The Blog

"How Do I … ?" on Agents

From a writer:

I have an agent who is new interested in my manuscript.  Based on her existing clientele, I feel I have a good chance of sparking this woman’s attention. I also have a well-known agent sitting on a full of one and a partial of a second. In the event that either one of them should contact me. . . especially the former. . . I don’t know what to ask her to help me make a decision.  Obviously if they both are interested in the same manuscript, I would probably go with the larger name and proven track record of sales. But can you offer any guidance as to what I could ask, what I could look up, what I could possibly do, to decide if I would want to work with this new agent?  The way I see it, things could go one of two ways:  I take the chance and allow her to build a clientele (everyone has to start somewhere) and it works out.  Or, I take the chance, and next year I’m still waiting. I’ve read where she has contacts [at major publishers].  Another client has gushed about her.  But how do I learn if this woman (who has no track record in the industry), really can get it done?

With agents, having a bad agent is worse than having no agent at all.  By “bad” agent, I mean everything from a scam agent who takes your money and doesn’t do anything for you to a well-intentioned individual who just doesn’t have the contacts and industry-savvy to succeed.

To rule out the scam agents, I would check out the Absolute Write forums (the Bewares and Background thread) and the information at Preditors & Editors . Also check out Writer Beware.

Assuming that you only queried legit agents in the first place, you’ll want to make sure that your prospective agent can do the job. If the agent is new, this is harder to judge because of a lack of track record. (On the plus side, new agents are more open to taking on clients). What’s important
is that the agent has experience in the publishing industry and understands how it works. Good agents are often former acquisitions editors. Sometimes they’re former sales reps, and occasionally they’re book authors who’ve been in the business a long time and know something about it.

What you don’t want is someone who thinks that what works in another field(for example, used car sales) is going to work in publishing. Someone whose experience in publishing is tangential (worked in a bookstore) or only with smaller publishers isn’t your best bet, either. This is not an entry-level position.

A new agent at an established agency is a better risk to take than a new agent who sets up her own agency. An established agency has connections in the publishing industry and can help the new agent through every aspect of recruiting clients to selling their books to negotiating their contracts and beyond.

When deciding between a new agent and a more experienced agent, you’ll probably do better with the agent who has a record of sales in your genre.

However, I will add a few caveats. Assuming that both agents are competent, then you really have to go with who is going to be a better fit for you.  It’s true that going with the more established agent who has a longer track record makes sense, but it’s also possible that your book wouldn’t
get the attention it needs from someone who has lots of other clients who themselves have track records and are thus easier for the agent to sell.

The only way you can get a handle on this is by having a conversation with the agent.  Ask what her process is, ask what her dream client is/does.  Think about what you need.  Do you need a lot of guidance, reassurance and hand-holding?  There is nothing wrong with that, but an agent who doesn’t have time for it isn’t going to be a good fit (which is not to say a new agent will have time for it and a more established agent won’t; that’s just a matter of personality and priorities).

How would the agent pitch your book?  What is her pitching process?  Are you comfortable with it?  I have a friend whose agent said, “I want to pitch this as YA, is that okay?”  My friend had never considered her book as being YA, but when she thought about it, she realized that was an absolutely appropriate thing to do.  But if she’d hated the idea, she and the agent would have had a problem.

Beyond that, I think you have to go with the agent who is most excited about your project and about representing you.

It’s a tough slog, especially these days, and you need a lot of enthusiasm to carry you through to the sale.  You need an agent who isn’t going to give up after the first five tries.  One thing I always suggest is to ask for a few days to think about an offer of representation.  Then you can let anyone else who has a partial or full know you have an offer and let them make their move if they’re going to make it.  It also gives you some time to think of questions you didn’t think to ask and to check with colleagues to find out what they know.  You can also see about talking with other clients of the agent before signing on. That can be a good way to get a sense of what it’s like to work with a particular agent.

"Inspiration is for amateurs"

Or so says the artist Chuck Close.  And even though I spent half the morning staring out the coffee shop window, hoping the divine spark would fall out of the sky and land on my head so that I could figure out how to write the scene I’m working on in my newest novel, I absolutely agree with him.

