An Unorthodox Path to Publication

I love it when my students go forth and publish. They do all the work, and I claim all the credit.

Well, almost all. All except part where they work their butts off and never give up and spend years learning the craft every way they can, until publishers are clamoring to publish them and agents to represent them.

On that note, allow me to introduce my guest blogger, Amara Royce, whose first novel, NEVER TOO LATE, was published in May 2013 by eKensington, and whose second is under contract to the same publisher.  It’s a pleasure to welcome her to In Cold Ink.

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First, thanks so much, Barbara, for inviting me to be a guest on your wonderful blog! I always find your posts valuable, and I hope I can provide even a fraction of your insightfulness from my newbie-ish perspective in the publishing industry!

Note: I took one of Barbara’s fiction writing courses online through Writer’s Digest a few years ago. She’s an amazing teacher, as well as a fabulous author!

Never Too Late e bookI readily admit that my experience in publishing thus far probably doesn’t appear typical. My historical romance, NEVER TOO LATE, was my first completed novel. In June of 2012, I began querying agents for NEVER TOO LATE. By September, a mere three months later, I’d obtained both a two-book deal with eKensington and three offers for agent representation. It was quite a whirlwind. In fact, I still haven’t really recovered.

But as we writers know, the devil is in the details. Taking a look at my own writer’s journey thus far, I’ve arrived at three observations that are not especially new or *cough* novel but that I think are important for me and perhaps for other writers to keep in mind on the road to getting published.

Writing is hard work

hard laborWhile it’s true that my first completed novel garnered a book deal, I actually began writing in 2006 in a completely different genre. Learning to be a good writer is hard work! And it’s not a linear process. I’ve had a lot of false starts and done a lot of writing just to learn the craft of writing. And knowing about the craft of writing isn’t the same as actually doing the writing part well. For instance, I now know that some newbie writers tend to start their story in the wrong spot, with backstory that would really fit better later in the story, if at all. In some cases, writers could cut the first three chapters of their manuscript and find that the event in chapter 4 is really a more compelling place to open the story, a much more engaging draw for readers. Still, knowing that tip is very different from writing the story. I’ve had to cut and restart more stories than I want to recall!

And, as a learning process, it never really ends. I look back on some of my early efforts and have to laugh at their roughness. Frankly, I look back on something I wrote last month and know I’m going to have to fix it! And I know that everything I write, as unfinished and raw as it might be, helps me improve as a writer. Sure, I had to shelve that short story or gut this chapter or set aside that stale idea for my next novel, but that’s all part of the process.

There’s a heck of a lot to learn about the craft of writing and even more to learn about the way publishing works. Learning to write query letters, for example, is a whole different process than learning to write fiction. That subject would require a whole separate post!

Writing makes me vulnerable

shameAt every step of the writing and publishing process, fear and doubt have been my constant companions. I teach English at a community college so getting published actually strengthened my sympathy for my students. Whenever they submit essays and other writing projects, they leave themselves open to judgment, to grading. Even if they aren’t writing something personal, they are subjecting themselves to criticism (which I try to do as gently as I can). The querying process crystallized that vulnerability for me in new ways. Thanks to querytracker.net, I now know that I had a 30% request rate from agents so I know exactly how much rejection I received along the way (28 rejections from 41 queries). Do I have a compelling story? Is my writing any good? Is my story sell-able? Am I just deluding myself? Oh, so many self-doubts reared their ugly heads as those rejections rolled in.

Moreover, sharing my manuscripts with beta readers, with my agent, with my editor, and finally with the reading public lays that work out for judgment over and over and over again. (I use the present tense here very deliberately. I continue to face this judgment daily.)

I thought the self-doubt during the query process was bad, but having my work out there for readers to *buy*…is absolutely terrifying!  Even after all the editing and feedback, I can’t help but wonder what I missed, what I did wrong, what I should have done better. People who know me are inclined to be gentle with their criticism; readers who are spending their hard-earned money and reviewers whose job is to serve those readers and not to mind author’s egos have no such compunction about gentleness. Nor should they. NEVER TOO LATE has received some really lovely reviews that I treasure; it’s also received some harsh reviews that are painful, that cut to the heart of my worst fears as a writer, but that will help me continue to grow as a writer. All the self-doubt, the vulnerability, is just part of the experience of being published that I have to manage for myself.

Writing is worth the effort

VictoryAs difficult as the journey to publication may be, I have to say that, for me, it’s worth every second. Every stage of publication has been wondrously surreal for me.

Note: What I did is generally not recommended. After querying agents for a couple of months, I got a teensy bit impatient and queried some publishers that accept unagented submissions. I still don’t recommend it. Yes, it’s a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you want an agent to represent your work and to strive to sell it to the best publisher possible, focus on that first. I just happened to go a slightly different route.

My “The Call” story is a little unusual in that I got “The Call” from my editor at Kensington with a two-book offer for their eKensington imprint before I had agent representation. In fact, when Kensington’s editor-in-chief, John Scognamiglio first called me, my mother was coming to visit my family for a week and I was on my way to pick her up at the station. Yes, I was driving. I know, I know. My only excuse for picking up is that I thought maybe it was my mother with an important travel update. When it turned out to be John, I must have sounded like total stammering flibbertigibbet, one who had to get off the phone immediately because I’d answered while driving. Fortunately, John was kind and understanding, and we scheduled a phone call for the following day. As an avid list-maker, I had lots of questions about the deal, and John patiently answered all of them.

This was during the week prior to Labor Day and John needed an answer in time for the next editorial meeting, so I had a short time in which to update agents who had requested my manuscript with the news that I had an “offer in hand.” Sure, I could have taken the deal without an agent. I could have just had a literary attorney review the contract for me. But I’d started querying agents for a reason: I wanted agent representation to guide me in my writing future. So, after sending out updates, I received emails from three agents to schedule “The Call.” That was a stunning and hectic couple of days! Again, I had a long list of questions, and each agent patiently responded and gave me detailed information about their agencies and their practices. To say it was difficult to choose from them is an understatement.They each had their strengths and appeals, and they each talked not just about the deal in hand but about helping to foster my career. In addition to the nitty-gritty provided in these conversations, two additional things in man reading contractparticular helped me decide: (1) looking over their sample contracts, which two of them provided without hesitation (the third doesn’t use contracts—which isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker—it’s just how some agents work), and (2) talking with other authors they represent, who generously shared with me their time, experiences, and perspectives. I’m sure I would have been in good, competent hands with any of these agents, but based on all of the information, my scale ultimately tipped in favor of my agent, Jessica Alvarez of BookEnds, LLC. Everything about her, about BookEnds, and about the authors Jessica represents, conveyed a sense of generosity and support and togetherness that really spoke to me, reinforcing the all the data I’d gathered. Those aren’t necessarily qualities everyone dreams of in their literary agent, but they were the key to the “right fit” for me. And I’ve been thrilled to work with Jessica and BookEnds ever since!

Looking back, it’s hard to believe all of that happened within, essentially, a week. And it’s been a dream ever since.  Working on edits; reviewing page proofs; seeing NEVER TOO LATE listed on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other e-booksellers; getting my first royalties statement—it’s all been breathtaking.

And it starts all over again with my next book, ALWAYS A STRANGER, for which I will likely receive edits this month! Wheeeeee!

