I don’t mean to imply a comparison between eternal verities and publishing, but in the Amazon Hatchette mess there does not seem to me to be a lot of ambiguity about the nature of truth. This is about two very large jungle cats fighting over who gets a bigger share of the prey. It’s authors, however, who create the content over which they are fighting, and as such it’s we who are the prey. So while I’m not as it happens published by HBG, I definitely feel the hot breath of the predators. In which context I’d like to share an excerpt from the open letter written by Richard Russo co-Vice President of the Authors Guild.
“… because it is the writing life itself we seek to defend, we’re not interested in a short-term windfall to some of the writers we represent. What we care about is a healthy ecosystem where all writers, both traditionally and independently published, can thrive. We believe that ecosystem should be as diverse as possible, containing traditional big publishers, smaller publishers, Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores, as well as both e-books and print books. We believe that such an ecosystem cannot exist while entities within it are committed to the eradication of other entities.”
This in response to Amazon’s offer to turn over all the e-book royalties on the sale of their books to the HBG writers currently in the line of fire. Which, as this article in Slate points out, they can’t legally do, anyway. http://tinyurl.com/qephzx6
Final point: I’m no Amazon hater. I am thrilled to have them selling my traditionally published books and when every once in a while I get an e-mail promotion from them that includes books of mine I dance the happy dance. I love that I can independantly publish e-book encores of older novels that have no other digital life. And I am frankly awestruck by the chuzpah of Jeff Bezos. Drone deliveries are apparently next. I wish I’d had enough imagination to create such a character.
But in this dispute, respectfully as well as sincerely (that being the buzzword of the moment), I agree with Russo and with Hatchette.
Recently it fell to me to update the bestseller list page of the AR&E website (http://bit.ly/1ifJpEZ). Turned out the longer I worked, the more it felt as if I were in a time warp.
The page is a simple who-represents-whom feature – here’s a list of current bestsellers in fiction and non-fiction with the addition of the name of the agent who sold the book. Admittedly, for most readers it’s why-should I-care information, and the short answer is you shouldn’t. For writers, however, it’s an always interesting and vital bit of business knowledge. As for how we got started providing it, AR&E was begun by Bill Martin in the 1990’s, and back then publishing was a different world. The Internet was in its infancy, there were maybe two hundred literary agents worth having, and authors seeking new representation (or a first agent) were operating entirely in the dark. Tidbits of hard info based on first class research were nuggets of pure gold.
Nowadays? Not so much.
That being the case, the bestseller page isn’t updated as frequently as it should be. But a short while ago I had an attack of housekeeper’s remorse and decided to devote a couple of hours to cleaning it up.
I soon felt as if I’d gotten into my DeLorean and floored it.
Book after book had been sold by an agent who’s been around the business forever. Binky Urban, Merilee Heifetz, Al Zuckerman, Stuart Krichevsky, Esther Newberg… Stellar names? Absolutely. But another of the many things that changed in publishing over the past few decades was the explosion of literary agents. A small, highly select (and selective) group had, by the turn of the millennium, become an army approaching four figures. And all of them entirely legitimate.
Brief digression: One of the absolute plusses the net has brought to writers is the demise of the scam agents. The information age pretty much killed off the parasites with no record of sales who once preyed on new writers, peddling upfront charges and odious contracts. Snake oil doesn’t sell when everyone knows about antibiotics.
Why then – using composite lists of hard covers, paperbacks, and e-books – was I having to hunt so hard for bestsellers sold by agents I’d call “middle-aged” in terms of length of time in the business? Much less the young and hungry.
My first thought was that the lists themselves were skewed. Only the long established writers were getting on them, and such writers had their agents since way back when. But I didn’t bother listing books written by Stephen King or James Patterson or others of their ilk. Everyone who is interested knows the agent history of such writers. I was deliberately choosing books by authors who breathe the same air as the rest of us. Talented folks with a healthy oeuvre and a lot of cred within their genres, but not necessarily supernovas. Nonetheless, the data kept throwing up the same agent names, and it was all back to the future in terms of who was selling the books that made the lists. Because I dug deep to create a more informative set of facts for visitors to the site, the newly refreshed Bestseller page is not as skewed to oldies but goodies as it might have been. But trust me, the phenomenon I’m reporting truly exists.
If I were plotting a novel I would expose the denouement about here. Ta Da! Here’s the explanation and aren’t you surprised? In this instance I can work no such magic. I have a couple of facts and a theory and I’ll share them, but I can’t claim any of it is definitive.
One fact is that in at least one case the data indicate an author started with one of the lesser known agents, and after achieving some success switched to someone with star power. That’s a story as old as the lists themselves and frequently replicated, so it doesn’t shed a lot of light. Another fact, one I think more enlightening, is that as publishing adjusts to a digital world, the profound upheaval and resultant shakeout has driven many of those newer agents into other work. We’re back to a smaller pool. Okay, but the same goes for mill workers. And everyone knows books are different…
Thinking about all this I’ve come up with a theory that is perhaps a bit more revelatory: The newer agents tended to come from publishing. A good many had been editors, maybe junior editors, and in the late 90’s, as the great downsizing of publishing staff took hold, many switched to the other side of the desk. They did not learn their trade from the older agents, but rather understood the labor of making a book, and hopefully a bestseller, from the publisher’s pov.
That could be seen as a strength, but I suspect it is not so from the pov of the writer. In the old days, the ones that gave rise to those long established agents I was so surprised to encounter in such numbers, literary representation was seen as essentially the job of providing support for talent. If the agent correctly evaluated the talent part, eventually the client would produce something that would make a living – possibly a good one – for both agent and author. Back then an author could count on the agent to do more than simply sell the book. The agent was the author’s confidante, not an extension of the publishing behemoth. Such an agent expected to run interference with a stroppy editor, discuss issues to do with work in progress, hand hold when necessary, and once in a while do lunch. (Not to mention always returning phone calls.) Moreover, the agent’s office could if necessary provide information about legal needs, suggest an accountant, give advice about media consultants, maybe even get involved in what to wear on a book tour.
Frankly, becoming that sort of agent requires a number of not common things: superb literary taste so you frequently guess right about the talent part, superior negotiating skills, infinite patience with fragile writing egos, and – maybe most difficult of all – sufficient capitalization to be able to run such an operation long enough to allow it to become profitable. In other words, the kind of deep pockets you acquire when you’ve been a star agent for a lot of years…
Once you get there, even the newer bestselling authors want you rather than anyone from their own generation in the business.
We saw Argo last night – terrific movie – and it made me think again about the differences between history and historical fiction. (And no, it doesn’t matter if you’re telling the story as a script or a novel.)
Because the film is high profile and nominated for a number of awards, there have been any number of people prepared to take aim at its claim to be based on a true story. The guts of the dispute are: The group of six were hidden in the homes of two separate Canadian officials rather than one. The Iranian housekeeper who in the film keeps their secret was a composite character and they didn’t really perceive any threat from the local help. They didn’t do a location run, deciding it would be too dangerous. They were neither interrogated nor almost stopped at the airport, but in fact walked through the security checks and boarded with no difficulty. There are other quibbles, but those are the main ones.
As a writer of historical fiction who takes enormous pains to be accurate, I look at this and say, bravo, Ben Affleck and co. You did a great job. At no point does Chris Terrio’s script (written with the real Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who led them out) distort reality in a way that gives a false impression of what actually happened.
The emotional roller coaster endured by those whom the Canadians called their Houseguests is absolutely accurate; how could it be otherwise? And no way there must not have at least been some concern about the Iranians with whom they were in daily contact. (Making the salute to the composite character’s ultimate loyalty entirely accurate and emotionally honest.) As for what happened during the escape: no one could have known how it would play out when they began that early morning ride to the airport. Argo tells it as it may have been, leaving in place the fact that they got away; and, as the Houseguest’s themselves tell us, the moment of exquisite relief when the Swissair stewards announced they had cleared Iranian airspace and alcohol could be served. (Apparently the round ordered by Mendez was bloody Mary’s rather than Champagne, but hey we’re talking Hollywood.)
