So this month we’re going to let you ask whatever you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent. You send me the questions (or send them to me on Facebook, or stick them in the “comments” section), and I’ll try to answer them, or get another agent to answer them. First up, some questions that came in last month…
Suppose you have a character in your novel that would be perfect for a particular actor. Should you tell your agent about it and let them handle it?
You could… but it probably won’t get very far. It’s rare that a project gets pitched to an actor in a role, unless it’s a major author with clout. (So, for example, if you had a role that was perfect for Leonardo DiCaprio, you could try and talk with his agent. Um, and you would be author #5962 who has the “perfect” role for him.)
If I have an agent, then decide to write a self-pubbed novel, how can I include my agent in the process?
This is one of the things happening in publishing these days that is still in process, so there’s no one right answer for every situation. You could ask your agent to help you with it — the editing, the copyediting, the formatting, the uploading, the cover, etc., then pay a percentage as a commission. OR you could see if your friends are producing a line of books, make it part of that line, and pay a certain commission to him or her. (For example, we helped our authors create a co-op line of clean romances.) OR you could do it all yourself and not pay the agent anything. OR you could do it yourself, but work with your agent to help with things like marketing and selling, and pay a commission.
I am brand new to the industry, and delving into the potential of writing fiction. So
A guest blog by novelist Elizabeth Musser
I’m home now. After almost twenty-five years on this writing journey, I’ve finally found my way home.
I certainly don’t mean I’ve found my permanent publishing house. I’ve had four different American publishers and four different international publishers along the way, and the book I just launched was my first indie novel.
I don’t mean I’ve finally settled into the perfect routine, finding the way to balance my 30+ year career in missions with my calling as a writer. I still juggle, after all these years.
Nor do I mean that I’ve become a savvy marketing-social-media-writing genius.
What I mean is simply I’ve come home to accept that my writing life will always be on a roller-coaster.
And boy, am I thankful to have an agent who rides that roller coaster with me.
A little over ten years ago, I met Chip at a writers’ conference. I took his Professional Writers track and greatly appreciated the advice he offered. Chip was just starting MacGregor Literary, and because of my blockbuster sales on my already-published novels, begged me to let him be my agent…
Ahem. Okay, it wasn’t exactly like that.
I was looking for an agent, but I wasn’t sure I needed an agent. I had four published novels, a contract for two more novels, and I had been working with the same acquisitions editor and substantive editor for ten years.
Didn’t I have it made?
I knew very few people in the American book industry, and I lived in France, so I wasn’t meeting many other professionals on a regular basis.
AND (foreboding music) the publishing world was changing!
So Chip took me on, fully aware that he wouldn’t even get to negotiate a contract with me for a while.
Fast forward to the present. Did I need an agent? The answer is a resounding YES in the midst of this
Over the years I’ve spoken at more than 200 writing conferences, usually talking about the publishing industry, proposals, agents, and the general notion of working as a writer in this crazy business. Recently the folks at the Profitable Authors Institute came to me with an idea… Why not record some of my sessions and make it part of a video course that writers could download?
So I did, and I’m very happy with the results. The Institute offers a bunch of good online seminars on topics like “Structure Your Book for Success” and “Independent Publishing,” and they’ve got some great, experienced people involved (including Holly Lorincz doing sessions on “How to Work with a Freelance Editor” that is fabulous). You can find out more, and see some sample clips here.
I’ve done several sessions with them, talking about traditional publishing — how to get an agent, how to write a proposal, how publishing houses work, etc. I did this introduction to my series, then recorded four talks and inserted a bunch of graphics. It’s just released, and for the grand opening they’re offering a 30% discount on the whole schlamozzle. So if you’re an author looking for an introduction to traditional publishing, you’re interested in learning about how to find an agent or how to work and make money in the publishing industry, check it out. They’ve got a really well produced series with good teachers offering sound advice. Thanks!
Longtime readers of this blog will recall that I wrote about the morons at WinePress Publishing when they threatened me with a lawsuit (you can read that story here), when it turned out they were a cult posing as a business and their Prez went to prison for raping a child (that one is here), and when it all caught up to them and they closed up shop (and that one is here). The church behind the whole charade tossed out accusations at all sorts of people (they once accused me of having contributed to the leader’s wife getting a brain tumor) and tried to damage some reputations. There were lots of authors hurt, books put into limbo, and relationships destroyed.
