I know you’ve been waiting all year for me to host my 10th annual BAD POETRY CONTEST at the blog — so here is another reason to go on living. One week from today is my birthday, and I always try to celebrate by inviting all the bad poetry my friends can muster. Just go to the bottom of this blog, hit “comments,” and post some lousy piece of doggerel as your way of joining in the celebration. It can be a crappy couplet, a crummy free verse, a lousy limerick (let’s stay away from rhyming with the city of “Nantucket”), or any other ditty you create that shows what a sensitive and thoughtful artist you are, when you don’t happen to be worrying about your lack of a book contract or whining about the bad job of marketing your publisher is doing for you.
For those not in the know, this contest grows from my belief that every poet has the same message, which can be subtly summed up this way: “LOOK AT ME! I AM SENSITIVE AND REFLECTIVE AND NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME! SO I’LL SHOW THEM HOW DEEP I AM BY WRITING POETRY!” (Feel free to edit that statement if you’re truly deep and meaningful.) I want you to know that I’m here for all you poets. In fact, I was once accused of being sensitive, and have occasionally been forced to reflect on something — that is, until I could grow up and get over it. Therefore, I’ve set aside the next week just for you. Write! Create! Sit and contemplate your navel! Do…um…whatever it is you poets do while the rest of us are out earning a living. Then send in your bad poetry! There are no rules, except that you don’t send in “birthday” poems. This isn’t a celebration of me aging — it’s a celebration of terrible writing, of faux depth, of deepful meaningness.
For a month now I’ve been doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask anything you want of a literary agent. We had one person write in to say, “A memoir is a deeply personal story covering many avenues of thought. My tell-all of escaping the mental imprisionment of American Fundamental Extremism (having been inadvertently exiled because I admitted to being gay) is hard to pigeonhole. How do I determine how to present it to its broadest advantage, and find an agent who can appreciate the scope of its message?”
Yeah, that’s too long. (The fact is, the comment was actually much longer, and meandered a bit.) But what you’re basically asking is, “How do I write a great memoir?” And the secret of success with memoir is to write it like a novel. A memoir isn’t an autobiography — who reads autobiography these days? An autobiography is a careful retelling of everything that occurred, so you’ll be spending a lot of time researching sources, and making sure each date is correct. A memoir is a reminiscence — the stories and themes that capture a place, a time, an event, a lesson, a life. So instead of writing it like a history textbook, you write it like a novel.
That means you’re going to need to create a story arc. Not all the details will fit. You figure out which details we need in order to see your story. And the story will reveal to you where to start, and where to end, what stories will be told, and what will be left out. There will be an inciting incident, and decisions that lead to changes, because that’s what creates a story. It will have characters, whom we care about, and they’ll say and do things that matter in some way. You’ll not just talk about what you did, and what it was like, but what you
We’ve been doing our “Ask the Agent” series for a month now, and I still have a handful of questions to get to. Someone sent this: “I hate talking money when it comes to my writing. I wanted to do this for the art, not for money! How can I get over my reluctance to talk dollars?”
I realize some authors are reluctant to talk about money issues, but it’s necessary if you’re going to get to know the business. When I was a free-lance writer, I noticed that publishers (both magazine and book publishers) tended to put me on the bottom of the pay ladder because I was a small free-lancer. I once called a publisher to complain that I hadn’t been paid, and the response was, “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Guess we’ll get you next quarter.” To them, it was a measley $1500 they owed me. But to me, it was MY HOUSE PAYMENT that month. So, yeah, I eventually got over my reluctance to talk money with publishers.
But if you’re going to talk money, that means you have to know what you’re worth (in terms of money-per-page or money-per-hour), and you have to be able to share that with others. The good news is that it gets easier to talk about when you have a pretty good feeling of your value. I mean, if you know you should be making $3000 per month, and the publisher asks you to work on a freelance project that will take two months, it’s much easier to say, “I’ll need to make about $6000 for that project” than to take a wild stab at a number.
So let me suggest something… Figure out what you’d like to make from your writing in a year. (You need to be reasonable. Don’t say, “A million dollars” unless your name is James Patterson or George R.R. Martin.) Let’s say you think it’s reasonable for
This month we’ve been doing our “Ask the Agent” series — your chance to ask a literary agent anything you want. I’ve received a bunch of short questions (or questions that don’t require a long answer), so I wanted to take today’s blog and try to jump on several of them…
Do you see a resurgence in literary fiction?
