ve had horrible moments where organizers were anything but and attendees spent more time worrying about the color of the envelope they were submitting in than they did their writing, and I’ve had the truly scary times where groups of agents and editors fled after hearing some truly threatening remarks made by a seemingly unstable attendee.

While I’ve certainly given a great deal of advice about conferences, one of the things I don’t think I’ve ever done is share some of the more interesting or rewarding experiences I have. These are typically conference workshops that were different from anything else I’ve ever done before and that I found refreshing and fun from my side of things and hopefully useful for authors.

At one conference they had critique sessions, and I have to admit I was dreading it, unsure of how authors were going to take my face-to-face feedback. The way the session worked meant I received eight to ten samples before the conference. The samples included the first ten or so pages of each book and a one-page synopsis. Everyone taking the workshop (they kept it to a small number, about 10) received the same material. On my flight to the conference I read the material and made my comments. Then the entire group got together and went around the circle to discuss the pages we received. I would start by giving my feedback and suggestions and then open the floor to everyone else at the table. I have no doubt that it was a little painful and very difficult for the authors, and I give anyone who participated a lot of credit. However, I think hearing an agent’s feedback, as well as feedback from other authors, on your own work and on the work of others can help you learn a lot. It felt very productive to me.

At two different conferences I did a workshop the conference came up with that allowed attendees to get a sneak peek into what it must be like to read the slush pile. One conference focused on queries only, while the other on the first two pages of the manuscript. All material was submitted anonymously by brave writers. A reader read the material aloud, and when the agents on the panel reached the point where we would have stopped reading we simply said stop. Once all agents were in agreement we went on to explain further why we stopped. In some cases it was a simple phrase that sat wrong with an agent, in other cases it was simply unclear writing, and in other cases it was entirely personal. We tried to be nice, but I do think authors were really given insight into how subjective the business is as well as what goes through an agent’s mind when considering new material.

One conference held “take a speaker to lunch” days. Instead of hosting a lunch, they encouraged attendees to invite one of the speakers out to lunch. I’m sure there are a lot of agents who might groan at this possibility, but I enjoyed it. There were no rules (other than that the attendees were encouraged to pay for the lunch) so an entire writing group could ask one agent or an individual could ask. It allowed me a little downtime to discuss one of my favorite topics (publishing) and learn a little about the area I was visiting, and it certainly allowed brave attendees to get easy quality time with an agent and really learn about the business rather than pitch a book in ten minutes. Oh, now that I think about it, pitching might have been discouraged for these lunches.

I’m sure there are other conference events that stood out for me, but these were different and fun for me to participate in. What about you as conference attendees? Have there been any different “activities” or workshops that you think more conferences could benefit from?


Friday, August 28, 2009

Know Thy Reader

It seems that daily I’m receiving comments about how sad it is that the people who really need to hear my advice aren’t reading the blogs, and while that’s true when it comes to those of you who have been here for a while and have been reading the blogs of other agents, I’m not convinced it’s true across the board.

Just the other day, for example, I received a very lengthy email from an author who, after querying me, discovered the blog and spent most of her evening reading all my past posts. She was new to the publishing world and was thanking me for all the insight I’d provided. Every day I see comments from some of my die-hard readers and every week I see a comment or receive an email from someone who has just discovered me.

One of the biggest challenges I face is trying to appeal to as many people as possible, but I think as writers we can all agree that I’ll never please everyone. I work hard to write my blog for all audiences. In the end I know that who I appeal most to are the unpublished, although I do know that a number of published writers also read fairly regularly and I hope they too find information they can use from time to time.

When I post something that you feel you know already, I apologize, but please keep in mind that to someone else this might be new information. While I have no real statistics of whether or not the blog makes a difference, my queries tell a different story. I do think my blog is making a difference in a much bigger way than just those who comment. I think the blogs of all agents make a difference. I think we’ll all agree that query letters are getting better. Most important, though, professionalism has improved. Authors are coming into publishing (from the beginning) with an understanding of what exactly it is they’re getting into. They know it’s not easy and they know it’s a business. I have to say, that’s a vast improvement over what I was seeing five years ago.

So I think this is the best time to remind you that if you want to see something specific on the blog, the best way is to ask. Many of my posts are based on the emails I receive from readers. I keep all identifying information confidential if quoting the email directly and frequently I simply use your question as a launching point for a post of my own. So if there’s anything you’d like to see more of or a question you’d like answered, don’t hesitate to send an email to As always I have a backlog of questions, but I’m always looking for a new topic.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Submission Process

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the process of submitting to an agent has both changed and remained very static with the advent of the internet. Specifically, I'm wondering about the tradition of agents requesting a partial manuscript and then, if they like it, a full.

Now, I understand why this made sense in the old days, when writers had to print out and mail everything; it would be a waste of paper and effort to send an entire 400 page manuscript if the agent was only going to look at the first 50 pages before rejecting. However, now that many manuscripts are sent using the internet, there doesn't seem to be a difference between sending a complete manuscript vs. a partial. Wouldn't it save agents time if they simply requested full manuscripts for every query that interested them? That way if they liked the first 50 pages they wouldn't have to request that the author send them more materials and they wouldn't have to wait for the rest of the manuscript to arrive. And it's not as though they would have to read the entire manuscript; the agent could still just read the first 50 pages (or less) before deciding to reject.

Is the process really more for the author's mental health? Meaning, the query-->partial-->full process has several indicators to the author of the agent's interest before ever reaching the point of offering representation, one of which would be taken away if partial requests were eliminated?

Interesting question, especially since it comes from the author’s perspective. I am constantly rethinking my submission process and how I personally do things. I have to admit, though, most of my decisions are based on my own mental health and not the author’s (although I do try to take the author’s mental health into consideration when writing my rejection letters).