I have more than a passing interest in this argument about fact and fiction. In the Tudor section of my new novel BRISTOL HOUSE I write about a group of separatist Christians who consider themselves the keepers of true Catholicism, and the official Church led from Rome to be impostors. Such claimants have been around since at least the third century. I made up the True Obedience of Avignon, the group in my story, and I have them infiltrate the very real order of hermit monks known as Carthusians. Not true, obviously, but it could have been. More important, I’ve worked hard to be accurate about the life of the monks – saints and sinners – and their London monastery known as the Charterhouse.
Thomas Cromwell plays a big part in my story, and I have less sympathy for him than Hillary Mantel does in her novels. I paint Cromwell in black and white terms and save my shades of gray for the two characters I created out of whole cloth: Dom Justin the monk and Giacomo the Lombard, a jeweler, also known as the Jew of Holborn. That two novelists looking at the same historical facts come up with different interpretations of why things happened as they did is not just okay, it’s what fiction is all about. It’s what makes it “true” rather than factual.
In the contemporary sections of BRISTOL HOUSE (the story goes back and forth between the two eras) I made up Annie my heroine, and Geoff the TV pundit who is drawn into her mystery. But the world they inhabit, the politics, the London streets, the museums and their collections, that’s all real. And those secret tunnels and their incredible origins, absolutely real.
As for whether the monk and the jeweler could speak their truths loud enough for us to hear… you’ll have to decide for yourself. Personally, I have no doubt whatever.
Latest figures on the e-book revolution show some slowing of the exponential rate of growth, but surely that’s to be expected when the base-line was so recently zero. The numbers are still rising substantially, and the devices are in a healthy clash of heads with serious new entries still arriving and on the horizon. And Amazon has yet to leave Barnes & Noble for dead. In part because the mighty river of e-commerce decided to take on at the same time the big six US publishers; sort of like Hitler doubling down on the Eastern front while he was still trying to knock out Britain. Not perhaps a good idea. This piece, however, is not about the fight between Amazon and the rest of publishing. That’s being covered by many others.
What got me blogging this time is the notion of editing, and how it’s related to the e-book bestsellers lists now showing up regularly in the major papers. That topic comes up all the time when novelists – fiction dominates the e-book scene – discuss indie publishing, i.e. going it alone and maybe giving up a substantial advance to do so.
The items that make the checklist, the things the publisher normally does for the ms that the indie writer will have to do for herself, are editing, cover art, marketing, and of course distribution. Well, the argument goes, distribution is what the e-book removes from the equation. That really is easy now. Marketing, on the other hand, demands very hard work, but publishers have never satisfied 99% of their authors in this area. Self-marketing is an author responsibility whether the book is traditionally published or an indie. And, the argument goes, I can hire all the rest. If I’m willing to spend a few bucks backing my own career, I’ll get the same top class professionals who work for the legacy publishers.
That’s probably true for the cover. In the matter of editing I submit it is not. I’m convinced you cannot get the same results even if you’re willing to pay a top line-editor the going rate – which will certainly be in the mid to high four figures. Maybe more. (You can get first-class copy editing for considerably less, but that comes later in the process and it’s not what I’m talking about.) The reason is that there’s a very real difference when you’re the one writing the check.
Brilliant editing – and if you’re a writer worth anything you pray for nothing less – involves tension and abrasion and maneuvering. It flows from the fact that in a subtle way you and the editor are on different teams. In some measure your role becomes protecting your vision of the novel; your way of interpreting these characters you’ve created and the things that happen to them. Your story. Your plot. The editor’s job is to push back, to insist that you make it clearer, write it bigger, eliminate superfluous scenes – maybe characters – and add those that the reader must have if the whole thing is going to make sense. It’s the editor’s job to push you to the edge of a cliff, and make you brave enough to jump off.
A process of that nature inevitably brings a writer to the point of wanting to write STET in big red letters on every page. The time will come when that’s exactly what you have to do. But if the editor works not for you but for your publisher, and probably a good chunk of your advance depends on the two of you agreeing that the ms is as good as it’s going to be, you will think long and hard before putting your foot down. That, I submit, is not being abjectly beholden to the almighty dollar. It’s going through the crucible of the creative process; aware always that the editor can identify the problems, but only the writer can fix them. At the end the pair of you will have created something infinitely better than the original – even though it was probably your fifth or sixth draft, and good enough to attract the publisher in the first place.
Good – sometimes great – editing, I submit, is why those e-book bestseller lists are so overwhelmingly dominated by the digital version of books traditionally published rather than indies. And that’s one reason why getting an agent still matters.
*For those who may not know, Maxwell Perkins was the publishing legend who edited the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. A. Scott Berg’s wonderful Max Perkins, Editor of Genius is must reading for any novelist. It is happily available in e-book format as well as paperback.
It has been quite some six months. City of Promise for Simon & Schuster, finally got done after a series of editors danced across the pages - reflecting lots of changes at S&S. Michele Bove finally stepped in and took the novel through the final and most critical editing and production stages, and was absolutely marvelous. The book will be shipping in July and officially published August 9th. After all the sturm und drang I’m happy to have written it and I hope readers will enjoy it. How the Upper East Side got its glitz on - among other things. And the first obstetricians - freeing women from the five month confinement of previous times, but still - of course - no birth control, at least of the legal sort. Apart from that, modern New York City peeping over the horizon as it were. Electricity, the first phones, and that wonder of its age, the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a fun read.
Hard cover and e-book edition coming simultaneously. And let me admit here what I am maybe not supposed to say: I love my Kindle! So much so that I have finally decided to put some of my earlier books (written as Beverly S. Martin or Beverly Byrne) in electronic format and make them available for a very modest price. Four of my own personal favorites to start with: Women’s Rites, A Matter of Time, Juffie Kane, and Mollie Pride. Reversing what has become the traditional process and getting books from paper to digital format turns out to be a challenge (read huge pain), but we’re winning. Hope to have them up by mid July. I’ll keep you posted.
Selling books is the desired end of all this angst surrounding the need to get the right agent, and neither has ever been harder to do. Right now we are at a moment when everyone in publishing seems to want to hide under their desks. The e-book thing has them spooked.
Personally I’m convinced it’s going to be a great thing. Just as was the intro of the paperback in 1935. That changed the book world by bringing in more readers, and as we know, it was not the death of the hardback. Paperbacks modified the way books were bought and sold; it certainly didn’t stop them being read. Eventually that new technology was a huge revitalizer, introducing millions more to the joy of reading a great story or a stunning work of non-fiction. E-books will do the same. But no one wants to read waves of unfiltered and unedited garbage in any format. The role of publishers is as vital as ever. And that means the right agent is as well.
I’m thinking of this more than ever now that my own agent, the indefatigable Marly Rusoff, has sold my new book, BRISTOL HOUSE to Viking. I’m already in love with my new publisher, Clare Ferraro. And not just because she sent me flowers the day after we agreed our deal.
As for the selling of books, have a look at Margaret Atwood’s terrific article in the Globe and Mail http://tinyurl.com/4gp7bdw
I have been promising myself I would do this - write a new blog entry on the AR&E site - for so long months have become over a year. Considerably over a year. Twenty months to be exact. (Though I do twitter with some regularity…)
By way of an apology, not an excuse, in that time I’ve finished two books (more tk) and worked with some of the most exciting new writers I’ve had the privilege of knowing, watching the success of some and pinching myself at the extraordinary promise of others.
Nettie Van Heugten’s SAVING MAX has been nominated for an Edgar and while I blush at the kind comments in her acknowledgement (re the work we did together on the ms) I know at least some of the credit has to go to her fab AR&E-generated agent, Al Zuckerman. Just reread that and see it makes it seem like we invented Zuckerman. Well…
Dale Black’s FLIGHT TO HEAVEN came out.