I have had entire books that seemed to spill out of my pen, inspired by whatever muse is in charge of such things, and I have had entire books that were pulled one drop of blood after another from my flesh after another, and while I like the “spill out of my pen” process better than “pull one drop of blood after another from my flesh,” on reading the works in question, you would have no idea which is which.

It’s not as if one process yields a better result than the other. And you learn a great deal about the craft of writing from the tough slog of writing even when you don’t feel particularly inspired.  That’s why I have always believed it’s a mistake to think that you should wait for inspiration to strike before writing.

Does that mean you should force ideas before they’re ready? No. It just means that you should sit down every day and write — and not just write, but write with the purpose of making progress toward a goal: to finish a  chapter, to polish a proposal, to respond to a writing prompt, to draft a scene in your novel.

Making Your Book More Marketable

Some ideas to consider for making your book more appealing to agents and editors:

  • Expand your niche. Sometimes agents and editors like a book but don’t think the primary audience for it is big enough. You can expand your niche by adding secondary audiences. A book for straight parents of gay teens can also be marketed to include school professionals and other family members and friends.
  • Focus on one genre or another, not ten. You may think that your erotic paranormal futuristic romantic suspense will appeal to readers in all the genres represented but that’s not always true. It can seem muddled instead of inclusive. Editors and agents need to know what shelf the book should go on in the bookstore. Pick one to emphasize and don’t worry about the rest.
  • Emphasize the timeliness of your idea by tying it to current events (but don’t make it too timely – book publishing is a slow business).
  • Restructure your book. When I originally conceived the idea for Dojo Wisdom, it was for  the book to be narrative non-fiction.  At the time, narrative non-fiction wasn’t one-tenth as popular as it is now, so I capitalized on a trend and broke the book into lessons. You can use a similar approach to break your magnum opus into two companion books or a trilogy, turn your general nonfiction book into a prescriptive self-help, and so on.
  • Work on your platform. A writer with a lot of fans is irresistible to agents and editors. Consider ways to connect online and offline with readers who’ll line up to buy your book.
  • Make your book bigger. This isn’t a word count issue but a vision issue.

Why You Need to Develop Mastery

Time and again, I’ve tried to help writers understand that they have to offer something not everyone else can offer in order to succeed.  Anyone can write “Ten Ways to Organize Your Garage,” but not everyone can tell us about the costs of complying with Sarbanes-Oxley for small businesses.

On a writer’s forum, a writer recently posted about how an editor expressed concern that she wouldn’t be able to ghostwrite a book she wanted to ghostwrite because she’d never written a book before, and writing a book is a very different endeavor from other kinds of writing.  The poster was discouraged and wanted to know how she could overcome this objection.

I understand that this is frustrating: how can you get published if being published is a requirement for getting published?  But the fact of the matter is, there are ten gazillion writers who have written books, any of whom would be a better bet for this editor.  There’s nothing you can say that will change that.  But there are things you can do. You can develop a proposal based on a book that only you can write, because you have expertise in x, fluency in y, or access to z.

Beyond that, as a writer, you need to recognize that “I can write about anything” isn’t the kind of calling card that gets you anywhere.

Responding to an Edit Letter

Part of the process of getting published includes having an agent or editor request revisions. Sometimes you’ll even be asked to revise your proposal or manuscript before a contract is offered; you’ll almost always be expected to make revisions afterward.

These edit letters can feel daunting — you’ve already put a lot of work in and now they want more? More than that, they can feel threatening — like the editor thinks you suck. But part of being a professional is being able to accept feedback, criticism, and suggestions without taking it as a personal attack on your worth as an individual.

I understand that this is hard to do: I have received any number of edit letters that have made me seriously consider joining the Peace Corps, where at least they’d appreciate me. But I’m a professional, working in a highly competitive business, so here is how I respond, no matter what I think of the feedback:

Thank you so much for your suggestions. I can see that you have thought them through carefully and I’m sure they will be an enormous help in the revision process. I will consider your feedback carefully as I get to work and will let you know if I have any questions.

