Friday, December 28, 2012

Your New Year's Resolution


It's the new year. You are already thinking ahead to new goals, new projects, and you are determined to accomplish them. Knowing writers, I can predict what your New Year's resolutions will be:

I will write 1000 words a day (after all, Hemingway did it, and he was a journalist)

I will finish my novel (it's been seven years … )

I will start my novel (it's been ten years … )

And so on.

This year, I am going to make the whole breast-beating, self-flagellating, bound-to-fail experience of New Year's resolutions a lot easier for you. Here's your resolution:

I will research my market.

(My computer has a Big Brother camera on it. I can see the expression on your face.)

Writers don't like marketing and promoting their work. But that's not because it is a venal, distasteful, and ungentlemanly task. It's because we don't know how to do it. Marketing belongs to the business world, not the artistic world. As a writer, you prefer to wear only one hat. As a writer in today's entertainment-driven world, you can't.

Rule #1: Know Your Market

Knowing your market – who will buy your book, how many people there are in this group, how you will reach them – is the key to success. Even if you are lucky enough to get an agent who will sell your work to a publishing house, the first thing he or she will ask you is: What is your market? How many people are in it? How will you reach them? What books compete with your own? How is your book different? Why will people want to buy it? (A tip: The answers to these questions should go in your query letter.)

In order to address these questions (and you must be able to), you need to do some research. Go to Amazon and type in keywords to locate books similar to yours. What is their ranking? Go to a Barnes & Noble. What's on their shelves? (Believe it or not, print publications still matter.) Are you offering something new? Will your book fill a gap?

Who will buy your book? That depends on what you are writing, of course. Let's say you are writing a romance. (Half of all fiction being published today is comprised of romance novels.) Generally speaking, women buy romance novels – more specifically, women who don't have a lot of time. Romance novels are short, therefore your market consists of women who have small children and/or time-consuming jobs and a curtailed sex life.

If you want to reach this market, you have to know where these women go. What websites are they visiting, what blogs do they read, what books do they buy? If you can't answer those questions off the top of your head, go to: and take a look.

No matter what you write, there is a market for your work. If you want people to read what you write, spend an hour a day researching who those people are.

And last, but not least, read books that are designed for entrepreneurs, because that is who you are!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Grammar Mistake That Will Kill Your Career

Updated 1/7/24

Every writer knows that grammar and spelling errors are the kiss of death in a manuscript. That’s why we hire professional editors and send our manuscripts to proofreaders.

What writers don’t realize is that making simple mistakes in a query letter or a submission can lead to a rejection. 

I’m not talking about spelling the word “supersede” wrong. After all, it’s the most misspelled word in the English language, and chances are your agent won’t know how to spell it either.

I am talking about a little word. It’s its.

It’s is a contraction of “it is.” Its is a possessive (e.g. its teeth.)

Apostrophes aren't used in plurals, either. You don’t buy *shoe's, you weren’t born in the *1980’s, and you very definitely don't read *book’s. (I saw that once on a book reviewer's website.)

As an editor/English teacher, the misuse of it’s is the most common error I come across. I can say without hesitation that an apostrophe in the wrong context is a catastrophe. It tells me that you don’t know your craft.

Here are some other linguistic sins of commission. 

Lay versus Lie. Even people with university degrees get this wrong. Lie is an intransitive verb. That means it cannot take an object. “I am lying on the couch” is correct not *“I am laying on the couch.” Lay is a transitive verb. (It takes an object.) “Stop squirming and lay your head on that block!” is correct. But confusion arises once we launch into the past tense. The past tense of lie is lay. “I lay down after dinner last night” is perfectly fine. So, what is the past tense of lay? Why it's laid, and so is its past participle. (The past participle of lie is lain, by the way, not laid, as in "I have lain in bed all day." Nobody told you English was going to be easy.)

Affect versus Effect. This is another source of confusion. Affect is a verb. Storms can affect crops. (No, it can’t impact them.) Effect is a noun. For example, “The effect of the legislation was devastating.” Now, here is where it gets dicey. Affect is also a noun meaning “emotion.” “The patient was devoid of affect.” And effect can be a noun meaning "possession," ex. “You can pick up your personal effects tomorrow.” (Again, nobody told you English was going to be easy.)

