Category : The Business of Writing

  • February 15, 2012

    How do I get an agent?

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    Elizabeth wrote to ask, "Can you tell me the basics of how to get an agent, when to get an agent, and how the agent relationship works?"

    I have responded to this basic question in the past, so let me repeat some of my old ideas…

    First, remember I’m a literary agent, so I'm either "experienced" or "biased," depending on your position. I’ve been in the publishing business for more than 20 years, full time as an agent for the last 14 or so. I made my living as an author and, later, as an editor before I fell away from the Lord and became an agent. I was with one of the top literary agencies in the business for many years, and now I’m out on my own – so I admittedly have my own perspective. Second, I’m pretty successful at what I do, in a business where some people call themselves “agents” but don’t seem to know what they’re doing (and, consequently, don’t last very long), I’m fairly well known in the industry and, by and large, have developed a pretty good reputation (more evidence for the existence of God). Feel free to ask around and see what others say. Third, most people who know me will tell you that I’m not an agent evangelist. I happen to know there are some very good things a literary agent can do for you (no matter what Jon Konrath says), but I’ll be the first one to tell you that not everybody needs an agent. And I’m fairly safe in talking about this because I’ve been saying the same stuff for years.  So I’m going to give you my opinion…

    When NOT to get an agent:

    -When you're not a proven writer. Generally, publishers are looking for great ideas, expressed through great writing, and offered by a person with a great platform. Sometimes they get all three, usually they settle

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  • February 14, 2012

    Are writing contests a good idea? (and other interesting stuff)

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    Tiffany wrote to ask, "What do you think of writing contests? Are they a good idea for beginning novelists?"

    Sure. Contests are a good way for beginning writers to get into the swing of writing. It means you have to write and polish, you've got to meet a deadline, and you are going to allow somebody else to evaluate your work. All of those are good steps. And there are a ton of contests that are good — the Genesis contest, the Writer's Digest Writing Competition, the James Jones First Novel contest. Many universities, magazines, and conferences have their own contests as well — check the most recent edition of Writer's Market or one of the various Writer's Market Guides for up-to-date information. Contests are a great way to gain some needed experience.

    Keep in mind that a contest isn't generally a judge of actual talent — it's a competition between the writers who have chosen to participate. So if a bunch of weak writers all send in their manuscripts, then the winner might not be all that spectacular. But it doesn't hurt to tell a prospective agent or editor that you won a "New Writers Award" or the "Short Prose Competition." Publishers love seeing their authors win awards.

    Holly wrote to say, "I have a non-fiction book contract and an agent who only represents non-fiction. Since I also want to write fiction, do I need another agent? Is there a way to leverage my current situation to increase my odds of getting a good publisher for my novel?"

    Some agents only represent non-fiction projects (and some only fiction projects, or children's projects, or whatever). So yes, the possibility exists that you may need a different agent for your novel. If you're happy with your NF agent and getting good service from him or her, then I'd simply approach the agent and say, "I'm planning to write a

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  • February 14, 2012

    Are writing contests a good idea? (and other interesting stuff)

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    Tiffany wrote to ask, "What do you think of writing contests? Are they a good idea for beginning novelists?"

    Sure. Contests are a good way for beginning writers to get into the swing of writing. It means you have to write and polish, you've got to meet a deadline, and you are going to allow somebody else to evaluate your work. All of those are good steps. And there are a ton of contests that are good — the Genesis contest, the Writer's Digest Writing Competition, the James Jones First Novel contest. Many universities, magazines, and conferences have their own contests as well — check the most recent edition of Writer's Market or one of the various Writer's Market Guides for up-to-date information. Contests are a great way to gain some needed experience.

    Keep in mind that a contest isn't generally a judge of actual talent — it's a competition between the writers who have chosen to participate. So if a bunch of weak writers all send in their manuscripts, then the winner might not be all that spectacular. But it doesn't hurt to tell a prospective agent or editor that you won a "New Writers Award" or the "Short Prose Competition." Publishers love seeing their authors win awards.

    Holly wrote to say, "I have a non-fiction book contract and an agent who only represents non-fiction. Since I also want to write fiction, do I need another agent? Is there a way to leverage my current situation to increase my odds of getting a good publisher for my novel?"

    Some agents only represent non-fiction projects (and some only fiction projects, or children's projects, or whatever). So yes, the possibility exists that you may need a different agent for your novel. If you're happy with your NF agent and getting good service from him or her, then I'd simply approach the agent and say, "I'm planning to write a

    Continue Reading "Are writing contests a good idea? (and other interesting stuff)"
  • February 13, 2012

    How do I approach a literary agent?

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    Diane wrote to ask, "When is the best time to approach an agent? What do I need to have ready in order to talk with him or her?"

