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.