Pitchingpalooza, part XXIV: the bare necessities of conference life

Okay, so maybe a gin-and-tonic isn’t actually a necessity of conference life. However, if an alien descended from the planet Targ to make the rounds of a few dozen writers’ conferences, you could hardly blame him/her/it from reaching that conclusion.

I’m not saying that people drink a lot at writers’ conferences. I’m just saying that if Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Graham Greene stumbled into the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, they probably would not be drinking alone.

Because the hired hands — agents, editors, conference presenters, visiting authors, etc. — have been known to congregate in that bar, it’s typically a pretty good place for an aspiring writer to make some literary connections. Or at least to strike up the ilk of conversation that leads to being asked, “So what do you write?”

Word to the wise: you’re going to want to be able to answer this question in a lucid manner, even very late in the evening. If you want to keep in fine pitching fettle — and you do — watch what you’re drinking, and remember to eat something. If you feel the heavy weight of peer pressure (or just don’t want a drink), club soda and lime is cosmetically identical to the aforementioned gin concoction.

I just mention. It’s also pretty good for rehydration — and believe me, after spending a day in most conference centers, your body will probably need it.

Seem like a frivolous concern, compared to the weightier issues of pitching? Darned right. Since we’ve all been so very good for so very long, I have a fun-but-practical topic for today: what materials should you bring with you to a conference — and, more importantly, to your pitch sessions with agents and editors?

Other than strong nerves, an iron stomach, and a firm conviction that your book is the best literary achievement since MADAME BOVARY, of course.

At minimum, you’re going to want to bring a trusty, comfortable pen and a notebook with a backing hard enough to write upon, so you can take good notes during seminars, agents’ fora, and the like. If you want to make friends quickly, throw a few extra pens and paper into your bag, for handing around to total strangers less prepared than you.

Even if you have no interest in making friends and influencing anyone other than an agent or editor at a conference, consider being the friendly neighborhood pen supplier. They are inexpensive, easily portable, and a small price to pay for making the acquaintance of some kind souls who will buy your books someday.

Oh, you weren’t planning on jotting down all of your new writer friends’ contact information, so you could let them know when your first book is about to come out? Why ever not? Who is going to understand better what a triumph that is — or be more likely to understand that the best way to support a writer is to buy her books?

You should also tote along all of the paperwork the conference organizers sent you, including a copy of your conference registration, information about your scheduled agent and/or editor appointments, and tickets to any dinners, luncheons, etc. for which you may have paid extra. (As, alas, one almost invariably does now at literary conferences. I can remember when rubber chicken banquets were thrown in gratis, and folks, I’m not particularly long in the tooth.)

I’m sensing some shifting in chairs out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” those of you new to writing great big checks to conference organizers protest, “why would I need to burden myself with all of that paperwork? I already signed up for those events, as well as my pitch appointments. Won’t the conference folks have all that on file?”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but not necessarily. Remember, most writers’ conferences are organized by hard-working, dedicated, and sometimes overwhelmed teams of volunteers, not crack teams of hyper-efficient event organizers assisted by an army of support staff with Krazy Glue on their fingertips. Details have been known to fall through the cracks occasionally.

So it’s not very prudent to assume that your paperwork has not been crack fodder — or even that the selfless volunteers working the registration tables will have access to their computers to double-check what you paid to attend or which agent you asked to see. Few literary conferences are held in the offices or homes of the organizers, after all, and while being able to get into the dinner where you paid $60 to hear the keynote speaker may be vitally important to you, the volunteers on site will probably neither have the time nor the inclination to run home to double-check a misprinted list of attendees.

If you registered electronically, make sure to bring a hard copy of the confirmation. And if everything goes perfectly when you check in, please remember to thank the volunteer who helped you.

As my grandmother used to say: manners cost nothing. And as I said only moments ago, who do you think is going to buy your book? You may well want to be a speaker at this conference someday; be charming.

While you’re printing things out, go ahead and produce a hard-copy confirmation of your hotel reservation as well, if you’re not attending a conference that permits you to sleep in your own bed at night. Again, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it is not at all unheard-of for a hotel hosting a conference to over-book.

Starting to sound like you’ll be carrying a lot of stuff? You will — so it’s a good idea to bring a shoulder bag sturdy enough to hold all of the handouts you will accumulate and books you will buy at the conference. This is not an occasion for a flimsy purse. Think grad student backpack, not clutch bag.

Don’t underestimate how many books you may acquire. It’s rare that a literary conference doesn’t have a room — or at least a table — devoted to convincing you to buy the collected works of conference speakers, local writers, and the fine folks who organized the conference. Don’t expect to receive discounts on books sold at a conference, though: because the conference typically gets a cut of sales, offering a members’ discount seldom seems to occur to organizers.

On the bright side, it’s usually child’s play to get ‘em signed. Even if the author is not hovering hopefully behind a pile of his literary output, if he’s at the conference at all, he’s going to be more than happy to autograph it. This is usually the case, incidentally, even if the author in question is a household name. So if you are looking for an excuse to walk up to a world-famous author and burble how much you love her writing, look no farther than this bookstore. It’s rare to find an author so jaded that she will not be willing to take a few minutes to sign the book a fan was kind enough to purchase.

Don’t be shy about walking up to ‘em in hallways and after speeches to ask; this is basic care and feeding of one’s readership. And if you’re polite about it — introducing yourself by saying how much you loved the author’s latest work and/or speech last night, perhaps, or via the Magic First Hundred Words — who knows? You might just end up with a marvelous literary friend.

Which is one of the reasons you signed up to go to a conference in the first place, right?

Again, though, use discretion. No one likes to be accosted with a pen and a hardback in the bathroom, or while deep in conversation with a friend one has not seen for seven years. The words, “Excuse me,” are your friends here.

Be aware, too, that when major bookstore chains organize these rooms (and at large conferences, it’s often a chain like Barnes & Noble), they often take an additional payment off the top, so a self-published author may well make less per book in such a venue. And if an author with a traditional publisher has shown up with her own copies, purloined from the sometimes generous stash of promotional copies publishers often provide authors because the expected copies did not show up on time for the conference (yes, it happens), the sales may not count toward official sales totals.

This is not to say that you should hesitate to purchase a book from the writer with whom you’ve been chatting in the book room for the last half an hour. You should, if the book sounds interesting. However, you might want to ask the author if s/he would prefer for you to buy it elsewhere. An author with a strong preference will be only too glad to steer you in the right direction.

Don’t be surprised if the question results in a book’s being shoved under your nose the next moment, though. The author may well elect to carry around half a dozen copies in his shoulder bag, just in case an eager reader turns up when the bookstore is closed. You may also be treated to a long litany of complaints about how much lower the royalties are when books are sold someplace like Costco (much of that steep discount typically comes out of the author’s end), or how much more work book promotion is for the author now than ten years ago, but that’s precisely the kind of behind-the-scenes insight you came to the conference to glean, right?

Speaking of requests folks in the industry are thrilled to get, you can hardly ask an agent or editor a more flattering question than, “Are there any books for sale here that you worked upon? I’d like to read a couple, to get a sense of your taste/style/why on earth anyone would want to spend years on end editing books about flamingos.”

Hard for even the surliest curmudgeon scowling at early morning light not to be pleased by that question.

By the way, at a conference that offers an agents’ or editors’ panel (and most do), do not even consider missing it. Attendees are expected to listen to what the agents and editors are seeking at the moment and take note where it does not match what was said in the conference guide blurb or on the agents’ websites.

Oh, did I forget to tell you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Tastes change. So does the market. But blurbs tend to get reused from year to year. Even the standard agency guides, resources that actually are updated yearly, don’t always represent what any given member agent wants right this minute.

No comment — except to say that you will be a much, much happier camper if you keep an ear cocked during the agents’ and editors’ forum to double-check that the agent to whom you were planning to pitch a vampire romance isn’t going around saying, “I swear, if I see ONE more vampire romance, I shan’t be responsible for my actions.”

Because attendees are expected to memorize such preferences — and, if necessary, to switch pitching appointments accordingly — it’s a good idea to jot ‘em all down. Yes, even if an agent is declaring her undying love for semi-explicit love scenes in science fiction, and you happen to write futuristic Westerns. I guarantee you that at least one of those writers who showed up without pens or paper will be asking within the next few hours, “Wait — what did that SF agent say she was looking for in a manuscript?”

Help him out, if only for the karma. And who do you think is going to buy…oh, you know the tune by now.

In addition to noting all such preferences in my trusty notebook, I always like to carry a few sheets of blank printer paper in my bag, so I can draw a diagram of the agents’ forum, and another of the editors’. That way, I can remember who was who by who was sitting where. I also note a few physical characteristics for each, along with their expressed preferences in books.

Why should I care what they look like and where they were sitting? Well, these fora are typically scheduled at the very beginning of the first full day of the conference — a very, very long day. By the time people are wandering into their appointments at the end of the second day, dehydrated from convention hall air and overwhelmed with masses of professional information, they’re often too tired to recall which editor had struck them the day before as someone with whom to try to finagle a last-minute appointment.

Or to be sure that the redhead to whom they were just introduced in the bar was the agent with the romantic tastes in science fiction — or the one who said she was interested primarily in historical fiction about nuns. You wouldn’t want to mix them up after your third gin-and-tonic, would you?

Being able to whip out those diagrams for a surreptitious last-minute check can be very helpful. It’s likely to be even more helpful a month or two after the conference, to assist you in remembering which of the dozen agents who spoke struck you as worthwhile to query instead of pitching, and which left you with the impression that they eat books, if not aspiring writers, for breakfast, and consume illustrators for lunch with an amusing côte de Rhone.

On my diagrams, the author-consumers tend to be depicted with horns, pitchfork, and tail. But that’s just my little memory-jogging device.

I always, always, ALWAYS advise writers to bring a big bottle of water to a conference — even to ones where the organizers tend to be very good about keeping water available. A screw-top bottle in your bag can save both spillage and inconvenience to your neighbors.

How so? Well, when you’re wedged into the middle of a row of eager note-takers, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to make your way to the table with the pitcher on it, nor to step over people’s legs with a full glass in your hand.

If I seem to be harping on the dehydration theme, there’s a good reason: every indoor conference I have ever attended has dried out my contact lenses unmercifully. Personally, I prefer to meet people when my lenses are not opaque with grime.

I’m wacky that way. I also prefer for my voice to be audible when I speak, rather than rasping.

If your eyes dry out easily, consider wearing your glasses instead. Men may not make passes at girls who wear ‘em, to paraphrase the late great Ms. Parker, but looking bookish is seldom a drawback at a writers’ conference.

Even if you have perfect vision, there’s a good reason to keep on sippin’. If you are even vaguely prone to nerves — and who isn’t, while preparing to pitch? — being dehydrated can add substantially to your sense of being slightly off-kilter. You want to be at your best. Lip balm can be helpful in this respect, too.

Conferences and hotels, like airports, see a lot of traffic, so the week leading up to the conference is most emphatically the time to skip the vitamins. I go one step further: at the conference, I dump packets of Emergen-C into my water bottle, to keep my immune system strong. I’ve also been known to hand out chewable Vitamin C tablets like candy and bars of chocolate like medicine to those waiting in hallways for their pitch appointments.

If this seems like frou-frou advice, buttonhole me at a conference sometime, and I’ll regale you with stories about nervous pitchers who have passed out in front of agents. To stave off feeling woozy during a pitch meeting, here are some tips:

* Take nice, deep breaths. Not just every so often, but on a regular basis. You might even consider taking it up habitually.

* Don’t lock your knees when you’re standing. People who do tend to fall over.

* If you need to sit down, say so right away, no matter who happens to be standing in front of you. Trust me, that editor from Random House doesn’t want to have to pick you up off the floor, no matter how much she liked your pitch..

* Don’t drink too much coffee, tea, or alcohol prior to your pitch meeting. (Even though everyone else will be doing so with enthusiasm.) You will want your perceptions sharp, not wired or dulled.

* Go outside the conference center every so often. A glimpse of blue sky can provide a lot of perspective.

* Make some friends. You’ll have more fun, and you can meet in the hallway later to swap notes about seminars happening simultaneously.

* If you’re feeling nervous or scared, talk about it with some nice person you met in the hallway, rather than keeping it bottled inside.

* Be willing to act as someone else’s sounding board. Do it for the karma. And who do you think is going to buy your books in years to come?

This is a time to be very good to yourself. A conference should not be an endurance test. If I had my way, the hallways at any pitching conference would be lined with massage chairs, to reduce people’s stress levels.

While I’m sounding like your mother, I shall add: don’t try to pitch on an empty stomach.

I’m very serious about this — no matter how nervous you are, try to eat something an hour or so before your pitch appointment. When I ran the Pitch Practicing Palace (a safe space for those new to the game to run their pitches by agented writers before trying them out on an agent or editor, to weed out potential problems), I used to keep a bowl of candy on hand, simply because so few pitchers had remembered to feed themselves.

Trust me, even if your stomach is flipping around like the Flying Wallendas on speed, you’ll feel better if you eat something. If you are anticipating doing a lot of hallway pitching, or dislike the type of rubber chicken and reheated pasta that tends to turn up on conference buffets, you might want to conceal a few munchies in your bag, to keep yourself fueled up. I like to toss a couple of oranges into my conference kit: in a room with stagnant air, the aroma produced in the peeling process can lift everyone’s spirits. Even people who hate oranges may ask for a section.

The generous person with the tin of Altoids also tends to be rather popular in the waiting area near the pitching appointments. Even if you don’t aspire to being the waiting room’s Easter Bunny, it’s not a bad idea to bring along some mints or ginger candy for your own use, just in case you start to feel queasy.

Since you will most likely be sitting on comfortless chairs for many, many hours over the course of the conference, you might want to bring a small pillow, either to sit upon or for back support. Those metal chairs can be brutal. I once attended a conference where instead of tote bags, the organizers distributed portable seat cushions emblazoned with the writers’ organization’s logo to attendees.

You should have heard the public rejoicing.

In the spirit of serious frivolity, I’m going to make another suggestion: carry something silly in your bag, a good-luck charm or something that will make you smile when your hand brushes against it. When you’re stressed, it can work wonders to have a concealed secret.

Honest, this works. I used to advise my university students to wear their strangest underwear on final exam day, for that reason — it allowed them to know something that no one else in the room knew. (It also resulted in several years’ worth of students walking up to me when they turned in their bluebooks and telling me precisely what they were wearing under those athletic department sweats — and, on one memorable occasion, showing me. So I say from experience: resist the urge to share; it’s disconcerting to onlookers.)

