Surfing in the sea of reviews

Hello, all —

In previous postings, I talked about how to track down who represents whom, so that you may address queries to the agents who represent authors whose work you like, or (even better) whose work resembles yours in some important respect. Today, I am going to talk about how to expand your querying list by reading book reviews, an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area.

“Wait!” I hear those of you who have been paying attention to my recent postings cry. “Wouldn’t any list of books just coming out now be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year ago, rather than now? Aren’t you always yammering about how agents live in the now, and how we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

Why, yes, intelligent readers: you get a gold star for the day. However, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what NOW pretty much requires subscribing to one of the rather expensive publishing databases, such as Publishers Marketplace, or an industry paper, such as Publishers Weekly. As a dispenser of free advice myself (free in both directions: writing these blogs is my volunteer contribution to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, a fine organization devoted to helping all of us), I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available to writers. Most aspiring writers are already struggling to find time to write, and there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping all of them become better and more publishable writers. So if I can save you a few shekels, I like to do it.

And the book review method is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy the newspaper to read book reviews. While print media book reviews almost never list the agent of a book in question (as opposed to industry advance reviews – see several posts ago — which occasionally do), reading the reviews will enable you to single out writers who are either writing for the same micro-niche you are (and the more specific you can be about that, the better, in terms of soliciting an agent) or whose style is similar to yours. Then, once you have identified the writers whose representation you covet, you can use the methods I have already discussed to track down their agents.

The book review will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books well. As you have undoubtedly noticed, the vast majority of books published in North America are not reviewed in the popular press; it is no longer sufficient simply to send a bound galley with a polite cover letter to a publication to get it reviewed. If you see a review in a major publication, it is because it is expected to be a big seller, is by an author already well recognized, or someone (usually the publicity department at the publishing house, but with increasing frequency, the author) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales, it is very much in your interest to find an agent who is good at bullying publishers into nagging reviewers on behalf of her authors’ books.

Obviously, finding well-reviewed first-time authors in your genre should be your first goal in review-scanning, as their agents will probably be most open to your work. Once you start reading the major book reviewers, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their notice. Personally, I would find it a bit tedious to keep on informing the world yet again that Alice Walker is talented and that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author, but as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules; I merely tell you about them.

If you have read a publication several times without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication. And if you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the review section of the paper to a well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books off the shelves. I’m sure that you are a good enough reader to tell in a paragraph or two if the agent who fell in love with any given book is at all likely to admire your prose stylings.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers rush to compare new authors to established ones, often within the first few lines: just today, I was reading a review of Stephanie Kallos’ John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this can make it unnecessary to read the rest of the review. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent, you would be well advised to try Kallos’. Get it?

If all of this seems like a lot of work, bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you blanket the agenting world with generic requests. Allow me to reiterate: just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, I, and literally every agented writer I know, have learned not to query agents who are not DEMONSTRABLY interested in our kind of writing. Sending only targeted queries can substantially reduce your rejection rate.

Especially if you have been going the mass mailing route – most agents simply ignore “Dear Agent” letters, but they genuinely do pay attention to queries that pay them the compliment of noticing that they have sold books in the past. As I have mentioned before (see my late August and early September postings), it is VASTLY to your advantage to be able to open your query letter with a clear, book-specific reference to why you have selected that particular agent: “Since you so ably represented David Guterson’s SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, I believe that you will enjoy my book…”

Trust me on this one.

In postings to come, I shall be turning my attention from agent-finding to other aspects of the publishing process. This does not mean I am leaving the subject forever, though: if you have questions you would like answered, or agent stories you would like to share, feel free to chime in via the COMMENTS function, below. Heck, if you’re having an unusual amount of trouble finding out who represented a particular book, let me know, and I’ll see if I can help you out. (Within reason, of course; please don’t just send me your entire list.)

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Does size matter?

Dearly beloved:

Today, I am resuming my series of posts on agencies with a discussion on the merits of big ones vs. small ones. I am certainly not the first to write on this topic, nor, I suspect, the last. Writers’ periodicals seem to have an especial fondness for the issue, so much so that I sometimes wonder if a visiting alien picking up a writers’ magazine would not automatically assume that every writer in America chooses representation based upon size alone.

It’s a big country, the alien might reason. They like EVERYTHING big.

However, a big agency is not necessarily the right choice for everybody. As the client of a large agency, you do enjoy many benefits: the prestige of signing with a recognized name, more support staff to answer your questions (or not), and often more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.

