Agents, Schmagents, and Pink Flags

Hi there.

I’m not sure if you saw the #SchmagentRedFlags hashtag on Twitter this week, but if you’re a writer who is agented or querying agents, you should check it out. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “schmagent” is short-hand for agents who are not very legit or respected in the industry. I wrote about them a while back in this post: Shady Business.

The hashtag shared some good insights and tips to new writers. But then I got involved in a conversation that made me pause. An agent – a legit, respected agent (not a schmagent) – said if an agency hasn’t done a deal with every Big 5 publisher, they aren’t legit. I agreed and disagreed with this, but it didn’t sit right with me and I couldn’t figure out why. Twitter was not going to be the right venue for me to say things without thinking first, so I left it alone.

My initial response was that some agencies are just super small and niche, but I kept circling back to new agents (which are not the same as schmagents, as you’ll see in my older post linked above!). So, I conceded her point and let it go because I did agree with her. Mostly, anyway. But I kept thinking about it after. Do agents need to have an established boilerplate with every Big 5 publisher in order to be considered legit? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed outdated to me.

It is 100% an advantage for an agent to have established relationships with as many bona fide publishers as possible, especially the Big 5 (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster). If you’re a writer who gets an offer of representation, you should ask that agent who they have established relationships with and where they’ve sold projects similar to yours. If they don’t mention the major players at all, that might be a problem.

But, not every agency is the same, nor are the needs of all writers the same. Such as:

A 10-year-old agency specializes in only children’s literature. They’re known for several award-winning books and a few bestselling authors through publishers like Scholastic, Candlewick, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and have had success with a few imprints at Big 5 publishers. But, for whatever reason, they have never sold a book to Hachette. Maybe they got close, but never got an offer from them. Maybe they went with another publisher during an auction. In any case, after 10 years, they still don’t have a boilerplate with one of the Big 5. Are they considered a schmagent? I would hope not, and I would hope that a children’s book writer getting an offer from an agent with that agency would jump on the opportunity.

A similarly hypothetical agency could be one that’s been around for about 5 years and focuses on romance, and maybe some erotica and NA too. In only a short period of time, they’ve established important relationships with places like Harlequin and Kensington and are known for a few successful series within those genres. They might also find they work with mostly digital publishers these days because that’s where the market has shifted. Therefore, they might not really have had a need to sell to all 5 major publishers. A good agent follows the market they’re trying to sell to. They keep up with industry trends. Agents need to be open and adaptable, and if certain genres aren’t as big in print anymore, we need to adjust accordingly.

One last example I was thinking about are the quiet literary novels. Not Franzen or the big splashy Great American Novelist literary novels. I mean the ones that get critical acclaim and are brilliantly written, but the average reader probably hasn’t heard of them, nor do they care. You see these novels with places like Graywolf Press, Melville House, National Book Award committee discussions, and, well, these novels, basically. There are a few dedicated and amazing imprints with Big 5 publishers who still seek quiet literary fiction. They publish it well and put marketing dollars behind them, but an agent can’t rely on a few imprints to sell a book and then call it a day if that handful of editors pass on it. Sometimes books like this are a labor of love, and writers should want an agent who knows how to effectively sell their work even if it isn’t a 6-figure deal with Penguin Random House every single time.

So, those were my larger-than-Twitter thoughts about this and I’d be curious what others think in the comments. Mostly, I just think the industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and the fact that we say The Big Five instead of the The Big Six should be evidence that agents can and should diversify their submission lists and establish new relationships in the industry.

Like I said before, a relationship with the major players is still a key component to being a good agent. But maybe it’s not everything after all. Maybe it’s not a red flag so much as a pink flag. Maybe in another five years we’ll have The Big Four, and even if we end up with The Big Three it won’t mean publishing is dying or dead or any other nonsense like that. It just means everyone involved needs to look outside the “model” and realize it might not exist anymore, so what’s next?

The Truth About Patience

Hey everyone. I don’t usually blog about my specific clients or deals I’ve made because, as is stated on the side panel of this blog, Glass Cases is a personal blog I run for writers and is not affiliated with my agency. That said, THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE by my client Jennifer Mathieu, was recently published and I wanted to share this particular publication journey.

