Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Put on Your Game Face

We have a joke among my friends that there’s Work Jessica and just plain old Jessica. Hopefully all of you really only ever see Work Jessica.

Work Jessica is my game face. It’s the image I want to present to the public. It means that I dress a certain way and act a certain way. And while, hopefully, Work Jessica isn’t too far off from regular Jessica, there are subtle differences. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they are and ruin the illusion.

Recently, at a conference, I was walking around, sort of confused actually. I had come out of one room in the giant hotel and was trying to get my bearings. I’ll admit, I was probably weaving and a little scattered. You know the person, you’re trying to walk around her, and just as you are about to go left she weaves left and when you try right she turns right. Well, I was that weaver and yes, it’s irritating, but, since we’re at a conference, we all have our game faces on so we grin (albeit tightly) and finally make our way around. Well, that’s what we should do.

Apparently the woman behind me didn’t feel the same way. Her solution to the situation was to storm by me, sighing deeply and huffing just a little. She was obviously irritated. The problem with this is that she didn’t know who I was. If she was an unagented author she had just acted incredibly rudely to a potential agent. If she was a bestselling author she had just acted very rudely to a potential reader, and if she was an agented but unpublished author she could have acted very rudely to a potential editor. See, here’s the thing: When at a business event like that we don’t know who’s listening in, watching, and just generally paying attention to our every move. And that’s why it’s important to keep our game faces on. When you get up to your room, the door is shut and it’s just you and your roommate and you’re allowed to huff and puff all you want, but when out in public I implore you to try as hard as you can to keep that public persona as charming as possible.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Are you Superstitious

I don’t like to think of myself as a superstitious person, primarily because it seems kind of silly. That being said, I’m superstitious, whether I want to admit it or not.

For example, years ago I made a decision not to tell anyone in the office about a book I was excited about until I had finished most of the manuscript. Why? Because it seemed that every time I got excited enough to tell everyone about those first few chapters the rest of the book would fall apart. I was convinced that if I kept it a secret the book would hold together.

When an editor calls to tell me she’s excited about a book or getting second reads from others in-house I purposely keep my game face on for the editor, the author, and for myself. In other words, I squash any premature excitement. I don’t want to jinx it.

BookEnds has a weekly meeting and each week I need to type up my agenda notes on sales, negotiations, submissions, etc., for discussion during the meeting. I will not add any book to the sales column until negotiations are fully final. Even if we’re 99% there and I know it’s a done deal, I will not add it. Again, I don’t want to jinx anything.

What about you? When it comes to your writing career, is there anything you’re superstitious about?


Thursday, August 26, 2010


Once, long ago, a reader made a comment on my blog that agents should just stick to selling books, that she didn’t want an agent who would “tell her what to write” because that’s not an agent’s job. Obviously this comment has stuck with me, not because I was hurt by it in any way, but because it made me think about the different expectations writers have of their agents.

I never “tell” an author what to write, but I do spend a lot of time brainstorming with my clients, some more than others. With some of my clients we will spend hours, days, and weeks trying to come up with the perfect idea or even the best way to shape a book. Others, of course, do that all on their own and I don’t have much, if any, input at all. Either way works for me.

In my opinion, an agent’s job is to partner with an author to help build a writing career. However what works for the author is going to be up to the individual author. That being said, I absolutely love brainstorming. I remember the first time I learned the word “brainstorm.” I was in third grade and part of an academic decathlon type of group. Our instructor coached us in the freedom of brainstorming and I was hooked. I loved using my imagination to create ideas, no matter how crazy they might have seemed, and I love it to this day.

I often joke with my clients during these brainstorming sessions that I get the easy part. I throw ludicrous ideas their way and then leave it up to them to see if they can make it work. Sometimes they have come up with absolutely brilliant books and sometimes they’ve laughed in my face. Sometimes they’ve simply said no way and sometimes they too get excited after one of our sessions. I don’t brainstorm because I’m a frustrated writer, I don’t brainstorm because I think everyone needs to do things my way. I brainstorm because I have ideas, because we’re all working in a creative environment, and because I think success in all business means being open to new things.