Further versus Farther. Nothing could be simpler: farther refers to distance, and further refers to time. (Just think furthermore.) But in the UK, further is also used for distance. Who is right? Americans are, naturally. (Except when we are wrong.)

Me versus I. The object of a preposition is object case, not subject case. It's "Let’s keep this between you and me" (it's between usnot *"between you and I" (because you can't say *"This is between we"). Whoa! What about “Me and Julio down by the schoolyard”? Me (object case) is being used as a subject in that example, which, despite being the title of a song written by two college graduates, one of whom was an English major for pete's sake, is dead wrong. You can reverse cases when you are chatting with your friends, or composing a folk rock song, or trying to sound less stuffy than you really are, but don’t put it in your writing. Please.

“Like” is for comparing nouns. “As if” is for verb phrases. I can act like you, but we can’t act like nothing matters. We must act as if nothing matters. If you are writing dialogue, it’s fine to use the colloquial form. (Nobody actually says “as if" anymore. I mean, as if...) 

A possessive goes with a gerund. “My going to California upset her” is correct, not * Me going to California upset her.” (The British make this mistake all the time. They can’t speak English.)

Reported speech uses declarative sentence structure. “I asked him what the problem wasnot *“I asked him what was the problem.” If you are quoting, you can use interrogative structure, e.g. I asked him,“What was the problem?” 

Reported speech follows verbs such as wonder, ask, ponder, consider, etc. For example: I wondered where he was. I asked him what he was doing under my bed. I pondered why I had married him. 

And now for jargon. Technically, jargon is not always incorrect. However, it is always annoying. Avoid jargon unless you're writing a satire, or you’ve got quotes around it, indicating that you are only using jargon under extreme duress.

“Issue” does not mean “problem,” it means a topic of debate. You can discuss an issue, but you cannot have one. (This grammar crime was fomented by therapists, who also have convinced susceptible individuals that they are “conflicted” when they have “issues.”)

“Conflicted” is not an adjective. You can feel conflict, you can even be in conflict, but you can’t be conflicted. “Conflicted” replaced “mixed feelings,” which is what people used to have before they had “issues.”

“Grow” is what you do with potatoes — not audiences, businesses, or social media followers. (This is an MBA-speak crime.)

"Concerning" is a preposition. Concerning means "about," as in: Concerning the plight of the refugees, we need to take action immediately. "Worrisome" is an adjective that expresses a situation that causes concern. (Worrying is a verb that describes what you are doing when you can't get your ex-husband out from under your bed.) (In case you have looked it up, I disagree with Merriam-Webster concerning "concerning.")

“Different from” (or “different to” in Great Britain; they can’t get anything right) is correct when you are comparing nouns, not “different than.” For example, California is different from … well, just about anywhere.

IMPACT IS NOT A VERB. Yes, I know you’ve seen it a million times, and at this point impact is even listed as a verb in the dictionary. But I eliminate that misuse from every piece of writing that crosses my desk. It may be commonly accepted, but it is evil. And "impactful" is an outright crime against well-spoken humanity.

And now, a story to demonstrate my point

A while ago, I took a seminar in grant writing. I was the director of a nonprofit, and knowing how to write a grant was essential to the future of my organization. The leader of the seminar asked the group if we knew how grantors made their decisions. We replied, “On the merits of our projects.” (Like writers, nonprofit organizations are under the illusion that good work counts.) She immediately set us straight.

“They hold up the first page of each application to the light,” she said. “If they see Wite-Out [this was in the age of typewriters], they throw the entire application away. They repeat that process, going through each page, until they get a pile of perfectly written applications. Those are the ones they read.”

The moral of the story: Don’t give anybody an excuse to throw your work out. Edit everything you write, consult a dictionary, check all your punctuation marks, and watch those apostrophes.

People in the publishing business — and I know them well— have no mercy.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Writers Are from Venus, Agents Are from Mars

"Ohhhh ... "
Updated 1/7/24

I didn't have an agent for my first book, which, in light of the disastrous contract I signed, was a mistake. 

So, when I completed a second book I decided to contact the agent who had acted as representative for my first (disastrous) publisher. 