So did Ellen Horan’s 31 BOND STREET (Marly Rusoff did her proud).
And in just the last six months I’ve worked with two writers I honestly think to be Pulitzer Prize material and at least one remarkable writer of a work of non-fiction guaranteed to have all the USA laughing (and learning) in the year to come.
It’s never going to get much better than that, so the writers for whom I do Ms Analyses as well as Customized Fingerprint Reports are definitely among the blessings I’m counting as 2010 goes out.
Re my own work: City of Promise is due from Simon & Schuster in August 2011 - probably the last in the City series, it takes New York City up to 1883, with the modern town very much visible on the horizon. We’re still in process for a TV mini-series based on City of Glory (the second book in the series) and I finished the first book I’ve written on spec in ten years. Working title is BRISTOL HOUSE and it’s a back and forth in time story of the sort I did years ago (two novels, WOMEN’S RITES and A MATTER OF TIME). The idea grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, and while it is probably the main reason this blog has been moribund for so long, it’s a book I’m very happy to have written. Two sentence summing up of the sort we ask you to do on our questionnaire: An American woman is checking out a flat she’s about to rent in London, opens the door to one of the bedrooms and sees a sixteenth century monk chanting his office. Of course it has to have been her imagination. Except that next day, at the British Museum, she meets his exact double… Or as the front matter has it: …a tale set simultaneously in the sixteenth century and the twenty-first, wherein a monk and a historian,
each battered by love and terror, meet “as through a glass darkly,” and hurtle toward destinies five hundred years apart, yet on a collision course.
Finally, all publishing is more update than they have been in some time. My own feeling - having just gotten a Kindle for Christmas and read Emma Donoghue’s fantastic not-to-be-missed ROOM as my very first e-book - is that this is going to turn out much like the introduction of the paperback in the 1930’s. The sky not only didn’t fall, it got brighter and bigger. All it takes is wonderful things to read. How you read them is simply the mechanics.
Here’s wishing us all extraordinary stories, amazing truth-telling, incredibly empathic agents, and publishers of remarkable discernment. Happy 2011.
A SCAM – NOT WHAT YOU THINK
< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
This one does not involve us telling writers about pretend agents “selling” mss to pretend publishers. It’s about us.
Someone working the old Mystery Shopper con is using our corporate name on checks which appear – with stunning authenticity – to be drawn on a Buffalo bank for $4045.00.
According to the cover letter, signed by a Susan Niel Ph.D, Director of Human Resources at Agent Research and Evaluation Inc., you are to deposit the check in your account. No more than two days later you’re to go to Western Union and send $3000.00 to an address given in the letter and write a report on the transaction. The rest is to be spent in another series of prescribed purchases, also reported upon. You get to keep the merchandise and a portion of the money.
Of course it’s not us; we’ve never been in Buffalo, much less banked there. Of course the check, which shows up in your credit column as soon as you deposit it, bounces a few days later. Of course by then if you follow their instructions you have spent a minimum of $3000.00. Did we mention that you are in possibly big trouble and definitely considerably poorer?
Okay, as elaborate scams go, it’s not The Sting. But it has some clever bells and whistles. Our corporate name actually uses & not the word and. It does not, however, have a comma before Inc. (A fact which has been driving Beverly the grammarian crazy for thirteen years.) The address shown on the checks is 334 E. 30th St. in NYC. We did indeed do business there from 1997 until 2002. (Next we were at 25 Barrow St. in NYC until April of 2006 when we moved to Philly.) Is this mix of fact and fiction deliberate? Are these jerks somehow lessening their criminal liability by making one change in the legal name of our company and using an old address? We have no idea. We are discovering that it is very hard to get to the people who are supposed to investigate mail fraud. It took Bill literally hours to reach a live person at the Postal Inspector’s office. (They’re under funded. What else is new?) He still hasn’t gotten through to the Federal Trade Commission.
The scammers make use of the fact that we get an absolutely clean bill of health from the Better Business Bureau. (They have been very cooperative, incidentally, and callers will now be alerted to the facts.) It also worked in the scammer’s favor that Google shows us number one in the world for agent information. Those who checked those resources came away feeling reassured. Only the more savvy among them actually clicked on the Google listing, got to our website, and saw we were about writers and books and literary agents. And sniffed the scent of rodent.
A few of the wise ones noted our site gave complete data about who we are and how to reach us and called our office. That’s how we were first alerted to what was going on. In fact the fourth or fifth caller was a conscientious Kentucky State Trooper who gave us more information as well as faxed us copies of the letter and the check, and we later heard from someone in the Hood River, Oregon police department. So far we’ve been contacted by folks in those states and others in Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Maryland.
So, since Beverly doesn’t write thrillers, the plot idea is a gift to the novelists among you. (Hint: Do It Better, and come to us for a Customized Fingerprint when the ms is done.) If you have received one of the checks, don’t deposit it, it’s worthless. And if you have anything substantive to add to this small and nasty drama please call us. If you’ve received one of the letters please fax us copies of whatever you’ve got (215-563-6797). And in case you’re in his jurisdiction, here’s the contact data for the trooper: Sgt Grey Crockett, Kentucky State Police, Richmond KY (859-623-2404)
We know this doesn’t come close to Wall Street risk-takers almost bringing down the entire global economy, or a Ponzi scheme that cost people their life’s savings, but it does seem to be a tiny part of the general sense of wanting something for nothing President Obama has been talking about. If these folks put all that energy and inventiveness into something legitimate they could make money legally.
Needless to say, after this we felt in need of a good laugh. You too? Okay, try this. Seems someone in the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of NY included one of those e-mails from a dying banker in Nigeria among the evidence meant to show a judge the numbers of people Bernie Madoff victimized. Here’s the link if you want the full skinny: http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2009/03/wow_i_needed_that.php
Last minute update: Two points. First, Bill just reached the right someone at the Postal Inspector’s office and learned that the people perpetrating this scam are – we are not making this up – in Nigeria. And the bit in the previous paragraph was written before we knew that. Second, as we were making up this e-zine we were called by a woman from CA who was down to her last $87 and looking for a job when she got the latest missive to be sent to the unwary: the same $4045.00, but this time in the form of a cashier’s check. She deposited it. It was immediately shown as funds available in her account and she’d spent $3700.00 ($3000 of which she sent back to the scammers) before it bounced. She is now not only broke and without a job, she’s liable for an additional $3700.00. And the only way to stop this, the postal inspector tells us, is get the information out there. They have tried getting the Nigerian authorities to take action. Without any luck.
Okay, however busy I am, I’ve got to blog about this one.
< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
A couple of months ago Ellen Horan called AR&E to get some advice. Happens I answered the telephone (very rare – the line rings in my office, but I work at home so seldom am the one to answer it). Thus I was the one who heard the story. She had written a debut novel, an historical mystery called 31 Bond Street, and junior agents at two quite good firms – one, however, not good for fiction – had gotten in touch with her after seeing a big chunk of the book. Both expressed enthusiasm and asked to see more. More back and forthing followed with each. Including a meeting with one. Now she was, she told me, conflicted about which of the two to go to for representation.
Neither I told her immediately.
She obviously had a hot property and junior agents were simply not going to be in a position to get her the best possible deal. Anyone can sell a terrific book. How well they sell it is frequently a matter of how much experience the agent has. And the agency that was good for fiction was not prepared to promise her that one of their senior agents (in fact I told her which one she should have) would actually represent her.
I went into huckster mode. You need our Customized Fingerprint I told her. Then I’ll give you chapter and verse on the seven or so agents you should go to with this, and tell you exactly why, how to go, and how to distinguish between them. Trust me, I insisted, who the agent is and how they do the negotiation is enormously important. ”Money,” Ellen said, “was tight.” She had made enormous sacrifices to cut out the time to write this book, and while she knew our fee was probably worth it, she couldn’t see her way clear to making a further financial commitment. After all, there were those two other agents… I pressed her (Bill and I really care about our clients, but this is, after all, a business). In the end she made the investment.
