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Category : Proposals
The good news: I just saw my first copy of Rob Eager’s SELL YOUR BOOK LIKE WILDFIRE. It’s great. Rob runs Wildfire Marketing, and he’s got very helpful things to say to writers trying to build a brand and increase book sales. We’ve had him guest blog for us in the past, and it’s exciting to see him create something an author can actually pick up and use. Check it out at: http://tinyurl.com/7cn7bao
The bad news: After just blogging about the worst query I ever received, I got a doozy this week. First, there was a letter that said, “Paying scant attention to your ironclad rules regarding submissions those are the reasons why I’m sending you the completed book with the pretty cover.” So, in addition to that sentence barely making sense, he basically wants to say, “I don’t know you, but thought you’d be impressed if I blew off your guidelines.” As you can imagine, I’m impressed already.
But wait, it gets better. The letter ends with the words, “Uncle Neal is quite angry with me — wants to ship me out of the country. A friend has promised to forward any messages directly to you in the event this should happen.” Um… what? I had no idea what he was saying. But not to worry, the next day I received an envelope from him, with a barely legible note in felt pen that said, “Help, I’m ina Korean rererehabilitation camp you tube. See youself.” (Trust me — that’s what it said.) It was written on a paper airplane. None of it made a lick of sense, particularly when nothing in his query said anything about Korea (though it did promise “a NAKED gypsy girl”). I eventually figured out the author was trying to be cute. He just ended up looking amateurish. Or crazy. Or both.
THEN the book came. “Amateurish” doesn’t even begin to cover this one. Any
Denise wrote to ask me, “What’s the worst query you ever received?”
This one is easy. Every agent has had bad queries — I’ve seen them written in crayon, printed in block letters on the back of an old envelope, and created by people who barely spoke English. I’ve had queries arrive that rhymed, that threatened, and that were wrapped in women’s underwear. (All true stories.) And all of us have pet peeves — I happen to hate it when an author uses a query letter to sing his or her own praises: “This life-changing book will make you laugh, make you cry, make you quit your job and move to Toledo so you worship at my feet.” Fer crine out loud — let somebody else sing your praises.
The same holds true for competitive analyses in which the author basically bashes everybody else’s book on the topic. Nothing will make you look more like a self-absorbed jerk than to suggest “John Grisham got it wrong but I’m doing it right.” I once had a guy send me a proposal for his fantasy novel, and his two comparable titles were the works of C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkein. When I suggested to him that he may want to dial back those references a bit, he wrote back to say, “Actually, my work is better than either of them, but they were the only authors who came close.” I think I pulled a muscle with the eye roll after reading that one.
However, the worst query letter I ever received was from some prophecy nutjob in the Midwest. He claimed (and I swear I’m not making this up) that he and his son were “the two prophets foretold in the Book of Revelation.” He called himself “the tool of the Almighty,” and informed me that I needed to send him “a contract and a sizable check.” The best part: he warned
Mary wrote to ask, “What are you looking for in a query?”
Every time I open a query letter, I’m hoping to see something I fall in love with. I want to see a great idea, supported by great writing, from an author with a great platform. I want to read an idea that makes me go, “Fabulous! Why didn’t I think of that?!” An author platform that shrieks, “I can help support this book!” Writing that hooks me from the first line. It’s rare, but it happens.
The one thing that makes sit up and take notice is great voice. If an author sounds unique and has personality on the page, I tend to pay close attention. I’m a sucker for great voice, and it’s the one thing we rarely see. Much of what we see isn’t bad, so much as it’s the same as everything else. It sounds the same, it reads the same, and it could have been written by anybody. Great voice in writing always grabs me.
On the flip side, the thing that makes me immediately plop the query into my “reject” pile is seeing the same old thing — something that’s trying to ride the coattails of a project that’s already been done in a big way. (Examples include, “I was thinking we could turn the Book of Revelation into a novel” and “What about a book on making your life more purpose driven?” I’ve seen them both. Recently.)
Martin wrote a note and asked, “How much of your novel should you post on the internet before you have an agent or publisher? I posted three chapters, and it has proven to be so popular that I now have readers writing to me and begging me to post more of the story. My fear is that I don’t want to give it away, but by the time I wait for a traditional publisher, my readers will be gone.”
