SIOA!

Now that I have finally wrapped up the Book Marketing 101 series (phew!), I am looking forward to a nice, leisurely couple of months’ discussion of common red flags that tend to traject submissions into the reject pile faster than a writer new to the process can say, “But I didn’t know that there WAS a standard format for manuscripts, or that a manuscript page wasn’t supposed to look just like the same page in a published book!” (If that last sentence didn’t make you smirk knowingly, you might want to check out the FORMATING MANUSCRIPTS category at right before you proceed much farther in your writing career.)

Before I launch into that worthy endeavor, I would like to take the opportunity to urge those of you who have owed requested materials to an agent for a full season — from, say, having pitched successfully at a summer conference or received a positive response to a query prior to the annual August holidays — to send it out, already.

As in, if possible, this week.

Did that request make panic-generated fireworks go off in some writerly heads out there? I shouldn’t wonder; the last time I checked, over 70% of requested manuscripts were never actually sent to the agents and editors that requested them. That’s a whole lot of potentially publishable writing sitting in a whole lot of desk drawers.

Let’s give some thought to why that might be.

Consider, if you will, Zack, a good-but-as-yet-unagented novelist. Zack has been looking for an agent for quite some time now for a well-written, complex book — the kind of book that folks in the industry like to describe, if they’re feeling charitable, as “needing precisely the right agent/editor/push campaign.” (If they’re not feeling charitable, they describe it as “difficult.”)

In short, Zack’s novel is original, and the perfect agent has yet to fall in love with it.

We’ve all been there, right? If I haven’t said it again recently, allow me to remind you that the time elapsed between when a writer begins to seek an agent for a particular project and when she finally signs with one is NOT necessarily an especially reliable predictor of the writer’s talent.

In fact, it usually isn’t a predictor at all: if the writing quality were the only factor involved, we wouldn’t ever see a bad book on the tables at the front of a chain bookstore, would we?

But try convincing a well-meaning friend or relative — the kind that might lecture one over turkey at a certain annual family gathering about the desirability of dropping a time-consuming hobby that has not yet yielded fortune or fame — that even the best books often take time to find the right home, eh? Non-writers tend to assume that talent is the ONLY factor, but then, the non-writing world lives under the happy delusion that the only reason a book would not get published right away is that it isn’t any good!

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: plenty of good writers have queried for years before getting picked up, and frankly, it’s harder to land an agent today than it was even five years ago.

Okay, pep talk administered. Back to my tale.

Like a sensible writer, Zack knows that his book’s only chance of getting published lies in his promoting it to agents and editors, so he routinely spends the spring and summer going around to literary conferences. Since he both has an interesting story to tell and is a talented pitcher, he always picks up a few requests to see all or part of the book.

Yet invariably, when I see him at holiday parties, he responds uncomfortably to my eager inquires about how agents have responded to his submissions. “I’m still revising the end of the book,” he says, eyes averted.

We have this exchange down to a ritual now, so I ask, “Does that mean that you haven’t sent out the first 50 to the agents who asked you for it, either?”

Zack looks sheepish, self-righteous, and fearful all at once, a facial feat I would have sworn was not possible. “I want to be completely ready when they ask to see the rest.”

Readers, care to know how often you are on my mind? Exactly three seconds before I start to read him the riot act on the virtues of SIOA (Send It Out, Already!), I routinely think, “Gee, how long has it been since I’ve blogged about this? I really should do a reminder post.”

So here I am, telling you: if you got a request prior to the first week of September (and I mean this LAST September, not the one before) to send all or part of a manuscript to an agent or editor, please, please SIOA!

Yes, even if it isn’t perfect. Requests for materials are like vitamins, boxes of cereal, and hunks of meat: they come with expiration dates.

Not firm ones, of course, but when a request is made, it is considered professional to follow up on it in a timely manner. It shows what a good client you would be: after all, your agent would like to be able to tell editors, “Oh, she’s great about meeting deadlines.”

More to the point, I’ve never met an agent or editor yet whose raving praise about an author included the words, “And when I ask for something, she doesn’t get back to me for eight months!”

Sounds flippant, I know, but from a business perspective, it’s a legitimate question. After all, an author working under a book contract would not have the luxury of setting aside a manuscript for a few months until she had a few unbroken weeks’ time to make requested revisions, right?

Most of the time, of course, a requesting agent is not going to be drumming her nails on her desk for months on end, wondering where a particular submission is, unless the submitter is already a client. If a project that particularly excited her in query or pitch form doesn’t appear, she’s likely to assume that the writer went with another agent — or dropped the project entirely.

She’s going to move on without following up.

Please, please don’t wait for her to nag you about sending those requested materials; it’s not going to happen. Just SIOA.

Many aspiring writers misinterpret silence from the requester’s end as a lapse of interest, but that isn’t necessarily the case; a good agent simply has too many books on the brain — and too many eager writers clamoring for her attention — to badger writers slow to submit.

And even if she were so inclined, remember, this person doesn’t know you. From the requester’s end of the relationship, there isn’t necessarily any visible difference between not receiving requested materials because the writer’s obsessing over whether every comma is right, because the writer just hasn’t had time to give it a once-over, because the writer has had a sudden bout of massive insecurity, and because the writer had been pitching or querying a book not yet written.

And frankly, most pros would expect that if those first chapters did need to be written from scratch post-request, it could be done successfully between midsummer and Christmas, anyway. From a writer’s POV, that may not be a particularly realistic expectation, given how most aspiring writers are already struggling to sandwich their writing between work and family and friends and a million other demands upon their time, but remember, at the submission stage, intentions don’t count for much.

Agents and editors want to judge a writer by what’s on the page, and they can’t do that without having pages to read. The general expectation –for fiction, at least — is that if the book is at the querying/pitching point, it ought to be ready to send out.

Which isn’t always the case in practice, admittedly. An aspiring writer might jump the gun on querying for a number of reasons: because conferences fall at particular times of year, for instance, or because that terrific new character didn’t pop into the mind until a week after the query letter went out. Or because some darned fool of an Internet expert told you that the industry moves with glacial speed during certain parts of the year, and you wanted to beat the post New Year’s rush.

Heck, I once won a major literary award for a memoir for which I had written only the first chapter and synopsis. But I knew enough about the industry to respond to agents’ requests for a book proposal with a chipper, “Great! I can have a proposal to you in six weeks.” Then I sat down and wrote it during the August publishing lull.

But the point is, I did send it out, and that’s how my agency was able to figure out that it wanted to sign me.

“But Anne,” I hear those who had planned on spending another few months polishing their submissions piping up, “you said that the industry shuts down between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that it’s not a good idea to query just after the New Year. Why does it make any difference if I send it now or in February?”

A couple of very good reasons, actually: first, enthusiasm is not a permanent condition, but a fleeting one.

The fact is, the chances of the requester’s remembering you (and, more importantly, your book) are significantly higher now than three months from now. A long lapse is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s not unheard-of for an agent to respond to a submission that arrives six months after a pitch with a statement that she doesn’t remember having requested it.

The second reason is that many, many agents and editors spend the next month and a half catching up on their READING. The industry slows down not because everyone who works in a publishing house takes six weeks off, but because there are so many Judeo-Christian holidays during that period that it’s hard to get enough bodies together for an editorial meeting.

Why is that significant? Well, unlike agencies, where an individual agent can decide to take a chance on a new author, a publishing house’s acquiring a book requires the collective agreement of a great many people. If the requisite bodies are heading over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, it’s kinda hard to obtain their consent to anything.

But as anyone who has had much contact with the industry knows, it’s full of folks who tend to deal with the most immediate crisis of any given moment. Naturally, this workplace orientation results in much work being put off until some nebulous future date when the agent or editor has time to deal with it.

Wild guesses as to when they get around to it? Right: between now and the end of the year. And because agents know that editors will be occupied with what is already on their overburdened desks, they tend to curl up with a few good manuscripts and take a well-deserved breather, too.

In other words, it behooves a submitting writer to adhere to their calendar, rather than expecting them to follow yours.

“Why,” I hear one plaintive-but-reasonable voice out there demanding querulously, “in an industry where it is considered perfectly acceptable for an agent to take several months to get back to a writer who has submitted a manuscript, and six months or more for an editor to read a submission via an agent,” (yes, it happens) “should there be ANY restrictions on how long I have to send out requested materials? Why is the writer the only one expected to adhere to a tacit deadline?”

Want the honest answer? (Look away NOW if you don’t.) Because the writer is the one with the least power in this situation, and the competition for scarce representation and publishing slots is fierce.

