All last month I was inviting writers to send in their questions — If you could sit down and be face-to-face with a literary agent, what would you ask? I’d like to continue down that path for another month. Here are some of the questions that have come in…
At a big writing conference last summer, I noticed that most agents and editors now insist on seeing a “completed manuscript.” I have a manuscript I’ve rewritten several times — you even once took a look and suggested I work with an editor to improve it. So what is the definition of a “completed manuscript”?
I have two answers for you… First, when an editor says they’re only looking at completed manuscripts, that means they aren’t going to seriously consider a proposal and sample chapters. They insist on an author showing them a finished manuscript, so that they lower their risk (no worries about missed deadlines, or the story going off the rails, etc). That’s the industry norm for first-time novelists these days. But my second answer is that “completed” to an agent can also means your manuscript has been revised, rewritten, and is ready to show to a publisher. I frequently see novels that have promise, but they need more work, so I’ll suggest changes to the manuscript, or I’ll encourage the author to work with a writing coach, or I’ll just give the author the names and emails of half a dozen editors and encourage them to get some professional assistance. Does that help?
I know you represent a lot of thrillers. Is it possible to have a female protagonist in a thriller? Does she have to be teamed with a strong male in order to survive?
Sure, it’s possible. In fact, there are some publishers right now that are looking for strong female leads in some contemporary thriller novels. Examples of books with strong female leads include Mercy Gunderson, V.I. Warshawski, Vanessa Michael Munroe, Kathleen Mallory, Jade de Jong, Jane Whitefield, Eve Dallas, um… Charlie Fox. All great characters. And not all of them require a male backup to save them!
Is it possible for an indie author to get his books onto bookstore shelves? I have copies of my book ready, but the local Barnes & Noble won’t carry it. Is there anything I can do?
Your local independent bookstore may take a few copies, if you go in and talk with the store manager, you seem relatively normal, and the manager wants to help out a local author. But outside of face-to-face meetings, you’ll find it’s awfully tough to get your book onto store shelves. Stores are used to dealing with publishers and distributors, not directly with authors (except in the rare instance). And big chains like B&N and BAM generally won’t take hard copies of self-published books — they require all their books to come from a publisher or distributor, so that more copies can be ordered and unsold copies can be returned. That’s why most indie authors are pushing hard to sell books on the web. But again, I encourage authors to think about becoming a big deal locally — so if you’re close to a major city with a bunch of bookstores, invest in getting around to all of them, meeting the store owners & managers, and chatting up your book. Offer them great terms, and show them how you’re supporting the book locally and online if you want them to partner with you.
I have a mid-grade reader, a women’s self-help book, and a contemporary romance novel all completed. When you have a variety of projects like that, do you need separate agents for each category? Or should you try to find one agent to represent everything?
I know some authors who have a separate agent for their children’s books, and several who have a separate agent for their film or screenwriting projects, but the majority of authors have one agent who represents all their work. That allows the author and agent to create a more comprehensive career plan, and it keeps vital information (like finances and marketing plans and release dates) with the same person. Either can work, though you’ll eventually find the more spread out things are, the more tension there is in your life. And, of course, I’ll just add that you’ll probably find it hard to have a successful writing career if your writing is spread out over several genres. Not impossible, but hard to make it work these days.
I sent my agent a manuscript three months ago, and he has yet to read it. Is that normal? Should I be concerned? He sent out a manuscript of mine nearly a year ago, and he says people are still considering it, and things are simply slow in the industry these days. Is that correct?
I don’t want to hammer someone — maybe there’s a reason your agent hasn’t read your work yet. But yes, I’d say three months can be a long time to wait for someone who is already your agent. I’d encourage you to call and have a chat about it. My guess: The agent doesn’t really believe in this project, and is too nice (or perhaps too conflict-resistant) to want to tell you. As for the wait with publishers, I would agree that things are very slow at the moment, particularly with fiction. Publishers are taking a long time to decide on projects — it’s almost as if every book has to be a hit. Still, if a publisher has had a manuscript for a year and not decided… well, they HAVE decided. If they had any enthusiasm for the project at all, they’d have said so. By not saying anything, they’re really rejecting it.
How do I find out if the novel I just completed has similar books in print? I want to include that information in my proposal. Do I look by topic?
You do some research. Go into a great bookstore and spend some time perusing the store shelves. Talk with the sales staff, or with a librarian, or with your writer friends. Then go onto Amazon.com and search by key words, and perhaps by likely authors who have also written on the topic. Look through GoodReads and see what is recommended. Stay away from using obscure books or mega-hits as your comparables. Finding good comparable titles for your proposal is simply a matter of time and deduction.
Like many of your readers, I dream of the day when I can be a full time writer. (Unfortunately, these things called “mortgages” and “car payments” and “college tuition” keep getting in the way.) In your role, have you found there are certain jobs that are tailor-made for writers who have to work?
That’s a fascinating question… There probably are day jobs that many writers have — jobs that aren’t taxing mentally or physically, so the writer still has some energy left to exert on the creative process. But I’m not sure I have any real-world wisdom on this. I’ve represented several beginning authors who worked in food service (i.e., waiter or barista) and on the telephone (chatting up customers) or doing retail sales. But I’ve never really noticed there was one job that attracted a bunch of writers, so let’s ask readers: Do you have a job that you find meshes beautifully with your writing life? Could you share your thoughts in the comments section?
And I’d like to keep this going. If you could sit down with a literary agent and ask anything you like, what would you ask?