The Truth About Alice, on paper, seemed like a quick, easy sale. I submitted it at the worst possible time, in retrospect: May 30 – a week before BEA and only 5 weeks before a holiday weekend. But despite the usually hectic publishing schedule, Alice was on submission just 7 weeks before it received its first offer.

If only all publishing stories were that simple. Unfortunately, this one isn’t either. The Truth About Alice‘s road to publication actually started back in 2009.

A timeline, if you will:

  • 2009: Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford signs a client named Jennifer Mathieu and sends out her smart, funny coming-of-age YA novel. And gets many “nice” rejections. Editors loved the voice, loved the story, and hated to say no, but… the rejections started piling up. Realistic YA was still considered “impossible” to sell in the post-Twilight paranormal craze that led into the post-Hunger Games dystopian craze. 
  • 2010: With Jennifer’s novel on yet another round of submissions, Nathan breaks the hearts of every aspiring author – and his fellow agents at Curtis Brown – and announces he’s leaving publishing.
  • Mid-2010: I start building a client list of my own. With three clients to my name, Nathan tells me he has a client whose voice I will love. I read Jennifer’s book and the voice blows me away. Like, laugh-out-loud, miss-two-subway-stops kind of love. I speak with Jennifer and we click immediately and I take on a brand new client. Everything is happy until Nathan sends me a very long list of editors who already rejected Jennifer book and a very short list of editors who “probably” will look at another revision. As a new agent with hardly any contacts of my own, I silently curse Nathan’s name.
  • 2010-2011: I work with Jennifer on a revision of that first novel and put it on submission to a small group of editors. Identical rejections from 2009. Jennifer works on a standalone companion novel, which I also put on submission. More “nice” rejections that think the novel is “too quiet.”
  • Mid-2011: Jennifer tells me about an idea she’s outlining that involves multi-POV versions of rumors about a teenage girl. I tell her to explore that idea and we shelve her other project after receiving a particularly painful rejection. (Not because it was mean, but because it was so overwhelming positive and full of regret. Yes, editors get rejected too.) 
  • 2012: Jennifer finishes her new novel, now called The Truth About Alice Franklin. After some tinkering, I put it on submission right before June. 
  • July 2012: We receive four offers on The Truth About Alice Franklin from major publishers, with a few more bringing it to acquisitions. I hold my first ever auction as an agent (and try not to have a heart attack in the process). After a very close auction, we accept a two-book offer from Roaring Brook Press, where it becomes The Truth About Alice.
  • September 2012: After two agents and almost four years of being on submission, Jennifer holds her book contract in her hands. 
  • May 2013: I decide Jennifer hasn’t had enough drama and leave Curtis Brown for a new agency. I’m overjoyed that Jennifer moves with me to Bradford Literary Agency!
  • September 2013: Jennifer’s editor, Nancy Mercado, also decides the drama factor wasn’t quite high enough and leaves Roaring Brook Press to join Scholastic. We panic until Jennifer is paired with new-to-us editor Katherine Jacobs, who we immediately love and who is an enthusiastic champion for Jennifer’s career.
  • April 2014: With The Truth About Alice not yet published and the “Book 2” of that two-book deal still being revised, Roaring Brook Press buys what will be Jennifer’s third standalone contemporary YA novel.
  • June 3, 2014: The Truth About Alice is published and Jennifer officially begins her career as an author. Not only that, but the book has become an Indie Next Pick for Summer 2014, an Amazon Best Book of the Month in Teen/YA, and has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, and The Daily Beast, to name a few.
Yeah, so I threw those last links in there to brag a little because who wouldn’t brag after spending almost five years waiting for everything you know an author deserves.
There were so many times Jennifer and I both could have thrown in the towel. I could have taken one look at that list Nathan sent me back in 2010 and decided Jennifer wasn’t worth taking on. Jennifer could have gotten frustrated by a string of rejections, losing her agent, and getting stuck with some assistant who had barely made a sale. (Thankfully, she didn’t see me that way!) In other words, The Truth About Alice may never have been written, let alone sold, well-received, and the first of three standalone novels. 
I hope the moral of this story is clear. DON’T GIVE UP.