With a new agency or new agent, it can be hard to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established. Sometimes, the hungry can be excellent gambles — if your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Before that (and often after), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Extensive free editing, for instance. (If you missed yesterday’s post on fee-charging agents, read it before you discount the value of such an offer.) Intensive coaching through rewrites. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. If you are a writer who wants a lot of personal attention from an agent, the less busy agent might well be the way to go.

Remember the question I asked a few posts ago: what do you want from your agent? Consider very, very carefully how important personal contact is to you, because if this relationship works out, you will be living with your decision for a very long time. Will you go nuts if a month goes by silently while an editor has your manuscript? Would you be happy with the occasional e-mail to answer your questions or keep you updated, or would you prefer telephone calls. Do you want to hear the feedback of editors who have rejected your work, so you can revise accordingly, or would you rather get through as many submissions as quickly as possible? All of these are very much dependent upon how busy the agent is, and what kind of demands the agency places upon her time.

Generally speaking, the bigger the agency, the busier the agent, which can seem a bit counter-intuitive. Big agencies have greater resources for support staff, whereas in a small agency (or with a stand-alone agent) the agents may be doing support work as well; it would make sense if the small agency agents were busier. However, nowhere is the old adage “tasks expand in direct proportion to the time available to perform them more evident than in the publishing industry: as an agent becomes more important, he takes on more clients. Big equals powerful here.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. A few “boutique agencies” that deliberately keep themselves small in order to occupy a very specific niche, but it is rare. There’s no missing these agencies — they ALWAYS identify themselves as boutique in their blurbs, lest anyone mistakenly think that they were small because they were unsuccessful. Often, they sharply limit the proportion of unpublished writers that they will represent, or do not represent the unpublished at all. They do, however, tend to lavish attention upon the few they select.

As do, admittedly, some agents at major agencies, but do bear in mind that no matter who represents you, no matter how much your agent loves your work, you will be only ONE of the authors on the agent’s list. Time is not infinitely flexible, despite anyone’s best intentions. Before you commit to a big agency or a major agent, ask yourself: do I really want to be someone’s 101rst client?

This sounds like a flippant question, but actually, it is a very practical one, and one that speaks very directly to your personal level of security about your work. Big agencies and important agents have made their names, generally speaking, on high-ticket clients; often, that high-recognition client is why aspiring writers covet their representation skills. However, it takes time to cater to a bigwig client: I once had a lovely chat with a past president of AAR who handled one of the biggest mystery writers in the biz; apart from handling her book negotiations, he told me, he also spent a week a year with her in a mountain retreat — not skiing, but micro-editing her next work to make its market appeal as broad as possible.

Before you float off into fantasies about being successful enough to command your own personal slave editor and/or mountain lodge, stop and think about the implications of being one of this agent’s OTHER clients. That’s a week a year when he is not available to pay even the vaguest attention to the needs of Clients 2 – 143. So who do you think ends up handling those other clients’ concerns? That’s right: not the bigwig agent at all, but his I’m-working-my-way-up-the-ladder assistant. Who, I have it on reliable authority, is somewhat overworked.

Which raises an interesting question: if a writer is actually dealing most of the time with the agent’s assistant, rather than the agent, with whom is the long-term, mutually beneficial interaction occurring?

Still, you cannot deny the appeal of the contacts and oomph of a big agency, even if you are not represented by the most important agent in it. Personally, I am represented by a big agency, one that handles more than 300 clients (and very well, too, in my opinion). How much of a difference does it make, on a practical level? Well, do you remember last month, when I was talking about how ALL nonfiction book proposals are presented to agents and editors in conservative dark blue or black folders, because a unique presentation is generally regarded as an indicator of a lack of professionalism?

My agency is influential enough to present its clients’ proposals in GRAY folders.

Yes, yes, I am very lucky, and people in the industry recognize that. When I was deciding between agents, I attended a small writers’ conference in Montana, one of those gloriously intimate ones where perhaps only one agent attends, but you can talk with her for an hour. Since I already had several irons on the fire, I did not approach the agent du jour, except to introduce a writer who I thought would interest her (I’m notorious for doing this; writers are often too shy to introduce themselves). By the end of the conference, the agent had heard that I’d won the PNWA award, and her curiosity piqued, she sought me out to see if I had signed with anyone yet. A couple of minutes into her pitch, I mentioned who I was deciding between, and the agent instantly deflated. “Oh,” she said. “We’re talking THAT league.”

As I said, I have been very lucky: winning the PNWA contest got me a hearing with many agents in THAT league. (In the unlikely event that I am being too subtle here: ENTER THE CONTEST!) I have also been lucky in that while I enjoy the benefits of a large agency, my agent has the time to answer my questions and talk with me about my future and current writing: whether our quite-frequent contact is primarily the result of our respectively scintillating personalities or the roller-coaster ride my memoir has been taking on the way to publication, I leave you to speculate. I suspect that I am taking up disproportionate amounts of her time, amongst her many clients, and am writing furiously on my next book to make it worth her while.

