Wednesday, May 28, 2008
I was originally supposed to write about that elusive subject, “voice” and how writers can find it--a good and important topic, to be sure. However, I received something in today’s mail that made me change the direction of my blog posting. Today, I received an invitation to the graduation of one of my author’s daughters. This author has been with me for eleven years when her daughter was only seven years old. It’s amazing how time flies. It’s even more amazing the relationship that I’ve developed not only with my author, but with her family as well. We have shared personal ups and downs over the years, I’ve watched her family grow and I’ve guided her career as well.
It’s the same for the majority of my clients. They start off as clients but they become friends. It’s important to nurture this relationship from both sides, because it IS going to be a long term relationship. Once the agent sells the book, you’re working with that agent for the life of the book contract. Even if the two of you part ways, royalties still have be paid out, correspondence exchanged, and foreign rights have to be sold. It behooves BOTH sides to follow some simple guidelines to ensure good communication between agent and author. I’m going to outline some of them below.
1. Make sure both of you agree how you like to communicate. If it’s by email, confirm that you have the correct email address (many people have multiple addresses). If you change your email address, make sure this is communicated as well. Also, keep your agent updated on all of your points of contact. That means your phone number, email address and mailing address. This is even true once you part ways. Your agent must continue to send you royalty statements, 1099s, and other important information for the life of the book contract.
2. You may want to casually inquire how frequently you should expect to be in contact. You can expect to be in fairly close contact when your agent is giving feed back on revisions, shopping your material around and negotiating the deal. Once she has sold your book and the contract has been signed, she may leave you alone to actually write the darn thing.
3. Both the author and the agent should be attuned to how the other likes to communicate, whether it is informal and chatty or strictly down to business. This will probably vary depending on demands on both parties, but pay attention to cues in how communication is exchanged and respond accordingly.
4. How long is too long to wait for hear back from your agent? Or better yet, when should you start to panic? This will vary from agent to agent. But before you panic, realize that emails go astray, computers crash, people get sick, messages get erased, and calls made from a cell phone may be too distorted to comprehend. If you haven’t heard back try again and then a third time. After the third time, then you may want to get concerned about the lack of response.
5. If you’re going on vacation, let people know. This is true for both sides. For authors, leave contact information so that your agent can reach you. Agents who are leaving on an extended trip usually inform their clients and indicate a person to contact in case of an emergency.
6. Show appreciation for each other. Remember each other at the holidays and, if possible, birthdays (although I’m horrible at remembering birthdays).
7. Realize that you’re not going to agree on everything all the time. Your agent probably won’t love everything you write. If she’s good, she’ll let you know that it’s not your best work. That’s her job.
8. Make sure you both understand your goals. Do you want to write a book a year? Make a bestseller list? Reach a certain print run? Move to another publishing house?
9. If things aren’t going well, don’t dwell on it by discussing it only with your writing buddies but not your agent. If there is a problem it should be addressed directly. This is true for both sides. If the agent has issues, she should bring them up as well.
10. Realize that this is a small industry and gossip travels quickly. http://www.mediabistro.com/GalleyCat/ Above all, practice courtesy and be professional. Treat your agent the way you’d like to be treated and she should do the same.
Bottom line: keep the lines of communication open, don’t hesitate to bring up any concerns, and make sure you both have a clear understanding of your goals and responsibilities.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Before I begin, I’ve got a confession to make: This is the first time I’ve ever blogged. I swore I’d never write a blog, but when you’re part of a team sometimes the majority wins. So, here I sit, doing what I promised myself I wouldn’t do. It’s not that I have anything against blogs, but to be honest, it’s not the sort of thing women my age are doing. In fact, if I stopped typing right now and phoned, oh, say, six or seven of my friends, I’ll bet that only one or two of them would even know what a blog is.
OK, I’m back. I was wrong. I guess my friends are more hip than I give them credit for.
Even still, let me make this clear:
One. I stand behind the sentiment I expressed in the opening of this, my first ever blog. This blog-thing isn’t something I wanted to do; it’s not something I’m comfortable doing, in fact, I don’t even know what I’m doing, so, please – be kind.
