Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Miriam Goderich's musings on "The Perfect Query Letter."

The perfect query letter does not exist. (Well, perhaps it lives in the fantasy realm of unicorns and dragons, but certainly not in our day-to-day publishing world.) And, yet, everyone seems to be chasing the formula for that elusive, perfect query letter (EPQL) and its pursuit is giving a lot of people agita and heartburn. It's a recurring theme during the Q&A portion of agent presentations at writers conferences. Many internet sites and print publications aimed at writers spend a lot of time on the subject and, in talking with individual authors, it seems that confusion about this subject is universal.

So, I will try to elucidate what makes a query effective -- not perfect, mind you, just effective -- for us here at DGLM:

1. It should be succinct and to the point. The purpose of this missive is to introduce yourself and your project and ascertain if the agent wants to take a look at your proposal/manuscript. It is not the place to go into longwinded detail about the weather, your passion for shell collecting (unless, of course, the book is about shell collecting), or your great-aunt Mary’s faith that you would one day be a published writer. It should, however, be no more than a page long and look and read like a letter not a report.

The first paragraph might mention how you came to query this particular agent and/or agency – perhaps noting that you saw a nice acknowledgement of the agent in a book you admired or you looked on the agency’s web site and identified with the agent’s profile somehow or anything that shows that you did your homework and that this is not just a form letter being sent to 6,000 agents.

The next paragraph should tell the prospective agent what the book is in a couple of sentences. Here is not the place to summarize your entire book. You want to highlight the strongest themes or the elements that make the book distinctive (e.g., “My novel tells the tale of star-crossed teenage lovers separated by their families’ bitter feud.” Not, “Romeo grew up in Verona and was part of the Montague clan. He met and fell in love with Juliet who was a member of the Capulet familiy and who spent an inordinate amount of time on balconies or talking to her nurse….”) Unless you’re very good at writing concise plot summaries, the less said the better. The idea is to get the agent to the actual manuscript.

The final paragraph should tell us anything relevant about you – this is your first novel or you’ve been published in numerous literary journals or John Cheever was your godfather or you’re a neurosurgeon who has an MFA from the Iowa writing program, etc. – and ask if you may send a sample of your project or the complete manuscript.

2. On the technical side of things: Spell check and then carefully proofread the query. We have had instances of great hilarity over a dropped letter in a strategic spot. Someone once queried us for a book about “pubic policy” and, juvenile bunch that we are, we didn’t stop laughing for days. You don’t want the query to go directly to the form rejections pile because of typos, grammatical errors or because you addressed the envelope to one agent and sent it to another.

It’s okay to single space query letters – as you would any other letter – but it’s not okay to make your margins less than one inch wide and your font teeny tiny so that you can fit a three-page description into one page. Ease of reading is half the battle among us bleary-eyed publishing people. (Everything else in your submission package should be double spaced and single sided.)

Finally, unless you’re in prison, type your queries rather than handwriting them. One of my favorite queries of all time was a six-page handwritten saga describing the author’s genealogical connections to everyone from the British royal family to Lassie.

3. Did I mention doing your homework? If the agent you’re querying only represents science fiction and fantasy, don’t send him/her a query for a self-help proposal. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and postage, and there are so many places where you can find information on agents and publishers that it should be relatively easy to identify your target.

4. Use any edge you have. If you met one of us at a conference, lead with that. If your father went to school with one of our spouses, tell us that. Anything that helps us identify yours as something we should pay attention to is fair to include. Ultimately, it’s the actual idea and writing that will determine whether we offer representation, but that won’t happen if your query doesn’t make us request your material.

Caveat: Even if you follow my directions slavishly, there’s no guarantee that your query will be that EPQL we’re all looking for. As with everything else in this quixotic business, you can sometimes do all the wrong things and still end up with an agent and a book contract. And, conversely, you can do all the right things and not get your foot in the door. So, my advice is to better your chances by crafting as good a query letter as you can and then trust that your efforts and the strength of your work will pay off.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tayari Jones balances the writing/publicity act

It has been carefully documented on this blog and on my own, that publishing houses often neglect to publicize the books that they have agreed to publish. It becomes pretty clear to an author that she is going to have to get out there and hustle if she wants her book to reach readers, reviewers, prize committees, etc. Many articles have been written by editors and publicists urging more authors to get out there and HUSTLE.

I’ve done it. I’ll admit it. Many authors of literary fiction feel demeaned by the dirty-hands work of hawking their book. And, though we seldom admit it, it is also pretty depressing work. Literary fiction does not exactly lend itself to the same techniques that work well for urban lit, romance, and mystery novels. One writer friend of mine told me of her dismay at sitting at a book festival next to a romance author who had brought along a troupe of bare-chested policemen to draw attention to her steamy novel. I, too, have appeared with an author of a salacious tale of “interracial sex, drug money, and senseless violence” while I was trying to get the same audience interested in my book about loss of innocence in Atlanta during its infamous child murders case. It was enough to make me want to go knock on J.D. Salinger’s door and see if he wanted a roommate.

But once I got over myself, I had to face the fact that I was going to have to play a role in the publicity plan for my second novel. The real question was what my role should be. Here are a few guidelines that have worked for me:

If you can afford it, hire an independent publicist. Don’t go into massive debt for it, but you should squirrel away some of your advance for this important project. Although I think of myself as having a lot of good ideas, I also have sense enough to know that I am not an expert in literary publicity. Also, keep in mind that reading series, book reviewers, etc., are often more comfortable dealing with an author’s representative rather than the author herself. (Here are some things to think about when hiring a publicist and here is a Q&A I did with Lauren Cerand, the publicist I ended up choosing.)