I have to say, brainstorming is one of the best things about my job. I love working together, creatively, with others, and I can’t thank my authors enough for allowing their crazy agent to throw her wacky ideas their way. Hopefully it’s of some help.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

An Author's Seduction

I’m a big fan of marketing guru Seth Godin. You may have heard me talk about him before, and if you follow me on Twitter you’ve definitely seen me retweet his posts. Seth tends to write very short blog posts, but in a few words he is really able to get me thinking. His recent post on the Art of Seduction made me think of what both published and unpublished authors need to do when it comes to marketing.

We live in a world where everyone wants everything to come easily and be easy. Unpublished authors berate agents for not having uniform guidelines that would simply allow them to shoot out one query letter to everyone, and published authors are seeking the magic promotional item that will hit all potential readers in the same way and make them buy books.

It’s never going to happen. Uniform submission guidelines mean that you’re assuming all agents are exactly the same, and thankfully that’s not true. We all have different tastes and different ideas. We love different types of books and different authors, and thankfully so.

The same holds true for published authors. I talk to authors all the time who seem to want to know the magic of marketing. They want to know how another author had such success and what she did to attain it. The truth though is that it doesn't work that way. One uniform promotional idea that will resonate with everyone means that all readers are the same and even if you are writing in the same genre as another author, your readers are not the same.

If you really want to succeed when it comes to finding an agent or getting new readers, then you constantly need to be re-creating and rethinking your strategy to appeal to many different types of people. What works for one might not work for you, what works for one of your books might not work for the next. What works when charming and wooing one girl is not likely to work with another and what works on that girl one night, might not work the next.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Work of Cover Art

Queries aren’t the only thing I’m behind on. I’ve also fallen behind on my Bravo TV watching, and since Bravo seems to take up the majority of my DVR space, that’s saying a lot.

Finally though I’m catching up and watching Work of Art, the Bravo reality show for competitive artists. Believe it or not, this show is much more interesting than I would have thought. Of course, anything that uses the format behind Project Runway and Top Chef can’t fail in my mind. One of the reasons that I love watching these shows is that I feel in some way it gives me insight into my own world. Fashion design, cooking, and creating art are not that much different from writing a book. All of these people bringing their art into the business world.

Work of Art is particularly interesting, though, because of one episode. In episode three the artists were asked to create a book cover for a Penguin Classics book. This was probably the first time I actually felt I knew what the judges were talking about. In some cases, the art was interesting, but there was no way it was marketable as a book cover, and in other cases the art might have made an interesting book cover, but it wasn’t necessarily great art. The trick for these artists was finding the balance between the two. And this got me thinking: Have you ever seen a book cover (other than your own) that’s really stuck with you simply because it was a great piece of art, a piece you would like to have to hang on your wall? Have you ever bought a book because the cover was so gorgeous you couldn’t resist?


Monday, August 23, 2010

The Reason for "Rules"

Believe it or not there is a reason behind every “rule” agents have when it comes to querying. The reason isn’t to make your life crazy, but to help give you a better shot on the road to publication.

On the BookEnds website we advise all authors to put the word “query” or “submission” in the subject line of their query. The reason for this is that we’ve set up our spam filters to push those words through. If “query” or “submission” come up in the subject line my server knows not to mark it as spam and push it through, and my email manager knows not to mark it as spam and to file it automatically in my query folder so I can read it later.

Believe it or not there is a reason for our madness.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Query Friday

I haven't done a status on my queries lately, I guess because I've been closed. But for those who don't follow me on Twitter, I thought I should update you. As of a week or so ago (I've totally lost track of time) I'm fully caught up on queries, although still closed. That means I don't have any queries left to answer. If you've sent me a query anytime in the past year you should have an answer. If you haven't received an answer the letter was lost in some way or another and you should re-query after September 6.

The weird thing about closing to queries is that for some reason it gives me the freedom to request more proposals. I find that as I’m reading queries and the numbers in my inbox actually go down (instead of stay stagnant) I am requesting more partials than I have all year. I've been finding time to get to those too and at this point have roughly 20 left together. Some date back to June, the rest are from July and August.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Do We Impress You

Have any of your bloggers impressed you so much by their comments, or how they wrote them, it created a head slapping "I should represent this writer" moment, or conversely, "I should steer clear of this nut-case"?