If you suspect you would be uncomfortable wearing your 20-year-old Underroos or leather garter belt (sorry; you’re going to have to find your own link to that; I suspect it will not be difficult) under your conference attire, a teddy bear in your bag can serve much the same purpose. Anything will do, as long as it is special to you.

So far, my advice has been concerned with your comfort and welfare. From here on out, the rest of today’s tips will be all about networking.

That’s right, I said networking. Conferences are about CONFERRING, people.

Because you will, I hope, be meeting some God-awfully interesting at your next writers’ conference, you will want to bring some easily transferable pieces of paper with your contact information printed on it. A business card, for instance, or comparably sized sheets from your home printer.

I mention this now, so you may prepare in advance. Having to scrabble around in your tote bag for a stray scrap of paper upon which to inscribe your vitals every time you meet someone nice gets old fast.

Besides, if you file a Schedule C to claim your writing as a business, the cost of having the cards made is usually tax-deductible –- and in the US, you don’t necessarily have to make money as a writer in every year you file a Schedule C for it. I’m not a tax attorney, though, so talk to a tax advisor experienced in working with writers — not just artists. Heck, all of those books you buy might just be deductible as market research.

Seriously, it is worth your while to have some inexpensive business cards made, to print some up at home, or to ask Santa to bring you some professional-looking jobs for Christmas. It’s always a good idea to be able to hand your contact info to an agent or editor who expresses interest in your work. They don’t often ask for it, but if they do — in a situation, say, where an editor from a major press who is not allowed to pick up an unagented book really wants to hook you up with an agent — it’s best to be prepared. Even if the agent of your dreams just ends up using your card as a bookmark, she will see your name again.

Second, unless you make a point of sitting by yourself in a corner for the entire conference, you are probably going to meet other writers that you like. Maybe even some with whom you would like to exchange chapters, start a writers’ group, or just keep in contact to remind yourself that we’re all in this together. Or to add to that Notify When the Book Comes Out list I sincerely hope you have been maintaining for years. (How do you think all of those people who have said, “Gee, I’d like to read some of your work sometime,” will find out about your book if you do not tell them?)

It works the other way, too, of course. The easier you make it for those nice writers to contact you, the more likely they are to remain in contact. It’s just that simple.

I’m sensing some ambient rustling again. “But Anne,” some rustlers exclaim, “I’m going to the conference to meet folks in the industry who can help me get my work published. Why would I waste my time chatting up other aspiring writers, who are ostensibly there for precisely the same reason?”

A very good question, oh rustlers, and one that deserves a very direct answer: because it’s far from a waste of time.

Besides, avoiding the unpublished is just a wee bit snobbish, isn’t it? I would urge you to avoid the extremely common mistake of walking into any writers’ gathering thinking that the only people it is important for you to meet are the bigwigs: the agents, the editors, the keynote speakers. It requires less energy to keep to yourself, true, but it is a tad elitist, not to say short-sighted: in the long run, casting a wider acquaintance net will pay off better for you.

Why? For one very, very simple reason — and it’s not that these are the loyal friends who will not only buy your books, but sneak into bookstores across this fine land of ours and turn them cover-out, so browsers are more likely to notice them. The more writer friends you have, the easier it is to learn from experience.

Why make your own mistakes, when you can learn from your friends’, and they from yours? What better source for finding out which agents are really nice to writers, and which are not? And who do you think is going to come to your book signings five years from now, if not that sweet writer with whom you chatted about romantica at lunch?

Obviously, if you can swing a one-on-one with the keynote speaker, go for it. (An opening line that I’ve seldom seen fail: “Excuse me, but I wanted to thank you for that speech. You said exactly what I needed to hear right now.” Few public speakers, no matter how talented, are so secure that they won’t want to know what in particular struck you so.) But try not to let star-gazing distract you from interacting with the less well-known authors teaching the classes — who are there to help you, after all — or the writer sitting next to you in class. I have met some of the best writers I know by the simple dint of turning to the person rummaging through the packaged teas on the coffee table and saying, “So what do you write?”

Don’t tell me that you’re too shy to handle this situation — I happen to know that you have a secret weapon. Remember those magic first hundred words? This is the time to use ‘em.

Someday, some of your fellow conference attendees are going to be bigwigs themselves. Realistically, can you rule out the possibility that the person sitting next to you in the session on writer’s block isn’t the next Stephen King? Won’t you want to be able to say that you knew them when?

And even if this were not true (but it is), writing is an isolating business. For every hour that even the most commercially successful writer spends interacting with others in the business, she spends hundreds alone, typing away. The more friends you can make who will understand your emotional ups and downs as you work through scenes in a novel, or query agents, or gnaw your fingernails down to the knuckle, waiting for an editor to decide whether to buy your book, the better.

Even the world’s most charmed writer, blessed with immense talent AND vast quantities of pure, dumb luck, has days of wondering whether all the effort is worth it. Not all of us are lucky enough to live and work with people who appreciate the necessity of revising a sentence for the sixth time. Writers’ conferences are the ideal places to find friends to support you, the ones you call when your nearest and dearest think you are insane for sinking your heart and soul into a book that may not see print for a decade.

So stuff some business cards into your conference bag. While you’re at it, toss in a folder containing several copies of your synopsis and the first five pages of your book, as a writing sample.

Why five pages, specifically? Well, not all agents will want to see them, but many, when they are seriously taken with a pitch, will ask to see a few pages on the spot, to see if the writing is good enough to justify the serious time commitment of reading the whole book. It’s the same basic principle governing agency submission guidelines that request a few pages to be tucked into the query packet.

Having these pages ready to whip out at a moment’s notice will make you look substantially more professional than if you blush and murmur something about printing it out, or simply hand the agent your entire manuscript. Especially if you had the foresight to carry them in a folder, so they would not wrinkle, and to print them on 20-lb or better bright white paper.

Don’t, however, bother to bring your entire manuscript with you to the conference, unless you are a finalist in one of the major categories of the conference’s literary contest. You will never miss an opportunity by offering to mail or e-mail it instead. In fact, agents almost universally prefer it. This is often true, bizarrely, even if they insist that they want to read it on the airplane home.

Why the exception for the contest finalists? Well, I don’t think it should come as much of a surprise to anyone that agents tend to be pretty competitive people. The primary reason that an agent asks for the whole thing right away, in my experience, is if he is afraid that another agent at the conference will sign you before he’s had a chance to read it. The writers who tend to be the objects of such heart-rending scenes of jealousy are almost invariably those sporting blue ribbons.

So while I have known agents to read a chapter or two of a contest winner’s work in their hotel rooms, the chances of its happening in the normal run of a pitch day are roughly the same as finding the complete skeleton of a dinosaur in your back yard. It could happen — but it doesn’t really make sense to plan your life around a possibility that remote.

Don’t hurt your back lugging the manuscript box around; the sample will do just as well. And don’t bother to bring an electronic copy of your book — it’s actually considered rather rude to hand out CD-ROMs willy-nilly.

Why? Well, because not everyone is as polite as my lovely readers. It’s not at all uncommon for a total stranger to come charging up to an agent, editor, or someone like yours truly at a conference, shove a soft copy into our astonished hands, and disappear, calling back over her retreating shoulder, “My contact information’s on there, so you can let me know what you think of it.”

Without exception, electronic media presented in this manner ends up in the trash, unread.

Why? Well, apart from the general impoliteness involved in insisting that just because someone is in the industry, s/he has an obligation to read every stranger’s work, there’s also the very real risk that a stranger’s disk is going to be infected with a computer virus; it would be rather imprudent even to try to check out its contents.

Even if the recipient happened to have a really, really good firewall, this method also conveys a tacit expectation that the recipient is going to go to the trouble and expense of printing the book out — or risk considerable eyestrain by reading an entire book onscreen. Not very likely.

These days, if an agent or editor wants an electronic copy of your book, s/he will ask you to e-mail it. Trust me on this one.

Regardless, your 5-page sample should be in hard copy. Ideally, it should be the opening of the book, but if you feel that an excerpt from the end of the book showcases your work better, use that. Using the first five pages is widely considered more professional, though — it just exudes more confidence in your writing, as these are the first pages a screener would see in a submission.

From the writer’s perspective, the sole purpose of the writing sample is to get the agent to ask you to send the rest of the book, so although I hammer on this point about twice a month here, I’m going to say it again: as with everything else you submit to any industry pro, make sure that these pages are impeccably written, totally free of errors, and in standard format.

Seriously, this is not a moment when you want your pages to cry out, “The author’s unfamiliar with the norms of the industry!” You want the formatting to be unprovocative, showcasing rather than distracting from your writing.

If the fact that there is a standard format for manuscripts — and that it does not resemble the formatting of published books — is news to you, rush into the archives at right immediately, and take a gander at the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category. Even if you’re relatively sure you’re doing it right, it isn’t a bad idea to double-check.

Stop groaning, long-time readers; we all could use a refresher from time to time. As long as I am writing this blog, no reader of mine is going to have his or her work rejected simply because no one told him or her what the rules of submission were.

Again, I’m funny that way.

Okay, that’s enough practicalities for one day. Avoid dehydration, make some friends, and, as always, keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part X: the agency contract revisited, or, excuse me, sirs, but could any of you tell me which one of you will be representing my book tomorrow?

police line-up

Last time, I broached the seldom-discussed issue of agency contracts — you know those handy documents that spell out explicitly what the agent offering to represent you will do for you in exchange for how much. While most aspiring writers simply squeal and shout, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” the nanosecond an offer emerges from an agent’s mouth, it’s very much in your interest to know what you’re agreeing to before you agree to it.

In other words: not all agencies are created equal. Nor do they all operate in the same manner.

There are, however, some norms. As those of you who pored over yesterday’s post may recall to your sorrow, in going over how (and how much) US-based agents typically get paid for representing their clients’ work, I mentioned that US agency contracts typically specify 15% for books sold to a North American English-language publisher, 20% or more for sales to non-North American publishers, whether the book is published in English or not.

“Um, Anne?” a small, confused chorus has been piping out there in the ether ever since I first brought it up. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated, drawn-out typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convoluted explanation.

Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes.

North American vs. world rights
From the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America (meaning in the US and Canada), those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. So when folks in the industry speak about a US-based agent selling a book to a US-based publisher, they’re generally talking about the first North American rights: the publisher has bought the ability to be the only source of the first addition of the book in the US and Canada.

Of the three categories, only North American rights are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales, which is why — pay close attention here — if your agent manages to sell your book to a UK-based publisher, you will be selling the world rights. Believe it or not, the world excludes North America — which I imagine might come as something of a surprise to those of us who live here.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense.

What might all of this rigmarole mean for the writer? Perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. Sometimes, the Canadian rights are subsumed in the world rights (if, say, the publisher is UK-based), instead of under the North American rights.

Before you laugh out loud, I should warn you that this scenario is not particularly far-fetched: all of the books in the HARRY POTTER series were sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie or Omaha.

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales — it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author.

Why? Well, do the math: if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this discussion seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

I cannot stress enough, though: read your contract. Ask some questions. Norms are just norms; individual agencies’ policies do vary.

But what if I am represented by an agent based outside North America — or if I’m unsure if a North American one is asking me to agree to legitimate terms?
Obviously, what constitutes a domestic sale would vary depending upon the country in which the agent does his primary business. So if you are reading this somewhere outside North America, or translated into a language other than English, you should not blithely assume that what I am saying here applies to your home country; it’s always worth your while to check with your national literary agents’ association. For the English-speaking world, the top ones are:

In the United States, contact the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents.

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

I couldn’t find a specific association for Canada (if anyone knows of one, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agencies north of the border.

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. They are there to help writers make crucial decisions about who should represent their work. So are writer-protection sites like Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.

Please don’t dismiss the notion doing some minimal checking to assure the agents reading your work are on the up-and-up as writerly paranoia — who represents your work is too important to your writing career to leave to chance. Remember, not everyone who slaps up an official-looking website is actually an agent, and good writers too nice to want to seem confrontational get burned all the time.

In case it might influence the decision-making process of those of you quietly rolling your eyes at the prospect of investing even more of your scant writing time in researching folks whose ostensible purpose in life is to help writers, I should add: all but the last site I listed are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query now that the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2010 is fast receding into memory.

I just mention.

Let’s assume for the moment, though, that the agency lucky enough to land you as a client — strange to think of it that way, isn’t it? — is as reputable as reputable can be. Most agencies are. Even under that happy circumstance, it’s very much in your best interest to understand how and to whom an agent might market your book before you read, much less sign, an agency contact. Not only because these distinctions are rather counter-intuitive, but because they’re the criteria used to determine what percentage your agent will take out of your advance and royalty checks.

Again: read your representation contract before you sign it. Ask some questions. The only way this relationship is going to work to both your benefit and the agent’s is if both parties understand precisely what each of them is supposed to do.

Tell me again how I’m supposed to cover all of this in my first conversation with a prospective agent without sounding like a paranoid jerk?
I sense that some of you have gone a bit pale over the course of the last dozen or so paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” a few queasy souls inquire. “You’re kidding about expecting me to have an intelligent discussion of all of this with my agent in the first 30 seconds after he’s offered to represent me, right? Couldn’t I just agree to let him represent me, and sort the details out later?”

Well, of course you could — as I said, most aspiring writers just blurt out “Oh, God, YES!” before finding out anything about the terms to which they’re agreeing at all. I can completely understand this impulse: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent you.

Yes, YOU. How thrilling!

Trust your Auntie Anne on this one, though: honeymoons do occasionally end, and not generally because anyone concerned has done anything especially nefarious. Remember, agents move from one agency to another all the time, especially in this economy. If this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent. (Either is possible.)

It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it. Writers occasionally develop a sudden urge to compose a book in a category for which their agents do not have current contacts. And so forth.

The agency contract is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses ON, and paper by your side to jot down questions. It’s perfectly legitimate to request time to pore over it. Then pick up your notes, hie yourself to a telephone, and start asking follow-up questions.

If you do not have an opportunity to see a copy of the agency contract before having your first serious conversation about your future with your new agent — as will probably be the case; many agents are notoriously slow in sending out representation agreements — do make a point of asking the agent in your first conversation for a brief overview of its major points.

That’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally.

Because, you see, by being cautious, you’re not calling the agent’s integrity into question, but making sure you know precisely what she is proposing that you do together. After all, the agent almost certainly will not have been the person who wrote the contract; the agency will have an established boilerplate. Naturally, it is in an honest agent’s best interest for a prospective client to understand the contract-to-be well enough to abide by its provisions.