Do what you do best, WRITE. When my second novel was published, I wrote a few articles about the experience of writing and publishing, and also pieces connected to the themes of my books. Some were published on line and others in magazines. Many writers are more comfortable lounging at home in their pajamas than standing in front of large crowds, giving readings, etc. If this is you, that’s okay. Let your writing represent you. Everything helps when it comes to getting the word out.

Get good at reading from your work. I know I just said you could help yourself without facing a crowd, but you will have to venture outside from time to time. Bookstore readings are helpful even if you only read to an audience of six people. For one thing, those six folks may tell six other folks, but more importantly, the bookstore staff will hear you and their enthusiasm will linger well after you’ve gone back home to the comfort of your pajamas. My advice is to practice reading until you feel confident. You won’t be so nervous once you know what you’re doing.

Use the internet. Blogging is a terrific way to communicate with your readers without running all over the country. Many writers think they will not have time to blog, but once you get the hang of it, it only takes about three hours a week. Also, get familiar with the major lit-blogs and then decide which ones would be a good fit for your work.

Don’t overdo it. Once you start thinking of ways to publicize your book, you will realize that there is always something else to be done. There are always more postcards to mail, more hands to shake, more festivals to visit. Know when to back off. You don’t want your efforts to get the word out to compromise your ability to have a life. Don’t miss important milestones with your family because you were busy signing stock at a major bookstore. And always remember, you are a writer who is trying to publicize your book. You are not a motivational speaker who writes in between reading and speaking gigs (unless, of course, you are). Don’t ever lose that focus. Nothing will help your career more than finishing the next book.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Michael Bourret suggests that you "keep your day job."

It’s most authors’ dream, isn’t it, writing for a living? Being able to leave the grueling, monotonous nine-to-five grind for the glamorous world of publishing; sitting at home in a bathrobe, warm cup of coffee in hand, ever expanding manuscript at foot; calls about sequels and movie options; big packets about promotion and publicity arriving daily. It’s a nice dream, even if it doesn’t reflect the reality of most stay-at-home authors, many of whom will tell you that it’s often lonely, nerve-wracking, and just as soul-crushing (if not more so) as a “normal” job. (For a cheerier take on this subject, see Michael Prescott’s blog entry.) But let’s ignore the plight of those who write for a living for a moment, and focus on the other 95% of authors.

Very, very few novelists get to stay home writing all day. The truth is, many people get one book published, and then find that if the first book doesn’t work, the second becomes very difficult to sell. And, with advances for first books seemingly getting smaller every day, one book sale isn’t enough to live off of for a year, much less retire on. I know my view of things is colored by the rather high cost of living in New York, but even authors in the smallest towns can’t survive on $5,000 a year.

So what’s a first-time author to do? My advice is to keep the day job--the benefits are more than financial. Let’s go back to the writer sitting at home. Publishing is not glamorous; it’s hard work. The full-time writers I know work harder and longer than their peers. They spend much more than eight hours a day writing, thinking about their writing, wondering what their agent is thinking, pondering the loss of yet another editor, desperately trying to refrain from e-mailing their publicist again about that review in the Sioux City Herald, talking with other writers (about their agent, editor, and publicist), blogging, and generally praying that they won’t have a coronary before the end of the day. Authors who have day jobs are often able to put things in perspective: there’s more to life than their book(s). They get to leave a large part of the worrying to us agents (it’s part of what we’re paid to do – see Jane’s latest blog here), and that’s as it should be.

My take on this aside, I decided that I would speak to somebody who actually did leave work to write rather than just commenting from up here on my perch. Sara Zarr, the author of the forthcoming Story of a Girl, quit her job as an administrative assistant a few months after we sold her book. She had a lot to say. "If you get a book deal and are thinking about quitting your day job, there are a lot of factors to consider. Of course, it depends on what your day job is. If it's a career job, if you've invested years of time and energy into it and it fulfills some part of you that writing can't, keep it. If it's a minor job that you don't care too much about (or you hate), and you're reasonably hirable in the current job climate, quit and try the full-time writing thing. You can always go back into the job market if you need to or if you find you don't do well sitting home all day. Quitting does free you up to travel and promote your book if you need to, which is nice, but not mandatory." Her last piece of advice struck me as particularly important. "It's not necessarily all or nothing. My employer let me scale back my hours while I was working on revisions. You might be able to arrange something more flexible at your current job or find part time work."

I know it’s tough to write and work at the same time while also keeping up with family and social commitments. I understand that working full-time as a writer seems glamorous, but writing for a living is something that only a handful of people are able to do, both for financial and psychological reasons.

When that final offer comes in from the publisher of your dreams and your excitement is tempered by the fact that you can’t quit counting beans, don’t panic. Your book is going to be published, and you’ll get to keep your sanity. It’s the best of both worlds.

I really welcome comments from authors about this one.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Michael Prescott shares his "Thanksgiving thoughts"

Thanksgiving is upon us, and those of us who make our career as writers have a lot to be thankful for.

We don't always remember this, of course. We complain about poor sales, inadequate support from our publishers, fickle buying trends, small paychecks, slow delivery of monies owed. We fret that our books have been stuck spine-out at the back of the store, and that new copies aren't ordered fast enough (if at all) when the first batch sells out (if it does). We worry about the escalating competition from other leisure-time pursuits that seem so much jazzier than reading - videogames, movie rentals, cable and satellite TV, music downloads, Web surfing, even blogs like this one.

In the face of all this and more, it's easy to be negative. But for writers fortunate enough to earn a living at their craft, there are compensations.

Some are obvious. We work at home. We aren't slaves to an alarm clock, a car pool, or a cubicle. We don't serve a daily prison sentence from nine to five - or more likely, these days, eight to six. If it's a beautiful day, we can goof off and go for a walk, and no boss from hell will be there to rough up our psyches when we get back. We don't live in the Dilbert universe. We don't even get all the Dilbert jokes.