Any well-established agent or editor sees hundreds upon hundreds of perfectly-formatted, well-written submissions per year: they don’t worry too much about the one who got away. And that gives them the power to set unreasonable (and, yes, as regular readers of this blog already know, often unwritten and unspoken) rules for writerly conduct.

Unfortunately, it’s as simple as that.

Amongst agents and editors, the writer who pitches well but never sends in the requested follow-up materials is as notorious as the guy who doesn’t call again after the first date. As is the NF writer who comes up with a stellar book idea but never actually submits a book proposal. Ask any agent: they find this phenomenon genuinely frustrating.

But it is common enough that after an agent has been in the biz for a while, she usually isn’t holding her breath waiting for ANY pitched or queried book to show up on her desk just because she asked for it. No, she’s not the kind of girl to sit by the phone.

Now, logically, one might expect that this ambient cynicism would mean that the writer had MORE time leeway, rather than less. Even an agent who flatly fell in love with a pitch wouldn’t be at all upset if the requested pages didn’t show up for a couple of months; if he’s at all experienced, he would already be aware that almost every writer on the planet likes to give the book one last read-through before submitting it, to catch any rookie, grammatical, or continuity mistakes. And, of course, he’s not the kind of boy to sit by the phone.

However, as I mentioned above, publishing is very much a seasonal business; the pros even talk about the year that way. Is your book a summer novel, a fall culture book, or a late winter special interest release? In practice, this means that submissions that might be tossed into a pile of fifty to molder during one month might be being placed in much, much shorter piles in another, where they might be read within a week or two.

But that’s not the only reason you should SIOA now. As any of my editing clients (they’re the ones cringing in that corner over there) can tell you, I am the last person on earth who would advise submitting a manuscript that has fundamental problems. And realistically, if you absolutely had to, you might be able to get away with sending requested materials as much as 5 months after the request, if you were polite enough to send a letter explaining the need for delay quite early in the process.

However, it has been my experience that if a writer puts off sending requested materials for more than a couple of months, they may not get sent at all. Let me repeat that statistic from above: somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of requested materials are NEVER sent to their requestors.

That’s a whole lot of lost opportunity, isn’t it? And that’s just sad. SIOA, my friends: it may be scary, but it’s a necessary – and indispensable — step in becoming a professional writer.

But don’t beat yourself up if you recognized yourself in this post; many, many good writers sometimes have a hard time SIOA-ing. Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about the major reasons that SOIA-avoidance happens, and what a writer can do to snap out of the pattern.

Keep up the good work!

FYI to new comment-posters

The blogger’s road is, for better or worse, often the path of soliloquy. The difference between a blog and a column, as I see it, is the comparative ease with which readers can talk back, to turn what would have been a monologue on paper into a multi-party conversation. Since this is, after all, a blog for writers, I have been delighted to see many of you jumping in to share your views.

As I mentioned last time, this blog is set up so that I must read and approve comments by each and every comment-poster new to this site. I try to check frequently, but I’m not logged into the blog full-time (and recently, not every day, so there can be a bit of a lag before I get to any given comment. But rest assured, I actually do read every single comment posted to this site.

Why do screen so carefully? To prevent the comment sections from becoming clogged with spam, offers for pharmaceuticals, and links to sites featuring people involved in sex acts not legal in my part of the world. On some days, I get as many as three hundred spam postings, so this really is necessary.

Also, I reserve the right to delete the profane, the obscene, or questions that my professional experience tells me the writer may in future years prefer were not addressed in quite so public a forum.

Sometimes, though, writers hoping to promote their books, writing teachers hoping to promote for-pay services, or bloggers hoping to attract traffic to their sites will attempt to post links here, via the comments function. As a matter of policy, I typically delete these posts, as I want to keep the forum open for discussion, rather than commerce.

However, sometimes it is legitimately hard to tell the difference between a self-promoting post and a comment posted by someone who HAPPENS to have a website and wants to join the discussion. If I have mistakenly deleted some of these, my apologies.

To prevent confusion in future, here are a few ground rules for posting comments:

1. Links unaccompanied by actual English sentences will be deleted automatically. Even if the comment is in a language I happen to read, the comments should be in the language of the post, so all readers may enjoy them.

2. Although I welcome general questions, comments should, if at all possible, be relevant to the post to which they are attached. That way, later browsers are more likely to find the discussion. (And don’t worry: the blog program will notify me if someone comments on a post from a couple of years ago.)

3. Unfortunately, I cannot post comments with only generalized content like, “Good point!” or “LOL!” Spammers often use generalized praise in order to post links to quite inappropriate sites.

4. Please, do not ask me to exchange links with you simply to increase web traffic. It’s unfair to readers.

5. To be considered for posting, any comment containing a link to a book, blog, service, or any other website must be legitimately a link to what it says it is (spam often isn’t) AND the comment must make it plain how the link is relevant to the specific post being commented upon.

6. There is one kind of self-promotion I welcome in the comments: feel free to post comments with good news about your career, such as contest triumphs, landing a great agent, selling a book, etc. The more specific, the better!

7. Please do not post excerpts of writing for my feedback unless I have SPECIFICALLY asked for readers to do so. (My editors’ guild frowns upon its members giving away our services for free.)

8. Keep your commentary G-rated, please; not everyone who reads this site is over the age of 18.

9. Please do not list a business’ website as your URL, unless it happens to be YOUR business; I do check. (Spammers often try to post legitimate-sounding comments with links that turn out to be far from what we’re talking about here.)

10. Please bear in mind that even though all of us are typing this at home, this IS a public forum. I would strongly discourage you from posting comments that might harm your reputation — or others’.

11. If you are asking me a question, please be aware that I may not have time to answer it immediately — so it’s a good idea to post those questions at a time OTHER than immediately before an imminent submission deadline.

If I decide to write a post in response to your question, please bear in mind that there are probably other questions already lined up before it in my to-blog-upon queue. Writing this blog is, after all, a volunteer activity, so I reserve the right to set my own turn-around times.

And perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I prefer questions that are phrased politely, rather than as demands for information. Taking the extra three seconds to add please and thank you won’t hurt anybody.

12. if you have a LOT of links you would like to post within a comment, please send me a private e-mail clearing the volume with me first, so I may set aside the time to follow all of the links as soon as it goes up.

Why is this necessary? Well, a comment that contains many links to other sites are prone to get flagged as spam — because posting comments with a zillion links in them is how this kind of spamming tends to work. This is why I actually visit all of the outgoing links that people post here, because 99.9% of the outgoing links I am sent are not legit, but lead to commercial sites, porn sites, etc.

Thanks in advance for following these rules. I’ve been meaning to codify this for a while, but haven’t had the energy to formulate a policy.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

At long last, the final installment of Book Marketing 101: tell me again why are we going to all this trouble?

If you have made it all the way through this series, either reading it as I posted or in retrospect, please give yourself a big ol’ pat on the back. By committing to learning how querying and submission works, you can, I hope, avoid the most common mistakes that lead to rejection — and approach the process of finding an agent for your work not as a massive, ugly mystery, but as a professional endeavor that’s going to take some time.

You know how I’d like you to celebrate? Send out a few additional query letters this weekend. (Five is a nice number. Ten is better.)

Did I hear a few exasperated gasps out there? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and not unreasonably, “doesn’t the industry slow to a crawl between Thanksgiving and Christmas? If I haven’t gotten a raft of queries out by now, shouldn’t I wait until after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?” (That’s the third week of January, for those of you reading outside the US.)

I have to admit, that’s a pretty reasonable objection. I’m not going to tell you it’s okay to put the querying on hold, mind you, but I give you full points for a good argument.

Even this late in the season, the autumn is an excellent time to be looking for an agent, much better than the dead of winter. Not only are there always a lot of great new books hitting the shelves in the fall (including most of the year’s crop of literary fiction and culture books), but by querying now, you’ll also get a jump on the literally tens of thousands of aspiring authors who will suddenly decide at the end of December that their New Year’s resolution is going to be to query fifteen agents per month.

Since the average New Year’s resolution lasts only about two and a half weeks, January is when ALL of those well-meaning resolvers’ missives hit agents’ desks — right after a long holiday break AND in the middle of tax-preparation time for agencies. With the monumentally increased volume, agents and their assistants tend to get a MIGHT testy around then.

Since the vast majority of those rejected during that period will not query again until, oh, about twelve months later — if they try again at all — Millicent’s life calms down considerably toward the end of January. And wouldn’t you rather have your query under her nose while her joie de vivre is on the upswing?

