Saturday, November 30, 2013

On Third-Party Queriers or "Agent-agents", and Sapsuckers

From my pocket:  *ring ring* 

Me: Hi, this is Jennifer.

Some Stranger:  Can I speak to Jennifer Lag-lahr-gg-squ-san?

This is Jennifer Laughran.

OH Hi this is [mumble mumble] from [fake sounding company] in Hollywood and I want to talk to you about a hot new property RANDOM TITLE. 

I'm so sorry . . . I don't know that title. I'm afraid that's not one of mine.

No, no, it's not one of yours . . . this is a SUBMISSION to you. 

Um. . . what?

Yes, my client [mumble mumble] wrote this book and you hadn't responded to my letter about it so I thought I'd follow up. You got the letter a week ago?

I have no idea what you are talking about. Sorry, I get a lot of email. Who are you again?

It wasn't email. It was a paper submission.

[while talking, googles name of company, name of person, comes up empty] I'm sorry, I'm just really confused, this was a query??
[interrupting] Nope, not a query, it's a referral, anyway, this is a medical thriller, you'll be kicking yourself if you don't represent this. So what do you say to a sure-fire moneymaker --

[interrupting] -- but I never got a letter, I haven't accepted snail mail queries since 2007, and I only represent children's books. So . . . Who are you?? Are you the author?

[patiently, as if to a child] I'm not the author, I'm working for my client to send out their work . . . 

. . . So you're an . . . agent?

No no, [long-suffering sigh] I'm sending out their work so they can get a literary agent.

So you're an agent-getting agent? An agent-agent? That doesn't seem like a thing.

Look WE DO THIS ALL THE TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. I assure you, sweetheart, this is a thing.
Welp, first of all, that isn't true --- plus, my agency is open to submissions, any author can just query -- tell him to just query. And listen, this is my cell, how did you even get this number?
No YOU listen: It's really unprofessional that you are acting like this about a REFERRAL. I mean this is ridiculous, I'll report this to your boss!

Huh. Well, a "referral" from a stranger is not really a referral at all. I don't represent people who can't follow simple directions or conduct their own correspondence. I don't represent medical thrillers. And my boss doesn't like bullies any more than I do. Don't call me again.    
*fin*
The preceding was essentially a transcript of an extremely annoying conversation that I have a couple times a year. Oh, the details have been erased and the exact back-and-forth approximated. Much more often -- every couple of weeks at least -- I get the same basic thing but in email form:
Subject Line: AUTHOR REFERRAL!

Hi Agent, I'm Random McNoname, and I'm writing to reffer [sic] my client Author Sapsucker to you. Sapsucker has a pHd in Neurocathology [sic] and 78 followers on twitter so he's the real deal. The manuscript is attached, I look forward to hearing from you by next week.
 So how did these authors get screwed? Let us count the ways:

Note the misspellings, the "attached manuscript", the fact that they don't say what the book is, that they aren't targeting me specifically or if they are, they are submitting something I don't rep, that they are demanding a response by a certain time, that they haven't followed guidelines in the least. That's leaving aside the fact that they aren't even the author -- so who ARE they?

These are what I call "agent-agents" or third-party queriers. They convince authors that their "services" are necessary to query (aka spam) literary agents*. Authors who are totally new and/or desperate will take the bait and pay, in the hopes that it will give them a leg up on the competition. Probably, because this world is full of unscrupulous a-holes who like to take advantage of authors, they'll pay rather a lot.

Instead of getting a fast-pass to easy street, however, these authors paid good money to assure that their work won't be taken seriously. No legit agent I've ever met responds to strong-arm tactics or so-called "referrals" from strangers. Strangers who clearly don't even know anything about the specific book or author they are allegedly working for, let alone about the book industry in a larger sense.

As for the matter of this being a "referral" -- I call shenanigans. A referral means that somebody I know and trust (like one of my clients, an agent colleague, or an editor I've worked with) is vouching for you. A referral from a stranger is pointless. What do I care if  some schmuck I've never heard of thinks you're terrific?

In any case, you generally don't need a referral to submit to most agents. (Some yes, but those agents are probably accepting few if any new clients anyway). You don't need a special key or a magic word to get read by an agent -- you just need to follow directions and have a great-sounding book.

I'm personally closed to queries until January, but every other month of the year, my submission guidelines are quite simple: The subject line needs to have the word "query" in it. The email itself should have a full query letter and ten pages pasted in. I don't accept snail mail submissions, nor do I open attachments.  That's it. Now this might differ a bit from other agency guidelines - - but they are all pretty much alike in that they are simple enough for a literate child to follow.

We WANT to read your work. We WANT to find new talent. Believe it or not, the submission guidelines are not set up to see how cleverly authors can avoid them. The guidelines are just there to make things simpler and easier for everyone, including authors.

You think querying is hard? You wrote an entire book. THAT'S hard work. If you can do that, I promise, you can write a couple of interesting paragraphs about yourself and your book, and do a bit of internet research. Querying is the EASY part.

Sorry if I sound a bit fired up about this, but it just makes me insanely angry how many authors I see getting parted from their money by companies like this. PLEASE, don't be a Sapsucker.

* ETA: It probably goes without saying that, while I get these every few weeks -- there are no doubt MANY scamster companies that don't even bother sending any material out at all. I mean, how would the author know? So these are just the VISIBLE scamsters...

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Nutshell Spoilers and the Rhetorical No-no.

Doing a ton of critiques for Writers Digest has been exhausting but fun, too. I'm in the home stretch -- 180 down, 20 to go -- and should finish in the next couple of days. I'll tell you this: 200 critiques in a row means common opening problems become crystal clear. I'm going to talk about a couple of pervasive ones today.

Please know, I AM NOT PICKING ON ANYONE. Everyone who sent in work to be critiqued is BRAVE and AMAZING, and this is NOT a negative reflection of any one person's work at all.

Out of 200 critiques, I'd say easily 85% of them had at least one, if not both, of these problems. Which means, obviously, they are common and easily fixable issues. . . and if this high a percentage of the WD crits had them, chances are, lots of people who did NOT get a crit may be helped by this info, too.

PROBLEM ONE: SPOILER ALERT aka "TELL, THEN SHOW"

This is a very common problem in first drafts. It's where the author starts with a paragraph that tells the reader in a nutshell what is about to happen, and/or the lesson that the main character will learn by the end of the scene, chapter or even the end of the book. . . and then the actual scene starts. It's almost like the "thesis statement" we used to have to write in school essays. Like so:
"DING-DONG!
It was a day like any other. Little did Moxie the Dog know, but her world was about to get rocked. Not only would a new person soon be moving in to the house . . . but that person was bringing a CAT. Moxie had never met a cat, and probably would like to eat cat. There was bound to be trouble. But the two will have to learn to get along and even be friends if they are going to get through the next six months.

The doorbell rang again. Moxie was barking ferociously and leaping at the door. "BE NICE, it's just my new roommate!" Jennifer the Human yelled. "You'd better get used to it, Moxie, because she is going to live here now."
Not only is this clunky example torn from the headlines (my sister and her cat are coming to stay at my house soon!), but it illustrates the problem: it tells the reader what is about to happen before it happens, or gives away the end before the story even starts. It's not foreshadowing, it's a tension-killer. Since the author has gone to the trouble of chewing and digesting the information for me, I don't have to read on.

The good news is, it's extremely easy to fix this. Just get out the ol' red pen and start with the actual beginning of the scene.