After she sent back the questionnaire and we talked more about the book, I produced a report with Marly Rusoff my top pick for her. It’s now less than two weeks since that contact was made and Marly - who did everything right - has just done a deal for a cool million with HarperCollins, who pre-empted Marly’s auction to get the 31 Bond Street plus one more. World English rights, so Ellen has translation rights sales to look forward to as well. And Lynn Pleshette has the movie rights.
Pretty good investment of $369.00, no? (But bear in mind the stipulation above: an absolutely terrific book.)
I’ve been very remiss in blogging - as usual because I’ve been writing (laying out the fifth book in my historical series for Simon & Schuster - Book Four in the series, CITY OF GOD, will be published in late autumn) and that plus keeping up with my consultant work for clients of AR&E sucks up about 26 hours a day.
Now that I’m addressing the long silence I am doing so with a story that has nothing to do with literary agents or books of any sort… But I cannot resist sharing it and won’t even try. Here’s what happened:
It pays to be early risers. We have a Philadelphia townhouse where we live and have our offices and the busy street it’s on always grows a full crop of litter. Just before 7 a.m. this morning Bill was out doing his street cleaning thing and saw a big SUV closing off traffic. Being Bill he went to ask what they thought they were doing. Turns out it was the Secret Service blocking traffic because Barack Obama was going into the gym across the street to work out. Bill told them it was okay. (Secret Service - literary agents - they all get told exactly what he thinks.) Then he alerted me and a neighbor two doors down who is very active in Democratic politics.
I quickly threw on some clothes to go with my bed hair and ran over to my neighbor’s stoop (closer to the gym exit than ours). Someone scooted down to Starbucks and came back with half a dozen coffees. Two other neighbors came out and another couple from around the corner who were walking their dog asked what was happening and joined the group. (Daisy - our dog - quickly explained to the other dog who owns this block.) After about half an hour (gorgeous fresh morning so we didn’t mind the wait) out comes the senator. I thought he’d wave and give us a thumbs up.
Perhaps he noted the Obama signs in the windows of some of us, or those my politically active neighbor had instantly produced to hold, or he’s just too good a politician to mistake a moment - whatever the reason he came right over and shook everyone’s hands - and at Bill’s murmured urging, spoke a special few words for the 84 year old mother-in-law of that same politically active friend and neighbor. Happens that family are African-American and the mother-in-law has early stage dementia (but knows who Barack Obama is and that he’s a candidate for president). Happens as well that the others in our impromptu group were white.
It was a true only in America moment and whatever your politics, in the ease and grace of how he handled it,
Obama was a class act. Leave it to me to be the one to bring things down to earth. As he was getting into his car I piped up, ”Give ‘em hell, Senator.” Oh well, I never told you I was restrained. Much less apolitical.
When it’s a query ms.
In a recent e-mail I mentioned to a wonderful debut novelist with whom I’ve been working for a while that I was awaiting the “query ms” for my new book (Commercial: City of God by Beverly Swerling, due from Simon & Schuster this coming October) and would have my nose to the grindstone for a couple of weeks after it arrived. She immediately wrote back to ask what the hell I was talking about. Surely after having the same agent for twenty-plus years, selling/publishing a lot of books, and this one being the fourth in a series, I was past the dreaded query process?
Yes, thank God. I am. (Think of how you felt when you found ‘the one’ and could stop dating and looking. Now magnify it by a factor of maybe twenty. That good.) But query ms is another of publishing’s many misnomers. (I don’t know how a business based on words manages to screw them up so frequently, but that’s another post.) Here’s what I wrote to her by way of explanation; as soon as I finished I knew it was worth a blog entry.
Query ms is the term for the hard copy ms after the main editor has worked on it for story and characterization and such (which is called line editing and is another misnomer). After that it goes to the copy-editor - usually a free-lance, incidentally - who reads for consistency of style, time line, fact checking. Those items inevitably lead to questions/queries of the ‘X’s eyes are brown in chapter two and green in chapter seven, which do you want’ variety. The c.e. writes them out on stickies and sometimes scribbles in the ms’s margins (and the two editors deliberately work in different color pencils so the author can tell who is asking/doing what on this now horribly marked up ms.) That’s then sent to the author and it’s called the query ms. Author then takes up a third color pencil/pen and works through every word, letter, punctuation mark and answers every posed question. All of this must be on the same ms, i.e. the query ms; you can’t produce a clean copy with all the changes. Any rewriting/additions/deleting you decide to do is created and clipped to the original relevant page. This now incredibly difficult to follow thing is sent back to your editor who will look it over and pass it to production. They will send it to be type-set. What you’ll see next are page proofs (used to be called galleys, but technically real galleys have gone the way of the dodo) and you’ll repeat the process again.
All this may also serve as an explanation for why it’s useless to tell us that you need an agent right away because the book you’ve written is topical and has to do with the next president’s inauguration day… A year from turning in the ms - which is bound to be some months from finding an agent, probably doing rewrites, and him/her selling the book - to seeing it on the shelves is normal, and longer is quite common.
There’s a tendency to think that people who get suckered into the agent scams still left out there – fewer of them now that watchdog sites have proliferated on the net – deserve what they get. No hopers who couldn’t get a real agent and are scraping the barrel… < ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Recently, wearing my writer/mentor hat, I read an absolutely terrific ms only to discover to my horror that a few months back the author had signed a contract with the thoroughly scurrilous New York Literary Agency. (Lately more likely to be encountered as WL or Writers Literary Agency – part of a morphing technique that has taken them through four or five name changes of which we’re aware.)
Mostly getting hooked by these people is just sad. This time it could be very costly. The book needs work, but my best guess (and I’ve been in this business a long time) is it will find a first class agent and a ditto publisher. It wouldn’t surprise me if it then went on to sell many thousands of copies. It’s that good.
So what’s to prevent this crowd of pretenders claiming a piece of the writer’s action once the book’s on the bestseller lists? I’m no lawyer, but it certainly looked as if it could happen.
Except that it won’t. This writer is not just talented, but living a charmed life and apparently possessed of excellent karma. I raised the red flag. The writer then advised that a best friend is a well known copyright attorney. A letter was sent that absolutely covers all the bases.
We should all be so lucky.
Even better, make your own luck. Don’t go near any agent without a demonstrable track record of dozens and dozens of sales to major houses, a fully reachable office in New York (you can bend that one a little tiny bit – LA or Boston maybe, not Denver, not Wichita, not Boca Raton…), not a p.o. box, an OFFICE. Plus a reputation as a top class agent, which reputation can be verified simply by putting the agent’s name in Google.
And don’t believe the urban myth that says such agents don’t read new writers. Yes, Virginia, they do. They do. They do. For more on all this sign up for the free E-zine on the News page and get the latest issue. Happens it delivers the proof.
Back again after a long silence, which is explained by the fact that less than two weeks ago I typed The End at the bottom of the last page of book four of The City of Dreams Series by Beverly Swerling, and was able to send it to my editor at Simon & Schuster. And though the book was sold over a year ago, I also rushed a copy to Henry Morrison, my long-time agent and always critically important first or early reader.
A lot of you ask us about that in the “me and my agent” questions we get all the time at AR&E, and the answer always is, it depends. Some agents - like Henry - are terrific at reading and seeing things that you the writer, because you are so close to the work simply cannot see. Moreover, they believe that to be a crucial part of their role and one they customarily play before the book is submitted to a publisher (unless, as is the case with me in this ongoing series, the book is under contract before it’s completed). Agents who operate this way will probably tell you - again, like Henry - that working this closely with an author is the real fun part of their job.