I do. What a lot of people don’t realize is that fiction is always the thing that has paid the bills at big publishing houses, and literary fiction (in one form or another) has often been the genre that created the biggest impact on the culture. Literary fiction, like all genres, will wax and wane a bit. But we’re seeing huge successes in today’s market with literary fiction.
Are you more or less likely to take on an author who has self-published?
Neither. It depends on the author. If an author has proven that she can sell her indie-published book, then publishers will take note of that, thus making the selling of her rights easier. But if I love a manuscript, even if the indie version of that title that isn’t selling, we may just encourage her to take it down and let us sell the book. The fact of the author self-publishing doesn’t make me more or less inclined to work with her.
What does an author do if she has great word-of-mouth network, but still is struggling to build a social media platform?
My advice would be to preach patience. A strong social media platform can be developed, but it takes time. Perhaps too many authors are impatient and want big success right now. The fact is, if you’ve got a great word-of-mouth network, that should pretty easily translate into a strong social media platform, given some time and effort.
Are agents taking on more culturally diverse projects?
I think everyone is publishing is trying to. We’ve all been
We’re doing an Ask the Agent series, and a few questions came in about Wattpad, the website that allows writers to upload and share their work with readers. Authors can upload entire books at once or they can upload chapters or scenes. Many use Wattpad to get feedback from readers as they write, and some have developed pretty substantial followings.
Here are the questions that our reader asked:
Does sharing your work through Wattpad count as self-publishing? Does it affect how traditional publishers see you?
Can Wattpad be a powerful marketing tool or a risky way to show unpolished work?
If you use it, would it be better to share just the first part of your book (so that you don’t give away the ending) or the whole thing?
I remember a few years ago, my friend was seeing some really great success on a HarperCollins-owned website called InkPop. The site was similar to Wattpad in that you’d upload your chapters as you wrote them and get feedback. The only difference was that InkPop promised that if you got high enough in the ranks, a literary agent would review your work. They even had an example of a young writer who had received a really nice HarperCollins book contract—all because of this website.
My friend climbed really high really fast. Within a month, she was near the top and received the coveted agent review. But in all truth, her book was hastily written. She had uploaded the first bit on a whim, not thinking it would go over. And then it did. And then she felt pressured to hit the agent review deadline. So even though I was giving her feedback as she went, she didn’t have time to polish and perfect. She put forth a manuscript that wasn’t her best.
Now, I think if any writer is on the cusp of getting a free review with an agent, he/she
We’re doing “Ask the Agent,” when you can ask anything you want of a literary agent. Someone wrote to ask, “What do I do when I get a negative review on Amazon? I just got a terrible review on my most recent book, and it’s not fair.”
It’s one of the things unpublished authors don’t realize… once you put something into print, it’s there forever. If you say something stupid, you’re stuck with it. You can go to the person and apologize, but the words are still out there, waiting to be discovered by millions of other potential readers who will never get to hear your personal explanation or apology. I know… I’ve been there.
Writing is a scary thing.
I’ve often done fairly blunt assessments of books and events in publishing, and at times I’ve hurt people’s feelings. But I never set out to do that. I mean, it’s not like I saw the book, didn’t like the author, and decided to toast them just for fun. When I’ve said something was weak or badly written, it was because I was trying to offer an honest evaluation of a project. But that’s not universally practiced. Let’s face it — plenty of people ONLY want you to stay something nice. Or to say something awful.
So if you’re asked to review a book that’s bad, what are you supposed to do? Lie about it? It seems to me like the best thing to do is to be honest but as gracious as possible, speaking the truth (or at least the truth as you see it) in love.
Unfortunately, a bad review like that can hurt an author’s career (to say nothing of the author’s feelings). So I find that when I’m asked to review a book for a friend, I tend to simply stay away from reviewing a book I didn’t love. That means the title will get a falsely-positive
Someone wrote to ask, “Can you explain how an agent gets paid? Does the publisher send the author’s checks to the agent? Or does the money go to the author, who writes the agent a check? And is all this done before or after taxes?”
Happy to explain this. Traditionally, when it was time for the publisher to send money, they would send the entire amount to the agent, who would then deduct his or her commission (the standard is 15%) and send a check for the balance to the author within ten days. This was the system that was in place for years, and many agencies still work with that system. The strength of it is that the agent knows the author has been paid, and paid the full amount. This is all pre-tax money, so at the end of the year the agent would send a 10-99 form to the author, detailing how much money was paid.
When I started working as an agent 18 years ago, I was working for Alive Communications in Colorado, and they used a different system — divided payments. With that system, the publisher cuts TWO checks. The first is sent directly to the author, for 85% of the deal. The second is sent to the agent, for 15% (along with some sort of evidence that the author has been paid his or her amount). To my way of thinking, that was a better system. The author got paid faster. There was less bookkeeping for me. I didn’t have to fill out the 10-99’s. And, most importantly, I would never get a phone call from an author saying, “Hey, you big doofus — the publisher says they sent you my money two weeks ago! Where’s my check?!” I’ve found too many fights in business occur over money, and I prefer that the authors I represent feel as though we’re on the same side,
We’re doing “Ask the Agent” all this month — your chance to ask that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. A lot of the questions have focused on the details of writing and publishing, but one person last week asked a profound question about the big stuff: “How would you define success?”
I have stayed away from talking about this topic on my blog a lot, figuring too many people would give nice, religious answers in the comments section that would make me want to barf (“Success is just doing the right thing” or “It doesn’t matter if I have success, as long as I feel like I’m serving God!”). I think it’s easy to give a spiritual-sounding response. My problem is that I’ve been in this business for decades, and I don’t believe that sort of answer is honest for most writers. We were all born with a desire for power, attention, and success. This is a business filled with egos. To most writers, “success” is defined simply by book sales. You sell a lot of books, you’re a success. You don’t, you’re a failure. That’s how most of us feel. Sure, writers are artists, and we want to express our creativity, but so much of the business of writing is based on sales that we tend to default to that answer. No, it may not be the BEST thing for a writer to focus on, but I have to be honest and say that “sales” tends to outweigh “obedience” or “calling” or “creative freedom” when most of us talk about our writing careers.
So how do I define success as a writer? Let me tell you a story…
Years ago, I used to teach a workshop on creating a plan for your life. (Remember, I’m the guy who went through a doctoral program in organizational development.) In that workshop, I used to
We’re doing “Ask the Agent” this month — your chance to ask that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. Someone wrote me to ask, “What does an average first book deal pay? And can you explain how money is paid on a traditional publishing contract?”
Happy to explain it. First, when you sign to do a book with a legacy publisher, most authors are paid an advance against royalties upon signing the contract. There’s a long tradition of publishers paying advances to authors, since it allows the author to survive while he or she is working on the book. This isn’t free money — it’s sort of a no-interest loan that will be earned back after your book releases.
Let’s say the contract calls for a total advance of $15,000. Typically you’d get one-third of this on signing, another third upon turning in the completed work, and the last third upon publication. (That said, there are a million ways to divide the advance. Some pay half on signing, some pay a percentage when the author completes the bio and marketing forms, Random House wants to pay a portion when the book flips from hardcover to trade paper, etc.) So when your book releases, you’re now in the red $15,000 with the publisher. You’ve been paid that amount, but you haven’t earned anything back yet. Again, that’s not a loan that needs to be paid back, but it’s advance that needs to be worked off — or, in the parlance of the industry, it needs to be “earned out.”
Second, it’s really tough to determine an average first-book deal. Nobody shares the numbers. And the deal points have so many factors: the author platform, the potential media exposure, the timeliness of the topic, the bigness of the idea, the quality of the writing, etc. I’ve done first-book deals for as little as zero (no advance was paid)
We’re doing a month of “Ask the Agent” here on the blog — your chance to ask that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. Last week someone asked, “If I go to a conference and get to meet with an agent or editor, what’s the best way to prepare?”
1. Do some research before you sign up. If you write westerns, for example, you don’t want to meet with an editor who is going to open with the words, “Um… we don’t do westerns.” Spend a few moments online, trying to find the agents and editors who might be a match for your writing.
2. Think carefully about your expectations before you sit down to the meeting. If you’re expecting an editor is going to hear your idea and announce, “You’re the most brilliant writer since Tom Pynchon! Sign this contract immediately!” then you may be setting the bar too high.
3. Remember that it’s perfectly all right to have a meeting and just ask the editor/agent, “What do you think of my idea?” or “What suggestions do you have for me improving my work?” A face-to-face meeting isn’t just to find an agent or get a publishing deal. I never mind having people set up appointments just to talk through ideas, explore career stuff, lay down a bet, etc.
4. If you’re hoping to get an editor to pay serious attention to your novel, make sure what you show them is 100% done. Most of the things we reject just aren’t ready to be shown yet — the author has brought in something that’s 80% done, or maybe 50% done… but it’s not 100% ready. If you bring in something to show to an agent and you want to discuss representation, it should be so strong that I have no reason to turn it down. (If you’re just coming to discuss it, then you can