Over the past few weeks we’ve been answering questions about writing and agents, and while reading over the questions, I’ve heard from several people who asked, “What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a living at writing?” I love the question, and it’s one we’ve tackled here before. Some of my thoughts:
—Have a time and a place for writing. If you really want to make a living at this, then treat it as a business. Get up, get dressed, and go to the office (even if your “office” is a little desk in the corner of your bedroom). You need to show up to the office every day and write, so have a start time. My world changed when I read an interview with the great American writer Tom Wolfe, and discovered he started getting up every morning and putting on a white suit to go to his office (even though his office was in his home) just so he could begin to think of his writing as a “job.” He started at 9, an alarm went off at noon so he could take a lunch break. A time and a place — a great start to making a living with writing.
—Keep your mornings protected for writing. Move your other work to the afternoon, but write every morning.
—Group similar activities. If you do all your phone calls back to back, you’ll get through them faster. Ditto emails, snail mail, budgeting, project planning, looking over proposals, etc. Stick all the activities that are the same into one block of time, and you’ll get through them more quickly.
—Organize your day first thing every morning. If you have a plan, you’re much more apt to stay focused. So at the start of each day, make a list (or check the list you made last night) to give yourself an advance
I’ve been receiving a number of questions about authors and agents, so I wanted to take a few weeks to explore agenting. Someone 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 year 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 vampire novel, or warns me that I’ll go to hell if I don’t immediately read and get excited about the idea. Just so you know.)This question also came in: “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 from you, then
Someone wrote to say, “I notice there are a lot of authors who seem to spend every waking minute on Facebook and Pinterest and Twitter. From your perspective as an agent, is social media an effective tool for selling books?”
I’m of the opinion that internet marketing by authors is not only helpful, it’s probably essential in the new publishing economy. An author needs to engage with people in online communities in order to generate exposure and, hopefully, sales of his or her book. But I don’t think a lot of writers understand how to access it. They start a blog, but don’t understand how to make it successful. They’re on twitter, but it’s about nothing more than “what I had for dinner” and “kids are sick with the flu.” Who cares? And how is that helping to sell books? May I offer ten thoughts on the effective use of social media?
1. Know why you’re doing social marketing. You should have a purpose in mind when you join Twitter, post on Facebook, or connect with people on LinkedIn. You are trying to connect with friends, introduce yourself to people, and share your passion and message. You are NOT just trying to sell copies of your book, though certainly any book you’ve written that falls within the boundaries of your interests and personality will doubtless reflect who you are and what you think. Here’s the key: Don’t promote — participate.
2. Study the social media market. Take a look at who is going where, what’s being said, and what the response is. Get involved with forums and discussion boards, participate on consumer review sites, and stay on top of your online communities. Make sure to Google your name, and check out things like BlogTalkRadio. You should know about bookmarking and tagging, as well as content aggregation.
3. Target your audience. The core of author marketing still comes down to
Recently I had someone write to ask me about a couple novels I represented that did well in the market. Specifically, she asked, “What did the publisher do to help make each book a success? And are there lessons I can take this will help me succeed with my own novel?” I can think of a number of things that were done well, and I think they offer a model for others to follow…
First, in both cases the authors spent a couple years building a readership for her writing through websites. That took a lot of patient work and investment by the authors, and it helped immensely (and I realize that’s not a publisher activity, but I bring it up because it wouldn’t be fair to talk about the success of the novels without that fact). Both authors worked tirelessly at marketing, which also helped. I’m one of those who realizes writers don’t get into this business to become “marketers” — they want to be writers, so investing a bunch of time into marketing is a sacrifice. Both of these authors made that sacrificed and did the hard work to make their books succeed.
