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It’s one of the things unpublished authors don’t realize… once you put something into print, it’s there forever.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
We’re doing a full month of “Ask the Agent,” where writers get to ask anything of a literary agent, and we’ll try to discuss it. Last week someone asked, “In today’s world of publishing, how important is it to have an agent?”
That’s a very fair question. With things changing so much in the world of publishing, I think most authors may want to consider that and some related questions: 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 my agenty thoughts…
1. Do you need an agent? That depends. I suppose I’m not an agent evangelist, though most legacy 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. 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. And, of course, if you feel you can be successful indie publishing and
We’re doing a month of “Ask the Agent” questions here on the blog. The other day, somebody asked the question, “How do you suggest an unpublished novelist get started building a platform?”
Building a platform isn’t something you do overnight, it’s something you do over time, so you have to be patient with the process. And it’s different for each author — what works for one writer won’t work nearly as effectively for another. So I think the most important first step isn’t to decide on strategies, so much as to decide on who you are and what you do best. Who are you? What’s unique about you? What marketing do you enjoy doing? Some authors will focus on speaking and appearances, others on online articles, some on media… I think you have to know yourself and your gifts, and figure out what you’re going to do to build a platform.
But in terms of the process, there are several common strategies fiction authors use:
- Create a big mouth list (who are the ten people you’re already friends with, who have a big platform and are willing to promote you and your work?)
- Develop a blog that attracts readers (you want to be participating in a discussion with them)
- Start an e-newsletter (and get readers to sign up so you interact with them regularly)
- Create a freebie (have something of value you can give away to interested readers)
- Write columns, articles, or guest posts on e-zines and other sites (so readers will start to see your name and your work)
- Engage people on social media (don’t use social media to sell your book — use FB and Twitter and Pinterest to make friends and engage in conversation)
- Participate in HARO (Help A Reporter Out is a great way to get your name out there by offering insightful quotes on the topics of the day)
- Self-publish and capture emails on your
We’re doing “Ask the Agent” for the entire month of April, so you have a chance to send in that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. The other day someone sent this: “What does it take for a book to transition from being self-published to being picked up by a traditional publisher? If an author wanted to make that transition, what would you recommend? Do I take down the manuscript and pitch as fully revised?”
Great questions (and there were a bunch of other questions asked by this author, which I’ll try to speak to in my answer). Let me try and cover some important ground with ten thoughts…
First, just to be clear, I am very supportive of indie publishing. We represent more than 100 authors, and all of them have heard me say that I think they need to at least consider self-publishing as a means of helping to make a living in a competitive and changing publishing environment.
Second, I don’t believe that indie publishing is second class citizenry, and that traditional publishing is necessarily the preferred means of making a living. I think authors need to look at all their options. (For the record, I also don’t believe in the myth that all you have to do is post your book on Amazon, and watch the Publishing Fairy show up and sprinkle you with golden coins. Both traditional and indie publishing can work — but both can also fail. Making a living writing is a lot of damn work.)
Third, if you’re successfully self-publishing, selling books and making money, you’d have to think long and hard before transitioning to a legacy publisher. The benefits they offer include giving you potential distribution in stores, more marketing muscle, and obviously taking on the production, warehousing, and order fulfillment of your books. But you’ll make less per book, and have less control over things like
The month of April is set aside for “Ask the Agent” — your chance to finally ask that question you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent. In the comments section the other day, someone asked, “If you’re writing a series of three books, how do you find an agent and publisher that will take on all three if they only have the manuscript for the first one? Are there things they look for — outlines of the two remaining books, rough drafts, notes on where you’ll be going with the series?”
Okay… What is easier to sell, a car or a fleet of cars? Normally I try to sell ONE book, then, at some point, see if we can extend the deal. It’s daunting to have someone sit down across from me at a conference and announce they’ve created a twelve-book series (which has happened to me), since something like that is going to be nearly impossible to sell. So focus on one book, and make the manuscript as strong as possible.
Make sure you understand that a true “series” is one continuous story, told over the course of multiple titles. That’s tougher to get a publisher to commit to, since it means they’ll have to do all the books to tell the whole tale. It’s usually easier for a publisher to commit to doing several related titles — not one story told over multiple books, but multiple stories that share a setting and some characters.
Of course, no matter which direction you go, each book in the series has to have a satisfying ending. Each book has to feel complete, so a reader can pick it up and enjoy the novel, even if they never read the other, related books.
Another thing to understand that novel series go in and out of vogue. For a while, everybody wanted series, so it seemed like every negotiation
We’re doing “Ask the Agent” for the entire month of April — you can ask the question you’ve always wanted to explore with an experienced literary agent, and I’ll be happy to discuss it with you. Last week somebody asked this: “What are the odds of getting published as a first-time author? What percentage of unpublished writers land publishing contracts?”
All good questions, but what I say may surprise you: I don’t think anyone knows what the odds are. I mean, I suppose you could argue that there were about 65,000 new books traditionally published last year, and that there were, I don’t know, maybe ten million proposals sent to agents and editors, and do that math… Or figure there are a couple thousand literary agents in this country, and if they all get 10,000 queries per year on average — well, as you can see, the odds are awful.
But that’s a dumb game. The fact is, publishing isn’t a game of chance. (Or, as Stephen Leigh said so well in this piece, “It’s not a lottery.” Or, as Mark O’Bannon says in this wonderful article, “90% of your success is dependent upon your skill as an author.”) There aren’t a certain number of slots to be filled, with publishers working to figure out who to stick into those slots. Nearly every publisher I know is simply looking for good books that fit their lines, and that they can sell and make money. I realize reading that sentence may drive you insane, and I’m sorry… but it’s true. Focusing on the odds in publishing is a losing proposition.
So my advice would be to stop thinking about the overall odds of getting published. Instead, think about how to improve YOUR odds of getting published. I can tell you that the majority of proposals sent to MacGregor Literary are almost immediately rejected. Why? Because the writing isn’t that great,