This should go without saying, but sometimes it’s easy to forget. Especially when it can feel like your publishing road is paved with Murphy’s Law. Especially when each new rejection stings harder and harder. Especially when it seems like it shouldn’t be this hard.

Jennifer didn’t want to go the self-publishing route, but I get that writers have more legit options now than she would have in 2009. Even still, those who want an agent and a “traditional” publisher shouldn’t give up on their career choice just because there’s a shiny back-up option.

Patience is the first thing you learn in publishing. From querying to getting feedback to finding the right agent to revising to going on submission to sometimes going back on submission to getting an offer to finally waiting for publication…. publishing moves slowly.

If you’re a writer who’s on submission, something to keep in mind is that – like Jennifer – the first book you write may not be your debut novel. Your second book might not be either. In fact, that’s fairly common. An agent has to fall in love with your writing and your story, but sometimes the industry has other plans for you both.

Have patience and keep writing. Then write something new. Keep getting better with every book and don’t worry about where they may end up. Expectations, when had, are rarely met, but sometimes when you least expect it, they are exceeded. 

The Fault in Ourselves

I haven’t been blogging much lately. In fact, this is my first post of 2014 and it’s almost May. I can claim it’s because of that oh-so-vague word, “busy,” but it’s more a combination of busy/tired/out of things to say. I used to put pressure on myself to keep up the blog, write about topics that have been written about before, and be an active member of some sort of online community. But, I’ve decided to keep my sanity and only blog when I feel inspired.

So here’s what inspired me today.
Every so often – sorry, make that very, very often – some magazine, blog, or newspaper will feature a story about YA fiction. Recently, articles such as this Vanity Fair piece about John Green’s book-to-film deals and this idiotic thing about why women are to blame for boys not reading, have gotten justified backlash from authors, librarians, publishing professionals, and feminists (or all of the above). Those are just the most recent pieces that disrespect female authors. There are several others, and there will be several more. 
That is troubling in itself, and to anyone who wants to help restore the balance, I suggest reading and publicly supporting female authors, whether they write YA, adult, nonfiction, poetry, prose, whatever. But here’s what else is troubling: 
Almost every article or post about YA fiction mentions John Green in some way, and usually it’s because the article itself is about him. He’s often hailed as the “savior” who will give YA the credibility it deserves. Of course, anyone who regularly reads YA fiction or is familiar with the book industry knows these articles are insane, but the truth is, most people don’t. Most people will only associate a genre with whatever its best seller is. “Readers” and “book people” are still considered a minority no matter how much time we spend in our self-made niche communities. That’s why these articles, unfortunately, matter a great deal. 
That said, what I see happening to John Green is similar to what we all did to Jonathan Franzen in 2010 after Freedom was published. The difference, of course, is that people like John Green as a person so it’s not as socially acceptable to compare him to that guy everyone loves to hate. Now that TIME magazine has listed John Green as one of the Top 100 Influential People in the World, the comparison to Franzen seems even more evident. They are both White Privileged Straight Male Authors who have become the faces – and, in many ways, the standard-bearers – of their respective genres. 
In his write-up in TIME, Green is referred to as a prophet. The YA community on Twitter today took this to mean that yet another article is praising a male author instead of a female author. This is true only in the technical sense, but I doubt TIME consciously snubbed female YA authors. (Note: TIME does include non-YA female authors on the Top 100.) The hashtag created in response to Green’s honor was #ladyprophets. I’m usually all for getting the names of more female authors out in a public arena, but when it’s at the expense of another author, it feels cheap.
The thing is, there are not a whole lot of authors on the current YA scene who have done as much for contemporary/realistic fiction as John Green has. This should be evident just based on the fact that people outside of the YA community know his name. There are plenty of rising stars, but they aren’t the same as “stars.” Not yet.
(And before you scream “JK Rowling!” please remember that Harry Potter is 1) considered a Middle Grade series even though the characters age, and 2) published before the YA “craze.” It doesn’t follow current market standards for the simple reason that it helped create them.)
(And before you say “Stephenie Meyer!” I’ll remind you that I said contemporary/realistic fiction, not paranormal romance or any other major YA trend.) 
So back to John Green. 
There are a handful of contemporary YA authors who have a major influence on the market, some male, some female, some of whom are better writers than John Green. But let’s be real. None of them have come close to John Green’s level of success. Was sexism part of that success? Probably, a little, sure. (He even admits, somewhat, to that in this self-reflective post.) But he’s also a talented writer with some very good novels out there. You should read them. Honestly. 
John Green made his name with Looking For Alaska before YA was the Hot New Thing and he continued to write award-winning novels while contemporary YA took a backseat to paranormal & dystopian trends. All the while he gained a massive audience with his vlogs and Twitter feed, and he supports other writers – including female ones – publicly and often. So maybe let’s give him a break? 
None of these articles are John Green’s fault, and yet the backlash against those articles is suddenly turning into backlash against him. And that? That just makes me sad, both as a lover of reading and as a feminist. 
Feminism is about mutual respect and equality. It’s not about tearing one side down to build up another. We should never stop fighting to get women the respect they deserve, and we should get angry and speak out when we see injustice. 
An all-white, all-male panel that’s supposed to represent children’s fiction as a whole? Yes, demand answers. People being excited about a writer who happens to be a man? That’s not injustice. We’re all on the same side here. We should be thrilled someone who deserves fame is actually getting it! Like I said above, “book people” are a minority. If we can’t support each other, then who else will support us? 
I see similar things happen in writing communities online all the time. Writers who think of their agented friends as “leaving them behind.” Agented writers who are jealous of their friends’ book deals or accolades, and make them feel guilty for their success. 
Ain’t no one got time for that, writers. If any of that sounds familiar to you, get new friends. 
Be proud of what you accomplish and be proud of what others accomplish and don’t let anyone take away what you deserve. We’re members of a community, and like any family, we’ll fight and disagree, but we need to remember to support each other, no matter what level of success we find, even if that success is John Green-level.