Many authors, particularly new ones, desperately want this attribute in an agent. That’s not surprising. Writing is work done entirely alone, in a usually silent room, staring at a blank computer screen. Seeking some validation and some advice after months of that - sometimes years of it - is entirely understandable. Other authors have been burned by agents who have led them down an entirely wrong path in terms of revisions. They want no part of the purported editing skills of the person they hire to negotiate their contracts. Both systems work. It’s simply a question of getting the right agent for the right author. (Need I say that’s what we do at AR&E - see The Customized Fingerprint at Our Services on this site.)
The bottom line for both types of writer, by the way, is NEVER NEVER NEVER agree to revisions that your gut tells you are wrong for the book. I know how scary that can be, particularly if you’re a first timer who went through hell to get an agent to begin with. But it’s the price of being a writer, and without it nothing you write is going to have that fire of conviction which is the sine qua non of success. Finding the balance between artistic integrity and plain old bull-headedness is yet another of the skills you must acquire to make it in this very, very difficult game.
Another question that comes up frequently in our dealings with writers is the one raised by such statements as, “I need to get this into the hands of an agent quickly, because the book is entirely relevant to the 2008 elections…” Never going to happen. Even if you get an agent tomorrow and she sells the book the next day.
Except in very rare circumstances - which would never apply to a first novel, and not to 99% of works of non-fiction - the publishing process takes a year or more. If you want to write a story that would be helped by being published during a presidential election, you’d better take your best shot at guessing what’s going to happen, and use the election of 2012. Nothing else is realistic.
The book I just finished is a case in point: Because it has been under contract for over a year, and because it’s the fourth in a series, and because my editor and I have been discussing it right along, Simon & Schuster went ahead and some time ago committed to a pub date of October 2008. Which will mean having advance reading copies (ARCs) during the summer, and shipping hardbound books to bookstores in September. Which in turn means everyone involved - including me, because I will have to go through the ms word by word three more times before you get to read it - will have to finish his/her part in the production process in nine or ten months. Lightening speed in this business.
Finally, the commercial: My latest published book, City of Glory by Beverly Swerling, is about to come out in the S&S trade paperback edition. The official pub date is January, but most bookstores will have copies this month. Riotously entertaining…” according to the Washington Post. Hope some of you Santas out there think of it for a few stockings.
The real success story of this frankly triumphalist blog is, of course, that of the authors and their agents. But AR&E played a part in both tales and both are out there in the public domain now, so I think it’s okay to toot our horn as well as theirs.
Recently two authors we have worked with sold their books for big and bigger money. To major houses prepared to do real work nurturing the careers of these writers. Both are novelists writing non-genre fiction, and their personal stories are as different as their books; but alike in that both illustrate the meaning of belief in yourself and your work, and the willingness to put in the sweat equity that leads to success, even when you’re writing non-genre quality fiction that one way or another pushes the envelope. One of these writers had a previous book (with a small press) and a former agent (major) when he came to us. The other was a debut author who before he found us had gone the route of self-publishing and came to regret it (the usual no-meaningful-distribution and no-sales reason) but now he had a new book and he wanted a real agent and a real publisher.
Here’s the debut author’s story first - condensed more tightly than a can of Campbell’s soup, but you’ll get the point. Kwei Quartey came to the US from Ghana as a boy, became a doctor, and never lost the itch to write fiction. Particularly a story that would help him explore the Ghanain world of his youth. He began using AR&E to look for an agent for WIFE OF THE GODS around 1999. We did our best, but no takers. Agents were hugely complimentary, but backed off because this is not an easy to classify book. Kwei did something else. Came back. No takers. He went back and did some rewriting on WOTG. Asked me what I thought of trying again with another Customized Report. I often discourage this as throwing good money after bad, (we’re not hucksters and we try not to offer hope when there is none) but in this case it was obvious he was very talented and had a really good book (agents do not say “I absolutely love this but I don’t know where to sell it” to every author they turn down; when they do, they mean it). We tried again. Fooled around with some different angles by way of agent selection. More near misses. Then, having not been in touch with him for some time, I saw a book Marly Rusoff had sold that made me think of Kwei and his Ghanaian detective. I already knew Marly was a teriffic agent - worth a shot.
This past week, after a huge amount of commitment from the whole Rusoff operation, Marly conducted a tightly focused auction between Random and Viking Penguin which wasn’t just about top money, but about how her author felt after he talked to both editors. In the end, though he liked Viking Penguin a lot, Kwei decided to go with Random, and with various bonuses and add-ons Marly got six figures for the book Foreign sales yet to come.
The previously published author is an even more complicated story. There’s the earlier sale to the small press. Great reviews. But then Garth Stein writes THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN and it’s a story everyone agrees is wonderful and wonderfully written - except, it’s narrated by the family dog. So the old agent and the new agents (recommended by us) say this is too quirky, I can’t sell it. Then Garth goes to Jeff Kleinman, now a partner at Folio, and Jeff really gets the book, doggy narrator and all. And they do some work together (Garth praises fabulous input on Jeff’s part - the right words that free his creative juices) and then the first house Jeff submits the book to gets back the same day and offers six figs for a quick pre-empt and the author says Halleluja! let’s take it. And Jeff says no way. And there’s another offer and an auction is underway (again to be decided by the author based on more than simply $) and earlier this summer Harper wind up getting the book for quite a bit more than that original offer. And the foreign sales begin. And THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, the book that was too quirky for most of the agents who read it, has now garnered what’s rumored to be seven figs in advances.
So while we can be really, really helpful in the matter of agents, you have to supply not just the fabulous book but the intestinal fortitude. There’s a sentence in most of the memos I write to accompany a Customized Fingerprint Report - few things are more difficult than going after a major publishing contract. It is very true. Grown ups only allowed to play.
Nothing like getting angry to get me blogging. I truly hate that the petty and small-minded are busy writing stories claiming that statistics show kids not to be reading more after the Harry Potter phenomenon. Every one of these I’ve seen – from the illustrious NY Times to a number of dashed off Internet articles (like this one) – is looking at the entire pool of potential young readers and saying that the gross numbers of kids reading books have not gone up, therefore the boom wasn’t real and … I am no statistician, but this seems to me insane, a way to snipe at Rowling and her billions since you can’t match her earnings.
< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Surely the comparison to be made is whether kids who devoured Harry Potter are reading more now (of HP and other things) than they read previously. I’ve not seen that spoken to anywhere. Another interesting breakdown of the data would be whether the kids who read the first few chapter books not when they were initially published, but later when those kids reached an age that allowed them to read books one and two and three, i.e. the series before it became complex and YA slanted (and I’m not including the vast numbers of adults who have read every book as it came out – different subject) went on to read other books. Did they go on in the series immediately?
Rowling did something very interesting by allowing her characters to pretty much age in real time. What did that do to her readership? Did the kids reading the books at their age-appropriate level during the time when the newer, longer books with older characters and different kinds of problems were available go on reading the series? Did they then look for other books and if so at what age levels?
And the above questions are a joke in a business that does less market-research than your local pound.
Here’s a place where the beleaguered and much mourned local bookstores might step in with consumer surveys, but if they have I have not heard about it. And the on-the-other-hand answer is, why isn’t this the publisher’s job? In which regard: We were at a showing of the very likeable Ratatouille the first weekend it came out. In our theater (an ubiquitous multi-plex) there were people from the studio handing out massive numbers of questionnaires (with pencils taped on) asking for answers to a large number of multiple choice questions. That effort took place in selected markets all across the country on the release day. Where the hell are the publishers? And I am tired of hearing about how expensive such efforts are. The ultimate expense is allowing your business to disappear up its own posterior.
By which I mean as opposed to How To Do It, which I can’t tell you.
Here’s a first for me: A blog posted a few days after another blog. Well, we’re approaching a holiday weekend and I’m going to run away for a few days, and in cleaning up my e-mail before going I came across one asking if I had any recommendations re computers and software for writing. I have. So I wrote this rather lengthy e-mail, then realized that others might find the info worthwhile. Here’s what I said, a bit expanded for inclusion here:
I use a Dell Inspiron laptop for everything and in my office have it docked and connected to a Techsan large flat screen, and a Microsoft wireless keyboard and mouse. It’s not the cheapest system around (though the Inspiron is very competitively priced) but I spend my life on this computer, and have both Bill’s AR&E business and my own writing on same. Well worth every penny of the investment.