Allow me to repeat something I dropped into the middle of that last paragraph, because it comes as news to a lot of newly-agented writers: unless your future agent happens to own the agency, it is the agency — not the agent whom you are prepared to love, honor, and obey for as long as you shall write and she shall sell — who will set the terms of your relationship.

The agency, not the agent, produces that contract I keep yammering about, after all; the agent may not even sign it. So a savvy writer should be very, very interested in the policies and procedures of any agency to which she is about to commit herself and her writing.

Wait — what do you mean, I’m committing to the agency, not just the agent?
That’s right — agency policy will affect you, and that agent who is being so nice to you on the phone will not be the only agency employee who will be dealing with your work. Among other things, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer — and furthermore, telling the fine folks at the IRS all about it.

Remember, your publisher will be sending your advance and royalty checks to your agency, not to you personally. (For a more in-depth examination, please see the ADVANCES and ROYALTIES AND HOW THEY WORK categories on the list at right.) If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours — and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America, typically. And the agency is also going to be responsible not only for keeping the government informed about all of these transactions, but also preparing those messily-carboned royalty forms that you will be submitting with your taxes.

That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who you may never meet face-to-face, isn’t it? Or, in some cases, people that you may not even know exist?

Did I just hear a giant collective gasp out there? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but many authors never meet their agents in person; is it really all that surprising, then, that few are on friendly terms with the rest of the agency’s staff? It’s not as though the agency will fly a prospective client from California to New York just to get acquainted. Since almost everything in the biz is handled by phone, e-mail, or snail mail, face-to-face contact is seldom necessary.

The result? Well, it’s not a scientific sample, of course, but I know plenty of writers who couldn’t pick their agents, much less the principal of their agency, out of a police line-up. (Not that you really want to be in the position to hiss, “That’s she, officer. SHE’S THE ONE WHO DIDN’T MAIL MY ROYALTY CHECK,” but still.)

Ideally, you want relationships with both your agent and agency so comfortable that you have no qualms — and no need to have any — about simply handing the business side of your writing over to them and letting them get on with making you rich and famous. (Which you already know that no agent cannot legitimately promise up front, right?) So while asking a whole lot of pointed questions at the outset may seem mistrustful, doing so will actually substantially increase the probability that you’re going to trust and respect your agent a year or two down the road.

At minimum, find out whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. Remember, agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her, or will at least be given the option of doing so. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not.

Again, asking about this is not being paranoid; it’s being prudent. Few human relationships are permanent, after all.

Let’s face it: some agencies have pretty short lifespans. It’s also not all that uncommon for agents simply to burn out on the biz; selling books is hard work, after all. And since many agents have a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years — as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists — may I suggest that how the agency is set up may affect your life pretty profoundly?

Don’t think that nice agent who called you to offer to represent you would drop out of sight? Okay, cover your representation contract — no peeking now — and answer these trenchant questions:

(1) If your agent retired, would you still be represented, or would you need to find a new agent?

(2) What about if she got laid off and the agency did not replace her, as is happening in agencies all over the country right now? Would you still be represented then?

(3) What if she got into a car crash, God forbid, and had to cut her client list in half?

(4) Does the agency have any hierarchy in place to mediate any disagreements that may If you had a fundamental disagreement with your agent, could you move to another agent within the agency, or would you need to find a new agent elsewhere?

(5) On the brighter side, what if your agent started an agency of her own?

Yes, I actually do know authors to whom each of these things has happened; thanks for asking. None of them had even considered any of these possibilities until the realities hit them in the face. And virtually all of them now say that it never occurred to them to question whether the agency would be there to support them if something happened to their again.

But perhaps that’s not too surprising: many an author could not pick any member of her agency’s staff but her agent out of a crowd at a writers’ conference. Or out of a police line-up, for that matter.

So I take it you’re saying that this isn’t a business that runs on handshakes
Sometimes it is, but you should be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing, but you should definitely talk to a lawyer before you attempt anything so zany), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 5-plus years, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established.

Protect yourself. A good place to start: reading your representation contract and asking some intelligent questions.

Assume, too, that at some point, you will want to revisit some of these issues. If you are offered a written contract, make yourself a photocopy so you may refer to it later.

Yes, even if the agent or agency’s head has not yet countersigned it. Many agented writers report that they have never seen another copy of the contract again after they signed it.

Dare I hope that those great, gusty sighs I hear wafting from my readership mean that this is all sinking in? “Okay, Anne,” sadder-but-hopefully-wiser writers everywhere concede. “I get it: it’s not in my interest to take the details of the agent-client relationship on faith. I need to ask questions when I don’t understand something. But right now, I don’t think I have the energy to do that, because you’ve depressed me into a stupor. The last couple of posts have occasionally read as if half the agents out there are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors.”

Of course, that’s not the case. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers — but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us all to be cautious.

So read that contract; act those questions; walk into that agency with your eyes wide open and your reading glasses firmly on.

And please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked — or contractual provisions you don’t know exist. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to any of you. Put up your antennae before entrusting your precious manuscript to just anyone’s care.

Next time, I’ll talk about what agents do with manuscripts after the representation contract is signed. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part IX: the agency contract, or, what to say to an agent who offers to represent you — other than, “Yes, please.”

fireworks

Today’s installment of our ongoing series is an exciting one, campers: I’m going to be talking about the happy day when an agent first tells a writer that he wants to represent her. Most aspiring writers have long fantasized about that auspicious event, but what actually happens?

Other than a monumental celebration, of course. I think it’s safe to assume that all of you can picture that part for yourselves.

Let’s back up a moment and savor the actual moment of acceptance in some detail: first, the phone rings. Although some agents do prefer to communicate by e-mail, typically, if a US-based agent is offering to represent a North America-based writer, the agent will telephone.

Why? Well, agents tend to be in a hurry pretty much all the time, and they’re used to using their powers of verbal persuasion. (Remember, most agents will assume that you will have continued to query and submit while they are considering your manuscript; for all the agent who wants you knows, you may already have other offers. Besides, the agent of your dreams will undoubtedly have a few questions for you.

This is also a great opportunity to ask a few of your own. In fact, you should.

To pull one at random out of thin air: “How are you planning to go about trying to sell this book, and to whom?” This is likely to elicit important information, such as whether the book category you selected for your manuscript or proposal was a good fit. (Hey, a writer likes to know these things.)

Another that you might consider blurting out right off the bat: “Are you going to want any changes to the manuscript/book proposal before you start sending it out to editors?” The answer will almost certainly be yes, incidentally, but at least you will have broached the issue politely yourself, rather than having it come as the intense surprise it generally is to those new to the agent-having experience.

If these sound like far more intelligent questions than are at all likely to occur to someone totally overcome with joy, well, you’re right: I know literally dozens of now-agented writers who were able to stammer out little more than a well-nigh-incoherent, “Yes! Yes! Oh, God, YES!”

So unless you are in the habit of receiving good news on this scale with aplomb, it might be prudent to prepare for this moment. While an agent is reviewing your manuscript or book proposal is a dandy time to work off some of your nervous how-long-must-I-wait-to-hear energy by coming up with a written list of what you want to know. You’ll find a few suggestions in the posts under the AFTER YOU LAND AN AGENT and WHAT TO ASK AN AGENT WHO WANTS TO REPRESENT YOU categories on the archive list located at the bottom right-hand side of this page; the US agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, also has a good list of preliminary questions on its website.

Even if you already have a fairly clear idea of what you would say during that much-anticipated phone call, please don’t put this off, thinking you can wing it when the time comes. Accepting an offer gracefully, like garnering the offer in the first place, usually requires some homework. I would strenuously recommend that anyone who might be in a position to be on the receiving end of one anytime soon — like, for instance, a writer who has just popped a submission packet into the mail — check out either these posts or another reputable source prior to having a conversation about one’s work with an agent, if only to clarify in one’s mind what an agent can and cannot do for a writer.

What’s that you say, readers? You’re not entirely sure what a good agent can do for you, other than sell your book? Let’s take a gander at the full range of possibilities.

Some things a reasonable writer can (and should) expect a reputable agent to do:

*Present a client’s manuscript and/or book proposal to editors at large and medium-sized publishing houses (even if a writer has more than one book ready to go, most agents will prefer to work on only one at a time),

*Advise a client on how to make the manuscript or book proposal more marketable,

*After selling the book, handle all of the financial arrangements between the publisher and the writer,

*Act as the client’s advocate in any subsequent disputes with the publishing house, and

*Serve as a sounding board about future book projects’ marketability.

*Help a client strategize the order and timing of working on particular projects, to maximize the agent’s ability to sell them.

All of that sound familiar and reasonable, or is the list disappointingly short for those of you who had been picturing the agent of your dreams wearing the cape and tights of a superhero? To help bring hopes into closer alignment with reality, let’s take a look at some common misconceptions about what an agent is actually capable of offering a writer.

Some things an agent cannot do for his clients:

*Guarantee in advance that he will be able to sell a particular book to a publisher,

*Guarantee that he will be able to sell a particular book to a particular publisher.

*Guarantee a certain advance if the book does sell.

*Dictate when the publisher who acquires the book will release it or speed up the publication process at will, and/or

*Make a writer rich and famous overnight.

If an agent offering to represent you claims to be able to do any of the things on that second list, you should be asking plenty of follow-up questions, as well as checking the agent’s credentials with Preditors and Editors or some other credible source. It’s perfectly legitimate to ask to see a list of clients before you decide, or to request a run-down of the sales tactics the agent used to sell the last book he sold in your book category. You may even ask to speak to a couple of current clients, to see how happy they are with his representation, although naturally, few agents will send a prospective client to a dissatisfied client for a reference.

I can sense some of you squirming in your chairs — you’re not completely comfortable with the notion of cross-examining someone offering to represent your work, are you? “What if I do my homework really, really well before the agent calls and offers to represent me, Anne?” I hear some of you wheedling. “If I quadruple-check in advance that the agent is legit, why will I need to ask questions at all?”

Excellent question, seated squirmers: because every agency operates slightly differently.

For instance, a very well-known agent or one at a very large agency might have a junior associate act as a first-time author’s primary contact, rather than the agent himself. (For a comparison of how large and small agencies can operate differently, please see this archived post, as well as this one.) Some novel-representing agents prefer to approach editors one at a time, giving each a nice, long look at a manuscript (and a chance to reject it) before moving on to the next, while others favor submitting simultaneously to eight or ten editors.

If asking about such things seems a bit confrontational for a first conversation with someone you really, really want to like you, don’t worry: your agent honestly does need you to understand how she works, so that she can do her job well. Most agents actually prefer clients who ask intelligent questions.

And if you say nothing, many agents will simply assume that you’re already familiar with every step in the often long and complicated process of getting a book published. An interesting assumption, given that the vast majority of first-time authors are completely astonished by what occurs. So are most writers new to working with an agent.

Don’t believe me? Ask any writer who signed with his first agent six months ago. Unless his book has already sold — and it’s highly unusual for an agent to be able to sell a new client’s work that quickly — he’s going to be full of wonder about why his agent is handling the book the way she is.

So come up with a set of reasonable questions in advance, and ask them before you sign anything. As long as you don’t take umbrage at any particular piece of news and try to argue about it (“What do you mean, a royalty of 20% for foreign sales is standard? I challenge you to a duel, sir!”), this is all simple factual information that you have a right to know.

I see a few more timid hands raised. “But Anne,” confrontation-haters continue to wheedle, “surely most of what I need to know will be spelled out on the agency’s website. No? Well, then won’t the agent give me some sort of hand-out, explaining how she works? No? Isn’t it even spelled out in the agency contract I’ll be signing?”

I’m sorry to report that the answer to all three questions is not necessarily. (See my earlier comment about the likelihood of agents’ assuming that writers are already aware of what will be required of both parties to the agency contract.) In fact, representation contracts are often downright vague.

Don’t let that make you tense. Trust me: the lack of specifics is generally for convenience’s sake, not to confuse prospective clients. Remember, to make this arrangement work, both parties have to hold up their end of the deal. It’s just not in a good agent’s interest that a writer not completely comprehend what he is being asked to do.

What might an agency contract require of my new agent — and of me?
Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs for both parties, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get permanently stuck in an arrangement you don’t like.

In fact, representation clients tend to be rather short-term, specifying that the agent will either handle the entire selling process for a single book or all of the client’s work a year’s or two’s time — a choice made by the agency, incidentally, not the author. Sometimes, a single-book contract will grant the agency the right of first refusal over the client’s next book, entitling them to see your subsequent writing before you show it to anybody else, regardless of how happy you were with how the agent handled your first project.

Read every syllable of the contract carefully before you sign; if you don’t understand any part of the contract, ask the agent. If you don’t understand the answer or anything seems fishy, take it to an attorney familiar with representation contracts.

That may seem mistrustful, but a good agent is already quite aware that what you don’t fully grasp can hurt you, contractually speaking. Some contracts, for instance, will feature a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date that she wants to seek representation elsewhere, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year.

Find out which up front, so you are aware of the terms of renewal. If you sign with an agency that favors the rollover clause, make sure you know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case. And keep marking it every year.

If you are planning to write more than one book (or already have), do be sure before you sign a per-project contract that your agent is at least willing to consider representing everything you want to write. A time-based contract minimizes this concern, but do be aware that often means that the agent has right of first refusal over everything a client writes during the agreed-upon period — which means what, campers?

That’s right: you must allow her to decide whether she wants to represent an additional book before you may show it to another agent. (I was just checking to see whether your eyes had glazed over while I was going over technicalities.) Either way, writers with many projects going at once will want to make absolutely certain to ask about future projects.

The agency contract will also specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. If this section is vague in any way, start asking questions, fast.

How writers get paid for their books — and how agents get their percentage
Any money you ever earn on books sold for you by the agency will pass through the agency before it comes to you; the agency will take its cut, then mail you a check for the remainder. Paying the agent’s percentage will not be left up to the goodness of your heart and the burnings of your conscience; once you are represented by an agent, he will see to it that your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to your agent, not directly to you.

This means that any money you see will already have the agent’s percentage deducted from it. See why it’s so important to be positive that you can trust this person?

Typically, in literary agencies, the agent’s percentage is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%.

These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so no need to worry that asking about them up front will make you look like you’re haggling: it’s to shield you against the unhappy day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. Or for more time passing than you expected between your publisher’s cutting your royalty check and the agency’s passing along your share to you.

And no, a lower percentage for the agent does not usually mean a better deal for the author — it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.