(Small publishers often employ agents to sell their books to larger publishers. You won't get more than a few pennies of royalties when this happens.)

After reading the manuscript, she gave me a call, agreed to represent me, and asked me for the following:

A head shot
A biography
Log lines
Flap copy
A synopsis
A marketing plan
How I intended to reach my prospective audience, and
Whether I knew someone famous, like the Pope, who would endorse my book

I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn't know what half the things on her list were, so I muddled through as best I could. (The Pope would not give me an endorsement, even though my flap copy was nothing short of miraculous.) My ignorance was astonishing, though understandable: I was a writer.

Writers, especially fiction writers, focus on crafting our work. After a long and difficult labor, we give birth to novels. The last thing we need while in the throes of contractions (no pun intended) is for the midwife to ask, “What kind of diapers would you like? Cloth or disposable?” As far as we are concerned, our job is finished when we push out the last line.

This is simply not how the publishing world works. Before contacting an agent, you must not only have a finished work (edited, proof-read, and ready for the printer), you must understand the industry. That means knowing what is going on in the publishing world, knowing what is going on in the book selling world, and knowing what is going on inside your agent's head. In order to do that you must go to your local library and pore through issues of Publisher's Weekly, Writer's Digest, and The Writer. You must read blogs kept by agents and editors in order to familiarize yourself with the lingo of the trade: proposal-to-publish forms, subsidiary rights, and promotion potential. You must become vertically integrated.

Right about now, you are beginning to feel put-upon. Why should you learn everybody else's trade? You have your own. Besides, the publishing industry is complicated, frustrating, and, to put it mildly, embattled. That is why so many writers turn to self-publishing. It lures us into its embrace with promises of instant gratification.

The inconvenient truth is that there is no way to avoid the hard work of promotion – which, in turn, requires an understanding of the publishing industry. Although self-publishing is rapidly gaining ground, print publishers still have the advantage of pedigree. There is nothing that qualifies you more as an author than to be published by one of the big houses. In order to get a publisher, you need an agent. And in order to get an agent, you must not only be able to write the perfect query letter and schmooze at conferences, you must get a handle on how agents think.

The best way I know of understanding what goes on in the minds of agents is to read their books. Buried somewhere in the musty stacks of your local library is a book written by Michael Larsen called Literary Agents: How to Get and Work with the Right One for You. It was published in 1986 (a year in which you may have been a fetus), but it is still the best exposition of what goes on in an agent's mind that I have ever read. In spite of the passage of decades, and a supposed revolution in publishing, the way agents think has not changed.
  • Agents expect to have a salable book. What constitutes salable? Anything that can be successfully pitched. Work on your pitch before you contact an agent.
  • Agents expect you to be “professional.” In the publishing world that means, “Don't take up too much of my time.” If you need to have your hand held, don't contact an agent (yet).
  • Last, but not least, agents expect you to want to make money. (You'd be surprised how many writers simply want to express themselves!) Agents expect you to convince them “that you harbor a consuming lust for success and that you are irresistibly driven to do whatever it takes to make your books sell.”
Until you can build up some lust, and can back it up with a plan that demonstrates that you know what to do with it, hold off on contacting an agent. They aren't in the business for love, they are in it for money – and they can't make any if you don't.

Essential reading for understanding how agents think:

Jeff Herman, Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. (Sourcebooks, 2019)
Read the agents' descriptions of the client from hell. (That's you!)

Robert Brewer, ed. 2021 Guide to Literary Agents. (Writer's Digest Books, 2021)
Actually, any year of this publication will be sufficient. Make sure you read the sections on advice to writers (from agents).

Michael Larsen. Literary Agents: How to Get and Work with the Right One for You. (J. Wiley, 1986.)
The 1996 edition of Larsen's book, How to Get a Literary Agent, has more information, but reveals less of the inner workings of the Martian mind. Nor much has changed since the 80s.

Related posts:

What's Your Book About: The Pitch

Beggars Can Be Choosers - How to Pick an Agent

How to Research an Agent

Are You Ready to Contact an Agent? Take This Short Quiz and Find Out

First published on Blogging Authors 12/19/12

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Writer's Block

Ocean by Moki
I don't believe in writer's block. I believe in illness. I believe in grief. I even believe in ghosts. But I don't believe in writer's block.