As for the software. Absolutely nothing compares with WordPerfect 12 for writing books. It is infinitely superior to MSWord for long documents. I also have paid a bit extra to have the complete Concise Oxford Dictionary online as part of my WordPerfect program. Once you use it and the superior thesaurus in the WP software, you will never be able to go back. (NB: I own the Shorter Oxford which is the definitive English language dictionary in two very hefty volumes and adore it, but the one volume Concise is still light years ahead of anything else, and having it blended into your word processing program for instant checking while you’re writing is sheer joy.)
All that said, if you have not used WordPerfect before it will require time spent learning the program. Since I started with WordPerfect 3.0 back in the ’80s, I am not just an addict but an adept. Nonetheless, I truly believe it’s worth any writer struggling through the learning curve. And the online tutorials are excellent. You will still need the MSWord that will doubtless come bundled with your computer because that is the ubiquitous program that everyone uses - we even send out all our AR&E materials in MSWord (i.e. those sent electronically for one or another reason) for the same reason. But for writing… WordPerfect every time.
Okay, one final point on this same subject. I am astounded at how many people apparently write books with each chapter as a separate file. So when I’m doing a Customized Fingerprint Report and ask for a word count folks tell me the number of pages, and imply that getting the word count is a big deal. As long as you have the whole book in one file (yes, you can do that with WordPerfect, and remember I’m an historical novelist writing books that are often over 200,000 words) you simply open the file, go to Properties, then to Information, and there you are. (Word does that as well, but as with most Microsoft programs, in a clunky sort of way with considerably less ease and elegance.) Other reasons for keeping the book as one file: clever editing and rewriting means knowing what you said in Chapter C as you suddenly start fooling around with a new plot thread (or a new idea if you’re doing non-fiction) in Chapter M and have to go back to put in proper foreshadowing and the like. You don’t do that? Make a sign and put it over your desk. “All of writing is rewriting… George Bernard Shaw.”
It has long been conventional wisdom in the world of books for the tiniest tots that publishers preferred to find their own illustrators, and it was okay to submit a naked story. Maybe so back when that was the last aspect of the business where it wasn’t absolutely necessary to have an agent. And up until maybe five years ago, we consistently refused to do a Customized Fingerprint Report for writers of this type of book. Not enough data out there we said.
These days it’s all changed.
There’s plenty of info and plenty of agents who are taking on this segment of the market. After all, J.K. Rowling has become a billionaire. Okay, she began by writing what the kid’s biz calls a chapter book (who knew even those first books were going to attract a huge adult audience as well, and that the later ones would be YAs). Doesn’t matter. Publishing believes in fairy dust. Some of it might sift down to the baby book set. So now we do plenty of customized reports for those writing for the very young. And because I do those reports, I can tell you without question that the bar has been raised in the matter of the illustrations. What sells to publishers - and therefore to agents - is a unified vision as unique and as special as possible. If you’ve got that, and you can draw as well as write… As the gecko says, “Piece o’ cake, that is.” (And don’t all you folks writing and illustrating for kids wish you’d thought of that little green Aussie…)
And for a final word on this show and tell subject - graphic novels continue to be hot. We’ve now got an agent or two making a real specialty of same. If this is what you do, be advised.
Recently I received a very flattering e-mail from an agent who was hunting my head. Attached, I hasten to say, to my body - and most important, to the next book I might write. Bit of an ego trip you might say… Why am I posting this blog here and not over at the Beverly Swerling site where I’m wearing my writer’s hat more squarely atop said hunted head? Actually it could have gone either place, but it is, I think most instructive for writers. So it belongs here, not on the blog aimed more at readers.
Why are we constantly telling you how important it is that your agent not be in Oshkosh with a broadband connection and a fax? Here’s one excellent answer.
This minor drama (very minor I admit) began because an agent whom I do not know personally in any way shape or form happened to be having lunch with my editor at Simon & Schuster. Point to note: both are major players. They got that way by learning how to use the necessarily symbiotic connection between them. Editors who want to succeed need the agents who are likely to have the best mss to offer to think of them (i.e. the editors in question) when they are deciding where to submit a book. Agents need to cultivate editors who are A: powerful enough to actually make an offer without having to submit their choice to the veto power of some cockamamie committee, and B: have developed enough trust in the agent’s instincts/taste to believe that what the agent submits will be worthy of consideration. In other words, both need to believe that in the general run of things, their phone calls will be returned.
One way agents keep this relationship alive is to cultivate friendly relationships with the editors. Cutting to the chase - in time honored publishing tradition, they do lunch. Who invites who changes regularly depending on day-to-day minutiae. But a large number of the better restaurants of Manhattan will go out of business if the tradition ever dies.
Frequently at these lunches the editor will drop on the agent a few books the editor wants to promote, or that demonstrate what the editor is looking for at the moment. At the lunch to which I refer,one of the books that changed hands was my City of Dreams by Beverly Swerling. That book originally shipped in hardcover on 9/15/2001, three days after 9/11 if you’ve been off the planet for some time. Almost every writer in the hardcover new release list of that terrible autumn has the same story to tell. In book terms the terrible tragedy sucked the life from everything not related to terror and terrorism. (And this isn’t a gripe. Would that having a book launch fizzle was the worst thing that happened to anyone on 9/11.) But in the case of City of Dreams, the backlist story has been very encouraging. The trade paperback version of the book came out the following year and has done exceptionally well ever since. Further, its sales go up every time we release a new book in the series. So this winter’s hardcover City of Glory pushed City of Dreams into a ninth printing. Which is why the editor gave a copy to the agent.
Who then sent me an e-mail to say she loved the book and though she knew I was represented by Henry Morrison, if I should ever want to change…
She was doing her job. And yes, of course I’m flattered. Even though I have absolutely no plans to change my representation. But if I did have, in the normal way of things I would of course think firstof this agent who took the trouble to tell me how much she admires my work. That is, normal in a world without AR&E where I can find a detailed and objective analysis of her track record since the day she sold her first book.
This very good agent would be a disaster for me. The voices of the best writers on her list are entirely different from mine. Their genres are only superficially similar. And looking simply at a list of her latest sales - i.e. without analysis and evaluation - I wouldn’t necessarily know that.
Lessons learned: When it comes to living with your agent and the two of you being happy together, the meld is absolutely critical and very much a thing of nuance. (Believe me, you’d rather have a bra or a jockstrap that didn’t fit than an agent who didn’t.) Which is why we tell new writers all the time to avoid the lure of falling into the first pair of open arms. And you really have to parse the data to get the information.
Recently we got an email asking for information about Nancy Stauffer, an agent who “is not listed on your site.” Followed by another ten minutes later from the same person that said, “Never mind. I found some deals on Publishers Marketplace.”
Yes indeed. Three deals in fact. Two in 2003 and one in 2005. All respectable, but two for the same client. So we looked at our database, and there was the same agent. We had picked her up originally in the late 80’s/early 90’s and had identified five clients from that period. Including the one for whom the agent had listed the two deals on Publishers Marketplace. So he’d been a client right along. And all of this explains why the agent isn’t on our automatic responder at free Agent Verification, or anywhere else on our site.
It’s just not good enough. This is someone who is absolutely legitimate and has represented some noteworthy clients in the past (including Leon Uris in the last years he was writing and Arthur Hailey, pretty much ditto), but who does not appear to be out there doing it every day. And yes, that matters. We don’t put an agent on the automatic responder at free Agent Verification unless we’ve put them on the New Agent list (clearly Ms Stauffer doesn’t qualify for that), or we’ve picked up a minimum of ten clients (not deals, note, clients). Here’s why.