Two. The topic for this, my first ever blog, Characters that get me every time – and why, wasn’t something I chose. It was assigned to me by my colleague Rachel Vater. (Hey, if I voted against doing this blog, I certainly wasn’t going to suddenly get all enthusiastic and passionate by proclaiming that there was some topic I was just dying to write about. So I asked for topic ideas and then I did what I was told.)
Three. I’m a totally unreliable narrator. I mean it. I never, ever, voted against this blog. In fact, I think it’s a great way to help writers understand more about agents, and what we’re looking for. I *love* new things, so doing a blog is something I’ve been looking forward to.
So, how am I doing so far? Do I have your interest? Better yet, what kind of “character” do you think I am? Yup. This rant of mine has all just been a rather elaborate way to demonstrate what “gets me” and why.
Clearly, I’m a huge fan of the adage “show, don’t tell.” As a reader I always bring my brain. Or at least I try to. I’d much rather figure out who you are, (“you” being your character) and what makes you tick, than have you spell it all out for me. I also appreciate it if you have dimension; after all, who in this world is wholly good or wholly bad? You’ve got flaws? Good. Me, too.
If you’ve got personality, then I’m *really* likely to sit up and pay attention. I love characters with “voice.” The fresher the better. That, however, does not necessarily mean I like characters who are quirky, unless such quirks are there for a reason, and (big and) are believable. If I can hear you correctly, (again – I’m talking about voice), then I can understand what motivates you. That’s good, because once we form that connection I’m much better able to walk in your shoes, and I totally love trying on other personas. But, be forewarned: If you’re being different just to be different, or if you’re acting quirky just to be quirky, well, I’m likely to see through that and I will probably just find you annoying. Authenticity is something I value.
If I find myself smiling while I’m reading, chances are I’m enjoying your tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. If your struggles and challenges make me cry, I’ll hate you for giving me puffy eyelids, but I’ll love you for touching my heart. If your kindness renews my faith in my fellow man, then you’ve motivated me to rethink my skepticism.
The bottom line here ladies and gents: Make your characters real, multi-faceted and give them depth. Then, through you, they will speak to me. And once a character has been brought to life, that’s it! You’ve got me – every time.
P.S. I really did vote against this blog.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Those of you who have read some of the articles I’ve had published on how to find an agent (see, for example: http://www.writersdigest.com/article/The_Top_Five_Ways_Not_To_Get_A_Literary_Agent/) know that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of trying to land a literary an agent by sending blind query letters. Does it work on occasion? Sure. We’ve gotten some of our best clients that way. But there’s something so… passive about the process. There’s some element of ceding control that I know that I wouldn’t be comfortable with if I were in an author’s position. To me, the whole process seems to evoke bad memories of high school, sitting by the phone, waiting for it to ring to see if you’re going to have a date on Saturday night, when you should have just been out having a good time with your friends anyway.
Besides, what do you do if your preferred agent or agents aren’t accepting unsolicited queries in the first place?
That’s where writers’ conferences come in.
As an unpublished author, attending a reputable, well-run writers’ conference can be the first step to launching your brilliant professional writing career. But it can also be an intimidating, frustrating experience if you approach it the wrong way.
For agents, writers’ conferences are a mixed bag. They can be very positive experiences, full of promising new talent—or they can be grueling experiences that leave us vowing never to volunteer our time ever, ever again.
Here are a few tips to ensure that you get the most out of your writers’ conference experience.
1) Develop a plan for the conference ahead of time. There are as many different reasons to attend conferences as there are attendees. What you can get out of a conference, however, is often a function of where you are in the publishing process. If you’re still in the process of writing your novel or putting together a proposal for your nonfiction book, the craft seminars at the conference are probably where you want to spend most of your time. Figure out which authors, editors, and agents are teaching, and attend the sessions that are taught by the people whose work you most respect. (It’s been my experience that, regardless of the purported subject of the lecture, speakers are going to talk about what they’re best at anyway—so rather than choosing which sessions to attend based on the title of the talk, I suggest you go to the sessions taught by the coolest people—the best agents, authors, and editors. Even if a workshop is on plotting in science fiction and you’re writing romance, what you’ll learn from a master like Orson Scott Card, say, is likely to make you a better writer.