This is the part that makes writing—all the hard work and fear and doubt—worth every second.

 

Thanks, Amara, and congratulations!

You can learn more about Amara Royce and her books on her website.  For more on my classes, please visit my Next Level website; and don’t forget to subscribe to this blog for irregular updates, writing tips, and real life stories from the publishing world. If you enjoyed this interview, there are lots more here, including chats with OUTLANDER author Diana Gabaldon, Simon & Schuster president Marysue Rucci, and literary agent Gail Hochman.

What To Do Once You’ve “Finished” Your Novel

Jo BourneEvery once in a while, I come across a blog post so informative that I just need to share it. Jo Bourne, for those of you who don’t already know her, is a critically acclaimed writer of historical fiction, including THE BLACK HAWK and THE SPYMASTER’S LADY.  She’s also one of the smartest people about the craft of writing I’ve ever met. We are old friends from the Compuserve Book and Author forum, where we both serve as section leaders, and over the years I’ve found myself savoring (and quoting) much of her writing advice. This time, with her kind permission, I am reprinting an entire blog post. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and check out her blog for yourself. If you’re a writer, you’ll thank me.

Here, with no further ado, is Jo:

 

“Congratulations on finishing your manuscript.
Woot woot.
Go celebrate.

We’ll wait.

 

 

…  All through with dancing and whooping it up?
Now there are a few necessary steps to take to get from here to publication.

 I. Get Crits

What:  Turn some chapters of your manuscript over to harsh, knowledgeable critters.  Listen to what they say.  You need critters who haven’t been with you every step of the way as you wrote.  Critters who are not your family or friends.

This is not putting a saucer of milk out for the tabby.  This is wrapping yourself in raw meat and stepping into the lion’s cage.

How:  There’s a Writer’s Workshop in the Books and Writer’s Forum.   Here.  Absolute Write, here has a ‘Share Your Work’ section.  Writer’s Forum here has a Writers’ Workshop.
If you are writing genre, there are probably specialized sites for writers of your genre.

Why:  Intelligent criticism of your work will help you write better and will prepare you to edit your manuscript.

II.  Let the manuscript rest

What:  Put the work away for as long as you can.  Six weeks.  Three months.  Six months.
(You spend this time working on the next ms and critting other folks’ manuscripts, which is an excellent way to improve your own writing skills.)

How:  Print it out and put it in a locked drawer in the bottom of your desk.  Put all the work in a folder named “Open in January.

Why:  This lets you look at your own work with a critical editorial eye.  It gives you distance.

III.  Learn how publishing works

What:  Spend a solid 40 hours studying the publishing industry.

How:  Start out by Googling everything you can find on the subject.  Then drop into places full of knowledgeable folks and ask questions.

Why:  If you were going to (a) take a job in Thailand for a year or (b) go to State Aggie to study animal husbandry or (c) work for Avis Rent-a-car, you’d do that much research about (a) the country, (b) the university or (c) the business.
Why would you go into writing with less preparation?

III. Learn about agents

What:  Start making a spread sheet of agents who work in your field.  See who they represent.  See who they sell to.  See what kind of deals they’re making.  Find out what folks say about them.
If they have an on-line presence, get a feel for who they are.

How:  Google.  Look at the acks in the front of books similar to your own writing.  Publisher’s Lunch and Publisher’s Marketplace.

Why:  That’s the list you will query, when you query, if you decide you want an agent.  And after all, you have some time while your manuscript is resting.

IV.  Revise

What:  When the manuscript has aged like, y’know, fine wine … take it out of hiding and read it over.
Now you will revise.  Now you see what’s wrong.

How: Read and correct as if someone else had written it.

Why:  Because, unless you have indeed done this, the manuscript is not as good as you can make it.

V.  Find Beta Readers

What:  Beta readers take an entire manuscript that is ready for submission and crit it.  Beta readers, if possible, have never seen the manuscript before.

How:  Find them by doing beta reads for others.  Find them by making friends in writers forums.  Pay them in chocolate.

Why:  Because they will tell you if the whole thing works.  They’ll point out illogical story lines.  They’ll improve the manuscript.

 
VI.  Re-revise in light of the Beta read

’nuff said.

VII.  Get an agent … or not

Three months have passed since you declared your manuscript finished.

You will have read 10,000 words arguing Indie/Big Press/Small Press.
You’ll have the best manuscript you can write in one hand and a significant bit of WIP in the other.

Now you make this decision.

 

Many thanks to Jo for permission to reprint this post. If you appreciate her thoughts, you know the best way to thank a writer, don’t you?

Speaking of which, I’ve just learned that my new book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, has just made one of Amazon’s top 100 bestseller lists recently, the one for thrillers with female sleuths. So woot woot!, as Jo says!  Recently there was a wonderful review by Joan Baum in Dan’s Papers and a couple of fun interviews, one by My Bookish Ways and one by writer Sara Bowers, and there’s more to come.

The past few weeks since launch have been quite a whirl.  In fact, A DANGEROUS FICTION, worn out from the rigors of self-promotion, was recently spotted taking a bit of well-earned R&R.

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Query Fails: Why They Happen

 

In my eternal quest for procrastination, I turned this morning to Slushpile Hell, a site to which writers have turned from time immemorial (since 2010) for a hearty laugh and a pleasant glow of superiority. The query letters on this site are so bizarre, clueless and illiterate that I would be tempted to believe the agent who curates them made them up, had I not been an agent myself for many years, during which time I received similar letters.

We passed those around the agency, I will admit. Agents do. It’s gallows humor of the sort ER doctors used to blow off steam. Outsiders, listening in, might have thought us heartless, but outsiders never had to wade through a literary agent’s slush pile, which for people who love literature and language is as much fun as vivisection is for animal lovers.

So I went to the site and read some of the letters and laughed at the snarky replies; but at the same time found myself feeling sorry for the clueless writers of those queries, which seemed to fall into two general categories: the misled and the misbegotten.

detergentThe misled are the writers who believe they have to sell themselves to the agent the same way you’d sell detergent. They praise their own work, which to any professional is a cringe-making gaffe that screams Amateur! “This book is different from all other books; this book will make us both rich; this book will make you laugh and cry; this book is far better than the drivel put out by [insert name of best-selling author].” Real writers don’t talk about their work that way. They let it speak for itself. It’s not impossible that the author of such a letter could have written a good book, but it’s unlikely that any agent will asked to read it.

The misbegotten are those of whom it is said “everyone has a book in him.” Perhaps everyone does, but that doesn’t mean they should let it out. Some query writers seem completely unaware of their ineptitude with the language. Anyone who would send an ungrammatical, misspelled, totally incoherent query letter cannot possibly have written a book worth reading; and there are many examples of these on the website. Other query writers are  delusional people drawn to writing in order to propagate their delusions. Every agent who’s been in the business for any length of time has received book proposals from messianic messengers of doom and revelation. These are often but not always religious, but they all have discovered the secret to life. Those letters range from sad to bizarre to scary, depending on the writer’s philosophy.

Speaking of misbegotten messengers, I’d like to give a shout out to my son’s alma mater, Vassar College, which was recently targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church, those lovely folk who like to picket the funerals of American servicemen. As a direct response to this group’s action, Vassar students and alumni raised  over $100,000 in a matter of weeks for the Trevor Project, an organization that helps LGBT youth. Way to make lemonade out of lemons, Vassar!