My father, who wrote a great deal (in longhand, on yellow legal pads) used to shave whenever he got stuck. The water was soothing and somehow, while drawing the razor across his face, his thoughts would become honed.  

He offered me that small revelation after I had described how showers "unstuck" me when I'd come to a roadblock.  The roadblocks were invariably the result of having written something wrong - a scene that took the story on a detour, or a stretch of dialogue that was filled with potholes. Eventually, the shower would clear my head, reveal where I had gone astray, and I would leap back into the driver's seat, almost dry.

Those small roadblocks are not writer's block.  They are just temporary obstacles. 

Writer's block is when the words go away. Entirely. There is nothing in your head. When you lie down in the evening and think of your characters, there is nobody there. The film has ended, the credits have rolled, and there is just a blank screen where the action once was.

I have not written anything of substance, that is, anything of fiction, since the day my father died. When he left the planet, he took his shaving kit with him. It's not really so much that I miss him - although I do - but writing was the only thing we had in common. Like most men of his generation, he found it difficult to talk to his children - and impossible to say anything personal.

My father left behind a collection of nearly eight thousand books, several scientific volumes that he had edited, over a  hundred published articles, and dozens of papers he had written but had not gotten around to publishing. The week before he died, I'd told him I would get them published. It was the last thing I said to him.

I don't believe in God. I don't believe in Spirit or the Universe either. But I do believe in promises. I have the feeling that when I keep mine, the empty space that used to be inhabited by people who don't really exist will once again be filled. And my father, who never got the chance to hold anything I'd published in his hands, will let the words come back.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bad Press is Better Than No Press

P.T. Barnum is reputed to have said, "There's no such thing as bad publicity." 

As far as circuses are concerned, he was right. But the same holds true for any aspect of the entertainment industry, including publishing. The trick is to generate enough publicity - bad or good.

William McKeen, chair of the Department of Journalism at Boston University and author of the biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Outlaw Journalist, obviously understands this principle. He also has a great sense of humor.

HST is Hunter S. Thompson, the notoriously foul-mouthed journalist who wrote – and apparently lived – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. ("I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone," he once quipped, "but they've always worked for me.")

McKeen's biography of Thompson has been  described as “painfully honest.”  In keeping with that sentiment,  this review can only be considered "heartfelt." McKeen liked this “review” of his book so much he had it framed. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why Google Adwords is (and isn't) a Waste of Time for Writers

Updated 1/5/24

Whenever you do a Google search, you will notice the top and bottom entries are ads. Google Adwords, an advertising tool created by Google, allows anybody to post an ad – for a price. The price is determined by how much you are willing to pay for someone to click on your ad. This is known as pay-per-click advertising, and is Google's main source of revenue.

It's ingenious, really, when you think about it. Advertisers are willing to take a gamble that people who click on their ad are interested enough to purchase a product. And, even if they don't click, thousands of people have at least seen the ad. All the better if it includes an eye-catching picture.

When Hostmonster offered me a free $100 of Adwords for my new website (which was doubled by joining Linkedin), I jumped at the chance. I called Google Adwords, and an obliging representative posted several attractive ads for my book. A few days later, another helpful representative called and, for an hour and a half, tutored me in all the details of how to track my campaign – daily budget, click-through rate (CTR, the percentage of people clicking after viewing your ad), the success of differently phrased ads, keywords, and many more sources of statistics.

It was complicated. It was taxing. And it was a completely inefficient way to market a book.

Time for some stats. My CTR (click-through rate) was .02%, which means that of the 200,000 times my ad appeared on Google, only twenty people clicked on it. Even Google admitted that this was an abysmal CTR. Nevertheless, I persisted. Twenty people was still twenty people after all. However, when I looked at my Google Analytics stats, I found a 50% bounce rate. That meant that of the twenty people actually visiting the site, half of them left immediately. Only ten people stayed long enough to read anything. Of those ten, one bought the book.

