Friday, January 29, 2010

Writing Series and Trilogies

I have finished two books of what will be a trilogy and am wondering about the logistics of querying a trilogy. I recognize the first book needs to stand alone, and I plan on mentioning it is the first in a trilogy (that will at that point be all written), but should the query hook and synopsis be just for the one book, or should I give the summary of the three?

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it is worth repeating. If you are writing a series, trilogy, or any other form of linked books, my recommendation is not to write all three books or to continue the series until you’ve sold the first one. Unless you strongly believe that each of these books could stand alone in the event one of the others doesn’t sell, you could be writing three books that will never sell simply because the first one didn’t.

In other words, if you sell the first book you can always go back (as you will hopefully do contractually) and write the next two books. In the meantime, work on something fresh while you query the first book. That way if the series doesn’t sell you’re only stuck with one book under the bed, not three.

That being said, how do you query a trilogy? You query a book, not the trilogy. Agents are only interested in one thing at a time, and that’s the book you have written. To be honest, readers are only interested in the same thing. So mention it’s a trilogy, but query the book. Focus your hook and synopsis on the book.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tough Economic Times

In this current economic climate, with publishing cut-backs (less money per contract, fewer contracts offered, many mid-list authors being dropped, etc), how are agents weathering the situation? Agents make money when they sell their authors, which would mean you have less monies coming in to pay YOUR bills. How are agents dealing with this? I haven’t seen any evidence on the numerous agent blogs I read that agents are struggling, or wanting more clients, in fact, many agents are closed to unsolicited queries. So are you pushing your current clients to write beyond their current genres or go bigger within their genre?

I really liked this question (these questions) because there’s no doubt it’s a subject that’s been on people's minds a great deal. In truth, not all agents are weathering the situation well. I suspect that if things continue as they have been we’ll see agency closings and/or more agents leaving the business. You’re right, agents are paid on commission, and for those agents who have yet to build a solid list of authors who are earning good royalties, things are looking bleak.

Let me take a step back and explain an agent’s financial situation a bit. The very best way for an agent to make money is not necessarily by selling a lot of books. Sure, advances are great, but as any published author will tell you, the real money is in royalties and subsidiary rights sales. The authors an agent really wants on her list are those who have written books that continue to sell and sell and sell and that earn royalties year after year, those authors who are almost guaranteed sales on future books and continue to make money on past books. An advance comes once, real success is when royalties come for years. The agents who, in this economy, are struggling the most are those who have relied primarily on advances to pay the bills and who don’t have many authors who are making royalty money. That means that to pay the bills they continually need to sell new authors and new books, and as we know, that’s not easy these days.

I know that in the past year I’ve made a slight shift in the books I’ve sold. That doesn’t mean it’s a permanent shift, but in times of trouble I’ve personally found nonfiction a little easier to sell. While I haven’t done a direct comparison, I would suspect that if you looked at my list you would see that I sold more nonfiction in 2009 than I did in 2008. Nonfiction tends to be less subjective and a little less of a risk for publishers since they can clearly compare it to other successful books. That doesn’t mean I’m not selling fiction, because in fact the proven authors on my list are continuing to sell and sell well, but it means that in looking at new clients I tend to look at nonfiction more carefully because it’s what I’ve had the most recent success with.

The one thing I need to address here is the feeling that if agents are struggling, shouldn’t they be open to queries and/or taking on new clients? Not necessarily. In fact, to some extent, it’s better to focus on the clients you do have and help them find a direction that will sell than to take on new people with no track record. What I’m suggesting my clients do is stay the course. That means keep writing great books and write what they love. There is no genre right now that’s a guaranteed sale, so if a client is ready for that next step I’m encouraging her to go there, but I’m also cautioning that she continue with what she’s having success with if that’s possible.

All that being said, I’m going into 2010 with great optimism. I’m feeling really good about the clients BookEnds has and the success we’ve had and are continuing to have. And as for what authors should do in a climate like this? Write the best dang book you can write. My advice doesn’t change in good or bad “weather.”


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Becky Levine on Critique Groups

Becky Levine
The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide
Publisher: Writer's Digest Books
Pub date: January 2010
Agent: Jessica Faust

(Click to Buy)

Author's Web site:

Not Just Any Critique Group—One That’s Right for You

When you decide you’re ready to join a critique group, you’ve taken your first step onto a wonderful path. You’ll be exchanging feedback with other writers, learning to strengthen your writing skills, and making huge progress with your current book.

If you find a group that’s the right fit for you.

