Archive for the ‘literary agent’ Category

Follow Or Ignore The Ideas

June 25, 2007

This past weekend I was definitely in the minority.

Over 400 women were attending the She Speaks Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was one of half a dozen men who were around at this conference. Besides being in the minority as a man, I was the only literary agent at the event. This annual conference trains women in two primary areas–as speakers and as writers. During the conference, I taught an hour workshop about Book Proposals then met individually with over 25 writers in 15–minute sessions.

Because this group of women have been receiving training about book proposals and talking with editors, in general I was impressed with the quality of their submissions. The majority of them came prepared to talk about their book idea. Many of them were petrified because it was their first time talking with an editor or a literary agent. There were several other editors and publishers represented at the conference who were also holding these 15-minute sessions. The format alone is always a challenge for these meetings. The participants are anxious for my feedback and I have to listen carefully to their idea and ask some probing questions as I flip through their proposal.

Years ago I sat in the position of these writers and hung on every word from the editor. I made lots of notes as they talked then tried to go home and follow through on each of their suggestions. I learned the hard way–and I suspect these people from last weekend will learn it as well–that I take the suggestions as just that “suggestions” and not the absolute truth. No one editor or literary agent has this absolute truth perspective with a massive amount of wisdom to pass along to the writer who is pitching. Some of those ideas are right on target while others need to be ignored. That choice is up to the individual.

I’ve told this story in at least one other entry. Years ago I had a 15-minute meeting with an editor that I respect. I took detailed notes as this editor critiqued my book proposal. I returned home and followed each of the suggestions then sent the proposal back to this editor. He didn’t recall that he had even talked with me about this idea. I was crushed and disillusioned and all sorts of other disappointed feelings. I thought I was receiving the total straight scoop about how to navigate the waters of publishing.

Now that I’ve had a few more years of experience in this area plus had the opportunity for the last few years to be the person who meets with writers, I return to the choice factor. The individual writer has to evaluate the advice, then decide if it’s right for their manuscript or book proposal or not.

You can imagine that I was a bit whipped and worn after meeting with writer after writer. I’m unsure if my counsel had much value at the end of the day. Never-the-less, I gave it my best shot. It’s all anyone can expect during these sessions. People forget the subjective nature of the publishing world. One person loves your idea while another person rejects it. One person believes your book is the absolute best thing they’ve ever read on the topic while the next person believes with equal passion that you’re work is only for beginners and lacked “freshness” (whatever that means).

As you listen to the opinions of various writers, editors, literary agents and other professionals, don’t forget to listen to your own internal voice about the writing.

The Necessity: Ask The Right Question

June 1, 2007

I’ve watched writers over the years and know they are a creative bunch. The majority of them have some idea for a magazine article or a novel or a book, sit down and crank it out. Often they invest hours in the writing process and when it’s completed, they turn and try to sell that manuscript to a magazine editor or a book publisher.

Because there are literally millions of these ideas, queries, book proposals and manuscripts in the jammed pipeline, the writer waits forever for a response from some editor or literary agent. They burn a path to their mailbox or their email box looking for some response. And often when that response comes, it’s a rejection. That’s when the self-doubts set in for the writer.

It’s like the old chicken joke which has been around forever. What came first the chicken or the egg? Where in the creation process of the writing do you begin and write something that fills a need in the market? There are three large elements with this process: Messenger, Delivery System and Market. The majority of people believe they are the messenger, the book is the delivery system and they are trying to reach the market. It’s a long-shot way of touching that market in my view because not enough research has been put into discovering the need of the market.

Yesterday I was fascinated with this transparent post from Thomas Nelson President and CEO Mike Hyatt. While the writer invests vast amounts of time and creative energy in their idea, the publisher has the real “skin in the game” (as some people would say) or financial investment. The publisher has created a product and most of that creation is based on their experience and some “gut” reaction. Mike makes a case for the publisher to do more research before they produce the product. I want to take this idea a bit further and encourage the writer to survey the marketplace before they write another book proposal or another query letter.