PROBLEM TWO: RHETORICAL WHAT?

Often in drafts, the author peppers the main character's thoughts with rhetorical questions.

Here are some NON-rhetorical questions: When your character asks questions inside their own brain, who, exactly, is your character asking? Themselves? The reader? Are they breaking the fourth wall? If it is a thing where you have a very voicey narrator that is addressing the audience throughout the whole book, the occasional question is probably OK. Otherwise, can it.

Rhetorical questions make your character sound wishy-washy and confused. It reads like shorthand or filler; like you've left a note for yourself: "develop this later!" They're ALMOST ALWAYS better expressed as declarative statements. And recasting them as statements often gives you a chance to give us a taste of character or a sense of the stakes in an unobtrusive way.
ORIGINAL: "Can I even get this done in time? What if I blame it on Aliens?"

RECAST:  "There is no way I can get this done before school, and using the old 'Abducted by Aliens' routine isn't gonna fly this time around."

ORIGINAL: "I'd tried everything. Is it even possible to get rid of freckles? Is there such a thing as an anti-freckle potion?"

RECAST: "I'd scrubbed, rubbed, and even tried whipping up Freckle Juice like in that Judy Blume book we read in second grade. These blotches weren't going anywhere."
Like the Thesis Statement Spoilers above, rhetorical questions are another real tension-killer. There's a recent post on Mary Kole's blog that addresses problems with this tactic in much greater detail, but suffice to say: it's another way authors pre-chew the information for readers. It's almost like you are pointing the reader to what you want them to think or the conclusion you want them to draw, without allowing them the opportunity to piece the clues together themselves.

Trust your reader. We WANT to go on a journey with you and your characters! :-)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

On Diversity and Character Depth

The majority of submissions I get are about kids and teens who are white, comfortably well off, able-bodied, secular, average-sized, cis-gender and straight. Maybe (in fact, probably) their race or economic status or religion or sexual orientation or whatever is never mentioned... but let's get real, if it isn't mentioned in any way EVER, the reader is going to assume and "default normal."

The question of WHY white-rich-ablebodied-secular-averagesized-cis-straight people are "default" in this country, or how to change that, is not one I'm prepared to tackle -- just let's go with the fact that at this point in time, it is the case that the people in this country who tend to think about race least often are WHITE PEOPLE. The people for whom money is rarely an issue are WEALTHY PEOPLE. Right or wrong, if you never ever mention anything about money or race, your reader will probably assume your characters are relatively well-off and white. And the same goes for all those other categories.

So does that mean you just need to randomly make all your characters Black or Japanese (or whatever) but have all their other dealings be exactly the same as they would otherwise be? Um. . . no. Nor does it mean that you should force a "mixed salad" tokenism where each and every character has one thing different about them. That's silly.

Taking your characters beyond "default" is really just about giving them dimension. If your character is deaf or blind or a wheelchair user or obese or agoraphobic, or doesn't speak the language, or is a child prodigy, or an uncomfortable fashionista wearing absurdly high heels, or an uber-confident princess wearing an ostentatious diamond necklace . . . or heck, even a super-mousy shy kid in a plain school uniform . . . each of these characters will certainly think differently about how to best navigate the crowded and unfamiliar stair-filled subway platform. They each might notice different and unexpected things in the auditorium on the first day of school. So if you don't mention anything about who they are, your reader will fill in with the easiest thing, which is a blank and boring "default." Which, OK. . . but again, characters who make interesting choices and observations have depth and are usually way cooler characters to read about.

"Look, my characters are just going to Mickey-D's, let's not make a big deal out of it."

Not every split second in your book will be able to further the plot. But, pretty much anything your character does, if it is important enough to put in a book, should reveal something about them. Even mudane things. Hell, ESPECIALLY mundane things.

If your character is going to eat at McDonalds, where they come from will inform how they approach that experience. Do they keep kosher? Are they diabetic? Do they have body issues? Must they stick to the value meal and worry about it? Do they recognize the person behind the counter? Is it their sister? Are they skeeved out because it is dirty in there and they saw a PBS show about what goes in the chicken nuggets and now they are wiping everything down with hand sanitizer and ordering vegetarian? Are they waiting for the bathroom because they need to brush their teeth and change clothes? Is it the one place they can meet up with their boyfriend away from the prying eyes of their family? Do they eat fast and thoughtlessly because they are wrapped up in writing a sonata and don't even notice their surroundings? Any of these choices would reveal something about the character. Otherwise, why bother putting it in the book?

"But I've heard you say you want books where people are just [gay, bi, queer, trans, etc], and being [any of these things] is not a PROBLEM." 

Sure. Being gay [or whatever else] isn't a bad thing. It doesn't need to be a problem. Just, most of the books I see in this vein are coming-out narratives that include being disowned and beaten up or worse. While this is no doubt the experience of some people, it's not the only story, and it is a story that has been told a lot. I'd rather hear a different story.

Still, if you are tempted to just not mention gayness, you are making it invisible.

I don't want it to be invisible. It's real, and important.

"But I don't want to write an ISSUE BOOK!"

I'm not saying all books should include grinding poverty or racial unrest or fat activism or queer kissing or ANYTHING. (Well, actually, maybe all books should include queer kissing.) (KIDDING!) (or am I?) . . . Annnnyway, I don't think it has to be an issue book to reflect reality. I think it just has to reflect reality. If you want a book with interesting and vibrant characters, they should be multi-faceted and not cookie-cutter default. . . Reality happens to include all kinds of people.


I'm also not saying "I hate books about [xyz] people" OR "I only want to rep books about [xyz] people."

I think anything you want to write about is FINE. I'm not the topic-police. I'm just saying, straight-cis-white-ablebodied-uppermiddleclass main characters are the vast majority of what fills the ol' inbox (and, for that matter, the bookstore). So non-default stories, whatever they may be, will feel fresh, and are likely stand out in a good way.

TL:DR  --  YES, PLEASE DO SEND ME YOUR DIVERSE NARRATIVES. I'M INTERESTED.







Monday, September 23, 2013

When in doubt: CC YOUR AGENT

When you're new to working with an agent (or heck, even when you aren't!) -- it's hard to know what is an appropriate level of communication. You don't want to seem pushy or demanding - but you also don't want them to forget about you. You get emails from your publisher, and maybe you aren't sure what's important and what isn't -- and you know your agent is busy, so you don't want to seem like you are pestering them -- so you leave them out of the loop.

I can't speak for every agent, obviously, and some might feel differently. But for ME:

I want your relationship with your editor to be about mutual respect and art and writing and craft and love and flowers and rainbows. If there are terrible conversations to be had (and I'm sorry to tell you, but there probably WILL be at some point) . . . I want to be the one to have them. Part of my job is to be a buffer between you and publisher drama* -- so please, let me be there, that's part of why I get a commission.

I don't need to be involved if the conversation you're having is chatty. I don't really need to be involved if the conversation you're having is editorial (though you can certainly loop me in if you want to, and I do find it fun to see the different visions editors have.**)

However, I do need to be involved if the conversation happening is about business. That means: Deadlines, money, subrights, anything about your contract, your unsold projects or option books, your cover, marketing, etc, I need to be IN the loop. It's so easy to just cc me. You aren't bothering me. I'd rather know too much than too little.

If you are in doubt about whether or not this is a time for you to cc your agent, err on the side of cc'ing. Even if there's no problem and I don't chime in, I want to have what is said on record, and I want to be able to jump in if necessary. If the publisher forgets to cc me, you can just add the cc in your response. I can't know what is happening with you unless you tell me. It's best if you don't wait until there's a fire to call me up in a panic --  go ahead and cc me on the spark. 