I was delighted that one person had bought my book. But, if I had paid for those ads, it would have cost me $200 to sell a book worth $2.99 (of which I made $2.10). By anybody's reckoning that's a waste of money. In fact, unless you sell a product that costs over $200, it would be a waste of money for anyone to use Google Adwords. Most ads receive an average of 200 clicks before someone actually purchases a product. (Which means I was actually doing well with my one sale.)

So, why would any sane writer want to promote a book on Google Adwords? Provided you don't pay for it, Google Adwords is an excellent way of judging which buzz words the public will respond to. (As it turned out, the ad that got the most clicks was the only one I had written myself.) Knowing what the public will respond to is quite important when you are writing your press release, query letters, and for all your promotional activities.

The Keyword Planner will help you to find keywords that are high, medium and low competition. (Your competition determines how much you will pay for clicks. The lower the competition, the less you pay.) But, here's the “beauty part”: This tells you how many people searched those key words globally and locally. The more people who search on a given keyword or phrase, the more worth it has as a promotional tool. (But examine those keywords carefully; some are too vague to be useful.)

You can also use this tool to name a website, or a blog – or even a book!

Thank you, Google.

Helpful articles:

Keyword planner

6 Free Google Keyword Tool Alternatives For Keyword Research

How to Increase Book Sales with Metadata
This article gives a great explanation of what metadata is, it provides handy tools for identifying keywords - just for writers.

SEO Keywords For Fiction Authors
Most widely searched keywords in lists, with numbers of hits.

5 Adwords Marketing Experiments You Need To Try
This article provides some useful tips

Sunday, December 9, 2012

How I Got Published: The Ecstasy

Random House Building
It was September 2005. I was out in my garden murdering plants and Communing with Nature when I heard the phone ring. I didn't go into the house to answer it. I never answer the phone, not even when I am two inches away from it. An hour later, when I'd finished Communing and wiped plant detritus* off my hands, I listened to the message. It was someone I didn't know telling me that RH wanted to publish my books. All of them.

I listened to the message a second time and recognized the name of my agent – a person with whom I had spoken several years earlier and who had never given me cause for hope. After years of waiting anxiously by the phone, I had finally given up on any chance of publishing and reverted to the comforts of vegetal genocide.

I called my daughter and told her about RH.

Hey,” she said. “I've heard of them.”

Why are you making that sound?” I replied.

Well (harharhar), I never thought (harharhar) you'd actually get published (harharharharhar)...”

My daughter is the only person on earth who can evoke completely incompatible emotions in me.

And thus begins the first emotional stage of Publication: Ecstasy. The other five stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I'll get to those later when I talk about contracts.

Before you could say New York Times Bestseller, I found myself scurrying to comply with my agent's agenda. I was instructed to go to The City to lunch with The Editor and to tour RH. I was also instructed to cut my hair and make myself presentable. (This last task proved beyond me.) I got into a car, then on a train, and then not into a taxi (why aren't there ANY available taxis in The City?), and then ran, in the rain, fifteen blocks to RH. By the time I arrived, I was wet, flushed, and my stockings had fallen down to my ankles.

You look just like a children's book author should look,” said the agent's assistant. Her lack of irony was unsettling.

Random House Lobby
Silently, my agent bade me sit. 

There was only one place to sit – a bench made out of something very hard and very unforgiving.

Just take it in,” said my agent in soft, reverent tones.

I took it in. We were clearly in the belly of the beast. BERTELSMANN was displayed in large brushed-steel letters on the wall opposite the entrance. There were matching elevators. A bored young person sat behind an enormous bulwark. Behind me was a huge, brutally lit wall encasing the hundreds, nay thousands, of famous books RH had published. 

I knew I was in for it.

After receiving permission to ascend, we took the elevator to the 10th floor where I was introduced to my editor, and to 200 other children's book editors. Some of them shook my hand. Others turned their backs (these were the writers of the Golden Books - a disgruntled lot). I met the person who would be in charge of marketing my book. She gave me the look my attire deserved. 

Then we went to lunch. My agent had given me instructions to keep my mouth shut. So, I sat there and ate sanitized quasi-Greek food while my editor and agent spoke in hushed voices.

Why hushed?

