Category : Questions from Beginners

  • February 7, 2012

    What do you need to know about literary agents?


    Donna wrote to say, "I heard an agent speak at our writing group. He sounded interesting, so I went to his website, which is interesting but I wasn't sure I could trust it. You have to contract with them for a year and pay an up-front fee of $195, though it's not clear if that is per project for for all your works. Is that the usual course?"

    Yikes. Several thoughts come to mind… First, don't go to any agent that asks for an up-front fee. That screams rip-off. I don't know of any credible literary agent who asks you to send him or her a check right off the bat. You can't be a member of AAR by charging fees, and you'll get listed in "Predators and Editors" if you do. Stay away from fee-based agents. (And if you're interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book Ten Percent of Nothing, which offers a fine expose' of scam agents.) Second, you don't want to sign up with an agent you know nothing about. Websites are marketing tools, and some of them over-promise when in reality the agent will under-deliver. I can claim anything I want on my website (that I'm the best agent in history, that I'll make you a million dollars, that I look exactly like Brad Pitt), but if we don't know each other, and if we've never met, HOW IN THE WORLD DO YOU KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE? Be cautious over sites that over-promise. (For the record, I look exactly like Brad Pitt. Especially if you stand far away. And squint. And are blind.) Third, be wary of agents trolling for business by sending you advertisements. It's one thing to meet someone at a conference, or to begin a dialogue over a submission you've sent in — most of the authors we represent we met somewhere and had a discussion with, or they were introduced to us by

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  • February 3, 2012

    What you've always wanted to ask the Agent


    I've been receiving a number of questions about authors and agents, so I wanted to take a few weeks to explore agenting. Glenna wrote to ask, "How long does it usually take for an agent to respond after receiving a requested manuscript?"

    Everybody is different. I try to respond to people within a month, but this past fall it seemed to take me two or three months before I could read and react to all the submissions. If you'll check out the web site of literary agents, most will offer some sort of timeline in the two-to-four month range. I've heard stories of authors having proposals in to agents for eight or nine months, but my response to that would be: "Maybe you aren't picking up the hint." Look, if you've had something in with an agent for six months, and they haven't so much as responded to your idea, it's clearly not ringing their bell. Move on.

    I should also note that I have a couple people who work for me who review manuscripts. Like most longtime literary agents, I don't promise to read everything that gets sent to my company. I work with a couple people who have great editorial eyes, and they frequently take a first look at stuff coming in over the transom. And if something isn't a fit, we may not respond at all. (In fact, it may not be read at all if it's written in crayon, is a retelling of the Book of Revelation, or warns me that I'll go to hell if I dont immediately read and get excited about the idea. Just so you know.)

    This question came from Janet: "If an agent has asked you to send in a manuscript, is it wrong to continue sending out queries to other agents?"

    Not in my book. The way I look at it, if I'm taking a couple months to review a manuscript

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  • January 17, 2012

    A Series of Fortunate Events – a guest blog from Gina Holmes


    It's not everyday that a debut novel becomes a bestseller, which is perhaps why people are curious as to why and how Crossing Oceans made its way on to the CBA, ECPA, Amazon, and PW Religion lists. 

    Anyone who regularly follows the bestseller lists for a few months will notice that while the book titles change, the authors rarely do. People like Ted Dekker, Francine Rivers, Karen Kingsbury, etc show up there over and over—making it difficult for a new name to squeeze in. (This is true in the CBA as well as the general market).

    There is, of course, no single way to turn a book into a bestseller. If there were, everyone would be doing it with every book. I can’t speak for the rest of debut novelist’s who were lucky enough to break in, but this is how it went for me:

    ·      I had a champion.

    Actually several. It started with a top-notch agent, Chip MacGregor, who championed the book and sold it to Tyndale House. Karen Watson, Associate Publisher there, read a partial manuscript and became passionate about it. She took a risk and gave an untried author a chance.

     This wouldn’t have happened though if the idea had been poorly executed. It took years to hone my skills. Over the course of ten years, I'd written several manuscripts that were ultimately rejected, read every how-to writing book I could get my hands on, and aligned with the toughest critique partners I could find. 

    Lucky for me, the rest of the team at Tyndale House also got excited and additional resources were thrown at the book. One "higher-up" from Tyndale commented it was one of the best debuts he’d  ever read. That’s the kind of excitement that helps sell a book.

    ·      I had a great editor.

     I doubt I have to convince writers how important this is. Kathy Olson saw my vision for the

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  • January 16, 2012

    How is money paid on a book contract?


    Cherice wrote in to ask, "Can you explain how money is paid on a book publishing contract? I've got a contract in front of me, and I don't understand it."