--
* To piggyback on the point about Publisher Drama, I beg you, if you are ever tempted to fire off an irate note to your publisher about ANYTHING, please, please, sit on your hands for a few hours, do some deep breathing, and then send your complaints to your agent instead. Here's an excellent post from Rachelle Gardener which talks about how you should "Let your agent be the bad guy.
"One of the primary advantages of having an agent is that you have an advocate who can handle all the negotiations with the publisher and navigate difficult territory, allowing you to maintain a positive working relationship with everyone at your publishing house.

This positive relationship can have huge implications when it comes time for a publisher to decide whether they want to work with you again. It can also affect how you’re treated— whether it’s with respect, with kid gloves, or with dread. Most importantly, it can determine whether your publishing experience is mostly pleasant and rewarding… or not."
 --
 ** ETA: I really want my authors to develop GREAT relationships with their editors, and that means having conversations that are just artist-to-editor at times. BUT. If you are my client, and you are having an editorial disagreement or miscommunication, or you don't understand something, or. . . well, ANYTIME you want an ear about stuff, I am there. I love these books too, so I really do care how the process is going!

I didn't say this above, but I also really want to be cc'ed when you deliver the final ms so I can have a copy of it AND so I can start chasing the check.

And, your agent should be the one to send new work to your editor, even when you have a good relationship with them. I CAN'T STRESS THIS ENOUGH: Please don't send new work to your editor, even if they ask for it, without at least giving your agent a heads-up first. One of the worst feelings I have ever had is when an editor called me to say, "we need to talk about this manuscript, it needs major surgery" . . . and I had no idea what she was talking about, because I'd never seen it. Ack.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

On Conference Critiques

This month (and, who are we kidding, probably next month too!) I'm working on critiques from my Writer's Digest Webinar back in July. If you are still waiting for your critique, thank you for your patience.

As I said during the webinar, I'm aiming to get these done within 60 days of receipt. So if you sent yours July 11 (the first possible date) -- you should already have your crit. If you sent it in August 11 (the deadline) -- you should have it back by October 11. If it hasn't been 8 weeks, please don't stress out; If it HAS been more than 8 weeks, perhaps your crit got lost somehow -- by all means follow up.

For the record, I had about 200 critiques, and it takes me about 20 minutes per critique. When I am REALLY CRANKING, I can do maybe 6 an hour (10 minutes each) - but that kind of speed is super rare and unsustainable. Because it takes me a few minutes between each one to get into the "headspace" - forget what I just read and commented on, and start the new one with fresh eyes. And if I don't take breaks to walk around or stretch or snack, I tend to start to get cranky or misunderstand what I am reading. So yeah. 20 minutes is more realistic. (If you just crunched the numbers, that's 66.6 hours. I'm not going to read any significance into that number!)

And obviously, I have a full-time "real job" to do during the work week. So all of this is getting done in the dead of night and on weekends. You'll notice that your responses have time stamps of mostly between 11pm and 2am.

Hey, I don't mind, it's fun to see what people are working on, and it keeps me off the streets. BUT I wanted to take this opportunity to say a few words about conference critiques in general.

Quite often, agents find themselves doing critiques for conferences they attend. These may be short ones, like I am doing now - or they may be the 10 or so pages of the author's work, and/or a synopsis or query letter.

I know that sometimes people are disappointed after crits. They might have built up the potential in their heads. "They are gonna love this so much they'll offer to rep me!" or "They are going to give me THE KEY to the problem with my manuscript that is holding me back!" or similar. I hate to break it to you: That probably won't happen. But because of the excitement and nerves, I do understand it can be a real let-down when the actual critique comes and is just . . . ordinary.

Maybe the author gets their feelings hurt by what they feel is a harsh comment, or else they feel the critiquer is soft-pedaling and ONLY saying nice things and not giving them stuff to work on. Maybe the critiquer obviously just wasn't feelin it, or completely misunderstood the point of the work. It happens!

Keep in mind that, first of all, it is very hard to critique such a brief sample - - there may be "problems" or moments of confusion I see in the first page or two that will be addressed immediately after the sample. I'm just not able to know the whole story from the out-of-context pages I'm looking at. So please take my critique (or ANY critique) with a big grain of salt.

As I say to the people getting these crits:

You are awesome for diving in to the deep and and being serious about writing. You are doing what millions of people only dream about. But even the most dedicated and genius writer may get critiques that sting, or notes where the reader obviously just didn't "get it."

Remember that critiques of pages are not personal attacks or critiques of YOU. And ultimately, it's YOUR BOOK. If you think an editor or agent's notes are way off base, you certainly aren't required to do anything about them.

Nobody knows this story better than you or cares about this story more than you. So take what resonates with you and forget the rest. Critiques are HIGHLY UNLIKELY to be life-changing. But I do hope they can be a bit helpful at least. Good luck!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

There is no perfect publisher. (Sorry!)

There was a ton of internet buzz in certain circles over the weekend about Small Presses, scamsters, schmublishers, etc. You can read the piece that touched all this off here on the YAwriters subreddit. There are responses all over twitter and the blogosphere. One response that resonated with me was from Jennifer L. Armentrout, who points out the fact that many small press deals carry a stigma, even when they are super-legit.

As an agent, I've done deals with the biggest publishers, with mid-sized and smallish independent publishers, with small presses, start-ups and e-only publishers. (And everything in between!).

So I must start by saying, I'm in NO WAY accusing anyone (in a veiled way or otherwise) or talking about any particular press -- I'm just about trying to help authors avoid fraud, scams and sadness.

And, I love the publishers I work with. Hey guys, you're awesome, keep up the good work!  *running high-five to my publisher friends* -- now there's no need for you to stick around while the authors and I have a cozy little chat. Scoot along now, you cuties.

...

OK authors, now that we're alone, here's my perspective:

I've seen publishers do an amazing job - create lovely works of art and sell them exquisitely - take an newbie author from outta nowhere and make them a star (or at least treat them like one!) - lift their authors and illustrators up, make their work shine, give them support and clearly care on a personal level about doing right by them.

I'm not talking about just the big fancy rich publishers... ALL sizes and types of publishers.

BUT.

I've also seen situations that would make your hair curl (or in my case, straighten!).... atrocious behavior, nonsensical business practices, lack of any communication, contracts with bizarre, byzantine language... stuff that almost seems designed to purposely screw with or possibly torture the author.

I'm not laying this at the foot of small presses... ALL sizes and types of publishers.

Whether big publisher or small press, mega-corporation or independent or start-up, most authors will experience at least a taste of both terrible and wonderful during their journey. I'd say the vast majority of my author's publishing experiences fall somewhere in between these two extremes, though much more toward the good end than the bad. Most publishers are trying to do the right thing by their books (and sometimes, like any humans, they don't do such a great job, and sometimes they do better than you can imagine.)

And again, yes... that's with ALL sizes and types of publishers.

The takeaway from the Reddit post, or from any of these other conversations, should not be "let's dog-pile on small presses and start-ups" or "you should avoid all small presses and start-ups" -- after all, there are many fine, totally legit, mega-awesome small presses doing great things.

The takeaway should be, "no matter WHO is offering you a contract, avoid scamsters and sadness by doing your due diligence as an author."

Now remember: No path to publication is going to be easy-peasy, bon-bons in a bed of roses. As should be clear by now, there are potential benefits and pitfalls to self-publishing, small-press publishing AND to publishing with a big NYC house.

For example, being published by ANY publisher, even the largest, does not guarantee bookstore placement... bookstores stock what they feel like, and plenty of books from major publishers do get skipped by stores.

So that being said, a clue when you are looking at whether a publisher is worth your time: Does the press have distribution? Do they publish books that you've heard of, or at least that you can look at and easily buy (or at least order) in a store or online? Get your hands on an actual copy of one of their books, or download it if e-only. How does the finished product look to you? Is it high quality and professional looking? Is the retail price competitive with other, similar books on the market?

WOULD YOU BE HAPPY TO HAVE YOUR NAME ON ONE OF THEIR PRODUCTS?

Are they asking YOU for money? Is there even a contract? Is the contract fair? Do they have good designers and editors and marketing/publicity folks on board? What happens when your book goes Out of Print? Are they trying to grab all rights in perpetuity? IF they want to keep rights like foreign, do they have a history of successfully exploiting those rights? If you're not being offered an advance, what are you getting? Are the royalties better than average, do they have marketing, and do they have a history of successful books?

The big question I'd ask myself is the one Saundra Mitchell brought up in the Reddit post. What will they be doing for me? Will I be better off WITH them or WITHOUT them -- are they doing things for me that I could not or would not do for myself? 

DO NOT FORGET: YOU HAVE OPTIONS. YOU ARE ALLOWED TO ASK QUESTIONS. . . AND TO WALK AWAY FROM AN OFFER IF IT SEEMS UNFAIR OR FISHY.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Waiting for the other shoe to drop...

I've noticed a common problem in many submissions. I call it, "waiting for the other shoe to drop." It's where the character begins a quick action... then interrupts it for an extended period of time... then maybe a page or two later FINALLY picks it back up again but by the time they do, I've forgotten why it even mattered in the first place or what they are referencing, or I am so irritated I've stopped reading anyway so I never even get there.

Terrible example I've just made up:
Jimmy lined up his feet on the free-throw line and crouched low for a moment, catching his breath. The tricky swoop-basket he'd invented and practiced a thousand times at home alone would win this game... IF he managed to make it in front of an audience. He stood, lifted his arms, and threw with all his might, then watched as the orange ball arced toward the basket.

Everyone always called him a shrimp, but Jimmy was determined to show them all he was the toughest little shrimp around. He could trash-talk better than any kid at his school. His step-dad always said, "what Jimmy lacks in height, he makes up for in mouth!" and that was pretty much the truth. But he had been working on this basket for days and days, even forgoing his favorite pepperoni-and-pineapple pizza at lunch because he heard somewhere that hunger gives athletes an edge.

His stomach rumbled. Man, maybe skipping the pizza was a mistake. If this was an 'edge' he'd rather not have it.

HEY SHRIMP, Kevin yelled from the sidelines. NICE SHORTS!  Jimmy looked down at his shorts in dismay. Aw man, the juice he spilled before the game looks like a pee-stain. Ugh. Can't he go one day without dropping something on himself? He looked back at Kevin. "NICE FACE, DILLWEED!" he shouted.
If you're anything like me, by now you are tearing your hair out going OMG WTF DID HE MAKE THE BASKET????? WHY IS THE BALL TAKING SO LONG??!

Please don't do this to your reader. If you start a short action - by which I mean a literal physical movement or act - follow through. Throwing a ball, skipping a rock, taking a bite, sneezing, giving a hug... let the character do these things THEN move on, don't interrupt him or her right in the middle of it to talk about five other things.

Now, if the character is making dinner, that is a big act comprised of many small actions. So it is fine if the character has thoughts or conversations or reminisces about things or whatever while dinner-making is going on. But if you start an action like "Sarah began salting the roast" and then go off for five paragraphs about something else and then come back and the Sarah is STILL SALTING... I'm going to be worried about her blood pressure, at least. Or assume she is just a terrible, terrible cook. If that's what you're going for, then by all means carry on. Otherwise, let her finish salting quickly THEN go off on a tangent.

Like so:
"Sarah salted the roast, then lifted the heavy steel pan into the wall-mounted oven with a grunt. 'Nothing like a home cooked meal', she muttered to herself. Then she thought about the arsenic she'd added to the cornbread, and laughed out loud."

Monday, July 08, 2013

Pretty Much Everything I know About Early Readers

I've been asked to talk about Early Reader books.

Before I even get into this, a caveat: I am not a literacy expert or an educator. I am not passing judgement about these books, nor am I making recommendations about how to teach your child to read. And, since (for reasons I'll get into below) I have never actually SOLD an early reader... I might make mistakes in this post, which I am happy to correct should a true expert decide to weigh in! :-)

**

In between the sunny utopia of Picture Book Country, where grownups and kids read together, and the charming cobbled streets of Chapter Book Town, where kids roam independently, there a small stopping place.

Let's call it Early Readerville, sometimes known as E-Z Readerville. It's small - more of a hamlet, really. These are its denizens:

VERY EARLIEST READERS: Phonics books - kids are learning to identify letter combinations and sound out basic words. There plenty of phonics-type programs that utilize some sort of book, but probably the most popular are BOB books and Hooked on Phonics.  These are book-shaped tools, not "real books" per se - you might get hired to create a book like this, but it is highly unlikely (ok: impossible) that you'll just write one and sell it to a publisher. So they don't even count as true citizens of E-R-ville, I just added them for the sake of thoroughness.

LEVELED READERS: The majority of early readers fall into this category. These books are generally thin, cheap, brightly-colored paperbacks with a big ol' number stamped on them. The numbers go from PRE-LEVEL 1 (very basic, short, repeated sounds - "Go Dog Go" type stuff) -- up through LEVEL 4/5 (depending on the company), which are much more complicated texts, but still short and with tons of pictures. These readers will probably conform to some sort of readability guidelines regarding the number of  words or syllables per page.

Most children's publishers have some sort of early reader line, here are some major examples:

Random House STEP INTO READING  *  Harper I CAN READ  *  Simon and Schuster READY-TO-READ   *  Penguin YOUNG READERS  *  Little Brown PASSPORT TO READING

What you may notice from looking at those links or taking a spin around the spinner rack of your local bookstore: 

There's a short window: Most kids are only in Early Readerville for a short time, compared to the length of time they linger in Picture Book Country or Middle Grade City. Leveled Readers are meant to be a swiftly-passing phase.

They're inexpensive: Most leveled readers sell for about $3.99 -- Publishers must produce these books VERY CHEAPLY and know they can sell A LOT OF COPIES to make it worth publishing a title in these series. Thus, leveled readers are often work-for-hire, or simply written in-house by editors, and/or generally feature characters they know have established brand-recognition.

Originality is not the first consideration.  Kids love familiarity, and as I said, "brand recognition" is important. So on that spinner rack, I'd bet at least 50% of the books are licensed properties, spin-offs from popular movies and TV shows. (Muppets! Avengers! Wreck-it Ralph! Little Mermaid! Transformers! Angry Birds!). Another 25% or so are spin-offs from already-popular picture book characters (Olivia! Pete the Cat! Madeline! Eloise! Pinkalicious!). Let's say 13% are kid-friendly non-fiction topics that pretty much stay in print for ages (Volcanos! Meerkat Families! George Washington! Titanic!), and 10% are  evergreen classics (Frog and Toad! Biscuit! Little Bear! Henry and Mudge!)...

What all this means: If you're crunching the numbers at home, that means only 2% or so of Leveled Readers are actually new, original stories, unaffiliated with any other book, movie, tv show or game. I made those numbers up, but I'd bet if anything I'm being too generous. Out of the many hundreds of writers I know, I believe only two (2) have written and sold an original mass market leveled reader.

Sooo... while you might be asked to write one of these work-for-hire on an established topic, it's relatively unlikely you're going to sell an original leveled reader.

ORIGINAL EARLY READERS: Non-leveled early readers  are, generally speaking, released in hardcover first, or simultaneous hardcover/paperback. They are usually more expensive, both in terms of retail price and production value (the look/feel, the quality of the paper, binding and art). Sometimes, after they've been out for a while, they get re-packaged into leveled reader editions.

There are not a lot of original early readers published in any given year, and very few of the few are one-offs. Most of the ones that are published are installments in original series by already established authors: DODSWORTH by Tim Egan,  MR PUTTER AND TABBY  by Cynthia Rylant, ELEPHANT AND PIGGIE by Mo Willems, for examples. Again, "brand recognition" comes into play, only this time the brand is an author/artist rather than a comic book character.

CAN a newbie break out with an original early reader book? Sure, it just doesn't happen very often.

TRANSITIONAL READERS:  There is also a relatively new micro-trend I noticed at ALA: books geared toward emerging readers who are pretty good, and out of Leveled Reader territory, but still not quuuuuite fluent enough for regular chapter books.  These are more sophisticated and cool-looking than the typical leveled reader, but with more illustrations than the typical chapter book.

These are so new, it's hard to say if this is something that is going to flourish and spread to other publishers or not. Prime example: Scholastic BRANCHES - which seem to be partly work-for-hire and partly original, but certainly always very kid-friendly and commercial. 

Also worth noting: TOON books (young graphic novels that hit that transitional spot between early readers and chapter books)

TO SUM UP: I'm not saying you CAN'T or SHOULDN'T write an original early reader book if that is where your passion lies. I'm just saying... it might be an uphill slog. You up your chances if the book is totally adorable and hooky, or if you're an artist, too. Or, you know... if you're already a popular picture book author/illustrator.

I would strongly suggest, if this is your goal, you go to the library and check out the past winners of the Theodore Seuss Geisel award. It is for early reader books of exceptional merit. Since so very few original books are produced every year for this age range, it will be easy for you to acquaint yourself with all these titles. (Bonus: They are super short!)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Think Like a Bookseller, part 1 - On Turns, and Returns

Before I was an agent, I was a buyer and event coordinator for a great independent bookstore for many years. I'm still a bookseller in fact (though now just very part time) -- I LOVE bookstores, have worked in them all over the country, and my experience as a bookseller has had a huge impact on my perception of the publishing industry.

The Ways of the Bookseller might be a bit mysterious if you haven't been one yourself, but I think they are important for authors to understand. For the record: I'm only talking about MY EXPERIENCE over the past couple-dozen years in half-a-dozen great independent bookstores. Large chain bookstores may be different, specialty bookstores may be different, online bookstores are certainly different, and self-pubbing/indie-pubbing is obviously different.

So. I asked Twitter what questions authors had for booksellers, and first up was:

How do bookstores decide what to carry... and what to return?

Brick and mortar bookstores choose the books they carry based on a combination of factors. In no particular order: How well that author's past books or similar comp titles have done; How well that genre or category has traditionally sold in their store; "Buzz" from review sources; Local interest hook (the book is set nearby or the author lives nearby); A publicity hook (like: celeb author, or recent scandal, etc); A sales/marketing hook (like: the publisher is offering a special discount if the store buys a whole display worth of specially marked Summer Reading)... and finally, the buyers own particular taste/sensibility/random love of the jacket art, etc.

Obviously no store is going to buy everything in a catalogue -- even if there were room on the shelves, it would just be a hodge-podge. So a good buyer curates the selection. They also very often have the help of an excellent publisher sales rep to help guide their purchases. A good rep is a god-send and will have a great sense of the store, its strengths and clientele and what will appeal to them, and can make recommendations accordingly. In my experience, buys usually happen with a marked-up online catalogue open in one window (or paper catalogue on the desk), and the store's inventory open in another, and the rep and buyer together go through the list either in person or by phone and talk about each book - what to buy, what quantity, and what to skip. The process can take anywhere from an hour to half a day for each publisher. (And sometimes involves a lunch - yum yum!)

Buys happen many months ahead of time. So, though we are still firmly in Spring, bookstores are now buying for the Fall. And the Summer books, which were bought in Winter, are now arriving in earnest. And there has to be room for them on the shelves....

              \mbox{Inventory  Turn} = \frac{\text{Number  of  Units  Sold  (Over  a  given  period)}}{\text{Average  Number of  Units  (For  the  period)}}

"Turn" is how often inventory sells and must be replaced. It is extremely important to turn books relatively briskly. This isn't a museum where books are simply on display! Sitting inventory is not making money, turning inventory keeps the lights on. Turn is generally calculated on a per-section basis, so ideal turn will vary by section and store, but let's do a for-example.

If they've decided that the ideal turn for YA is 5, and right now the average turn in the section is actually 12, that means they may need to order more books and beef up the section, as there are likely holes and important books missing. (This is also an indication that the actual shelf-space allotted to the section might need to expand a bit.) If the turn is closer to 2, they definitely have too many books in the section and some will have to be pulled. (And probably the section, and buying for it, will need to contract a bit.)

Many kids books become hits by way of Word-of-mouth; Teachers reading to classrooms, kids passing the book around at school, the book getting awards and put on state reading lists, etc. Thus, stores do tend to let extra-special kids books linger longer on the shelves before returning them.

Some individual titles with very low or even zero sales might get saved during a return if a bookseller is feeling sentimental, but if your book is consistently dragging down the average turn, well... you see where this is going.

A very clever buyer (my sister in fact) once explained it to me this way: Your book is paying rent for its space on the shelf. Let's say that the average book in the section needs to sell or "turn" about 4 copies a year; that means "rent" is about .10 cents per day for an $8.99 paperback, .25 cents per day for a $21.99 hardcover. If the book isn't moving fast enough to pay that, it will eventually get returned to the publisher.

While to an author, returns day might be depressing, to a bookseller there is something immensely satisfying about packing up books that are gathering dust, and replacing them with shiny new specimens. To everything there is a season, etc etc, and bookstores can't afford to keep books around indefinitely if they aren't selling. Changing old for new also means an opportunity to "fluff" the section and make it look extra bright and inviting, which usually means increased sales for ALL the books in the section.

Will the system of returns change between publishers and bookstores? Likely at some point. Should it? Yeah, I think there are probably more efficient ways to handle inventory rather than shipping insanely heavy boxes of books back and forth all over creation. But I think it'll be a sad day if returns go away altogether.

Bookstores are already treading on a very thin profit margin and have to be careful about what they bring in. When they are able to take chances on quirky books and unknown authors, it's precisely because they are able to return them to the publisher if they don't sell. If they didn't have the opportunity to return items, they'd have to be much more conservative with their buys. And while that wouldn't be a big problem for the bestsellers, it would have a terrible effect on newbies and small fry.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Links of Note

Working on a longer post for later, but I wanted to be sure to share the following links of note:

If you've read this blog for any length of time, or know me, you know that the first book I ever sold was FLASH BURNOUT by LK Madigan, which went on to win the Morris Award for best debut novel released in 2009.

I loved that book, and I loved Lisa, and she was taken from us all too soon. But! She wrote a companion book to FLASH before she died. It's called PROJECT: BOY NEXT DOOR, and it's awesome. Her family has had it edited and indie-published it, and I'm so glad the world gets to read more of Lisa's wonderful words. Here's more about the book -- support it, won't you? You can purchase on Amazon or BN. Happy reading.
*
A great post on What To Expect at BEA, perfect for first-timers. Especially important, I think: Don't be greedy, and for crying out loud WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES! :-)
 *
You've probably seen it already, but if not, this is important: Maureen Johnson and the Coverflip. What happens when books by male authors are given "female" covers, and vice-versa? This would be funny if it weren't so bloody depressing. 
*
Looking for a funny YA book rec? There's a flowchart for that.
*
I'm on the list of the "Top 20 Picture Book Agents" in very good company! Though, actually, this list is somewhat flawed because the sales are self-reporting, so some very good agents who simply don't report every sale are not listed. Still. Awesome.
*
Finally, in non-book related (but VERY IMPORTANT) news: I baked home-made Sriracha Cheez-Its today. They came out delicious. I used gouda, very sharp cheddar and parmesan, and quite a bit of extra hot sauce. But I didn't roll them thin enough so they were more like cheese puffs. STILL.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

On Twitter-Stalking, and New Adult

The other day I saw a blog post that surprised me. Surprised me because... well, because it is ABOUT me, in part. I am the mysterious "Agent #1." I suddenly feel the need to put on a wig and sunglasses. ;-)

I agree with the thrust of the post (that one should research agents, and that twitter is a good tool to learn more about them)... so I'm not knocking the post or the author. That said, I'm not sure that I agree with all the conclusions drawn from the examples used, so I'd just like to clarify, particularly as I've gotten LOTS of questions.

Two weeks ago, an agent (Agent #1) tweeted that she was interested in New Adult books. This is great information to know if you’re querying a New Adult novel (or will be), since it’s not mentioned on her website. 
It isn't mentioned on my website, because it's not a "thing" for me yet. And perhaps it never will be. I'm reading a lot of what-people-are-calling-NA (and books that are not "officially" NA, but maybe should be) -- I'm formulating my philosophy, and how NA books would fit on my list -- in other words, it is definitely something that is on my radar and I'm giving thought to.

In any case, I certainly wouldn't take something on if I didn't love it and think I could sell it. 

Agent #1 replied and explained that she didn’t get the category, either, but she was willing to check it out.

Red Flag #1
From MY point of view, the point of that tweet was that I am interested in NA and have an open mind about it. Which I'd have thought would be a good thing? A white flag, if you will? :-)
Why would you want an agent who doesn’t “get” your genre? How would she be the best advocate for it? That’s like letting a surgeon who doesn’t “get” the function of your pancreas perform surgery on it. You want someone who not only gets your genre, she understands what criteria readers expect to see.
I actually said that I'm not sure I "get it", because I'd contend that NOBODY really knows what this "genre" is. (I'd also argue that it's not a genre at all, but rather a category... but that's another story.)

I simply don't think we can say that anything regarding NA is set in stone. Whereas the fundamentals of pancreas function are not really up for debate.

NA is a category that is very much in flux and still developing. Relatively few NA titles are actually on the market, compared to their YA brethren. It remains to be seen which titles have longevity and whether readers will embrace ALL kinds of NA stories rather than the contemps that have been best sellers so far.

This post here does a fine job of talking about what NA is, at least ideally. For the record, I disagree that NA is "sexed-up YA." But you have to admit, so far, that is a snarky but not wholly inaccurate way to describe some of the books that are doing well. This will change, if the category flourishes. But so far voicey, sexy contemp with college-age protags happen to lead the pack in terms of what is selling. Can we agree there? 

If she offers representation, you can ask her what books she’s read in your genre and what she liked about them. If she has only read two, you’ve got a problem. Also, make sure she does understand the genre. For example, if you queried her for your NA novel and she tells you NA is really YA erotica, then you need to keep looking. This is not the right agent for you. She’s clueless about the genre. 
I invite anyone to whom I offer representation to ask me about books. I read a LOT. Hundreds of books a year, on top of manuscripts. I love talking about books, and I promise you, I'm quite good at it. After all, I do it all day long, for my job.

If you've done any amount of research about me and you still think I might be "clueless"... let me stop you right there. Don't query me. We definitely aren't a good fit for one another. Why would you query somebody whose opinion and experience you don't value?

Agent #2 tweeted back that he hoped Agent #1 enjoyed the porn that would now fill her inbox... I have no idea how Agent #1 felt about the condescending tweet, but it upset the individual who emailed me the conversation. It showed a lack of respect toward a colleague in the industry. 
I'm pretty sure if we asked "Agent #2" he'd be happy to own his words. And while I appreciate the concern, it didn't strike me as condescending at all. I took it in the spirit in which it was intended: as an amusing tweet from a good friend, in the context of a lighthearted conversation. It made me chuckle. Particularly because it was actually correct -- plenty of what comes in unsolicited to the query box could be classified as amateur erotica.

That's not because that's what NA is. That's just the nature of the slush pile. Just as the majority of what comes in when you open your doors to picture books, are rough drafts, or stuff that would be better suited to the inside of a terrible greeting card... not because picture books suck, but because a lot of queriers aren't ready yet and/or simply don't know how to write picture books. The same is true in every category.

The point I'm making is actually very similar to Ms. Lindenblatt's. It's a fine idea to acquaint yourself with agent's twitter feeds if they have them. It's one tool that should be used in addition to the others (looking at their website, reading interviews, reading the books they already represent, etc.) Of course the fact is, every agent-author relationship is different; it does have to do with chemistry in some ways, and you can't always know if you'll be a fit until you at least have the chance to talk to each other. Still, twitter can be fun and informative, and give you a sense of their personality and taste.

If you hate how they come across on twitter -- by all means, don't query them. But it's not an accurate way to gauge what somebody will be like to work with, or how they'll react to your work. And it's certainly not fair to cherry-pick a couple of random tweets out of context and assume that gives you an accurate snapshot of a person's worldview.

Anyway, don't spend TOO much time twitter-stalking. We want you to finish those manuscripts! :-)

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

"Rock Star" agents, and more about Schmagents

The phrase "rock star agent" gets thrown around a lot. Sometimes even regarding me. That's fine, I know people mean it as a fun compliment, and I am definitely not dissing anyone who uses that phrase. But the thing is... Agent TO rock stars is slightly different than "rock star" agent!

I want MY AUTHORS to be in the spotlight.

Good agenting is not a popularity contest, and in my opinion, a good agent should not be seeking fame for themselves above their authors. YES, it's fine for an agent to be plugged in to social media and whatnot (hey, I am!) -- but just because an agent has a cool blog or website, or is funny on twitter... doesn't mean you necessarily want them handling your business. This should not be the main criteria for choosing an agent.

I adore my social media friends. I've been blogging and tweeting and whatnot for a long time, and it is definitely part of my identity. But I cringe when I see people talk online about their "dream agents" and realize that most or all of them are actually just "agents who have popular blogs" or "agents who are big on Twitter." Some of the very best agents in the world have ZERO social media outlets. That doesn't make them ineffective or behind the times.

There are also schmagents out there who have web presence, but nothing to back it up. I know it might sound silly or obvious, but even if you read about an agency in a book or magazine, or see them online, that doesn't mean they are good.