Because all the other agents and editors in the publishing industry were at adjacent tables trying to eavesdrop on one another's conversations and potentially steal … something. The conversation at my table revolved around “buzz” and other marketing terms. As it turned out, there was no need for me to speak, because there was nothing to say. RH was a machine, a behemoth, a juggernaut. Nobody could stop it. Nobody could influence it. We were all just tiny teeth in its gargantuan devouring maw.

The publishing industry isn't just about bestsellers,” I muttered. “Books are ideas. Sometimes you have to take a chance on a new idea.”

My editor leveled her gaze at me and said, without a hint of remorse, that she had turned down J. K. Rowling because her books were “too long, and nobody would read them.” 

It was at that point that I began to enter into the next stage of Publication: Denial.

*Detritus: One of the many "5-dollar words" that RH made me take out of my book.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Everything I did wrong: Self-Publishing

"I won't put a scratch on it! I promise!"
Updated 1/2/24

Many first-time authors focus on publishing the way a pregnant woman focuses on birth. The soon-to-be mother thinks, “I'm going to have a baby!” not “I'm going to have a sullen teenager who hates me and bashes up my car.”

Your book won't hate you, but you will hate yourself if you don't prepare for its future.

I made a number of critical mistakes in publishing both my print and eBooks.

If you don't do what I did, your book won't have so many accidents later on.

My first mistake: I didn't prepare.

  • I didn't have a website in place several months before my books were published. 
  • I didn't create “buzz” by announcing my upcoming book to the relevant audience. 
  • I didn't contact reviewers four months in advance of publication (for eBooks). 
  • I didn't have a cover for my eBook ready before the publication date (to send to reviewers). 
  • I didn't schedule talks and appearances to coincide with the publication date.

Instead of doing all these things before the publication date, I did them afterward.

And now my book has bashed up my car.

This is what you should do:

1. Launch your website now. If you don't have a book published, just put your photo and bio on the home page (see Designing an Author's Website). Begin a blog. You are a writer, so take your blog seriously. Write about your area of expertise if you write non-fiction. If you write fiction, you can write about anything, as long as it is entertaining and/or informative. Unless it is a sample chapter of your upcoming book, do not post unpublished work on your website! An author's website is supposed to showcase his or her accomplishments. (And don't forget your "contact us" page. You never know when an agent might be reading your blog.)

2. Five months before the publication date start working on your eBook cover. Don't do this yourself unless you have a flair for design. Hire an eBook designer, not a graphic designer. There are many online. Make sure you look at their portfolios first. You can also contact writers who have eye-catching eBook covers and ask them who the designer was.

3. Four months before your book is published, contact reviewers and send them the galleys. (For eBooks, reviewers may simply request a PDF file.)

4. Two months before the publication date, start scheduling talks and appearances. Don’t limit yourself to bookstores. You can give talks at schools, businesses, in retail stores, to organizations — it all depends on what your subject matter is.

5. Six weeks before the publication date start contacting groups and organizations which might be interested in promoting your upcoming book. They may ignore you at first, but do it anyway. Keep asking. Requests can simply be overlooked if they are only made once.

6. Maintain your blog. Two entries a week is enough. Blogs help keep you writing, even on those “off” days. The more you publish — anywhere — the more visibility you will have. You can blog about everything you did right.

Helpful resources:

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Finding an Agent – Look before you leap

"Just take another step back, my dear."
Updated 10/16/23

For those of us who either don't like to shmooze, or don't have the opportunity (See: Schmooze or You Lose), finding an agent can be quite a challenge. Sending cold queries is hard, and often frustrating, work. But even before you begin sending queries, you need to do some solid research, because getting an agent is somewhat like getting a spouse. It has to be a good fit for the marriage to work.

First, do you share common interests? An agent who usually represents military history may not be the best fit for your romance.

Second, do you want an involved, hands-on agent who will critique your work or do you prefer someone who lets you drive? If you don't like input, an agent who expects you to do several revisions before pitching your book to a publisher can get on your nerves.

Last, but not least, does the agent charge “reading fees”? If so, don't even propose.

Your first stop for locating an agent is As one of its many valuable services, AgentQuery maintains a database of 900 reputable literary agents. And it's free! If you are interested in researching a specific agent, you can search by name. You can also search by genre, AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives) membership status, and whether they are actively seeking clients. Agents who appear on this list have track records. (AgentQuery also provides a useful blogroll of agent, editor and other publishing industry blogs.)