On Being a Real Writer

I’ve been thinking about labels lately. How one gets one and whether they deserve to have it. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the label of Writer and whether it applies to me.

Most readers of this blog know that I write, though it’s not something I’m pursuing professionally for now. For now. Maybe someday. It’s the “maybe” that makes me hide from the label Writer.

Aren’t Real Writers supposed to seek publication?

I have an MFA in creative nonfiction, and this tends to come up a lot when I’m at conferences or do interviews for blogs. I’m an agent and I have an MFA and “do you still write?” is the question I always get. My answer is usually self-deprecating, or when I’m feeling confident, I say something like, “Yeah, kind of.”

My nonfiction of late has been this blog and few stray pieces I’ve never submitted. I’ve instead completed a draft of a YA novel, and have two more YA projects that aren’t even half-finished. Writing is important to me. I care about the characters I create and I know I created them for a reason. Sometimes I need to write. I think about writing more than I talk about it, and I talk about it more than I do it. All of my projects remain unfinished.

Aren’t Real Writers supposed to finish at least one thing even if it kills them?

There’s always something to blame.

I’m an agent and my clients come first. Then requested material and queries come first. Then going to conferences and networking events and being so exhausted all the time comes first. Then reading for pleasure comes first because it’s rare I get the opportunity to do so. Then Twitter comes first and “keeping up with industry news” that quickly turns into who else watched Supernatural last night. Then having a social life and maintaining friendships comes first. Then eating and sleeping and just being quiet comes first.

Writing isn’t something I’ve made a priority. Part of that is because I know I’m not on a deadline. I’m not a Real Writer. I’m not published, nor am I really trying to be yet. My career is my focus, and writing will be second to that.

Aren’t Real Writers supposed to put writing ahead of everything else?

