Clarice wrote to ask, "When is it appropriate to inquire on the status of a submission to an editor or agent? I sent something in to an agent four months ago, but have yet to hear."
Keep in mind that every agent has his or her own system. I try to get to submissions once a week, but sometimes I go three or four weeks between looking. And that's just for a quick look — if I like something, I have to read it through, and that means I could have it for a month or two before I can give the author a firm response. In my experience, most agents would like to have two or three months to consider a proposal before they render a "yes" or "no." During busy times (like Christmas, summer vacation, and stints at rehab), it may take longer. So if you sent a project to an agent four months ago, and she hasn't responded to you, it might be very appropriate just to drop a friendly note — something like, "Hello, I'm just checking back with you on that proposal I sent you a few months back. I was wondering if you've had a chance to look it over yet. I know you're busy, so thanks very much for giving it your consideration."
On a related note, Hank wrote to complain that an agent hadn't responded to his proposal in a year… but when I checked with Hank, he noted that he'd never met the agent, nor had he queried via email or letter. In other words, he had just sent in a proposal cold. And that leads me to ask,"Where is it written that an agent must respond to you just because you wrote to him or her?"
Answer: It isn't. An agent isn't obligated to respond to everyone who writes him or her. I've got a job to do, and time is money, so I really can't take the time to read every project somebody sends in cold. I don't feel that's a deriliction of my duty, either — I simply don't believe that I owe every writer a favor. With MacGregor Literary, I state very clearly on my company website that I'm not looking for unsolicited proposals. Still, people send them. I also state on my site that I don't have time to read every project coming in over the transom, and that I don't return unsolicited proposals, even if they come with a postage-paid envelope. It's just not my job to take responsibility for someone else's idea. Still, I have people I've never heard of write to complain that I didn't respond, or that I didn't return materials — as though their decision to mail me something puts a burden on me, merely because I work as a literary agent. Wrong. I generally represent people I know — maybe we met at a conference, or they were a referral from a current author… but it's a very rare thing for an agent to yank something out of a slushpile and offer an agency agreement. So make sure you have realistic expectations, Hank.
Cecelia wrote and said, "I've noticed more authors using the term bestseller or bestselling author in their materials. Is there a rule about this? Must an author make an established bestseller list in order to use that term?"
Absolutely, Ceclia. An author needs to have a book that hits a recognized bestseller list in order to claim he or she is a "bestselling" author. That would mean your book needs to land on a legitimate bestseller list like the New York Times list, the LA Times, the Denver Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Barnes & Noble's list, or the Amazon Top 100. (It's also fine to note that you had a book land in your regional paper — say the Portland Oregonian or the Cincinnati Enquirer, though those lists don't quite have the same cachet as the major lists.) Several outlets (Publishers Weekly, CBA, etc) release their own bestseller list every month, and a few track the various genres as well as offering an overall "top 50 titles" in terms of sales. So if an author claims to be a "bestseller" in her proposal, she needs to be able to back that up with evidence of hitting a list.
By the way, BookScan is the reporting vehicle for most bookstores. Many CBA and religious bookstores use a different tracking system, called Stats. These are supposed to track book sales by ISBN number, and create a reporting data base for publishers. But one of the reasons this can confuse authors is because some books can sell incredibly well and never have their sales reported. Books sold in Sam's Club and Costco, for example, are not reported to any bestseller tracking system — so you could sell 100,000 copies and never appear on a bestseller list. The recent success of The Shack is a good example — the book moved a couple hundred thousand copies through alternative sales channels before any reporting store picked it up and began noting sales, so it had sold a bazillion copies and never appeared on a bestseller list. Once it was trackable, it hit #1 in the religion category. It's reasonable to ask the question, "Would it have been fair for the author of The Shack to declare himself a bestselling author prior to making the list?" Maybe… but that's not the way the system works.
Barbara wrote and noted, "You have advised authors to spend some serious cash in order to create a dynamite website. Can you tell me how many zeroes serious cash has? And are there templates or places a prospective author could view in order to begin making plans?"
I think a good website can be a great marketing tool. We used to think of sites as akin to a highway billboard — something you drove by, read, and moved on. But now sites are incredibly useful tools — a way to stay on top of the industry, communicate with readers, and let people know about books and speaking events. They have also proven to be content-centered — so if you have a plumbing company, you don't just say "great rates and quality service" like you might in a yellow pages ad. With a website, you'll have suggestions for fixing common plumbing problems, a place to ask questions, introductions to the company, a way to schedule an appointment, maybe even a "history of plumbing." In other words, the site has become the repository for information. It's why we've quickly become a nation of readers again. And it's always changing. We just updated our corporate site and added Twitter and Facebook, and we're going to move this blog from Typepad to WordPress soon.
If you're an author who speaks, wants to stay in touch with readers, and can devote time to it, your marketing people will probably encourage you to create a good website. And it will mean you can expect to spend somewhere in the $3000 to $5000 range. You can go cheaper, of course (some places offer a do-it-yourself site for $99), but you get what you pay for. And you can spend a heck of a lot more, too. If you're interested, check out my company site – www.MacGregorLiterary.com. I've got what I consider to be a dynamite website for a literary agency, and I get compliments on it all the time… but I can't take any of the credit. The guy who created it for me is Nick Francis at Project83 in Nashville. (A free plug, Nick.) There are thousands of experts you can talk to about establishing a strong site — there's no reason to have a crummy website any more. If you want to check out author sites, visit my "authors" page and start clicking. You'll find all sorts of authors with a variety of styles and choices to their sites.
As always, if you've got a question about books or writing or publishing, send it in and we'll try to answer it for you.