Once you have made a list of agents who represent your genre, go to their websites to get an idea of how they operate. How many authors do they represent? How many sales have they made this year? What kind of books have they sold, and to whom? This will give you an idea of how active they are, and also how overbooked. An agent with a lot of clients will not have time for you. An agent who sells books exclusively to publishers you never heard of is someone who does not have contacts in the major publishing houses.

Your next step is to look up agents in Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. (Many library systems have copies.) Although there are several other guides to literary agents, this book is the best source of detailed information. Why? Because it reveals their attitudes. Would you want to marry a person who describes suitors as “blowhards, bigots, braggarts, bitches, and bastards”? Admittedly, some writers fall into one or more of those categories, but chances are good that an agent who uses that much alliteration has a short fuse. Not all agents in Herman's book are members of the AAR, so make sure you cross-check them on AgentQuery.

Query Tracker is another great source for information about agents. In addition to contact information, how to send queries (snail mail or electronic), and genres the agent represents, you can read comments by other writers who have submitted queries. One the best features of this site is the "who reps whom" database which allows you to look up the agent for any author.

If you have been approached by an agent, and don't know if he or she is legitimate, go to their agency's website. If they don't list their clients, or have any sales, you can check them out on Preditors and Editors, a website maintained by the Science Fiction Writer's Association (SFWA), to see if there have been any legal actions against them, or other complaints.

You can also simply type the name of the agent (or the name of the agency) plus "absolute write" into a google search to read what other writers have to say. (Absolute write hosts a forum for writers - the watercooler - on which you can read the latest scuttlebutt.)

Armed with this knowledge, you can now propose.

(And remember: A writer without a literary agent is still a writer. An agent without clients is out of business. They need you more than you need them.)

Photo credit: Jared Platt.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Getting an agent: Schmooze or you lose

"It just so happens I have my manuscript right here!"
Updated 10/16/23

I frequently get contacted by people who want to know how to get published. They figure there must be some trick of the trade, some wisdom, that I can impart. A winning query letter. A perfect pitch.

The nasty truth is that getting published is basically about connections and luck. (Just type “how I got my agent” into a google search and you'll see what I mean.)

This is how I got published. I wrote a book. Then, not knowing a thing about how to get it into a publisher's hands, I called a former boss of mine who was the editor of an academic journal. One of his friends happened to have a sister who was a publisher. The friend made a call to his sister as a favor to my former boss. Then the publisher called me. “What have you got?” she said. I described the book, and she said, “I'll send you a contract.” That was it.

This story may fill you with self-righteous indignation and/or despair. After all, if you haven't been published, stories like mine will just piss you off. But wait, there's more.

My publisher turned out to be a dud. But, several years later, when I had written a work of fiction and had mailed out hundreds of query letters to agents who replied with one-sentence form rejections (they aren't even doing that anymore), it dawned on me that my publisher had used an agent to sell my book to a second publisher. Voila! I already had an agent.

I called the agent and informed her that she was my agent. She seemed to believe me, because she said, “Send me your manuscript.” And, after a couple of years, my novel got published.

That is also how my second, third and fourth books got published. No query letters, no agent's “auctions,” just one phone call to the right person at the right time.

This is how the entire system works. You don't get an agent by sending out query letters. You get an agent by knowing a guy who knows a guy who can hook you up. That is also how you get a manager, and a publisher, and an editor. It's a sad fact of life – but getting your work into print is all about who you know.

Don't jump off a bridge – yet. You can meet people in the industry rather easily.

There are numerous conferences and workshops that are attended by agents and writers. Go to one and talk to them. Join writers' groups and talk to other writers. (Don't even think of cold calling editors. I did that once. It surprises me that I am still alive.) Get out there and meet people, physically, in the flesh, or virtually on zoom. Let them know you are a real human being. You never know. Some of them may like you.

Below are some good sites for finding appropriate conferences for your genre and needs. Please read the article on conference etiquette first. It's got some wonderful tips.

Now, get out there and schmooze!

Must-read article on etiquette at conferences.
Month-by-month list of conferences.

Shaw Guides provides a great list of conferences with detailed information.

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