I have learned on your website that content of the story is as important as the caliber of how it’s told. But, for those of us who realize the difficulties of the process, do our brilliant blogger comments impress you, in any way?

I think some of us try to behave and do everything right so we get to be on your good side, which means, we get to pass out and collect the homework and watch the rest of the class when you are out of the room. By the way, Tommy has a water balloon in his desk.

If you have covered this on your website I apologize for not digging deep enough or forgetting what it was you actually said. Okay, I’ll sit down now and shut up.

I liked this question because it touches on a conversation I frequently have with other agents, clients, and writers who read my blog. It first came up a few years ago when a client mentioned all the sucking up that goes on on my blog. Honestly, I had never seen it. I guess I took everything at face value. If a reader agreed with me or complimented what I said, I simply assumed they agreed or were complimentary. I suppose it’s sort of like learning that the cute boy in school likes you. Everyone else sees it, it seems obvious, all except to the girl he’s set his sights on. I’m afraid I’m still that girl who doesn’t really see it. I suppose there are those who think that agreeing with everything I say will warm my heart and make me want to represent you. It really won’t, just like disagreeing with what I say won’t make me not want to represent you.

In some ways, I see the blog as a separate aspect of my business from the actual acquiring, submitting, and selling of books, and in many ways it is. I suppose if BookEnds was a giant corporation I would work for two different departments. Blog Jessica would work for marketing, promotion, and, maybe, customer service. Agent Jessica would work in the agency department or maybe sales. Her job would be to represent authors and sell their books.

No comment has been so brilliant that I thought I’d love to represent that author. Meet the author maybe, but not represent. And the only comments that really turn me off so much that I know it’s an author I would never want to represent are usually posted anonymously by trolls. They are rarely intelligent or rational discussions. Usually they are attacks and nothing more. I tend to ignore them.

Behaving does not mean always doing everything right or agreeing with everything someone else says. Would any of you want an agent who only wanted to work with clients who nodded, smiled, and gritted their teeth? I don’t think so. Behaving means acting professionally and giving an honest opinion respectfully, even when it’s to disagree with the original post.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Referrals from Clients

In my post A Different Way of Doing Business, a lot of discussion occurred in the comments section about the referring author’s responsibility and how I dealt with my client if a “bad” referral came in (for lack of a better word).

The minute you get a book deal, heck, the minute you get an agent, people are going to come from everywhere asking you to get them in the door with your agent. It’s natural, it’s normal, and good for them. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the business world it’s that the phrase “it’s not what you know, but who you know” really is true. Almost inevitably this means a client will come to me to say that Author J wants an introduction, she’s never read her work, but passed along my name. What I always say is that’s fine. No author, no family member, and no friend should be responsible for weeding out my submissions and I don’t judge my authors on the referrals they send or the number of authors who come to me using their names because they are in critique groups together or met at a conference.

I’ve gained a number of great clients through referrals, just signed one up as I’m writing this, in fact. I’ve also passed on a lot of material. You never know what will hit and I appreciate that my clients respect me enough and have enjoyed working with me enough to think my name is worthy of passing on. In my experience, clients will sometimes ask what happened with that other author, but rarely are they invested enough to get upset if I pass and never do I volunteer the information to the client.

What it comes down to is no one is responsible for your work, your career, and the way you present yourself but you. Once the introduction is made it’s up to the author who received the referral to close the deal, so to speak. No one else can do that for her.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

An Agent's Creative Side

Do you ever have those days when too many distractions make writing nearly impossible? Maybe it’s a day better spent researching or working on marketing and publicity or maybe it’s a day you just need to take a break from writing to get those other things done that are clogging your brain?

I don’t know if that’s the way it works for you, but that’s definitely the way it works for me. There are days when, no matter how many proposals are piled on my desk, I just can’t get to them. Editing, reviewing, reading, or writing revision letters for clients is a creative process. When I read those books or proposals I need to be at the top of my game. I need to be able to really think while I’m reading, analyze what’s working and what’s not working, and make copious notes to the author. If I have too many other things going on, things that can make it difficult for me to focus, it’s not going to be good for my client. It means that I’m distracted and that I might miss the fact that the heroine is a complete imbecile or the hero is just plain awful. If I’m distracted it means I can’t do my best work for a client and this is why it sometimes takes agents longer than it should.