Writers who are currently seeking agents should not be deterred by sites like Slushpile Hell, but rather learn from them. These days there are so many excellent resources for writers available online that there’s no excuse for cluelessness. Before you send that query, run it by the savvy folks on Absolute Write, Agent Query, or CompuServe’s Books and Writers forum. You can also find a lot of advice on writing query letters on this blog—just click on “query letters” in the categories box to the right— with additional resources listed here.

Writing a decent query letter isn’t rocket science. It’s a business letter, not a confessional. From the perspective of top agent Gail Hochman : “A letter that is interesting to read means the writer might have something interesting in his manuscript.” If you present yourself as a reasonable, interesting person with a compelling story to tell and enough pride in your writing to compose a letter with flawless grammar and punctuation,  agents will want to read your work.

Or won’t they? Let’s hear about your  experiences with query letters and agents.

10 Things Writers Should Expect From Literary Agents

 

Gone—long gone—are the days when writers finished their manuscripts, wrapped them in brown paper and mailed them to Mr. Doubleday or Mr. Lippincott. These days, major publishers rely on literary agents to prescreen manuscripts, and most won’t accept direct submissions from writers. That means that the first step for writers who seek mainstream publication is to seek an agent. As seasoned query hounds know, this is not as easy as opening the Yellow Pages; in fact, it’s often the hardest part of the publishing process. There are, at any given time, a few hundred agencies with the ability to get books looked at by these publishers. Last year, some 250,000 books were published in the U.S., as well as another 650,000 or so that were self-published, which gives you an idea of the number of aspiring writers out there.

You do the math. With so much demand, it’s no wonder aspiring writers obsess over the best way to catch a literary agent. The internet is full of advice for doing this, including my own articles and blog posts. But there’s precious little said on what to expect once you’ve snared the elusive beast—specifically, what to expect from it.  In the heat of the search, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the agent-writer relationship is a two-sided, mutually dependent relationship. As someone’s who has worked on both sides of the street, I thought it might be useful to assemble a little list of what writers can expect from their agents.

  1. Enthusiasm for your book. If they don’t love it, they won’t have the fortitude to stick with it even if it doesn’t sell immediately. This enthusiasm should be accompanied by a realistic appraisal of the book’s prospects. In general, part of the agent’s job is educating the writer about how the industry works.
  2. A plan. He or she should have some idea of editors who might like your work.
  3. Commitment. If a book doesn’t sell in the first round of submission, the agent should have a back-up plan. If she’s received some “close but no cigar” responses with useful feedback from the editors who declined the book, or if she has some editorial suggestions of her own, the agent and writer might want to consider a revision before making additional submissions. Otherwise, the agent should send the book out to additional publishers. How long to keep going can be a point of friction between writer and agent, as top agent Gail Hochman explains in this frank interview. Writers often want to keep going long past the point of no return, and naturally so; they have a lot more skin in their books. But at the least, those first few rounds of submission should cover a substantial number of publishers. Agents who conclude on the basis of a mere handful of rejections that the book is not worth submitting further do their clients a great disservice.
  4. Execution. I knew an agent once who took on a writer with no clear idea of how to sell her. The ms. sat gathering dust on his shelf for a full year while he deliberated. This is inexcusable. Once an agent accepts your book, and you have a “final” version ready for submission, he needs to send it out.
  5. Communication. Writers have the right to know to whom their work has been submitted; if the agent doesn’t offer this information, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask. Writers also have the right to be kept informed of the results of those submissions, including, if they choose to see them, copies of the rejection notes.
  6. Contract negotiation and vetting. This is one of the most important functions of agents. Publishing contracts are long and complicated, and good agents are experts in them. Their job is to negotiate on your behalf, obtain the best terms possible, and then vet the contracts thoroughly.
  7. Sub Rights. The agent is responsible for submitting the book to whatever subsidiary markets (film, translation, etc.) they’ve reserved on behalf of the writer, and the writer has the right to know what the agent is doing in that regard and to offer input, while bearing in mind the agent’s expertise.
  8. Payments from publishers should be passed through promptly, after agents deduct their commission.
  9. Advocate. The agent should continue to act as the writer’s advocate throughout the publishing process, staying involved in all phases of the process. A great deal of friction between writer and editor can be avoided by funneling questions and concerns through the agent, who can act as a sounding board and let the writer know what’s realistic and what’s not. If there is a real problem, the agent has more clout and in-house contacts than the writer.
  10. Career guidance. Some writers want it, others just want to be left alone to write what they want to write. Either way, the agent should be the first person to whom the writer turns for education and advice about the publishing business. To this end, there needs to be good communication between them. Writers need to respect the agents’ time—the good ones are always harried, and calling them just to chat about the state of publishing or personal matters is not considerate behavior.  But they also need to feel free to address professional concerns with their agents, and to be confident of getting a timely, thoughtful response.

Notice what I did not include on this list: editorial feedback. Some agents give extensive notes, in an effort to get the work into the best possible shape before submitting. Others accept only work that is already polished and salable, and leave the editing to editors. I’ve had agents from both camps. Neither approach is right or wrong; each agent decides according to his or her strengths and time limitations.

Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from agents as well as writers. Do you agree, disagree? What have I omitted?

Have red pencil; will travel?

 

Should writers hire freelance editors? It’s a vexed question, much debated on the writers’ forums and blogs. My own opinion has evolved over time with the changes in the publishing industry, and it may surprise those of you who know that I myself have worked as a fiction editor. My default position is that they should not… or at least, not right away.

Whenever this question is discussed on other blogs and forums, invariably someone will say, “It’s the writer’s responsibility to edit his own work. It’s part of the job,” to which I say, Amen. First drafts are not finished novels, and shouldn’t be regarded or presented as such. They are the imagination’s playground: rough, and meant to be.  Revising is where the real art comes in. That’s where writers deepen their characters, vet the structure of the book, deal with unruly subplots, refine the language and imagery, and find ways to bring out the theme, which often presents itself to the writer only after the first draft is written.  “Every writer,” Jane Smiley wrote, “has to learn to…come at each piece of work again and again with as close as he can get to a new mind and a new sense of joy.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and novels are not written in one pass. Most of the published writers I’ve known spend at least as much time revising as they to writing the original draft.  “I am an obsessive rewriter,” Gore Vidal once said, “doing one draft and then another and another, usually five. In a way, I have nothing to say but a great deal to add.”

Nevertheless, writers need editors. As writers we can only see what we see; we don’t see what we can’t see. It sounds simplistic but it’s true. Every artist gains through smart, objective feedback. Beta readers can be helpful if the writer chooses well and gets lucky, but it’s not at all like feedback from a professional editor with professional standards. A good editor knows not only when something isn’t working, but also why and how to fix it. The result is a better book, and that, I believe, is what every true writer wants most for his work. The process is also educational, since learning from smart editing is one of the primary ways in which writers grow. What they absorb through the editing of one book, they will apply to the writing of the next one.

