• April 12, 2016

    Ask the Agent: How can I do a novel series?


    The month of April is set aside for “Ask the Agent” — your chance to finally ask that question you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent. In the comments section the other day, someone asked, “If you’re writing a series of three books, how do you find an agent and publisher that will take on all three if they only have the manuscript for the first one? Are there things they look for — outlines of the two remaining books, rough drafts, notes on where you’ll be going with the series?”

    Okay… What is easier to sell, a car or a fleet of cars? Normally I try to sell ONE book, then, at some point, see if we can extend the deal. It’s daunting to have someone sit down across from me at a conference and announce they’ve created a twelve-book series (which has happened to me), since something like that is going to be nearly impossible to sell. So focus on one book, and make the manuscript as strong as possible.

    Make sure you understand that a true “series” is one continuous story, told over the course of multiple titles. That’s tougher to get a publisher to commit to, since it means they’ll have to do all the books to tell the whole tale. It’s usually easier for a publisher to commit to doing several related titles — not one story told over multiple books, but multiple stories that share a setting and some characters.

    Of course, no matter which direction you go, each book in the series has to have a satisfying ending. Each book has to feel complete, so a reader can pick it up and enjoy the novel, even if they never read the other, related books.

    Another thing to understand that novel series go in and out of vogue. For a while, everybody wanted series, so it seemed like every negotiation

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  • April 11, 2016

    Ask the Agent: What are my odds of getting published?


    We’re doing “Ask the Agent” for the entire month of April — you can ask the question you’ve always wanted to explore with an experienced literary agent, and I’ll be happy to discuss it with you. Last week somebody asked this: “What are the odds of getting published as a first-time author? What percentage of unpublished writers land publishing contracts?” 

    All good questions, but what I say may surprise you: I don’t think anyone knows what the odds are. I mean, I suppose you could argue that there were about 65,000 new books traditionally published last year, and that there were, I don’t know, maybe ten million proposals sent to agents and editors, and do that math… Or figure there are a couple thousand literary agents in this country, and if they all get 10,000 queries per year on average — well, as you can see, the odds are awful.

    But that’s a dumb game. The fact is, publishing isn’t a game of chance. (Or, as Stephen Leigh said so well in this piece, “It’s not a lottery.” Or, as Mark O’Bannon says in this wonderful article, “90% of your success is dependent upon your skill as an author.”) There aren’t a certain number of slots to be filled, with publishers working to figure out who to stick into those slots. Nearly every publisher I know is simply looking for good books that fit their lines, and that they can sell and make money. I realize reading that sentence may drive you insane, and I’m sorry… but it’s true. Focusing on the odds in publishing is a losing proposition. 

    So my advice would be to stop thinking about the overall odds of getting published. Instead, think about how to improve YOUR odds of getting published. I can tell you that the majority of proposals sent to MacGregor Literary are almost immediately rejected. Why? Because the writing isn’t that great,

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  • April 8, 2016

    Ask the Agent: What if my novel doesn’t fit?


    All through the month of April we’re doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask a literary agent the question you’ve always wanted to ask. Last week someone sent in this question: “If your manuscript isn’t the right fit for the agents you query, should you move on to the next book or self-publish? How do you decide if your project is good enough to go out if it doesn’t have a gatekeeper stamp of approval?”

    Your first question suggests there is a right-or-wrong answer. The fact is, if your manuscript isn’t the right fit for the agents you query, perhaps you need to query other agents. Or perhaps you need to tweak your proposal. (I’m not trying to be cruel here, but if a bunch of people have seen your proposal and all rejected it, then it’s always possible the proposal simply needs some more work.) I just don’t see this as an either/or question.

    That said, I think your second question gets to the heart of the matter: How can a writer know if his or her proposal is ready to be shown to agents and editors? And the answer is no doubt, “By getting some experienced opinions.” Taking your proposal to a critique group can help, or taking it to a couple of experienced writer friends and asking them to suggest changes. Many conferences have workshops on how to create a good proposal, and most will give you a chance to talk with editors and agents about the proposal itself — not just to pitch it, but to refine it. All of those are good options. And, of course, if you need more help, there is always this fabulous book to peruse… Pitch-Book-Cover-cropped-2

    Okay, I’ll admit… I wrote it with longtime editor Holly Lorincz, and I love the topic. There are plenty of good books out there on “how to create a good proposal.” What’s unique

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  • April 6, 2016

    Ask the Agent: Do Agents Help with Marketing?


    So we’re spending the month of April doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance as a writer to ask that question you’ve always wanted to know about, if you could only sit down, face-to-face, with a literary agent. A couple days ago, someone sent in this question: “Will an agent help me promote my book — particularly if I’m with a smaller publisher who doesn’t offer much marketing help?” 