I know there are some agents who will request the full right out of the gate for that very reason: they don’t have to wait for more. And there are agents who are entirely electronic as well as those who prefer hardcopy in all things (including queries). I fall somewhere in the middle. My interns and my assistant do a lot of great preliminary reading for me. I find their reports invaluable in helping me review proposals. After all, it never hurts to get a second opinion. For that reason I still request about 50% of my submissions via snail mail. How those requests are made have little to do with my enthusiasm for a project and more to do with timing. If I’ve requested a lot via email the next batch of requests will be snail mail. And honestly, these days my snail mail proposals are getting read at a faster rate because I have the interns to keep up with.

I do agree that it makes perfect sense to request a full instead of a partial, but I can’t get myself to go there yet and it’s entirely psychological. The sight of a stack of fulls (even if they are sitting in my Kindle inbox) is intimidating. That’s a lot of reading. The same stack of partials feels much more manageable. And I guess I’m also a little old-fashioned at times. I like the idea that a full request is still something special and means that you’re getting to that next level. I know, that’s silly, but sometimes I’m silly.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How Much Can You Really Tell

I don’t envy authors when it comes to making a decision about an agent. Sure, it’s one thing to send the queries out, but it’s an entirely different thing when multiple offers of representation come in and you have to decide which agent you think is right for you because, let’s face it, unlike dating, you don’t have weeks, months or even years to get to know this person and rarely do you have the opportunity to sit down in person. Typically the decision is made after a few phone calls and lots of thought on your part.

I’ve done multiple posts on what questions to ask and how to trust yourself and your gut, so I’m not going to get into that again. Instead I’m going to address comments I see regularly from writers who feel that you should base part of your decision of choosing an agent on how that agent responds to you prior to making an offer of representation. The biggest factor seems to be slow response times. Many writers feel that if an agent is slow to respond to queries or submissions (or responds later than a posted respond-by date) it’s a sign that she’s an agent who will also be slow to respond to clients. I disagree. I’m not sure you can judge an agent by response times at all, except when it comes to response times.

I’ve said this before, but a good agent will always prioritize clients first, and sometimes that means that submissions have to sit longer than intended. For an agent there is no such thing as a typical day. Things can be going along smoothly and neatly with all queries, client emails, and phone calls being returned regularly and in a timely manner when suddenly you’re hit with four clients who have fresh proposals or manuscripts that need to be read and responded to (often with a revision letter) or contracts that need to be negotiated and reviewed. All of this takes a lot more time than even an agent can typically expect. I’m often amazed at how much time contract reviews and revision letters take. Hopefully the agent will always put queries and submissions aside to focus on clients first.

On the other hand, an agent who always responds to submissions in a timely manner (and I stress the word "always" here) might be super organized or she might be avoiding what really needs to be done and letting client contracts, proposals, and even checks pile up while she’s busy looking for the next big thing. You might get a timely response because you submitted at just the right time, when things were quiet and she had time to get to it immediately upon its arrival. It might also be a submission she was able to look at and know instantly it wasn’t for her or it was exactly what she was looking for and she put everything else aside to read it.

What I’m trying to say is that how an agent responds to submissions is an indication of practically nothing. It simply means that you got a response. When choosing an agent I think it’s so much more important to talk to that agent’s clients to really find out how they feel about her and to base your decision on the conversation you have with her and the questions you ask. Trust your gut.

All that being said, I do think there’s one thing you can learn from an agent before “the call” is made, and that’s whether or not she’s respectful of authors in general. An agent who treats you rudely or unprofessionally or who has a reputation for unprofessional behavior will probably treat others unprofessionally, and I’m not sure that’s someone you want on your side.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When You're Ready to Hear It

Years ago I was standing in the crowded lobby during an RWA National conference talking to an author about her career. She was reminding me of something I had said to her a few years earlier, and while she thought it made sense at the time, it hadn’t really clicked until recently. And when it did, suddenly, everything seemed to make sense and a book deal soon followed. One of the things we were talking about is how much you can hear and read and learn and how it can all make sense, but not necessarily click; that somehow, you have to be ready to hear, really hear, what people are saying, and when you do it’s like magic.

I think about this conversation often and remind myself when I’m giving advice, whether it’s to my clients, at a conference, or through the blog, that not everyone is always ready to hear the words I’m saying, but when they do it will be like magic. I remind myself of this when I think of my own career too, how age and experience have made me wiser and yet how much more I still expect to learn. How things people said to me in my younger days may not have made as much sense at the time, but boy do I rely on those words now.

So continue to absorb all the information you’re getting, continue to learn and study, and continue to write and I swear, I really do, when your subconscious decides you are ready to really hear what someone is saying, you too will feel the magic.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Idea Theft

I suspect the topic of plagiarism or idea theft is common among authors, especially in this day of computers and scanners, but how common is it and how much should authors be concerned about it?

I have to admit, I think at times I’m a bit of a Pollyanna (although I prefer to call it optimism). I really like to think the best of people, especially those who call themselves professionals (you would think in this age of Bernie Madoff I would learn). More than that though, I suspect when it comes to agents and publishers, few have the time or the inclination to steal an idea if the project submitted is good enough on its own (and I’ve certainly blogged about this before). But what about authors? Can you trust your critique group or the contests you’re submitting to? I know there are horror stories out there, there are always horror stories, but how often does it really happen and how much do you have to worry about it?

The reason I’m writing about this today is because one of you wants to know specifically about contests: “Recently, I sent in the first chapter of my newest project, something out of my norm, and my crit partners were wild about it. When I told them I planned to enter it in a few contests, several of them were vehement that I not. When I asked why (our typical use for the contests is to get a read on what people think), they were concerned that the idea – the spin – was something new and different, and putting it out there for contests would leave it open to idea stealing.”