Why, then, if editors are so essential, do I advise writers against hiring their own? For purely financial reasons. If the book sells, it will be edited at the publisher’s expense. Edits are not forced down the throat of writers, by the way, contrary to propaganda put out by some self-publishing advocates. Edits usually come in the form of questions or suggestions. The final word is always with the writer, although in extremely rare cases, when communication between writer and editor totally breaks down, a publishing house does have the right to withdraw from a contract if the book is not, in their view, publishable. (The reason such occurrences are rare is because publishers don’t usually buy books that need tremendous amounts of work unless they’re by celebrities, and in those cases there is usually a professional ghostwriter attached.) Paying out of pocket for the same level of editing would be exorbitantly expensive. First-rate, experienced editors charge a lot; $10 and upwards per page is common, and that is just for the first edit. To duplicate the services provided by trade publishers, you’d also have to pay for an edit of the revision, as well as copy-editing and proofreading: maybe $18, $20 a page. (Let me anticipate objections by conceding that yes, you can hire editors for less; but as is usually the case, you get what you pay for.)  That’s a lot of money to invest in a book that may never sell. And the sad truth is that the vast majority of first novels, edited or not, do not sell.

That’s why I recommend that when writers have finished a novel (by which I mean they’ve edited it thoroughly, shared it with a trusted beta reader or two, and revised again to implement whatever useful feedback they receive), they send it out to test it in the market. Of course, to give the book a fair chance, writers have to bone up on submission protocol,  write a great query letter, and assemble a list of suitable literary agents. Having done all that, it’s time to let the book go forth and seek its fortune in the wide world. If it attracts an agent who then sells it to a publisher, the publisher will provide editing services at no cost to the writer. That’s a big part of what they do, along with production and marketing.

But such a scenario is the best of all possible worlds. Suppose it doesn’t go that way? What if you’ve written a novel, sent it out, and gotten nothing but form rejections from agents:  no encouragement, no criticism, no feedback at all. It happens. Agents stop reading the moment they determine that a book is not for them; they don’t finish the ms. and write thoughtful critiques. Writers can accumulate a stack of rejections without an inkling as to what went wrong and how to fix it. Or they might come close—requests for full mss. from agents, even an offer of representation followed by no sale. What do they do then?

Once, for lack of any other alternative, these unwanted works would have been shelved, mourned over, and eventually forgotten. These days, writers have choices. They fall into four categories:

Option 1. Writer decides that agents are bums and stink at their jobs; tells himself that no one gets published without knowing someone in publishing; concludes that the game is rigged; and, rather than deprive the world of his work and himself of the glory, decided to self-publish. None of these suppositions, by the way, is true. Celebrity authors aside, publishing is one of the few remaining meritocracies. In the past year alone I’ve had the pleasure of seeing four of my Next Level students sell their first novels, and none of them had any connections or “platform.” (If you want to learn how they did it, two of them, Tiffany Allee and Mika Ashley Hollinger, answer that question in interviews on this blog.)  Writers who choose to self-publish are well-advised to hire an editor, and not just any editor but the best one they can find and afford. Sending a book out into this market without editing is like dropping a toddler off to play in Times Square; it will be squashed flat in no time at all. It makes economic sense, too, to invest in editing. In a recent study of self-published books by the Taleist magazine, researchers found that edited fiction outsells unedited fiction by a wide margin.

The advent of inexpensive self-publishing and the rise of the ebook has given writers options they never had before. I do think self-publishing is a very difficult road, especially the marketing aspect. In the U.S., over 300,000 books were self-published in the last year, and they are all competing furiously for attention, reviews, sales. But that’s a whole other topic, and if you want to hear my take on it, you’ll find it in a post called “What If J.K. Rowing Had Self-Published?” My point here is that having choices is a beautiful thing. Over the years I have read some brilliant early novels by writers who didn’t have instant commercial success. Maybe they get to publish a second novel, maybe not; but an awful lot of wonderful writers disappear from the market because their sales figures killed them in the eyes of the increasingly monolithic (and well-informed) publishing industry. Who knows what they might have written had they been able to continue? Today such writers have other ways to find readers, and readers to find them.

Option 2. Writer concludes that the book is not good enough yet and goes back at it again. In this case, it makes sense for the writer to consider hiring an editor to provide skilled, objective feedback. It’s also possible to find professionals who will do detailed evaluations of the book or part of it, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the work in a very specific way without actually doing the edit for the writer. Evaluations are usually much less expensive and possibly more educational, because the writer has to do more of the actual work of revision, rather than having it done for him. It must be said that making this investment of time and money does not assure publication. It will result in a better book, but whether it’s publishable or not depends not just on the quality of editing but the quality of the original material. What the edit is bound to do, I think, is teach the writer a lot about the craft. I see it as an intense, detailed tutorial that focuses on the writer’s own work; and given the uncertainty of publication, this may be its greatest value.

Option 3. Writer gives up on that book and goes on to the next, building on what he learned from writing the first. Most published writers have an early unpublished work or two in their drawers. (For current and future generations of writers, that may become “an early self-published work or two.”)  One novelist I knew—Ted Whittemore, author of the brilliant Jerusalem Quartet—wrote seven books before selling his “first” novel.

Option 4. Writer gives up on writing and takes up another pursuit. It happens, and not necessarily for lack of talent. To succeed in this tough business, people need also need fanatical perseverance. (As Richard Bach said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”) They need another source of income, too, since only a small fraction of writers support themselves through books alone.  And let’s not forget the luck factor, lest it forget us.

Writers who choose Options 1 or 2 might also consider as an alternative to editing putting their books, and themselves, through a rigorous writing workshop that will allow them to work specifically on their novels. There are quite a few available, both in brick-and-mortar institutions and online. In my opinion, if a first round of submissions has not led to a sale, it’s worth delaying a second round, or self-publishing, in order to do your very best to improve the book in hand.

Whether you choose a course, an editor, or an evaluator, it’s essential to do your homework and find someone who’s both well-qualified and suited to your particular project. In my next post, I’ll set out a list of criteria for writers to consider before making that choice.

Top Ten Ways To Get Rejected By Your Dream Agent

 

Last week, West Coast literary agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg was in her car on the way to pick up her daughter at school when she was suddenly attacked by a man wielding a baseball bat. He started banging her head against the steering wheel and ran off only when her dog bit him in the arm. This was no carjacking or random attack. Just hours after the attack, police arrested a man who had written a threatening letter after his work was rejected by the agent.

Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to say hats off to the dog, a Jack Russell terrier, I believe. Dogs should be standard issue for literary agents.

I was doubly shocked by this attack. First because I felt for and identified with the agent. I don’t know Pam, but I was a literary agent myself for many years and, like most agents, encountered the occasional unhinged writer. I was also shocked, with true writerly egotism, because the story so closely mirrored the plot of my upcoming novel, A Dangerous Fiction. In my version, a New York agent is stalked by a writer furious at being rejected, whose behavior escalates from harassment to sabotage to violence. The police were not as quick in my story to discover the culprit as they were in real life; but as often happens with fiction, my villain was smarter. The real–life attacker left his name and address in the agent’s files.