Which brings me back to a point I made a few postings ago: it honestly is a good idea to try to get some sense of who your agent is, beyond the cold statistics of her clients’ sales, before you sign. You don’t have to attend very many conferences before you meet your first hungry new agent, willing to promise the moon, nor to meet your first 100-client bigwig. There are a lot of alternatives in between, but the only way you are going to find your best fit is to give some hard thought to what you want and ask good questions until you figure out if the agent who wants you is in fact the best choice for you and your work.

In my next post, I shall talk about how to decide which agents to approach, beyond simply opening up a standard agent guide at random, sticking a pin in a page, and querying the agency with a hole in its description. Like most parts of the long endurance test that leads to publication, there are a few shortcuts I think you should know.

In the meantime, have a lovely weekend, and as always, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

What’s in a name?

Hello, dear readers —

I’ve been holding a client’s hand (she says hello, by the way) for the last two days while she struggles to come to terms with her publisher’s throwing out her (quite good) title for her novel. Yes, I know that the subject of the week is agents, but her plight reminded me to pass along something I have been meaning to tell you about the post-contract world: contrary to popular belief and writerly preference, authors seldom get to name their own works; we’re seldom even invited to the baby’s christening, metaphorically speaking. And for the author, the shock of seeing her own work branded with a new title can be very keen.

Since some of you are, I hope, going to be picked up by agents and sell your books to editors this fall, I think the time is now ripe to speak of titles, and the author’s relationship to them in the current publishing environment. Simply speaking, they’re like the names given to a newborn kitten: the tyke may have been a perfect Cuddles in her infancy, but as an adult, she is probably going to transmogrify at some point into a Chelsea.

As we all know, titles are crucially important to the success of a book. A good title intrigues potential readers: it has good meter, isn’t a cliché (and don’t we all wish the people who title movies understood THAT?), and feels good in the mouth. It is memorable, catchy, and ideally, has something to do with the content and/or tone of the book. Knowing this, if you are like most authors, you have probably spent months or even years agonizing over whether the title you have selected for your baby is the right one.

Please do not be too disappointed if the title you picked is not be the one that ends up on the published book cover. The author’s choice seldom is.

This is not, I’m told, a reflection upon writers’ ability to tell readers succinctly what their books are about so much as a practical demonstration that marketers control many ostensibly creative decisions. Even great titles hit the dust all the time, because they are too similar to other books currently on the market or don’t contain catchphrases that will resonate with the target market or even just don’t please the people who happen to be sitting in the room when the titling decision is made.

In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject any title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book. I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all.

I’ve seen it happen too many times.

My memoir was originally titled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, but I certainly did not expect it to stick. As a freelance editor and friend of literally hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held a lot of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed from above. I was expecting my title to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, then, to be humble and bow to the inevitable. I was prepared to be spectacularly reasonable.

This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not adequate to deal with the situation. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to change my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.

As it happens, outside forces intervened, sealing my fate. Philip’s work is, as you may already be aware, currently popular with moviemakers: one of the selling points of my memoir was that two movies based upon his works were scheduled to come out within the next year and a half: A SCANNER DARKLY in the fall of 2005 and THE GOLDEN MAN in the summer of 2006. Only, movie schedules being what they are and animation being time-consuming, A SCANNER DARKLY’s release date got pushed back to March, 2006. And THE GOLDEN MAN (retitled NEXT) was pushed back to 2007

This could not have been better news to the folks sitting in marketing meetings, talking about my book. IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? was already scheduled to be published in the winter of 2006. In the blink of an eye, my nebulous publication date gelled into almost instantaneous firmness, and the marketing department decided within the course of a single meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY, presumably to make it reminiscent of SCANNER.

“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I was looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means?”

Thereupon followed much scintillating discussion – and no, I still haven’t found out what it means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently renders my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed.

“Why,” I hear my generous and empathetic readers asking, “did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”

An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question skyward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology. Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.

Get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.

Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department (who, in all probability, will not have read your book by the time the title decision is made) is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers?) Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer the handicap of postgraduate degrees.

This is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?

Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: you’re an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to your publishers, and you’re a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to your friends. All anyone can agree about is that you are ungrateful beyond human example.

I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.

I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. For my next book, I’m going to give it my SECOND-best title, and reserve my first for the inevitable discussion with the marketing folks.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini