Okay, so all month I’ve been having readers send in questions they would ask if they could just sit down and be face to face with a literary agent. Here’s the most recent batch of questions I’ve received…
Is it standard for most debut authors to have their manuscripts read by an outside copy-editor before submitting to a publisher? I’ve heard this is now common practice, but with the low advances publishers are now paying, it seems unfair to insist on the author funding the cost of an outside edit.
I think it’s an exaggeration to say publishers “insist” on an outside copyedit. The author is best protected when a manuscript comes in clean, since they’re not relying on some minimum wage, entry-level person to do the edit. And as the business has gotten harder, publishers seem to be doing less editing, and they love having their costs cut by having manuscripts come in as clean as possible. But I don’t believe we can say that’s any sort of official standard, except perhaps with mom-and-pop ebook publishers who can’t afford a good copy editor.
When it comes to book proposals, should a narrative non-fiction proposal follow the rules for a novel, or for a nonfiction book?
It’s a nonfiction book, so it should basically follow a nonfiction proposal format. But this is a great question, since narrative nonfiction is really a blend of the two. Still, you’ll find the core of a narrative book is telling a nonfiction story, so stick with the nonfiction proposal model.
I’ve seen contradicting opinions on using blog content in books… If I write a blog, does a publisher consider all content “published,” and therefore unusable in a future book?
If you write a blog post and stick it on your website, it has, in fact, been “published.” But no, that doesn’t preclude you from using that material in a future book, assuming you own it. It’s just that a publisher won’t want to do a book that contains 100% blog content, since that’s already been out there and is available for anyone to read for free. So the publisher will tell you they want somewhere between 30% and 70% “new” content in the book. (By the way, if you write an article and sell it to someone else’s site or to an e-zine, you may in fact no longer own the rights to it, and then you’d be unable to use it. Make sure to check your contract before using pieces you’ve sold to others.)
How do you find out who represents a particular author? And if I know an author who writes in my genre, is it okay to approach his/her agent? Or will they likely say no, since they already represent books in that genre?
To find out who represents an author, you can go to AARonline.org (the website for the Association of Author Representatives) and look it up. Or you can go to an author’s website and see if he or she has the agent referenced somewhere. But yes, agents tend to look for projects in the same genre — I represent several suspense writers, a bunch of inspirational novelists, and several literary novelists. Since I’m doing deals with editors at publishing houses who work in those genres, it only makes sense that I’d represent several authors in those genres.
When a publisher requests a “complete manuscript” at a conference, does an author include the acknowledgements, dedication, and personal author notes?
Nope. At that point they just want to read the book. All the personal asides can come later — they’ll only detract from the larger concept of the story.
I have an agent who I signed with six months ago. Is it fair for me to think he will respond to my direct questions? (Questions like “Who did you send my proposal to?” and “When did it go out?”) Those don’t seem unreasonable to me, but he never responds. Is there something about the relationship that I’m not understanding?
My advice: Call and have a chat with your agent about expectations. Agents are just people, and they come in all types. Some agents keep in touch regularly. Others choose to stay away and only show up when there is news. I’d suggest that a good agent should keep an author apprised of where you are in the process, but perhaps the two of you could simply have a discussion and clear up how each of you work.
Do editors at large houses ever look at the books at small houses and pick them up? What would get the attention of a larger publishing house? And would it be bad form to approach an editor at a conference and suggest they look at my already-published book?
It’s rare for an editor to look at the books at small houses with the intent of picking them up. Once a book is contracted, it tends to remain at that house (which is why you want to be careful of contracting your book at some small, crappy house). It happens occasionally, but almost exclusively because the book has busted out in a big way, or the author is suddenly famous. When I was a publisher at Time-Warner, we were doing books with several TV preachers (Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, etc). I noticed there were some other famous TV preachers who were gaining a large following, but who had done their books at a very small press. We approached that publisher and bought out the contracts for those books, in hopes of getting backlist titles for up-and-coming TV personalities. So it happens… but it would be a rare instance for an author to approach a big house to suggest they buy the rights to their book from a small house. The only reason you’d do it would be because your book is going nuts and the small publisher can’t handle it, or you’ve suddenly landed a measure of fame that requires a larger publisher to maximize.
I’ve been contemplating getting an agent, but I’ve also thought about starting my own publishing company. What are the biggest rewards for each?
The biggest rewards for starting your own publishing company would be that (1) you’re the boss and can make all the decisions, (2) you’ll make roughly three times as much money on each book sold, (3) it’s faster to do your books yourself, and (4) you have creative control. And, of course, the downside is that you have to do it all yourself. Some people love running a business, others couldn’t run a business if their life depended on it.
The biggest rewards for working with an agent would include (1) having an experienced person offer counsel on things like contracts and negotiations, (2) having someone make introductions to you with both foreign and domestic publishers, as well as with subsidiary companies like movie people, (3) having someone with specialized knowledge assist you in your career, your marketing, your covers, your brand, etc, (4) having someone encourage you, as well as having someone plead your case for you when there’s a problem, and (5) having someone who knows the business seek out new opportunities. I suppose there are other things (editorial help, etc), but those are some of the first things that come to mind. Again, I’m not here to serve as a commercial for literary agents — I think most of the authors I represent feel I provide a good service for them, but I understand why some authors want to go another route, and that’s fine.