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Category : Questions from Beginners
I’ve just returned from our annual MacGregor Market Seminar (we host a free gathering each year for the authors we represent, just to talk about how they can effectively market their books), and while I was gone I received a bunch of questions regarding agents. My guess is that one of the Pied Pipers Of Publishing Wisdom has once again declared that agents are unnecessary and agenting is dead. So… Do you need an agent? If so, why? If not, why not? How will you know if you need an agent? What should an agent do for you? And what will an agent NOT do for you? How do you go about finding an agent? What questions should you ask if you run into one in the wild?
Here are some agenty thoughts…
1. Do you need an agent? That depends. I suppose I’m not an evangelist for agents, though most publishers have moved toward relying on agents more and more. If you’re not a proven writer, or if you don’t have a completed novel manuscript, you may not need an agent, since you may not be READY for an agent. If you don’t allow others to critique your work or you can’t take rejection, you definitely don’t need an agent. If you understand and enjoy both negotiations and the inner workings of publishing contracts, you may not need an agent. (I’m not being facetious…some people like that stuff. They’re probably off their medication.) If you’re sure you can write, post, market and sell your works and maximize their value without any experienced help, you might not need an agent. Finally, if you feel like you are “losing” fifteen per cent of your writing income, rather than investing it for help with ideas, writing, editing, proposals, negotiations, and ensuring contract compliance, then you aren’t ready for an agent. But if you plan to take the business of writing book seriously,
Someone wrote to ask about titles: “I understand publishers have the last word on titles — how often do they change an author’s proposed title? And if they’re going to change it anyway, how important is the title we suggest?”
Sure, the publisher probably has the final say on your title — in fact, if you read your contract carefully, you’ll probably find a note about that very fact in the section marked “editing.”
That said, the proposed title coming from the author is always given weight by a publishing or titling committee. They want to use a title the author likes. In fact, the publisher will sometimes bend over backwards to be polite to an author offering up a lousy title. (My pick for one of the all-time bad titles: Heism Vs Meism, a book by Michael Yousseff with Harvest House. Michael is great. Harvest House is wonderful. The book probably isn’t bad at all. But that title sucks. When I saw it, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. High-ism versus My-ism? My guess is the stores didn’t sell many copies because staff didn’t know what the title of the book was.)
Of course, I’ve seen both sides come up with clunkers. Sometimes an author will get stuck on a totally unsalable title and be completely unreasonable about it — so let’s face it, if you don’t have a background in marketing, you may want to give up on that title everyone is telling you is awful. (A retired missionary, who had clearly been in the African bush too long, once went to a friend of mine with a book claiming God would send a wind her way, whenever she prayed for something to cool her off. Her proposed title? Heavenly Blow Jobs.)
At other times, the publisher will push for a title that doesn’t fit a book — they’ll claim to be basing it on market
Someone wrote to say, “My publisher has scheduled me for a booksigning, but I don’t know the first thing about doing a booksigning, and what I’ve heard isn’t very positive. Can you help? What do I need to know?”
Sure. Let me offer some wisdom on book signings and other pieces of information you can’t live without…
1. Remember that the FIRST rule of marketing is that “YOU are responsible for marketing your book.” So don’t leave the marketing up to the store manager, the publisher, the shipping clerks, or your publicist. Instead, take the initiative. Call people and invite them. Turn it into a party. Let everybody know about it. Contact the local newspapers, radio shows, and tv stations. Send promotional announcements. Get it announced in your church, and in other organizations who know you or have had you as a speaker. Make sure it gets placed in more than one spot in the paper — for example, in the “calendar” section, the “entertainment” section, and the “book” section. Talk with the bookstore management about using their marketing to promote the event.
2. If you want to get more people there, offer to give away free books. I know an author who once got a radio station to do a remote broadcast from a bookstore just by offering to let them give away a few copies of the book. Free books bring people in, and that’s the key to having a successful signing event.
3. Learn to work a crowd… even if there’s a handful of people there. Take the time to talk with people, ask questions, and listen to answers. Tell them about your book, and express appreciation for their coming. Have a couple stories from the book (or a scene from the book, or some wisdom from the book, or something) at the ready so you can share part of your work with the people who come
Someone wrote to ask, “If a book publisher turns down my proposal or manuscript, does that mean everyone at the publishing house rejected my proposal? Can I try with a different editor? And how long do you have to let it cool with this publisher before I try again?”
A writer needs to understand the entire decision-making process at most publishing houses. First, your work is more than likely getting into the building by way of an acquisitions editor — often a friend of your agent, somebody you met at a writer’s conference, or the person who lost a bet. They’ll read through it, maybe make some suggestions, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it is worth pursuing. (And a note on the process: more and more acquisitions editors are relying on agents to do the filtering out of junk, so the slush pile has largely moved from publishing house to literary agency… which means you may have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.)