The moral of the story: get your queries out now, and beat the post-Christmas rush.

Even with predictably slower turn-around times over the next month and a half, making a big push now, rather than after the New Year, will make it easier to keep up the momentum an aspiring writer needs to keep a query cycle going as long as necessary to land an agent.

Stop groaning. If your book deserves to be published — and I’m betting that it does — it deserves to make the rounds of the fifty or hundred agents that even the best books sometimes make these days. Yes, that’s a long haul — but nothing extends the querying process like taking extended breaks from it.

Query 5-10 agents at once — hey, your time is too valuable to query them singly — and keep that momentum going. The moment one rejection comes in, send out another query, so there are always a constant number in motion.

Why send out a new query on the same day as the last comes back? Because it’s the best way to fight off rejection-generated depression, that’s why: it’s something you can DO in response to that soul-sapping form letter. Recognize that rejection by an agent, any agent, is only one person’s opinion (or, more commonly, one person’s screener’s opinion), and move on.

It can take a lot of asking before a writer hears yes. Yes, even a very good writer with a great book. Remember, you don’t want to sign with just any agent, any more than you would want to marry just anyone the law says you can: a relationship with an agent is, ideally, a very long-term commitment.

You want to find the best one for you. Finding that special someone is going to take some serious dating around.

And that is not, contrary to popular opinion, necessarily any reflection at all upon your level of writing talent.

Oh, you’ll want to write a good query letter, as well as avoiding the most common writing problems that lead submissions to be rejected. That, like other matters of format and craft, can be learned. Talent, however, can’t — but you can’t know for certain how talented you are until you get the technical matters right, so you can get a fair reading from the pros.

Not to worry — I’m going to spend the weeks to come going over some of the more pervasive writing problems. But if you’ve been following this series, you already have the skills to write a professional-quality query letter, don’t you?

Get on out there and do it. At this point, you’re probably not going to hear back for a month or more, anyway. That’s plenty of time for us to work on polishing your manuscript.

I feel in my bones that some of you out there are still resisting my pep talk — I’ve been hearing it bouncing off your psyches like bullets off Superman’s chest. Okay, I’m going to pull out all the stops, and end this series with one last blast of kryptonite-laden truth, to help you see why it just doesn’t make sense to take the vagaries of this often drawn-out process personally.

Throughout this Book Marketing 101 series — originally intended to encompass only a couple of months of summer — I have been trying, in my own small way, to educate aspiring writers to the hard facts of the current literary market: it is, in fact, as difficult as it has ever been to land an agent and/or sign a publication contract. In my experience, understanding the basics of how the acceptance (and rejection) process works can save good writers time, chagrin, and wasteful expenses of despair.

Yet as I have been writing, even I have caught myself wondering from time to time whether it is really THAT hard to break into the biz. Oh, I certainly haven’t been exaggerating, say, how small, inadvertent mistakes can and do lead to instant rejection or the level of competition one must beat in order to sign with a good agency; by comparison with the conversation you’d be likely to hear behind the scenes at a top-flight writers’ conference, my rendition has been positively mild.

But still, I worry about scaring good writers away from trying at all. And then I read an article like this one in a trade journal:

Hachette moves to firm sale on backlist
Hachette Livre UK is taking the radical step of moving its backlist publishing to a firm sale basis for environmental reasons. The UK’s largest publishing group, which includes Orion, Hodder, Headline, Octopus and Little, Brown, told staff and authors this morning…that it intends for all of its trade publishing to be put on a backlist firm sale footing by the end of 2008, following consultation with retailers. (For the rest of this article, follow this link.)

If this piece of news did not make you gasp spontaneously, I would guess that you are only dimly aware of just how many books are already pulped each year — that is, sent back to the publisher unsold for paper recycling — or how backlist sales typically work. Most bookstores buy new books from publishers on a provisional basis, with the understanding that they can send clean, unread copies back if they do not sell within a specified period of time. Often, the returns, especially paperbacks and trade paper, will be ground down into pulp to provide the raw material to print other books (thus the term pulping).

From a marketing point of view, this arrangement makes quite a bit of sense: with certain rare exceptions (think Harry Potter), it’s pretty hard for a bookseller to know in advance how well a book will sell. Stocking extra copies encourages browsing, which is potentially good for retailer, publisher, and reader alike. In recent years, however, books have been remaining on shelves for shorter stints than in the past. The length of time a bookseller will choose to keep a particular book on a shelf varies considerably by book and retailer — the same book may be allowed shelf space for a year at a small bookstore, yet last only a few weeks at a megastore like Barnes & Noble.

All of which means, in practice, that these days, a new book typically does not have very long to establish a track record as a seller before being subject to return. This, in turn, renders it more expensive for publishers to promote books, as the window of opportunity can be pretty small. (See why publishers might be willing to pay a premium to have their books displayed face-up on tables for the first few weeks, rather than spine-out on a shelf? Or why authors sometimes see fit to hire their own publicists for the first month after a book’s release?)

Backlist titles, by contrast, have been out for a while; they’re the releases from past seasons that the publisher elects to keep in print. Although they do not receive the press attention of new releases, backlist books have historically been the financial heart of most publishers’ business — and this, too, has tended to work to all of our benefits. How often, for instance, have you discovered a genre author three books into a series? Or fell in love with a writer’s latest book and went back to read everything she ever published? (As I sincerely hope you do; after all, if we writers won’t purchase the more obscure works of living writers, who will?)

Or, to take a very up-to-the-minute example, discovered a great writer who has been plugging away for years because he suddenly wins the National Book Award? (Well deserved, Sherman Alexie!)

If you’ve been able to find these books at your local bookstore, you’ve been buying backlist titles, gladdening publishers’ hearts and keeping the heartbeat of the industry alive. Because of readers like you, stocking backlist titles has been good bet for retailers: you might not move many copies of Clarissa in a given month, but when a reader wants it, it’s great if you have it to hand.

But if a bookseller has to buy those backlist titles outright, with no opportunity to return them, it becomes substantially more expensive to keep, say, the complete opus of Sherman Alexie in stock in the years when he is NOT winning prestigious awards.

Speaking as a hardcore reader of English prose, I think that would be a genuine shame. And since I hear that other UK publishers are considering implementing similar policies, I worry about all of those British writers whose work may go out of print before those of us on this side of the pond have had a chance to hear how wonderful they are.

Call me a worrywart, but this news also made me gnaw my nails, pondering the financial prospects of UK authors already in print. Just as increasingly quick shelf turn-around for a current season’s books have rendered retailers less likely to take a chance on new authors (how much word-of-mouth can a small book garner in under a month, after all?), it’s probably safe to assume that a policy shift like this will make it harder for backlist authors to remain in print.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you saying, “you’ve just spent the last week telling us that publishing trends change all the time — and that even if I get an agent tomorrow, it might be a couple of years before my book hits the shelves. Do I really need to worry about return policies now?”

Well, perhaps worry is too strong a word, but it is something to keep in mind when planning out your writing career in the long term. Working authors often rely upon sales of their backlist works to pay the bills. If backlist sales decline — as they well might, if such a policy is embraced industry-wide — it may be significantly more difficult to make a consistent living as a writer of books in the years to come.

In other words, this change may affect your ability to quit your day job after you’re published.

In the short term, however, I think it’s always helpful for an aspiring writer to be aware that there is almost always more to an editor’s decision to acquire a book — and by extension, to an agent’s decision to offer it representation — than simply whether the writing is good. During periods when booksellers are taking fewer risks, publishers have historically relied more upon their tried-and-true authors than upon exciting new talent.

Thus tightening the already tight market for what used to be called writers of promise, excellent authors who don’t catch on with the public until the fourth or fifth book. (Mssr. Alexie’s first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was originally published in 1993. Fortunately, it’s still available as a backlist title.)

Do I think this change is cause for rending your garments and casting your hard-collected query lists into the nearest fire? No, certainly not. But I do think that aspiring writers who approach the querying and submission processes as though the book market had NOT become significantly tighter in recent years are more likely to give up when faced with rejection — because, unfortunately, there’s still a very pervasive myth out there that the ONLY reason a manuscript, or even a query, ever has trouble finding a professional home is because of a lack of writerly talent.

That’s just not true. Like the common fantasy of walking into a writers’ conference, pitching to the first agent in sight, getting signed on the spot, and selling the book within the month, that misapprehension makes too many good writers stop trying after only a handful of efforts. What is true is that the competition is fierce, and the more a writer learns about how the business works, the more she can hone her queries and submissions to increase their likelihood of success.