Interesting scenario, Martin, and you’re asking questions about something that has changed considerably in the past year or two. I used to rarely encourage an author to post his or her chapters on a website outside of a promotional campaign for a book’s release, since it seemed like there was no way for the author to win. I mean, you might garner some attention from an agent, but it would seem like you’d be more apt to get some of the know-nothing, fly-by-night types to contact you. And as for readership, you’ve hit the problem dead on — you might gain readers, but will they stick around long enough to buy the book? That used to be doubtful — from the time you turn in a completed manuscript, you’re looking at a year’s wait before there are ink-and-paper copies on store shelves.
BUT over the past couple of years that has changed. We now have seen numerous authors post a few chapters to get readers hooked, then later sell them for the entire book. Sometimes that plan has worked; sometimes it hasn’t. The alternative has been to post the entire book on line, sell it, and use it to build a readership. Then you try to steer faithful readers to purchase your other releases (so you capture the names and emails of readers, you get in touch with them, etc).
Of course, over the past few years we’ve seen a bunch
Lisa wrote to ask this: “With today’s publishing economy taking a downturn, would you recommend writers, especially new writers, wait for better times to approach you with a proposal?”
I am SO tempted to say, “No, I recommend they call another agent.” But I won’t because people keep accusing me of being snarky.
Um… Lisa, for all the talk of the national debt and the mortgage crisis and government bailouts ruining our economy over the past few years, people still seem to be buying books. In fact, for all the gloom expressed about publishing, there were more new books offered the last couple of years than ever before. And there are more readers in the world than ever before. So sure, I think some publishers are a bit scared (everybody has been retrenching and rethinking the business), and most are reviewing their practices to see how to reshape things in the light of ebooks and free content on the web. But I can guarantee you every publisher is looking for a GREAT idea, expressed through GREAT writing, by an author with a GREAT platform.
Sop if you have all of those pieces in place, don’t wait. If you don’t have all those pieces… well, you probably aren’t ready anyway. But if you have a solid manuscript, and you’ve worked to make it as strong as possible, and you can demonstrate a way to help promote your book to your potential readers, then you should start approaching editors and agents. Don’t wait for the economy to get better. That may or may not happen (does anyone think Obama understands sound fiscal policy? does anyone think Romney has the answer?). But here’s what WILL happen: publishers will acquire, edit, produce, market, and sell a boatload of new books.
Ben wants to know, “What is the minimum length for a novel to be considered a complete manuscript?”
That depends on the genre you’re writing for, Ben. If you are creating a contemporary romance, the publishers will expect it to be somewhere in the 55,000-to-60,000 word range. If you’re writing a historical romance, most of the publishers will ask for 75,000 words. For contemporary stand-alone novels, publishers are basically looking for 90,000-to-100,000 words, so that the reader feels there is adequate cost-to-value. And some genres (epics, some speculative fiction, and all Harry Potter rip-offs) are going to be in the 110,000-to-120,000 range.
Literary fiction (defined here as novels that are usually contemporary, relationship-driven stories exploring the bigger issues of life) can range from as short as 60,000 to as long as 100,000 words. Of course, publishers are always willing to bend the word-count a bit if they fall in love with a manuscript, but this will give you some ballpark numbers to guide your planning. And recently, with the industry in a state of flux, we’ve seen publishing houses move two directions. Some believe the advent of e-books is creating a need for shorter works, so they are focusing on shortening the standard novel to about 80,000 words. Others believe in a bad economy readers want value, so they are lengthening their standard novels to 110,000 words. So… tell your story, get it into the right ballpark, talk with your agent, and think about shaping it for a particular house.
Jane wrote to ask, “What is the industry standard for citing sources in a proposal?”
The standard is pretty much the same as in a book — you want to cite your sources adequately. Sure, a proposal isn’t going to be published, so you don’t have all the same legal requirements that you do in a book, but you still want to make sure you cite the words correctly, you identify the source, and you give enough information that a reasonable person could pursue the source and confirm your citation.
So if you’re doing a nonfiction book that touches on the American Civil War, and you cite some facts from Bruce Catton’s Mr. Lincoln’s Army, you’d want to cite the source (at least offer the author’s name and the title of the book). If this were to make it to an actual printed book for sale on store shelves, you’d need more detail — publisher, date, page number. But for a proposal, at least make sure to cite your sources.