Here’s the catch: an idea is not copyrightable, so yes, someone could steal your idea, but what really matters in the end is the execution. If your idea is brilliant, but you aren’t able to execute it as brilliantly, it’s not brilliant. Does that give others permission to steal the idea? Certainly not, and I would never condone stealing someone’s idea. What I do want to do instead though is challenge you to actually define “idea” when it comes to your book. Is the idea simply that you are writing a fantasy featuring elves or is it the entire breakdown of the story? For example, I know for a fact that there are or have been three knitting mystery series published. Does the simple fact that they are knitting mysteries make that an idea that’s now stolen or is it how the knitting mystery plays out that’s really the idea? Does the idea also include the setting and the characters? The reason I ask these questions is because frequently I’ll hear authors complain that someone else has stolen their idea when the idea is really a simple one-sentence description, and I truly believe that the idea or success is what you do with that description, not the description itself. Let’s take Harry Potter, for example: the idea of Harry Potter (in my mind) is an orphan boy who learns he’s a wizard and is sent to wizard boarding school. It’s the execution of the idea that makes it Harry Potter and not just another paranormal YA.

Okay, I severely digressed and maybe oversimplified. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think you need to worry about ideas being stolen. Instead I think you need to focus on making the execution of your idea more brilliant than anyone else could ever make their execution. And as for whether or not you need to worry about contests, I think that’s a personal decision. I’ve never heard of anyone stealing ideas from contests, but I don’t know that I necessarily would hear of that. Certainly the more people you show your work to the greater the likelihood that it could be stolen. Frankly though, I think it’s unlikely.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Protecting Yourself in Nonfiction

I'm in the entertainment industry and I'm writing a book about one of its specific cottage industries. I have a lot to dish about and I'm not sure if my disguising names and identities is enough to legally protect me from people who might read the book and get a little excited and take legal action. What kind of attitude should I take on this?

Let’s face it, we live in the land (at least here in the US) of lawsuits. If someone can sue, and win, over a cup of hot coffee then certainly people can sue if they feel you’ve written about them in an unflattering light. I’m not a lawyer and in a situation like this I would defer to a lawyer, either a publishing lawyer by recommendation or an in-house lawyer at your publisher, however if you have concerns that you might be sued my guess is that you might be sued.

I don’t have any more information than what you’ve given me here, but you might want to consider making some major changes to your book if you are worried about lawsuits. You could fictionalize the book a la The Devil Wears Prada or, if you insist it would be much better as nonfiction, you’ll need to go that extra mile and really disguise your “characters” with more than just name changes. I think hair color and other defining characteristics will also probably have to go as well.

I will warn you that if a publisher feels that a book might bring lawsuits it’s going to be really hard to sell a project. The last thing publishers will want to do is get involved with something that upfront they feel might be nothing but a headache.


Thursday, August 20, 2009


Back in June agent Andrew Zack wrote a series of posts on Bookscan and since then I’ve received a number of questions from authors asking my thoughts on Bookscan and my recommendations for how authors can track Bookscan numbers or their numbers in general.

For those not familiar with Bookscan, let me explain briefly that Bookscan is the book version of the Nielson TV rating system. It tracks and monitors sales of books in various outlets. However, like any mass tracking system it’s not perfect. Bookscan does not track every sale in every single outlet and certainly there are some major stores missing from the list, most notably Walmart.

Bookscan should not and typically is not taken into account if you are going back to contract with your current publisher (they have their own, more accurate, numbers to look at) or if you are a debut author. However, where Bookscan most predominantly comes into play is for authors looking to change houses or those who might have self-published and are now looking to find a publisher for that self-published title or the next book. Publishers are not going to be able to call up a competing house and say, “Hey, we’re looking to steal your author, care to share the numbers?” and because of that they have to go to the next most reliable source, Bookscan. This helps give them a feel for what kind of orders they can expect from bookstores. And yes, they do realize that Bookscan isn’t complete, but, especially for books that they don’t expect outlets like Walmart to take, it can help make a determination as to expectations.

So how does this impact you as an author and do you need to track your Bookscan numbers? Certainly it’s helpful to have as much information as you can about yourself and how you’re perceived, but Bookscan is really expensive and I do not think the cost is worth it for an individual author, especially since it’s not a complete accounting. The very best place to go to learn how well your book is doing and what kind of numbers you’re getting is your publisher. Call your editor, or have your agent call your editor, to find out what sales look like. However, if you still, even out of curiosity, really want to know how you look on Bookscan (and it can’t hurt unless you let it), organizations like RWA have considerably cheaper Bookscan subscription fees; keep in mind, however, that the RWA subscription only tracks the top 100 romances and therefore wouldn’t be helpful if you’re writing in any other genre.

Here are my thoughts: if you can get a less costly subscription to Bookscan that’s useful for you, like through RWA, do so. It’s worth it just to see how your book and others are tracking. It’s also helpful for you to be able to see trends and keep track of the market. However, the really important numbers are those that are coming through on your royalty statement. Those are the numbers that matter and, in the end, that stand out to everyone as the ones to watch. If you are tracking Bookscan I would say do so with the same attitude you track your ratings on Amazon or B& They are a sign of how well your book is doing, but not the whole picture.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Before You Sign

Publishing is a small and confusing world and because of that there’s no doubt that I frequently get questions from friends, family, friends of family, family of friends or anyone else even remotely related or not related, but with an interest in learning more about publishing. Often I can direct them in much the same way I direct all of you to websites or other sources (this blog) that might help them make the right decisions.