How do you survey your market? I’d suggest you use a tool called the Ask Database. Behind the scenes, I’m using this Ask Database to compile the questions and data for my free teleseminar next week (and other teleseminars that are in the planning stages). I hope you’ve asked your question about book proposals or the publishing process because I’m eager to gather your input. Each writer should be building a list of people they can survey. It’s their market and they should be connecting with their readers to find out what they want–then write something that fills a need in that audience. You communicate to your audience on a regular basis through a newsletter like my FREE Right Writing News.

This process of asking the right question and meeting a market need is more important than ever for every writer. Why? We’ve been saying there were 170,000 new books published last year–and a very small percentage (something like less than 500 book titles sold over 5,000 copies–I’ve heard this statistic but can’t lay my hands on it–so I’m hedging) actually sold. Here’s the frightening detail: R. R. Bowker who compiles the statistics have reworked their method to compile the numbers. Now they estimate that over 290,000 books were published last year–a 120,000 jump from their previously published number of 170,000.

Whether the number was 170,000 or over 290,000, it’s a huge number of new books–and many of those titles are entering the market but not selling. I return to my key point in this entry: Are you asking the right question and what are you doing to get your answers?

The Continual Search

April 5, 2007

“What are you looking for these days?” Repeatedly writers asked me this question (or some form of it) during the Mount Hermon conference.

I’ve got a pretty simple answer which some may think is glib but it has an element of truth in it. I say, “I’m looking for the good stuff.”

Usually a sharp writer will follow up and ask, “What is good?”

I’m prepared with, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

I’m not evading the question but there is no one-size-fits-all response to these questions. The response will be different for each editor and each literary agent at the conference. It’s important for you to know that each of us are actively looking for the right project. We will have to endure all sorts of the wrong pitches to find that gem or two in the pile of pitches. Whether the pitch is for a novel or nonfiction book, the writing is important and the idea is important. Each work together in the process. If the writing is bad, then maybe the idea is stellar and I can hook this person with the experience and idea to a writer who can carry out the project. This process may be different from the goals of the writer but are they open to new ways of working? If so, then there is hope. If not, then you press on to the next person with the next idea. At a writer’s conference, there are loads of ideas and pitches.

Part of the challenge of the conference is the follow-up. Will the writer carry through and follow-up with my encouragement to send the project? Some will do it and others will not get it done. Still others will select some other path such as working directly with the publisher or they will select a different agent. There are no easy answers but the search is continual.

School of Hard Knocks

April 4, 2007

Last night I returned from one of the largest and oldest writer’s conferences in the country, the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference. Tucked in between San Jose, California and Santa Cruz, the location is beautiful and our electronic connection almost worthless. Because it’s a retreat conference center, they don’t want to encourage people to work on the Internet so the wireless connection is in a single spot on the camp and often laboriously slow. With my intense schedule at the conference, time to write any entries was almost nonexistent. From early in the morning until late at night, I was interacting one on one with different writers. In a span of a few days, I had over 50 one-on-one sessions and countless additional interaction with editors, other literary agents and writers. It was a great experience and something I highly recommend you incorporate into your planning for this year. Find a good conference and make time to get there.

If these entries get scarce, check my travel schedule. One of the items which doesn’t appear on my schedule is a family wedding on April 14th in Southern California. I’ll be out of my office from April 11th through the 22nd with two back to back trips. I hope to continue adding some entries but if not, there are good reasons–and I’m not on vacation (as some reader suggested).

The Mount Hermon Conference marked my second conference as a literary agent. While I’ve been a book acquisitions editor for the last five years, I’m still behind the learning curve when it comes to being a literary agent. On several panels during the conference with other agents, we were asked to tell about our recent sales or the highest profile client. I had little to say in this realm since I’m just starting to send out proposals and manuscripts for my clients. Something many writers know but need to hear again is the timing for this work. It takes time–and often lots of time for the proposals and manuscripts to be sold (or contracted) to a book publisher. Many of the factors regarding this timing are completely outside of anything that an agent can control. Often as an acquisitions editor, I’ve felt helpless to control the factors of timing–so you can imagine that as an agent who does not work directly for a publisher, such matters are even more outside of something you can control. Yes, we have active relationships with editors and publishing houses. Yes, we actively send the best possible pitches and proposals to these relationships–then we wait for their response. After an appropriately generous amount of time, we gently inquire about these projects and receive an update. It simply takes time for everyone. Our hurry-up, make-it-happen society does not like to wait or to have patience. I regularly tell writers that if you want a positive response, then it will take time. It’s easy to get a “no” response but “yes” takes time. Maybe that’s a new thought for some readers.