Hard as getting an agent is for new writers, it’s the easy part compared to selling the book to a publisher. (A real one - major name or small press - who puts books in bookstores and pays an advance and royalties. Not some cockamamie on-the-net-only outfit, or any print on demand set-up.) Agents, even the best ones, are probably placing something like 20% of what they take on. An agent without a vital and vibrant network of editors used to dealing with her all the time - editors who have learned to trust her judgment and always return her calls - figures to sell even less. We won’t attach a caveat to that agent’s name on the Verification part of the site, but neither can we recommend her. So we don’t list her. And we won’t. By our standards she doesn’t make the cut.
Recently I found myself on a site discussing how to gauge the real meaning of the Amazon sales ranking numbers which we’re told change hourly on a book’s sales page on the Amazon site.
First, two confessions. Number One: I am functionally innumerate. I understood not one word of what the author of the page was trying to explain about the complexities of the logarithms Amazon uses to come up with their rankings. Number Two: I am nonetheless as addicted as any other writer to checking that Amazon information. Why wouldn’t I be when it’s the only info I or any author has about real numbers? (Leave aside how you can say they’re real when you don’t know how they’re arrived at… There they are, on the printed page, and as I said, they’re all you have.)
That said I began this post wanting to tell you that just because you read something on the Internet does not make it true. The same site that was trying to give me authoritative information about the Amazon rankings insisted that royalty statements come from the publisher every month or three months, and show the numbers of copies sold.
Royalty statements from publishers who actually put books in bookstores (not print on demand or e-books or some sort of vanity press) come twice a year and reflect activity that took place six months previously. In other words: The sales activity for the months from June to December 2006 will arrive some time in the spring of 2007. And they do not say simply we sold this many books in that time. They reflect the fact that bookstores take books on the basis of sale or return, and do not pay the publisher until both are agreed that the books really were sold and are no longer in the store. But that judgment is further complicated by the fact that the books are not usually actually returned, though sometimes the covers are, but destroyed on the basis of some kind of honor system. (Which honor or lack of same is the source of many of the books you find in second-hand book stores or on E-Bay.) So your royalty statement which tells you only how the book was selling yesterday or maybe will sell tomorrow, but never how it’s selling today, has mysterious numbers (frequently disturbingly large) of amounts of money being held against returns. And in the next statement these numbers may not have changed. Leaving you wondering if the Second Coming will arrive before your publisher actually pays you anything beyond the initial advance. Which is why that advance is so important. And getting the agent who will maximize it is vital.
So bring on the Amazon rankings. They are transparent by comparison.
Tea will be served with the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen tomorrow at 27:07 sharp.
It’s hard for me to fathom, but apparently there are lots of people who come to this site and don’t know that Bill Martin’s wife is Beverly Swerling Martin who is also Beverly Swerling the novelist. In other words, c’est moi. And believe me, it’s not egomania that makes me care.
A short while back we sent out announcements of the fact that - drum roll - Beverly Swerling’s new book, City of Glory from Simon & Schuster, the sequel to City of Dreams, was just about to hit the bookshelves. We were not so crass as to send a buy-now coupon - heaven forfend. We simply directed folks to click through to www.beverlyswerling.com and take a look. No big offense surely. You’re not interested? Hit the delete key. And we were careful to mention AR&E and remind folks that they’d signed up to receive e-mail from us, and we sent it ONLY to those folks. Incidentally, the vast majority of these folks had done so in order to use our FREE Agent Verification service.
We get e-mails daily from the folks who use that service and discover, for example, that the agency they were checking on is run by a guy who is said to be wanted for fraud in some state, or has never had a sale of a book to a major publisher show up in the public record, etc. These folks are effusive in their thanks for the accurate and fair info that we’ve been providing for going on eleven years now.
But when I pitched the new book to them - and there were many, many thousands - we got reported for spam, and plaintive e-mails were sent to us asking why we had sold our mailing list.
WE HAVE NEVER SOLD OUR MAILING LIST. WE NEVER WILL.
And as we all try to cope with spam - we get as much as anyone else, maybe more - let’s be careful we don’t wind up killing our ability to communicate with each other in this new and wonderful and immediate way.
Rant over. Something positive next time, I promise. And if you’re interested, City of Glory, is at your local bookstore now. And the site has tons of advice for writers. And here’s that link again: www.beverlyswerling.com
This is a quiet time in the publishing world. In fact, if you are querying agents, you shouldn’t be. Worse, you shouldn’t have been querying since, at the latest, the first week in November. So when is it okay to start again?
We used to say right around January second, but given the enormous quantities of slush that make their way to the desks of agents these days, it’s probably better to wait until the middle of the month. So you’re not written off as one of those who dug an old novel out of the trunk and made your New Year resolution to find a publisher for it.
There’s worse to come.
Don’t vomit when you read this, but it really isn’t uncommon for an agent to come into the office sometime during the height of the December holiday madness, look at the mountain of mss and queries, decide that on the basis of past experience it’s likely to all be unpublishable crap, and sweep the lot into a very large box marked trash. She’ll even rejoice when she comes in next day and sees it’s all gone.
Meanwhile, you are still waiting for that phonecall or e-mail that says, “I’d like to read more of the book. Please send me …”
And waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
We know of writers who after a year continued to believe they might hear from the agent. They will not. And this applies to requested ms pages as well as original queries.
Give it up. Go on to the next agent. But not until the new year is well and truly underway, and the holiday scramble is forgotten. And most important, at the same time, go on to the next book. If you are not getting enthusiasm for what you’re sending out now, you probably haven’t made the cut. At least not this time.
That’s true despite what I said above about piles of slush being tossed into the circular file. Here’s why: Your original query is very likely to have been read. Every envelope is opened by 99% of agents with a lifting heart full of hope. As in, “Please God, let this be something I can sell. Maybe something marvelous…” If she knows right away that it is not (as in she wasn’t grabbed by the first few paragraphs of your letter, and her run-the-eye-down-the-page look at the rest of the stuff you sent) you will get one of those immediate pre-printed not for me things. Not taking on new clients. No unsolicited mss. Not correct for this agency. Yada, yada, yada. And lie, lie, lie.
If, on the other hand, she has a glimmer of an idea that maybe you have something, she’ll put the letter and the one page synopsis, and those first few pages of the book (you do know that’s what you should send…) to one side promising herself she’ll take another look as soon as she can. That’s the slush pile I’m referring to above. The one that’s tossed as soon as she finds it’s simply taking up too much room and she needs a place to put the rocking horse she’s bought for her nephew.
But there’s a new day coming. For you as you hunt for an agent, and for her as she hunts for the next number one best seller that stays on the lists for 40 weeks and gets a movie deal, and, and, and…
May you find each other in 2007.
Here’s a cautionary tale with a surprise happy ending that I heard about not half an hour ago.
Some six plus years ago a client came to us for a Customized Fingerprint and as soon as I looked at the answers to her questionnaire I knew she had a terrific book idea and it looked as if she could write. The book was psychologcial suspense with a legal twist, but also some pretty graphic violence. But even in the one page synopsis she did for us, it looked as if she could pull it off because she wrote so well. So I did the report and a short time later she was kind enough to let us know that she’d been taken on by the agent she’d liked best among those we suggested. So she was happy and so were we.
A few years went by and we heard nothing more, but that’s not unusual. (Frequently we don’t even know that the writer has connected with an agent until we see the report of a book sale where the author’s name and maybe that of the book rings a bell.) Only this one stayed in my mind because it had looked like such a good book and she seemed to be such a terrific writer. Then came the day when the client e-mailed me with the long sad story that the big time agent who had taken her on with so much enthusiasm had talked her into so many and such drastic revisions that she no longer recognized her own book, and then the agent went to all the best publishers and couldn’t sell it. Wearing my mentoring hat, would I read both versions of the material? I would and I did, and to make a very long story a bit shorter, the revisions were a disaster and after we back-and-forthed a bit this very talented client went back to the drawing board and rewrote the book so she at last realized her original concept. Then rewrote it again to correct some pacing errors. And finally it seemed to be a go.