I realize not everybody regards the workaday world with such horror. But writers do. We're like criminals in this respect; in fact, I think this is one reason why writers often gravitate toward criminal characters. We don't want to be penned up in a conventional societal role. Or, to opt for a more wholesome comparison, we're like little kids praying for one more day of summer before we have to return to the monotony of classrooms and schedules and tests. For us, writing for a living is the dream of childhood - endless summer.

Though we may miss out on some of the camaraderie of office life, we have social and professional support systems to keep us sane: caring editors, dedicated agents, loyal readers. Encouragement from other writers. Help from our expert sources. Writing doesn't have to be a solitary life, unless that's how we like it.

And we get to be creative. Whether we write fiction or nonfiction, we need to tell a story that will engage and perhaps enlighten our fellow humans. We are required to learn new things. Over the years I've learned, at least in theory, how to hot-wire a car, defeat a burglar alarm system, implement electronic surveillance, evade a tail, steal a chemical weapon, investigate a crime scene, and preserve human tissue under plastic (don't ask).

There's also a less obvious compensation. Writing books makes us part of a vast ongoing stream of shared imagination and shared knowledge, a kind of collective consciousness that binds past, present, and future, while bridging gulfs between cultures and worlds. I've had books published in Eastern Europe, Japan, even (amazingly) Iran. I've received emails from a bank clerk in Holland who's into death metal music, a woman in Pakistan who invited me on a tour of Islamabad (a fun city, she assured me), and a British expatriate living in Spain who appeared on the British equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? He is also a chess grandmaster, and he keeps detailed, daily records of every coincidence in his life.

Our books don't have to go abroad to put our thoughts in contact with cultures different from our own. I know a reader who raises livestock on a Missouri farm, another who breeds horses in Texas, and another who now lives on a coffee plantation in Hawaii after retiring from the foreign service, where she saw duty in Kabul and Baghdad, rode camels on sightseeing expeditions, and bartered for handmade cloths at street corner bazaars.

There's a New Age truism that all minds are ultimately connected and separation is illusory. If there's any truth in this, then the crosspollination of ideas and experiences through the written word is perhaps our most important way of combating and overcoming the illusion of separateness. All writers should feel privileged to participate in such an undertaking, no matter how modest our individual contribution may be.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Jim McCarthy wonders if "it's nearly impossible to sell novels."

“Fiction doesn’t sell.”

“The fiction market is dead.”

“Fiction is dying.”

You know what? I hear it. I hear it all the time. And upon returning from a particularly inspiring writers’ conference in Surrey, British Columbia, I made the decision to actively pursue more fiction.

So…am I a masochist? Is my bank account so overflowing with money that I don’t care if I ever sell another book? Am I really, really stupid? Questions worth asking, one and all.

Frankly, I’m too much of a wuss to be a masochist; I have significantly less in the coffers than Scrooge McDuck; and, well, I really hope I’m not an idiot.

I love good nonfiction. I represent some amazing projects in the category. I have had the chance to work with brilliant people with expert knowledge, great talent, and personality to spare. I will keep doing so, and I am happy about that.

But nothing really gets the heart pumping like a fantastic novel. I have stacks of them at home waiting to make it into my narrow “pleasure reading” window. I could be intimidated by the height of the piles, but I’m more inspired than scared. I deliberately hold off reading certain books because I want to save them for a time when I’m looking to be particularly awe-struck. I’ve put down Middlesex before cracking the cover any number of times because I’m almost too excited to read it. If I get near the end of the line on authors I love, I’ll drop their one remaining title to the bottom of the pile so I will always know there’s more of their work waiting to be new to me. Toni Morrison’s Jazz has been gathering dust for years, and I love knowing that it’s there for me to read…someday.

I read across genres and categories. I grew up devouring books by Jackie Collins and Stephen King. I’d be as happy re-reading Valley of the Dolls as I would The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’ve never much understood book snobbery. I was once told by an aspiring writer, “I could churn out a schlocky mystery if I wanted to, but my aims are higher than that. I don’t do formula.” I responded by beating him senseless (in my head). Because the truth of the matter is, there’s an intangible element to fiction that separates the good from the great as far as I see it. And that is passion, vitality, life, love, or whatever the spark is that shines through a great author’s work no matter what they’re writing. If they don’t love what they’re doing, why should a reader?

And that’s the spark that keeps me going. I signed someone up four years ago and sent their first novel to 41 publishers. Every single one of them turned it down. The compliments came fast and furious, but they all ended up deciding to pass. Fine. We moved on. Two years later, there was a new manuscript that showed the same strength and vivaciousness as the first novel. I fell in love with the author’s work anew. There was editorial back and forth before it finally went out to nine editors. And sold. I knew this author had “it,” whatever “it” was. It drove me forward through the 41 rejections and edits on the next manuscript just like it drove him forward. In the best of situations, an author and an agent share a passion for a work and that becomes the engine that drives their collaboration.

Fiction for me is fundamentally about love and passion. Every once in awhile, I pass on a novel that I think is quite good simply because I can’t really get behind it. I like it, and I respect it, but the love just isn’t there. I always wonder if authors who receive those rejection letters think it’s a cop-out. It isn’t. The fact of the matter is that the market is really competitive. Fiction is one of the toughest things to place. So we roll the dice on what we love. It’s tricky, but when it works, it’s magnificent.

I’ve heard that it’s nearly impossible to sell novels. I’ve placed more than 25 in the past three years. And I don’t say that to brag (okay, fine, I’m bragging a little). I say it because what this job comes down to is commitment. Through the frustrations and the rejections and the authors who just want a deal, any deal, right NOW; it is the love of the written word that keeps me going. Well, that and the conviction that all of my authors are going to turn into major bestsellers.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Jane Dystel explains "an agent's job."

