• February 21, 2009

    A Quick Q-and-A


    I'm WAY behind in answering questions, so I thought I'd try to do some quick questions today (and limit my normally loooooooong answers). We'll see how it goes…

    1. Heidi said, "I finished my first novel, don't have a contract or an agent for it yet, but I'm going to a conference soon to talk with agents and editors. Should I bring a one-sheet for both books? Or focus just on the second book?"

    Huh? Why would you focus on the second book, Heidi? If the first book is completed, focus on that. Right now it's tougher than ever to get your first novel deal, so focus on the book that is complete. If you're unpublished, you're much more likely to get interest in a completed manuscript than a cool synopsis.

    2. Holly asked, "Since I'm pitching a series, should I have a double-sided one-sheet — the front page would cover the first book, the back page for the series? Or should they be separate sheets?"

    I'd go for separate sheets.

    3. Stan wants to know, "If I'm pitching editors at a conference, should I include a proposed cover on my one-sheet?"

    Only if it was professionally designed AND you've test-marketed it (preferably with people who are not relatives). Most author-produced covers are godawful. They start off the meeting on the wrong foot, sending the happy message, "I don't know what I'm doing!" No sense revealing that in the first five seconds.

    4. Karen wrote, "I was in a Lifeway bookstore yesterday, and noticed they have put a sticker on some of the books that says, Read With Discernment. Um…what's up with that?"

    I heard about this from a handful of people, so I checked it out. Turns out the ever-vigilent Protectors Of All Things Correct running Lifeway have put stickers on books from authors like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Donald Miller. (You catching a theme here?) So in other words, these

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  • February 14, 2009

    More Wisdom From Sandra Bishop


    Since Chip is trying to keep his tan from fading and bleaching his hair to make us all think he's gone blond, it's probably time for me to offer a few additional thoughts.

    David wrote to say, "At a conference last year, you told me you liked my writing but couldn't represent me because the timing was bad. What does that actually mean? I hear a lot of people talk about timing in publishing, but I have to admit I'm not sure what they're referencing."

    David, I think I remember your submission. I think I even remember seeing your eyes glaze over when I uttered the dreaded "timing" phrase. Sorry. Rejecting material that shows promise is one of the hardest parts of this business — especially when Chip and I rail on about how important good writing is. I must have thought your writing showed promise or I wouldn't have said so. Take whatever encouragement you can from those words and keep at it.

    Here's the deal regarding the "timing" comment: I only have so many hours in the day, and I simply can't take on too many projects which I know will take an extraordinary amount of time to sell. So sometimes I'm already working with a similar project, and it's the wrong time to take on another. Other times I like a project, but it smacks of something that is already out there, so the timing is all wrong. There are many facets of the job of agenting, but when it comes down to it, selling my authors' manuscripts is how I make my living, how I serve my clients, and how I keep Chip happy (well… that and occasionally telling him how young he looks).

    Let me offer an example… I've been working with an author whose story is unique and haunting and charming, and who I think has a great future. I've been showing her proposal

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  • February 8, 2009

    Sandra Shares a Word


    Hey, now that Chip's off sunning himself in Maui, I figure it's a good time to jump in and answer a few questions. I'm Sandra Bishop, the other agent at MacGregor Literary. 

    Here's one from Angel: "It seems like the books that do well and are worth reading are those which are big surprises. Is it really possible to set out to write a breakout novel? Don't breakouts just happen because a publisher decides to get behind a book and doggedly promote it until it gets noticed?"

    There's some of that going on in publishing — Chip wrote about the practice of "Making a Book" not too long ago. But that, obviously, is out of a writer's control. I'm guessing what you really want to know, Angel, is how to write a book publishers are willing to get behind. 

    For those who don't know, literary agent Donald Maas wrote a great book in which he goes into the why's and how-to's of writing a breakout novel. In his book, Maas covers the reasons, mechanics, and philosophies behind doing so. It's worth a read, and definitely worth the money. If it's mechanics you want, go get his book. But I'm guessing you're not necessarily asking about mechanics with this question. We get this a lot in many different forms, and most people seem to be asking, "Is it really possible to make it big as a writer, and should I bother spending my time trying?"

    Here's my short answer to that question: If you're crazy enough to try, go for it. Seriously. Publishing is a crazy business in which to try and make a living. But if you're willing, and have talent, and the energy to keep after it without losing your marbles, more power to you. Lots of people talk about and work at writing, but never really get down to honing the craft. The thing is, we can
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  • January 28, 2009

    Talking Agent Trash


    Wow. My last post seems to have upset some people.

    I had eleven authors write and ask a form of this: "You mean when the agent said to me, 'We like this, but we want you to talk with our editorial department in order to get your manuscript in shape,' he was scamming me?"