Pretty much every agency in the country takes a significantly higher cut of foreign sales: 20% or more is the norm. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuania.) The higher price tag abroad is for a very practical reason: unless an agency has a branch office in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it will subcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who will need to be paid as well.

So if you suspect that your book will have a high market appeal in Turkey or Outer Mongolia, you might want to check up front whether your prospective agency has a branch there, or is subcontracting. The differential in commission percentage can be substantial.

I see a lot of raised hands out there, and I’m delighted to see so many of you getting in some practice, speaking up when you’ve got a question. However, you might want to lower those flailing arms; I’m out of time for today.

Hold those good questions, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part II: the control conundrum

tug-of-war-photo

My last post was so excessively long that I wore myself out, apparently: I barely had the energy to work my way through the couple of hundred e-mails from well-meaning readers of the Wall Street Journal, asking if (a) I’d seen this article and (b) whether those mentioned within its paragraphs were the same who kept threatening to sue my publishers (although not, perversely, yours truly) over my as-yet-to-be-released memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. I appreciate all of you kind souls taking the time to make sure I had (a), but since the answer to (b) is yes (and with arguments similar to those mentioned in the article), it would probably be prudent for me not to comment upon it here. Or, indeed, anywhere.

Except to say: ever get that feeling of déjà vu?

Back to the business at hand. For those of you who happened to miss yesterday’s epic post, I’m going to be devoting the next couple of weeks to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for starters, let’s concentrate upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok? Or indeed, a small, independent US publisher? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time — and while we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed last time, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the perversely-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list located at the lower right-hand side of this page), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come. (Not to mention a self-editing tip for those of you who long for the return of my December series of same!)

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher generally must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, back in the day as well as now, it’s the editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects at the meeting as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of editorial committee debate, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, a publishing contract will state that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, as you will recall, is already written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. After the author delivers the completed manuscript (usually in both hard copy and as a Word document), if the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion of being asked to alter your manuscript, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Chamomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book.

Control over the text itself
The author gets to decide what her own book does and doesn’t say, right? Not to mention how it’s expressed.

Actually, no, if she sells the rights to a publisher. While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will appear on the pages of the finished book. The contract will say so.

And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book. (Sorry about that, but it’s better that you’re aware of this fact going in.)

How do I know? Experience, mostly. After all, pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your (boneheaded) suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling.

Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press?

Uh-huh. It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine what I just typed having that effect, admittedly — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling over every single requested change with your editor. If you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something; editorial control is built into the publishing process. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

Other matters that aspiring writers generally assume that they will control after they sign a book contract, but usually don’t
Just a few of the tidbits that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like.

Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

I feel you glowering, but don’t blame me — I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly), believe me, my sympathies are mostly on the writers’ side here. (And no, no publishing house employee was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant. The marketing department just thought it would be a good idea for the cover to make a vague reference to A SCANNER DARKLY, because the movie would be coming out around the same time.)

My point is, while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, please see the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book. Translation: it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. That may not distress you now, but it may well come the release date: historically, the author’s percentage of the cover price (a.k.a. the royalty) has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback.

One reason for that: hardcover books were considered more serious, literarily speaking, than a volume a reader could fold and stuff into a back pocket. In fact, until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a purse or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel. Typically, the author’s royalty on a trade paper release is lower than for a hardback, but higher than for paper.

Everyone with me so far, or are you mentally calculating how much you will end up making per hour for writing your novel. Don’t even go there; that way lies madness.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, the publisher will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is generally months prior to the print date.

This, too, often comes as a surprise to a first-time author. If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence.

Its main manifestation: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

The moral: although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

The publishing world’s term for a book that contains references likely to spoil over time is easily dated. Unless you are trying to tie your characters to a very specific time and place (as most contemporary fiction doesn’t), excising such references prior to submission usually increases its marketability.

A market-savvy self-editing tip for novelists and memoir-writers: go through your manuscript, highlighting any cultural reference that might not make sense to a reader five years hence. When in doubt, whip out your highlighting pen. Mention of a character on a TV show? Mark it. Complaint about a politician currently in office? Mark it? Any reference at all to Paris Hilton? Perez Hilton?

You get the idea. This is not a moral judgment you’re making, but a calculation about pop culture longevity.

While you’re reading, take the time to note what the reference is and the manuscript page on which it appears. After you finish, go back and read through the list: would your target reader have recognized each of these five years ago? If you’re writing for adults, would a reader in high school now know what you’re talking about? Are you really willing to bank on whether Arby’s latest moniker for a sandwich is here to stay — or that your target reader will even know about it?

If you aren’t sure about the long-term cultural resonance of, say, the McRib, walk into your local community library, find the person reading the 19th-century novel (if you can’t find one in the stacks, try behind the check-out desk), and offer to buy that kind soul a nice cup of coffee if s/he will be nice enough to take a gander at your list. If the lady with her nose in a minor Charlotte Brontë novel doesn’t recognize a cultural reference, chances are that it’s not as pervasive a phenomenon as you may have thought.

After you have figured out which references need to be changed or omitted, go back and examine the ones you decided could stay. Is that reference actually necessary to the paragraph in which it appears? Is there another way that you could make the same point without, for instance, using a brand name?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
As I was walking you through that last exercise, I spotted some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the folks attached to those hands inquire timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some sort of a tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t shallow. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
As I mentioned in passing above, an author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Generally speaking, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. That’s a calculation based upon a lot of factors: how much it will cost to print the book (anything over 500 pages requires more expensive binding, for instance, and color photos are expensive to reproduce), how large the already-existing market is for similar books, how difficult the marketing department thinks it will be to reach those readers, whether Barnes and Noble is having a bad year, and so forth.

It is, in fact, a guesstimate — and as such, tends to be low, especially for first-time authors.

Why not aim high, let the author quit her day job, and hope for the best? Because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every three or six months is fairly standard.

The moral: read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers — but I’m afraid agent-seeking is a topic for another day.

Before I signed off, allow me to add: don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so. It’s not something that we talk about much in the writing community, perversely. And that’s a shame, because In the current market, when advances for new are often reflective of the gloomiest projections, while those for bestselling authors keep rising, I suspect that a significant percentage of the authors who sign their first publication contracts in the months to come are going to be mystified at being offered an honorarium when they expected enough dosh, if not to allow them to retire to write full-time, at least to permit cut back their hours.

Don’t panic; conditions change. One thing you may rely upon to remain the same, however: the writer who is in it for the love of literature probably going to be happier enduring the ups and downs of getting published than the one who walks into it with dollar signs in his eyes. Good writing is a gift to humanity, after all, every bit as much as it is a commodity for its author to sell.

Keep up the good work!

It was a dark and stormy night, perfect for — revising?

a dark and stormy night

Sorry about the unusually long hiatus between posts, campers. I shan’t bore you with long-winded justifications; suffice it to say that the Grumpy Relative is once again home from the hospital, and thus so am I. Many thanks to those of you who sent good wishes during the last few weeks.

Now that my head is back in the game, so to speak, I’m all ready to hunker down for a nice, lengthy winter’s foray into matters of craft. There’s nothing like a dark and stormy night for manuscript revision, I always say.

Stop cringing — revision is a necessary phase of the writing process. But let’s face it, nobody likes being told to re-work a manuscript, but if you ever hear any professional writer say that his first drafts regularly get published as is, well, you might want to muffle your laughter as you back swiftly away from him. Because as any pro could (and should) tell you, revision frequently takes up most of the writing time the author devotes to a published book.

Cool compresses applied to the head will help reduce the urge to curl up into a ball and moan at the very thought.

Frankly, I understand that reaction: it would be genuinely marvelous if all a talented writer had to do was to wait until inspiration hit, take dictation from the muses, and mail the result off to an agent or editor. It would be equally fantastic if agents routinely said to their clients, “You know, I would like to see a few changes in this manuscript you’ve just spent a couple of years slaving over, but hey, the editor who picks it up will probably have a different opinion, so let’s go ahead and send it out as is, okay?” And it would be downright miraculous if the third editor handling a book project (because the editor who originally acquired it has moved since to another publishing house and the second was laid off last week) was satisfied with the changes editors 1 and 2 had already convinced the author to make before the book joins the print queue.

It would also be great if cows gave chocolate milk to passing children, long-battling neighbors spontaneously realized that their deep-seated differences were unimportant, and my cats stopped staring at me indignantly because I went out of town (for a good cause, felines!), instead devoting themselves to more worthy pursuits like being comforts and joys, scampering merrily, or finding a cure for cancer. Yet somehow, I don’t think any of these things are likely to become the prevailing reality anytime soon.

Try not to take it personally. Having to revise one’s work in order to please others is, both unfortunately and fortunately for writers everywhere, simply a fact of life for a working author.

I know, I know — embracing the necessity of revision (or, for some aspiring writers, the imperative to write not only to please oneself, but a potential reader) is easy to advise, hard to pull off. Yet since writers have to be so tough to make it in this business, it’s tempting for those of us who advise, teach, and otherwise cajole the aspiring into presenting their words and ideas professionally to forget that writers are actually finely-balanced musical instruments. It’s genuinely hard to create when we’re thrown for a loop by an unexpected request to change something fundamental in our manuscripts.

Today’s loop-generator was a fairly common one for givers of feedback, professional and friendly both, to be thrown, so I think it would be useful for me to write about it. (And if not, hey, I blog pretty much every day, so if it turns out that I’m just being self-indulgent today, I can always be purely useful again tomorrow, right?)

As a freelance editor, I am EXTREMELY selective about whose work I read. I have been exchanging chapters with my own first readers for years, and professionally, I will only work with clients I feel are bursting with talent, but even then, if the subject matter or genre is not a good fit with my tastes, or if I don’t think I can help a writer get published within a reasonable amount of time, I will refer him on. The vast majority of the time, my interactions with other writers are a joy. Really. I enjoy giving feedback quite a bit, even when I am charged with the task of helping an author incorporate a revision request from an agent, editor, or dissertation advisor in such a way that it will not interfere too much with the original vision.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t SOUND like a whole lot of fun. But usually, it is: I love good writing, and like any competent editor, the sight of anything that detracts from good writing’s presentation makes me foam at the mouth and reach for a pen.

Every so often, though, I’ll run into someone who thinks I’m just making up the rules of standard format, or norms of academic argumentation, or even the usual human expectation that within a story, each subsequent event will follow logically upon the one before it. (Blame Aristotle’s POETICS for that last set of rules, not me.) Recently, I was lambasted at length for having had the gall to point out that someone’s Chapter Two might not be utterly clear to a reader that did not have the author reading over his shoulder, explaining verbally the choices made on the page.

Long-time readers of this blog, sing along with me here: when you submit a manuscript, all that matters is what is on the page. If ANYTHING in your first 50 pages is not perfectly comprehensible without a “Yes, but I explain that in Chapter Four”-type verbal clarification, rework it.

Please. Thank you.

Now, since it’s my job — or ethical obligation, in cases of volunteer feedback-giving — to point out precisely this sort of problem wherever it appears in a manuscript, I am always a trifle nonplused when I encounter a writer who thinks I’m only flagging it out of some deep-seated compulsion to be hurtful. Again, I am very selective about whose pages I read, and I burn to be helpful: as any of my clients could tell you, it’s not uncommon for my commentary on a book to be longer as most of the chapters. I try to be thoughtful, giving my reasons for any major suggested change with a specificity and completeness that makes the Declaration of Independence look like a murmur of vague discontent about tea prices.

Obviously, this level of feedback is not for everybody; one of my best friends in the biz refers to me affectionately as the manuscript piranha, but still, she lets me read her work. Because, honestly, is there anything worse than handing your work-in-progress to someone who just says, “Oh, it was fine,” or “Oh, it just wasn’t my kind of book,” without explaining WHY? I think completeness of feedback implies a certain level of devotion on my part to making the manuscript in question the best book it can possibly be.

Yet the Chapter Two-producer informed me that, to put it mildly, I was incorrect about this. Apparently, I only suggest changes as a most effective means of ripping the author’s heart from his chest, stomping upon it, pasting it back together, sautéing it in a nice balsamic vinegar reduction, then feeding the resulting stew to, if not the author, than at least the neighbor’s Rottweiler.

This was for a manuscript I LIKED, incidentally. I had made a grand total of ONE suggested change, in the midst of reams and reams of glowing praise. And although it pains me to point it out to writers as open-minded and eager to improve their craft as my readership, it’s not at all uncommon for writers inexperienced with feedback to respond in this manner.

So what did I do? What editors and agents moan privately to one another about having to do for their clients all the time, be preternaturally patient until the “But it’s MY work! It MUST be perfect!” tantrum petered out. Until then, further discussion was simply pointless.

Because, in the first moments after receiving critique, creative people are often utterly, completely, fabulously unreasonable about it. They not only want to shoot the messenger – they want to broil her slowly on a spit over red-hot coals like a kabob, and THEN yell at her.

Fear of this stripe of reaction, in case you were wondering, is the most common reason most people will give only that very limited “Oh, it was fine” feedback after reading a friend’s manuscript. They’re just trying to keep their heads attached to their bodies, rather than skewered upon some irate writer’s pike.

It’s also the usual excuse — which you may believe or not, as you see fit, considering the source — that most agents give for why they send out form letter rejections, rather than specific, thoughtful replies to requested submissions. Or even not respond to a submission at all.

Their stated reason for form letter responses — or non-responses — to queries, of course, is sheer volume: they don’t have time to reply to each individually. Fair enough, or if not, at least understandable. It’s harder to make the case in favor of form-letter (or no letter) rejections of requested partial or full manuscript submissions, because, obviously, if they have the time to read 50 pages, they have time to scrawl a couple of lines about how it could be improved.

Or, as insightful and curious reader Jenyfer pointed out in the comments recently:

Why it is that once an agent asks to see the material and the material is actually sent, the agent can’t be bothered to respond? It’s one thing to ignore an unsolicited query / partial, but if they actually request it, you would think they could at least say “thanks, but no thanks” if they aren’t interested. Surely I’m not the only one this has happened to?

No, Jenyfer, you’re most certainly not, and it’s an excellent subject for writerly speculation: non-responses are rapidly becoming not only acceptable, but in many agencies, the norm. And even those increasingly rare agents who do respond with a direct yes or no seldom give a specific reason for rejection beyond I just didn’t fall in love with this or the ubiquitous this material does not meet our agency’s needs at this time.

This may seem like a cold, impersonal, or even jaded response, but to be fair, there is a pretty good reason many professional readers don’t want to give writers specific rejection reasons: they don’t want to engender an angry response that might turn into an endless debate about the merits of a book they’ve already decided, for whatever reason, that they do not want.