    To me, this one is easy: Any good agent should get involved in your marketing. The fact is, the role of the agent has changed, so I can understand some old-timers arguing that the agent’s job really isn’t to get involved in the nitty-gritty of marketing. But from where I stand, marketing has become one of the most essential things I do with the authors I represent. That can mean:

    • Offering marketing training, so that authors understand the big picture of how one goes about marketing a book.
    • Helping the author clarify their target audience, their marketing goals, their strengths and weaknesses as a marketer. (Are you good at interviews? Can you do a nice job with short articles? etc)
    • Brainstorming various marketing ideas.
    • Helping the author choose the actual marketing strategies they want to pursue — AND making sure the author understands what the publisher is doing, so you can fill in the gaps instead of not duplicating efforts.
    • Following up with the publisher to make sure they actually DO what they say they’ll do.
    • Introducing the author to potential endorsers.
    • Making media connections, if appropriate.
    • Helping set up a marketing calendar, in order to make sure the author has a written plan.
    • Evaluating the choices and effectiveness, and giving the author a sounding board to discuss the entire process, bringing in experiences from other books and authors to speak to the current book.

    Okay, that seems like a lot… and it is, which is why I often tell

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  • April 5, 2016

    Ask the Agent: The Role of Agents


    This month I’m trying to tackle any question a writer has always wanted to ask a literary agent. This came in the other day: “I’d love to hear you talk about how you feel the role of the agent will change as more authors move toward hybrid and indie publishing. I know you encourage authors to go the indie route if traditional slots aren’t open to them, but are publishers just as open to the idea of their authors doings some indie publishing?”

    As an agent, my job is to help the careers of the authors I represent. That means to some I’m going to be an editor, to others a career coach, to others a marketing consultant. The core of my job probably happens in handling rights and setting up deals — presenting projects to publishers, negotiating deals, trying to land projects overseas and in other languages, selling dramatic and other rights.

    But the role of the agent has changed considerably over the past ten years — from being the conduit between authors and publishers to being the person who should help an author map out a career. To me, that’s the biggest shift in my job. So while the role has always meant “finding and encouraging talent,” a large part of the agent’s job today is making sure the authors I represent know about ALL of their opportunities, not just working with legacy publishers. A good agent should help you do that, and should not be afraid of indie publishing.

    So I’d say I don’t simply encourage authors to go indie “if traditional slots aren’t open to them.” The fact is, I think most of the authors I represent need to explore having at least some of their projects be independently published. That’s how they’ll best build a career and make money in today’s publishing economy. It will help them build a readership and generate income. Look, advances

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  • April 4, 2016

    Ask the Agent: Query Letters


    I’m taking the month of April to do “ask the agent” — your chance as a writer to ask a longtime literary agent anything you want. Today’s question: “Can you give me some agenty advice on query letters? I think mine is good, but I’ve had eight rejection letters!”

    Chipheadshot-croppedHappy to chat about query letters. First, think very hard about what the goal of the query letter is. Sometimes I’ll see a letter that is all over the map, talking about the story, the characters, the platform, the author’s bio, etc. Your query letter really has only one goal: To get the agent or editor to read your proposal. So with everything you do in a query, keep that in mind.

    Second, address it to someone specific. I don’t even read the “dear agent” letters that come in. And I want to know that the person writing to me has spent a bit of time researching me and my agency.

    Third, keep the introduction short and clear. Often your query letter will open with one sentence – “I’m writing because you represented Susan Meissner’s Secrets of a Charmed Life and I think my work is similar” or “I’m writing because your client, Davis Bunn, introduced us.” It’s always nice if you can make some sort of connection to the person in your opening.

    Fourth, your query letter is going to have a couple of paragraphs that offer a short description of your book, and a short description of yourself. So if you’re writing a novel, give me the basic storyline and don’t lard it up with all the subplots and minor character names. Maybe tell me something about the writing you’ve done. If you’re writing a nonfiction book, explain to me what the problem is that you’re speaking to, and what the solution is that you’re offering — and by all means, explain briefly why you are the person who

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  • March 29, 2016

    Coming in April: “Ask the Agent”


    What is it you’ve always wanted to ask an agent? I mean, if you could sit down for a few minutes over a cup of coffee and ask a literary agent anything — about proposals, or writing, or marketing, or the process, or the economics of publishing, or anything else — what would you ask? 

    Here’s your chance. Starting April 1st, we’re going to take a month and just focus on the questions writers have for literary agents. What do you want to know? What do you need clarified? What is it you’ve always wanted to ask (or ask again)? I’ll be taking a slug of questions each day and offering my best response.