Well, recently I had an experience that really made me wonder if all of this is really making any difference. Never fear, I’m not that discouraged, it was more of a bang my head against the wall moment. I’m reminded daily by the community here on the BookEnds blog how much you all are learning and have learned from this blog and other agent blogs and how open you are to learning more. However, I’m also reminded that there’s just as many people who need to be taught and re-taught and might just not want to learn.

This instance though. Uff, I really wanted to scream. I was emailed a question from someone I once worked with, someone I once presumably trained, about a contract she had received from a perspective publisher. This is someone who has been encouraged to read my blog daily and, from working inside the publishing industry, should know enough to at least read such websites as Preditors & Editors and Absolute Write, my two personal go-to sites. “Jane” admitted she didn’t have a great deal of knowledge about publishing contracts and wanted some input. The contract was with a smaller publisher and one I had never heard of. While I don’t claim to have complete information on all publishers, I tend to have some name recognition when it comes to both small presses and epublishers. This one didn’t ring a bell. So before wasting my time and even opening the contract I did a quick click over to both my favorite sites and in the speed of the Internet (yes, less than a couple of minutes) I learned that this house was not only a fee-charging vanity press, but not recommended by Preditors & Editors.

I’m rubbing my head just thinking about this because here’s the deal: if someone doesn’t want to make the effort to really learn about this business and understand that you don’t pay publishers, they pay you, someone will not learn. Frankly, I don’t get how someone who has enough interest in publishing to work for a short time in the business wouldn’t know this one simple thing.

So here’s the deal. For those of you who do want to learn and are listening, please, please do not sign anything with either an agent or a publisher without double-checking both Preditors & Editors and Absolute Write.

I know this business can seem complicated and certainly there’s a learning curve, but let’s face it, for those of you who want to learn and are making an effort to do so, it just isn’t that hard.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

BookEnds Trivia

Here is quiz full of information you have no reason to ever know about BookEnds, but hey, every blog post can’t be purely for educational purposes. We need fun too. So let’s see how well you know your BookEnds agents.

1. Which two agents started their careers as interns at Berkley?
a. Kim & Jacky
b. Jacky & Jessica
c. Jessica & Kim
d. All of the above

2. Who is Riggins?
a. Jacky’s dog
b. Kim’s dog
c. Jessica’s dog
d. Our assistant

3. Who invented the term “twitch” as it relates to publishing?
a. Our assistant
b. Kim
c. Jacky
d. Jessica

4. Who survives without coffee?
a. Kim
b. Our assistant
c. Jessica
d. Jacky

5. Who did Jessica once dogsit for?
a. Maurice Sendak
b. Elizabeth Strout
c. Miss Snark
d. Pete Hamill

6. What is the name of the BookEnds assistant (frequently referred to as “our assistant”)?
a. Holly
b. Martha
c. Your Highness
d. Katelynn

7. Who is the only BookEnds agent without an English degree?
a. Jacky
b. Jessica
c. Kim
d. None of the above

8. What year did Jacky, Jessica, and Kim first meet?
a. 1994
b. 1995
c. 1996
d. 1997

9. What is the longest time a BookEnds project has been on submission before a sale is finally made?
a. 2 months
b. 2 years
c. 2 weeks
d. 12 years

10. How many books did BookEnds sell in 2008?
a. 97
b. 57
c. 127
d. 77

1. (a) Kim and Jacky both started their careers as Berkley interns, although years apart. In fact, Jacky was the first ever intern at Berkley and later went on to actually run the intern program, hiring Kim.

2. (c) Riggins is Jessica’s fairly new rescue dog, but his name was suggested by Kim. He was named after Tim Riggins, a character on Friday Night Lights, although Jessica’s husband will swear he’s named after Washington Redskin John Riggins.

3. (b) “Twitching” was Kim’s idea as a way to launch Jessica (@bookendsjessica) and Kim (@bookendskim) into the Twitter world. Twitch Week was a contest of Tweet Pitches run through Twitter.

4. (d) While Jessica, Kim, and their assistant can’t believe anyone survives without coffee, Jacky does. Although she drinks a lot of tea.

5. (b) As a poor editorial assistant Jessica dogsat for extra money and author Elizabeth Strout (at about the time her first book was released) was one of her clients.

6. (d) Katelynn saves our butt more times than we can count. She started as an intern and landed the job when another former intern-turned-assistant, Holly, moved to St. Martin’s.

7. (b) Jessica actually has a degree in journalism.

8. (a) 1994, when Jessica started her job as an editorial assistant at Berkley and Kim started her internship. Jacky was already working there.

9. (b) 2 years: Jacky and Jessica each had a project that took two years from the time of first submission to sale, which is why we always encourage authors to never give up.

10. (c) 127 books were sold in 2008. Note that some of these, probably many of them, were multi-book deals and we didn’t count foreign sales in this number. Okay, the number is rough, but you get the idea.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Hiring a Publicist

A frequent discussion with all of my published authors is whether or not a publicist should be hired, and while my answer to this is always “it depends,” one of the things I want to address here is that there is no magic a publicist can perform.

I think that oftentimes authors feel that a publicist is a necessary expense to success in publishing and that the publicist has some sort of magical ability to move books and create sales. While I think a publicist can help when done right, I also fear that frequently an author pays a lot of money and misunderstands both what the publicist can and will do as well as what the publisher will do for you. Let’s be honest, it’s been rare that I’ve been impressed with the work a publicist has done for my clients.

I don’t want to bash publicists (although I seem to be doing a good job), but I do think authors should go in with a very clear idea of what a publicist will be doing and how much the author will be spending. In other words, does it sound like the plan will actually earn you back that money in book sales or does it sound very similar to what the publisher will? So here are some of my thoughts...

If you are writing a series of any kind it does not work to hire the publicist once sales have started declining. A sinking ship is a sinking ship, and throwing money at it is not going to save it now. A publicist is best used to launch the beginning of something new or to take what you already have (and what’s working) to that next level.