Don’t believe that’s a realistic possibility? Try suggesting to a sensitive soul that his Chapter Two could use a little work, then duck.

Since most writers are peaches and lambs and every other kind of pacific, cooperative kind of entity you can think of most of the time, the fear of a very negative reaction is perhaps overblown. Certainly in the case of agencies that simply do not respond at all if the answer is no. Most of us are perfectly capable of taking a little constructive criticism in the spirit it is intended. But every so often, some author loses it — and for that author’s display of temper, alas, we all pay.

That’s the official logic, anyway. Although I’d be lying if I didn’t add here that sending out form-letter rejections is quite a bit less expensive and employee time-consuming than mailing or e-mailing off individually-crafted nos — and that not responding at all is undoubtedly cheaper still.

If that seems like an affront to art, please remember: agencies make no money at all from screening queries, or even submissions. (Not a reputable agency, anyway, one that does not charge to consider manuscripts. For some insights on the other kind, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category on the archive list at the lower right-hand corner of this page.) Agencies make money when they sell their clients’ manuscripts to publishers — and receive a percentage of royalties after the books have made enough to cover the advance. (If that made no sense to you, or if you were not aware that advances are pre-payments of royalties, and thus no further royalties are paid until the publisher has made back the advance, please see the posts under the aptly-named ADVANCES category at right.)

So now you know: if you want to establish yourself as a dream client in the eyes of the average agent or editor, who tends to hide under a chair after giving even the mildest feedback to her clients, you might want to greet the first emergence of any revision request with apparent tolerance; give yourself time to calm down before you argue. To buy yourself time, say something like, “Wow, what an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks.”

Then take the rest of the day off, and don’t so much as peek at your manuscript again until you’ve had a chance to calm down.

Say this, even if in the moment, the suggestion proffered seems to you like the worst idea since Hannibal decided to march all of those elephants over the Alps to get at Rome. Because at that precise second, you are not just an individual writer, concerned with the integrity of your own manuscript: you are representing all of us. Show that, contrary to our stereotype in the industry as touchy hotheads unwilling to consider changing a single precious word, most of us really are capable of taking a little criticism.

Admittedly, my readers all acting this beautifully in the fact of critique probably sounds better to me right now than it might had I not recently been scathed for trying to help out. Whenever I am confronted with a super-defensive critique-rejecter, I must confess, I seldom think of cooperative, thoughtful revisers with any abhorrence.

Feedback, though, and the revision process in general, ought to be treated with more respect by everyone concerned. There really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision, someone to whom we can pray for patience and tolerance in getting feedback on our work.

For working writers — especially those who would like to make something resembling a decent living from their keyboards — a muse of revision might conceivably make better sense to court than a muse of inspiration. After all, all of us who write works longer than a postcard must inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?

Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone moan about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.

We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.

Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t stick around for very long, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry ourselves sick, we writers, wondering if they are ever going to come back?

Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. According to the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself: the ultimate goal of revision, no?)

Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn novels. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help.

Best to stay on her good side: for starters, let’s all pledge not to scream at the kind souls who give us necessary feedback. Yes, I suspect Ataraxia would really enjoy that sort of sacrifice.

I’ll confess, I have not always treated Ataraxia with respect myself. How tedious revision is, I have thought from time to time, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on a project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it: hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn.

Over time, though, I have started to listen to what I was actually telling myself whenever I complained about the revision process. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad; I’m a writer, so that’s what I do. Nor was it that I felt compelled to rework my novel for the fiftieth time, or, in cases where I’ve been incorporating feedback, that I thought the changes would be bad for the book.

No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears. Am I alone in this?

But Ataraxia watches over even the most ungrateful of writers, so she whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways.

So now I know: whenever I start procrastinating about necessary revisions, it is a pretty sure sign that I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my first readers’ suggestions about my memoir in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?

Just a suggestion: instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.

Try to move beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.

But the next time you find yourself trapped in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time.

No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.

Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Feed the cat. Plot a better way to get legions of elephants over the Alps. Anything will work, as long as it gets your eyes off your own words for a while.

And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?

What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.

As Ataraxia wants it to be, I suspect.

Okay, I feel less self-indulgent now: I think I have wrested some good, practical advice out of my very, very bad experience with that Chapter Two-hugger. Naturally, unlike your garden-variety agent or editor, I’m not going to give up on this writer because of a single loss of temper. Nor, unlike the average writer’s friend with a manuscript, am I going to let the one writer who implied that my feedback on his work was the worst idea since Stalin last said, “I know! Let’s have a purge!” discourage me from giving feedback to others.

But please, the next time you are confronted with feedback that makes your blood boil, take a deep breath before you respond. Think about me, and about Ataraxia, and force yourself to say, “Gee, what an interesting notion. May I think about it, and we can talk about it later?”

Then go home and punch a pillow 700 times, if you must, but please, don’t disembowel the messenger. She may be bringing you a news flash from Ataraxia.

Keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part II: show me the money!

pile-of-money

My last post was so excessively long that I wore myself out, apparently: thus the skipped day between posts. I honestly hadn’t planned it that way. Let’s see if I learned my lesson sufficiently to keep today’s within a more reasonable range.

Stop your chortling, long-time readers. Perhaps it’s unlikely that I’ll be terse, given my track record, but I’ll give it the proverbial old college try.

For those of you who happened to miss Tuesday’s epic, I’m devoting a few days this week to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for now, I’m concentrating upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time — and while we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed yesterday, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come.

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor the author approached liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, back in the day as well as now, it’s the editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects at the meeting as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of the editorial committee, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, they will stipulate that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, as you will recall, is already written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. If the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

Some of you just had a strong visceral reaction to the idea of being asked to alter your manuscript, didn’t you? If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Camomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book.

Control over the text itself
While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will go into the finished book. The contract will say so. And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book. (Sorry about that, but it’s better that you’re aware of this fact going in.)

How do I know? Experience, mostly. After all, pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your (boneheaded) suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling.

Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press?

Uh-huh. It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine its having that effect, admittedly — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling over every single requested change with your editor. If you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something; editorial control is built into the publishing process. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

A few little matters that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like. Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

Hey, don’t blame me — I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly), believe me, my sympathies are mostly on the writers’ side here. (And no, no employee of my former publishing house was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant.)

My point is, while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, please see the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book — and no, it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. Historically, the author’s percentage has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback; until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has increasingly been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a pocket or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, they will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is typically months prior to the print date. This often comes as a surprise to a first-time author.

If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence. The main manifestation of this: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

The moral: although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

I could go on and on about timing and control issues, but I’m seeing some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the folks attached to those hands ask timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
An author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Thus, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. And because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every six months is fairly standard.

Don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so.

The moral: read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers — but I’m afraid agent-seeking is a topic for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway?

printing-press-woodcut

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a nice, long time are no doubt already aware, many of my best ideas for blog posts come from readers’ comments and questions. Frequently, readers will frame questions that, if I’m honest about it, just wouldn’t occur to those of us who deal with manuscripts professionally to pose. For instance, why a manuscript should feature indented paragraphs (the answer is yes, in case any of you were wondering) or whether it’s permissible to have the slug line in the header and the page number in the footer (the answer is no) are just not questions that would come up if one stares at properly-formatted manuscripts all day.

Or improperly-formatted ones, for that matter. I know it may seem a bit hard for writers new to standard format to believe, but after a while, you honestly do develop an almost visceral sense of what looks right and what looks wrong on a page. (And for those of you who just wondered, “What does she mean, standard format?” never fear: I’m going to be revisiting the right way to format a manuscript for submission very soon. Improved by reader questions and comments from the last time I went over the rules, naturally.)

As fond as I am of posts that come to me in this manner, I must say, there’s a type that tickles me even more. Every so often, a reader will ask a question that prompts me to murmur, “Oh, go look in the archives — I must have covered that at some point on the blog,” into my tea. In my own defense, most of the time, this reaction is abundantly justified; surprisingly often, folks will apparently overlook both the MASSIVE and I think well-differentiated category list on the lower right-hand side of this page and the search engine in the upper right corner. (How do I know that they missed these? It’s not all that uncommon for someone to ask that I address a topic for which there are several specific categories on the list.)

Yet from time to time, I will find myself wondering if I actually have covered the topic in question. An hour or a day after I finished murmuring, I may well be frantically searching my own archives for something I could have sworn I posted about eons ago.

So we all have 13-year-old reader Malak to thank for the rather startling realization that I’ve never done a straightforward post explaining how books get published. You know, a single column to which I could refer someone curious about where to start.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? I’ve done dozens, if not hundreds, of posts on the intricacies of finding an agent, how to prepare a manuscript for submission, how to pitch your book at a writers’ conference, and so forth. Yet mysteriously, I have apparently neglected to address the single most likely question that a writer absolutely new to the process would be likely to ask.

I wasn’t kidding about how intuitive the ropes can seem to someone who has been climbing around on them for a lifetime.

In my own defense, this isn’t the juiciest topic for those already familiar with the basics, or one that’s likely to elicit many chuckles from my readership. In fact, bringing it up at all is practically the definition of a thankless task: not only are some of the aspects of the biz I’ll need to discuss downright depressing, but since there’s a lot of conflicting information on the subject floating around the web and the conference circuit, there’s also a high likelihood that this is going to be one of those series where readers write in, demanding that I reconcile what I’ve said here with something they’ve heard somewhere else — presuming, I suppose, that all of us who write about marketing writing regularly get together in a massive auditorium and vote on how best to get our collective story straight.

Wait — what was I thinking? Why on earth would I put all of us through that?

Oh, yeah: because this is information that everyone even considering trying to bring his book to publication needs to know. And aspiring writers who misunderstand how books do and don’t get published are likely to waste their time and resources on unsolicited submissions that will inevitably get rejected.

In other words, those of you who just murmured, “What’s an unsolicited submission?” are precisely the people for whom I am writing this. And Malak, of course. (How impressive is it that he’s completed a draft of his first book at 13, by the way? Are there other teenage members of the Author! Author! community pulling off feats like this? Leave a comment and tell us about it!)

So to our muttons: today, I’m going to begin to remedy the oversight. Because there are several ways a book can end up on a shelf in your local literary emporium, I’m going to break up the question into several parts. First, I’m going to tackle the classic means, publication through a great big publishing house.

But first, a little history — and while we’re at it, let’s debunk a few widely-believed myths.

How books used to get published during the Taft administration, or, how a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers (mistakenly) believe the industry still works
A hundred years ago, the publication process was pretty straightforward: an author wrote a book, contacted an editor at a publishing house, and if the editor liked it, he (it was almost invariably a he) chatted about it with senior staff; if he could convince them to take a chance on the manuscript, he would edit it for publication. Printing presses were set in motion, and in due course, the book was available for sale. The publisher sent out advance copies to newspapers, so they could produce reviews.

Of course, that was back when there were few enough books published in these United States that most releases from a good-sized publishing house could garner a review in a major newspaper or magazine. Now, so many books are published in any given year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a newspaper or magazine.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, you’re far more likely to see a review of the eighteenth novel by an already-established author than the brilliant debut another. Assuming that the newspaper or magazine in question even carries book reviews anymore.

Back to days of yore. Amazingly, considering that authors often possessed only one copy of their manuscripts — remember, the photocopier wasn’t invented until 1938, and it wasn’t commercially available until two decades later — it wasn’t uncommon for writers just to pack their books into boxes and send them to publishers without any preliminary correspondence. The result was what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, but unlike today, when a manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread, publishers would set these books aside until some luckless employee of the publishing house had time to go through the stack.

This ever-burgeoning source of reading material was known as the slush pile. Although solicited submissions (i.e., those that the editor has actually asked to see) have probably always enjoyed a competitive advantage, slush pile manuscripts did occasionally get discovered and published.

They also, predictably, got lost on a fairly regular basis. Thus the old writerly truism: never send anyone the only copy of your manuscript.

Because there were fewer manuscripts (and publishing houses were more heavily staffed) before the advent of the personal computer, a writer did not need an agent: it was possible to deal directly with the editor who would handle the book, or at any rate with the luckless assistant whose job it was to go through the slush pile. But back when the hefty Taft was overseeing the nation’s business, it was also still completely permissible to submit a manuscript in longhand, too.

Times change, as they say. One of the ways that time changed the publishing industry was that publishing houses began expecting to see fiction and nonfiction presented to them differently.

The fiction/nonfiction split
Both historically and now, novels were sold to publishers in pretty much the form you would expect: as complete manuscripts, and only as complete manuscripts. At least, they buy first novels that way; until fairly recently, the major publishing houses quite routinely offered fiction writers who had written promising first novels could snag a multi-book contract. It took until the 1990s for publishers to notice that a commercially successful first book is not necessarily an absolute predictor of whether the author’s second or third book will sell well.

As a result, while multi-book contracts still exist — particularly in genre fiction, which is conducive to series — they have become substantially less common. While previously-published authors can occasionally sell subsequent books based upon only a few chapters (known, unsurprisingly, as a partial), novelists should expect to write books before they can sell them.

Nonfiction, however, is typically sold not on the entire book, but via a marketing packet known as a book proposal. There are several hefty categories on the archive list at right on how to put one together, but for the purposes of this post, a generalization will suffice: a book proposal is a packet consisting of a description of the proposed book, a sample chapter, descriptions of subsequent chapters, and an array of marketing materials. Typically, these materials include everything from a detailed analysis of similar books already on the market to an explanation of who the target readership is and why this book will appeal to them to a marketing plan. Traditionally, previously published writers also include clippings of their earlier work.

Basically, a book proposal is a job application: in effect, the writer is asking the publishing house to pay her to write the book she’s proposing.

That does not, however, mean that the writer will get paid up front, at least not entirely. Because buying something that does not exist obviously entails running the risk that the author may not deliver, the advance for a book sold in this manner is typically paid in three installments, one when the publication contract is signed, another after the editor has received and accepted the manuscript, and a third when the book actually comes out.

Call it an insurance policy for authorial good behavior. Apparently, novelists are regarded as shiftier sorts, because to this day, the only acceptable proof that they can write a book is to have already written one.

Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? Good. Let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries.

The lingering demise of the slush pile
Just to clear up any misconceptions floating around out there: if you want to sell a book to a major U.S. publisher, you will need an agent to do it for you. The slush pile is no more; currently, all of the major houses will accept only represented manuscripts.