    Happy to, Charice. First, most authors are paid an advance against royalties when signing a book contract. There's a long tradition of publishers paying advances to authors, since it allows the author to survive while he or she is working on a book. This isn't free money — it's sort of a no-interest loan that will be earned back after your book releases. Let's say the contract calls for a total advance of $20,000. Typically you'd get one-third of this on signing, another third upon turning in the completed work, and the last third upon publication. (That said, there are a million ways to divide the advance. Some pay half on signing, some pay a percentage when the author completes the bio and marketing forms, etc.) So when your book releases, you're now in the red $20,000 to the publisher. You've been paid that amount, but you haven't earned anything back yet. 

    Second, as your book sells you are credited with  money for each sale. That's your royalty money, and with each sale it slowly reduces that $20,000 debt. Most trade publishers in the general market (that would include Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, etc.) pay a standard royalty on hardcover books: 10% of the book's retail price on the first 5000 copies sold, 12.5% on the next 5000 copies sold, and 15% thereafter. Royalties for most trade-paper books are 7.5% of the retail price, and mass market books pay a bit less than that. (Be aware: Most CBA publishers don't pay on the retail price of the book — they pay on the net price, which is the amount of money the publisher actually receives from the bookstore. And you negotiate royalties on each book.

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  • October 11, 2010

    Getting To Know Us


    We've had a bunch of "get to know you" questions lately, so I thought I'd group several of them together…

    Andrew wrote to say, "You used to be a publisher with Time-Warner — why did you go back to agenting?"


    I love agenting. I enjoy working closely with authors, doing book development, planning careers, and spending time talking over projects. Actually, I never really got comfortable in my role as publisher – I always felt like a “suit.” Much happier being back on the agenting side of the desk.  

    Janice asked this: "It seems like you and Sandra have had a lot of success in a short time — to what do you owe your success?"

     Most likely it’s my good looks and Scottish heritage. But aside from that, I have a pretty good eye for writing. And let’s face it – an agent is only as good as the authors he or she represents. If I’ve had good success, it’s because I’ve had the privilege of representing really good writers. Go to my web site, select any author, and read a novel… all of them can write. That’s the main reason I’ve been successful.  

    Jim wants to know, "What types of projects do you get excited about?"

    always tell authors at writers’ conferences that I’m looking for “books that change me.” It’s true. I get excited about reading a book that will leave me changed, since I know it will have the potential to significantly impact readers. I also look for a strong voice – your book shouldn’t sound like everyone else’s book. If there’s great writing, a strong voice, and a message that has the potential to change me as a reader, I know I’ve got a winner.

    Dana asked, "Are there stories that you know right away you're going to be tired of?"

    Sure – The tough-guy hero opens his eyes,
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  • September 1, 2010

    Talking Agents and Authors


     Suzanne wrote to ask, “How do agents feel about being ‘talked about’ by their clients? I rarely see published authors mention their agents in conversations, or hear them say, ‘My agent told me…’  Is there a protocol for mentioning your agent?”

    I think you should feel free to say, "Sandra Bishop is my agent” or “I’m represented by Amanda Luedeke.” Most agents don't mind at all being talked about by their authors. We might get nervous if you were giving it out to everyone at a conference ("Call my agent Chip with this idea – here’s his home number"), but aside from that, there's no problem with talking about your agent to people. However, if it makes you feel nervous, you can just pass around a note in gym class ("I like Chip – check X for 'yes' or Y for 'no'").

    Joni wrote and noted, “In a recent column, you said that agents prefer ‘proven authors.’ But then you went on to talk about how tough it is to get published without an agent. How can I be a ‘proven writer’ if I’m not published? How can I be a ‘proven writer’ if I don’t have an agent?”

    You know, on its face that might seem logically inconsistent… but it's not. At least, not in my view. What I mean by a "proven writer’ is someone who has proven themselves, whether by books, articles, a blog, e-zines, curricula, or what have you. Someone who has done enough writing to prove himself or herself to me. If you haven't proven you can write, then you're going to have a hard time finding an agent. That's what I meant. Not just proven by doing books, but proven as in "she has proved to everyone she can write, and she knows it."

    Writing fiction has its own set of issues, and it's very hard to prove yourself apart from doing some books.

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  • August 4, 2010

    Making Yourself Comfortable


    Dana asked an interesting question: "What kinds of physical challenges have you faced in the daunting regimen of writing, and how have you compensated?"

    I don’t know that I’ve found the writing and agenting life to be all that daunting, but I can share with you Ten Tips I’ve discovered…

    1. Start an exercise program. Years ago, I simply went out and spent $200 on a Nordictrac, and I used it about 5 or 6 times per week for years. I hated it, but I felt better, had more energy, and it kept my heart pumping. Then I started running, and I still run most days. The fact is, writing and editing (and agenting) is a lot of sitting on your butt. Getting up gets your heart pumping, helps you handle stress better, and gives you more mental acuity. 

    2. Use an ergonomic keyboard. It's much easier on the hands, and it'll only take you two days to get used to. (An added benefit: you'll never again hit the the letters "n", "h", or "y" by accident with your left index finger!)