My professional and personal life is surrounded by Real Writers. I’ve sat listening to them talk about their process and how torturous it all is. I’ve read tweet upon tweet, countless blog posts, on how hard writing is. Beautiful, poetic posts that make me believe that whoever could talk about writing in such a way must be a Real Writer. Not someone like me. Certainly never someone like me, who wouldn’t be able to wax poetic about anything with a straight face, let alone the writerly mindset. If only I were a damaged soul who needed a creative outlet because my own mind simply cannot contain the multitudes of my depth.

But no. A Real Writer is someone else. Not someone like me who has never viewed writing as something set on destroying my very essence. For me, writing is just a thing I do.

I write or I don’t write. When I do, it is hard and I push myself when it gets harder. Then I stop. Sometimes I don’t pick up my pen again (yes, a pen) for weeks. When I reach a point of transcribing to my laptop, I usually get struck by a fresh wave of inspiration and type for hours. Then I stop.

Aren’t Real Writers more prolific than that?

I’ve joined writer’s groups, rented houses for self-imposed writing retreats, studied my craft, and found my voice. I did all the things Real Writers do. I read all the things Real Writers read. I appreciate the same words that Real Writers connect with. Yet all I feel is distance between myself and Them.

I’m a writer because I write, but I don’t know if I’ll ever consider myself as a Real Writer. As I think more about labels, I’m beginning to think it doesn’t matter. I never took myself seriously as a writer because I thought being a Real Writer was more serious than it is. But if I’m always the one to mock my own creativity, why should I expect anyone else to take me seriously?

My goal is to embrace that writing is a part of me too, even if it’s a part I buried for a while. 2013 was supposed to be the year I “got back into writing,” a promise I’d been breaking since I received my MFA in 2008. The difference this year was that I did finish that novel; I did start writing again and treat it as more than just “something I used to do.”

Maybe 2014 will be the year I stop caring whether I measure up to Real Writers’ standards – or at least what I imagine their standards for Real Writing are. Maybe only then will I let myself believe I, too, am one of Them.

Tell me, fellow writers – was there a moment where you realized you’re a Real Writer? Or do you also run from the label?

The Year of Self-Publishing

Whether you’re still on the fence with how you feeling about self-publishing, or if you’re 100% for it or 100% against it, it would be hard to argue that 2012 was not the year self-publishing became a legitimate force in the market. This has been brewing for a couple of years (see: Amanda Hocking and John Locke), but 2012 – with a little indie book called 50 Shades of Grey and a “New Adult” sub-genre trying desperately to prove itself – we’ve seen several headlines that have read something like “Former Self-Published Author Lands 6-Figure Deal.”

The thing is, there are plenty of self-published authors who are perfectly happy to remain self-published authors. The headlines we see are about self-published authors becoming traditionally published, and that’s where I think other writers have been getting confused about how self-publishing should work. To the self-published authors who have enjoyed your experience and have no plans to go traditional unless a 6-figure deal lands in your lap, feel free to ignore this post. Or, if you do have plans to get an agent and try for a traditional publisher, just not with the book you self-pubbed, you can ignore this post too.

To the other writers out there who think that “Self-Pub to Traditional Deal” is the norm, pull up a chair.

I have no beef with self-publishing. I find it to be a separate entity from traditional publishing, with some notable titles crossing over from both sides. Mostly, I think the two can co-exist peacefully and separately. (It’s sort of like the Blue-Ray to traditional’s DVD. Each provide a way for you to be entertained. For consumers, having another source to get content is a good thing… made even better when they don’t have to choose and can use both.)

That’s why it’s disheartening to get so many queries for books the authors have already self-published. While agents have had more success with getting self-pubbed books sold to traditional publishers this year, it’s important to keep in mind that all of those books were the exceptions – not the rule.

Turning a self-published book into a traditional book deal still takes:
1) huge sales figures (over 5,000 copies sold at the very least)
2) a healthy online presence
3) glowing reviews from major publications (think Kirkus; not just someone with a book blog or a writer-friend, unless your writer-friend is Stephen King).

If you have all three of these things, chances are agents are going to find you and you don’t need to query. If you have one or two of these things, then query away and hope for the best. If you don’t have any of these things, it’s not the end of the world, but query a different project entirely.