Like any broad-based policy, however, it comes with a few caveats. We’re only talking about the great big publishers here; there are plenty of smaller publishers that do accept direct submission. One hears tell of some children’s book divisions at major houses that still accept direct submissions; if an editor meets a writer at a conference and positively falls in love with his work, it’s not unheard-of for the editor to help the writer land an agent (usually one with whom the editor has worked recently) in order to side-step the policy. Stuff like that.

But it’s not wise to assume that you’re going to be the exception. If you’re hoping for a contract with a big publisher, get an agent first.

This was not always a prerequisite, of course. Until fairly recently, one element of that fiction/nonfiction split I was regaling you with above was that while novels had to go through an agent, nonfiction writers could submit proposals directly to publishers. Not so much anymore.

You novelists out there are a bit restive, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some of you complaining, and who could blame you? “This is starting to seem a trifle discriminatory against my ilk. NF writers are presenting substantially less writing than fiction writers; a proposal’s what, 40-60 pages, typically? As a novelist, I’m expected to produce an entire book. I would have thought that if publishing houses were going to distrust anybody enough to want an agent to vouch for ‘em, it would be the author whose book they were buying at the idea stage.”

Don’t upset yourselves, oh novelists; it’s not good for your stomach acids, and besides, since everyone needs an agent now, it’s a moot point. But I suspect that the answer to your question is that that publishers habitually receive far more fiction submissions than nonfiction ones — interesting, given the long-standing industry truism that fiction is easier to sell, both to editors and to readers. (It probably also has something to do with the fact that nonfiction books are often proposed by those with clip-worthy previous publishing credentials, such as magazine articles and newspaper columns, but believe me, the other reason would be more than sufficient.)

Before petty bickering begins to break out between fiction and nonfiction writers over a situation that has more or less vanished anyway, let’s turn our attention to a more absorbing topic: why would the big publishing houses feel so strongly about agents that they would all agree upon a represented-books-only policy?

The rise of the agent
Although many aspiring writers regard the necessity of procuring an agent as a necessary evil at best, agents perform an exceedingly important role in the current publishing market: not only do they bring brilliant new writers and amazing new books to editors’ attention, but they are now also effectively the first-round submission screeners for the publishing houses. By passing along only what they consider marketable and of publishable quality, agents thin the volume of submissions the publishers see on a monthly basis to Niagara Falls, rather than the Atlantic Ocean.

In other words: they reject so the publishers don’t have to do so.

It’s easy to resent agents for this, to think of them as the self-appointed gatekeepers of American literature, but that’s not really fair. Much of what they assure that the editors never see honestly isn’t publishable, after all; I hate to disillusion anyone (and yet here I am doing it), but as Millicent the agency screener would be the first to tell you, a hefty majority of the writing currently being queried, proposed, and submitted is not very well written. Even very promisingly-written submissions are often misformatted, or would require major editing, or just plain are not quite up to professional standards.

Or so runs the prevailing wisdom; we could debate for weeks over the extent to which that’s really true, or how difficult it often is for genuinely innovative writing to land an agent. Suffice it to say that if the major publishers believed that agents were rejecting manuscripts that their editors should be seeing, they presumably would change their policies about accepting only agented manuscripts, right?

Think about it; I think you’ll find it makes sense. You’re perfectly at liberty to continue to resent it, of course, but it will help you to understand the logic.

“Okay, Anne,” I hear some of you reluctantly conceding, “I get that if I hope to sell my book to a major U.S. publisher, I’m going to need to find myself an agent. But if you don’t mind my asking, what do I get out of the exchange, other than a possible entrée to an editorial desk?”

A good agent can do quite a bit for a writer. First, as you reluctant conceders already pointed out, an agent can make sure your manuscript or book proposal lands on the right desks: not just any old editor’s, but an editor with a successful track record in acquiring books like yours and shepherding them through the sometimes difficult publication process. (Don’t worry; I’ll be talking about that part later in this series.) Pulling that off requires both an intimate knowledge of who is looking to buy what right now — not always an easy task, considering how quickly publishing fads change and editorial staffs turn over — but also the connections to enable a successful pitch to the right audience.

In other words, for an agent to be good at his job, he can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly; he must have the experience to target the editors who are most likely to be interested in any given book.

Agents also negotiate book contracts for their clients, act as a liaison between the author and the publishing house, and help mediate any disputes that might arise. Like, for instance, if the publishing house is being a mite slow in coughing up the contracted advance.

Yes, it happens, I’m sorry to report. And if it happens to you, you’re going to want an experienced agent on your side, fighting for your dosh.

Admittedly, it will be very much in your agent’s self-interest to make sure that you’re paid: in the U.S., reputable agents earn their livings solely from commissions (usually 15%) on their clients’ work. That means, of course, that if they don’t sell books, the agency doesn’t make any money.

Think about that: agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Doesn’t it make sense that agents would not take on manuscripts that they do not believe they can sell in the current market, even if the writing happens to be very good indeed?

Typically, the agent will handle all of the money an author makes on her book: the publisher pays advances and royalties to the agency, not directly to the author; the agency will then deduct the agent’s percentage, cut a check for the rest, and send it to the author. In the U.S., agencies are also responsible for providing their clients and the IRS with tax information and documentation.

Since self-employed people like writers have been known to get audited from time to time, you’re going to want this level of verifiability. Trust me on this one.

To recap how things have changed since William Howard Taft roamed the earth:
Way back when: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at major publishing houses directly to market their books.
The reality now: with few exceptions, a writer will require an agent to approach a publisher for her.

Way back when: fiction and nonfiction books were marketed in the same manner, as already-completed manuscripts.
The reality now: fiction is sold on the entire manuscript; with certain exceptions, nonfiction is sold as via a book proposal.

Way back when: nonfiction writers could approach major publishing houses directly with their book proposals.
The reality now: agents submit both fiction and nonfiction books on behalf of their authors.

Way back when: agents played a substantially smaller role in the overall dynamic of U.S. publishing.
The reality now: they largely determine which manuscripts editors will and will not see.

Way back when: an author often formed a personal relationship with his editor and other publishing house staff, sometimes lasting decades.
The reality now: the editor who acquires a book may not still be the editor handling it by the time it goes to press; a good agent can do a lot to help smooth over any resulting difficulties.

Whew — that’s quite a lot of information to absorb in a single post, isn’t it? I’m going to stop for the day, to give all of this time to sink in. Next time, on to what happens to a book after an agent submits it to an editor at a publishing house!

Yes, yes, I know: this isn’t precisely fun material to cover, but you will be happier in the long run if you’re familiar with it. And the next time a new reader like Malak asks how publishing works, I’ll know exactly which part of the archives will hold the answer.

Keep up the good work!

The Glamour of the Book Tour, Part II, by Michael Schein, author of Just Deceits

Hello, campers –

Welcome back to Part II of your treat for having made it all the way through the Manuscript Formatting 101 series: a first-hand account from a FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) of a book tour by a recently-published author. Bookmark these posts, because someday you’ll need them.

Don’t quibble about when someday will come. Whenever it does come, you’ll want to be ready, won’t you?

Yesterday, FAAB Michael Schein, author of the recently-released JUST DECEITS gave us a humorous peek into the hectic world of being one’s own publicist, as well as some very valuable tips on how to set up book readings. (In response to that great gasp I just heard from those of you who missed yesterday’s post, no, Virginia, one’s publisher doesn’t always set those up for one. Increasingly, it’s up to the authors of books released by major publishing houses, just as it’s always been to self-published authors, to schedule public readings.)

Today, Michael is being kind enough to share his experience of what happens after an author gets to such a reading, as well as insights on how to cajole attendees into actually shelling out the dosh for a copy.

Speaking of which, I would be remiss to my duty to a fellow author if I did not add: if you happen to have a mystery lover or two on your holiday shopping list, here is a brief description of JUST DECEITS to whet your gift-giving (and reading) appetite:

In 1793, the most powerful family in Virginia found itself embroiled in scandal: Richard Randolph and his sister-in-law, the beautiful and impetuous Nancy Randolph, were charged with adultery and infanticide. Based on actual events, Just Deceits tells the story of the Trial of the Century – the 18th Century – as the remarkable defense team of wily Patrick Henry and ambitious John Marshall battled each other, their clients, family intrigue, the prosecution, and the truth itself, trying to save their clients from the gallows. In its ribald portrayal of a young legal system already driven more by spectacle than evidence, Just Deceits calls into question the feasibility — and even the desirability — of uncovering “the whole truth.” Ultimately, in the secrets revealed and the relationships celebrated, Just Deceits is as much a story of a trial of love as the trial in the courtroom.

You may buy JUST DECEITS directly from Michael’s website, from his publisher, if you’re in the mood to spread the Christmas spirit to an independent press, or on Amazon. If you’d like to buy it from him in person, here’s a link to his tour schedule.

Why do I so often list several venues for buying my guest bloggers’ work? Knowing how publishing works, mostly: in case you weren’t already aware of it, these days, the author’s royalty rate varies by where a book is sold. Typically, that rate is highest through the author’s or publisher’s website and lowest at discount clearinghouses like overstock.com. (Yes, you read that correctly: much of the discount offered by discount venues comes out of the author’s pocket.)

Once again, please join me in welcoming Michael Schein. Pay close attention, think good thoughts about your own future book tours, and keep up the good work!

How to sell a book, one at a time. OK – it’s the day of the book signing! I just had the first one of my tour today (11/18). It was my fifth overall. I sold 13 books today on a quiet Tuesday evening (in three hours), and the Barnes & Noble manager said that as signings go, that’s a success.

I certainly think so – I feel quite good about it. I’m being read by people from various parts of the country, including (aside from Washington State, where I live) Virginia, Missouri, Minnesota, Texas, West Virginia, Alabama and New Jersey. If they like it, they’ll probably tell their friends and family – because I asked them to.

Making contact with your future readers. If you aren’t John Grisham, the first and most important thing about a book signing is to get your butt up out of the chair.

The only time to sit in the lovely chair the bookstore will provide (it’s a leather throne at Seattle Mystery Bookshop) is while actually signing the book you just sold. Then get up and shake your new reader’s hand as you return the book to him/her. That won’t make up for a crappy book, but it will make your new reader want to like your book, which doesn’t hurt.

Second, don’t wait for people to approach you – they won’t. Don’t stalk them, but greet them as they walk by, and ask, “May I tell you about my new novel?” or something to that effect.

It takes a hard heart or a big hurry to answer “no” to that one.

Your pitch – the same one that sold the book – comes next. Every time you say it, say it like it is the first time (but without the stuttering). In other words, this is conversation, not telemarketing.

Show the customer the back cover – the one with the great blurbs. Hand it to them. Put the product in their hands.

Yes, it’s a “product.”

Ask a question: “Are you interested in history?” (for historical fiction) “Where are you from?” “Have you ever dreamed of traveling to Africa?” (for a book involving Africa).

You’ll get used to it – again, this is simply conversation. Don’t do all the talking. Listen.

Once you’ve engaged a person in conversation, you’ve probably got a sale. But you still need to close the deal.

The correct way to close a book deal is not, “Would you please buy my book?” It is “May I sign that for you?” “Shall I personalize it?”

Once signed and personalized, it is sold.

Pretty scary, huh? Look, we can be artists on our own time. When we are in the bookstore, our job is to sell books. If you need motivation beyond the royalties, remember this – that new masterpiece taking shape in your hard drive is unlikely to see the light of day if your current book flops.

Nov. 19. More pitfalls on the road. All the above sounds rational, right? Forget rational. The world is not what it seems. Or, worse yet, maybe it is.

On Nov. 19th I found that the Richmond stop I’d sweated blood over was a small house off the main road on the edge of a small shopping district where there’s no foot traffic. True, the owner was kind and interesting, the shop was crammed to bursting with an eclectic assortment of books, and it had been in business somehow for 28 years, but still, it was dead. It had never been my first choice, but writers can’t be choosers: it was an independent non-Christian bookstore and therefore something special in post-apocalyptic America.

Despite marketing through their email list and by postcards to local lawyers, the only two people who showed up were my brother-in-law, and the woman who owns the B&B where I’m staying. I could have sold to them directly, and made more on each sale.

No one else even entered the shop from 7 pm to 8:20 pm, when I gave up. Then I did what you cannot do if you are to make a profit – I bought an expensive book. It is hard to sit in a bookstore for over an hour with nothing to do, and not buy a book or two.

This is so glamorous!

What do you mean, the books aren’t here yet? My publisher was supposed to ship two cases of books, and I needed them for my 11/20 appearance at the John Marshall House, since they hadn’t ordered books directly. I’d made arrangements with Anna, the B&B proprietor, to ship books to her, so I was disappointed to find when I arrived the night of 11/18 the books were not yet here. Nor did they arrive on Nov. 19.

Finally, I got the tracking numbers from my publisher – and sure enough, they had arrived on Nov. 17th, and been signed for by Anna! It was too late to ask her again, but I sent an urgent email, and then didn’t sleep well all night, thinking they’d been stolen.

The story emerged the next day. Anna (an otherwise very capable woman) had hosted another writer the previous weekend (see, I told you last time that we’re thick as flies), and had arranged with his publisher to take a shipment. She’d forgotten about the same arrangement with me, so when the books arrived, she assumed they were his, and had his sponsor pick them up for shipment to his next stop – New Hampshire!

My books were on their way to a general store in the Granite State and my signing in Richmond was in three hours.

Frantic calls, texts, and imprecations to the ghost of Jack Randolph, who I’d insulted the previous day during my visit to Hollywood Cemetery, resulted in a rescue worthy of Lassie, as my books were snatched off the loading dock with all the shipping labels affixed, and somehow returned to me.

I sold twenty (count ‘em – twenty!) books today (11/20). I almost had none to sell.

And so, to end this tale of woe and wonder, this life of ours is never boring as soon as we step off the edge, and call ourselves writers.

Happy touring, fellow fools!

I need to produce an author bio by WHEN?

I’m in a terrible, terrible mood today, my friends — and to make it worse, the source of my grumpiness would make a perfectly marvelous blog post so directly related to the issues we habitually confront here at Author! Author! that the Recording Angel himself would take one look at it and say, “Darn, that’s apt. Couldn’t have categorized that one any better myself.”

So why don’t I just let loose and spill all of the juicy details? Off the top of my head, I can think of two genuinely excellent reasons: first, as an agented and/or published writer could tell you, the slings and arrows of life after impressing Millicent are legion — and so different than the challenges that face the pre-agented writer that sometimes even mentioning them seems kind of mean. Every stage of the road to publication has its own potholes, and even if I find myself eyeballing one of the deeper ones at the moment, my describing it before I figure out how to traipse around it with my petticoats unmuddied would merely be scary to those treading earlier parts of the path.