If you’ve already got an agent you’re happy with, or if you’ve sold a book, or are a published author, conferences can still be tremendously valuable. They’re an opportunity to promote yourself and your work, make additional professional contacts, and learn what other successful authors have done to take their work to the next level. The most important thing you can do at this stage—listen. Let the pros know you’re a rookie who’s past that first stage of the game, and ask each one for their one best tip on how to succeed in the business. You can sometimes learn as much as you would in a master class this way.
If you’re at that stage where you’ve written a novel but are still looking for an agent, however—you’re in luck. Conferences are tailor-made for people like you. Take the rest of the tips in this section to heart.
2) Ignore the one on one meetings. I know this is going to be controversial advice, but I’ll stand by it. I don’t like formal author-agent pitch sessions for a couple of reasons. First, most conferences schedule too many of them. If you’re one of the agent’s first pitches you might be in good shape. But if you’re the agent’s 30th pitch in two days, honestly, you would have been better off sending a query letter. As to pitching editors directly, unless you’re writing romance or science fiction, they’re probably just going to tell you to get an agent anyway.
Here’s an inside tip on how agents deal with conferences. Most agents are too polite to say “no” to your face. You can pitch them a book that they KNOW—100% KNOW-- they would never in a million years sign up. But rather than deal with the pressure of rejecting you to your face, they’ll say something like “Well, I don’t know. For something like this it’s all in the writing.” They’ll ask you to mail them the first three chapters and then they’ll glance at them for about 5 seconds and then pass, politely, with their standard rejection letter.
Here’s a statistic from experience: in the past three years, I’ve sold about ten books from people I met at conferences. Not ONE of those authors did I meet at a one on one pitch session. So, how did those authors get to me? After my workshop. In the elevator. In the bar after dinner. Basically, in normal, organic situations that aren’t terribly forced like those awful one on one pitch sessions. In ways that proved to me that they would be effective advocates for their work once it hit the shelves.
3) Ignore what the conference organizers tell you what to do. Conference organizers are going to get mad at me for this one. But I’m on your side here, so I’m going to give you the straight dope. I’d say about half of the conferences I’ve been to are not particularly well run. They try their best, but they’re usually volunteers with jobs and lives and families and don’t always know what to do to help your career prospects along. So, regardless of what the conference organizers tell you, there are a few things you should always have with you at a conference:
• A memorized, one sentence explanation of what your book is about that’s catchy and explanatory. “It’s a literary retelling of the Noah’s Ark story.” “It’s about a young Japanese-American man and woman who fall in love on the eve of World War II and are torn apart by the war.” Practice this one in front of the mirror. I promise you an agent is going to ask you what your book is about when you’re not expecting it. This is your chance to differentiate yourself.
• A one page synopsis of your novel (if you’re writing fiction) or your completed, polished nonfiction proposal if you’re writing nonfiction, and a one-page bio of yourself.
• The first three chapters of your novel, double-spaced.
• A copy of your manuscript—just in case.
Carry these with you at all times. Chances are nobody will ever ask for them—but if they do, bam. You have them. Don’t ever try to foist them on agents or editors, but they’ll be your secret weapon. And you’ll be more confident knowing you have them if you need them.
4) Understand why agents go to conferences. For agents, going to conferences is as much about the opportunity to bond and network with other agents and authors as it is about finding new literary talent. Remember—it’s not an agent’s job to read your query letters. It’s an agent’s job to sell books. We read query letters and talk to unpublished authors in order to find great books to sell—it’s a means to an end, not an end unto itself. So when you see agents and editors hanging out together, understand that if we didn’t have these opportunities, we might not be at the conference at the first place. The best conferences understand this phenomenon and schedule formal time for the faculty to interact with each other.
5) Don’t do something that’s going to put you in the LTS pile. Every agent has one. LTS stands for “Life’s Too Short.” So, although I really shouldn’t have to say this, there are a couple of times that agents are absolutely, positively off-limits. Don’t bug us when:
• We’re on the way to deliver a talk. We’re thinking about how to best deliver that talk, not about your specific project. After the talk, however, absolutely, positively buttonhole us.
• We’re in a situation where we can’t comfortably shake your hand. Examples: in the buffet line. In the pool. At the gym. In the restroom. (You’d be surprised. Every agent has horror stories, believe me.)