Self-publishing has proven itself to be lucrative and viable, and the stigma of it has drastically lessened. I include myself among those who turned up their noses at it, and I’m proud to say I’ve changed my mind because writers have made it impossible for me not to. (Woo!)

But I’m still wary when I see writers – too many writers – query me with their self-published books. Despite my evolving opinion, the original reasons I didn’t like self-publishing end up rushing back to me. I have to wonder why the writer self-pubbed in the first place. Was it out of frustration with rejection? Did they think a self-pubbed book would get my attention? Or were they misled to believe that self-pubbing before querying is now the norm?

Don’t let success stories change your mind about your own career path. Remember that no one ever writes front-page articles about all of the people who don’t win the lottery. Stay true to what you want out of your writing career, and if you end up changing your mind about the best way to reach your audience, then be smart about how you make that switch. If you read about how a certain self-published book got a traditional book deal, you’ll rarely find it was because the writer queried an agent with that same project before it was ready to be seen.

Shady Business

So, earlier this week via The Twitter, agent (and author!), Mandy Hubbard mentioned her distrust of new agents who have no publishing background. This started a conversation, which I participated in, about the merits of these agents and start-up publishers who claim to be legit.

The thing is, many of these new agents and start-up publishers (usually digital-only publishers) aren’t aware they’re not legit. They have the best of intentions. They’re people who follow the industry closely and, because of the transparency provided by blogs and Twitter, they think they have enough information to start their own companies. Yes, everyone has to start somewhere and some of these newbies do succeed and prove their worth. Most of them, however, don’t help an author rise to any level beyond what the author could have done themselves.

When I started at Curtis Brown, I was an assistant and only an assistant. I also kept up with industry news and market trends, but mostly I was an apprentice at an established agency where I had several agents to learn from. Before that I was an intern at a different agency and read the hell out of the slush pile. Reading the slush pile and writing reader’s reports for agents seems like busy work, but here is what I learned from it: In my first year as an intern, what I put in the “yes” pile was usually not what the agent would have said yes to, and more importantly I learned why. My experience is very, very common among agents at my level and those at the levels above mine. Reading someone else’s slush pile is a very helpful rite of passage.

If I took on clients within that first year of working in publishing, nothing I took on would have sold, I wouldn’t even have seen a contract until it was my own client’s, and I would not have known how to negotiate in my author’s best interest. Every agency is different in terms of when they let assistants take on clients, but those decisions are always based on “is this person ready?” New agents who don’t have that kind of experience in publishing, but just want to take on clients to “help authors get published” don’t get that feedback or education. This is why, despite their good intentions, they end up hurting authors.

New agents at established agencies, or those who have publishing experience elsewhere, are hungry to build their lists and you should definitely query them. Put them at the top of your lists, actually. But pay attention to the backgrounds of these new agents too. If they don’t have the backing of an established agency, then Google deeper and ask the following questions:

1. Do they belong to the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives)? Note: Not every agent needs to join the AAR and I know a few at established agencies who have not joined, or just recently joined. However, if you’re on the fence about an agent and their credentials seem suspicious, not being a member of the AAR could be a dealbreaker.
2. How long have they worked in publishing? If they weren’t always an agent, what did they do before? Editor at a major house? Marketing or sales representative (meaning, they know what booksellers buy and would probably be a good agent because of it)? Were they an assistant or intern at an agency that’s respected in the industry?

3. How long have they been agenting? It should not be the same amount of time they’ve been in publishing. If they are just starting out, who do they work for? What type of agency is backing them up? 
4. What have they sold? If they’re new, this won’t be as relevant because they may not have many sales to their name yet. In this case, ask new agents where they see your book in the market. Hardcover/trade paperback vs. mass market vs. ebook only? These things matter, and knowing which format will work best for your book is something a good agent should be able to tell you. 
5. What types of publishers have they sold to? Check Publisher’s Marketplace to see an agent’s sales history. Note: Not every agent reports their deals, but new agents usually do because they are still proving themselves. So, look them up. Are they only selling to the types of publishers you could have submitted to yourself? Or do they have a few Big 6 and larger, respected indie publishers in their sales history too?
6. Are they just a lawyer? Agents are like combination lawyers and managers, and you need those skills to be good at your job. The difference is that a lawyer has no personal stake in whether your book does well (they’ll get paid either way) and their ability to read legal language rarely extends to book contracts, which is a different animal. If you self-publish or use a small press without an agent, make sure you get someone to read over your contract who is a literary lawyer. People who know legal jargon, as intelligent and educated as they are, aren’t going to have the same expertise when it comes to publishing.