Second, the acquisitions editor will generally take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around and make literary jokes (“I’m having a DICKENS of a time with this one!” “Yeah, let’s take a TWAIN out of town!” Editorial types love this sort of stuff… that’s why they’re editors and not writers). Eventually they’ll be forced to talk about the merits of your proposal. If it passes muster, it then moves on to the next step.
Third, the ack editor takes it on to the publishing committee. This is a group of people generally made up of someone from editorial, marketing, sales, and house administration. The sales people will research how many copies their accounts might buy, the administrative people will explore what the hard costs of producing the book will be, and the marketing people will complain that
I’ve had a number of people write to me and ask something along the lines of,“How can I negotiate my own contract?”
Okay, let’s get something straight right off the bat: You probably aren’t ready to talk contracts with a publisher. Just admit it right now. You spend your time plunking away at a keyboard, and most of what you learned about publishing contracts came in a 45-minute workshop at some writer’s conference, or possibly in a book you barely understood, entitled something like Understanding Publishing Agreements in 6 Easy Lessons. If that’s the case, let me help educate you: When you start discussing contracts with a publisher, you might want to remember that he (or she) has a team of professionals backing him (or her) up. There’s an entire group of people whose professional existence is to make mincemeat out of you. Lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers — even the assistants probably know more about contracts than you do. Have I scared you yet? I hope so. Because I’m not trying to sound superior — I’m trying to get you to understand how important a contract is in your life. A publishing contract is a legal document governing everything about your book for as long as it’s in print… so you don’t want to sign something without having read it carefully, and without knowing what you are signing. There are going to be clauses that sound like they were created by lawyers for whom English isn’t their first language. There’s fine print. There are terms used that are completely foreign to you. And while the publisher isn’t necessarily trying to force you into signing a bad deal, he (or she) is in business to get the best deal possible and to make as much money as they can.
Think of it as going to a garage sale and finding a great book — a leather-bound, first edition. Maybe it’s
A reader wrote to say, “I’m going to a big writing conference that encourages us to join a critique group. You’ve talked before about the benefit of being in a critique group, but I was in a critique group that didn’t work. What I’m wondering is how to make a critique group actually WORK. Can you help?”
I’m a huge fan of critique groups, and have participated in several until I moved or they wised up and threw me out. The experience has taught me a few principles for getting the most out of the group. Here are my Ten Laws of Critique Groups:
1. Ask yourself why you want a critique group. What do you hope to get out of it? You ought to have clear expectations going in, so that you’ve got something to evaluate the benefits later. Some people basically want to hang out with other writers — more or less the same reason they attend writers conferences. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your reason for joining, you should easily find a group that fits your needs. Others really want a dedicated group of professional writers to take a careful and thoughtful look at their material. If that’s what you’re after, you’re going to need to put a lot more thought into your group.
2. The value of a critique group is based almost entirely on the membership. So look for people who are AT YOUR LEVEL or maybe just a bit better than you (if your ego can take it) and talk to them about the group. Basically, people want to know what the commitment will be (a weekly or maybe twice a month meeting that lasts a couple hours), what the expectations are (that members will actually READ the other member’s writings before coming to the meeting), and what the benefit is to them (you’ll hear advice for improving your writing).
Someone wrote to say, “I signed up for an online writing group. The first meeting was great. Then… nothing. There’s no direction. I don’t know what to do. Help!”
I know what you mean: You sign up for a writing group, and you’re excited when you receive an email telling you who else is in your group. You introduce yourself to the others. Maybe you go back to check out the things these folks have said on recent topics. One morning you sit down at your computer, log on, and can’t wait to start emailing back and forth with your writing buddies. Then something deflating happens…nobody has much to say. You’re not sure where to start. There’s not really a “leader,” so you don’t want to be the one pushing the group toward a topic, but everybody just seems to be sitting there, waiting for someone else to DO SOMETHING. You start to wonder if this group is a bit off the mark…or if it’s you. Instead of participating in the group, you start thinking of spending your time at something considerably more helpful — like online mah jong.
If that describes you and your online writing group, may I offer a handful of helpful thoughts?
First, some perspectives regarding a writing group…
-The group should be a SUPPORTIVE experience. So keep it positive.
-The group should be an EDUCATIONAL experience. Share your thoughts openly.
-The group should be a CHALLENGING experience. Learn to listen.
-The group should be a FOCUSED experience. The others are there to critique your work, not your character.
-The group should be a FUN experience. Let people vent, say stupid things, poke fun, make jokes…and you do the same.