There are lots of places to look for a group, both locally and online. If you are hoping for an in-person group, you can check in at a bookstore or library, or go to meetings of local writing clubs, or regional meetings of national clubs like SCBWI, MWA or SINC, and RWA. Most of these organizations have an online community, too, and if you’re looking for a group that isn’t genre based, you should definitely check out the websites for Writer’s Digest and Red Room.

Before you start hunting for a group, though, take a few minutes to look at yourself. Think seriously about who you are as a writer, as a critiquer, and as someone who is going to be receiving feedback about their work. How much writing have you done, how happy are you with the idea of being critiqued, and where are you on your path toward publication—if that’s your goal at all?

A mixed group can work very well. Writing experience is not necessarily a predictor of critiquing strengths, and the reverse is true as well. If members of a group are open to reading in each other’s genre, if “older’ members share tips about how to give more useful feedback, if people are patient and respectful and talk things out, a group can grow together in support and productivity. Still, you need to check in, honestly, with your comfort level. If two members of a group are published, and you’ve only been writing a year, are you going to feel awkward? If you’re working on revisions that have been requested by an agent or editor, will you get impatient at working with someone newer to the craft? And are you open to reading and critiquing lots of different types of writing, or are you really craving total immersion into what you’re writing—whether that’s romance, fantasy, or literary fiction?

List your goals (yes, actually write them on a piece of paper!) and think about which are set in stone and which you can be flexible on. Use these goals as a litmus test as you try out a group (or two or three.) And, then, go with your gut. Knowing the basics about how you want to write and critique can make your quest more direct, can keep you out of groups that are clearly not for you. Finally, though, listen to your feelings. If you’re happy while you’re at a meeting, if you’re interested in the work the other writers are doing, if you’re finding yourself writing more often—odds are you’re in the right place. If you feel drained or depressed after a meeting, if you’ve got a tense stomach or a headache . . . guess what? That’s not a good sign.

Trust yourself. Figure out what you want for yourself. Think about it, recognize it, and then trust that you are worth the time and energy needed to find the group where you fit. Your writing will thank you.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Response Times

Last year, I subbed a YA paranormal to several agents who’ve yet to respond, as follows: 1 in March, 3 in May, 3 in August and 1 in September. That’s 8 outstanding agent subs. Here’s the rub: I hired a freelance editor and completely rewrote this book. The new version is out with 3 agents, all of whom requested it within the past month or so. In retrospect, I should have sent status queries, but at this late date, and with the book significantly changed, it feels weird to send an email – Hey, you’ve had this since last March – whatdya think? (There’s also the issue that I should definitely be more assertive.) My question is two-fold. If I receive an offer, do I contact those who’ve had it over six months, or assume they’re a no and move on? If I don’t receive an offer from anyone, I’d like to submit to other agents within a few of the agencies who’re hatching it, but can’t until I get a no. I’ve thought about writing to the very old subs and withdrawing, but half expect them to say, Who Are You? I know a lot of agents don’t reply to queries, but didn’t realize there are some who never respond to full manuscript submissions. Any advice?

I don’t know if this will help you any, but one of the things that first struck me with this question is the fact that agents deal with this situation too. It’s true. While typically agents get fairly good feedback from editors, there’s always the one or two who never seem to reply to submissions or only reply if you have an offer. So when do you just finally give up? How assertive do you need to be? How assertive is too assertive? While there are no universal answers to these questions, I can give you my advice on how I think you should handle the situation.

I would get in touch with the eight agents who have your book. I assume that when you say outstanding subs you mean partials or fulls. Definitely push them for answers. If all you’ve sent them is queries, consider it rejected and move on. Sure, some of it was a year ago, but it’s never too late to shame someone into an answer.

If you receive an offer and one of those eight agents is someone you’d really like to work with, I would definitely contact them. What I would do is get in touch, let them know you have an offer on the book they’ve had since March, mention that it has since been revised, and ask if they would like to see the revised version for consideration.

As for sending to other agents within the agency and pulling the submission, that’s sort of tricky. I think what I’d do is push for an answer. If you don’t get one after a couple of requests, I think you could send to another agent in the agency, but be honest. Let them know you previously sent it to such and such a year or more ago, but have not received an answer and have since thoroughly revised the book. That way you aren’t trying to be sneaky and the agent can make a decision based on how they operate in house.

Hope that helps and I hope I’m not one of those agents sitting on material. I just haven’t been able to catch up like I’d been hoping.