While we can read about the details of publishing through blogs or books or listen to teaching about it, it is often through the actual process of doing the work that we learn our way as writers and editors and literary agents. It is valuable to learn as much about it as possible but no book or workshop will cover all of the possibilities. For many years, I’ve been talking with writers in different roles. At this conference, I learned that agents have some taboo areas to talk about with writers who someone else represents. I had no idea there were such taboos but when I received a tongue lashing from another agent, I quickly learned in the school of hard knocks. You may be wondering what in the world I’m talking about so let me be a bit more specific about what I learned–yet I’m not revealing the other agent, the writer or anything that will give you this information.

There is a problem with publishing that I’ve heard labeled poaching. It’s where an agent will talk with a writer and essentially lure the writer away from their current agent. I understand the concept since writers are among some of the world’s most insecure people. Yes, we may exude confidence in certain settings but underneath we are insecure (and I include high profile, bestselling authors in this category). As writers we are only as confident as our latest well-crafted sentence or a glowing comment from a reader or better yet–from an editor. Every writer wants to increase their own personal book sales, the amount of money they receive for a book advance and million other things. In particular, I’ve heard about this matter of agent poaching in the Christian marketplace much more than the broader general marketplace. Maybe it’s because the community is smaller but I’m unsure. I know it’s a little-discussed problem area. It is true that writers change literary agents (and for many different reasons). It’s perfectly understandable and OK when a writer decides on their own initiative to change literary agents. It’s NOT OK when one agent stirs up this change and lures the writer away from the first agent. That’s called poaching. I’m not interested in poaching anyone else’s clients. I figure there is plenty of work for everyone.

With that background, here’s how I learned what I could not ask any writer who another agent represents. I met a writer at the conference for the first time that I had corresponded with numerous times via email. I knew another agent represented this writer. I was asking the writer about her projects and just making conversation about her work with the other agent. I asked specifics about what this other agent had out there for this writer (and that was my taboo question for one agent to ask about another agent). Why? Because the question looks at the performance issues about this other agent (and I didn’t even think about it). Imagine my surprise when the agent pulled me aside and confronted me about poaching their writer. In a heartbeat, the agent could tell that poaching this client was not my intention or desire. I apologized and learned through the school of hard knocks a valuable lesson. It was probably the first of many lessons I will learn in this area.

If you think you are immune to learning these lessons from the school of hard knocks, I’d encourage you to think again. I’ve not met anyone immune to such lessons–no matter where you are involved in this publishing world.

The Value of Papers

March 25, 2007

Allow me to speculate about something for a moment within publishing. I doubt few authors realize the value of their paperwork when they are in the process of creating it. I’m talking about the numerous drafts of a novel or the various gyrations that a nonfiction book passes through during its path to completion. Or what about the correspondence between authors and well-known people for the gathering of endorsements and other parts of the business.

Several years ago, an author now turned agent talked asked me if I had a plan for donating my papers some place. I scoffed at the idea of my paperwork being valuable. Actually I’ve moved and sorted about three or four times since that conversation. Another one of my author friends told me that three moves equals a fire. I believe there is some wisdom in that statement since each time we move I pare down the extra paperwork from different projects. In other words, I toss them into the trash in the moving process. If I really stop and think about it, my files do have a few letters of correspondence with well-known personalities. In terms of single letters, they probably don’t have much value but the gathering of them might.

I started thinking about this matter from an article in today’s Book Section of the New York Times which profiles a true paper chaser, Glenn Horowitz. It showed me a different side of the publishing business which is active and viable yet rarely highlighted.