Second, each author wrote a very good novel. The publisher’s role in that was to push the writers to make their books better. The editors weren’t satisfied to let the novels be adequate — they pushed them toward greatness. So I think the publisher really believed in the books. That may sound trite, but I think it makes a difference. A publisher can’t believe in every book — no matter what they say, the lists are too long, and there’s only so much time to invest. They need to spend the bulk of their energies on their current bestsellers, since that’s close to being a guaranteed source of income. It’s tough to invest a lot of time, money, and manpower on a newer author
Someone wrote to ask, “With all the changes in publishing these days, what do I really need to know about agents?” Let me offer ten thoughts…
1. Do your homework before selecting an agent. DON’T sign up with somebody just because they say they’re an agent and they want to represent you. I know that’s a temptation, but this is a professional relationship. Would you go to a guy’s office for your health problems just because he claims to be a doctor? Ask around. Check him out. This is the biggest mistake people make with agents, in my view. This past year at ACFW you could toss a rock in the air and when it came down it would most likely hit somebody claiming to be an “agent.” Um… these guys are going to be taking your ideas and helping you sign legal agreements regarding them. Don’t take that lightly.
2. Be wary of any agent who charges a fee or advertises what the charge is to work with them. That’s a total violation of the guidelines for the Association of Author Representatives (and, in fact, those agents wouldn’t be allowed as members of AAR). There are a couple fairly successful agents I know who do that. It’s unethical, and authors should stay away, if they want to keep from being scammed. On the other hand, I was VERY glad to have someone write and tell me that “Steve Laube is my agent and he’s good.” Don’t we all get tired of people sort of beating around the bush, telling us one person is bad and another is good, but never mentioning names? The fact is, Steve IS good. Amanda Luedeke, who works with me at MacGregor Literary, is good. Greg Daniel, Greg Johnson, Chris Ferebee… there are plenty of good agents. My guess is that none of these individuals are for everyone; and neither am I, of course. But
Someone wrote to ask, “If a writer has never published before, but has a completed novel manuscript ready to go, what would you recommend he/she do with it?”
I like this question, since it’s a situation I see frequently. If an author has a manuscript done, I’d encourage him or her to spend some time creating a few other pieces: a one or two page synopsis, a quick overview, a one sentence hook, a good list of three or four comparable titles to give the novel context, and a one-page bio that focuses on platform. All of those things are going to be important when you get to the important stage of talking to an agent or editor.
Then, I’d probably say, “The first draft of any novel is usually bad.” So if this is actually a first draft, I’d encourage the author to use the next couple months to polish it. Take it to a critique group. Have writer friends read and comment. Get it in front of an editor. Pay for a professional critique, if that’s possible. Not every bit of advice you get will be great (or even correct), but listening to the wisdom of others, particularly those who are farther down the path, can help you improve your book. Take your time to improve it, rather than typing the last word and sending it off. Make it as sharp as possible, since that’s the best way to get it published.
Getting your first novel done is an accomplishment, and you should feel proud. But the fact is, not many authors get their first book published. The average in the industry is six or seven — meaning most writers have completed six or seven novel manuscripts before they get done with one that is ready for publication. (You don’t have to take my word on that — check out my numbers. It’s pretty widely accepted in
Some wrote to ask, “I’ve been told we should have a launch party when my book comes out. Is that a good idea? And what what makes a good launch party?”
I think a book launch party is a great idea — it allows an author to involve friends and acquaintances in the release of the book, is an easy way to garner some local media, and can help you kick off book sales. (Besides, it can be great for an author’s ego, if done right.) Let me offer a couple of suggestions to help make it a success…First and most important, you want to make sure you INVITE people. In other words, don’t sit around and hope people show — be proactive and make sure you get a house full. That means you need to find a big group who can be supportive, like your local writer’s group, you church congregation, the organizations you belong to, all your relatives, people at the clubs or sports you’ve joined, and all your fans in the region. Pick a venue you can fill up, since getting 40 people in a tiny bookstore makes it feel like a great party, but getting those same 40 people in a huge shopping mall gallery can feel empty. Determine a definite start and end time, and make sure everyone sees it’s a celebration. Again, you’re trying to get the word out, and get commitments from some folks to attend.Second, if you really want to make people show up, offer an incentive — books at a discount, or free chocolate, or wine and cheese (a few big boxes of wine don’t cost much and seem to bring people out of the woodwork). If you can’t do wine, ask a couple people to bring their latte machines and offer free lattes to everyone. Your only expense is the price of coffee. But have something that is
Someone wrote and said, “I get a royalty report twice a year from my publisher, but I don’t really understand it. What tips can you give me for reading a royalty report?”