Check with your agent and the publisher’s publicist (if you have one) or your editor before finalizing any deals. Find out what the publisher has planned and ask specifically their thoughts on whether hiring a publicist would be beneficial and what a publicist could do that the publisher is already doing. I have had plenty of discussions with publishers who felt at certain points in an author’s career hiring an outside publicist was a waste of time. At other times I’ve had publishers express enthusiasm for the idea, feeling the time was right.

Do not hire a publicist to send out review galleys. Your publisher does and should do this. If you have a list of your own (to knitting magazines for your knitting mystery, for example, or alumni magazines) ask if you can send the addresses (already on labels) to your publisher for them to add to their mailing.

Make sure any publicist you hire will work in conjunction with your publisher’s publicist and make sure your publisher’s publicist feels the same way (in other words, don’t hire a publicist your publisher has had bad experiences with). It will not do you any good if the two people trying to get you publicity are working at cross purposes.

Hire a publicist with interesting and new ideas. Guaranteed radio spots? Where? If it’s NPR, go for it, if it’s the local radio station, my guess is you might be able to make that call yourself. More important though, does radio really sell books? I’m not the expert here, but that sounds very old school to me. I’d be much more interested in a new and different Internet blast of some sort (a Facebook page is not new and different) or unique ideas for viral marketing.

Is your publicist promising a press release? Guess what? The publisher does this too. Do you really need to pay someone when you can probably get a copy for free?

Okay, I admit, it sounds like I’m telling you publicists are useless. They aren’t, not at all. In fact, I think a publicist can do a great job, if it’s a publicist who is innovative and fresh. Most of what I see, I admit, is stale and boring. In fact, most of the best publicity is not coming from publicists, but from the authors themselves. So go ahead and spend money on a publicist because someone with fresh ideas can make a huge difference. Just make sure that the ideas she’s promising are fresh.


Friday, August 14, 2009


I often discuss with you how a big part of my job is career planning, and to me that doesn’t mean just sitting down and plotting how to make the bestseller list, but discussing what direction the next writing project will take. Should a series writer continue her current, successful series and add yet another to her plate or would she be better off dumping this series altogether for something fresh and new? Should a historical writer change her style to meet some of the current trends in historicals (more sex, more sex) or is part of her appeal the fact that she hasn’t embraced market trends? Should a contemporary author with declining numbers move away from contemporary altogether (is it the genre?) and embrace the paranormal trend, or is it less about the genre and more about the hook or the ideas she’s coming up with?

Just as it is for unpublished writers, published writers are constantly looking within themselves to discover their strengths and find out what would be the next best direction, and as an agent it’s my job to help support them in that as well as to give any input they might want. For each author this is a different experience and I really let my authors decide how they want to use me best. For some we have many, many email exchanges and phone calls, while others prefer to spend “alone time” writing, reading, and exploring new and different directions. Either way, I will tell you that this is a frustrating and nerve-wracking time for the author, and if I can do anything it’s really just be there as a show of support and try to guide the author in a positive direction.

What is fascinating for me through all this is watching the author process work. It’s different for everyone and it should be different for everyone. We’re all unique individuals with unique experiences and ideas so why should we expect a writing process to be the same? However, one thing that is the same is the reaction the author has when suddenly she reaches that Eureka moment, when after endless hours of discussion and writing, some of which just wasn’t clicking, it suddenly strikes. Like lightning from the sky, the author does a 180 and just knows what needs to be done. I swear it changes her as a person. The heavy burden of writing lifts and putting word to page is joyful again. What is so fascinating about the Eureka moment is that I know when it hits too. Not that I have some psychic premonition, but when I get the email or phone call that suddenly this is it, I know it in my heart, in my bones, in the same way the author does. I can honestly say, I get chills when it just feels right.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Obtaining Cover Blurbs

Any published writer knows that writing the book, querying, and finding an agent is the easy part of your publishing career. Once you find a publisher the real work begins, and part of that work is obtaining cover blurbs for your book—you know, those quotes from other authors praising your work and you as a new up-and-coming star author.

But whose job is it to get those quotes? Is it the author, the author’s agent, the publisher? One reader was recently told by her publisher that it’s best if she stay out of it and let the publisher handle the blurbs. This publisher felt that established authors don't always like blurb requests directly from the author (harder to turn down, criticize, etc.), but the author wanted to know if it was okay to go ahead and approach a few contacts anyway.

And this is why I can’t stress enough how attending conferences and being part of writing groups can pay off: it’s just as much about building those author relationships as it is about meeting editors and agents. If all goes well, your publisher, or your editor, will approach a select number of authors requesting blurbs on your behalf, but of course there is no guarantee that everything will go well. Certainly I’ve been in situations with publishers who have put 100% of the burden of obtaining blurbs on the author, and this is where all that networking comes in. Now it’s up to you to get in touch with those bestselling authors and request that they read your book.

Networking is important in this business, as it is in any business, but I know some of you are going to wonder what you can do in a situation like that if you have no opportunities to meet bestselling authors. Well, cold calling (or emailing) is certainly an option, but I would do it carefully and to only a few. I think your best bet, in a situation like that, is to discuss options and possibilities with your agent and see what she can come up with. Remember, agents have connections with authors far outside of just who we represent and might be able to help out more than you realize.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that no matter who you, your editor, or your agent approach, that author has every right to say no and that’s okay. An author’s schedule can be insane between writing the next book, revisions, edits, and yes, a large number of requests for blurbs. How that’s handled is up to the author. I know some who refuse to give blurbs, while others limit themselves to only a certain number a year. One thing that I stress to all my clients is that, no matter what, you should only blurb a book that you truly feel you can get behind. You don’t need to tell the author you didn’t like it, you can always just say you didn’t have time.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Random Questions

I get a lot of questions to the BookEnds blog and I thank you for each and every one of them. Trust me, they really help keep this blog running. Unfortunately, I have yet to get to them all and yes, some are a year old. But some of you ask some really tricky questions. Today is random question day. These are the questions that aren’t “big” enough for a full blog post, but still need to be answered.