Agents and Charges

February 19, 2007

I’ve been reading the Street-Smart Writer, Self-Defense Against Sharks and Scams in the Writing World by Jenna Glatzer and Daniel Steven. This book is loaded with wise advice. Glatzer is the creator of and has been around the writing world for many years.

Unfortunately a number of people have figured out how to scam and profit tapping into the intense desire that writers have to get published. Because of the numerous rejections along the journey to get published, writers tend to gravitate toward anyone who gives them hope. Yet some of these people are only dispensing this hope to get into their pocketbook.

The first chapter is called Agents and Managers: Hone Your Shark-Spotting Skills. It tackles questions like Do You Need an Agent?, What a Good Agent Can Do for You, How a Bad Agent Can Hurt You, Deadbeat Agent Warning Signs and How to Research an Agent.

One of those telling signs to sound off internal warning signals relates to agent charges. When an agent charges a reading fee, this expense should make the writer turn and run. The Association of Author’s Representatives has strong statements about these fees in their ethical guidelines and membership rules. Also understand not every good agent is a member of the AAR.

It’s not a black and white rule like, “No agent should charge anything.” That’s not true because depending on your agency/ author agreement, the agent can invoice and recover standard business expenses–provided you’ve agreed to this process in the beginning of your relationship.

I loved the simple chart Glatzer and Stevens have included in their book because it helps writers sort through the hard-working legitimate literary agents from the scam artists. I’ve scanned this chart from page 12 and included it here.

The agent’s relationship with their authors is based on trust and good business practices. While the writers can be fooled with these scam artists, the publishers and editors are not. Glatzer and Stevens include discussions about screenwriting as well as books in this chapter and write, “The thing is, publishers and producers aren’t fooled by bad agents. They know which ones send them garbage or, at best, completely inappropriate submissions. And having that bad agent attached to your name can only hurt you, because it looks like that’s the best you could do.” Ouch.

It should give you something to think about in this area of the marketplace.

A Dose of Reality

February 16, 2007

Writers are creative people who are dreamers. Now there is nothing wrong with dreams and I’ve got them as well as the next person–and I’m working toward achieving these dreams every day.

In the midst of your dreaming, every now and then it’s good to get a dose of reality to spur you in the right direction.

I actively participate in a large online group of writers. This morning one of the writers in Florida put out some figures of a presentation from a small publisher (who was not identified and that’s OK because the information is widely applicable). Here’s a bit of what was written:

“They get an average of 35 book submissions every week. Agented and otherwise. That’s at least 1500 per year and they publish only 5-7 every year. That’s about 99.5% rejection rate. We asked about criteria for rejection. They take first 30 pages of your manuscript and give it to at least 5 independent “readers” who then suggest to the publishers which manuscripts to read in full. They also give advances, which means you sell them your book. When they decide to publish they go with traditional printers and print 5000 copies or so to have a very low cost and leave as much margin as possible for promotion and marketing costs. They announce a new title at least 6 months before it is scheduled and then send up to 100 copies of book to reviewers.”

In today’s post, I’m going to include most of what I responded to this post and maybe it will give you a healthy dose of reality and encouragement toward excellence:

As someone who has read these over the transom, unsolicited submissions sent to a publisher, I can agree with these percentages. It can be pretty discouraging–yet you need to understand that most of these proposals are untargeted, unfocused and incomplete.

As an acquisitions editor, I can only help you if your proposal is about 70 to 80% perfect. Most of them are about 20% and a few are in the 50% category. They are missing some critical element like the word count or the vision for the book or the competition or the author’s marketing plan (yes every proposal whether fiction or nonfiction needs a marketing plan from the author–and don’t tell me you will appear on Oprah and are willing to do interviews–people actually write that into their proposals and it’s their marketing plan). As a result, these proposals are sent back with a form rejection letter. It is not the editor’s responsibility to fix your incomplete proposal–that’ s your responsibility as the author.

Book proposals are hard work–plain and simple–and most people aren’t willing to do that hard work. They’d rather dream about their fiction getting published yet they’ve not done the hard work of learning their craft and practicing their craft in the PRINT magazine world (and building publishing credits). Why print? It’s a much more demanding form than online–anyone can put stuff online.