There is an immense gulf between the difficult and the impossible — and, as I have stressed time and again, the only impossible hurdle for a book to overcome is the one that confines it in a desk drawer, unqueried and unread.

No matter how tight the book market becomes, it’s not the industry that controls the lock on that drawer; it’s the writer. Never, ever allow the prospect of rejection to seal that drawer shut permanently.

This is your dream — give it a fighting chance. Send out those queries.

Thank you for your patience with my slow posting during my illness, and keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: surfing the sea of book reviews, or, free the bound periodicals!

Earlier in this series, 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 or background resembles yours in some important respect. Yesterday, I suggested an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area: reading book reviews, particularly those published in periodicals that cater to the same demographic as your intended readership.

As I signed off yesterday, content with a job relatively well done, I heard faint plaintive cries from those of you who have been paying especially close attention to the Book Marketing 101 series. “Um, Anne?” I heard you saying, “wouldn’t books coming out right now necessarily be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year or more ago, rather than now? What about your passionate diatribe earlier in this series about how agents live in the now, so we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

If you thought this, or some reasonable facsimile of it, give yourself a gold star for the day. Because, you see, you are — as you so often are — quite right.

For those of you new to the publishing game, with very few exceptions, the time lapse between when a book is purchased by a publisher and the date it appears in bookstores is at least a year. Often longer, depending on how far out a publisher establishes a print queue and what season the marketing department believes would be most advantageous for a particular book to appear.

Yes, yes, we’ve all seen books hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble more quickly than this, but those tend to be nonfiction, books about current events or celebrity meltdowns. Your garden-variety novel, however brilliantly written, is unlikely to do much leap-frogging within the print queue. Besides, it is far from uncommon for editors to request that authors make changes to book between acceptance and publication.

One reason, in case you were curious, that advances are generally paid in installments, rather than in one lump sum — typically, a third on signing, a third on manuscript acceptance (i.e., after the author has made all those requested changes), and a third upon publication. That way, the publisher has a stick as well as a carrot to induce authorial compliance with editorial demands.

Not a bad motivational strategy, admittedly, but often a bit inconvenient for writers who have been dodging student loan payments and living on Top Ramen while they were writing their books.

This lag time renders keeping up with publishing trends significantly more difficult than simple perusal of the bestseller lists. Professional opinions about what will and won’t appeal to readers a year or two from now can fluctuate wildly, sometimes with remarkable speed: to take a couple of famous recent examples, the same agents who were clamoring three years ago for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES were telling writers a year later that memoir was impossible to sell. The agents who were combing conferences for the next SEX IN THE CITY at the height of the show’s popularity have spent the last year and a half insisting that chick lit is doomed.

And, of course, six months from now, some other book category will be pronounced permanently dead, too. The only thing that is constant is change.

Oh, except for the facts that in the United States, generic queries don’t work, gravity generally makes things fall down instead of up, and women readers purchase roughly 80% of the fiction sold, and pretty much all of the literary fiction. All of that’s been true for an awfully long time.

Other than that, bet your bottom dollar on the malleability of change. Since it takes substantially longer to write a book than for a bunch of people in Manhattan to decide what the next hot thing will be, all we writers can do is monitor the squalls from afar and hope we’re ready when our time comes.

As I have been pointing out in various ways over the last couple of weeks, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what NOW requires vigilance. You could, if you had the time and the resources, subscribing to one of the standard industry publications, such as Publishers Marketplace or Publishers Weekly.

As a dispenser of free advice myself, though, and someone who began blogging in the first place because there was at the time a dearth of inexpensive means for aspiring writers to learn how the biz works, I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available. Most aspiring writers are already struggling to make time to write, and for those with the spare cash to spend, there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping them become better and more publishable writers — often for a rather stiff fee. Not to mention freelance editors like me, whose services typically do not come cheap.

So if I can save my readers a few shekels from time to time, I like to do it. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where if you do a cost/benefit analysis, weighing the value of your time against the difficulty of obtaining free yet up-to-the-minute information, you might want to shell out the dosh.

Although it only tracks current publications, rather than sales to editors, the book review method, is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. 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.

How so, you ask? 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. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bound galley is a low-cost print of a book cheaply packaged, without a hard cover, for circulation to reviewers. They look a little bit like thick scripts for plays.)

Talk to anyone who works at a large-circulation magazine, and they will tell you: they receive hundreds of bound galleys every month, but unlike an industry publication like Library Journal, they simply do not have room to review them all. Out of all those submissions, a publication might review perhaps a dozen per issue.

To narrow the probability of any given book’s being reviewed even more, most print media outlets have a policy to review only books released in hardcover — although since it has gotten so common to release fiction in trade paper, you’re starting to see some shift on the subject — and only books released through traditional publishing.

Self-published and electronic books are almost impossible to get reviewed, alas, unless you’re Stephen King. In fact, most newspapers and magazines have a standing policy against it.

Thus, if you see a book reviewed in a major publication, it is because it is either 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 or the author’s press people) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales than no review at all (remember when John Irving’s last book got savaged by THE WASHINGTON POST?), 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.

If reading through weeks and months of reviews seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you simply blanket the agenting world with generic pleas for representation.

Yes, I know: I’ve been reiterating that particular sentiment quite a bit lately, but it honestly is the single best piece of advice an agented writer has to pass along to the aspiring. 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 or our kind of writer NOW.

Trust me on this one, please. Invest the time. But do it strategically.

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 on a regular basis, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their august notice.

Odd, isn’t it, considering that ostensibly, a book reviewer’s primary job is to alert his readers to the existence of good books they might not otherwise read? But no: the vast majority of reviews are of well-hyped books by already-established writers.

Personally, I would find it a bit tedious to keep on informing the world yet again that Alice Walker can write up a storm or that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author’s first novel. But as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules governing the miasma of publishing; I merely tell you about them.

For this reason, you might want to move beyond the major book review sources in your search for new agenting pastures. If you have read several issues of a publication without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication.

The easiest way to do this is to check back issues: here again, the public library is your friend. (But when isn’t THAT the case?) Librarians, dear souls that they are, often shelve current magazines so one does not even have to move three steps in either direction to find a year’s worth of back issues.

To save yourself some time, don’t bother with issues more than a year and a half old; longer ago than that, and the agents’ book preferences may well have changed.

Why? Chant it with me now: because the book market is malleable.

It’s also sensible to start with the smaller publications aimed most directly at your target audience or demographic, not the broader-based publications. After all, if you write anything at all esoteric, you could easily spend a month leafing through the last two years’ worth of the New York Times Review of Books and only come up with a handful of books in your genre.

And don’t forget to search the web for sites that habitually review your type of book. Yes, the Internet is wide and vast and deep, but if you narrow your search focus enough (how many habitual reviewers of werewolf books could there possibly be?), the task should not be terribly overwhelming.

Remember, part of the point of this exercise is to find the smaller books by first-timers, and no one is faster than your garden-variety blogging reviewer at finding these.

If you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the reviews 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 writer’s style is at all likely to admire YOUR prose flair.

Or – and this is particularly important if you are writing about anything especially controversial – if the agent is brave enough to take a chance on a topic that might not, as they say, play in Peoria.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers have the endearing habit of rushing to compare new authors to immensely well-established ones, often within the first few lines. Let’s say you found a review of Stephanie Kallos’ work that mentioned her John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this in line 1 can render reading the rest of the review superfluous. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent (who, if memory serves, is also his wife), you would be well advised to try Kallos’.

Get it?

Admittedly, sometimes the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, which is less than helpful for our purposes. Again, taking a gander at the actual books in question will help separate the true analogies from the bizarre. For example, Layne Maheu’s amazing literary fiction debut SONG OF THE CROW is told from the point of view of a bird along for the ride on Noah’s ark, several reviewers automatically compared the book to Richard Bach’s 1970s megaseller JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Actually, apart from the sheer flesh-to-feathers ratio in these two books, they don’t have a lot in common. But sure enough, the merest flutter of feathers, and the reviewer had a conceptual match.

Some things are beyond comprehension.

I’m not going to lie to you, my friends: pulling together a solid, appropriate, well-researched querying list is not just a lot of work; it involves quite a bit of creativity. And no, I have absolutely no idea why writers are not given credit for that more often.

Keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: when your querying list starts to thin out

I’ve been writing for a few weeks now (on and off, as my health permits) about nifty ways to figure out which agents would be most productive for you to add to your first-choice query list, which you might want to place farther down on the list, and which might just be a waste of an investment in stamps. As I argued last time, being the right agent for YOUR book requires more than merely being a person who represents authors for a living.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the definition of an agent, period?