Of course, even a great agent at a totally legit agency might not be a great fit for YOU and your work. The agent relationship is unique from author to author. But at least do your due diligence.

Make sure the agencies you query have plenty of sales to legitimate publishers, and books in the bookstore. A new agent with few or no sales can be fine... but their agency should have a solid track record of sales and clear experience in the publishing industry. A new agency with no sales, made up of agents with no sales and little to nothing in the way of publishing industry experience? Or where the agents don't seem to want you to find info about their authors or books? Or the sales are only to publishers you've never heard of and can't find in the bookstore? Well... I'd be WARY.

There are no special classes to take or tests to pass to become an agent (unfortunately) -- ANYONE can call themselves an agent and call it a day. Which is why even smart writers can be taken in. So don't be a sucker. A good agent won't just have a cool website -- they'll have either a proven track record of sales or the backing of a strong agency. They'll never, ever ask you to pay them fees. They'll communicate with you, be straightforward and honest. And of course, they will connect with your work and know how to sell it.

When you get an agent, you are putting your career in somebody else's hands. Be sure they are steady ones.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Rubber Band Ball

I spoke last week at my local middle school for their career day. Part of my talk was given over to explaining what the heck a Literary Agent even does. And the issue of subsidiary rights came up. Now I know some of you are experts on this stuff already... but just in case you are unfamiliar, I thought I'd use the analogy I used on the kids. It's simple, and it makes sense (I hope!) and it is important.

You might think of your book as being a bunch of words in a document or on paper.

I think of your book as a rubber band ball.

The ball itself is your intellectual property. It is a real thing - it belongs to you. And it is made up of a bundle of rights.*

Each rubber band that makes up the ball is its own right. Right to publish the book in the USA? That's a rubber band. Right to publish in paperback? That's a rubber band. Right to make a calendar or an audiobook or a TV show or put excerpts in Vanity Fair or anything else? All rubber bands... that is, rights. Take SHREK for example. Publishing it as a picture book in the US was a rubber band. Publishing in each country in the world, all their own rubber bands. The movie was another, the movie tie-in books another, the musical yet another, and toys and lunchboxes another.

These rubber bands/rights can be sold separately, or in a bundle. Most US publishers for kids books at least consider publication of hardback, paperback, ebook, in English, in the USA, to be primary rights. It is pretty much a given that the publisher will ask for these (along with large print, book club editions, and other editions of the same book.)

All other rights are "subsidiary" rights, also known as "subrights." We can often negotiate to keep audio, film/tv, merchandise/commercial, and (hopefully) world English and foreign rights.  EVERY book theoretically has all these rubber bands, though of course, some books are more likely to USE them than others ... Guns, Germs and Steel is probably not going to make it to the lunchbox aisle at Target anytime soon. ;-)

And as for foreign rights, while it is TOTALLY COOL to sell them, not every book, quite frankly, is suitable for foreign tastes. Some books are deemed "too American" -- books about school, or specific types of pop culture, can be losers for other countries -- and of course every country has their own trends and preferences. The economy plays a part too; many territories are very choosy about what they bring on and only want topics or authors they know will be sure-fire hits, so they stick to big names.

Point is: It is the publishers job to get as many of the rights as they can, for the least amount of money they can.** It is your AGENT'S job to keep as many rubber bands as possible, and get the best deal possible for the ones they do sell. If the agent keeps the rights, they then can sell the rights themselves and the client keeps all the profit (less agency commission of course). If the publisher keeps the rights, then THEY sell them, and split profits with the author (it goes straight to earning out your advance, though, until you've earned out at which point you get that percentage.)

The Bologna Book Fair is coming up next week, and that is where many hardworking foreign rights specialists will be pitching their books like mad, hoping their author's books will make it onto bookshelves in other countries and languages! It is an extremely interesting and rewarding fair, and I hope to have updates and fun news from it on twitter.

Hope this was a bit useful!  Let me know if you have questions, I may or may not have answers.


* ETA: The obvious conclusion, which I should have stated in the first place: The ball itself is worth something. And each rubber band is worth something, too. Be sure you know what you're throwing when you throw it.

** That doesn't mean that publishers are trying to trick authors or rip them off -- it simply means that it is obviously in their best interest to get as many rights as possible. And most of this stuff I'm talking about is negotiable... so if the publisher is open to negotiating (let's say, a higher advance price, or better royalties), you and your agent might well decide to cede some of these rights.  That's a convo for you to have together.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentines Day 2013

Each year one of my talented illustrators designs a Valentine for me, which I send to clients, colleagues, editors and friends. (This started because I am always too swamped in December to do regular holiday cards, and it stayed because I love it, and I think people like getting unexpected mail!)

This year's card is by the talented Raul Gonzalez III. Raul is a fine artist who is new to the Children's illustration game, but is an up-and-comer. He's currently working on two graphic novels that are forthcoming from Chronicle Books, and has just done sketches for his first picture book. Yay!

So happy day, everyone. LOVE!




Thursday, January 17, 2013

Agent Ethics: Schmagents and "Pre-shopping"


I wanted to clarify this tweet a bit. So, as you might know, I'm an enthusiast. Sometimes when I'm super excited about a new novel that crosses my desk, I might get second reads or talk to agency colleagues about it before I even sign it. If I know it is up some editor's alley, I might tease them with it -- "I'm about to offer on an aweeeesome super-secret new space opera with dragons... you want to be on the list when I go out with it?" Or "ooooh have you seen this website, what do you think?"*

There's a difference between being a fan of something, having enthusiasm and seeing if other people share that enthusiasm, and actually submitting a person's intellectual property for publication and acting on their behalf when they haven't given you permission to do so.

If you query an agent with your novel** and they tell you they're going to "shop your manuscript around to editors"... and that IF they get an offer, THEN they'll sign you up*** (but they won't otherwise?):

HUGE RED FLAG. THIS IS PROBLEMATIC.

* If they shop your manuscript, and you aren't their actual client, how do you know what they are doing, who they are talking to, what they are saying on your behalf?

* If they shop your manuscript and end up with an offer... it will probably not be the best offer. Why? Because this type of schmagent is unlikely to have primo publishing connections. There are times that going with a small press or an e-book only press or a no-advance press or a start-up press might be a fine idea... but do you really want that to be your ONLY option?

* If they shop your manuscript, and end up never getting an offer and never signing you (which is quite likely, since they will have no particular pressing interest in trying hard, since you aren't a client) -- then let's say you get another agent? A real one? ALL THOSE BRIDGES ARE BURNED. Your new agent  won't be able to send your manuscript to any of the editors that already declined it. Assuming you can even find out who those editors were.

An agent isn't just a person who likes books and puts a website up.  They SHOULD have a ton of contacts in the publishing industry... and when they talk to those contacts, they REPRESENT YOU. That means they are meant to be acting on your behalf and speaking for you. (Not to mention they have access to your finances and potentially your financial future and career!) -- you definitely don't want somebody you don't trust in that position. Do your homework.

This isn't a game, or a joke. Don't treat it that way. And don't let anyone else treat it that way, either.

--
* Mind you, this wouldn't affect MY feelings about it. If somebody was like "ew dragons are dumb" -- I'd think "Oh, they are stupid", not "Oh, I am wrong."

** ETA: I'm talking specifically about NOVELS here, and note that my expertise is in kids and YA. Pop culture nonfiction or other works you sell on proposal might be different, I have no idea. And as some point out... publishers themselves may do some "pre-shopping" to their retail clients when deciding what to acquire. Sadly, there's nothing much you can do about that. 