    The best time is probably 11 in the morning. The hangover is gone, but the agent has yet to move toward that three-martini lunch. And what to have ready? Well, you ought to have a book proposal that is completely ready. That means you've got a good description of your book: an overview, the features, the details about word count and genre, and your overall focus. You also need to include information about the market: the audience, the need, and comparable titles. And you'll need to have a complete bio, not just something you dashed off in five minutes. You want to reveal who you are and what you bring to the table — your past publishing credits, sales history, media exposure, online traffic, and speaking schedule (where, to whom, on what topics, when, and how often). Hopefully your proposal will tell me something about marketing: what you plan to do in order to support the work, who is endorsing it, what you've done in the past that has worked. There will be a Table of Contents that explains to me the scope and sequence of your book (what you cover, and in what order), and above all there will be some sample chapters that are DONE — written, edited, and polished. If you're authoring a novel, you'll send me a great synopsis that reads like a well-done short story, and you'll tell me that your novel is complete, so I can read the whole thing, should I desire to do so. If you've got a great book package to present, you're probably ready to talk with an agent.

    Be aware that most people I talk to at writing conferences aren't there yet. They might have a good book idea, but it's

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  • February 13, 2012

    How do I approach a literary agent?

    by

    Diane wrote to ask, "When is the best time to approach an agent? What do I need to have ready in order to talk with him or her?"

    The best time is probably 11 in the morning. The hangover is gone, but the agent has yet to move toward that three-martini lunch. And what to have ready? Well, you ought to have a book proposal that is completely ready. That means you've got a good description of your book: an overview, the features, the details about word count and genre, and your overall focus. You also need to include information about the market: the audience, the need, and comparable titles. And you'll need to have a complete bio, not just something you dashed off in five minutes. You want to reveal who you are and what you bring to the table — your past publishing credits, sales history, media exposure, online traffic, and speaking schedule (where, to whom, on what topics, when, and how often). Hopefully your proposal will tell me something about marketing: what you plan to do in order to support the work, who is endorsing it, what you've done in the past that has worked. There will be a Table of Contents that explains to me the scope and sequence of your book (what you cover, and in what order), and above all there will be some sample chapters that are DONE — written, edited, and polished. If you're authoring a novel, you'll send me a great synopsis that reads like a well-done short story, and you'll tell me that your novel is complete, so I can read the whole thing, should I desire to do so. If you've got a great book package to present, you're probably ready to talk with an agent.

    Be aware that most people I talk to at writing conferences aren't there yet. They might have a good book idea, but it's

    Continue Reading "How do I approach a literary agent?"
  • February 3, 2012

    What you've always wanted to ask the Agent

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    I've been receiving a number of questions about authors and agents, so I wanted to take a few weeks to explore agenting. Glenna wrote to ask, "How long does it usually take for an agent to respond after receiving a requested manuscript?"

    Everybody is different. I try to respond to people within a month, but this past fall it seemed to take me two or three months before I could read and react to all the submissions. If you'll check out the web site of literary agents, most will offer some sort of timeline in the two-to-four month range. I've heard stories of authors having proposals in to agents for eight or nine months, but my response to that would be: "Maybe you aren't picking up the hint." Look, if you've had something in with an agent for six months, and they haven't so much as responded to your idea, it's clearly not ringing their bell. Move on.

    I should also note that I have a couple people who work for me who review manuscripts. Like most longtime literary agents, I don't promise to read everything that gets sent to my company. I work with a couple people who have great editorial eyes, and they frequently take a first look at stuff coming in over the transom. And if something isn't a fit, we may not respond at all. (In fact, it may not be read at all if it's written in crayon, is a retelling of the Book of Revelation, or warns me that I'll go to hell if I dont immediately read and get excited about the idea. Just so you know.)

    This question came from Janet: "If an agent has asked you to send in a manuscript, is it wrong to continue sending out queries to other agents?"

    Not in my book. The way I look at it, if I'm taking a couple months to review a manuscript

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  • February 1, 2012

    Ghostwriting: Not as Spooky as it Seems (A Guest Blog)

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         There’s no middle ground. If you are a person’s ghostwriter, that person will either hate you or love you. It’s all about ego.

         If the person whose name is going to appear on the cover actually wants people to think that he or she wrote the book, that person will want you to write a brilliant manuscript and then drop off the face of the earth so that he or she can go on radio and TV talk shows and take kudos for writing such a brilliant artistic masterpiece. (I actually had a client break into tears recalling how “emotionally gut-wrenching it was to write chapter nine.”  Oh…pul-leeese!)

         So, let’s put our cards on the table. Most ghostwriters, including me, do this for the money. Thus, rule one is to charge plenty.  I mean it.

         Let’s get the negatives out of the way. First, ghosting causes a split personality: the publisher is expecting the ghost to deliver one kind of book, but very often the client wants a totally different kind of book. (When it doubt, favor the one paying you.) Second, ghosting is hard work, but usually you get no credit for your labors. (One woman, whose entire book was written by me, thanked me on the acknowledgements page for “proofreading assistance and help with typing.”) Third, no matter how the book fares, you, the ghost, will come off the loser. If the book hits #1 and sells five million copies, you won’t get a dime more than the work-made-for-hire flat rate you were originally paid. If the book tanks, everyone will blame you, personally, for producing an inferior manuscript.