Best of luck.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Back It Up

If you haven’t yet finalized your New Year’s resolutions, I have one for you. Back up your computer data! Certainly we all know to do this, but the question is how many of us really do it regularly? Recently a friend went into a panic because her computer crashed and she nearly lost everything—everything she’d ever written, everything she was writing, all of her photos, music, and personal financial information. These days backing up a computer is more than just putting a few files on a disk, it’s keeping our lives on track and in order.

So if you aren’t regularly backing up your computer, your entire computer, I would suggest that in this new decade you make it mandatory. You can buy and use an external hard drive or register at an online storage service. Whatever you do, make sure you do it today.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Ten Words to Stop Misspelling

I have always been honest with you about my limitations as a writer. Quite frankly, I have some serious handicaps when it comes to grammar and punctuation issues. That’s one of the many reasons I was an acquisitions editor and not a copyeditor. While I can gladly tell a writer why the story isn’t working overall or give suggestions on how to strengthen a book, there’s no way I’d ever trust myself to give specific guidance on punctuation and grammar.

This is why I was thrilled when a friend shared this poster by The Oatmeal. I don’t make all of these mistakes, thank goodness, but there are definitely a few that are sticking points for me, which is why I’m ordering a copy of the poster for my office.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Poetry and Music in Books

I have a question for the blog. How do agents, editors, publishers, etc. feel about poetry and songs in the body of the manuscript? We're all literary types, we're bound to write songs and poems, maybe even our characters are poets and singers, too. Bilbo Baggins is walking along, having a lovely adventure in prose when he suddenly stops for a few pages to sing a song about his adventures or recite a poem from memory. Is this a strict no-no, is there a way of handling it delicately, or does it simply depend on the circumstances?

When I started reading your question my first thought was no, absolutely not. Copyright issues for music is so tricky that I usually advise authors to avoid using music or lyrics as much as possible.

And then I understood that you would be writing the poetry and/or song lyrics and they would be original, and I thought, okay, that works, go ahead and do it.

And then I read your example, and while I know it was rough, I cringed. You’re writing a book, not a musical, and I just don’t know if breaking the action by adding a musical scene would really work for readers.

But then in the end I came to the same answer I so often give to writers. You have to do what works for you. There are no cut-and-dried rules in this business and the best books are so often those that surprise us by breaking the so-called rules. So, it would really depend on the circumstances.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Time to Rewrite

I wrote a manuscript and I think it's done. I've gotten some interest, and also some rejections. One agent who read the partial said she couldn't get interested in my story. Another said she found it boring.

That said, nothing is perfect, and everything will need revision. I will keep trying. (Of course, I love my story, but then what else is new? **grins**)

But, if I get a few more negative comments, should I revise my manuscript before I send out the next batch of queries?

One of the goals I have for 2010 is to encourage all writers, published and unpublished, to trust their guts. Yes, I would think that if you’re continually getting the same or similar feedback from agents then it’s definitely time to rewrite. That being said, all agents are different and all feedback is subjective. I would only recommend authors rewrite if they feel that the feedback they are getting hits the mark. In other words, if everyone says your book is boring, but you don’t think it’s boring, you will not be able to rewrite the book and make it work. Quite frankly, you don’t know how if you don’t see it.

My advice, keep submitting/querying and continue working on your next book. If, somewhere down the line, you suddenly have a lightbulb moment and know how to fix your book, go ahead and do it.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Oh those things that makes us laugh, and luckily there are many. . . .

Like the persistent querier who wisely changed email addresses and created aliases, but labeled the query “Query47,” and that was at last count.

The query that suggested I “Kindly refrain from Self-delusion on Your part about arrogance on My Part & We’ll get along Just Famously.”

(This one really more of a sad sigh than an lol): The author who admitted she’s not very far into the story, so is “not able to give you a correct summary of the book, but I will do my best.”

The query that was really not a query at all, but a warning that the author would keep sending queries every few months and use alternate email addresses if the one currently being used was blocked.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Random Questions

Sometimes Random Questions are my favorite posts. Quick and easy. Here’s another batch of questions that I think are important for readers to see, but not long enough to warrant a full blog post.

I have written a novel, but feel the best comparisons are narrative nonfiction. Is using narrative nonfiction to compare with a novel acceptable in a pitch, or is this a bad idea?

I think it’s fine. Comparing your book to another often means that you feel the same audience might be interested in your book.

I am working on a nonfiction humor book and when I looked around the web a few years ago I noticed everyone wanted a book proposal. Now that I renewed my interest in my book idea I noticed most agents are asking for queries. I thought queries were for fiction and proposals for nonfiction. Is it standard that agents are only accepting queries for nonfiction? Should I write a proposal and have it ready in case I get a response on my query?