A couple of weeks ago, a woman came to me for representation. She had been offered a publishing contract by a small academic publisher who had sent her their contract. When the woman saw the contract, she felt many of its terms were unfair and she went to a friend of hers to ask if she should get an agent. The friend advised that “the purpose of an agent is to bring buyers and sellers together. Once a seller has a buyer, then the agent’s job is basically done.”

Frankly I was stunned, to say nothing of very annoyed. We are not in the real estate business – which is what this person, who happened to be a published author – had made it sound like. In fact, we do a great deal for our clients in addition to selling their books, and, as the business has changed over the years, we seem to be taking on more and more of what the publisher used to do.

First, of course, we help authors develop their idea. In the case of nonfiction, we help them refine their thoughts and produce a book proposal, which we then edit very thoroughly. In the case of fiction, we work with the author to develop and outline and craft a well written, saleable manuscript.

When we have a product that is ready to show, we submit the material to a number of publishers simultaneously and often sell the project in an auction; we negotiate the deal with the publisher and explain everything clearly to the author, advising him or her on what we think s/he should agree to. We collect all monies for the author on signing, on manuscript acceptance and at any other time designated in the contract.

I contact each and every one of my clients currently writing a book at least once a month to make sure everything is going well with their project. Too often, I have found that writers are reluctant to come forward when they are in trouble in one way or another.-Several years ago, for example, I found out that one of our novelists’ mother was dying of ovarian cancer. This was slowing her down, understandably, and I had to inform the publisher. As it turns out, the book was over a year late, but I was able to work the new deadline out with the publisher and the result was a brilliant novel. On another, more recent occasion, my client found out she had breast cancer and was reluctant to tell anyone until I called. Again, the delivery of her manuscript was easily postponed.

Of course, when there is a problem of any kind with the publisher, I am there to intervene and be the buffer between the two so that their working relationship can remain a good one.

Once the manuscript is turned in, I make sure the editing and acceptance moves along. Sometimes, we even get involved in the editing process if we feel the publisher is not doing their job. I find out the publishing schedule for the writer and make sure, when there is a cover and page design, that the client has a “say” in how everything looks.

I get the promotion, publicity and advertising projections from the publisher and discuss them with the author if I don’t think enough is planned (and more often than not these days I find myself trying to help the author supplement inadequate publishing plans for the book). In addition, I sometimes work with the publisher on finding the appropriate month in which to publish, especially when my client and I feel the publisher hasn’t given that a great deal of thought.

I review all royalty statements and query the publisher when I see anything my client or I think is unclear or wrong. (Publishers keeping too much money in reserve for returns is a typical example of something we catch often.)

And there are other miscellaneous “above and beyond” situations that always arise: the time I had to have a member of our staff edit one of out novelists’ novels because the “editor” felt it was “finished” and we knew it wasn’t; the time one of our food clients was nominated for an important award and I had to fly across the country to be there with her to make sure she was okay no matter which way it went; the time another client really needed me at her publishing party in LA and I went and returned home in 24 hours. These were all important things to my clients; as a result, they became a priority of mine as well.

After that first book is successfully published, we go on to work with the author on what kind of strategy to use in submitting his or her next idea.

So, in our case at least, my new client’s friend was wrong. Or maybe she was talking about the real estate business...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Author JA Konrath separates "the good from the bad" in our first guest post

Today is the first in a series of guest posts from our clients which we'll be adding on alternate Thursdays. Starting us off is JA Konrath, author of the Jack Daniels mystery series that includes WHISKEY SOUR, BLOODY MARY, and RUSTY NAIL. He also recently edited the anthology THESE GUNS FOR HIRE.

by JA Konrath

If you're writing poetry, short stories, newspaper articles, or a memoir about the 38 years you spent watching television, you probably don't need an agent. Pretty much every other writer does. But how can you tell the good agents from the bad ones, and how can you find one that's right for you?

Dystel & Goderich are my agents, and they are good ones. I chose them over five other agencies who offered me representation. D&G stuck with me through three unsold novels before landing me a big contract. They're savvy, professional, personable, and connected.

Unfortunately, not all agents are created equal.

There are people on the fringe of the publishing world who call themselves agents, but really aren’t. These folks prey on new writers by asking for money in the form of reading fees, representation fees, critique fees, book-doctoring, promotional fees, or editing services.

NEVER give an agent money. Agents should make their money by selling a client’s work, and that’s all. Standard commission is 15%, which is taken from the checks they mail you. You should never have to mail them a check for anything. D&G ask for copies of my manuscripts to send to publishers, so they don't even charge Xeroxing fees. This is how good agents do business.

If an agent wants to represent you, and their service requires any kind of up-front fee, walk away. Anyone can claim to be an agent. No license or special training is required. Research the agent before you send to them. Visit Writer Beware (http://www.sfwa.org/beware/agents.html) and Preditors and Editors (http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/pubagent.htm) for tips and lists of questionable agencies.

If you do get a legitimate agent interested in your book, be genuine. Be grateful. Be excited. This is awesome. You should be celebrating big-time.

But before you sign with them, think about what questions you want to ask the agent. There is a great list of questions to ask at the Association of Author’s Representatives website at http://www.aar-online.org. Here are a few:

  • Who have you sold? Can you put me in touch with some of your authors?
  • What do you think needs to be improved in the books? Revised? Tweaked? Edited?
  • Do you have editors in mind for these books? What's your selling plan? Have you sold books similar to these?
  • What can I expect, in terms of time frame to sell this?
  • Will I get copies of my rejection letters? Will I be kept in the loop--who has the manuscript, when you expect to hear from them, etc?
  • What can I do to make your job easier?
  • What happens if you can't sell these books? Would you like to still retain me as a client, and see more work from me?
  • Does your agency deal with subsidiary rights? What are they, exactly?
  • What is it about my work that you like? That you don't like?
  • Do you have an agency contract?
  • Do you give a 1099 tax form at the end of the year?

The AAR also has a free service that lets you look up agents to check if they are an AAR member (the AAR doesn’t allow fee-charging agents in their organization). Keep in mind that the site is rarely updated, so even if an agent isn't listed on the site as an AAR member, she still might be one. Ask.

The agent should also be able to give you a list recently published titles, happy clients, and be able to put you in touch with authors who can supply a reference.

It goes without saying that you shouldn't bug an agent with these questions until they've asked to take on your project. And it's perfectly acceptable to tell an offering agent, "This is a big decision, I need a few days to think about it." Which will give you time to check her references, and call other interested agents and let them know you have another offer... that should light a fire under their butts to read you quick.

Beggars can, and should, be choosers. A bad agent is worse than none at all (and I know this for a fact, because I had a bad agent before signing with Dystel & Goderich), so you owe it to yourself to find one you're compatible with.

In my opinion, here's the MINIMUM an agent should do:

1. Return your calls and emails within a few days.
2. Let you know which publishers have the manuscript.
3. Give you copies of rejection letters from publishers.
4. Submit manuscripts within a few weeks of accepting them (assuming they’re ready to be submitted).

5. Keep track of who owes you money, and get it to you promptly.

Good agents also:

1. Keep in touch with you on a regular basis.
2. Tell you what they like and don't like about your writing, and offer suggestions.
3. Have a plan on where to submit the book.
4. Actively take an interest in your career, what you're currently doing, what you plan on doing next, and offer advice.

5. Keep an ear to the ground and an eye on the market, knowing what publishers are looking for.

6. Have Hollywood contacts.

7. Explain the business to you.

Of course, relationships are a two-way street. Keep in mind that you also have to be a professional, and keep up your end of the deal. Here is a list of things that agents are looking for in their clients:

1. A book they can sell.

2. A writer who is easy to work with.

3. A writer who can accept advice and criticism.

4. A writer who understands the market.

5. A writer who can meet deadlines.

6. A writer who is in it for the long haul.

7. A writer who doesn't call and pester them constantly.

8. A writer who is grateful.

Like any good marriage, the agent/writer relationship is based on communication, similar values and goals, and the ability to compromise and get along.

And like any good marriage, you can pretty much assume the agent is always right. At least, mine is. :)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Lauren Abramo plays "The Waiting Game"

Everyone who enters the wonderful world of publishing soon learns that the journey from idea to book takes an awfully long time. You have to find an agent in the first place (with all the horrifying rejection that entails!), and work with that agent to find your book the right home. A book sold now can be set for publication several years down the line—two deals this agency has made in the last month aren’t set for publication until 2009. That means the book you sent a query letter out for yesterday may well find its way on to a bookshelf in two years, but it’s just as likely you’ll see it there three, four, or five years from now. Sure there are books that come out only weeks after a big story hits the news or a surprise bestseller sparks a new genre, but more often than not they were in the works long before you saw any sign of them on the table at your local bookstore. Either that or the publisher crashed them in order to capitalize on some outside publicity. That’s the exception, though, not the rule. One thing that can be said with certainty about the industry: publishing is slow.

It’s an important thing to consider as you think about what you’re writing and how to position your project to find an agent and editor. Is your hook based on a trend that will likely be obsolete (like poor chick lit, may she rest in peace) before your book can get in the hands of a reader? Are you aiming for a promotional opportunity, like an election cycle or marketing prospect, that’s simply not feasible given the timeline? In the days leading up to Y2K, I’m told that the agency was swamped with queries about the end of times and the destruction that was going to be wrought that coming New Year’s. Conveniently, that didn’t happen. But even if it did, there’s no way we were going to be able to help get the word out in two weeks.

We all rely to some degree or another on trend spotting and conventional wisdom, but ultimately we’re trying to predict an unpredictable future. We’re not looking for a book just like what’s on the bestseller lists right now; we’re looking for the book that’s going to be on the bestseller lists two or three years from now. We want the next big thing, not the last big thing. So unless you have a time machine, you’re going to be doing some guessing as to whether or not what you’re writing fits the bill. On the plus side, that gives you all the more incentive to write what you’re best suited to write. You can try rewriting The DaVinci Code as many times as you want, but that ship has sailed. If your book happens to be similar in some ways to a bestseller, it probably won’t hurt too much. But try not to pawn off your seven book series about a British boy in wizard school.

For writers and authors, though, switching on and off between working hard and waiting on others is a way of life. We don’t envy you—there’s more waiting on your end, since we come into the process part way through. And we certainly don’t enjoy the amount of waiting that even we have to do. Agents have their fingers crossed when they send out submissions just like authors do. All we want is a six figure offer the day after we send something out. Is that so much to ask? Well…yes, it is. So we get a little better at the waiting and try to talk authors through the neuroses-inducing time.

And this is yet another in a long list of reasons that we have a tremendous amount of respect for the work that you writers and authors do, and the craft and art to which you’re devoting your time. We all know that writing a book takes a monumental level of patience and dedication—it’s not just the writing but also the journey from the written work to the published book that’s a truly remarkable feat.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Chasya Milgrom addresses "personal taste"

It’s a tricky thing, this book business. The idea that books and business could even be combined struck me as paradoxical when I first began as an intern here over a year ago. Now, as the newest full-time member of Dystel and Goderich, I find that most people are as confused as I once was whenever I try to explain to them exactly what it is that we do. Those who are not writers and are unfamiliar with the publishing industry are often unaware that literary agents even exist, and don’t quite understand our role in the industry. I am often asked such well-meaning questions as, “So, you guys, like, publish stuff, right?” or “What books have you published?” The way I try to explain it is that we’re sort of like Hollywood agents – except that we represent writers and book projects. “Ohhh,” they respond, as that wave of confusion passes them by. “So,” they continue, “umm, how do you choose who to represent?” Excellent question.

I found myself asking that same question as those first queries started flowing in, and it is still something I think about all the time. How, in this fickle and often highly subjective business, do we decide what is deserving of our time and efforts? Do we simply hold fast to our own personal taste, even if that taste can be fairly limited? I, for instance, enjoy quirky literary fiction/narrative nonfiction (a` la Dave Eggers, Nicole Krauss, and David Sedaris) but to look for only those types of projects seems incredibly restrictive, and besides, there are plenty of amazing books just waiting to be discovered in other genres. It is unfair to brush these categories aside entirely, just because I didn’t read them in the past.

I quickly learned that reading for work and reading for pleasure are two different things. In a field where creativity and craftsmanship are paramount it’s important to keep an open mind – so I was going to do just that. And so, armed with this new perspective, I set out to search my query letters for projects that were fun, or engaging, or smart (or preferably all three!) and, of course, well-written; queries that had that je ne sais quoi, regardless of what genre they fell into. What I found was that it is just as exciting to spot something that you think sounds fantastic, in an area outside your expertise. A couple of months ago, when a paranormal romance query came my way, I thought the idea sounded great – something that one of our agents, Jim McCarthy, might really love. I passed it on to him, and lo and behold, he was really excited about it, and contacted the author. It felt like I had won some strange sort of lottery.

I’ll be honest, it can be hard to really get excited about something you just have no passion for, and I can’t say that I still don’t gravitate toward quirky literary fiction. But in poring over query letters in so many different genres, I am learning to recognize what may appeal to other people, and trying to develop the all important “eye” for good work in many areas of commercial fiction. And, if I really think a project sounds wonderful, but not really my thing, I do what I did with the paranormal romance query -- something that we all do around here -- and pass it along to another agent who truly does enjoy works in that genre. Because, let’s face it, at the end of the day you are going to want an agent who is as passionate about your work as you are.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Miriam Goderich talks about how "we're in the communications business...or are we?"

We’re in the communications business…or are we?

Not too long ago we received a rather hostile e-mail from someone who said he’d been waiting two years for a response to his query and was appalled that he hadn’t heard from us. Well, I’d be pissed off too if I’d waited two years for a letter or call that never came, but the funny thing is that, in all that time, while stewing about our lack of response and thinking evil thoughts about the publishing industry in general and DGLM in particular, it never occurred to this author to get in touch with us to find out whether we had even received his query in the first place. Now, it’s always possible that we misplaced his letter or that it somehow fell through the cracks (we try ridiculously hard to get back to everyone in a timely manner but it would be silly to pretend that we have a 100% track record in this area; we probably get about 150 unsolicited queries a day via e-mail or the USPS) but common sense would dictate picking up the phone or dashing off a note to confirm receipt of one’s material if one hadn’t heard back in, say, a month or two. So, you’d think this was an unusual occurrence, but our business, which is all about communicating, is full of lousy communicators, those who are unwilling or psychologically unable to pick up a phone or send an e-mail even when careers and money are on the line.

On one side of the communication chasm are the authors who either feel that their agents/editors/p.r. people should be mind-readers and are dumbfounded and aggrieved when they realize that the power of brainwaves alone isn’t enough to get their needs and desires across, or those people who subscribe to the “squeaky wheel” approach and who think that the only way to be taken care of is to browbeat, nag, and generally make nuisances of themselves because they don’t trust that the professionals they deal with are, well, professional. On the other side are the agents and publishers who seem to be allergic to authors even though they are the heart and soul of the book biz. The stories abound of authors whose agents refuse to take their calls, don’t provide information about where their projects have been and generally act martyred on those rare occasions when they have to speak to the very people who enable them to send their kids to expensive school and take exotic vacations.

Of course, there are internecine communication breakdowns as well. As agents, we spend a huge amount of time trying to get certain people on the phone on behalf of our authors. There are editors who we know exist but only because we had lunch with them once a couple of years ago. We haven’t heard from them since. Their voice mail is always full and they sit on projects we send them for six months or until a new assistant comes in and cleans house. By that time, of course, the project is already on its way to publication by another publisher. These same editors, by the way, are apt to call when they hear of a nice sale to complain that they weren’t on the submission list only to be told that if they had responded to the last 60 messages we left, they might have been included.

It’s tough, this communication thing. E-mail has made things harder. We spend so much time in those endless e-mail loops – you know, you get an e-mail and respond and before you move on to the next missive, your inbox is chiming with the reply and so you reply again and s/he replies to your reply and then you reply…see what I mean? – that we have little of it left to pick up the phone.

Then there are the psychological barriers to making the call. No one wants to speak with someone who is going to whine or yell or tell you how disappointed they are about what you’ve been able to do (or not do) for them. Being the bearer of bad news is no more appealing today than in the days when they literally killed the messenger. And, agents and editors are often the bearers of bad news.

In fact, despite the foregoing, most publishing people are hardworking types who genuinely care about what they do. We give up time with our family, hobbies, and a healthy social life to read, edit, and make books happen. But it’s a numbers game: a lot more authors than agents or editors and not enough hours in the day, week, month. So, as you rush from meeting to meeting thinking “I’m going to get killed with e-mails when I get back to the office,” or find yourself prioritizing projects because, after all, this is a business, or are in the midst of a particularly vicious contract negotiation, it’s easy to say, I’ll get back to so and so tomorrow.

The point is that we all have to get better about being in touch. Sometimes, all anyone needs is to be told that they’re on your radar screen. They may not want to wait two years for an answer but if you let them know you’re working on it, they will be more patient. For our part, occasionally we need a nudge (or a gentle shove) to be reminded that there’s something in the queue that requires attention. As Samuel Johnson says, “people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” The key is to be courteous, professional and persistent, not belligerent, angry and disrespectful. Make the call, take the call. Easy, right?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Michael Bourret discusses picture books and "Zen-like discipline"

Writing is hard. Any writer worth his (or her) salt knows that writing takes time, patience, practice, Zen-like discipline, and at least a few temper tantrums. I’m not saying that every step of the process is a Sisyphean task, but it’s inevitable that writer’s block, or difficulty finding an agent, or a particularly harsh rejection letter will produce some pain.

This applies to all kinds of writing, whether it’s the Great American Novel, a hot paranormal romance, or a searing indictment of the two-party system. And this applies, most importantly in my mind, to kids’ books, as well.

Nothing gets my goat more than writers who think that writing children’s books is easy. Let me rephrase that: Nothing gets my goat more than writers who think that writing good children’s books is easy. We get a lot of queries at DGLM, a fair share of them for picture books. I’m the guy around here whose world view most resembles that of a twelve-year-old, so naturally, I’m the guy who represents juvenile fiction and nonfiction. I see them all. And, I greatly respect all the writers who toil away at their keyboards day after day – even the ones I choose not to represent. But, I’m disturbed by the queries that say, “I wrote this picture book manuscript on a lark last night. Want to be my agent?”

As it turns out, writing for kids is really tough. The younger the audience, the harder, if you ask me. In a picture book, you’ve got 3,000 words or less to tell a whole story. That’s it. With so few words in a book, every word counts. Just a few mistakes – poor word choice, awkward phrasing, ridiculous rhymes – and the entire thing falls apart. Then there’s the whole issue of age-appropriate language and content; it’s easy to miss the boat if you’re not aware of the audience you’re writing for. Those issues are rather concrete, though, and I think the more adept technician can learn the rules and turn out something that won’t offend. What isn’t so easy to mimic or learn is most important, and I feel that even many published writers miss the mark on this: to write for children, you must view the world through the eyes of a child. I don’t mean this in a touchy-feely, New-Age way (for the most part). What I look for in a manuscript is an understanding of how a child sees, explores and understands the world. Not being a writer myself (I leave that to people far more talented than me), I’m not sure if this is something that can be learned. I’d be interested to hear what others think about that.

I work with a wonderful author who definitely sees the world through children’s eyes, Anne Rockwell. Through her words and illustrations, she’s able to explain rather complex concepts to children. Though some of her books have less than 300 words, they all speak volumes. More impressively, most of them would still be engaging without her (or her collaborator’s) brilliant illustrations. Though the books are short, Anne works as hard as any author I’ve met. Her research is nothing short of remarkable -- you can ask her about her sources for a book she’s doing on Toussaint L’Ouverture – and she hones and crafts a manuscript for weeks.

In my humble opinion, the literature written for children is the most important; it provides inspiration and comfort to these impressionable readers. I don’t mean, in any way, to discourage anyone from writing anything. Getting a great new submission makes my day, and I’d love to represent more picture books (despite the difficulty of the market), and middle grade and young adult fiction. But I do want to encourage authors, of every stripe, to respect the art and craft of writing. I want to represent authors who write not because it’s easy, but because they have something to say and they’re willing to work their butts off to make it happen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Stacey Glick ponders "The Death of Chick Lit"

Just like in every other area of the media, trends are prolific in book publishing. This can be a good thing and a bad thing for books. Good in the sense that when something hits and hits big, like Bridget Jones Diary, The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada, we know for sure that lots of other books in that category, now known as chick lit, will follow. So, authors scramble to write their frothy, fun commercial successes at breakneck speed, publishers rush to buy, buy, buy, and agents push to sign up clients whose books they can sell quickly and for the best deal possible before the trend subsides.

Before long, the deluge hits, and the market is saturated with books that look and sound alike, way too many for the consumer to process (it might take a year or more for this to happen since publishing is still very slow to get product into the marketplace). And so, the trend ends, and in some cases, as with chick lit, crashes hard. This is difficult for everyone involved – authors, agents, editors, and publishers. What you’re left with after the publishers move on is a pool of talented and disappointed authors whose books aren’t selling, meaning they now have a bad track record to overcome, and questions to their agent and editor like, “What should we do next?”

There’s no easy answer. Part of the problem is that chick lit in so many ways resembles its highbrow cousin “commercial women’s fiction”, an ambiguous genre that can skew remarkably similar to chick lit. So, how should we direct authors who feel lost and confused by what they thought was a category their publishers were excited for them to keep publishing in? How do you define the subtle differences between commercial women’s fiction and chick lit (“I’ll know it when I see it” isn’t an answer most authors want to hear from their agent or editor)? What I try to tell my clients is that they need to conceive of an idea that they are excited to write, first and foremost. It’s not just about coming up with a concept that’s going to fit the next trend (although if they have something really high concept, that’s not such a bad thing) or that they’ll be able to finish quickly, but rather one that speaks deeply to the author and inspires them to write a story that they love.

The best advice I’d offer for now if you are an aspiring writer looking for an agent and publisher is to refrain from pitching your book as chick lit. The words have become taboo, and while the same essential story might be bought or sold and just marketed, promoted, and packaged differently, without the chick lit tagline, authors, agents, and their publishers will all be better off, at least until the trend returns again.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Jim McCarthy tells you to "keep on keeping on."