• Understand that no means no. If an agent tells you no, that’s it. Move on. There are lots of good fish in the sea. No stalking allowed.
It’s probably possible to write a whole book on what to do and not to do at a writers’ conference. But I’ll wrap it up here.
Hope this information has been helpful. If you disagree with anything I’ve said (including all the rest of you folioites!) that’s what the comment section is for.
Monday, May 5, 2008
(1) Take your author questionnaire seriously. I know you're busy, and I know it can be very tempting to put this off for as long as possible. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of thinking that results in major missed opportunities. Publicity efforts for your book begin four to five months before publication, and this is when the crucial magazine coverage is booked. If you haven’t yet mentioned that you went to Penn, which has a great alumni magazine, or that your fiancée’s best friend writes features for Vogue, your publicist can’t be expected to send advance copies to these media resources.
Get it done, asap.
(2) Know the niche media that would be perfect for your book. In an ideal world (for publicists as well as authors), the subject matter of a book would match up with the interests of everyone working on it, but this isn’t always the case. In-house publicists don't always get to decide what books they work on. There is reason to take heart, though: most people in the publishing business really do love learning about new things and have even come to expect it as part of their job. You can help facilitate this learning process by making sure your publicist has all of the insider information on your book’s subject at her fingertips. This means filling out (yes, asap!) your author questionnaire as fully as possible, and communicating with her any important information that might be commonplace for a specialist but unknown to a beginner. Think of the advantage to you: if you tell her, ‘The rock-collecting market is essential to the success of this book!,’ she can spend a week researching magazines and newspapers to ensure that she has a solid list of all the best. If you provide her with a full AQ that contains a list of these magazines and newspapers, she can devote that week to actively pitching them.
(3) Respect that budgets are set well in advance of a book’s publication and generally without your publicist’s input. I firmly believe that the marketing opportunities for any given book are nearly limitless, and I suspect that most in-house publicists would agree with me. The real limiting factor in the publicity campaign for your book is not ideas, but rather a nasty little thing called money. For instance, if a book is intended to be "review driven," chances are extremely good that no money is available for a book tour. And the hard truth is that few extenuating circumstances are going to change that, and (most importantly for this blog post) it’s really not within the ability of your in-house publicist to affect the amount of money allotted for your book.
That being said, there are situations that might justify additional expenses for your publicity and that you should feel comfortable bringing to the attention of your in-house publicist. Getting booked on The Colbert Report, for instance, is probably worth the cost of the plane ticket to your publishing house. If an organization will fly you out to speak to their 200+ members and is going to buy 100 books up front, it's reasonable to ask if your publishing house will pay for your hotel. Anything less than that, you’re usually on your own, moneywise.
(4) Never contact the media or set up any events or interviews without letting your publicist know first. This one, I know, can be hard to follow, especially if you feel like you’re getting the runaround from your publicity team. But there’s a good reason that publicists handle the heavy lifting with media pitches (publishing houses know this and maintain quality publicity departments because of it): they spend many hours every week following television, radio, and print; have a good sense of where to reasonably expect coverage on the title; they’ve spent a lot of time cultivating relationships with journalists; and most importantly, they are pretty used to taking rejection. Unfortunately, this last one happens a lot when pitching books to the media.
The more well-connected of you might run into journalists regularly, and some of those might want to book you on their show. If this happens, I'd recommend thanking them for the request and then always refer them to your publicist to book the actual interview. There are a bunch of things to consider before setting up an actual interview, ranging from simple timing issues to more complicated things like which NPR show has called dibs on covering your book, so it's important to get the opinion of a professional.
(5) Try very, very hard not to say the word Oprah. Saying it to your in-house publicist is like asking an astronaut, ‘hey, have you ever thought about visiting this place called the moon?’ I speak from experience here, so please pay close attention: your publicist has considered Oprah. She has sent the show multiple copies of your book, and probably even spent hours crafting a pitch well-suited for the shows’ producers. Believe me, your publicist wants you sitting on Oprah’s couch just as much as you do. You can expect her to have been in touch with all of the applicable people at the show and to have thought very hard about how to pitch your book to the appropriate producers.
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