    My response: If the agent was selling you editorial services that he gets a commission from, then yes. At best the agent was violating the Association of Author Representatives' code of ethics. At worst he was trying to make money off you when he knew he wouldn't be able to sell your manuscript. There's also been a slew of literaryagents who charge authors for media training, marketing efforts, and all sorts of other stuff. It's wrong — but these agents don't belong to AAR, they don't have any training from an experienced agent, so they don't even realize what they're doing is improper.

    Look, in recent years we've seen an explosion of people calling themselves "literary agents," though many don't have any sort of formal or informal training, nor were they mentored by a successful agent. They don't really understand the role of a literary agent. But the growth of certain genres (and Christian fiction in particular) over the past five or six years motivated them to hang out a shingle and announce they were now "agents." In other words, they saw it as easy money. And a lot of authors, who were looking for an agent to help them, signed on. Some even got their books published. But I'll tell you something: these folks don't know what they're doing. When I see a manuscript that is a good idea but not quite ready for prime time, I might send them to an editor — but I won't be making money off the deal. If they need marketing help, I'll either provide it or introduce them to a good publicist – but it won't be someone who

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  • January 26, 2009

    New Talk About Agents


    Recently I've had a number of questions come to me about literary agents…

    Diane wrote to ask, "Where can an author find out about good and bad agents?"

    I can suggest an author do several things, Diane. Check out the information at AgentQuery.com. You'll find facts and details about agents, as well as good writer resources. The folks at TheWritersWorkshop and the blog at GuideToLiteraryAgents.com are also helpful, and try to keep writers up to date on problem literary agencies. Every year Chuck Sambuchino does his Guide to Literary Agents with Writers Digest Books, and the 2009 version is filled with great information (including an article I wrote on the new directions in Christian fiction). There are several books that list agents by genre, and the online "Publishers Marketplace" tracks which agents are actually doing deals. That should give you some real-world perspective. Finally, Bill Martin runs AgentResearch.com, which tries to track agents, deals, and any insider information he can find.

    One site you really should visit is Preditors & Editors (you'll find them at anotherrealm.com/ prededitors) . I'm always surprised to discover writers don't know about this site, but it tracks the scam artists in this business. A second site that tries to weed out the bad agents is Write Beware (go to sfwa.org/beware/agents). Both of these grew out of speculative fiction authors getting scammed, and both do a good job of naming names and offering real world advice. And, of course, you can always go to a writing conference and ask around. You can glean a lot of information by talking with an editor about who they do repeat business with, and who they have decided to not pursue.

    Randall sent this: "I sent in a proposal to a literary agency I had met at a conference. I got back a letter stating that my proposal 'isn't ready for representation,' but the letter also encouraged me to

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  • January 19, 2009

    Catching Up On Questions


    Okay, I'm up and around and not taking pain pills today, so let me try and catch up on a handful of publishing questions…

    Carol wrote and said, "You've said quite a bit about platforms lately, but can you tell us how an agent or publisher determines the value of a particular writer's platform? For example, is there a certain number of listeners they want to see for an author who has a radio show? Or a certain number of subscribers to an online program? Are they looking for a certain size of audience for speakers? How are such things decided?"

    Generally speaking, the larger your actual audience, the better your platform is in the publisher's eyes.  An "actual audience" is the number of people with whom you've had a point of contact in the past year — they came to hear you speak, or bought your book, or sent a donation to your organization, or actually listened to your show. (This is in comparison to a "potential audience," which is "the number of people who could have listened to your show." Radio and TV types love talking about a potential audience, because if you have a TV show on cable, it has a potential audience of billions…but that won't do you any good if nobody is actually watching.) That means you may have to dig a bit in order to find your actual audience numbers.

    If you speak, this is easy to determine — you figure out how many times you spoke and how many people came to hear you. If you've got a newspaper column, it's fair to offer the paper's paid circulation as your audience. If you have a popular blog, your host  service should be able to tell you the number of hits and distinct page views you've had. If you're on local radio, Arbitron can tell you the size of your audience. If you're on local TV, your station will have

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  • January 16, 2009

    A Bit Detained… (Updated)


    Sorry for the delay in posting, but I was in a bad car accident. I was taking a field trip to visit some publishers with a bunch of graduating college seniors, we slid on a snowy road and had a very bad wreck. I'll post in a day or two (when I'm not in a vicodin-induced haze).

    UPDATE: Thanks to everyone for the prayers and best wishes. I'm doing better today. Sore everywhere, and still having problems in my abdomen, but the doctors tell me I'll be okay in a week or two. All 19 students who were with me are doing okay — 12 of them went to the hospital, and there were bumps and bruises, a cracked rib, and one person with some internal injuries, but overall we came out of well. If you'd seen the van, you wouldn't believe it. An 8-car accident, with several of the vehicles totaled. Not only did we hit the semi, but we were then rear-ended by the car behind us, and the van began burning right away. Everybody got out in the nick of time, since the fire spread rapidly and burned the vehicle to a shell. There were some real heroes at the scene (my thanks to Molly for immediately helping get people to safety). Just happy it wasn't worse. Again, I appreciate all your prayers. I'll be fine.