The day after the real attack, my e-mail box was full of messages from people who had read proofs of my book – – several fellow writers and people from Viking, my publisher – – exclaiming about the coincidence. The coincidence was indeed surprising, the attack wasn’t. Writers take rejection very personally, they get a lot of it, and it has a cumulative effect. Since agents are regarded as gatekeepers to the promised land of publication, they often bear the brunt of writers’ frustration. Their role is not unlike that of unfortunate Walmart employees tasked with keeping order outside the store on the morning of Black Friday. Not for nothing do agents barricade themselves behind assistants, answering machines, and form letters. Rejection is never fun for anyone, and a little distance can make it easier to bear. But for someone who’s unstable, that distance in itself can be a provocation.

I hope I don’t need to tell anyone reading this post that pounding the head of a potential agent into a steering wheel is not the best way to gain representation. It is in fact so counterproductive that one has to wonder whether the attacker actually hoped to succeed. Most writers, when they set out to gain representation, really do want someone to sell their book. There’s plenty of good advice available for these writers, including these articles and resources. But there must also be some writers who fear success and are determined to sabotage it. Perhaps being rejected plays into their self-image as misunderstood geniuses. So for those who are determined to fail, here is a list of the top 10 ways to get rejected by your dream agent:

1. Be crazy. If you harbor conspiracy theories, make sure to share them in your query letter. If you have the solution to the world’s problems, let the agent know. If your novel was dictated by any alien, occult or deceased beings, this is vital information for your literary representative.

2.  Be creative. There are plenty of ways of skinning a cat. If an agent won’t take your phone calls, find out where she lives and drop by. Send her gifts. Let her know she’s special.

3. Get cozy. Call the agent by her first name. Let her know you’ve done your research, not only into what genres and authors she represents, but also where her kids go to school, her mother’s nursing home, and her Social Security number. This will impress her with your research skills. Don’t hesitate to share your own personal story with her, as well. If you’ve been unjustly incarcerated or hospitalized, discuss it in the query letter and let her know you’re fine now.

4. Pattern Your Book on Current Bestseller. Why argue with success? Originality is for losers; you’ve worked out a formula that guarantees you a spot on the bestseller list.

5. Send your first draft, hot from the word processor. Don’t sweat the small stuff, or the big stuff, either. Editors exist to clean up in the wake of geniuses. Let them earn their keep.

6. Rules are for suckers. Real writers are nonconformists. Check out the agent’s rules for submission, by all means, but do your own thing. If he asks for a query of one page, write six if you need them. If he asks for a chapter, send the whole manuscript. You know he won’t be able to stop reading once he’s begun. You’re just saving a step.

7. Explain how much money your book will make them. Agents are idiots and don’t know what sells. Show them they’re dealing with a savvy customer.

8. Carpet bomb the industry with generic query letters. Just because an agent asks for scholarly nonfiction is no reason not to give him a chance at your paranormal thriller. Plus, agents are idiots. They’ll never know.

9. Promote yourself. Query letters are sales pitches, after all. Tell them you’re the hottest thing since sliced bread and John Grisham. Compare your work to the top-selling books out there and explain why yours will leave them in the dust.

10. Insult the agent. They’re sick of toadies. Some clever sarcasm and home truths will win you their respect.

 

The good news for those seeking rejection is that the odds are in your favor. Incorporate a few of these methods into your pitch and success is guaranteed.

A DANGEROUS FICTION is out, published by Viking/Penguin! In addiiton, Barbara’s last three novels have just been reissued in e-book and paperback form: SUSPICION, ROWING IN EDEN, and HINDSIGHT.

Publishing Mosquitoes

It’s a bad year for mosquitoes – or rather, a great year for mosquitoes, a bad one for their prey. On Long Island, where I live, I can’t step out to the garden without being attacked. There’s a wooded park nearby where I like to take the dogs for long, off–leash walks. Last couple of times I tried, I longed for one of those veiled hats that women explorers used to wear. I spent the entire walk waving my hands in front of my face, batting the pests away.

I thought of those mosquitoes when a former student (thanks, Deniz!)  sent me a link to a service that offers, for an hourly fee of over $100, to match writers with literary agents. What’s wrong with that? you may ask. If you do, I’m glad you’re reading this post, because this is also a bad year for purveyors of unnecessary services to writers. It’s money they’re after, not blood; but how much of either can writers spare?

Writers who’ve invested time, effort and emotion in writing a book desire to see that book published with a passion like that of people who long for a child. Desire of that magnitude makes people vulnerable to hucksters. Of course, hucksterism on the fringes of publishing is not a new phenomenon. Long before the advent of inexpensive self-publishing, vanity publishers existed to fulfill the dreams of aspiring writers, at a hefty price. Distribution was never part of the deal, so most often those writers ended up with boxes of unsellable books in the garage. Today, writers can distribute their self-published books through the same online channels as trade publishers, and they have far more tools to communicate with potential readers. The market is booming, and so is this year’s crop of mosquitoes.

I was a literary agent for many years and have been a writing teacher for many more. I feel protective toward writers and I don’t like seeing them ripped off. Today I’m going to look at just a couple of the services currently offered to writers. Take, for example, the submissions service I mentioned earlier, which promises to expedite the (admittedly tortuous) process of getting a literary agent.

In fact there are numerous companies that offer the same service, and they exist for a reason: it’s not easy to get an agent, or to sell your book without one. Unless they have an introduction from client or publishing professional, writers need to work hard just to persuade agents to read their manuscripts. Most submissions are rejected at the query stage…but not all. If the work is good enough, and the writer goes about searching in a smart way, finding an agent is definitely doable. Many of my students and forum friends have found agents in recent years, and several had multiple offers of representation. This, by the way,  is why when agents decide they want a book, they tend to act very quickly: they assume that if they are interested, others will be, too.

Agents are still reading, searching and hoping for the next original voice. (See this interview with literary agent Gail Hochman.) Writers need to learn to present their work professionally: polish the manuscript till it shines, research agents, writes a good query letter. Excellent books and websites abound with guidance on how to do that. (Here is a list of some of my favorites.) Any service that guarantees to find writers an agent probably has some snake oil and a bridge or two for sale. Even the ones that don’t guarantee it imply that their service makes it more likely. Not so.  If the work isn’t first-rate, no intermediary will be able to persuade a legitimate agent to invest time in it. If the work is good enough, agents don’t need an intermediary to point that out.

All these submission services do, in my opinion, is impose an extra layer between writers and publishers. Their expensive guidance is based on free data bases available to any writer with an Internet connection; Agentquery’s, for example.  For more on this topic, see Victoria Strauss’s article on Writers Beware.

There are many species of publishing mosquitoes. Some varieties (Anopheles scribus) specialize in self-published writers. It hurts me to hear about writers paying hundreds of dollars for reviews from bloggers or companies like Kirkus Indie Book Reviews. The purveyors of this service are exploiting a weakness in the self-publishing industry: the difficulty in finding readers when your book is one drop in a sea of millions of self-published works. Eventually, I expect, legitimate reviewers of self-published work will emerge with sufficient clout to sell books. Paying for a review of your own book is no substitute.  Before writing this post, I read a whole batch of these reviews from the better-known sites, which claim to be impartial. I found several things in common. The reviews are primarily plot summaries, as if to prove the reviewer had actually read the book. Then the reviewer said some nice things and some mildly critical things about the writing. No matter how negative the overall review, there was always a line that the writer could extract as a blurb.