Being the best choice for you requires, at minimum, all that, having a delightful propensity for saying yes to you, AND being eager, equipped, and able to get your manuscript under the right set of bloodshot editorial eyeballs. Oh, and it really, really helps if this sterling soul not only thinks your book is marketable, but truly well written as well.

So it’s an excellent idea to find out, if at all possible, what the candidates for this enviable position like to read — or at any rate, what they like to read professionally. As I MAY have mentioned several dozen times earlier in this series, the single best indicator of an agent’s taste in representation at the moment is to find out what she’s been selling lately.

Some weary brainpans beginning to gyrate out there, aren’t they? “But Anne,” some of you who have been treading the querying for a while whimper, “I’ve already done a boatload of research, combing the agency guides and tracking down the fine folks who represent my favorite authors. But frankly, I’m starting to run out of faves who write anything remotely like my work, and I don’t have unlimited reading time.”

In other words, what do you do AFTER you’ve gone through your ten or twelve favorite living authors and tracked down their agents? What about taking a gander at agents who habitually represent books aimed at you as a READER? Who is representing the books that are being marketed to people like you these days?

Stop chortling — I’m quite serious about this. Successful authors in a particular book category very frequently spring from its devoted readership.

Come closer, and I’ll whisper a secret seldom heard in the hallowed halls of writers’ conferences and classes: the people who run it don’t always have all that complex an idea of who reads, or even writes, any given type of book. Particularly in a relatively new category. They tend to assume that for all intents and purposes, the people who write in a particular subgenre and the people who read it went to high school together, or at any rate share substantial life experiences.

So believe it or not, it’s entirely possible that you are a precise fit for some agency’s already-formulated author profile, which might make them more willing to take a chance on you and your book.

Those of you who happen to have been female, under the age of 45, and trying to market an adult novel with a female protagonist to a US or UK agent or publisher during the brief-but-pervasive reign of chick lit have probably experienced this phenomenon in reverse, right? Back in the day, a woman born after the Johnson administration pitching a literary novel about a woman who lived in a damp cave in Antarctica could practically count upon being cross-examined about how she expected to market such a book to the readers of BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, as if it were actually impossible for the pre-menopausal set to pen anything for any other audience.

This phenomenon has subsided a bit, thank goodness, since chick lit seems to have had its heyday, but if you fall into that demographic, you might be able to interest a chick lit-heavy (I know; that seems like a contradiction in terms) agency in your non-chick lit novel. After all, they’re already set up to deal well with authors in your demographic, right?

How might you go about this? Well, for starters, I might suggest finding out if any of the staff writers or columnists at your favorite magazines have written books, and querying THEIR agents, on the grounds of similar worldview and target audience.

For example, if you are a Gen X or Gen Y woman who writes books aimed at college-educated women — which is pretty much synonymous with the literary fiction market, lest we forget — you might want to take a good, hard look at the last year’s worth of issues of BUST, which is aimed squarely at your demographic.

Naturally, it’s not the only publication intended for those eyes, but BUST has something very definite to offer a young female writer: n every issue, their book review pages tout work by writers affiliated with the magazine. By definition, those books are being marketed to the same demographic as the magazine.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I would imagine that every single one of the authors of those reviewed books is represented by a literary agent. And that can add up to a hefty handful of queries beginning, “Since you so ably represented Book X…”

The same technique could easily be applied to any book-reviewing periodical designed to appeal to any group of target readers, right? If you’re not certain which publications to choose (or which review books), trot on over to your local library and strike up a conversation with the lovely person in charge of the magazine section. Chances are, s/he will be able to tell you precisely who reads which magazine.

A word to the wise, from someone’s who’s spent a lot of hours blandishing assistance from a lot of librarians: you’ll get a better response to this question if you (a) are polite, (b) have already identified your book’s target market (for tips, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right), and (c) don’t approach the librarian either five minutes before closing or when the joint is jumping. And don’t forget to jot down this helpful person’s name for later thanks in acknowledgments.

Obviously, you could work similar wizardry with magazines that publish your kind of writing — it’s often worth searching to see if article-writers are agented. An author does not necessarily need to have a book out to prove a good lead for you — a lot of magazine writers are aspiring book writers, and many of them already have agents.

(Before you literary fiction writers out there get too excited, I should probably add: THE NEW YORKER very seldom publishes fiction by any writer who isn’t already pretty well-established, so these authors tend not to be represented by agents over-eager for new blood, if you catch my drift. Starting with a less prestigious magazine might be a more efficient use of your research time.)

The other big advantage to checking out periodicals is that they will give you insight into what is coming out NOW, not five years ago, in your book category. Also, someone else — the editorial staff of the publication in question — is essentially doing your market research for you, pointing you toward the agents who are good at selling books aimed at your target demographic.

How so? Well, think about it: the average magazine receives review copies of hundreds of books every month; they obviously cannot review all of them, right? Someone is making a choice about what does and does not get reviewed in any given issue. Ostensibly, a magazine will pick a book for review for one of only three reasons: either the book is being marketed to the same target reader as the magazine (who will, we hope, be your reader, too, in time), the book was written by someone who writes for the magazine (who by definition is writing for your target market), or because the author is a crony of someone on staff. (I’m looking at YOU, BUST).

So essentially, in the process of selection, a review editor at a well-respected magazine geared toward your book’s target market is telling you what current books are being marketed best in your book’s area. Why turn up your nose at such well-informed advice — even if it does mean you occasionally end up querying the agent who represents the editor’s college roommate?

Has that gotten your brainstorming muscles warmed up a little? Next time, I shall delve a little more into how reviews can help you at the agent-finding stage. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: how much does size matter, really?

Last time, I mentioned that, contrary to what many aspiring writers seem to believe, a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for any particular book, any more than signing with just any agent is a sure path to publication. While queriers, understandably, tend to focus on how picky agents are about what projects they take on, it’s worth giving some serious thought at the query list-generating stage to what kind of agency — and agent — is most likely to have the connections not only to sell your book well, but to walk you through the often difficult and perplexing publication process.

So while admittedly every agency — and indeed, every agent — is different, let’s spend the day wallowing in some sweeping generalities about size, shall we?

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.

There are, of course, some reasons for this preference — and not just because it’s kind of cool when you mention your agency at writers’ conferences or industry parties and people say, “Oh!” as if they’ve just learned that you won the silver medal in pole-vaulting two Olympics ago.

Although admittedly, that’s gratifying.

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, depending upon prevailing attitudes), and often more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, in going with a major agency of good repute, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.

Emphasis on connections. Read Publishers Weekly or Publishers Marketplace for even a couple of months — not a bad idea, if you intend to stick with the writing gig for the long haul — and you’re likely to notice the same agency names turning up again and again, coupled with particular publishing houses. Agencies do specialize, and obviously, it’s in a writer’s interest to be affiliated with one of the top agencies for her book category.

Even when an agency does not focus on a particular category to the exclusion of others, the agents within it often will — and that, too, sets a discernable pattern. It’s not at all uncommon for an editor who likes an agent’s literary tastes to buy books from several of his or her clients.

Which makes a certain amount of empirical sense, right? As we’ve seen through querying, there isn’t universal agreement across the industry about what constitutes good writing, even within a single book category. Individual tastes differ, and what one editor at Random House likes to see in a mainstream novel will not necessarily be what another is seeking. If Editor Sam already knows from past acquisitions that she likes the kind of books that Agent Maureen enjoys, Sam is probably going to be more open to a pitch from Maureen than one from Agent Joe, who hasn’t sold her a book before.

Remind yourself of this dynamic, please, the next time you hear an agent say at a conference that a particular kind of book can’t be sold anymore. Translation: he would have trouble selling it to his already-established editorial connections.

With a new agency, it can be harder to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s not uncommon for a successful agent to break off and form her own agency, taking her connections — and often her clients as well — with her.

(This is one reason why, in case you were wondering, I like the Publishers Marketplace database so much — you can look up agents by name, not just by agency, so you can see how their representation preferences change as they move around. An agent with a passion for SF might not be able to give free rein to it as the junior agent at an agency that specializes in mysteries, but might well have leapt into SF after a promotion or move elsewhere.)

But that doesn’t mean that other brand-new agencies may not be worth your while. Sometimes, the hungry can be excellent gambles — they are often more energetic in pursuing sales. And lest we forget (because it’s not mentioned much at writers’ conferences, for some reason), how many of the big agents initially established themselves in the industry was by taking a chance on an unknown client who turned out to be a major author.