Sadly there are no easy outs in publishing, for fiction or nonfiction. Queries are standard for any submission you want to make to an agent. It’s a way for us to evaluate if the book is even right for us before you send material. Should you have the proposal done? Yes, before you even think of the query. If you get a request, the proposal should be ready to send that night.

If your book is a memoir (creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction), written in the style of a novel, do you submit a fiction proposal or a nonfiction proposal package?

Is it just me or does it feel like I answer this question monthly. Just an fyi, the answer is on the FAQ of our web site. But to answer again, narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, whatever it is you want to call the book should be submitted as if it were a fiction proposal.

I am completely baffled on the correct system to employ to estimate word count on a completed manuscript.

I think this question is probably one of the most frequently asked questions I receive. Let’s do it this way. Just follow your word processing program’s word count. If you think that makes the count too high or too low, then count roughly 250 words per page. Honestly, when we get the manuscript we can tell whether it’s too long or too short just from holding the pages. Word count isn’t an exact science, especially since it’s about how the words translate to the published book. It’s rough. Just do what you’re comfortable with; as long as you're reasonably within a range, you should be fine.

Would there be any benefit to starting a blog and posting short stories on a regular basis to try and generate a "reader base,” or am I better served to spend that time working on another book and querying agents?

I’m not convinced that blogs are necessarily the best way to build a writing career. I know they are suggested and I do think that getting out and participating in a blog, on occasion, once you’re published, can help with publicity. That being said, I think it’s rare that the unpublished author gets picked up for a book deal because of a blog. If you really want to write short stories and publish them on a blog, go ahead. Otherwise, work to get your shorts published in literary magazines and spend your time on your next book. If a novel is what you want to write then you should be writing novels.

I have a quick question after reading your post on word count. I am not sure my manuscript is long enough. Several people at Absolute Write told me 56K is fine for my YA urban fantasy. I thought I should ask an agent whose advice I can count on. Do you think that is too short?

I think that you’re a little short, probably not dangerously short though. The problem is that you’re writing YA Urban Fantasy, which tends to be a tad longer. If it’s easy for you to bring it up closer to 70k words, I would try to do that. If it’s a stretch then you should be okay submitting as is.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Avoiding Scams

It’s been quite some time since I’ve done any piece on literary scam artists, but a recent question made me realize that it’s something I should be doing more frequently.

At an SCBWI monitoring workshop, we met an editor from a large publishing house. She requested and eventually read our YA/MG full manuscript. She requested revisions, which we completed and submitted. The manuscript was then “under consideration” for almost a year. (I still do not understand what that means!) During that time, we would see the editor at other events and she would consistently praise our work. Eventually, we got a rejection letter from her saying that the manuscript just needs too much editing for publication at this time. About a month afterward, we found out she’d left the house and opened an independent editing service. We approach her thinking . . . ”Here is someone we know is a professional and has the knowledge to correct any problems.” (At least she did not approach us.) We entered into a contract and pre-paid $750 (out of a $1500 total) for her to edit the manuscript, query letter and synopsis. She gave us a first draft revision date which came and went. We followed up. She responded she needed more time. This went back and forth for awhile. But the bottom line of the story is that in the end we got no editing, no return of our deposit and, now, cannot find her at all. So, here is my question, how do you know who to trust in the industry even with everything on the web? How do we even know we need the editing in the first place and this was not just part of her leaving her house?

This story stinks and my absolute first piece of advice is that you must get in touch with Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware to let her know about this editor and her practices. While it might not help you get your money back, hopefully it will prevent others from falling into the same trap.

So how do you know if someone is a scam artist? The first place to look is Writer Beware, the second is Preditors & Editors; both sites work hard to protect authors from scam artists. Unfortunately, if the editor is a new scammer, like it sounds yours was, there might not be a lot of information yet.

I think, like with many businesses, knowing who to trust means doing your research. Sadly in this instance I think you were put into a particularly bad situation. Given this editor’s history at a major house I probably would have trusted her too. In most circumstances, though, I would suggest reviewing the two sites I mentioned and talking to clients of editors and agents. In this day of the Internet that’s not difficult to do. In fact, I know a number of my clients were able to contact other clients through their web sites to ask questions about me before ever signing anything.

As for how you know if you need an editor, I’m not sure you really do ever know. I think it’s more of a decision you make rather than something you need. A lot of books need an editor, but the work can frequently and easily be done through critique groups as easily as it can be done through a paid service. Frankly, I think a critique group can be so much more beneficial than an editor. From a critique group you’ll learn not only from what others say about your work, but from your own critiques of the works of other writers.

I’m sorry this happened to you, but don’t kick yourself. You were scammed, but it doesn’t sound like you did anything stupid. You just got put into a bad situation. Instead of dwelling on it, I would report this person to as many people as possible and then get back to work on submitting this project and writing your next book.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

When you get a full manuscript request via email, I'm supposed to treat it like I were sending it snail mail and include a title page with all my information on the first page of my manuscript, correct? What if I got so overwhelmed with my excitement I forgot to do so? My gut says to send another email, admit to my fault/unprofessionalism and give an apology. Though, a small part of me is worried that because I didn't give the information, my manuscript - upon opening- was immediately placed in the electronic trash. I did, however, give all of my information in the email that my manuscript was attached to. I'll be honest, I'm kicking my own butt for this.

First of all, congratulations! A full request is incredibly exciting and obviously anxiety-inducing. My one bit of advice is relax, look at the bigger picture, and don’t worry about the little things. In fact, it’s my advice to all of you submitting, querying, and generally working toward publication. Relax. As far as I’m concerned you’ve done everything right, you just made a mistake. Not a big deal, we all make mistakes. The agent has your email, she has your contact information and she has the most important thing, the most updated, revised and best copy of your manuscript. Your manuscript is what the agent will focus on. It’s all she’ll focus on. No agent is going to request a full manuscript and then reject it because you forgot a cover letter. She might reject it if you’ve written the entire thing in 9-point script font, but that’s another story, and potential eye-surgery.

You asked if you should contact the agent and apologize for not including the cover letter. No. Simply let it go.

Those of you who regularly read this blog and read other agent blogs know what you need to do, and I would guess most of you are doing the right things. Your struggle toward publication at this point is not about the lack of a cover letter or an email address, your struggle is creating a compelling query, writing the perfect, marketable, saleable manuscript, and finding that right person at that right time. Those are the hard things, the rest is the stuff that simply adds shine. So worry about the hard things, because certainly that’s enough to keep you up at night; let the little things go. Mistakes happen. No big deal.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Query on Queries

I’m actually answering this question only because I think it shows how easily and quickly authors get themselves mixed up and tangled. It’s one of those instances where I wonder if agent blogs and web sites have made things more complicated rather than simpler.

Concerning queries...If an agent is not accepting unsolicited manuscripts, is it bad form to write or email (either him/her or their assistants) to ask if you may query? Or can you always query? I know you don't query to see if you can query.

First, let me explain that “asking if you may query” is “querying to see if you can query.” I’m not sure where you got the guidelines for this agent or what exactly they said, but I will tell you that few agents accept unsolicited “manuscripts.” Which would mean sending along your full manuscript without a request. If you got this from an agent’s web site I would assume the agent has query guidelines, at which point you should query.

Yes, it’s bad form to write or email the agent or the agent’s assistant to ask if you can query. Either query or don’t, but don’t query a query. It’s a huge waste of time, and my guess is you’re going to be told no, especially if the agent is in a bad mood that day.

If you can’t find agency guidelines for some reason, just query. The worst that can happen is you’ll get no response.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bad Agent Alert

I’m a published author who recently signed with a new agent. I love her. She responds quickly to all my emails, keeps in touch and moves quickly. Lately though a few things have come up that make me wonder if I’m being scammed. When looking at her web site it seems I’m her only published author, and the books she’s promoting she didn’t even sell. My biggest concern is that recently she was getting ready to submit my proposal and told me that she could not make multiple submissions, that she’d been talking to an editor who told her that if editors learn a book is out with other houses they will simply throw it away. She said that it’s a rumor among authors that agents can make multiple submissions, but it’s not true.

Let me explain first that this is one of those cases where it’s possible you aren’t being scammed, but definite that you are in the hands of a Bad Agent. I’m not sure this agent is intentionally trying to stonewall your career, and since you didn’t mention it I’m going to assume you didn’t pay any money up front; however, this agent clearly does not know or understand how the business works. In my mind a bad agent can be as destructive as a Scam Agent, sometimes more so since a scam agent is clearly breaking the law, and a bad agent is “only” damaging your career.

Let’s look at this case logically. In reviewing recent deals made by agents I regularly see postings about auctions or pre-empts. None of those things could exist if it weren’t for multiple submissions. Let’s also look at what your friends and their agents are doing. My guess is that if you ask any of them, their agents are making multiple submissions. How can it be a false rumor if everyone else is doing it?

My advice, get out. Now. It’s not your job to teach Bad Agent how to do her job. It’s your job to look out for you and your career. Bad Agent isn’t doing you any good, and if she doesn’t know how to submit, how do you expect her to negotiate a contract.


Monday, January 11, 2010

A Discussion of Sell-Through

I was talking to an author recently and we were discussing sell-through, something I realized that most first-time authors don’t know much about. We always discuss the importance of an author’s numbers, what kind of sales she’s getting, but rarely do agents explain that numbers do not necessarily mean how many books are sent to bookstores, but how well the book sells through; in other words, how many books actually sell versus how many are shipped.

Let me back up a minute. Publishing has some problems/hurdles to overcome, and despite what many of you believe, the query letter and agent response times have nothing to do with those problems. One of the biggest problems, arguably, is that publishers still allow for returns. That means a bookstore can order 5,000 copies of your book, not dedicate any time or effort to sell it, and return any or all copies that don’t sell to the publisher. How many copies are actually sold by the store is what determines your sell-through, and that sell-through is what the publisher uses to determine your success.

So a publisher will print books based on orders from stores. If stores order 20,000 copies, most publishers will print something around 22,000 to 25,000 copies of your book. They’ll ship 20,000 copies, which is your initial ship number. Within the next six months or so they’ll start to see returns. If 10,000 copies are returned, your sell-through is 50%. If 5,000 copies are returned, your sell-through is 75%, and if 15,000 copies are returned, your sell-through is 25%.

Still with me? What your sell-through percentage needs to be depends on the publisher as well as the format your book is printed in. Typically, the cheaper the book the higher sell-through percentage you’ll want to maintain. In other words, mass market paperbacks want something around a 65% sell-through at the minimum, trade paperbacks can be around 60%, and hardcovers around 50%. Reminder again, these percentages will vary from publisher to publisher and do change over the years, so the numbers I'm giving here are to be used as examples only. Do not take it as “the word.”

One of the reasons sell-through is so important is that it affects the numbers for your next book. Let’s go back to our 20,000 copy order and pretend your sell-through was 50%. That means that your next book is likely to only get orders of 10,000 copies. If things are going well you’ll likely sell all 10,000 copies, have gone back to press on the first book and eventually go back to press on the second. Each time you go back to press the orders on your next book, as well as the sell-through, should increase. However, if your second book also has a sell-through of only 50%, that means the orders on your third book are going to be around 5,000 copies. If you haven’t noticed, you’re going in the wrong direction in that case.

When looking at numbers I encourage all authors to be less concerned about that initial shipping number and much more concerned about sell-through.


Friday, January 08, 2010

Questions on Mysteries

An author whose mystery I considered received an offer from a smaller press and had some questions for me before accepting the offer . . .

What are your thoughts on my pursuing this route? Is it worth doing in hopes of landing a big-time agent and/or publisher? Is it better to keep editing and approaching big-time agents? On average, what is a fair advance for a first-time mystery/suspense author w/a large publisher (what's too low?) and how many hardcover units do most first-time authors sell?

Of course the answer to these questions are going to vary widely, but I’ll see what I can do.

Whether or not you go with a small publisher depends greatly on your goals for your book. I’ve often said the same about those who choose to self-publish. Is your goal simply to get published or is your goal to be published with a big house? Certainly there are plenty of stories of authors who started out with smaller presses and moved on to big success with agents and larger houses. One thing that I think I’ve failed to address when this issue comes up, however, is not just how few and far between those successes are, but the time in which those successes happened. Sure, many of you will point to a bestselling author today and remind me that she did it that way, but did any of you consider that she launched her career 20 years ago? Publishing has changed dramatically in the past year, which means it’s difficult to look at something that happened 3, 4 or especially 5 to 10 years ago and use that as your guide.

A small press, heck a large press, does not give you an easy in to landing an agent or publisher. In fact, most often I see it hurting the author. An unpublished author only has to overcome the market and her own writing, a published author has to overcome the sales numbers of any previously published book. Those sales numbers, if low, are going to be a much higher hurdle to jump than any market shifts or agent subjectivity. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Bookstores place orders based on sales numbers of previously published books. If your last book only sold 5,000 copies in paperback, they are only going to order 5,000 copies of your book in paperback, and even fewer in hardcover (not that you would likely get a hardcover deal if your numbers were that low). Again, there are always exceptions, but this is the norm and this is what agents and editors will need to consider with any new project. And by the way, 5,000 copies is not enough to please a publisher.