I also mentioned start-up publishers above. If you choose not to get an agent – either because you’re going to self-publish or use smaller publishers who take unagented manuscripts – then you need to be extra careful. Like I said, start-up publishers can turn into legit publishers who are good at what they specialize in. They’re often digital-only, at least at first, and tend to focus on a specific genre to build up a successful niche market. Note: This is what a good start-up publisher will do. Be wary of small presses, digital-only publishers, or start-ups who want everything and anything. Usually this means they haven’t created a solid business model or know the best way to publish different types of books.

If you’re unsure about whether to sign that contract or submit to that shiny new publisher at all, don’t be afraid to ask the publisher the following questions:

1. Do you content edit or just copy-edit? Copy-editing is ridiculously important, but so is editing for the content itself. Will your book get Big 6 treatment at a small press? It won’t go through as many revision rounds and maybe only one set of eyes (as opposed to several you get at large houses) will see it. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a professional editor with a skilled eye who will make your book the best it can be.

2. What is your marketing plan for my book? They should have one, and it should involve more than a Facebook ad. 
3. Where are your books sold? If the publisher is digital-only, ask them what platforms they use and if your book will be available on multiple reading devices. If they do print books as well, ask them if they’ve ever been sold through Barnes & Noble (the physical stores) or independent local bookstores (unlikely, but worth asking).
4. Will any part of this process cost me any money, other than the royalties you will earn on my sales? Answer: NO! NO, NO, NO! If a publisher wants you to pay them, run away. They are a scam. Real publishers pay you for the privilege to publish your book. 
5. How much are you taking in royalties? The answer to this question varies, but what you’re really asking is “are you doing enough for my book to warrant taking over half my earnings?” Because if they’re only doing the bare minimum and you’re not seeing a significant return in your sales, you could have self-published and kept almost all of your royalties instead.
6. What’s the deal with your subrights department? Subrights matter. It’s how you earn back an advance faster and audio, film, serial, and foreign rights are how you get your book in more places. Most small or start-up publishers won’t have a significant presence in the film world, but if they are going to call themselves a publisher, they should be aware of foreign markets and work with specific agents or scouts to sell your book abroad.

If any of these questions make a publisher nervous, don’t use them. These are simple questions they should not only answer, but be proud to tell you. Of course, they are trying to woo you. Tell you what you need to hear. So, go a step further and research:

1. Go to sites like Preditors and EditorsFind out what other books they’ve published. Have they had success in your genre? Do they have any specialties? A good publisher has standards.

2. Where have their books actually been sold? Can you find them anywhere other than Amazon?
3. Do they have a Publisher’s Marketplace page with reported deals? Note: This does not necessarily make them legit (as is more eloquently stated in this blog post by legit agent, Victoria Marini). But! It at least gives you a starting off point to see what types of deals this publisher has made. 
4. Who are their other authors? Contact them directly to ask about their experience. The publisher should also willingly give you their authors’ information if you can’t find it online. If they don’t, then that’s another red flag and you should be suspicious of them.

Yes, this is a lot of work. It’s less work if you have an agent, but if you don’t want or need an agent, be prepared. It’s incredibly tempting to sign a contract because YAY BOOK DEAL!!! You’ve been waiting forever for this. All those rejections were piling up and you were getting so frustrated and ready to quit, but OMG this publisher sees the brilliance of your book and finally all is well in the world! Yes, of course you will want to sign immediately. This is what shady publishers and shady agents are counting on.