If I’m distracted I think it’s better not to read for revisions the minute the work arrives on my desk, but to instead give myself time to get rid of the distractions and give myself a clean plate. Once my brain is clear, I settle in, turn off the phone and computer, and sit down to focus on what needs to get done. Granted, this usually doesn’t take weeks, but can sometimes mean that it takes a few days longer than I want it to. I try to keep my clients honestly informed of where I’m at with things and hopefully I never keep them waiting too long, but an agent’s job has a bit of a creative side too and just like writers, it’s important for us to embrace our own creative process so that we can do the best work possible on your behalf.


Monday, August 16, 2010

More on Product Placement in Books

Oh, what a difference a year makes. Last year I wrote a post about the possibility of product placement in books and whether or not authors would consider being paid to include products in their books and how readers might feel about that. At the time, it was a bit of a pie-in-the-sky idea. However, things are changing quickly and dramatically all over the world and publishing is no exception. Now there is regular talk of “enhanced ebooks,” ebooks that might include short videos or links. Think of the implications this could have.

Now instead of simply giving your protagonist a Leinenkugel to drink you could actually link to an ad for Leinenkugel or the Leinenkugel website. The website could be created by the company to sell the product specifically to readers of your book. Obviously this is all speculation, but it makes one wonder about how much books will really change in the future and how much authors could and might benefit, not just from the sales of the book but the potential ad space.

Just a thought. What do you think?


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Individualizing the Query

I was wondering what you think is the most important aspect of a query. I've read a ton of articles which all cite different things and I get the feeling that rather than emphasizing hook over plot, or characters over events, based on an article, I should strive to find out what it is that each individual agent wants to know. (Or is that wrong in and of itself?)

Is there one thing in a book that captures you more than one thing, and if there is, do you want to see that emphasized in a query? Or does balance and concise explanation of the plot outweigh your own personal preferences?

Unfortunately, I don’t think a query is a one-size-fits-all device. I don’t think the same query necessarily works for all agents or all authors. That being said, I don’t think it should either.

The most important part of the query is the blurb, the part that tells the agent about your book, the part that grabs her attention and makes her want to read more. Here’s the deal, though: What you should strive for is writing the query that best represents you and your book. It should show the reader a bit of your voice and the blurb shouldn’t necessarily be about hook or characters or plot. It should be that one thing about your book that makes it stand out from all others. For some this might be hook, for others character and for some plot.

If you read the query samples I’ve posted on the blog over the years you’ll see how very different they all are and yet, they all worked. A query that works for me won’t work for Janet Reid or Nathan Bransford or Rachelle Gardner, and that’s absolutely fine because the agent that represents you might not work for another author, even those in your critique group.

Stop trying to write queries and books that appeal to everyone. Write a query (and a book) that will appeal to many, but that is your best work.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What I'd LOVE to Say

I often start drafts of blog posts and then let them percolate for a while before finishing or posting. Ironically, the week I started this particular blog post I was alerted to this blog: http://slushpilehell.tumblr.com/

I don’t think there’s anything I could possibly add.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Firing an Agent

Some months ago I asked my agent about the possibilities of getting my novel adapted as a graphic novel. He dismissed the suggestion, saying that those particular rights belonged to the publisher. After examining the contract, I realized that those rights are mine alone with all the other derivatives (film, dramatic etc). Recently I have found an agent who specializes in Graphic Novel who was interested in selling it, but asked that I get a waiver from the agent of record, since she is not willing to split her commission.

Without telling my agent about this I asked again about graphic novels. After the publisher acknowledged that those rights are mine, he responded that there was no point in trying to sell a graphic novel adaptation, since the graphic novel business was "nascent." Like the movie rights, which he has farmed out to an agent who has done nothing in two years. He admitted that he is content to wait for something to drop from the heavens and refuses to waive any of those rights.

As far as he is concerned, the novel he sold is a spent property, since the publishers is neither going to give up rights or put out any subsequent editions as long as they have a couple thousand unsold hardbacks in their inventory. He is also not interested in representing my current project as it is something the editor doesn't care for.