Then I shut the hell up for about three days. By that time, I have eaten enough chocolate and drunk enough tequila that I’m willing to entertain the idea that perhaps my agent/editor does have some worthy ideas for how I can improve my project.  Then I start making the requested changes.  I make them even if I don’t agree with them.  

It’s that last that many writers find impossible to do, and since they don’t agree with anything the agent/editor says, they respond to an edit letter with, “Nah, I don’t wanna.”  Which is not the response of a professional.  (Trust me on this.)

Once I have made the requested changes, I very often see that the agent/editor is right, or at least not wrong, and so there’s no problem.  I submit the revision and everyone is happy.  But sometimes, not as often as most writers would like to believe, the agent/editor is wrong.  But by having made the change, I can show that I tried, explain why it’s wrong, and then begin a discussion about what else could be done to fix the weakness the agent/editor sees.

This is how I show respect for my agent and the editors I work with, and it’s what I expect from my authors (who are all so wonderful that this post is absolutely not about any of them).   Graciously accepting agent/editor feedback on your work is basic professional behavior; don’t personalize it.  And for heaven’s sake, keep some Ghirardelli on hand for all such emergencies.

Yes, It IS Hard Work

Every single stage of my writing career has been a pain in the ass.  I think the last time my love of writing was pure and unadulterated with any concept of “why does this have to be so hard?” was when I was five and the lightbulb went off in my head and suddenly I could write in sentences.

All of the labor that had gone before — identifying the letters of the alphabet, naming their sounds, sounding them out into words, figuring out how to hold the number 2 pencil in my hand so I could form large, awkward letters on my Big Chief tablet — all of that was overshadowed by the fact that I could make sentences that anyone could read: my parents, my teacher, my siblings, a total stranger whose name I didn’t even know.

Just as intoxicating was the fact that I could make things up — I could lie through my teeth — and no one got mad at me as long as I prefaced the bald-faced lies by saying, “This is a story.”  Sometimes I forgot to preface the lies, but I was five, what do you expect.

From then on, though, the process of getting to the next level — figuring out how to put those sentences into paragraphs and the paragraphs into chapters, how to make a plot work, how to create characters, how to write dialogue — has been a pain in the ass.

On the nonfiction end, it’s been the same: figuring out how to write effective queries, putting together book proposals, writing and promoting books — all one enormous pain in the ass.

Which is not to say that the process has been unrewarding.  Obviously it has been or I’d have given up a long time ago.  I’m just saying that getting to the next level may be joyful, it may be fulfilling, it may feed some deep inner need for meaning, but it is also plain hard work.  A lot of the time the work goes nowhere.  Half the time I’ve got nothing to show for all those words I spill on the page except the understanding that this is not working.

Because I have a bizarre affection for the Stoics (“be of good cheer, all men are mortal”), I found it very comforting when a friend of mine recently pointed out, “We’re way past the stage where this is going to be easy.”  Which, as a mantra, may not be as catchy as “Just Do It” but I like it better.


Pushing Through Challenges

Working in book-length can be a tough slog, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. If you’re a writer who has ever thought of giving it all up to become an accountant instead, raise your hand. Right. That would be all of us.

Is the slog worth it? Some days I know the answer to this question. Other days I don’t. Probably because of my past experience, I don’t tend to have too much trouble getting through the tough slog when I’m working on nonfiction. I’ve been in the middle of plenty of 320-page books when it looked like all I would ever be writing about for the rest of my life was baby brain games, but it turned out that by keeping my butt in my chair, the task was accomplished. The book was finished and published, and I got to revel in the feeling of accomplishment and, you know, the advance money.

With fiction – and with any goal that I haven’t achieved twenty-two times before – I’m more inclined to self doubt. Will this be worth it? Wouldn’t my time be better spent doing something else?

In every novel – as in every worthy goal – there is the middle part. This is the hardest part. The excitement of the beginning has worn off, and the end is not in sight. This is the Sahara desert, and what made you think it was a good idea to wander into it? You could go back, but that doesn’t seem like any kind of answer. You could go forward, but what if you’re just wandering around in circles? You could just stand there, but then you’re going to die of thirst.