Second — and this, too, anyone who has ever inked a representation contract could tell you — since publishing is a pretty fast-paced industry (except when it is being slow), what strikes everyone concerned as an insurmountable problem this week might not even be an issue a month hence. So what I wrote on this (jolly interesting) subject today would almost certainly not be even my final word on the subject, much less THE final word.

Realizing that, I’m going to limit myself to pointing out that developing a Zen-like calm in the face of continual change is a really, really valuable skill in a professional writer. Here’s hoping I get better at it soon.

I’m also going to go ahead and change the subject utterly, to something that I have been wanting to talk about for weeks: creating a great author bio.

Soothingly (at least to my present mood), author bios are one of the few marketing materials in the writer’s promotional kit that tends not change much throughout the agent-finding-through-publication process. Nor, even more comforting, have the basics of writing one changed much in the last 30 years.

Refreshing, huh? I feel calmer already.

Don’t go sinking into that lavender-scented bath too quickly, though, because one thing about the author bio HAS changed in recent years: the author is now expected to write it, and increasingly early in the publication process.

How early, you ask? Um, do you have time to start work on yours right now?

I’m not kidding about this: agents and editors routinely ask for bios routinely when they request pages. Even if the agent of your dreams does not, any novelist will need to have one to tuck at the bottom of her manuscript before AOYD sends it to an editor, and every NF writer will need it to form the last page of a book proposal.

So on a purely practical level, it’s a good idea to have one handy.

I sense some glancing at the clock out there, don’t I? “Um, Anne?” I hear the time-pressed pipe up. “Weren’t we talking as recently as last week about how bloody difficult it is for so many of us to carve out time in our schedules to write, much less to market our work to agents? I’m in the middle of my tenth revision of Chapter 3, and I’m trying to get a dozen queries in the mail before Thanksgiving. I also have a life. May I be excused, please, from dropping all that in order to sit down and compose something I only MIGHT need if one of those agents asks to see the book?”

Well, first off, clock-watchers, congratulations for having the foresight to send off a flotilla of queries before the onset of the holiday season. As long-term readers of this blog are already aware (I hope, given how frequently I mention it), the publishing industry is notorious for slowing W-A-Y down between Thanksgiving and the end of the year.

Best to get your query letters in before the proverbial Christmas rush, I always say. Because, really, if you don’t, you’re probably going to want to hold off on sending the next batch until after the new president is inaugurated.

Yes, in response to all of those shouted mental questions: I do mean after January 20th. 2009.

Why wait so long, you howl? Several reasons. First, as we discussed before, during, and after the traditional mid-August-through-Labor-Day publishing vacation period, Millicent’s desk is going to be piled pretty high with envelopes when she returns after her winter holidays. Place yourself in her snow boots for a moment: if you were the one going through all of that backlog of unopened queries, would you be more eager to reject any given one, or less?

I’m going to leave the answer to that between you and your conscience.

Second, in the US, agencies are required by law to produce tax documents for their clients by the end of January, documenting the royalties of the previous year. Yes, everyone knows it’s coming, but common sense will tell you that the vast majority of the inmates of agencies were English majors.

Have you ever watched an English major try to pull together her tax information? ‘Nuff said.

Third — and to my mind, the best reason by far — do you REALLY want your query (or submission) to get lost amongst similar documents from every unpublished writer in North America who made the not-uncommon New Year’s resolution, “By gum, I’m going to send out 20 queries a month, beginning January 1!”

Fortunately for Millicent’s sanity, the average New Year’s resolution lasts a grand total of three weeks — which, this coming January, lands quite nicely near Inauguration Day.

All that being said (and I had a surprising amount to say on the subject, didn’t I, considering that it could easily have been summarized as, “Get those queries out now!”), I would encourage all of you who are at the querying stage of your careers to set aside anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to sit down and hammer out a great author bio for yourself.

Ideally, sometime really, really soon. Again, how does now sound?

Why I am I pressing you on this? For very, very practical reasons: often, the request for a bio comes when your mind is on other things, like doing a lightning-fast revision on your book proposal so you can send it to that nice editor who listened so attentively to your pitch at a conference or just before you start dancing around your living room in your underwear because your before-bed e-mail check revealed a response to a query.

Agents and editors tend to toss it out casually, as if it’s an afterthought: “Oh, and send me a bio.” The informality of the request can be a bit misleading, however: your one-page author bio is actually a very important tool in your marketing kit.

Yeah, I know: over the years (and definitely over this last summer, when I devoted a whole lot of our time together to querying, pitching, and submission issues), I have told you that many, many things were important tools in your marketing kit. Your synopsis, for instance. Your query letter. Your pitch. Your first 50 pages. Your first page.

And you know something? I wasn’t lying to you any of those times. They’re all important.

So just how important is the author bio, you ask? Well, it’s not unheard-of for editors, in particular, to decide to pass on the book they’re being offered, but ask the agent to see other work by the author, if the bio is intriguing enough.

Yes, really: it’s happened to me more than once.

Admittedly, I come from a pretty wacky background (detailed in my bio, if you’re interested), but I think a general axiom may be derived from the fact that attracting interest in this manner has happened to any writer, ever: it is not a tremendously good idea just to throw a few autobiographical paragraphs together in the last few minutes before a requested manuscript, proposal, or synopsis heads out the door.

Which is, I am sorry to report, precisely what most aspiring writers do. In the extra minute and a half they have left between dashing off a 20-minute synopsis and when the post office door locks for the night.

Big, big mistake: if the bio reads as dull, disorganized, or unprofessional, agents and editors may leap to the unwarranted conclusion that the writer is also dull, disorganized, and/or unprofessional. After all, they are likely to reason, the author’s life is the material that he should know best; if he can’t write about that well, how can he write well about anything else?

I know; wacky. But remember, these folks usually don’t know the writers who submit; Millicent and her ilk have to draw conclusions based upon the evidence on paper in front of them.

A good bio is especially important if you write any flavor of nonfiction, because the bio is where you establish your platform in its most tightly-summarized form.

In answer to the exasperated gasp that just arose in the ether: all of you nonfiction writers out there know what a platform is, don’t you?

You should: it is practically the first thing any agent or editor will ask you when you pitch a NF book. Your platform is the background that renders you — yes, YOU — the best person on earth to write the book you are pitching. This background can include, but is not limited to, educational credentials, relevant work experience, awards, and significant research time.

You know, the stuff we discussed in the selling points posts, back in the summer. (For those of you who missed it, a crash course in marketing a book to agents may be found under the BOOK MARKETING 101 category on the list at right; those of you looking for tips on how to figure out what your book’s selling points are might try looking under the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category on that list. Really, how DO I come up with these category titles?)

For a NF writer, the author bio is a compressed résumé, with a twist: unlike the cold, linear presentation of the résumé format, the author bio must also demonstrate that the author can put together an array of facts in a readable, compelling fashion.

Lest you fiction writers out there think that you are exempt from this daunting challenge, think again. “A bio?” novelists say nervously when agents and editors toss out the seemingly casual request. “You mean that thing on the back cover? Won’t my publisher’s marketing department write that for me?”

In a word, no. They might punch it up a little down the line, but in the manuscript-marketing stages, you’re on your own.

Here’s a bit of my authorial experience that I can share today: that tendency to assume that someone else will take care of your bio is practically universal amongst writers — until they have been through the book publication process. Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of this misconception, hemming and/or hawing about the production of one’s bio is NOT the way to win friends and influence people in an agency.

Or a publishing house, for that matter. You think the marketing department isn’t eager to get to work reorganizing your bio?

So if you take nothing else from today’s blog, take this enduring truth and clutch it to your respective bosoms forevermore: whenever you are asked to provide extra material whilst marketing your work, train yourself not to equivocate.

Instead, learn to chirp happily, like the can-do sort of person you are: “A bio? You bet!”

Yes, even if the agent or editor in question has just asked you to produce some marketing data that strikes you as irrelevant or downright stupid. Even if what you’re being asked for will require you to take a week off work to deliver. Even in you have to dash to the nearest dictionary the second your meeting with an agent or editor is over to find out what you’ve just promised to send within a week IS.

Or, perhaps more sensibly, drop me an e-mail and inquire. That’s what my blog is here for, you know: to help writers get their work successfully out the door.

Why is appearing eager to comply and competent so important, I hear you ask? Because professionalism is one of the few selling points a writer CAN’T list in an author bio — and to most people in positions to bring your work to publication, it’s regarded as a sure indicator of how much extra time they will have to spend holding a new author’s hand on the way to publication, explaining how the industry works.

How much extra time will they want to spend on you and your book, I hear you ask, over and above the time required to sell it? (My readers are so smart; I can always rely on them to ask the perfect questions at the perfect times.) It varies from agent to agent, of course, but I believe I can give you a general ballpark estimate without going too far out on a limb: none.

Yes, I know — all the agency guides will tell the previously unpublished writer to seek out agencies with track records of taking on inexperienced writers. It’s good advice, but not because such agencies are habitually eager to expend their resources teaching newbies the ropes.

It’s good advice because such agencies have demonstrated that they are braver than many others: they are willing to take a chance on a new writer from time to time, provided that writer’s professionalism positively oozes off the page and from her manner.

I’ll bet you a nickel that the writers these agencies have signed did not respond evasively when asked for their bios.

Professionalism, as I believe I have pointed out several hundred times before, is demonstrated in many ways. Manuscripts that conform to standard format, for instance, or knowing not to call an agency unless there’s some question of requested materials actually having been lost. It is also, unfortunately for those new to the game, demonstrated through familiarity with the basic terms and expectations of the industry.

This is what is known colloquially as a Catch-22: you get into the biz by showing that you know how people in the biz act — which you learn by being in the biz.

So, as you have probably already figured out, “Bio? What’s that?” is not the most advisable response to an agent or editor’s request for one. Nor is hesitating, or saying that you’ll need some time to write one. (You’re perfectly free to take time to write one, of course; just don’t say so up front.)

Why is even hesitation problematic, I hear you ask? (Another terrific question; you really are on the ball today.)

Well, let me put it this way: have you ever walked into a deli on the isle of Manhattan unsure of what kind of sandwich you want to get? When you took the requisite few seconds to collect your thoughts on the crucial subjects of onions and mayo, did the guy behind the counter wait politely for you to state your well-considered preferences, or did he roll his eyes and move on to the next customer?

And did that next customer ruminate at length on the competing joys of ham on rye and pastrami on pumpernickel, soliciting the opinions of other customers with the open-mindedness of Socrates conducting a symposium, or did he just shout over your shoulder, “Reuben with a dill pickle!” with the ultra-imperative diction of an emergency room surgeon calling for a scalpel to perform a tracheotomy with seconds to spare before the patient sustains permanent brain damage from lack of oxygen?

If you frequent the same delis I do when I’m in town, the answers in both cases are emphatically the latter. Perhaps with some profanity thrown in for local color.

NYC-based agents and editors eat in those delis, my friends. They go there to RELAX.

This regional tendency to mistake thoughtful consideration or momentary hesitation, for malingering or even slow-wittedness often comes as an unpleasant shock to those of us who are West Coast bred and born, I must admit. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like to encourage meditation in daily life; there are retail emporia in the greater Seattle metropolitan area where the Buddha himself could happily hold a full-time job with no significant loss of contemplative time.

Even in retail. “I’m here if you need anything,” the Buddha would say, melting into the background to think. “Just let me know if you have questions about those socks. There’s no rush.”

This is why, in case you have been wondering, NYC-based agents and editors sometimes treat those of us out here like flakes. In certain minds, we’re all wandering around stoned in bellbottoms, offering flowers to strangers at airports, reusing and recycling paper, and spreading pinko propaganda like, “Have a nice day.”

That is, when we’re not writing our books in moss-covered lean-tos, surrounded by yeti in Birkenstocks.

Oh, you laugh, but I’m not entirely sure that my agent understands that I’m not composing my current novel in a yurt. But I’m getting a bit far afield, amn’t I?

My point is, it would behoove you to have an author bio already written by the time you are asked for it, so you will not hesitate for even one Buddha-like, yeti-consulting moment when the crucial request comes.

Take it from the writer who said last winter, “Write a different denouement? Two weeks? Sure — I’ll get right on that.” Make mine tempeh, avocado, and sprouts on sourdough, please, with a side of smoked salmon for my yeti friend here. We’ve got some revision to do.

Or any of the other grump-inducing tasks that are the career writer’s lot. Keep up the good work!

So you’re considering self-publishing, part II: how does one go about it, anyway?

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Yesterday, I began a discussion about self-publishing with two authors who have taken the plunge this year, fellow blogger and memoirist Beren deMotier and novelist Mary Hutchings Reed. Both are prolific, award-winning writers who have been fighting the good fight along with the rest of us for many years, so who better to ask the question that has been on so many writers’ minds over the last couple of years: what precisely is it like to self-publish?

Today, we’re going to discuss the practicalities of self-publishing, particularly how one goes about finding a reputable press. But before we get started, please help me welcome back our panelists. And because they are, after all, doing us a great big favor here, let’s recap what they have published and where one might conceivably go to buy it.

Beren deMotier is the author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH. It’s available on Amazon, of course, but because I always like to plug a good independent bookstore, here’s a link to the book’s page at Powell’s, too.

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The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage is a lesbian bride’s eye view of marriage at a moment’s notice, with a bevy of brides, their coterie of children, donuts, newspaper reporters, screaming protesters, mothers of the brides who never thought they’d see the day, white wedding cake, and a houseful of happy heterosexuals toasting the marriage. But that was only the beginning as these private declarations of love became public fodder, fueling social commentary, letters to the editor, and the fires of political debate, when all the brides wanted was the opportunity to say “I do” in this candid, poignant, and frequently funny tale of lesbian moms getting to the church on time in Multnomah County.

In addition to her fine memoir, Beren also has written humor/social commentary for Curve, And Baby, Pride Parenting, Greenlight.com, www.ehow.com, as well as for GLBT newspapers across the nation. She’s written about same-sex marriage for over a decade, and couldn’t resist writing the bride’s eye view after marrying in Multnomah County. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her spouse of twenty-one years, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse.