Something to think about: if your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Which probably means you and your work will get more attention than with a similar achievement at a larger agency, where you would be just one of their in-house stars.

Even before that (and often after), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Intensive coaching through rewrites, for instance. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. Extensive free editing. (If you missed my earlier posts on FEE-CHARGING AGENTS, or you are unfamiliar with how much freelance editing can cost, you might want to check out the category at right before you discount the value of such an offer.)

This is more a matter of math than a matter of nice: an agent with 10 clients is going to have a lot more time to devote to these helpful services than an agent with 80. 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.

Does it seem presumptuous to think about what an agent can offer you, rather than what you can offer an agent? To the kind of thoughtful querier who knows better than to send out rude letters that say things like, “This is the next bestseller!” it often does. (Begging for attention for a good long while can do that to you.)

But think about it: if you are a writer lucky enough to garner multiple representation offers — and let’s all keep our fingers crossed for that — do you really want to realize with a shock that you do not have any criteria for picking an agent other than the willingness to say yes to you?

Stop laughing — established authors don’t admit this much, but this is not an uncommon dilemma for good writers to face. It certainly happened to me. I received offers from three agents, each of whom was apparently a nice person AND I had researched enough to know that each had a dandy track record selling the kind of book I had been pitching them — and I was stunned to recognize that I was utterly unprepared to judge them on any other basis.

Fortunately, I had many agented friends eager to offer me advice. But that’s a luxury not every writer has.

So believe me when I tell you: giving some advance thought to what you want from your future agent, over and above the willingness and ability to sell your book, is not a symptom of creeping megalomania. It’s a means of coming to understand the value of your work and how it might conceivably fit into the already-existing literary world.

It can also, to descend from the heady heights of hope for a moment, give you some solid clues about how to prioritize a large potential query list. It would be prudent, for instance, to 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, for instance, go nuts with speculation if an editor has your manuscript — and you haven’t heard from your agent in a month? Many writers would, you know — I’ve heard justifications by authors of manuscripts that have been sitting on an agent’s desk for 4 or 5 months that positively rival the tales of the Brothers Grimm for invention.

(The actual reason a writer hasn’t heard back tends not to be all that interesting, by comparison: typically, if you haven’t been told yea or nay, the submission has yet to be read. The paperweight was invented for a reason, you know: to keep bits of unread manuscripts from migrating all over agents’ and editors’ desks.)

Once you have established where you fall on the update-need continuum, there are other questions to ask yourself. 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? Would you prefer an agent who wants to micro-manage your book proposal, or would you be happier with one who leaves more of the writing decisions to you?

How prone are you to ask questions or take concerns to your agent? When you do, would you be happy with the occasional e-mail to answer your questions, or would you prefer telephone calls? (If you live outside the United States, this last question is even more essential: the farther away you reside, the less likely it is that you will ever meet your agent face-to-face, right? Many small agencies would not be able to afford unlimited international phone calls.)

The answers to 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.

Seems a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? 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” deliberately keep themselves small in order to occupy a very specific niche, but it is rare.

There’s no mistaking 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.

So before you set your heart upon a big agency or a major agent, it’s a good idea to 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.

Nice perq of fame, isn’t it? Beulah, peel me a grape.

Before you float off into fantasies about being successful enough to command your own personal slave copyeditor 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 most fleeting 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 — and, if his last few assistants’ career trajectories are any indication, may well move on to become a full agent at another agency within the next year or two.

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 admittedly egocentric opinion).

How much of a difference does it make on a practical level, you ask? Well, do you remember earlier in this series, 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.

And if the glamour of THAT doesn’t impress you, perhaps this will: each time I’ve handed them a book proposal, they’ve been able to garner an offer within two months — lightning speed, in this industry — because they had the right connections to place MY work under the right sets of editorial eyeballs.

Ultimately, it’s going to take more than enthusiasm about your project for an agent to sell your first book. It’s going to take connections — the right connections for your project. 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. It’s in your interests to look beyond the generalities.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: there’s no such thing as an agency that’s perfect for every single conceivable book. This process is — or should be — about finding not just acceptance, but forming the best possible alliance with someone who is going to help you build a career as a writer.

Give some hard thought to how you want to be supported on that path, and make your querying choices accordingly. Keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: look, lady, all I know is that I have a book in Category X; cut to the chase, already

As I have been arguing throughout this Book Marketing 101 series, queries tend to work best when they are sent to specific agents who habitually sell similar books. Not just because that’s the single best indication of what the agent in question likes to read — although that’s definitely good to ascertain, if you can, before you query — but also because it’s a dandy indication that the agent has some pretty good connections with editors who happen to like to acquire that type of book.

Thus, I have so far been approaching the guide listings, blurbs, etc., on the assumption that a writer will want to narrow down your first-round query list to just a handful of near-perfect matches. To that end, I’ve been encouraging you to track down as much specific sales information as possible on the agents you’re considering.

That strategy, I suspect, will not be everyone’s proverbial mug of oolong.

“Wait just a minute,” I have heard some of among you murmuring, and who could blame you? “What you’ve been suggesting is a heck of a lot of work. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the industry yet for a list of sales to make me cry, ‘Yes! This is the agent for me!’ I’m willing to do some legwork, but for heaven’s sake, querying eats into my writing time, and the agency guide before me lists a hundred agencies that accept books in my category! Since they’ve said point-blank that they want to see books like mine, why shouldn’t I take their word for it and query them all without researching the last five years of sales for each and every agent at all hundred of those agencies, which would take me until next March at the earliest?”

Oh, how I wish there were a quick and easy way to avoid the sometimes-lengthy research process! Honestly, if I knew of one, I would share it with you toute suite. (I would also bottle it and make a million dollars, but that’s another story.)

Hold onto your hats, because I’m about to say something controversial: it does pay in the long run to double-check what one finds in the guides, in my experience — yes, even down to book categories.

Why? Well — are you still clutching those chapeaux? — not every agency that lists itself as representing (or even actively seeking) a particular book category will be equally receptive to queries for that kind of book. To my eye, one of the most common ways in which listings and blurbs confuse agent-seeking writers is by appearing to be open to virtually any kind of book — or at least to so many categories that it’s extremely difficult to tell WITHOUT substantial further research what any member agent’s actual specialties are.

Let me hasten to add that my views on this subject are not the prevailing opinion, as nearly as I can tell; it’s not one you’re likely to hear at your garden-variety writers’ conference (unless, of course, I happen to be teaching there). There, you are far more likely to be told — with a certain impatience of tone — that the only reason that a query might end up in the wrong hands is if its writer did not do his or her homework. The information, it is implied, is all easily available to anyone who looks for it.

Personally, I don’t believe that this is entirely true; as I’ve shown in my last few posts (and in last year’s AGENTS/EDITORS WHO USED TO ATTEND PNWA series, categorized at right, where I took on real-world examples), there is a wide range in the level of information that agencies make available to potential queriers — and a great deal of that is in industry-speak, the meaning of which may not be immediately apparent to those new to the biz.

I did not, after all, invent the oft-seen guide entry This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales.

There are plenty of quite authoritative sources out there, however, who will tell you (as they certainly told me, with some asperity) that no good can come of writers’ pointing out that some of the emperors out there are slightly underdressed, to say the least. And in a sense, they’re quite right: marching up to the nearest agent or standing up at a writers’ conference and demanding to know why a particular blurb or guide listing is confusing probably isn’t the best means of endearing yourself as a potential client.

But as James Joyce wrote, “We cannot change the country; let us change the subject.”

In other words, we writers can’t control how agencies choose to present their preferences; we can, however, learn to be better interpreters of those preferences by recognizing that there are some informational gaps out there. We can teach ourselves the norms of querying, what tends to work, what tends not to work, and thereby save ourselves a whole lot of chagrin.

So there. I never said it wasn’t going to be a lot of work. And if I’m wrong, and every blurb out there conveys with pellucid clarity precisely what every agent would and would like to see, well, as Aunt Jane would say, at least the credit of a wild imagination will be all my own.

I’m not just talking about blurbs that say vague things like, We’re open to any good writing, We accept all genres except YA, or Literary value considered first — although I think a pretty good case could be made that, to a writer seeking to figure out who might conceivably represent say, a Western romance, such statements are at best marginally useful. I am also talking about those listings where the agency professes to represent virtually every major book category.