I guess the question is whether you will be one of those people who write a riveting proposal that gets publishers climbing over each other to get your project. Yes, it’s possible. I’ve had those proposals in my hand–and I’ve even written a couple of them.

I’m eager for writers to be successful and that’s why I put the energy into Book Proposals That Sell. Now if only more people applied the information to their own work…

And if you need any more reality about this business, then check out this publishing quiz from a great book called Putting Your Passion Into Print–and in particular notice the answer to question #9–which is another truth you should recognize. Sorry to be a bit cynical, folks. Maybe it’s the material that has crossed my desk recently. It IS possible–if you put it together in the right way and pitch it in the right manner at the right time. As I’ve said before–and it’s worth repeating here–every agent and every editor is actively looking for these top proposals.

Here’s a little challenge which was not included in my post to the other writers. It’s terrific to read these how-to-write books or attend a writer’s conference yet will you be in the small percentage of people who will actually take the information and apply it to their own project. Many people at the conference will be inspired and encouraged. Yet this encouragement is temporary until they receive the next rejection or get home to face their own challenges. The key is to practice the craft and do the hard work of writing with such excellence that your work is irresistible.

Don’t Be Caught Cardless

February 15, 2007

It happens often. I’ll be attending a convention or a conference and ask the person for their business card at the same time I offer them my card. The other person will rummage in their briefcase or bag and not be able to produce the card. Sometimes they will take an extra business card from me then scratch out their name, email and phone number on the back of my card then hand it back. Other times they will make a note and promise to send me their information–which sometimes happens and sometimes never happens.

Why should I care? I have a broad network of friends, acquaintances and people who have crossed my path over the last 20 years in the publishing community. After I’ve been in one of these settings, I return to my office and add their information into my database. If I’ve known them for a while, I check that business card to see if any of their information has changed–and often it has changed so I fix my records. Our society is incredibly mobile. I don’t use the information often yet these business cards provide a means of access. You don’t want to be caught without a business card.

Another frequent situation is where I meet an editor toward the end of a conference and we talk for a few minutes. I ask for their card and they say, “Oh, I didn’t bring enough and what few cards I brought were gone in the first day.” When this happens, I have to do something proactive to write down their information or some other means to get it. A number of times, I’ve been one of the few people in the room to receive this contact information from a speaker.

Several of my long-time friends have told me they collect my various business cards. I’m sure they have quite an array of different companies and locations. You want to make sure your card gives a physical mailing address, a phone number and an email address. You can be selective which address or phone number or email address that you include but it should have all of these elements. Also I have different business cards for different purposes. One card touts my writing credentials while another card promotes a particular book or another aspect of my work.

In preparation for my forthcoming conference season (check this link for my various speaking opportunities), I’ve made a business card for Whalin Literary Agency. For the first time, I used Overnight Prints and was impressed with the quality (and low cost) of their work.

With a bit of preparation, you will be able to make sure you aren’t caught cardless.

Resource for Book Marketing

February 13, 2007

Early next month I’ve been invited to participate in Mega Book Marketing University in Los Angeles on March 2, 3 and 4. I’ll be meeting with participants and listening to their pitches and reading some of their book proposals as a literary agent. I’m looking forward to this opportunity and what I can learn from the experience. Also I’m eager to help the participants with their various book ideas.

If you look at the various speakers and read their backgrounds, you will see each of these people are heavily involved in selling millions of books.

Whether you attend Mega Book Marketing University or not, you can take advantage of their Free Preview Teleseminar Series. After you register for the calls, you can listen to these calls either live (the next one is Thursday, February 15th or you can listen after the call. The various calls are stored on this page and include the notes. Each one can be a valuable part of your personal education about book marketing.

As you listen to these calls, look for the transferable concepts. The speaker may be talking about a business book or something else which is completely outside of the type of book which you want to write. How can you take the principles and methods then apply these aspects to your own situation? If you approach these calls with the right mind set, then you can gain more than the normal listener.