    WHERE’S THE UPSIDE?

         By now you may be wondering why a guy like me, who has written 34 books under his own name, would also have ghostwritten 18 books for other people. One reason is because writing is what I do, and

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  • February 1, 2012

    Ghostwriting: Not as Spooky as it Seems (A Guest Blog)

    by

         There’s no middle ground. If you are a person’s ghostwriter, that person will either hate you or love you. It’s all about ego.

         If the person whose name is going to appear on the cover actually wants people to think that he or she wrote the book, that person will want you to write a brilliant manuscript and then drop off the face of the earth so that he or she can go on radio and TV talk shows and take kudos for writing such a brilliant artistic masterpiece. (I actually had a client break into tears recalling how “emotionally gut-wrenching it was to write chapter nine.”  Oh…pul-leeese!)

         So, let’s put our cards on the table. Most ghostwriters, including me, do this for the money. Thus, rule one is to charge plenty.  I mean it.

         Let’s get the negatives out of the way. First, ghosting causes a split personality: the publisher is expecting the ghost to deliver one kind of book, but very often the client wants a totally different kind of book. (When it doubt, favor the one paying you.) Second, ghosting is hard work, but usually you get no credit for your labors. (One woman, whose entire book was written by me, thanked me on the acknowledgements page for “proofreading assistance and help with typing.”) Third, no matter how the book fares, you, the ghost, will come off the loser. If the book hits #1 and sells five million copies, you won’t get a dime more than the work-made-for-hire flat rate you were originally paid. If the book tanks, everyone will blame you, personally, for producing an inferior manuscript.

    WHERE’S THE UPSIDE?

         By now you may be wondering why a guy like me, who has written 34 books under his own name, would also have ghostwritten 18 books for other people. One reason is because writing is what I do, and

    Continue Reading "Ghostwriting: Not as Spooky as it Seems (A Guest Blog)"
  • January 26, 2012

    A Writer's Budget

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    A couple of people read my Monday blog and asked me, "What does a writing budget look like?"

    Here's the basic idea…

    1. The author sets a financial goal for the year. It's got to be something that is livable (if the writer is attempting to make this a full-time job) and reachable (so there's no setting a goal of "a bazillion dollars"). Let's say, for someone just moving into full-time writing, the goal is $24,000 per year. Skinny, but a real wage for most writers. So figure out how much you need to earn in a year from your writing.

    2. I encourage an author to break that annual figure into monthly chunks — so in our example, the author's goal is $2000 per month.

    3. The next step is to add up what the author expects to earn on the writing they are doing. How much in contracts does she already have? What other writing does she know she'll be doing and getting paid for? That will help her figure out how much money is coming in, and how much she needs to add. Let's say an author has a royalty check coming in May, expects to have completion money on a book contract in July, and is expecting to sell a project in October. All you have to do is to figure out the amounts and write them onto your writing calendar. Nothing will give an author more clarity than hard numbers written down on a calendar — it's a way of saying, "I'm making this…so now I need to work to make that."

    4. The obvious thing to do next is to match up dates and amounts. If you know you're going to be working on a book in March/April/May, you can write down how much you're making on that project. By looking at your calendar, you'll see where the holes are that need

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  • January 24, 2012

    Who Needs a Publisher?

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    In these times of self-publishing, ebooks, bookstore closures, agents turning into publishers, and the crumbling of the traditional publishing model—who needs a publisher?

    May I offer an indie publisher’s perspective on that question?

    First: Ask yourself if you know the industry. Many writers seem to have no clue about the changes in the publishing market. You need to do your research, learn book marketing, and educate yourself. One day your publisher is going to ask you, “What is your marketing plan?”, and if you say, “I can email my friends and do a book signing…”, there is a good chance your book will fail. No matter what path you take to publish, you will be responsible to market your book. Not the publisher—you.

    Second: Ask yourself if want a publisher. You may feel you don’t need a publisher these days, as you can do much on your own. But a publisher can do it faster and better, and brings expertise to the process… so do you want a publisher? (And when I say “publisher” I mean the indie publisher, the new model publisher, the partner publisher, or someone who is not stuck in the old way of doing business. I do not mean the Big 6 or old-school, dying on the vine publishers who seem to think eBooks and news of thinking are evil.)

    The fact is, a good publisher can do a few things for you that you can’t do on your own. But that will cost you something. You will give up part of your royalty to cover their services. Think of a publisher as someone who knows 50 people that you need to meet in order to get your book into reader’s hands. All a publisher does is make the introductions:

    ·      A publisher can get your book into bookstores. To sell with Ingram you need 10 titles before they will even talk to you.

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