You’ve seen ‘em, haven’t you? They tend to look a little something like this:

Represents: nonfiction books, novels, short story collections, novellas. No picture books or poetry.
Considers these fiction areas: action/adventure, contemporary issues, detective/police/crime, erotica, ethnic, experimental, family saga, fantasy, feminist, gay/lesbian, glitz, graphic novels, historical, horror, humor, literary, mainstream, military, multicultural, mystery, regional, religious/inspirational, romance, romantica, science fiction, spiritual, sports, supernatural, suspense, thriller, westerns, women’s fiction, YA.
Considers these nonfiction areas: agriculture, Americana, animals, anthropology/archeology, art/architecture/design, autobiography…

And that’s just the As.

Since I have already sung the praises of further research to determine who is representing what lately, let’s set aside for the moment the sometimes knotty problem of figuring out, over the course of a couple of dozen different listed genres, which is the agency’s specialty. Let’s also, and for the same reason, table discussion of the difficulties of determining which member agent would be the best to query for any given category listed without doing an internet search to see who has been to what conference lately — and if so, did they state any preferences in their blurbs? (Although while we’re at it, let’s all shout hallelujah for agencies kind enough to state who represents which category outright in a guide listing, saving writers everywhere a whole lot of time.)

Even apart from all that, I think such voluminous lists are potentially problematic. To pick one quandary out of that hat I told you to cling to, I think their breadth often tempts writers into thinking that they do not need to specify a book category when they query.

After all, the logic runs, if the agency says it represents all three of the closest marketing categories, why take the trouble to figure out into which the book fits?

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because categories are how the industry thinks of books, that’s why. Agents and their Millicents tend to reject queries that do not specify a book category out of hand.

Quoth Joyce: “The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” (Hey, I had to double-check the earlier quote, anyway; I did a little quote-shopping.)

If it makes you feel any better, the problems caused by such all-inclusive lists are not just on the writer’s end. Uninformative guide listings, minimally communicative conference guide blurbs, and agency websites that, to put it mildly, do not give a clear indication of what kind of books would make their little hearts sing must, logically, tend to INCREASE the percentage of queries they receive for books outside their areas of specialty in any given day’s mail drop, not discourage them.

Think about it: if the agency doesn’t make its likes and dislikes clear in its guide blurbs or on its website, most potential submitters will be relying upon guesswork in addressing their queries. Which, logically, is going to lead to a whole lot of queries landing on the wrong desks and being rejected summarily — and to Millicents across the industry wringing their overworked hands with increasing frequency, troubling the ceiling with their bootless cries about why oh why are these people sending queries for books that the agency doesn’t even represent. So they send out form rejection letters, so no one learns anything from the process, and lo and behold, they keep receiving queries for book categories they don’t want.

Excuse me, driver, but I’d like to get off. This vicious circle is making me dizzy. I’m guessing that it’s made those of you given to staring helplessly at agency websites and vague guide listings dizzy, too.

Even though it is honestly is in their own best interest to be specific, there are a number of perfectly legitimate reasons an agency might say it is actively seeking a list of categories that looks less like an agent’s specialties than the entire stock of your local Borders.

For example, they might have the editorial connections to place all of those different types of books successfully. This kind of reach is certainly not out of the question for a large, well-established agency, but a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for every writer and/or every book. (Don’t worry; I’m going to talk how and why tomorrow.)

Fortunately, the standard agency guides routinely print how many clients any listed agency represents, so you need not necessarily track down their entire client list. If it is good-sized — 300 clients, for instance, handled by six or seven agents with different specialties — your task is clear: do a bit of further research to figure out which of those probably well-connected agents has been selling books in your category lately.

(I feel another zany personal opinion coming on: although guide listings typically list a single agent as the contact person for the entire agency, I’ve found that it’s generally in the best interest of the writer to write directly to the member agent who represents YOUR kind of book, rather than the listed contact.)

If the agency in question is small, check to see how long it’s been around — this information, too, is routinely listed in agency guides, and with good reason. Selling books to publishers is hard work; agencies go in and out of business all the time.

Before they have established a reputation and connections within particular book categories, new agencies — and new agents — sometimes spread a pretty wide net for new clients. In such cases, the list of categories they are seeking can turn into a wish list, rather than a true reflection of what they have sold in the past.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: a list of categories is not necessarily proof positive that an agency has actually sold books in each of them within the last couple of years — or even within living memory. It can also be a list of what the agency WANTS to sell over the next couple of years — a definitional haziness not limited to small agencies, certainly, but common to them.

Which means, in practice, if a particular book category is hot right now, or industry buzz says it will be the next big thing, it’s going to turn up on the lists of quite a few agencies that have not yet sold that type of book — and thus in the index of this year’s agency guide.

Ideally, you would like to be represented by an agent with a solid track record selling your type of book, right? And as I have mentioned, oh, 70 or 80 times in the last year, agents specialize. So do editors. If you write women’s fiction, even a brilliant agent whose sole previous focus are in self-help will probably have a harder time selling your book than someone who sells women’s fiction day in, day out.

An agent who has managed to sell a particular category of book in the past is not only going to have a better idea of who is buying that type of book these days — she’s infinitely more likely to be able to call up the right editor and say, “Listen, you know that fantasy I sold you six months ago? I have one you’re going to like even better.”

Or if she’s not more likely to say it, she’s more likely to be believed when she does.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? But when editors start saying things like, “You know what I’m really looking for right now? A book from Hot Category X,” it’s not all that uncommon for an agent without a track record in Hot Category X to think, “Hmm, I wish I had one of those handy right now.” Completely understandable, right?

Unfortunately, from the perspective of a Hot Category X writer new to the business, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between an enthusiastic neophyte and a seasoned veteran of Hot Category X sales. Both, you see, are likely to say, “Oh, I know PRECISELY the editor for that.”

This is not, unfortunately, just a matter of my opinion. Ask almost anyone who’s been in the biz for the last decade or so, and you will probably hear a horror story about a great chick lit, historical romance, and/or memoir writer who was hotly pursued by an agent who later turned out to have few (or even no) editorial connections in that direction — and who, having unsuccessfully shopped the book around to 4 of the wrong editors, dropped it like a searing stone. Everyone seems to know someone to whom it has happened.

Yet another reason that it’s an excellent idea to double-check actual sales before you commit to a representation contract. Or indeed, before you query.

If the lead agent (whose name, as often as not, is the name of the agency) peeled off recently from a great big concern, taking her clients with her, she may well have clients across many, many genres. Connections definitely carry over — and since the agent will probably want to advertise that fact, check the listing, website, or conference blurb for a mention of where she worked last.

Then check out THAT agency, to see what they sell early and often.

Do your homework, but try not to get paranoid about it. Much of the time, inappropriately-listed categories aren’t the result of anyone’ being mean or misrepresenting themselves. Industry trends often move faster than guides are released, after all.

Perhaps a category that was hip seven months ago, when the agency filled out the guide questionnaire, but has since fallen out of fashion. Obviously, if an agency was seeking a particular kind of book only because of its marketing potential, and not because they love that kind of book, and it stops selling — or selling easily — they’re going to tell their Millicents to look askance at queries for it.

Yes, it’s a whole lot of work; as our old pal Joyce wrote about something entirely different, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” He was talking mechanics, of course, but I doubt you’d find a querier who has been at it for a while who wouldn’t wholeheartedly agree to add Trying to sell to the front of the statement.

This may be a minority opinion, but this process is genuinely hard, even for the best writers. I have faith that you can do it, though. Keep up the good work.

Book Marketing 101: playing hide and seek with agents

Oh, how I am looking forward to the day when I can be writing and editing in my office again! There’s nothing like a nice, ergonomically-correct computer set-up and full-spectrum lights for writing, and I’ve been missing both terribly.

Yes, I’m still bed- and couch-bound these days, for the most part. (The other parts consist of making tea and dragging myself to the doctor’s office.) The worst of it is that short of cutting off communication with the outside world altogether, I can’t avoid all of those annoying telemarketing calls with which home phones are continually plagued all day long.

It’s just like spam, but with a loud, persistent ringing sound attached. And if I refuse to answer, my caller ID informs me, they just call again later.

I’ve tried everything to stop them: I routinely ask to be taken off their lists (which they are required by law to do, but often don’t); I’m on the national do-not-call list (which, alas, does not apply to charitable organizations or political causes); I ask point-blank if the telemarketer is incarcerated (not uncommon, as prison labor is notoriously inexpensive). Yet still they come.