Okay, enough with the uplifting analogies.The secret to getting through the tough slog is resolve – grit, determination, single-mindedness, whatever you want to call it. It isn’t enough to have a goal and a list of steps you’re going to take to get there – or at least it isn’t enough for the really tough goals. Note that I’m not saying resolve means you’ll successfully achieve your goal, because I don’t promise that. Some of our goals are things that are outside our control: we can’t control whether Random House publishes our series of historical novels. We can’t control whether we end up on the New York Times bestseller list.

But I am saying that you’ll be able to get through the tough slog if you do two things to build your resolve (that is, the endurance you’re going to need).

The first is caring passionately about your goal. Here’s the thing: I may want to have a million dollars. I may fantasize about the things I could do with a million dollars. But unless I feel passionately about getting that million dollars, I’m not going to be able to stick the tough slog it will take to make the million dollars. This is why I’m not now and probably never will be a millionaire: I just don’t care enough about it to make it my life’s work.

All of the goal-setting in the world isn’t going to change that. All of the shoulds I could tell myself won’t make a difference: “I should care more about money. I should do whatever work I have to in order to make more money. I should give up time with my daughter to make more money.”

If you’re anything like me, those shoulds strike you as ludicrous. What shoulds are you telling yourself to reach a goal you don’t care about? They’re just as ludicrous. If you don’t care passionately about your goal, find another goal.

The second part of resolve is believing you can achieve your goal.  This is where people ultimately give up.  They encounter challenges and obstacles and think, ah, I can’t do this after all.  But they need to believe they can. Usually this requires an effort at self-delusion. Just because you’ve never lost those twenty extra pounds before doesn’t mean this time you’ll fail!

When I first started in publishing, I had the touchingly naive belief that I was different from all the other writers who tried and failed to establish successful careers in publishing. If I had known then what I know now, I probably would never have tried. But I did try, and I did succeed, and in no small part because I just thought I could.

The same with earning my black belt or my Ph.D. That many of the people who embark on these endeavors never conclude them didn’t make any difference to me. I convinced myself that because I cared so much, I’d achieve what other people found difficult, if not impossible.

That doesn’t mean getting published or earning my black belt or getting that degree was simple once I cared passionately and thought I could do it. I got knocked on my butt more than once. It was just that getting knocked on my butt didn’t stop me. Possibly it should have, but it never did. I call this “being the last one standing.” In many areas of life, even — or maybe especially — in the achievement of difficult goals, being the person who keeps showing up despite being a bit bruised and battered around the edges is all the difference you need to get what you want.


Is Your Proposal Ready to Send?

Back a few years ago, when I was working as an agent, like most agents (like most anyone), I spent my days juggling a lot of competing priorities.  I always had more opportunities — in terms of clients I could take on, editors I could schmooze with, colleagues I could connect with, projects I could work on — than I had actual time and energy to pursue them.  If I liked a book idea but the proposal needed work, I had to think really hard and really long about whether I wanted to do the work that was going be required of me to get the proposal ready for the world — even if the author was ultimately going to be doing the heavy lifting of editing, revising, and polishing.

When an agent or an editor has to think really hard and really long about anything, the answer usually ends up being “no.”

Some questions to ask when you’re getting ready to send your proposal out:

  • Is this book actually different from other books like it?
  • Why would anyone want to read this book?
  • Is my writing appropriate to my audience?
  • Is my argument or theme logically and consistently presented?  Do I even have an argument or theme?
  • Why would an editor (or agent) look at this proposal and think, “Wow, this is a book I have to buy (represent)”?

If you don’t know the answer to any of these questions, or your answer is “no,” then spend a little more quality time with your proposal.  You’ll be glad you did.

Big Projects and Productivity

People sometimes get stuck on long projects and stall because the sheer massiveness of the task is so intimidating. “Write a book” seems a little daunting. You can’t get it done today. So you shy away from getting started at all.

Productivity gurus talk about figuring out next steps and putting them in your planner (i.e., David Allen and his Getting Things Done), and that strategy makes a lot of sense for many tasks. If you want to plan a family vacation, you can figure out the main steps and break them down: save the money, book the trip, have a good time.

To save the money you might set up an automatic withdrawal at your bank so that a certain amount of money from each paycheck is moved to a special savings account. To book the trip, you might call a travel agent or search online at Travelocity. And so on.