Next, let me offer some ideas to get the most out of your group:
1. Everybody read an article (maybe an online article) and discuss the writing.
2. Ditto with a book…but this is considerably
Someone wrote to ask, “Can you help me understand what a writer’s ‘voice’ is?”
Sure: Voice is your personality on the page. As the writer, you have a unique voice — something that sounds exactly like you, that is completely different from everyone else. The best writers develop a strong sense of voice, so that you can actually tell the author wrote it — “That is obviously Mark Twain,” or “That’s got to be Edgar Allen Poe” or “I can tell Charles Dickens wrote that.” In contemporary writing circles, it’s easy to sound like everyone else, since conferences and classes all seem to suggest there is a “right” way to write. That tends to flatten out voice in favor of correctness. But if three decades in publishing have taught me anything, it’s that a great writing voice will make you stand out.
As an agent, I find myself MUCH more drawn to a great writing voice than any other factor. Think about some of the contemporary writers who have a strong voice — Haven Kimmel, Douglas Adams, Garrison Keillor… nobody mistakes them for someone else. They simply don’t sound like everybody else. They sound like themselves. And I find the more I write, the more I sound like myself. And, frankly, the more I sound like myself, the better “voice” I have in my writing.
Again, I keep hearing people at conferences who more or less want all writers to sound the same. That’s undoubtedly helpful to beginning writers, who simply need to keep their creativity in check long enough to learn the basics of the craft. But it’s also why I keep seeing the same novel coming across my desk — instead of Fiona and Drake in Scotland, the setting is now Becky and Charles on the prairie, only the story sounds the same, the dialogue sounds the same, the tone sounds the same. The only thing
A prospective author wrote me a note and asked, “What is the main reason you choose to accept or reject an author?”
An interesting question. The “rejection” part is easy: Most of the people whose projects I reject are NOT turned down because I don’t like them, or because they’re unknowns, or even because I dislike their ideas. Most authors are turned down because they can’t write. Simple as that. Not all, of course. I just saw a very good nonfiction idea, but I’m already trying to sell a similar project and felt it would be unfair to take on something so similar. And with the advent of so many good writing resources, I’m often seeing novels that are well-done, but not of the knock-my-socks-off quality. So a bunch of things I see aren’t bad, but they aren’t great. Or they are 70% done, and they need to be 100% done. I’d say under-writing and under-finishing and under-editing are the reasons so many projects with some merit don’t get picked up. The author gets started, but can’t get finished — or perhaps he or she doesn’t know now to finish. That’s why having a critique group or writing partner can help offer you perspective on your work. Another set of eyes can really make a difference on a manuscript.
Still, I do get sent some really crummy stuff. Bad ideas. Projects where the author doesn’t speak English. Proposals written in crayon (presumably because the wardens won’t let them play with anything sharp). I hesitate sharing some of them, since I’m always afraid I’m going to really tick off someone who sent me an idea they thought was brilliant, and I found laugh-out-loud bad. But…
A while back I got in a proposal for a book called “How to Make Out With Chicks.” The author was apparently thirteen, or at least stopped growing emotionally and intellectually at thirteen. (From the tenor
Someone wrote to ask a favorite question: “Are there some editing errors that drive you crazy?”
Yes! Of course! Here’s one! Novelists who use exclamation points as though the period key didn’t work on their keyboard! I hate this! Really! What’s worse is the writer who needs to use several at once!!!!
Here’s “another” one: Occasionally you’ll find “authors” who feel a “need” to put any emphasized words in “quotes,” since they think it makes them look “official.” This is particularly tiresome when a “funny” author decides to put his “punchline” in quotations. An “idea:” cut the quotation marks.
And a third (related) item: People who use an open parenthesis but no close parenthesis. (For example, this kind.
Number four: The serial comma. The rule for using commas is that there should be ONE LESS COMMA THAN THE ITEMS IN YOUR LIST. So if you list five things, you’d use four commas. Let me offer an example… “Farnsworth visited Italy, Spain, Bermuda, and Angora.” Note that there are four countries and three commas — one less than the list. Writers will often drop the serial comma, in an apparent attempt to make “Bermuda and Angora” one country (sort of like Trinidad and Tobago, if you need a geography joke).
5. Notice the unclear way I’ve used to create this list. I didn’t number the first or second. Then I used “third” and “fourth,” followed by the number 5. An editing error that drives me up a tree is jumbled numbers in a list. For some reason, Number-Impaired People will make an outline that reads, “First,” followed by “Two,” then “C,” and then “4.” (Or, occasionally, “13.”) Make all your numbered lists consistent. And try not to put a numbered list within another numbered list. Too many numbers drives editors insane.
Sixth: Please notice I didn’t write “sixthly.” From a strict editorial viewpoint, there is no reason the word “firstly” or