My agency agreement does not say anything about him keeping hold of unsold rights. Can't I just fire him and take my rights back?

I want to take a step back here. I recognize that you are frustrated and angry and I don’t blame you. That being said, I want to explain some things so that readers don’t get confused about what’s really wrong, or seemingly wrong, and what’s probably really happening. I’m going to address the movie rights first and then I’ll move on to the graphic novel rights. You say that your agent “farmed” the movie rights out to another agent who has done nothing. It’s very typical for a literary agent to work with a co-agent on movie rights, foreign rights, and other types of sub-rights. Just as a literary agent specializes in books, and certain genres of books, there are agents who specialize in certain territories or in movies. I can’t weigh whether or not this movie agent is doing anything, but I can tell you that it’s very, very difficult to get a movie option and not having one doesn’t necessarily mean nothing is being done.

Okay, on to your original question. I’m concerned that your agent didn’t seem to know what rights he held on your behalf. Certainly that’s not material I have in my head for every contract I’ve negotiated, but it’s easy enough for me to find out by reading the contract. To me that’s a red flag.

As to moving forward, if your agency contract says nothing about him keeping unsold rights, and you’re sure of this, then I see no reason why you can’t fire this agent and move forward with any rights in any way you want. What I might suggest, to keep things clean, is that you spell this out in your termination letter. In other words, you say specifically that you are terminating your agreement and that you are free to move forward with any unsold rights with no obligation to him.

Keep in mind, your agent still has the right to receive commissions on any contracts he did negotiate on your behalf and on any rights you licensed in those contracts.


Monday, August 09, 2010

Query Recap

One early Sunday morning I sat down with my coffee and attempted to go through as many of the 280+ queries in my inbox as I could before my day started. This time around, unlike in other recaps, I didn’t focus on one day or one set time period. I simply wandered around the inbox opening and reviewing queries at random.

Here’s the count:

Total Number of Queries Read: 33
Total Time Reading Queries: about 30 minutes
Total Number of Queries I Rejected: 30
Total Number of Queries I Requested More Material for: 3
Total Number of Queriers Who Were Previously Published: 3 (note that only one of those previously published authors is in the “requested” category
Total Number Nonfiction Queries: 2
Total Number of Responses I Gave that Offered More Than Just the Standard “No”: 4

We often discuss how a query should give the reader a sense of your voice, and while reading these that flashed into my mind, so I read with a thought to how these queries were written. Overall, I think most writers have done their research and have a sense of how to write a strong query. Most of you are doing a great job of putting your voice (as far as I can tell) into the query. There are definitely some cases where I reject based on the fact that I don’t feel I connect with the voice. And of course many of my requests come because I do like the voice.


Thursday, August 05, 2010

Which Comes First

This came from the comments on a previous post . . .

There has been contradicting advice on agents' blogs these days about what should come first: the book deal or the website? A web presence before being published, or create a website after you've sold? Any takers on this debate?

Frankly, I don’t think it really matters. Sometimes it’s nice for agents to be able to check you out and see if you have writing posted somewhere, especially if you are an author who’s winning a lot of awards or getting a lot of attention. Sometimes agents will check you out before you even query.

You need a website well before your first book is published. You don’t need a website before that.


Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Length of Time Editors Take

What does it mean when an editor holds onto your manuscript for two months, not passing but not accepting either? Does it mean they are waiting for additional reads, something to change, what? This drives me nuts.

I recently read it took the author of Percy Jackson 2 full years from query to getting an offer from an editor. Why do they hold on so long without telling you what's going on?

Honestly? It means absolutely nothing. The sanest thing you can do when getting a request from an editor, or an agent, is let it go and move on. In other words, continue querying agents and submitting. Waiting for an editor to respond is often like waiting for the water to boil when you’re starving. The best thing you can do is leave the room and find something else to focus on.

What an editor, or agent, is doing with it can depend on a number of things. The most likely, though, is that she just hasn’t gotten to it yet. If you’re submitting to editors without an agent you are at the bottom of the list. That means every agented manuscript that comes into the editor is going to get priority over yours. That includes those manuscripts that come in the day yours was submitted as well as the manuscripts that come in the following days and weeks. Unless you get an offer from someone else or the editor had already read partial material and almost wet her pants she was so excited, you’re going to wait.