Writers, save your money. Paid reviews have no credibility, and I don’t believe they sell books. The only review worth having is an impartial one from someone not paid by, related to, or sleeping with the writer. Better to invest that money in learning the craft. Take a writing class or find an experienced editor with a track record to work on your book with you. (Scroll down on this page for a list of criteria to look for in writing teachers and editors.) The best way to sell a book is still to write a really good one.

 

 

The Five Qualities Writers Need

Today I’d like to start by introducing you to a wonderful writer, Mika Ashley Hollinger, whose first novel just came out with Random House. I have a very personal relationship to this book and its author. Mika was my student for several years while she worked on PRECIOUS BONES, so I feel about this book as a midwife feels about the babies she helped deliver. But friendship and admiration aside, I think Mika’s own publishing story is an instructive and inspirational one for all writers.
Barbara:   Tell us a little about your novel, PRECIOUS BONES.  What’s it about?

Mika: PRECIOUS BONES is a young adult historical fiction, about a ten-year-old girl growing up in the Florida swamps of 1949.   I did extensive research on the life cycle of Florida’s swamps and inhabitants. It was at one time an incredible wildlife habitat and I wanted that time to be forever remembered.

The book’s setting feels entirely real.  Did you grow up in the Florida of that time?  Is the novel based on your own life?

Yes, I was born and raised on the east coast of southern Florida.  The book is loosely based on my childhood memories.  I chose 1949 because that was just the beginning of Florida’s drastic changes, both environmentally and socially.  After being away many, many years, I returned to visit where I grew up and was devastated by the changes that had taken place.  It woke up all those memories.

Did you read much as a child?  What were your favorite books?

I loved to read stories about animals and about the South.  Some of my favorites were;  The Yearling, Charlotte’s Web, Gone With the Wind and of course To Kill a Mockingbird.  I was fifteen years old when I saw the movie and it had such a profound effect on me, I knew from that moment on I wanted to write books. I wanted to tell stories from the innocence of a child, but with the wisdom of an adult.

When did you first start writing PRECIOUS BONES?

About twenty years ago I started compiling memories and facts about Florida and my childhood.  It didn’t actually become a story draft until I took an online Writer’s Digest course in 2004 with you, as my teacher!  From that experience I gained the confidence and knowledge that I could actually write this story.

When was it published?

It was published by Random House in May 2012.

How many drafts of the novel did you write?

I would say there were at least three or four along the way, I don’t really remember.  Of course, my most serious and extensive re-writes were with my agent and then my editors at Random House.

Was the path to publication smooth?  What kept you going?

The path to publication was a long and winding road filled with speed-bumps.  I have a folder filled with rejection slips.  I had two different agents, at different times, but neither one knew where or how to sell the book to a publisher.  There were some very discouraging times and on more than one occasion I thought about just giving up.  But through the support of my husband, and your support and encouraging advice, I stuck with it.

Before the book sold, did you ever consider self-publishing?

No, that was not a consideration.  I held true to my own conviction that it had go through the proper channels and be published.

What sort of strategy did you have before selling PRECIOUS BONES?

In hindsight, one of the problems, from 2005 to 2010, was I didn’t have a strategy.  I was so new and naive that I just sent queries out to any agent.  I got a lot of positive response, which led me to believe I did have a good story, but no one knew how to sell it.  After one particularly discouraging event, I told my husband I felt like it was a hopeless situation.  His advice to me was, do some research and find agents that represent the type of story you have, and that is exactly what I did.  I read young adult books with a southern theme, and stories with the same type descriptive writing style I was using.  I sent out a few more queries.  There was one agent in particular whose work I so admired. Within six weeks, I got a phone call from her and I had the agent of my dreams:  Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management.  She was wonderful to work with, she understood what needed to be changed or added to make the story bigger.  We worked together on a couple of rewrites and within one year she had it sold to Delacorte Press, Random House Children’s Books.  A true dream come true!

Tell us about the phone call…was it a call?…in which you learned the book had sold.

Catherine kept me informed on all transactions, which relieved a lot of anxiety on my part.  On February 24, 2011 she emailed me with the wonderful news that Michelle Poploff of Delacorte Press, loved the story and wanted to publish it.  It’s one of those moments when you have to read the sentence over and over again to let the true sense of its meaning sink in. Working with Michelle and her assistant Rebecca Short was also an incredible experience.  These ladies were so professional and accommodating.  Getting published with a house like Random House was well worth the wait.

What have you learned as a writer from the evolution of your first novel?

Believe in yourself.   Be prepared for those rejection slips and just file them away.  And when you do sign with a publisher, be ready and willing to listen to their advice and suggestions. There may be some major changes taking place with your story.  Work with them, it’s what they do; they know how to take your little story and turn it into a bigger one.

What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?

Persevere. No one is going to come looking for you, you have to look for them.  Do your research and find agents that represent your genre of writing!

What comes next for you?

I am working on another young adult historical fiction, set in Georgia in 1969, during the height of hippies, The Vietnam War and integration.

I can’t wait to read it. Thanks, Mika!

 

I wanted to bring Mika and her novel to your attention for several reasons. First, because PRECIOUS BONES is wonderful, one of the best young adult novels I’ve ever read. Over the course of its evolution I read it multiple times, and it still makes me cry. It’s a book that children and adults can enjoy equally, and I recommend that you buy it immediately. It’s available as an e-book, but I’d suggest getting a print copy, because I have a feeling that first editions of this book will someday be valuable.

The second reason is that Mika exemplifies the five qualities I believe writers need if they aspire to be published, as her story illustrates.

Talent is the first requirement. Anyone can learn craft, and even the most talented writer needs to do that; but talent is a gift, just like athletic ability and perfect pitch. Mika had talent in spades. The first time I read her work, when it was little more than a gleam in its author’s eye, she was in a class of 10 or 12 writers. Even in  its embryonic form, I still remember how her language, descriptions and characters jumped off the page.

Craft is the second. Serious writers study the craft. Mika invested in her dream and became a better writer than she was. These days, with self-publishing as popular as it is, there are lots of people offering all sorts of services to writers. In my opinion, the only thing a writer ought to pay for is good instruction in the form of classes or manuscript evaluation.

The ability to learn from good criticism is the third requirement. You can only go so far on your own. At a certain point you must seek out discerning readers, learn to distinguish good criticism from bad, and implement the good advice. Criticism is like fertilizer; it can be hard to abide, but it grows the writer. Mika was open to that process.

Perseverance is the fourth requirement. Mika’s novel was 20 years in the making, eight years in the writing. She had agents who failed to sell the book and many disappointments along the way. She could have given up at any point. She didn’t. She believed in her book. If the author doesn’t, who will?

A focused goal is the fifth. Mika was determined to be published by a trade publisher. She did her homework and focused on agents who represent her type of writing. Agents and editors bring real value to their books. Because Mika held out for commercial publication, PRECIOUS BONES is a much better book than it would have been if she had self-published an earlier version–and I say that as someone who read and loved the earlier versions.

PRECIOUS BONES is available on Amazon and B&N. Order it now, or at least read an excerpt and decide for yourself. What was that Sandra Bullock line? “You can thank me later.”

If you’re a fiction writer willing to work hard to improve your craft, give me a shout. I offer several online writing workshops through my Next Level website.