*** ETA ETA: I'm also not talking about people who are legit agents you've agreed will represent you on a "handshake" basis but who don't have a formal written agency agreement, or who only make a formal written agency agreement when money is going to change hands. While this isn't how my agency works, I know some legit agencies that don't have a formal "agreement" per se -- but they will ASK YOU before they start REPPING YOU!

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Twitter Confessional

I don't buy it when people say online friendships are not "real." I have plenty of online friendships that have developed into real life friendships; there is a lot of fluidity and crossover. I love to meet "twitter peeps" when I'm traveling to conferences and the like. In fact, some of the people I like most in the world are ones that I met online first.

I talk to the people inside the twitterbox more than, well, anyone else besides the dog. And probably because I'm chatty, I do tend to feel like I KNOW these people. Like, personally know them. Even the ones I don't know personally at all. Maybe I just have a clingy personality or something - or maybe it is natural that humans like to make connections. I don't know. Who am I, Oliver Sacks? (No.)

So my confession is: A few times I've noticed that people I follow and admire on twitter (and in some cases, even have met or know IRL) don't follow me, or worse, have unfollowed me. And it causes me a sharp pain not unlike grief. Micro-grief, if you will.

THIS IS RIDICULOUS.

If you've ever felt this twinge of micro-grief when you realize somebody isn't following you... SNAP OUT OF IT.  If you've ever gotten upset that somebody didn't retweet you or respond to you... GET OVER IT.  If you expect "auto-follows" or that somebody should follow or always converse with you or RT you or whatever just because you follow them... GTFO.

Everyone uses twitter in different ways. MOST people are not on there 15 hours a day like I am (because it is in the corner of my screen while I am working, which is almost always). Some people only want to follow a very small number of folks, or people they know IRL, or nobody they know IRL, or whatever. Some people have strict limits with themselves about how often they can check in, and so limit their "follow list" to ones they can keep up with easily. Some people unfollow people who tweet too much, or who curse, or post pet pictures, or don't post pet pictures, or who only talk about books, or who never talk about books, or who the hell knows.

The point is, how other people choose to use it or not use it is not a judgement about us, and is also not our beezwax.

If you're only following somebody because you have the expectation they'll follow you back, you're doing yourself a disservice. Yes, twitter is a lot about conversations and connections... but you can't control what other people do. And vice-versa. So hey, feel free to keep following people you enjoy and have the bandwidth for... and stop following if you don't want to anymore. No need to make a big to-do about it. No need to announce it to anyone. It's not an insult to not follow somebody or to stop following somebody, it's just you choosing how to spend your own time and energy.

Spend it well! 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

On Shortcuts, or, Do I REALLY Need an Agent?


I get asked this question many times a week via twitter, in emails, at conferences, at the bookstore... Here's how it goes:
[scene: a podium in a random hotel conference room in Anytown USA]

Stranger [raises hand]: OK, SO, PEOPLE SAY I SHOULD LOOK FOR AN AGENT. BUT MY QUESTION IS, DO I NEED AN AGENT?

Me: Probably. Depends what you want from your career. I'd get one, personally... but of course, I'm an agent, naturally I'd say that.

Stranger [impatiently]: NO. I MEAN DO I REALLY NEED AN AGENT?  

Me: Oh man. Since you asked with that inflection... wow. I guess I have to give it to you straight. You got me. There's a little something that everyone else knows except you. Every time somebody suggests you "query agents" they are really trying to TRICK you. Because they don't want you to know the secret!  *Muwhahaha!*
Oh. You can tell I'm poking fun, and you don't like it. Sorry. I'm going to be totally serious now. When you ask that question, it sounds to me like "but I don't want to read the manual, instructions are for suckers, I'm gonna find the shortcut and do this the fast and dirty way!"

And I get that. I'm impatient too. The fact is, much like putting together the elaborate entertainment center from Ikea, getting an agent is usually difficult, or at least inconvenient on some level. There are almost always some bruised egos and frustrations along the way. It can take a long time. It can be a lot of work. And even when you have it figured out, that is only the beginning. Ugh what a pain in the ass.

So look. It DOES depend on what you want from your career.

* If you want to go the self-publishing route and would never consider traditional publishing... you may not need an agent. (You'll find that it is a lot of work to be successful at this game, but hey -- it happens. Elbow grease, baby!)

* If you have a very "niche" type of work -- highly technical, educational, religious, or specialty-type content... novellas, chapbooks, and other things that are not usually found in regular bookstores... you may not need an agent.

* If you want to be traditionally published and are a super-type A personality, know a ton about the vagaries of publishing, have lots of insider publishing connections, know contracts well, understand the market for your work specifically, enjoy talking about money and don't mind things like asking for a raise, know how to sell subrights and foreign rights, want to spend time pounding the pavement on your own behalf... you may be not need an agent.*
                                                      
Otherwise? An agent is going to be hugely helpful to you. 

In fact, here's the secret. As big a pain as it is? GETTING AN AGENT IS THE SHORTCUT.
Recognize this? It's called an allen wrench, or a hex key.

You can put the Ikea entertainment center without it, but dear god, it's a hell of a lot easier with it.

Consider an agent your hex key.


* (Though I do know people like this, and after a certain number of books... guess what, they got an agent. Because it is a huge time-suck to do all these things for yourself, the time-suck gets exponentially worse the more books you have out, and that is time you could be spending writing. Or, you know, lounging in a hammock drinking mocktails. Whatever.)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

5th Agentversary + 2012 by the numbers

Today marks my 5th agentversary. Here's my post from last year on the subject. And this one from two years ago has the tale of how I became an agent and the story of the first book I ever sold.

So you know, I've already done the wordy thing. This year I did a bit of number-crunching instead. Depending on your POV, this'll be either deadly boring or geekily interesting - if the former, forgive me, please do skip it. Here's 2012 by the numbers:

In 2012, I got approximately 4200 queries (an average of 80 per week). I didn't actually count this part, but I'm gonna take an educated guess and say about half were not even in genres I represent, were not addressed to me, were barely in English, had attachments or otherwise didn't follow submission guidelines, and thus were automatic deletes. (In other words: if you are following guidelines and subbing the correct material, you're already in the top 50%!)

So let's call it about 2000 viable queries. Of those, I took on seven new clients (aka, .35%).Of those, two were total slush-puppies and debuts (one of which I signed right away, one after a revise-and-resubmit). Two were referrals (one previously published, one not). One I knew in real life from SCBWI (previously published). One I met on twitter, then in real life, before she queried me (previously published). One, another debut, I knew in real life from my old bookstore job! Of the seven new clients, four are debuts, six have have deals done or in progress, and one I haven't yet sent out.

In 2012, I sold 14 YA,  9 MG,  6 PB.


Of these, seven were debuts: Three YA and two each MG and PB.

This also marked the year I sold my 100th* title. I'm at 103 now (46 of which have been released), and the breakdown is:

 Total: 44 YA, 32 MG, 27 PB

WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS MEAN?

I guess that I work with totally awesome authors and illustrators, that books are still selling, that good stories are still finding readers, and that it was a very busy and very productive 2012. So let's do it again in 2013!

Wishing you time to read, inspiration to write, and much happiness in the coming year. :-)



*I'm not counting foreign sales, subrights sales or sales where I rep both the author and illustrator - that would get way too complicated. Each book only counts once.