    So come join the conversation! Either go to the comments section below and drop in your question, or send me an email asking the question you’ve long wanted answered. I promise to try and get to all of them in the month of April. Looking forward to seeing what you send me.

    Don’t just sit there — ASK!



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  • March 28, 2016

    What are the lessons you’ve learned about marketing your books?


    Okay, so I just completed a ten-part series on marketing your book. I’d had a lot of folks ask about the process, so I simply went back to a recently published “Intro to Marketing” textbook, and walked through the basic information in ten steps. (You can find them by wandering back through the last two weeks of blog posts.)

    Now here’s my question for you… What lessons have you learned about marketing your book? What has worked? What has not worked? What advice would you give to other authors? What parts of the process did you enjoy? Which parts did you despise? And as you approach your next book, what do you plan to do?

    I hear all sorts of questions from authors about book marketing. Some love trailers, others hate them. Some love doing blog tours, others find them a waste of time. Some spend hours on social media pushing their book, others find all that effort amounts to nothing. Some love talking on the radio, others feel uncomfortable and believe they’d be better off writing something. So… give me your thoughts. I’d love to hear what lessons you can share with others about marketing your book.

    And I’ll start: The single most important lesson I’ve learned when marketing my own books is to create a checklist and work through it. When I fail to do that, I skip some things or duplicate others. I also tend to push off the tasks I don’t enjoy. So make a checklist, have each task clearly written down, and assign it to a person and a date. Then work your checklist. The most helpful thing I know.

    And if I can share a second thought, it would be don’t expect everything to work. It took me awhile to figure out that marketing is like baseball — if 30% of the things I do are successful, I’m going to have a hit. But

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  • March 25, 2016

    One Column for Two Chilled Cats (a guest blog)


    If anyone had told me that shivering at home with two cats for five days with zero heat would land me a weekly newspaper column, I’d have said they were balmy and been envious.

    We don’t see much snow or frigid temperatures in Southern Oregon, but one day in December, my boys (cats), Oliver and Cassidy, and I noticed an increasing chill. I checked the thermostat and confirmed my suspicion that the downstairs heating unit had called it quits just when I needed it most. The sustained single digit highs our valley endured, when our normal low for the month was 33, had proved too much. I reassured myself and the boys that we still had the upstairs heater until it dawned like a candle in a cave that the remaining unit might be panting to do double duty. What if . . . As if reading my fear, the bugger followed suit and began spewing cold air.

    Many households in the area suffered during the icy snap. The heating/AC people were living fat and calling the shots. The failures happened at the crest of a weekend, so the service guy had time to smoke a cigarette in his truck before landing on my doorstep five minutes after overtime kicked in. The two heat pumps had different issues. One needed a part that had to be ordered from the Ukraine, or maybe it was Utah, I don’t recall, and on and on with the waiting and trials.

    I didn’t relish the idea of moving to a hotel with the boys. I’d tried it before. So, as the drama heated up while the cooling trend moved through my house, the meat locker, a grain of Yankee ingenuity took root. I crawled my Honda through a depth of snow a Minnesotan would use for a margarita, and bought four space heaters from the delighted folks at my neighborhood hardware store. I employed

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  • March 24, 2016

    Thursdays with Amanda: John Steinbeck and the Art of Writing What You Know


    amanda-squareHis grave site wasn’t even under the Steinbeck name—that’s the first thing I noticed.

    The stone obelisk that loomed over John Steinbeck’s final resting place read Hamilton.

    And rightly so. Hamilton was his mother’s name. A name that, I was told, meant many generations of wealth and affluence in the town of Salinas. And yet to me, a fan of Steinbeck, it felt unfair.

    Below the obelisk was a large concrete slab inlaid with small, flat markers. Most of the markers were for various Hamiltons … one passing as recently as ten years go. But the one on the middle right was for John.

    It held his name. His birth year and death. That’s it.

    I’m one of those people who loves to visit old towns and walk in the footsteps of those long gone. I’ve visited James Dean’s gravesite and walked his family’s farm, and I’ve seen where F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, where he lived when he first got word that his book was going to be published, and where his daughter was born.

    And it’s always funny how real it all gets when you see where these famous names came from and how those places and people shaped who they became.

    For Steinbeck, I was blown away by this. In Salinas and in Monterey and in the strawberry farms and cattle ranches in between it was as if I had been transported to a world that I’d always thought of as fake. And yet there it was—real. It had been modernized, no doubt. But the winding coastal streets, the smell of the ocean, the whales in the bay, the ever-pressing presence of the distant ranges surrounding the Salinas Valley were real. And they were just as he had written.

    This is the power of writing what you know. Of taking something that may seem ordinary and plain and boring to you and describing it with such

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