Gail Hochman Interview, Part 2

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes in a literary agency? There’s not a lot of transparency in the business. Most agents erect high walls to protect themselves from constant interruption and to preserve their ability to actually do the work they’re hired to do. Many of the busiest agencies don’t even have websites. Clients have open channels of communication with their agents, but aspiring authors in search of an agent will never even get to speak to one until and unless an agent decides to offer representation. If none does, the writer may never even get a response to his query; and if he does, it’s usually a form rejection letter, very brief, with no real explanation.

What are literary agents looking for? Are they even reading the reams of submissions they receive? What makes them sit up and take notice, and what makes them stop reading? Today, in the second half of my interview with Gail Hochman, the veteran literary agent answers these questions and more. Gail speaks for herself alone, of course, and every agent is different. But she is one of the savviest agents I know, and one of the frankest. Gail is the president of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agency and longtime president of the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR.) Her clients include Scott Turow, Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, Bob Shacochis, Ursula Hegi…and me.  You can read the first half of the interview here.

Barbara: What does a query letter have to do and be, to convince you to ask for pages?  

Gail: Good credits, maybe a connection to a contact or client or writer we respect; a good, succinct pitch of a novel that seems to have a “hook;” not an annoying personality or pushiness. A letter that is interesting to read means the writer might have something interesting in his ms.

How important is it for a fiction writer to have a platform?  

To me not at all, unless it is a nonfiction project that demands this kind of platform.

What credits do you consider worth mentioning in a query letter, apart from publishing credits? For example: membership in RWA or like organizations, writing groups, contests won, previous self-published work, college degree?

I think publishing credits, educational achievements, any awards, any interesting other career the writer may have or passionate hobby that is relevant and interesting. If the person sounds interesting and reasonable and the story sounds good, I might well ask to read.

If a writer has self-published previous work that has not sold well, does that hurt the writer’s prospects? What sort of sales figures would get your attention?

I really don’t care about other numbers or self-published books. But I don’t want to be asked to read and represent a self-published book for the commercial marketplace. To me—and this could be short-sighted, but I only have a 24-hour clock—if a book has been self-published, it has been “published.” I want to see new work.

Given the writers already on your list, what makes a first novel stand out enough for you to offer representation?  

Incredible voice, fresh idea, something that tugs at my heartstrings. If it is well written and makes me cry, that is the perfect formula!

What makes you stop reading?

If a book drags or gets redundant; if the pacing is so slow that nothing new happens chapter after chapter; if I lose sight of what I am reading to find out—then I have to stop.  An editor friend said once that he reads till he feels secure he is not going to buy this ms.  My husband put it clearly, some years ago when he saw my incredible  piles of reading.  “What is that book about?  Do you love it? Are you going to make the writer any money? Is it going to make you any money? Can you help the writer? Can the writer help you? No???  Then get it off the desk!”

Apart from the quality of the work itself, what other factors do you weigh in deciding whether to offer representation?

If I have met the writer and he seems helpful and mature; if my clients rave about the writer. If I sense a difficult personality, I may think long and hard before offering representation. But usually the book wins out, if I like it enough and have some good ideas for trying to sell it.

If an agent offers representation, what should writers ask before signing on?

The writer has to make sure that he understands and agrees with what the agent intends to do with the ms.  He also needs to know how the agent will communicate, and that the agent won’t dump the ms. on an assistant.  The author may have to sign an agency agreement, and for me (we don’t have agreements) this is an important moment. He should read and study the agreement and know just what he is getting into. I think the writer needs to know how he can get out of the agreement in a certain amount of time if things don’t go well.  Some contracts say that the agent is the agent of record and will take a commission on this book forever, in any form, in any deal, etc. The author may think hard before signing with that particular agent, might try to change some of the wording if he feels it is necessary. (Some excellent agents may require this; but some under-performing agents could also demand this, and in the latter case the author would not be well served.)  The client must understand what the commission situation is for all sorts of sales, and what other charges may be sent to him for payment.

What do most writers not understand about agents that you wish they did?

We are only people, mere mortals. The more we are in demand, the more we have to read, the more contracts we have to work on. We represent other people as well, and we have scores of people who are not yet clients sending us mss. We want to read your work fast, but there is only so much time in the day.

At times, agent and author disagree. I don’t know that the agent is always right, but there should be a calm way to discuss the situation. An unsold book is a distress to both parties, but there may be a moment when the agent thinks he has sent it out enough, and author may disagree.  Instead of playing the guilt card, both parties should try to find a way to talk through this.

The most important thing that I wish authors knew is that our day-to-day work lives have become incredibly more intense in this current difficult market. We work long hours, we try to make connections.  I feel very close to most of my mss but realize that the author feels even closer, more protective, more pro-active.

What happens when a book doesn’t sell?

There is a point, alas, when an unsold ms. is taking up much more of an agent’s time than it should be, and perhaps at this point the author should take over any submissions to small places.  When the author keeps pushing new small houses to send it to, the agent is in effect being asked to spend more and more time on an unsaleable ms. that will never pay the agent back for any of this time.  It is interesting also to know that sometimes  a tiny press contract is more difficult  to negotiate than a corporate contract, because the buyer is that much more stubborn, unknowing, maybe naïve. They may not do things in the standard way. Since the house is an unknown, we don’t want to let author sign a contract with clauses we’re uncomfortable with, because we don’t know how it would play out if we had a disagreement. And there may be a lawyer behind it all, or a university press board of some sort, so we actually work many more hours on a tiny deal from a tiny place, spending much more time than this contract is worth, because we don’t want the author to sign anything that could hurt him.  And remember, all we can offer in the first place is our time and expertise. When that time and expertise are taken up with work that really does not help anyone very much, it is frustrating . Some agents don’t want to spend the time to work through a self-publishing contract, though that may be something we all have to start doing.   We don’t want to complain to the client, whose work we really do support! It is the invisible use of our time that gets so frustrating—no one has yet invented the 28-hour clock, but that is the Xmas gift I hope to receive someday.

Having been in this industry for a couple of decades, what would you say are the most significant changes you’ve seen as they affect agents and their clients?

Just briefly—the technological revolution has changed everything. The internet as a place to promote and sell books, the digitization which allows for print on demand and self-publishing has opened up a huge new area. Anyone who wants to publish can now publish, can now promote, has a chance to find his own audience.  The big question people seem to ask is do we still need publishers, and I think resoundingly we do. But there are more options, and the conventional houses are harder to crack, and it seems everyone is writing and making multiple submissions, so we are all working longer hours than we ever bargained for, just to keep in place. Then, with all these properties out there in the marketplace, it may seem more difficult to distinguish your own amazing work to the buying public. I think this is a difficult time for an “Emily Dickinson” type of writer, who may be really talented but really retiring.

No doubt; but the upside, as Gail  points out, is that writers now have opportunities and tools they never had before.

Thank you, Gail!

A personal note: I have been blessed with several excellent agents in my career. Gail Hochman took over my representation several years ago and since then has not only sold my new book to Viking/Penguin, but also negotiated the reissuing of my backlist in ebook and paperback. SUSPICION and HINDSIGHT are now available in ebook and paperback; ROWING IN EDEN will be coming out on July 17, 2012. I’m quite proud of those books, and I hope you’ll give them a read. Click here for links to your bookseller of choice: Amazon; B&N; and Indiebound.