Why do they hold onto it so long? Because they’re busy, because agents are coming to them almost daily with manuscripts that have their stamp of approval (so to speak), because they only have so many slots on a publishing list to buy for and those are being quickly filled by the authors they are already publishing and the manuscripts coming from agents.

Two years from query to offer might seem like a long time, but in truth it’s probably not. Keep in mind, you’re saying from “query” to offer. For all you know he spent a year querying agents before anyone bit. Maybe the book needed major work before it even went out to editors, maybe editors took months to consider.

Who knows what happened, and that’s the truth. You don’t. So keep writing the best books possible. And by the way, two months doesn’t even come close to being a long time.


Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Do Agents Have a Voice?

We’ve all talked about voice hundreds of times and have an understanding of what it means when we hear “an author’s voice,” but while reading a book the other day I had a thought: Do agents have a voice?

Let me explain. I was reading this book recently and throughout the entire book I kept thinking to myself, “this sounds exactly like something I’d represent.” The book sounded somehow familiar to me, as if it had come off my own bookshelf. As if it was written by one of my own clients. Now, granted, there are a lot of different voices among my shelves and certainly no two are alike, but if you look at an agent’s client list will you start to see a certain voice or similarity in voice shine through?

I have no idea if there’s an answer to this question, but it is something that has me thinking.


Monday, August 02, 2010

An Offer From a Small Publisher

I recently received two very similar questions, and rather than answer them separately I thought I’d lump them together.

I received a contract in the mail from a publisher today. I do not have an agent. I queried widely without success prior to submitting the manuscript to a few publishers that accept unagented material. I have a lawyer friend who has reviewed the contract and says it's pretty standard, but I want (and have always wanted) to work with an agent. The publisher wrote within the offering letter that many elements of the contract are open for negotiation, and I know several items are not worded in my favour and should be changed, but I do not feel qualified to do so.

Should I try to find an agent now? How should I go about doing so? Is it acceptable to contact some of the agents who rejected my query - as these are the people I spent time researching and I know I would like to work with? How do I get my contract offer out of the slush pile?


if you submit your work to a small publisher and they're interested in publishing the book, is a small press too small for an agent to be interested in representing a new author? Should the author not accept the publisher's offer if an agent is willing to look at their work and submit it to a large publisher instead?

First off, I think both readers should review the posts I’ve made on similar subjects. If you go to Turn that Deal Around you’ll also see a link to another post that talks about what an agent can do for you if you get an offer from a publisher.

Let me take a stab at these questions. . . .

Whether you get an offer from a small press or a large press there is no guarantee that an agent will want to handle the deal for you. A good agent will want to read the book first before making the decision, to make sure your writing is something she wants to add to her list. That being said, I know there is a myth that goes through writers’ circles not to even bother looking for an agent if it’s a small press because agents aren’t interested in small presses. I’m not sure who started this rumor or why it continues to spread, but it’s just plain ridiculous. Agents are interested in getting good books published and every agent worth her salt knows that sometimes that means going to a small press. We also know that a lot of really great careers start at small presses. Sure, sometimes the money is smaller, but if I’m looking at an author’s work I’m seeing a career, which means, in my mind, the money might start small, but I’m seeing bigger things to come.

If a small press deal comes your way, the time to get an agent is the minute you get the offer. Sure, you can pay 15% to negotiate the contract, but typically once the contract is sent you’ve already agreed to a number of terms, including advance, royalties, and territory. These are the big ones and, frankly, these are what an agent will negotiate to make her money. If you have the contract in hand, those are already finalized. If you’ve had a publishing lawyer look over the contract and negotiate on your behalf, you probably don’t need an agent at this point.

As I said in the previous post referenced above, talk to the agent before you accept the offer. Simply let the publisher know you’d like to bring an agent on board and you’ll get back to her. There are a ton of agents out there and it’s unlikely you’ve actually submitted to them all. The other thought to consider is that it’s unlikely they’ve all read your proposal. For those who only rejected on query you might want to go back to them this time to see if the offer pushes them to want to read your work.