This whole process is hard. Whether it’s you looking for a good agent or agents looking for a good small publisher (we use them too!). An easy way out only makes it harder in the long run. My job is to protect authors’ rights and make sure their books are getting the treatment they deserve. Which is why agents like Mandy and Victoria, and me, and every other agent I know get so impassioned about these lovely people who want to do good, but probably aren’t ready yet.

Long blog post is over. To sum up, research like it’s your job! Because it is. Now, let’s hug it out.

When to Fold ‘Em

This weekend I went to the Surrey International Writer’s Conference and met some very talented writers. I made more requests at this conference than I’ve had at most others I’ve been to this year, and the reasons why became obvious during our pitch sessions. For one, these writers studied craft. Not only were they just good writers, but they knew their genres and where their book would be placed in a bookstore. It was clear they read within their genres too; not once did I hear someone compare their novels to a massive bestseller or radically mislabel them.

The second reason is because the majority of the writers at this conference had a clear vision for their writing career. They did their research in which agent was the best to pitch and no one was rude or abrasive if their novels weren’t requested. They understood that it’s not personal; it’s business, and rejection is just a stepping stone to finding a better agent for their work.

There were of course some pitches that simply weren’t for me, which is always bound to happen, but I noticed another small trend in what I was rejecting. Or rather, not what, but who I was rejecting: The Used Car Saleswriter.

It goes something like this:

Writer: “My book is about [X]”
Agent: “Thanks but I don’t think that’s for me.”
Writer: “WAIT! WAIT! I ALSO HAVE THIS ONE!”
Agent: “Um, OK fine. Let’s hear it.”
Writer: “It’s about [Y]”
Agent: “Sorry, this one isn’t for me either. Someone else might – “
Writer: “But surely I have something you’ll like! Perhaps something in red! With a moon roof! I’ll throw in a juicer!”
Agent: ::slowly backs away:: ::joins Witness Protection::

OK, so this is an extreme case, but variations of this conversation do happen in pitch sessions. I see it more often in my query inbox. Sometimes I’ll get 3 or 4 queries from the same person all sent on the same day. Other times I’ll send a form rejection and their next-day response will be a new query for a different project, as if the first project they queried meant nothing. Sometimes these responses are even within the hour. The strangest repeat queriers are the ones who just keep sending new material with no mention of ever having contacted me before, as if they’ve become one with the query process and stopped paying attention to the actual humans on the other end of it.

I encourage writers to re-query even if they receive a form rejection, but it’s important to know when to stop. (Hint: Usually after two or three queries, unless an agent specifies that you can send more work in the future or asks you what else you’re working on.)

Sending too many queries to an agent who’s already rejected you says, to me, the following:

  • You don’t care who represents you, just as long as someone does. 
  • You’re not ready to query because you aren’t thinking seriously about your career. If you give up that easily on your own projects, why should anyone else invest time into them? 
  • You have no intention of listening to feedback or taking constructive criticism. If you’re ignoring form rejections and only using them as an invitation to send something else, then you’re not stopping to consider the fact that either your query or the project itself is the problem. 

With requested material, I’m more forgiving. Sometimes I will ask to see future work, but if I read two or more of the same writer’s manuscripts and they’re still not clicking with me, I won’t want to read another one. I could like their third or fourth manuscript just fine, but I’ll probably still pass on it because I already know it’s the only manuscript of the writer’s that I like. [Note: By “like” I mean both in personal taste and in regard to my ability to sell the project in question.]

I’ve also had writers ask me what would happen if they significantly revise. Can they re-submit then? This depends. With queries, an agent rejects or accepts based on the premise of the book. So, if we pass on it, we likely won’t be interested even if the writing improves. If an agent requested material and the main reason for rejection was the overall execution of the plot, then it can’t hurt to try again if the revisions are significant.

You don’t only get one shot in this business. Most of the time, you get several. If one person passes, send to someone else. If everybody passes, send out a new project. No one will yell at you. But keep track of who responds and what they say. Some rejections are nicer than others, and some provide more explanation than others, but a rejection is a rejection. Don’t settle for an agent who begrudgingly accepts the one project they think they can sell. You want an agent who will leap at the chance to represent your work and be equally excited about your other ideas, that way you’ll both have a long, satisfying career.