How fair is an advance? There’s not a clear-cut answer to that because it depends on what you’re writing. Since you said mystery/suspense my question would be is it mystery or suspense? In all honesty, there aren’t that many publishers actively looking for new mystery authors. There are more looking for new suspense authors, but they are only looking for a few. Unlike romance, you don’t see many mystery/suspense-only editors these days. It’s a tough market. And how low is too low? Whatever the market supports. A lot of mysteries are published first in paperback; those that are published in hardcover receive higher advances. As to how many copies most first-time authors sell? That number could range from 1,000 to 100,000. The crazy thing about this business is that the extremes are great and so are the variables. A cozy mystery differs greatly from a thriller, etc.

So there’s essentially a list of non-answers for you, but maybe some of my published mystery/suspense readers would be willing to share their experiences, advances, sales numbers. Anonymously, of course.


Thursday, January 07, 2010

Take a Risk—Stay True to Your Voice by Jennifer Stanley

Jennifer Stanley
Stirring Up Strife
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur
Pub date: January 2010
Agent: Jessica Faust

(Click to Buy)

Author Web/Blog links:;

You’re ready to write a novel. You’ve outlined all twenty-three chapters and plan to write about vampires in a fresh, exciting, and bound-to-be-profitable way. Soon, Twilight fans will have a new obsession and you’ll be raking in the profits from the bestselling novels, movie rights, and merchandising.

Or not. In fact, the rejections of the proposal it took you six months to create have cited something “missing” in your voice. How could that be? You penned a supernatural love affair for the ages! It should be sent straight to the most powerful editors, not to the slush pile!

Don’t despair.

I’ve been there too. I’ve written more than one less-than-stellar proposal, believe me. Back when chick lit was all the rage and any book resembling a Sex in the City episode flew off the shelf, I decided to pen a chick lit-style mystery. My agent (the fabulous Jessica Faust of BookEnds) regretfully informed me that my voice wasn’t working. She was right. My attempts to form a plot focusing on cocktails, high fashion, and one-night stands fell flat. Road kill flat.

The book wasn’t me. Chick lit was selling, but I couldn’t write it. These days, vampires are hot, but I can’t write them either.

Then what do we do, fellow writers, when we can’t put our spin on what’s already selling? We color our voice with personal experience.

If an experience can move you, then it can move your readers as well. Case in point: I’d returned to church after a twenty-year hiatus and, inwardly kicking and screaming, joined a monthly Bible Study group. Taking this risk changed me. The people in the group changed me. I assumed they’d be a bunch of stuffy, judgmental, humorless, blue-haired Republicans and, except for the Republican part, I was completely wrong. They were flawed, funny, courageously honest, generous, beautiful, and wise. I’d never laughed so freely or cried so openly as I did in their presence.

I wanted to write about these precious people. I wanted them to solve crimes, to puzzle over obscure clues, to ensure that good triumphed over evil. In the end, I wrote a mystery series about church folk and two major publishing houses offered to buy it. And there wasn’t a single vampire in my proposal. I was in heaven (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Your richest, most believable voice will be born out of dozens of such personal experiences. So don’t get hung up on Carrie Bradshaw or Bella Swan or whatever the next trend may be. After all, you don’t want to ride a trend; you want to start one. Forget what you think people are looking for and write your story. Your voice will outshine even the glitteriest vampire.

Jennifer’s new release, Stirring Up Strife, is published by St. Martin’s Press.

Available at your local bookstore or, Barnes & Noble, Borders. To contact the author please visit

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A Very Readable Christmas

Now that Christmas is over and any potential surprises won’t be ruined, I can share with you my plan to single-handedly save the publishing business. For Christmas this year I did a great deal of shopping at my favorite bookstores and made sure that even the non-readers on my list were gifted with a book. Here are some of the choices I made for my . . .

11-year-old niece. She’s a reader and I revel in buying her the books I loved as a young girl. This year she received Little Women. No doubt this has been a longtime favorite of mine and a book I’ve read over and over. I also chose A Little Princess. I worry that she might be a little old for this book, but it’s a book that’s close to my heart and one I really wanted to share. To me A Little Princess opened my world to the power of imagination and allowed me to continue to embrace my own imagination and use it in times of stress.

13-year-old nephew. He’s not much of a reader and yet I persist. This year I got him Into the Wild. There’s no doubt this book has a dark ending, but there’s something about it I really thought would appeal to a boy that age. It’s also fairly short, so not intimidating to someone who doesn’t love to read.

9-year-old nephew. Summer of the Monkeys. Yet another book I loved as a child and one that I really felt fit him somehow.