I recently found myself waiting on the sidewalk for a friend of mine when I was approached by an acquaintance who was dragging someone along. “Hi Jim,” he said. “This is Sarah. Sarah, this is Jim. He’s a literary agent.” My back went ramrod straight, and I tensed up as Sarah’s eyes went wide. This could only mean one of two things: Sarah was looking for an agent, or she had a bone to pick with agents in general. I hoped she was in the first camp. It seems every writer both wants an agent and wants to kill an agent. We’re in the business of selling books (yay), but such a big part of the process is rejecting other material (boo). Rejection will always be part of the business, unfortunate as that is.

See, as agents, we see a lot of material. A whole lot. Hundreds of query letters pour into our office every week, filling our Outlook inboxes and landing on our desks, which are already invisible under our piles of reading, contracts, catalogs and correspondence from editors, clients, etc. We do read every single query we get in the hope of finding the next big thing. We want to find material that we fall in love with. That’s why we do what we do. But an agent can only represent so many projects, and so we pick and choose, sometimes going on knowledge of the market, sometimes depending on a gut level response. Particularly with fiction, our decisions are very subjective.

About once a day, I get an e-mail from someone who is not taking rejection sitting down. They often tell me that I’ve made a terrible decision. Many point out that I’ve passed on the next Da Vinci Code. And that may be true. I don’t know anyone in this business who hasn’t regretted a rejection letter they’ve sent. I vividly remember seeing a project I had turned down displayed in a publisher’s catalog for the first time. I had a hunch when I first read it that there might be something there, but I eventually passed thinking it wouldn’t play. Oops!

Rejection is a major part of this business. Every author has been turned down by someone somewhere. And people do make mistakes in their decisions. I have a belief, though, optimistic as it may be, that the cream does eventually rise to the top, that good writing will find its way into print and that deserving books do get published. It takes a thick skin and a whole lot of patience and determination, but it can happen.

One of my most prolific clients is someone I turned down on the first go-round. I read her novel, saw the promise, but ultimately wasn’t convinced that she pulled off what she was trying for. I wrote an encouraging letter and told her that I wasn’t sure I could place it but would be happy to take a look at a revision or anything else she considered writing. Just a week later, I had a new manuscript in my inbox. Terrified that she had done a haphazard polish of the original manuscript and fired it back to me, I wasn’t particularly excited about picking it up again. But lo and behold, she had done a major rewrite. And it was good. Very good! Since then, I’ve sold eight books by this author.

Ultimately, what I want to get across is that we do know how difficult this process is. We try to make it as painless as possible, but getting a rejection hurts no matter what happens. Just keep in mind when you’re next in a bookstore that they all got turned down—the bestsellers and the prize winners alike. So try to be patient, try not to let your feelings get hurt, and keep on keeping on.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Jane Dystel asks, "Where has all the planning gone?"

Where has all the Planning Gone?

One of the biggest issues I see with the books I sell to publishers these days is that there is no planning beforehand for promotion, publicity and advertising. Most of the time, the book is acquired with absolutely no thought as to how the Publisher will sell it. Oh sure, there is a sales estimate sometimes supplied by the sales department and sure, the author and agent are grilled about the author’s credentials and platform, and sure there is an author questionnaire that the author fills out (and is often never read by anyone) but after that – nothing.

And so when the publishing date approaches, publishers scramble to put some kind of plan together for the book’s launch and way too often, I find that plan is insufficient and not at all thought through. And shockingly, the publisher almost never consults with the author as to what they think might work. And then, when there are no initial results, the publisher says, “Well, I guess the book didn’t connect with the reader.” And, they move on to the next title.

This last season on two books I have represented and sold very successfully, we were very disappointed in the promotion, publicity and advertising efforts of the publishing houses. In each case, the publisher spent a significant amount of money trying to promote the book; in one, they promoted the book with the totally wrong message and didn’t involve the author (a major media person) at all; and in the case of the second book, there was no thought out strategy about exactly what to do, where and when. Not only did the books suffer; the publishers, I fear, lost significant money and the relationship between the publisher and the author went south.

In my opinion, promotion and marketing mishaps could be avoided by planning carefully for a book’s launch from the very beginning. Why don’t publishers think out of the box more in terms of internet and special events marketing? One of my clients got himself invited to give a talk about his book and its message at one of the giant churches that have cropped up all over the country in recent years. The congregation’s reaction was overwhelming and, as a result, he has been invited to deliver a number of other similar talks. Why couldn’t this have been done by his publisher?

At the time of acquisition, there should be some kind of initial idea as to how the book will be sold to consumers. This should then be followed immediately after the manuscript is accepted by a more elaborate plan developed in collaboration with the author and with the editor who, after all, is more familiar with each book than anyone else in the company.

In this day and age, when there is so much competition for the consumer’s attention, it is in all of our best interests, I think, to improve this part of our business drastically. In that way, every one of us will win.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Our first post

We here at Dystel & Goderich are an opinionated bunch. Conveniently, there’s always something new for us to have an opinion about: new books, new trends, new formats, etc. We’ve also noticed that as we continue to meet more and more authors (the aspiring and the published), some questions are universal and will almost always come up at some point.

As such, we’ve decided to give ourselves a spot to spout off. Every week, a different DGLM staffer will visit this space to share thoughts and information relating to publishing or writing in general. We won’t be able to answer every question anyone has, but we hope to be able to share a little of what we’ve learned over the years. For some added perspective, we’ll have guest writers from our client list every so often to weigh in on important issues or merely to rant about whatever they feel is rant-worthy.

The tables are turned, and now we’re the ones sitting at our keyboards trying to fill the pages. Wish us luck, and feel free to let us know if there are particular subjects you’d like to see covered.