Can memoirs be sold on proposal or do I need to finish the entire manuscript?

Memoirs fall in the area of narrative nonfiction and any time you’re doing research on how to submit your book you should treat narrative nonfiction as if it were fiction. In other words, debut writers always need to write, rewrite, edit, and proof the book before even querying. Once you’ve established yourself (sold) as a fiction or narrative nonfiction writer, you’ll have the luxury of being able to sell on proposal.

I’ve received requests from editors through conferences and contests and have sent material off to them. Should I mention this to agents when I query or will it turn agents off because the book is already out there?

Definitely mention it. It shows agents that others in the industry have already expressed interest in your work and gives you that little oomph that others might not have. Make sure you mention that Jane Editor from Publishers Anonymous has your work “by request.”

Is it okay to send thank-you notes for personalized rejections?

Even the reader acknowledged that this question has been done to death. So why ask? I don’t know, but go ahead. For personalized rejections I think it’s fine. The truth is, if someone is going to blacklist you for a thank-you note they have bigger problems, and are probably rude themselves. Just send the note; it can’t hurt and might keep your name at top of their mind.

I’ve been told that some popular magazines don't respond until after a year or more. And some don't ever respond, putting your work into limbo indefinitely. Is this true? If so, is there anyway to avoid casting one's labors into a black hole?

Well, I don’t work on magazines, but I imagine if it’s true in books it’s true in magazines. Just send it, check on it occasionally, and eventually forget it. Work on your next project. The only way to avoid the black hole is to never submit, and we certainly wouldn’t want that.

If a book has previously been published at a small press, would you still be willing to represent it? If, of course, it met your criteria for submission and representation.

If the book has sold well, really well, I would be willing to consider it (I’d have to read it before knowing if I’d be willing to represent it). Better yet though, I think I’d rather see your next book instead.

When applying for a job or internship would it be inappropriate to deliver my cover letter and resume to an agency in person?

Yes, I think almost every agent I know would be annoyed by this.

How does Bookends feel about applications from interns that have queried and had full manuscripts requested by the agency?

I never thought of it. I guess I would consider the application. It might be kind of odd, but there’s no harm trying.

Do you know of any university that offers MFAs in fantasy writing?

No, but maybe some of my readers do.

This is a rather silly question, but if someone is interested in working with an agent or editor as a slush pile reader, how would they go about finding such a position? Is it happenstance or are job postings used?

No silly questions here, but sometimes silly answers. I’ve never seen job postings for slush readers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I would advise you just randomly canvass agents with resumes and see what happens. We don’t use slush readers so I don’t have a great answer for you.

Are sales figures easily available? Some editors expect the writer to be educated about the sales of similar novels in their genre. How can a writer get access to this information?

Sales figures aren’t even easily available to authors (until royalty statements arrive). I don’t think editors expect you to have the exact information, they just want you to have knowledge of those books that seem to be the most successful, and for that you can easily look at what bookstores give the most attention to or how they rank on online bookstores.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009


More of those things that happen around the offices of BookEnds to make us chuckle.

I actually rejected a client. I think I know exactly or almost exactly what happened. I had opened her email to read it and pushed it to the side of my monitor to answer later, then continued reading e-queries. I must have tapped her window by accident and hit the signature for a rejection and of course send. Luckily she didn’t take me seriously (I think she rarely does) and apparently I made her day. In fact, she might still be chuckling about this.

I found simple irony in this email: “I thought you might enjoy forwarding these quick (60-second) video writing tips along to the aspiring writers that probably clog up your inbox or you could add them to your blog or website.”

Another author discrediting herself before even getting to the pitch: “Yeah, I know, fiction sucks because it's so boring.” So why write it?

And I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at this, but I actually received a query for a book (and I’m still hoping it’s a typo) that was nearing 1 million words. That’s lunacy! All I can say is that I admire the writer who can write one, a one million-word book.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Author 007

I have written a controversial realistic fiction novel. If I want to keep my identity not discoverable, what's the best way to do this?

I have to admit it’s really hard for me not to simply reply to this question with, “Don’t tell anyone” and leave it at that.

I won’t do that though. I’ll force my fingers to continue writing.

Let me start by telling you that in the age of Google it’s pretty dang hard to keep anything a secret these days. Does anyone remember Primary Colors by that anonymous Joe Klein? When that book was published in 1996 by anonymous it became a game to see who could figure out the author’s real name first. I remember analysts comparing the writing to journalists and columnists everywhere. It was nuts, and later it was revealed that Joe Klein was in fact no longer anonymous. That being said, you can certainly do whatever you feel you need to if you want to remain underground, it just might be tricky.

First of all, your agent is probably going to need to know who you are. After all, the checks from the publisher get sent somewhere and the IRS is going to need to know to whom. So if for no other reason than it’s a legal issue you’ll probably have to reveal yourself to your agent. And then, if you really don’t want your publisher to know the real you, you can probably have everything go through your agent and only have your publisher refer to you by your pseudonym. Seems extreme for fiction though.

For media events you can wear a disguise and use your agent or a publicist to set those things up (and I know this is sounding snarky, but I am being honest here) or simply do everything by phone or online and refuse to make appearances (which could be tough if the book hits big).

Ultimately, pick a pseudonym and use that name. For now anyway that will keep you anonymous.


Friday, August 07, 2009

Who Owns Your Work

I was told recently by a published writer that an unsolicited submission literally belongs to the publisher until they tell me they're either buying or rejecting it.