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  • January 11, 2009

    Building a Platform


    I've had a bunch of questions on "platforms" recently, so let me try and tackle them…

    Richard wrote to ask, "What is an author platform? How would you describe it?"

    An author platform is simply who you are and what you're known for. If you have expert credentials, or you speak around the country on a topic, or you're known by the media as a source of information on a specific issue, you have an obvious platform. All of that will help to create buzz for your book, and reaching readers is what good marketing is all about.

    I think there are two sides to understand the notion of "platforms." First, who you are in relation to your topic. If you're a recognized expert at your topic, you've got a good platform. Let me offer an example… If Warren Buffett wanted to do a book on How to Invest in Today's Stock Market, publishers would be interested because every investor recognizes Buffett's abilty to make money buying stocks. His expertise with the topic is evident. But that's not the only thing needed — there are plenty of investors who have done well and become fabulously wealthy, even in a bad economy. They know their topic, but that's only half the equation.

    The second part of understanding a platform is who you are in relation to your readers. Warren Buffett doesn't just know his material, he is known by his potential readership. Most investors recognize the name from his interviews, his letters to stockholders, his appearances in the media. He is an expert, but he's also known by potential book-buyers as an expert. Both aspects are important for an author to capture the attention of a publisher.

    In a related vein, Jim wants to know, "The topic of author platforms concerns me because I don't see myself as having a great platform for launching my book. How much consideration (by agents and

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  • January 5, 2009

    And still MORE fiction questions…


    Continuing our discussion about fiction in today's marketplace…

    Rick wrote to say, "I recently read a nonfiction author with excellent writing skills… but then I read her fiction, and found it atrocious. How rare is the ability to write both fiction and nonfiction? Why can't some NF writers transfer the skill over to a novel?"

    In his National Book Award-wining memoir, Growing Up, Russell Baker tells the story of winning a Pulitzer Prize for his political column in the New York Times, telling his mother, and having her respond with, "That's great Rusty — maybe now you can write a novel and become a real writer." Ouch. I don't know why it is some writers don't see themselves as "complete" until they've published a novel. I made my living as a NF writer for years, and never felt I had to do fiction in order to justify my writing. But many do… and with the growth of fiction in recent years, many have felt pressure to write a novel. Frankly, I think it's self-imposed pressure, or maybe just egotism, and it's stupid – akin to the lead singer of Great Big Sea deciding he's got to sing an aria from La Boheme in order to be "a real singer."  

    Writing a novel and writing a nonfiction book are different tasks. Each requires voice and content and clarity, but one is basically telling a good story, and the other is basically sharing information. (It's a fair argument to say that writing a NF book also requires telling a good story, but there's a difference — a NF book is not just a story. It's often sharing history, or encouraging life change, or offering insight and principles to do something more effectively.) I'd argue that the two tasks require some different skills. When working on a NF book, I didn't have to think about characters or setting or story arc. And a novelist doesn't have to think about

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  • January 3, 2009

    More Fiction Questions


    Happy New Year! I hope you had a fun-filled celebration, got home safely, and this morning you're probably asking the same question I am: What in the world is ABC thinking by having Dick Clark on the air? Look, I loved Dick Clark's American Bandstand. He's an iconic figure in American music, and looked 25 for roughly 40 years. But…the man had a stroke, for goodness' sake. You can't understand him. He's lost his voice. He sometimes can't think of the word he wants. He screwed up the countdown as the ball dropped (how hard is it to count down from 30?). It's like watching somebody's ancient grandpa on TV. Yikes. It makes you sad just to watch him. Why doesn't somebody put their arm around the man and say, "Times up, Mr. Clark. You've had a great run. Now we're going to let Ryan Seacrest run it on his own…"

    And with that happy opening, I've had a bunch more fiction questions come in…

    Patricia wrote and asked, "What's the difference between a fiction 'series' and a 'trilogy'? I understand in a series each book must stand alone, but what about a trilogy? It's all one big story broken up into sections, therefore each book does not stand alone. If you pick up the second or third book in a trilogy, you'll be lost because you need to start from the beginning…like the Lord of the Rings."

    A series is a list of books that generally have a continuing character, though sometimes it's the place that continues, or it's a family saga with various characters all related. John D. MacDonald's wonderful Travis McGee series is a great example, featuring the yacht-living fixer getting in and out of scrapes. Sherlock Holmes, Jules Maigret, and Adam Dalgleish are other well-known examples of series characters, as are the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Nick Carter, Perry Mason, etc. The 82nd Precinct series uses a setting

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