But some projects are stubbornly resistant to this approach. The “steps” to writing a book are pretty basic: Write one page. Write another page. Repeat as needed. The same for other big, long-term goals. To lose weight, the steps are simple (which is not to say they’re easy): eat less and exercise more.

You can turn these steps into action items by marking off time in your planner, for example, but it still comes back to having the motivation to do these things for the long haul, over and over, even when results aren’t immediate. “Write a book” can be a paralyzing prospect, but so can “write page one, then page two and so on for the next five hundred days,” which is what a productivity guru would have us do.

But to me, and I think to most people who successfully get to the end of a big project, the trick is to get excited about writing one page after the other. I’m lucky I can dedicate time every day to working on my fiction. I can think of years when I didn’t have that kind of luxury. It’s a gift, and I don’t want to squander it.

What I mean is we have to love the process – the act of writing. That’s why so many of us fail at things we know we should do – like lose weight – because we don’t love the process. All we’re doing is trying to get to the reward. But it is really hard to reach the reward if you don’t love the proceess.

Which is why you need to love the process, even when you’ve spent the afternoon erasing everything you wrote in the morning. To me, this is more about mindset than anything: I’m learning something every time I take out a scene I spent six hours lovingly crafting (when I could have spent that six hours doing something equally valuable).This is what I tell myself, anyway, and I think that’s the crucial point. The things we tell ourselves about our work shape the reality of our work. So look for all the ways you can love the process of whatever you’re doing instead of focusing only on the reward at the end of it.

Who Will Read Your Book?

One of the most difficult things for writers to figure out is who will read their books. But if you don’t know who your audience is, you can’t find them (and neither can a potential publisher).

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, it’s worth spending some time on identifying your readers before you get too far along in your process. If you don’t know who your audience is, you’re going to have a hard time convincing editors and agents that there is an audience for your book.

More than that, different kinds of audiences have different needs and expectations, which will shape how you write your book. They are also reached in different ways. Many times when I ask a writer to specifically describe the audience for their book to me, I get something like, “everyone in the known world will be interested in this book” or “this is a kids’ book.”

What I hear when someone says that is, “I have no idea who my audience is.” Fortunately, this is a problem that can be cured. Think of your favorite magazine. Smithsonian? Inc.? Woman’s Day? While it’s true that a reader of Smithsonian may have some similarities to a reader of Woman’s Day, you have to agree that those magazines target very different readerships. If you were an advertiser and you asked for the readership demographics, they would tell you very different stories: Woman’s Day has mostly female readers of a certain age, income, geographic distribution and worldview. Smithsonian readers would have different attributes. Woman’s Day editors know the details of their audience intimately, and if they want to appeal to their audience, they take those attributes into consideration when assigning articles.

So what are the demographics (the specific characteristics) of your readers? Besides the obvious – are they men or women (or both), are they adults or children? – dig deeper.

  • What are their ages?
  • Are they married, single, divorced?
  • Do they have children?
  • What are their children’s ages?
  • What are their interests and hobbies?
  • Where will you find them?

Those are the questions agents and editors will have for you when you pitch your book to them. In some cases, an audience is already “out there.” For example, if you’re writing a romance, then your audience will be romance readers and you don’t need to give yourself a stress headache trying to figure that out. Of course, you need to be aware of all the subtleties and nuances of your audience. In romance, there are a number of subgenres – people who like to read historical romances may not be interested in paranormal romances.

That matters because promoting your vampire story to historical readers may be met with a huge yawn. If you write category (series) romance and then move to single title, the readers of your category romances may not follow you – they read the category (e.g., Harlequin Intrique), not the specific author. You need to know that.

It also matters because romance readers expect a happily ever after. You may have a beautiful, compelling love story, but if it doesn’t have a happily ever after, it’s not even considered a romance by romance readers. It may be a love story, but it ain’t a romance.

How do you figure this stuff out? By being where your audience is, doing what they do, shopping where they shop. By respecting who they are. In other words, not I’m going to churn out a middle grade novel because they’re short and easy to write.

Know who your audience is and write your book for them.