 

Interview with Literary Agent Gail Hochman

If you think of getting published as a game of Candyland (younger readers, think of your favorite fantasy video game; religious readers, think of Pilgrim’s Progress), there is a broad swathe of the board, close to the end, known as the Slough of Despair, aka Agent Hell. Finding a literary agent is a rite of passage writers must undergo to emerge into the Promised Land of publication–not self-publication, which is a different topic altogether, but mainstream, trade publication. In this phase of the game, writers must sling their words over walls too high to see across, and then wait patiently for a response that may or may not come.

Because literary agents are inundated with submissions, they rarely acknowledge receipt of queries. Some agents never respond at all unless it’s to request pages. Others send form rejections that shed no light on their reasons. With so little feedback, it’s no wonder some writers resort to magical thinking. (“What’s the best time of year to submit? The best day of the week? What sort of stamp should I use?”) Others get angry and imagine agents as literary bouncers barring the entrance to the Promised Land. (“Agents aren’t really reading; it’s all about who you know; there’s a secret handshake and if you don’t know it, you’ll never get in.”)

As a former agent myself, I know these things are untrue, and I’m always happy to talk about that; but it’s been a long time since I was an agent. In the interests of bringing a bit of transparency and perspective to the current workings of the business—a business very much in flux—I’ve launched a series of interviews with publishing professionals and authors. The first interview was with Tara Singh, editor at Viking/Penguin. Now I’m delighted to bring you a leading literary agent to share her insight and perspective.

Gail Hochman has been in publishing for over 30 years. She is the president of Brandt & Hochman, long-time president of the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives) and agent to Scott Turow, Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, Bob Shacochis, and Ursula Hegi. Gail is also, I’m proud to say, my agent, and she’s been kind enough to give me the following interview.

It’s long and thought-provoking, so I’m dividing the interview into two parts, the second to be posted next week.  (Check it out here.) You might want to sign up for email notification or RSS feed so as not to miss it.

    You studied psychobiology at Oberlin and considered a career in medicine. How did you end up in publishing?

I took maybe one English class in college, majored in psychobiology and Italian studies. After I took a year off and went to school in Italy, I realized I did not want to go to medical school. I was a voracious reader as a child. A family friend who was a publishing executive lived in a house filled with books and manuscripts, and that looked intriguing.  I discussed the field with him and thought I would try to get an entry level job, which I did.

You started working for Putnam’s before becoming an agent. What made you choose agenting over publishing as a career path?  

I happened to be working at Putnam’s when it was a privately owned firm.  This was the mid 1970‘s, when many publishers were independent, and the corporations were just starting to take over publishing houses.  We had a change of management and a new publisher when the company was sold to a corporation, and it appeared that the new team would hire their own editors rather than promoting from within. Most of us younger people (assistant level) realized we should look for jobs elsewhere if we wanted to move along on some kind of ladder.  I made a series of appointments to see the senior people who had been very kind to me when I first looked for a job, to ask their advice, and one of them steered me to John Hawkins, who was then looking for a young agent. I took that job, not expecting to love it, not knowing how it would be to be an agent, but figuring that I should try.  I told him that if I hated it, I would quit in 6 months, and we would probably both be happy.   But as it turned out I did not hate it!

What qualities and abilities does an agent need?

I think an agent needs patience (not my best quality, I confess) and willingness to read and reread and explain things and re-explain things.  An agent must be detail-oriented but also be able to see a larger picture at all times, to help steer the writer forward in a smart way. I also think the agent must always remember to keep firmly in sight what might be going on in the mind of the person he/she is communicating with (on the phone, on email, whatever.) If it is a client—what is that client thinking about, what does he need and want, what does he fear most, what is his goal, what is he trying to accomplish? Many times a client calls with a question which is not really truly what is on his mind—our job is to try to understand what is on his mind and help him get there, or get him the proper information, or help redraw his goals to keep him on a wiser path.

When you are talking to an editor, or a buyer of any sort, what is on his mind? What does he want from you? What do you want from him? How can you make a meeting of the minds so that the author –your client!—gets closer to accomplishing his goal?  So the agent must listen, and be able to put the pieces together. And the agent must be a wise problem-solver.

What’s the best part of your job?

Discovering a new writing voice in a new ms that I think is outstanding, and eventually making that wonderful phone call to say we have an offer.

What’s the most frustrating part?

This is a business in flux. The authors have been working on their projects for the past several years, and must maintain optimism. They read articles and hear stories from other writers and even though they read in the business sections that this is a tough time for publishing, they don’t seem to get it. They feel that yes, story collections are hard to sell, but my story collection is worthy so it will sell…or my book should be selling in huger numbers, so the publisher is doing something wrong…when actually the market in general is tremendously depressed. Publishers are incredibly cautious in their buys, and the stores are buying very, very conservatively. And there are fewer physical places (stores) where they can ship copies of the books. So explaining this new drop in business to clients to me is the hardest. I sit in my office until 8 pm many nights and still leave much undone, because to accomplish anything these days takes so much more work.

Approximately how many unsolicited queries does your office get a year?

I myself get 40-50 query letters a week.

Are they all read?

Someone reads the query letters, but I don’t read them all. I am a softie and might well say yes to half of them, and I just do not have the time to read all these mss.

Approximately how many are real contenders—books you read in full and consider seriously? 

Maybe 10% we would read and maybe half of them could be contenders.

How many new writers a year does your office take on? (A rough average is fine.)

I have approximately 6 agents.   Half of them take on maybe 5, 6 maybe 8 writers a year.  I am optimistic and so I probably take on a dozen or 15 a year, sometimes more, if I receive an amazing manuscript that I just don’t want to turn away. But note that there are many young agents who need to build a list, whereas I have a 30+ year old list!

Some people might look at those numbers and conclude that an unpublished novelist has as much chance of getting an agent as a camel of passing through the eye of a needle. What do you say?

There are scores of new agents, hundreds of excellent agents out there. I have been doing this for 35 years, so of course I have a full list already and have to be cautious in taking up more projects.  I usually have 20-30 mss in my house to read on a weekend, so obviously I cannot consider every page of every ms  with the care and attention the author would like. Each agent can figure out relatively quickly if a project could ever be “right” for him, and we can reject quickly the ones that are not at all right.  But it is the mss that are kind of on the fence that are difficult. I do a lot of editorial work on my mss most of the time, so I find myself reading revisions more often than I care to admit—it takes hours and hours. So I have to be careful in what I decide to work with.  And then, even after a ms passes scrutiny with a good agent, it is hard to sell. So the next step is that the author begs us to keep sending out a ms even after we have tried the most likely houses, and gotten nowhere with it.  Agents these days have too many mss we love but cannot sell, and the authors of these mss are dying for us to keep sending, which keeps us in the office till 8 pm, to try to get through this work load in some kind of wise  and also helpful way.

PART 2 OF INTERVIEW

 

That’s just the start of my interview with literary agent Gail Hochman. Next week we’ll talk about what she looks for in a query; the importance of “platform”; what attracts her to a novel, and what turns her off; things every writer should ask before signing on with an agent; changes in the industry; and the impact of the self-publishing phenomenon.