    3. Buy a good office chair. One that doesn't cut of circulation to your legs, that supports your lower back, that allows your feet to touch the floor (yeah, I'm short), and maybe even that leans you forward a bit. Then ask your spouse or co-worker to nag you about sitting up straight.

    4. Spend ten bucks on a document holder. Some of the best money you'll ever spend.

    5. Spend twenty bucks on a headset for your phone. I resisted this for years…now I LOVE my headset.

    6. Learn to take breaks every hour. At those breaks, stand up and move around, and stretch out your hands.

    7. Face your screen sideways to the window, not in front of it or beside it. That way your eyes aren’t fighting light from the window with light from the

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  • July 22, 2010

    How to Study the Market


    Clovis asked, "If you are seeking a market for a particular idea, how do you study the market? What steps are critical in matching the work to the right publisher? How much do you rely on the guidelines, samples, catalogs, etc.? And what other sources are helpful?"

    My answer: If you want to take steps like this , get to know the industry. I can think of a number of things that would help a writer do that…

    1. Read frequently.

    2. Read outside your genre (for example, if you’re a CBA person, read books outside of CBA).

    3. Study the bestseller lists (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, your local newspaper — all have them). Spend time on and to see what's selling.

    4. Note who publishes the books you read and the books on the bestseller lists. (In case you haven't figured it out, not all publishing houses were created equal.)

    5. Take a look at trade journals to find what's hot/what's not/what's happening. These journals would include Publishers Weekly, the email version of Publishers Daily, maybe Library Journal, or Christian Retailing, or Writers Digest, possibly Bookstore Journal. You may also glean some good information in some entertainment journals.

    6. Keeps tabs on the economic climate of publishing and bookselling. Right now everybody is talking about what bad shape the industry is in… but this year there will probably be more book pages published and sold than ever before in history.

    7. It's important that you study a publisher before sending anything to them. Harvest House may be the right place for your gift book, but it's the wrong place for your commentary on Habakkuk. So go to web sites and read catalogues to figure out who publishes what. If you research the house and its list, you'll be better able to target the right publisher.

    8. Check out market resources like the Writer's

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  • April 22, 2010

    Agent Questions (and cool news!)


    Darlene asked an agent question: "I've been working with an agent I was introduced to at a conference, but I'm not sure she knows what she's doing…nor do I know what she should be doing for me. It seems like I basically did the deal myself. Can you help me?"

    Sure. A good agent should (1) give you career advice, (2) introduce you to people you don't already have connections with, such as editors and publishers and marketers, (3) offer wisdom on book ideas and writing, (4) help give guidance on your marketing, (5) negotiate your contract [and do a good job of it], (6) ensure contract compliance, and (7) be your insider — the person who knows the industry and offers some experienced wisdom, serving as your advocate when necessary, taking on the hard issues and conversations when necessary. I suppose many times the agent also serves as the author's friend and encourager, though that doesn't always happen. If you ended up basically doing the deal yourself — well, that's a shame. It happens sometimes, but you probably need to have a conversation with the agent and clarify expectations, Darlene. 

    Bobbie asked this: "How do agents feel about writers following up on a query or proposal submission? What is an acceptable time period to wait before following up?"

    Well, I TRY to get back to people within three weeks. The fact is, I’m often much faster. But I'll admit that I hate having people send me short notes in order to remind me that I’ve failed them (“I sent you my proposal a month ago!”). Those folks have forgotten that I don’t owe them a reading. If I agree to read their proposal, it’s because I choose to. (Sorry if I sound cranky, but I got two of these today, from two people I’ve never heard of. My first reaction is to say something snarky like, “Okay, if you’re

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  • February 5, 2008

    Thoughts for Beginning Writers


    A grab-bag of questions about publishing and writing today…

    Mary-Lynn wrote to ask, "What do I need to know about creating a proposal for an agent? Is it like filling out a form, or do I create the story for them to see?"

    I guess you could say that creating a proposal is a bit like filling out a form, in that there are certain elements you really need to include: title, subtitle, author bio and sales history, notes on the manuscript (word count, when it will be completed), genre and audience notes, overview of the book, table of contents or story synopsis, comparable titles, sample chapters, and marketing information. If you’re a first-time novelist, you are doubtless going to have to show the agent the entire manuscript, whereas with a nonfiction book you can still sell it based on a great proposal and some sample writings. If this is a non-fiction book, you want to show an agent what the need is for this book, why you’re writing it, and what your qualifications are for writing the book. Those are fairly universal. If it’s a novel, you want to reveal a brilliant story, interesting characters, and snappy writing. An agent isn’t usually going to agree to represent your book based solely on the idea. He or she will also want to know that you’re a fine writer, that you have other ideas, that you’re willing to help with the sale and marketing of the book, and that you’re a person who is easy to get along with. (This part doesn’t get talked about as much as it should. An agent/author relationship is similar to both a creative friendship and a business partnership — so you need to be a match, or neither party is going to be happy.) If you’d like to see some sample proposals, I keep both a fiction and a non-fiction proposal on my business web

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