I swear some companies hire Obfuscation Technicians, just to try and make royalty reports hard to decipher. And remember, each company has their own format for royalty statements, so it doesn’t always pay to compare, say, a Hachette royalty report to a HarperCollins royalty report. Many authors simply get confused when trying to dig into the details of the thing. Even an experienced author will complain that the Random House statements don’t look anything like the Macmillan statements, which are different from the Simon & Schuster statements. And, unfortunately, some of the smaller companies seem to be purposefully trying to make them impossible to read. (One mid-sized publisher just revised theirs — and they are now worse than ever.)
In addition, there are some companies that do a good job of breaking things down (like Harlequin), but may not do a good job of aggravating the numbers — so you can see a book did great in large print, but you can’t actually see how many copies it has sold overall. Some companies do a wonderful job of telling you how your book did this quarter, but they fail to include life-to-date information. Ugh.
With all that crud in mind, there are about ten questions I need to keep whenever I approach any royalty statement…
1. Who is the author?
2. What is the project?
3. How many copies sold?
4. In what formats?
5. What was the royalty rate(s)?
6. How much money did it earn this period?
7. What was the opening balance?
8. How much is being paid now?
9. Is any being held back? (a provision allows the publisher to retain some of the earned money in case of future returns)
10. Is any
I had someone write in to say they were attending three writing conferences this summer, and asked me, “What advice would you have for me to get the most out of the conferences?”
I love writing conferences, since it gives you a chance to network with other writers, see what’s going on in the industry, meet editors and agents, and get away from the routine for a few days. As you begin preparing for this year’s writing conferences, I’d like to suggest you keep 10 words in mind . . .
1. READ. Don’t just show up and act surprised at who the speakers are. Read the blog of the keynoter. Read the books of the teachers who are doing workshops. That way, when you get to hear them, you’ll already have a context for their information.
2. RESEARCH. If you’ve signed up to meet with an agent or editor, check out their bio, see what they’ve acquired, and get a feel for the sort of books they like. By doing that, you’ll be much more apt to talk with someone who is a fit for you and your work.
3. ORGANIZE. Before you show up at the conference, look at the schedule and figure out what sessions you’ll attend, which ones you’ll miss (so that you can share notes later), and when you can take a break to see friends.
4. PRACTICE. When you sit down across from me in order to tell me about your book, it shouldn’t be an off-the-cuff conversation. Practice what you want to say, how you want to describe your work, and what your hook is so that you’ll grab me.
5. GOALS. Ask yourself what your goals are for this year’s conference. Don’t just go with vague hopes. Plan to attend with some specific, measurable goals in mind. Write them down beforehand so you can evaluate yourself
Someone wrote to say, “I know you’re going to the Thrillerfest conference next month. Of the appointments you have at a conference like that, how many actually result in your asking for more material? How many result in you giving serious consideration to an author? How many will you actually sign to represent? Just curious.”
For those who don’t know, at almost every conference I go to the organizers ask if I’ll spend some time having short meetings with authors. I usually agree, since I enjoy meeting writers and talking about their books. One of the misunderstood aspects of those author/agent meetings is that “the agent is trying to find new clients.” That’s partly true, at least for newer agents who are looking for salable projects to fill their lists. But for someone who has been agenting a long time (I started working as a literary agent in 1998), it’s rare that my goal in attending is to sign up a bunch of authors. That might happen, of course, but generally at a conference I’m looking to be a resource to authors. Some want my reaction to their idea, others want a brief critique. Some want to ask questions about the market, or about publishers, or are looking for career advice. Others are looking for advice on their proposal, or to ask about marketing and sales ideas. Often people just want to know what is hot and what’s not. So “finding new clients” isn’t the only topic being discussed. Sure, plenty of writers are pitching their ideas, but that’s not the only reason for meeting.
So long as you keep that in the back of your mind, I’ll answer your question directly: When I volunteer to do appointments at a writing conference, I’d say I might have 15 to 40 appointments — some formal, some informal.
Of those, maybe 5 or 6 result in my asking to see more. Don’t