Mary Hutchings Reed, if you’ll recall, is the author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, which is being described as ONE L for women lawyers:

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Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

In addition to a writing schedule that would make most of our heads spin, Mary has spent the last thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service (BUCKETS of it) and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

In short, in addition to being good writers brave enough to publish their own work, these are two incredibly busy people, so many thanks to both for taking the time to let me pepper them with questions. Let’s leap right into the nitty-gritty:

Anne: Last time, we talked a little bit about why each of you chose to pursue the self-publishing route, and what kinds of specialized obstacles your unusual subject matter placed in your books’ paths. Since so many of our community here at Author! Author! can identify with the experience of sending out query after query, let’s take a moment to talk about how you went about marketing the book to agents before you made the choice to self-publish.

You’re both very experienced, professional-minded writers — is it fair to assume that you went about it in the traditional way? I always like to ask this, just in case some brilliant soul has found a clever way to bypass this often drawn-out process. You’re shaking your heads and laughing — no such luck?

Beren: I used the Guide or Writers Market

Anne: Ah, the sacred texts.

Beren: …after checking online to see if the information was still accurate. If they wanted a one-page query letter, I sent that; if they wanted a book proposal, I sent that. Often, a query would lead to chapters and chapters to the whole manuscript, but not to a book contract.

Mary: I went to workshops and learned how to meet agents; I sent a lot of queries.

Anne: So you both went about it the right way. Given the original nature of your story and how evident it was that your book was going to stir up some pretty strong emotions in readers, were you were you surprised at the responses you received from agents and editors?

Mary: I was surprised more agents didn’t see right away that career women in book clubs would love Courting Kathleen Hannigan. But I didn’t get much advice from them, and not useful. The comment “in the end I failed to connect to the material” isn’t very helpful.

And don’t forget I did have an agent for Courting Kathleen Hannigan (here in Chicago), who worked with me all of 2002 to get it where she wanted it for publication, and then she died in early 2003.

Anne: I remember when it happened: one day, you had a great agent, and the next day, you didn’t have one at all, and had to start the whole process over again. You bounced back really well, though, as I recall.

Mary: It was a shock, and I put the whole selling thing on hold for a while. I got involved with other projects and only gradually got back into trying to interest an agent in this work, and then moved on to trying to sell my next works.

Anne: That’s one reason I really wanted to interview you here; we writers are so conditioned to believe that once we land an agent, we don’t need a Plan B. But that’s not necessarily the case, no matter how talented a writer you are — so much of this process is out of our control.

Before we talk about Plan B, though, I want to ask a follow-up about submitting to agents. How much feedback did you actually get, and was any of it helpful?

Beren: There was a wonderful agent who gave my book three chances—she looked at and read three incarnations, which is a lot of time to give a project, but ultimately her comment was, ”You’d have a better time selling this project if you were an alcoholic single mother.”

Anne: Oh, that’s very helpful. I know perfectly well that agents usually say things like this not intending them to be taken seriously as revision suggestions, but to excuse their passing on a well-written book, but don’t statements like this just set your mind whirring with the possibilities? Surely, she wasn’t actually suggesting that you add false memories to your memoir to make it easier to sell, any more than she was suggesting that you should look into alcoholism as a career-enhancing move, but I have to say, those comebacks certainly would have occurred to me.

Beren: She felt that there wasn’t a big enough “problem” in the story—no one died, no one went to jail—and so she couldn’t sell it. I had some similar reactions from others, and it was shocking to me that being denied one’s civil rights and getting constitutionally designated as unworthy of marriage (and all the bitter pain that involved) wasn’t a big enough “problem.” I wonder if they had read the whole book, because the ups and downs aren’t apparent in the beginning—perhaps that was a mistake—but I wanted to tell it as it was experienced.

Anne: In other words, as a memoir; as a memoirist myself, I completely get wanting to tell the story from the inside-out, to place the reader inside a world s/he has never experienced before.

What about you, Mary? Any useful feedback?

Mary: The most helpful advice from any agent, of course, was from Jane Jordan Brown before she died. That was to get it down to 300 pages.

I got a ton of feedback from Enid Powell, from my workshop fellows, from a couple different paid services (as I recall) and then from my non-writing, women-lawyer friends. All feedback is helpful, either to confirm your confidence in your own work or to give you insight into what can be done better or more clearly.

Anne: I’m about to ask a totally insensitive question, but one that I’m sure many of my readers are going to be too polite to write in and ask. Did you ever consider just giving up on this project, when it did not receive the response from agents and editors that it deserved?

Beren: Oh yes, I did consider just giving up. Especially since writing about same-sex marriage for a couple of years kept the pain of having the marriage annulled alive, and kept me conscious of every mean letter to the editor or hopeful legislation. Partially what kept me going was a stubborn streak and pride, to give up would have been to admit that I thought the project was unworthy of publication or readership.

There were times I closed up my files and left my desk to collect dust between query waves, but even one positive thing kept me going—a compliment from a friend on the book, a nice note at the end of a rejection letter, the publication of one of my editorials on the subject. Keeping a lot of balls in the air about the book kept it a live project, even when I thought I was done with the actual writing.

Anne: It’s SO important to keep moving forward. If I hadn’t had a novel to revise and a blog to write after my memoir was hit with the lawsuit threats, I can’t imagine how I would have coped. Work can be a positive blessing in the midst of book turmoil. That, and reminding oneself that a setback on the road to publication doesn’t necessarily mean that the book doesn’t have an audience waiting out there to be moved or helped by it.

Mary: What keeps me going is the pure enjoyment and satisfaction I get from writing. It is, for me, soul-making.

Anne: What a nice way to put it. That scratching sound you hear is me writing that down, very possibly to steal it for my next class.

Mary:In a sense, I did give up on finding a commercial publisher. I published it privately because I finally got my own ego out of the way and the time felt right. Some part of me also wanted to be able to give it to my librarian-mother, who was losing her memory. Even though we published it in about a 75-day turnaround, she unfortunately didn’t quite get it, even with my picture on the back. But the nurses in her Alzheimer’s unit loved it!!

Which was a gift—convincing me that there was an audience way beyond just “lady lawyers.”

Anne: Which to my eye, it very clearly does. I don’t understand why it wasn’t obvious to agents in both your cases that people like me — who read a great deal by living writers, but who are neither likely to be practicing law in a high-powered firm or marrying people of the same sex — would be the audience for these books. I already know about people whose experiences are just like mine — I want books that will introduce me to points of view other than my own.

Somehow, I doubt I’m the only habitual book-buyer in North America who fosters that preference.

Let’s talk about your segue into Plan B. What were your feelings about self-publication prior to this project? Had you ever considered it before, and do you think your advance impression of it was accurate?

Beren: I did think of self-publishing as vanity publishing until recently. And to vanity publish would have been a shameful thing to me, an admission that I couldn’t cut it. So yeah, I had baggage.

Mary: My impression was that–as they say in the books—it’s all about the writing, and if the writing is good, you’ll get published—so I thought of self-publishing as a failure. That good writing will always get published commercially just isn’t true. I got lots of compliments on my writing, from lots of highly-regarded agents and publishers—but they didn’t know how they would “sell” my work. They apparently don’t find it all that easy to sell plain old “good writing.“

Anne: There have been plenty of periods in publishing history when it has been pretty darned hard to sell plain old good writing. Just ask anyone who tried to sell a memoir just after the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal. It’s just one of the facts of the business.

Beren: I’ve wanted to be published since I was ten; my grandfather was a successful novelist and screenwriter, so I’ve been aware of the business side of writing from an early age. This wasn’t the first book I queried, and with those others I considered self-publication, but wisely knew it wasn’t the right time or the right project. They weren’t good enough.

Mary: Several friends of mine self-published and had fun with it. One sold 4000 copies by hand in less than two years.

Anne: Wow — that’s practically unheard-of. I’ve always heard that most self-published books sell under 500 copies ever. You’re talking about Erin Goseer Mitchell, right?

Mary: Yes. Her book, Born Colored. is about growing up in Selma before Bloody Sunday—she knew her audience, and wanted to tell the story of the strength and dignity of the black community which made the civil rights movement possible.

In the same way, I thought I knew my audience, and that I should be able to sell a couple thousand copies. If I don’t believe I can, why would a publisher believe they could?

Anne: That’s an interesting way to think of self-publishing.

Mary: I don’t exactly use the words “self-publishing.” While I financed the publication and am primarily responsible for marketing, my publisher, Ampersand, Inc., doesn’t publish everything they are asked to publish. She picks and chooses the products to which she will lend the Ampersand name. We’ve coined the term “privately published.”

Anne: I like that; it sounds very Edwardian.

Let’s talk about how one goes about getting a book privately published, then. How did you go about finding a press to use, and why did you pick your press? What did it offer you that others didn’t?

Beren: I did quite a lot of research on self-publishing before committing. Looking at writing books and online reviews of publishing companies, it was clear there were some that rose to the top of the list, including iUniverse and Infinity Publishing. Amazon.com had just started publishing books, too, through Booksurge, and it had a lot to offer—it was a hard decision between iUniverse and them.

Ultimately, iUniverse offered the chance to have a book distributed on standard wholesale terms basis if you sold 500 copies, and I was pretty sure I could do that, plus the initial cost was much lower. Booksurge is astoundingly expensive compared to some POD publishers, but they have a lot to offer.

Mary: My friend founded Ampersand. She’d been in publishing all her life (as president of an educational publishing company), and had turned out highly professional projects for a couple other people I know. It’s more expensive than publishing on demand, but the product itself and the marketing materials have very high production values. I may have been able to figure out how to put together a book, and go to a printer and get my own ISBN and all that, but the physical product would not have been nearly as professional and classy as the one Ampersand produced. Plus, it’s a better use of my time to do what I do—practice law—and pay her to do what she does.

Anne: It’s great that you had someone you already knew you could trust.

Mary: I’m suggesting it’s not a matter of printing or finding a good press or the right print-on-demand. I think it’s finding a publishing professional, like Susie Isaacs at Ampersand here in Chicago to make the product indistinguishable from a commercially-published book.

Anne: Not having that advantage going in, Beren, what criteria did you use to decide which press to select?

Beren: I looked at how the books were distributed (wholesalers and online stores), author discounts (very important if you plan on selling books at conferences, library events and directly to local bookstores), the “look” of the books that press had produced—did they look professional, could you pick them out as a self-published book?—and the timeline from submission to publication. I needed the book out sooner, and not at an outrageous price.

Anne: It’s SO interesting that you both mention the importance of the end product being indistinguishable from a traditionally published book — it hadn’t occurred to me to think about in those terms, but now that you mention it and I look at the volumes in front of me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference without looking at the press’ name.

Which makes me doubly eager to ask my next question, because you’re both so well-versed in this: What questions should someone thinking about going this route ask a potential press up front?

Beren: I think it is worth finding out how many of their books actually sell more than five hundred copies. I use that number because that is the number by which iUniverse decides it is worth investing its own money in a book, by redesigning the cover, any additional editing services free and by selling it at standard wholesale terms.

Anne: I wasn’t aware that they did that. I’m so glad that I asked.

Beren: Of the thousands of books iUniverse publishes every year, only about twenty sell over five hundred copies. I think that Infinity has returnability, and for a fee, the Amazon company, Booksurge, has returnability, but it doesn’t advertise that fee. Booksurge has the highest royalties for online sales, which might work brilliantly for some kinds of books. Their turnaround is quick, too.

Anne: Are there pitfalls writers looking into it should avoid?

Beren: Beware of editing costs—iUniverse has a reputation for suggesting huge edits before awarding a book Editor’s Choice designation, which it must have to eventually become available at standard wholesale terms.

The recommended services for my book would have cost about $1400, far more than the $695 original price for a publishing package. The edits weren’t that extensive, either (and the recommendations were done very well by a professional who really liked the book) so I did them in a twelve-hour editing spree and was able to get the Editor’s Choice designation after receiving two positive reviews post-publication.

Mary: I know some of the self-publishing or print-on-demand companies have packages that offer listings in ads they place in media like the New York Times. I can’t imagine that most fiction benefits from that. So, I’d say, don’t pay for mass marketing. Do invest in good cover design and bookmarks, but don’t pay for advertising that’s not highly, highly targeted. (I bought ads in my Brown alumni magazine and in the Chicago Bar Record.)

Don’t think that the publisher will do your marketing for you, though. They won’t.

Beren: One thing you must do as a self-published author (if you don’t want to pay big bucks to someone else) is to write your own promotional materials. It is hard enough for most of us to write a query letter or a proposal, writing book jacket copy, getting blurbs, and providing advertising copy is a different type of writing for most of us. I worked really hard on mine, and it was a good education.

Anne: I’m glad you both brought that up. What do you think are the biggest differences in authorial responsibility between a self-published book and one handled by a traditional publisher?

Mary: My responsibility is to turn out the best book I can.

Anne: But isn’t that always the case, no matter who publishes our work?

Mary: I fantasize that I would have more confidence that I’d done that if a traditional publisher gave the book its imprimatur.

Anne: I suppose I have an unusual view on that, having sold a book to a traditional publisher that didn’t come out. I can’t say that experience exactly bathed me in self-confidence.

Let me turn the question around for you, Beren. What did you have responsibility for that you wouldn’t have if you’d gone with a traditional publisher?

Beren: I did a lot in creating the look of the book. My spouse took the photo on the cover, and I was able to influence the design, font, and colors used in the final product. It became a group project when we shared the photo and necessary copy with friends who all had an opinion on how it should look.

Anne: That was a great day, opening my e-mail and finding the photo of the cover there.

Beren: I’m happy with the outcome. The questions iUniverse asked me about the book provided their designers with enough to make it look right. I did pay extra for this option; self-publishing with all your own design work is much less money if you have the expertise, which I do not.

Anne: One hears that a significant advantage of self-publishing lies in not having to revise a book to match — how shall I put this? — the sometimes arbitrary or misguided editorial standards authors sometimes encounter at traditional publishing houses, where the writer doesn’t have much say, if any, over title and book cover design, not to mention issues of content and style. Did you enjoy that freedom? How much control did you have over the final product?

Beren: I had a lot of control over the final product. If it had gone to a traditional house, I would have had to write it as fiction and have an alcoholic single mother as the main character! Or gotten divorced and developed a drinking problem!

I did have a lot of control, and iUniverse provided a lot of information on the book publication process. They send all prospective authors their book, Getting Published, which is a comprehensive guide to traditional publication and getting published through them. I used it a lot.

Mary: I’d be happy to revise if Simon & Schuster or Random House wanted me to. With an advance in hand, I could probably see my way clear to making changes…

Anne: Okay, okay, you have a point — and I don’t think I could hope for a better exit line than that, so let’s stop for today. Thank you both again for being generous enough to share your experiences with us.

Happy holidays, everyone, and keep up the good work!

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