The one person they went after most was the woman who had first started WinePress Publishing, Athena Dean. She got involved in the church, they convinced her to cut out her family relationships, and she even turned over the publishing company to the people running their little religious operation. Eventually she realized what was going on — she was involved in a cult. When she evaluated her life, she realized the things going on at her church were the very definition of a religious cult: cut off from her family; involved in an insular little group of religious types with a charismatic leader who was largely unaccountable to any outside authorities; the leader dictated how members should act; the church offered a unique interpretation of scripture; dissent was strongly discouraged; there was preoccupation with making money; they maintained an us-vs-them mentality; members were encouraged to give an inordinate amount of time and money to the group; outside relationships were discouraged; and the ends justified the means (so they could, for example, create entire websites aimed at attacking individuals).
The attacks on Athena were personal and sharp. They detailed her divorce, situations she’d revealed to people in
Erin Buterbaugh is filling in for Chip today and has some great thoughts to share…
A lot of new authors I get emails from give the impression that the query/agent search is the culmination of their writing journey– they’ve written the book, maybe had it professionally edited, polished their query letter, and now the end of the road is in sight, nothing left to do but wait for an agent to say yes and hand over the reins, right? A little bit of tunnel vision is understandable; after all, you DO have to spend a substantial amount of time and mental energy getting your project in the best shape possible and getting it out to an agent, but when an interested agent wants to talk about the project and about your career goals, it’s important for you to be able to think beyond just whether or not that agent is going to say “yes” and give them the information they need to be able to judge whether you’re really ready for the next step in your career and whether their approach to agenting will be a good fit for you. Here are three questions/considerations that frequently seem to take authors by surprise when I ask.
1. What are you working on now/what do you want to do next?
I want to work with authors long-term, and help them build careers, not just pursue a single deal based on a single title so the author can cross “publish a book” off his bucket list, so I hesitate to take on even a great project from an author who has no idea what she wants to do next, or who isn’t already doing it. Sure, there are a few authors that just have one story to tell, but these are usually non-fiction projects and are the exception, not the rule. Think Aron Ralston, the guy who had to cut off his own
I’ve recently had a couple people write to ask me about speaker bureaus — How do they work? What do they make? Are they worth it?
Over the last twenty years, I’ve worked with numerous speaker bureaus to try and get speaking engagements for authors. Like any other business, the quality varies greatly. Some have been good; others have been terrible. Let me offer some thoughts…
First, a good speaker’s bureau is pro-active, not re-active. This is really the biggest complaint people have about most speaker bureaus. An author will sign with them, give them permission to get them engagements, then wait. A good bureau will make calls and try to find new places for an author to speak. A bad bureau sits and waits for the phone to ring. (And if that’s all your speaker’s bureau is doing, you can simply have your own phone ring.)
Second, a good speaker’s bureau provides support, not just basic information. A good bureau captures all the details. They tell the author where they are needed, when, how they’ll get there, and where they’ll be staying. They’ll offer to help with travel, offer details on how many times the author is expected to speak, on what topics, under what circumstances, and to how many people. A bad bureau simply gives the date and time.
Third, a good speaker’s bureau will work for their money. Most bureaus take 20% of the speaker fees. So if you’re being paid $3000 to speak at a conference, the speaker’s bureau will want $600 of it… and for that sort of money, you’d expect they would work hard for it, try hard to land new engagements, make sure the proposed gigs were a good fit, and spend some time negotiating the deal to try and maximize it. For the record, I rarely find that to be the case. Many wait for the phone to ring, tend to always
Someone wrote to ask, “What is the author’s responsibility to the facts when writing a historical novel?” She noted she was writing about historical events, but wanted to know if she could change them. In a related note, someone else asked, “What is the ethical line between historical fiction and history?”
As I’ve said on previous occasions, I don’t think there is a line connecting fiction and history. Really. A novelist who is creating a story and weaving in actual people and events probably owes some debt to the reader to try and get the basic historical facts correct, I suppose (though even that is a questionable supposition, and many authors have altered facts and dates in order to tell a better story), but a novel isn’t a textbook. It doesn’t have a restriction that “you must have all your facts correct” or “you must accept the commonly held notions about a character’s motivations.” The author is inventing a story to entertain, or to explore themes and motivations, not to teach history.
So, while I wouldn’t create a story in which the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on July 11, I see nothing wrong with an author creating a story depicting an interesting twist — that Roosevelt knew about the attack ahead of time, or that the attack was a rogue group of Japanese military, or that it was all a mistake done by aliens who were looking for Hawaiian shirts and a great recipe for mai tai’s.