The other day, I got a real lulu, a bone fide prizewinner in the coveted rudeness category. First, the call began with a recorded message telling me to hold for the next available operator, as it I had called them. I can’t imagine anyone’s being so bored or lonely as to stay on the line for any reason other than mine: to order them to remove me from their call list. When a representative came on the line (with tell-tale sounds of other telemarketing voices in the background), I did just that.

And he refused, insisting that he was not a telemarketer at all, but instead offering a service. I explained, none too gently, that soliciting business over the phone was, in essence, telemarketing, and that I still wanted to be taken off the list. Ah, but there wasn’t a list, he told me triumphantly: he had my file.

“What’s the difference?” I asked. “And how does that affect the fact that I’ve already told you no twice?”

He could not explain the difference; neither could his manager. In the end, I had to threaten to call the Federal Trade Commission before they would agree to take me off their non-existent list. “Look,” I told the manager, “the fact that you call your telemarketers representatives and your call lists files does not change the facts of what you are doing. You’re soliciting customers via telephone, so you’re subject to the same rules as any other telemarketer.”

Apparently, this is what is known in the call center as giving attitude.

I’m sure that you’re wondering by now: is this anecdote merely the rambling of someone who has barely seen the outside of her house for seven weeks and counting, or does this actually have something to do with the topic at hand, finding agents to solicit?

Hold for our next representative, and you shall see.

For the past couple of weeks (in fits and starts), I have been going over the standard advice about how to find out who represents whom, so that you can query the agents of authors whose work resembles yours. And, as you’ve probably noticed, most of the methods I have covered so far involve a heck of a lot of legwork for the writer: spending hours in bookstores, searching for acknowledgment pages that may or may not be there, going to author readings, making use of connections made at conferences, through writing groups, etc.

In essence, this advice is predicated on the assumption that the information is out there; it’s just the writer’s responsibility to search for it. And in a world where even reputable journalists’ primary research methodology is the Internet search, this seems agonizingly slow.

But as anyone who has ever typed the words literary agency into a standard search engine, trolling for agents online is not necessarily any faster. Indeed, it is sometimes even slower, as like telemarketing calls, the results can be pretty indiscriminate. Even when one finds an agency’s website via a generic search, it often takes significant further research to figure out if they are reputable, have a good track record, and represent what you write.

A writer does need to be careful, after all: an attractive website does not necessarily credibility prove, and there are, unfortunately, scammers out there who pose as legitimate agents. For someone new to the game, it can be awfully hard to tell the difference.

Why? Well, the aspiring writer market is a large one; just look at how many conferences, seminars, books, and magazines there are designed for it. Because success is elusive and the process genuinely confusing even to many who have been at it for a while, a business that offers what appears to be a means around the usual long, hard slog can sound awfully appealing to many.

But the fact is, there just isn’t a short cut around the hyper-competitive querying and submission process. You can learn how to do it more professionally, but as far as I know, no one has yet bottled sure-fire literary success and offered it online to any comer.

Many of the businesses that profess to do just that are clever about it, though. Just as my caller used a name switch from telemarketer to call center to imply that his business was something it wasn’t, sometimes websites aimed at appealing to the desperation of the querying writer give judicious small tweaks to their sites to give the impression that they are offering representation, whereas they are actually offering something quite different.

Usually, it’s an editing service — at a price far, far higher than a reputable freelance editor would charge.

A good rule of thumb for weeding out the questionable: if an agency requests money from potential clients up front — usually called a reading or editing fee — it should set off warning bells. (If you’re in doubt about what fees are and are not reasonable, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.)

Why should an up-front charge render you suspicious? Because reputable agencies, my dears, earn their money through commissions on their clients’ writing — and that requires selling books. If a website tells you otherwise, it would behoove you to double-check its credentials.

How can you check? First, if the agency is located within the U.S., find out if it is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives. The AAR takes the ethics of its members very seriously, bless ‘em, and it flatly forbids them to charge extraneous fees.

So you see, I’m not the only one who considers agents’ charging reading fees highly questionable.

Another good place to check is the Preditors and Editors website, which allows you to look up both individual agents and agencies. P&E acts as a clearinghouse for complaints; if they learn that an agency has been charging fees, they will say so. Also — and this is useful — they code their listings by whether they have been able to verify if an agent or agency has actually sold any books.

The mere fact that they have seen fit to note that should give you some indication of just how many good writers have been burned by fake agencies.

A third great resource is the Absolute Write water cooler, where aspiring writers’ comments on individual agents and agencies are indexed for your perusing pleasure. They also garner information on publishers and share advice about avoiding scams.

This is not a complete list, of course, but it should get you started. (And please, those of you who have done your time in the agent-searching trenches: if you have other suggestions for sites useful in the searching process, share ‘em via the comments section, below.)

While it may seem Luddite-like to suggest it, two of the most reliable agency guides are in book form, the Herman Guide and Writers Digest’s perennial bestseller, Guide to Literary Agents. Both come out every year — and since agents move around so much, it is a good idea to rely upon the current guide, rather than one from a couple of years ago.

Yes, buying them every year can be a mite spendy — but there’s no law saying that you and twelve of your writer friends can’t all chip in on a single copy, is there?

These guides are both excellent places to find contact information for agents — which is to say, I have always found them more useful to get the nitty-gritty on agents already identified as appropriate for a particular book than as a first stop for agent-searching.

It certainly would be possible to use them as a first stop, however. Both list agents by specialty — a boon for anyone seeking basic information about whom to solicit — and both routinely ask agents to specify which book categories they are seeking, and which they would reject on sight. Personally, I prefer the Herman Guide — it is chattier and tends to ask more interesting questions — but usually, it covers a smaller range of agencies.

So why shouldn’t you just flip to the index, make a list of every agent who represents your kind of book, and send the same category-specific query to each without further research?

Well, frankly, you could; truth compels me to say that I do know many authors who landed their agents that way.

However, this kind of broad, one-size-fits-all solicitation tends not to be as successful, for precisely the same reason that telemarketing calls are so annoying to receive: they are geared for a generic audience, rather than the desires of a particular human being. (For some impassioned disquisition on why vague querying is unstrategic, please see the WHY GENERIC QUERIES DON’T WORK category at right.)

As you may be gathering, I’m a fan of gathering information from a number of sources — which the guide listings’ seeming completeness often discourages. Since the amount of information offered varies quite a bit from agency to agency (I’ll explain why in my next post, I promise), most aspiring writers simply assume that where there is little presented, there just isn’t much to tell.

However, that’s not really true. Most guide listings are pretty terse, focusing upon the agency’s preferences as a whole rather than those of the member agents.
Although admittedly, there are exceptions, it can be very difficult to glean enough information to personalize a query well.

The usual problem: when they list what authors an agency currently represents, they tend to stick to the best-known clients — in other words, generally not those who have sold a first book within the last year or two.

Yes, it’s nice to see names that you recognize, but an agency’s big sellers are often neither their most recent sales nor a particularly good indicator of that they are looking for NOW in a NEW client.

Why is getting up-to-date info so important? Well, agents’ preferences change all the time; so does the book market. What they were looking for three or four years ago isn’t necessarily what they are seeking today. I always concentrate on what the agent has sold within the last year as the most reliable indicator of what s/he would like to see in a query next week.

And even in the rare instances where the blurbs do provide up-to-date titles, few of the guides include the authors’ names in the index, so the aspiring writer is reduced to skimming the entire book, looking for familiar writers. Not terribly efficient, is it?

I have, of course, much more to say about using the standard guides, but for today, let me leave you with this: we all know how annoying it is to be solicited by a telemarketer or spammer who hasn’t the faintest idea of our personal likes and dislikes, right? That kind of mass marketing operates on the assumption that if it sprays widely enough, it will eventually hit someone who is actually interested it what its purveyor is selling.

It is every bit as annoying to agents — and still more to our old friend Millicent the screener, who reads queries all day, every day — to be solicited in this manner by aspiring writers. Targeting makes more sense. Yes, it is time-consuming to do the legwork to find out about individual agents’ literary preferences, but ultimately, it’s more likely to be successful.

I know that it seems practically Victorian to say this in the age of instant web searching, but often, tracking down those preferences requires looking in more than one place. It requires, in fact, a bit of cross-checking, not only because preferences change and agents change agencies but — as I’m sure those of you who have been at it a while have are already aware — frequently, the information posted about an agency in one source does not match what is posted elsewhere.

The world is a complex place, my friends: more on using the guides and other resources to navigate it follows next time. In the meantime, wish me the best of luck in dodging telemarketers, and keep up the good work!