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 The other day, somebody asked the question, “How do you suggest an unpublished novelist get started building a platform?”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,
All through the month of April we’re doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask a literary agent the question you’ve always wanted to ask. Last week someone sent in this question: “If your manuscript isn’t the right fit for the agents you query, should you move on to the next book or self-publish? How do you decide if your project is good enough to go out if it doesn’t have a gatekeeper stamp of approval?”
Your first question suggests there is a right-or-wrong answer. The fact is, if your manuscript isn’t the right fit for the agents you query, perhaps you need to query other agents. Or perhaps you need to tweak your proposal. (I’m not trying to be cruel here, but if a bunch of people have seen your proposal and all rejected it, then it’s always possible the proposal simply needs some more work.) I just don’t see this as an either/or question.
That said, I think your second question gets to the heart of the matter: How can a writer know if his or her proposal is ready to be shown to agents and editors? And the answer is no doubt, “By getting some experienced opinions.” Taking your proposal to a critique group can help, or taking it to a couple of experienced writer friends and asking them to suggest changes. Many conferences have workshops on how to create a good proposal, and most will give you a chance to talk with editors and agents about the proposal itself — not just to pitch it, but to refine it. All of those are good options. And, of course, if you need more help, there is always this fabulous book to peruse…
Okay, I’ll admit… I wrote it with longtime editor Holly Lorincz, and I love the topic. There are plenty of good books out there on “how to create a good proposal.” What’s unique
So we’re spending the month of April doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance as a writer to ask that question you’ve always wanted to know about, if you could only sit down, face-to-face, with a literary agent. A couple days ago, someone sent in this question: “Will an agent help me promote my book — particularly if I’m with a smaller publisher who doesn’t offer much marketing help?”
To me, this one is easy: Any good agent should get involved in your marketing. The fact is, the role of the agent has changed, so I can understand some old-timers arguing that the agent’s job really isn’t to get involved in the nitty-gritty of marketing. But from where I stand, marketing has become one of the most essential things I do with the authors I represent. That can mean:
- Offering marketing training, so that authors understand the big picture of how one goes about marketing a book.
- Helping the author clarify their target audience, their marketing goals, their strengths and weaknesses as a marketer. (Are you good at interviews? Can you do a nice job with short articles? etc)
- Brainstorming various marketing ideas.
- Helping the author choose the actual marketing strategies they want to pursue — AND making sure the author understands what the publisher is doing, so you can fill in the gaps instead of not duplicating efforts.
- Following up with the publisher to make sure they actually DO what they say they’ll do.
- Introducing the author to potential endorsers.
- Making media connections, if appropriate.
- Helping set up a marketing calendar, in order to make sure the author has a written plan.
- Evaluating the choices and effectiveness, and giving the author a sounding board to discuss the entire process, bringing in experiences from other books and authors to speak to the current book.
Okay, that seems like a lot… and it is, which is why I often tell
This month I’m trying to tackle any question a writer has always wanted to ask a literary agent. This came in the other day: “I’d love to hear you talk about how you feel the role of the agent will change as more authors move toward hybrid and indie publishing. I know you encourage authors to go the indie route if traditional slots aren’t open to them, but are publishers just as open to the idea of their authors doings some indie publishing?”
As an agent, my job is to help the careers of the authors I represent. That means to some I’m going to be an editor, to others a career coach, to others a marketing consultant. The core of my job probably happens in handling rights and setting up deals — presenting projects to publishers, negotiating deals, trying to land projects overseas and in other languages, selling dramatic and other rights.
But the role of the agent has changed considerably over the past ten years — from being the conduit between authors and publishers to being the person who should help an author map out a career. To me, that’s the biggest shift in my job. So while the role has always meant “finding and encouraging talent,” a large part of the agent’s job today is making sure the authors I represent know about ALL of their opportunities, not just working with legacy publishers. A good agent should help you do that, and should not be afraid of indie publishing.
So I’d say I don’t simply encourage authors to go indie “if traditional slots aren’t open to them.” The fact is, I think most of the authors I represent need to explore having at least some of their projects be independently published. That’s how they’ll best build a career and make money in today’s publishing economy. It will help them build a readership and generate income. Look, advances
I’m taking the month of April to do “ask the agent” — your chance as a writer to ask a longtime literary agent anything you want. Today’s question: “Can you give me some agenty advice on query letters? I think mine is good, but I’ve had eight rejection letters!”
Happy to chat about query letters. First, think very hard about what the goal of the query letter is. Sometimes I’ll see a letter that is all over the map, talking about the story, the characters, the platform, the author’s bio, etc. Your query letter really has only one goal: To get the agent or editor to read your proposal. So with everything you do in a query, keep that in mind.
Second, address it to someone specific. I don’t even read the “dear agent” letters that come in. And I want to know that the person writing to me has spent a bit of time researching me and my agency.
Third, keep the introduction short and clear. Often your query letter will open with one sentence – “I’m writing because you represented Susan Meissner’s Secrets of a Charmed Life and I think my work is similar” or “I’m writing because your client, Davis Bunn, introduced us.” It’s always nice if you can make some sort of connection to the person in your opening.
Fourth, your query letter is going to have a couple of paragraphs that offer a short description of your book, and a short description of yourself. So if you’re writing a novel, give me the basic storyline and don’t lard it up with all the subplots and minor character names. Maybe tell me something about the writing you’ve done. If you’re writing a nonfiction book, explain to me what the problem is that you’re speaking to, and what the solution is that you’re offering — and by all means, explain briefly why you are the person who
What is it you’ve always wanted to ask an agent? I mean, if you could sit down for a few minutes over a cup of coffee and ask a literary agent anything — about proposals, or writing, or marketing, or the process, or the economics of publishing, or anything else — what would you ask?
Here’s your chance. Starting April 1st, we’re going to take a month and just focus on the questions writers have for literary agents. What do you want to know? What do you need clarified? What is it you’ve always wanted to ask (or ask again)? I’ll be taking a slug of questions each day and offering my best response.
So come join the conversation! Either go to the comments section below and drop in your question, or send me an email asking the question you’ve long wanted answered. I promise to try and get to all of them in the month of April. Looking forward to seeing what you send me.
Don’t just sit there — ASK!