This is madness! Are you kidding me? See this stuff drives me crazy! Who gives this kind of crackpot advice? See, this is why agents started blogs in the first place and why we so often have to repeat ourselves over and over again (not that I’ve ever had to address this question before). My goal, with this whole blog, is wrapped up in this one question. I am hoping to help eliminate this kind of wrong, wrong, wrong advice to poor unassuming authors. Thank goodness you’re heading in the right direction by finding agent blogs.

If you haven’t figured it out yet this so-called published writer is very wrong. An unsolicited, or a solicited submission for that matter, belongs to you. Sure the publisher can hold on to it for as long as they want, agents can do the same thing, but that doesn’t mean they have any control over it. You can sell it somewhere else, pull it from submission, or just plain let it sit there for years if you want. However, no one owns that work but you.


Thursday, August 06, 2009


I’m an arts critic but in order to keep a decent amount of food on the table, I ghostwrite non-fiction books. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to find clients through referrals and being at the right place at the right time. The problem is, all of these projects (12) have been self-published, which means that although the manuscript is top-drawer, it ends up languishing by the caseload in clients’ sheds while they work out how to market them.

I quite like ghosting and am looking to move onwards and upwards. I’ve been making a few inquiries with publishers and agents about how they source ghostwriters for memoirs or other projects but can’t get a straight answer out of either side. Both say to try the other!

Which party is responsible for arranging the ghostwriter and what is the best way to get my foot in the door? Are there agents that deal specifically with ghosts?

This is an interesting question, and like so many of the questions I receive it doesn’t have an easy answer. In fact, it doesn’t have one answer. Both publishers and agents can use and hire ghostwriters. I know that BookEnds has a number of writers available for ghostwriting projects and have called in those writers more than once to help complete a project an expert writer was struggling with. In all of those situations, however, the ghostwriter came to us from another project. In other words, one writer came with an expert when I took on his book. She did such a great job that I later used her for other projects. Other writers came to us as writers and worked on projects of their own, but we called them in when ghostwriting became available.

I’ve also been in situations where it was the publisher who decided a ghostwriter was needed and suggested someone. I will tell you though that any time that happened the writer was already agented somewhere and the publisher had simply worked with her before on other projects. Typically publishers do not have a list of ghostwriters at hand and a smart ghostwriter is agented anyway.

Unfortunately, I suspect some of what you’re looking for is luck. It seems you’re getting work, which is great, now it’s getting those projects out to agents and finding someone who can get it to publishers. I don’t think you’re going to have any luck approaching publishers, and I think you’re going to have a difficult time finding an agent unless you have a project you can sell. Your best bet is finding that key project, ghostwriting it, and then working with the author to find an agent who would be willing to take you both on.

At this point, since I’ve never sat on your side of the desk, I’m going to turn this over to my readers. They tend to have better advice than I do on subjects like this.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Losing Faith

I'm sure you've all taken on clients that you love the writing and the book, but have a hard time getting editors to feel the same way. Does this make you lose faith in your client (their work) in any way, or do you just become more determined to see that book (or another of theirs) hit the shelves?

I think from every agent you ask the answer to this question is going to be that it depends. One of the reasons agents are so picky and often use words like “love” and “passion” when taking on new work or even rejecting a project is that we know getting published and staying published is a long haul and can be difficult for both author and agent. If I love a voice and a client’s writing it’s a lot easier for me to keep the faith for however long it takes. If I take on a project because I think it will be an easy sale (like that exists) or because it’s okay, I’m not going to have the passion it takes to stick it out for what could be months or sometimes years.

The very real and honest answer to this question is that both things happen. I do lose the faith, but not so much in the client as I do myself. There are definitely times when I wonder, in situations like this, if maybe I am doing something wrong and not guiding the client in the right directions. And then I just get mad and decide that everyone else is an idiot and with renewed vigor I start over again.

It’s not easy for a writer to face rejection over and over again and it’s not easy for an agent either. When I offer representation I am making a promise of sorts. Sure, I never directly tell an author that I will have no problem selling her work, but it’s implied that I will sell her work and it’s important to me to live up to those expectations.

I think that writers have so much to worry about the last thing you need to add to the list is whether or not an agent will lose faith in you. If it happens you’ll sense it and it will be terrible and you’ll know it’s time to move on. Hopefully though you’ve found or will find an agent who believes that passion plays a key role in every author she takes on and has the fortitude to keep that passion going no matter what it takes.


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Reality of Royalties

I was talking to a client recently about royalties, and with her statement somewhere between the publisher’s office and mine she was wondering what she could reasonably expect that statement (and hopefully check) to look like. This is a common question not just among first-time authors, but from many of my more established clients as well, and I hate to say it but my answer is always the same. I have no idea. Sure, like the author, I always have hopes and make guesses based on what information the publisher has given me in terms of numbers and sub-rights sales, but since I’m rarely right I tend not to share those hunches with my clients.

The truth is that there is no way to really know what a royalty statement looks like until it arrives and I suspect this is true of most businesses. I remember talking to a friend who owns a retail shop and he was telling me how helpful computer inventories have been for his store. Even though he’s the one behind the counter 90% of the time he’s always amazed by which products are really his biggest sellers and which aren’t. I think this is the case with any business. We all have blinders on when it comes to a product we are really excited about, and until we see the actual facts and figures before us it’s difficult to separate our feelings from what’s really working and what isn’t.

What’s difficult for me is that all too frequently the author, upon receiving that very first statement, is disappointed. I don’t think it’s the numbers, because frequently the number of copies sold is very good, but it’s the check. There are a lot of things that take away from that first royalty check and certainly that can diminish the monetary numbers pretty quickly.