I mention this because I recently received two proposals that made wild, over-the-top claims, and offered no evidence to buttress their position — so I was supposed to take their word for it that “everybody knows [a certain political figure] is gay.” Well, I’m sorry, but everybody does NOT know that. And the person, if in fact gay, has never come out of the closet to say she is. Unfortunately, that proposition was essential for the book to work, so in context the author really needed to provide some source for the statement. Otherwise, it was nothing more than innuendo, and undercut the entire project.
Gwynne wrote to say, “When working on historical fiction, if an author is using real people from history and not invented characters, what is the author’s responsibility to the character? I sometimes admit to feeling guilty of slander — I’m using real people, but my judgments of their deeds and motivations is quite different than that of historians. What is the ethical line between historical fiction and history?”
I don’t think there is a line connecting them. A novelist who is creating a story and weaving in actual people and events probably owes some debt to the reader to try and get the basic historical facts correct, I suppose (though even that is a questionable supposition, and many authors have altered facts and dates in order to tell a better story), but a novel isn’t a textbook. It doesn’t have a restriction that “you must have all your facts correct” or “you must accept the commonly held notions about a character’s motivations.” The author is inventing a story to entertain, maybe to explore themes and motivations, not to teach history. So, while I wouldn’t create a story in which the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on July 11, I see nothing wrong with an author creating a story depicting an interesting twist — that Roosevelt knew about the attack ahead of time, or that the attack was a rogue group of Japanese military, or that it was all a mistake done by aliens who were looking for Hawaiian shirts and pineapples.
It’s a novel. You can choose to tie events closely to historical facts, or you can choose to recreate history as you see fit in order to entertain readers.
With fiction, it’s the story that counts, not the accuracy of the events. Besides, if we all knew the deeds and motivations of historical events, there would be no need to explore them further. A novel allows us to consider alternative
Denise wants to know, “What’s really the purpose of a market analysis in a proposal? What kind of information are you looking for? It seems like the agent is the one who knows the market, so I’m not sure why an author is asked to do this.”
A market analysis serves as an advance organizer to a publisher. It helps reveal there is a market is for the new book, helps describe the potential audience, and helps the publisher think through how they could market and sell the new title. A market analysis is a way of saying, “You once published this title, and my proposed book is similar.” The author does the legwork to put this together because it’s the author’s job to create the best proposal possible. A good agent will work with you to tweak this section, perhaps recommending other titles or revising the descriptions to best fit each publishing house.
Often writers will come to me with a pitch that says, “Nobody has ever done anything like this before!” That fails to recognize the real world of publishing. Companies discover how to produce and sell certain types of books — for example, Bethany House knows how to sell historical fiction with a gentle faith element, and the folks at Mulholland know how to sell books to those who like edgy crime fiction. Imagine walking up to a nonfiction publisher and saying, “You’ve never done western novels before, so the market is wide open!” It’s stupid — that’s not how publishers think. If you bring them a new project, you need to explain the market for the book, and help them to see how they are going to succeed with it.
Generally a market analysis explains who the book is aimed at, who the readership is, lists three to eight published books that have had some success, explains each book briefly, and may subtly define how the
In keeping with our discussion of creating proposals, Carol wrote to ask, “Do blog posts count as ‘prior publishing?’ Do I have publishing rights to my work if it’s been printed in a blog or an e-zine?”
This used to be an easy question to answer — if something appeared in a blog, it meant nothing to an editor. Blogs were seen as personal diaries, not as published, marketed venues for writers. They were ephemeral literature, but not as weighty as a newspaper story, not as significant as a magazine article, and certainly nowhere near the importance of a book.
Now all that has changed. Blogs are seen as being great tools for reaching a core audience, for marketing, for sharing an author’s story. And it’s clear that you can sometimes reach far more people with your blog than you will with a book. And with that fact, the importance of blog writing changed. Now every editor will ask if a prospective author has a blog, and if so, how many people read it. So, yes, your blog writing (and the accompanying audience) counts at “previous writing.”
Many editors aren’t comfortable accepting material that has already appeared on a blog. In fact, I just had a contract with a major publisher and we had to negotiate what the author could and couldn’t use from her blog. So make sure to research the publisher (be it books or magazines), and find out if they have guidelines already in place on the topic or re-using material. If you’re worried about selling a piece to a book publisher or magazine, you’re probably wise to not include everything you’ve got on your blog, since the publisher will want some fresh material. And by all means, if you’re asked about it, tell the editor the truth. If you blogged about a topic and now want to write an article on the same subject, admit that