It’s a novel. You can choose to tie events closely to historical facts, or you can choose to recreate history as you see fit in order to entertain readers. Have a look at the Quentin Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds — in which the patrol sent to kill Nazis take out Adolph Hitler and the entire leadership of the Nazi party in a fire they set in a movie theater. (Um, for those who
Someone wrote to say, “I’ve been offered a contract on my novel. Since I don’t have an agent, should I seek one at this point? And if the agent accepts, should he or she still receive 15% of the deal, even if they didn’t market my book or secure the deal for me? Would it be better to have the agent simply review the contract for a fee?”
There’s quite a debate about this issue. I suppose many agents would say, “Sure — call me!” They’d be happy to get 15% for a deal they’ve done no work on. But my advice would be to think long term. Is there an agent you like and trust — someone you want to work with in the long term? If so, call him or her. Talk about the situation. Explain that you’ve already got a deal. The agent may be willing to take less in order to work with you. They may review the contract for a fee. They may have some insight into your situation. But don’t sign with someone just because you think you need an agent and someone is willing to say yes. If, for example, you’ve got a $10,000 advance coming, make sure it’s worth the $1500 to have the agent assist with this contract. Sure, it may be worth it — if you’ve got a complex situation, or a novel that is going to be made into a movie, or a potential bestseller… those probably call for a good agent to get involved.
That said, it doesn’t really seem fair to me to take the full comission for a book I didn’t sell, though not everyone in the industry agrees with me. You can always talk with a contract-review specialist, who will review your contract for a flat fee (usually somewhere in the $500-to-$1000 range). You can also talk with an intellectual property rights attorney, but
A regular reader of the blog sent in this question: What can a new author do to get noticed by an agent or editor?
The most essential thing you can do as someone new to the industry is to be a great writer, of course. All the agents and editors have seen wannabe writers who are anxious to get published, but haven’t put in the time to really learn the craft. We see stories that have plot problems, shallow story lines, weak characters, bad dialogue, tons of description… And the surprising thing to me is that I’ll sometimes see that from a writer at a conference who is pushing hard for representation.
It’s why I’ll frequently ask people at a face-to-face meeting, “What’s your goal for this meeting?” I mean, some people at a conference are looking for me to react to their story. Others want to show me some writing and interact a bit on it. Some people just have questions about the business or their career. But if a writer sits down at a ten minute meeting and expects an agent to offer representation, that’s probably unrealistic. A much more realistic goal would be to have a discussion about the salability of your work, and see if the agent or editor wants to take a more in-depth look at some later date. Maybe have you email the manuscript to him or her.
If you want to get noticed at a conference, show up for your appointment on time. Dress professionally. Have a brief pitch prepared, and make sure you’ve actually practiced it out loud, so you know what you’re going to say. (Your family will think you’ve gone crazy for talking to yourself in the basement… but that’s okay. If you want to be a writer, you probably already qualify as “crazy.”) Do some research on the agents, to make sure you can target your pitch. (I’ve lost
I recently had an online discussion with a writers’ group, and they had several questions for me…
What are the three most important things you look for in a query?
A strong writing voice, clarity of argument (if nonfiction) or story (if fiction), and author platform.
How important are queries to your agency?
I use them as ways to look for talent. Of the queries that come in cold (that is, not introduced by authors I already represent, and not someone I met and spoke with at a conference), the percentage of queries that turn into clients is very, very low.
What experience is worth mentioning in a query?
Anything you’ve had published is worth mentioning. Anything that reveals a big platform is worth mentioning.
Do you think going to conferences and making connections is a better way to meet agents than querying them?
Absolutely. Being face to face with someone, in order to gauge personality and likability and trust, is far more important than choosing someone off the web. I think going to conferences is a GREAT way to connect with agents and editors.
What subjects and genres are currently overdone in the queries you see?
I don’t know that anything is overdone at the moment. Tastes change. Every generation needs its own voices. We see new ideas break out, and we’re always surprised. I know some people will say “dystopian is overdone,” or “Amish fiction is overdone.” They might be… until somebody creates one that sells well. (Having noted this, I’ll admit I hate the question, which get frequently. The fact is, we’re always surprised at the latest breakout hit.)
Which genres do you think deserve a comeback? What genres would you like to see in queries?
Beats me what deserves a comeback. Chick-lit is making a comeback, now known as romantic comedy. I suppose I’d like to see westerns and spy novels make a comeback.