First, and I think most frequently forgotten, is the deduction for advance payments. I know we’ve discussed this before, but as a reminder an advance is not what you are being paid for the book, it is an advance against all future earnings (your royalties). In other words, the bigger the advance check(s), the bigger the deductions from your royalties. Let’s play this simple. Let’s say you received a $5,000 advance*** for your book. Before you earn any royalty money that advance needs to be earned out at your royalty rate, so if your book is selling for $10 and your royalty rate is 7.5%, you are earning roughly 75 cents a book. Which means you need to earn out $5,000 at 75 cents per book. If my calculations are correct you need to sell roughly 6,666 copies before your royalty earnings start to kick in.

However, those earnings might not appear in check form just yet because we also have reserves to consider. Reserves are those monies (or is that money) held back by the publisher in anticipation of any potential returns from bookstores. Remember, one of the biggest problems in this business is that books are returnable. Unlike other retail stores who buy and commit to a product, bookstores have the luxury of returning books for credit if they don’t sell, and authors only make money on books that actually sell to readers, not bookstores. Typically you can expect your publisher to hold back roughly 20% of the number of copies “sold” (that really means the number of copies sent to bookstores) in reserves from your first check. With each statement you receive, the percentage held in reserves should diminish until eventually the publisher is no longer holding anything. So, if your book “sold” 10,000 copies to bookstores, roughly 2,000 are held in reserves. That means that if you are earning a royalty rate of 7.5% on a $10 book, your potential income for this statement has been cut by $15,000, leaving you roughly with $7,500. Remember that $5,000 advance? You’ll need to subtract that too, which means now your check is reading about $2,500 and not the $15,000 you were hoping for based on the numbers your editor reported to you.

Of course this isn’t necessarily everything when it comes to both earnings and deductions, however it’s the bulk of what you’ll see on the statement, and these two things make the biggest impact on that royalty check.

***please note that the numbers here don’t accurately reflect actual publishing numbers. They are used simply because they are easy for me to calculate.


Monday, August 03, 2009

Be True to You

As a young editorial assistant I had the luxury of exploration. I was just starting to get my feet wet in the acquisition waters and could request everything and anything that came my way. I had the opportunity to find my niche in the publishing world and see what really fit for me. One of the things I so strongly remember about those days was trying to fit that square peg into the round hole; in other words, I tried over and over to do the kinds of books that weren’t true to me, but that I felt were “cooler” than the kinds of books I really had a knack for. I’m not sure where this mentality comes from, but I can tell you that at some point in our lives every single one of us does this. Whether it’s wearing an armload of rubber bracelets, styling our hair in the latest Flock of Seagulls ‘do or trying to impress the boss in a manner that doesn’t fit any better than a pair of blue suede shoes, part of life is exploration and we all make mistakes along the way. What I’m asking is that you be very, very careful of not letting those mistakes torpedo a rising career.

As an unpublished author you get the luxury of freedom. You can write whatever you want, whenever you want, and however you want. Once that first publishing contract is signed and sent off, things change. Now you have deadlines, readers, sales expectations, and a brand to build. While you certainly still have creative freedom, you are no longer as free as you used to be. Sure, authors explore new genres and new directions all the time; the difference is those who are able to do it while remaining true to themselves versus those who do it because they feel it gives them a certain credibility or respect they don’t think they’re currently receiving.

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for a long time and the reason it’s taken me so long to write is that I’m not sure I’m going to be able to clearly get my point across, and even when rereading what I’ve written I’m still not sure that readers will really grasp what I’m trying to say, so let me try with this. We all have our strengths in this world. My strengths as a literary agent lie in commercial fiction and nonfiction. I’m not a literary reader and don’t have a natural inclination to understand what makes a literary novel marketable and appealing to the public. I do however have a knack for commercial fiction. Not only can I read a book and get a sense of whether editors and the buying public will find it appealing, but I can also read that book and help guide the author to make it stronger in both plot and character. I’m not going to say it’s easy and I’m not going to say I don’t struggle at times, but it’s where my strengths lie. And boy have I been abused for it over the years. Let’s face it, any of you who write commercial fiction have faced, at some point, the stigma of someone who is not writing “real books.” Whether it’s that you should be writing something more literary and more “meaningful” (whatever that means) or that you should be writing in a genre that’s more respected (whatever that means), someone, somewhere had to make a snarky comment that made you feel bad about doing what you love. Do not let that person or those people take control of your writing career. Be True to You.

Not everyone can write women’s fiction, not everyone can write romantic suspense, not everyone can write literary fiction, and not everyone can write epic fantasy, and that’s a good thing. I’m not saying you can’t explore new genres or you shouldn’t take your books to that next level. I’m saying that before you call your agent and tell her that you're abandoning your romantic comedy*** career for something “more respectable” like romantic suspense, you should try on that romantic suspense first, stand in front of the three-way mirror and really, honestly tell yourself if it fits. It might not and that’s okay, because not everyone can get away with wearing a fedora either.

Be proud of the person and the writer you are, take ownership of your strengths. Stand up now, out of your chair, and say it, out loud, what you write. Say it, “I write cozy mysteries” or “category romance” or “horror” or “literary fiction” or “poetry.” Are you proud? Is your head held up high or are you apologetic and meek? If your answer is the latter, then do it again and again and again until you can say, with all the pride in the world, loud and clear, what you write.

Be true to yourself, toss out that ill-fitting cowboy hat that was never you anyway and put back on the bunny ears. Write to your strengths and you will find the success you crave, and don’t go asking for people to respect you and your writing, demand it.

***I apologize to all romantic comedy writers; you were the first sub-genre that popped into my head and in no way do I mean to imply that you are not respectable, so please don’t go jumping ship to start writing horror about blogging literary agents.