Husband. The man who claimed when we met that he only read, maybe, a book a year, now reads almost as much as I do. For him I bought Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane and American Tabloid by James Ellroy. He’s read and enjoyed both these authors and, in my mind, you can’t go wrong with either of them.

Neighbor. She’s a great cook, but self-professed horrible baker (she’s never made me anything), but always looking to learn. I’ll admit that at this point I was racing through the store, trying to finish up, and grabbed this book on title alone. Better Homes and Gardens Anyone Can Bake looked like the perfect choice. It includes step-by-step instructions with illustrations.

Mom. After visiting me she thought she’d like to try cooking vegetarian more often, but wasn’t sure where to start, so for Christmas she got one of my favorites, A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen. Let’s hope she tries it out.

My boys. Mars Needs Moms because “I’ll love them to the end of the universe,” Bear Stays Up for Christmas and Bear Feels Scared because I love the bear books and Tickle Monster Laughter Kit simply because it looked fun.

Me. Okay, it’s impossible to go to the bookstore without picking up something for myself, so I chose Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Like I need another book to add to the pile!

I hope they all enjoy, but if not, I included gift receipts.


Tuesday, January 05, 2010

When an Agent Leaves

Given my post yesterday, I made the assumption that many of you would want to immediately know what happened to all of the clients Jacky called hers in the ten years she worked at BookEnds, so in preparation of that I went ahead and wrote a post while the transition was being made.

When Jacky first told me she would be leaving BookEnds, one of the things we talked extensively about was how we would handle her clients, who would end up where and what everyone’s status was. Let me tell you that never once did it cross either of our minds that we would just simply let people go. BookEnds has been and always will be a business that survives on teamwork. We’ve always seen ourselves as a team and we always will. In my mind when you sign up to be a client of BookEnds, you join “the family” so to speak. Hopefully not in that scary do-or-die mafia sort of way, though.

Before even notifying Kim and Katelynn here at the office, Jacky and I discussed who would be the best fit for each of her clients, how she would tell them and how I would follow up. It’s a tricky situation and difficult for everyone. As I told each of Jacky’s clients, I know how hard it can be to lose an editor, and I can imagine losing an agent would be even scarier.

From my side of things, I made every attempt to be as responsive as possible. My goal was to get in touch with each of Jacky’s clients within hours, if possible, of her telling them the news. I wanted to reassure each of them that we were still committed to their careers and to let them know who would take on their projects. If I was the new agent, I wanted to chat about where they were with things, how they were feeling, and to give some insight into how I work.

There’s no doubt that a new agent, and a new client, is an adjustment for everyone. For the next few months I’m sure we’ll be feeling each other out and learning how the other works. However, my goal is to make the transition as smooth as possible for everyone. I’m excited for the potential each client brings to BookEnds and I always love building careers. I see lots of continued success for everyone.


Monday, January 04, 2010

Happy New Year

A new year is always an exciting time. With it we see the prospect of change and the excitement of things to come. Well, 2010 is a big new year for BookEnds with lots of changes, lots of new challenges, and lots of excitement.

After celebrating ten years in business last year, first as a packager and later as a literary agency, my cofounder and partner in literary crime, Jacky Sach, made the decision to leave publishing to embark on a new career and a new path. I know it was not an easy decision for her. She was, and is, proud of her part in BookEnds, has worked in publishing for many years, and of course has grown to really care for the many clients whose careers she has cultivated, but when we started BookEnds we started it as a way for both of us to follow our dreams and live our lives the way we wanted. Since opening shop in 1999, Jacky’s dreams have changed and I encourage her to follow them.

In some ways this has been a bittersweet time for me. I’m thrilled with the way BookEnds has grown and couldn’t feel more pride when I look around my office and see the hundreds of books we have helped reach publication. I’m also thrilled for Jacky. It takes a lot of courage to change your life for a new dream, but it’s something I think everyone should have the ability to do, and of course I’m selfishly sad to be losing her. She’s been a rock through the many changes we’ve made as a company and of course my sounding board and shoulder to lean on. I honestly don’t think I could have built this company without her, and for some time it will be weird not to have her here.

As for BookEnds, we will continue on as always, growing and changing as we follow our own dreams and the dreams of our clients. Kim has told me she’s not going anywhere, and we’ve been able to hire Katelynn Lacopo as our full-time assistant. Most important, though, we are all doing what we love, following our dreams and hopefully helping writers follow theirs.

2010 is going to be filled with change, but it’s change I’m truly excited about. I see it as yet another adventure, and since I’ve always embraced adventure, I can’t wait for the ride.