But high as I was on the project - and high as she was on the project - and as hard as she had slaved over every word - we couldn’t get an agent/author combo to work. The book was difficult in and of itself (brilliantly written but it crossed genre lines) and in the bastardized version it had been the rounds with nearly every top editor in the city… The genre issue plus the weight of the baggage was pulling the whole project down.
So this very gutsy writer started another book, utilizing what she’d learned from the problems with the first. (She slotted the genre more tightly, made sure she had a great heroine with whom readers could really identify, etc.) And we pulled all the agent strings yet again. And she just called to tell me that the agent I really, really wanted her to have called her on this Sunday afternoon to say she loves what she’s seen of the new book and please, can she represent it. And they’ll sell the first one later.
So while I can’t say they’re married (for me that happens when the agent sells the damn thing - whatever damn thing it happens to be), they are definitely engaged. And I’m so proud of this writer’s guts and gumption.
The talent is, I’m convinced, a gift. The intestinal fortitude to sit down and look at a blank screen and make the words happen, even after a series of bitter disappointments, that’s the part you have to grind out.
Lots of new writers want to tell potential agents about all the books they’ve written, even though they cannot say they have sold any. The point they’re trying to make is that they’ve paid their dues. Instead they come off looking like losers. Giving the agent the excuse she/he is looking for - a valid reason to say no.
There are two things you must never forget about the species known as homo sapiens agentimus. The first is that they have developed huge egos necessitated by the fact that they spend much of their working life being told no (agents these days are likely to be selling some thirty percent or less of what they take on). The second is like unto the first: They don’t want to take on anything unless they can convince themselves they are sure to sell it, even though they know full well they probably will not.
So (insert Your Name) has done a romance, a western, a SF book, and not one has been published? Now I’m being offered this piece of literary fiction? What does this yo-yo take me for? The last hope of the no hopers? Where’s that pre-printed card, the one that says we’re not taking on any new clients… Ah, here’s the one that says we’re not the right agency for this project. That will do.
Score another ding on the submissions spreadsheet.
What the agent wants to hear is how you woke one morning and this entire book was laid out before you, as if it were an infusion of knowledge from the Holy Spirit, Athena (or was it Venus?) springing toga and all from the forehead of Zeus. And you sat down and wrote 110,000 words in one week without stopping to sleep. And now you come bearing this treasure to the agent who sold (insert the title of a book sort of like yours) and who has shown herself/himself so utterly brilliant at making sure the primary publisher doesn’t muscle in on the sub-rights action, while managing to put together six figure deals on his/her three most recent sales… Yada, yada, yada.
Except that the last part really isn’t as silly as it sounds. You genuinely should make the agent understand that you’ve done more than the usual amount of homework. Due dilligence as it were. And that for your part you understand this is a business relationship and the agent’s job is to be a rainmaker.
The creative hooey is about recognizing that if you’re a published author you begin your approach with a list of titles and publishers. If you are not, it’s better to be a virgin.
Only one caveat: Never go to an agent with a ms that has already been shopped around without being absolutely honest and upfront about the fact. You’ll be blackballed otherwise. And you’ll deserve it.
Happens that some ten years ago Bill and I had pretty close connections to the early days of the net becoming the ubiquitous force in all our lives that it is today. I remember in particular an article titled “Living With a Teenager.” Well look who’s all grown up and going to a party.
To prove the point there’s an article in the New York Times of 10/25 reporting on the new Internet divisions established by the top Hollywood agency, United Talent, whom we know because they are very active as dramatic rights agents in selling books to movie-makers. The Times story, however, is about the premise that “web video is on a growth curve similar to that of cable television a generation ago.” (And I know I’m supposed to insert a hot link here but I don’t know how. I’ll get a lesson from MtWW asap.)
UTA is making a pretty modest bet, three twenty-somethings run the division called UTA Online, but they’re reported to have cut a number of six figure deals with what are called “major media portals,” so probably they mean outfits like Yahoo and AOL. (Or perhaps YouTube says a small voice… keep reading.) Representing, remember, the creators of content. That’s what this is about. Who finds and represents the folks who are going to write and produce whatever it is that will fuel that growth curve? Which incidentally looks to me like combos of artists, some with writing skills and some with techie skills, but that’s getting way ahead of the story. We’re still considering whether there’s a place for agents on a medium as wild and unscripted as the current Internet video scene. Particularly since agents venturing into this territory have been burned before.
Back at the height of the dot.com boom CAA, an agency that has a hefty number of NYC literary agents as clients (as in they look for the movie buys for the books of the agent’s clients because - trust me - only in the rarest of instances do literary agents do this on their own) had an online division. It crashed when the boom did, and so far CAA says they’ve no plans to revisit the scene of the crime. Neither do we hear any rumbles at ICM or Wm Morris. But there’s an obvious issue here:
If YouTube sells for almost two billion bucks, and it gets its desirability by virtue of the content put up FOR FREE by the creators, and those creators do not see a penny of the two billion any way any how any ever… Whassup with that? Put as succinctly as possible, it sucks.
Enter the agent. As sure as God made little green apples. Later or probably sooner.
And wearing my writer’s hat I’ve got some things to say about using the net to promote a book, because God knows the publishers do not… I’ll have to blog on that at beverlyswerling.com pretty soon.
Recently a client e-mailed to say that a writer friend wanted to know how we do what we do - more particularly how I do it, if I do not read clients’ mss - which I certainly cannot afford to do at the rate we charge for a Customized Fingerprint (that’s mentoring and it’s a whole n’other story available in a very limited edition).
Okay, here’s what I said, with all the names changed to protect the innocent. Except mine, of course.
Hi X, to answer your friend’s question: When we get back the answers to her questionnaire we put that info together with Bill’s three thousand strong database of agents. And remember that he’s been collecting this data since 1980. Whittling down that large universe to those who are in the right country (i.e. the US, UK, or Canada), are primary rights agents rather than specialists in other kinds of rights (author’s need primary rights agent; the others sell for different aspects of the market - other agents, publishers, etc.), and have a track record of selling material that’s not a million miles away immediately reduces the pool of possible agents. At that point my experience in the business (send her to beverlyswerling.com) and what I know of the writer and her/his project kicks in. So it’s part research and part gut-instinct, honed by a good many years and books. In moments of megalomania I might call it art. But bear in mind that the key to your friend’s success, indeed that of any client, is the quality of the ms and how well it slots into whatever genre it is meant for. Whether it’s porn - and yes there are some agents who do that better than others - or a candidate for literary prizes, that’s the essential element. And it has to be provided by the author. If I knew how to bottle it, I’d have retired with my millions years ago.
Far be it for a part-time blogger like me to get in a pissing contest with the wildly popular, always readable, usually right, daily blogger, Miss Snark. But sometimes she’s wrong. All right, I will be more specific: A while back I saw a post that was off the mark, and I’ve been meaning to say so here when I had a chance. As in now.
First: I have no idea who she/he/they is/are and it doesn’t matter. Fun speculation, but not important. Except to say that obviously - I must admit - I’ve been longer in the business. Miss Snark does not remember the agent wars. I have at least heard about them from people who were there. Time was when agents were expected to submit to one editor at a time and wait for a yea or nay before going on to the next, or risk being black-listed. As you have no doubt noticed, that time is no more. A number of agents, however, have been trying to force writers to play by those old rules.
Snark defends exclusives requested for a reasonable period of time based on the assumption that the agent will reciprocate by moving the ms or the partial to the top of the new-stuff-to-be-read pile. Fair enough, as long as you and the agent agree on what’s reasonable. Open ended is not reasonable. Six months is not reasonable. Thirteen weeks is not reasonable. (For some reason we’ve seen that figure a few times; like they’re colluding.) Get down into the month to six weeks spread and you’re in the territory where a deal may be possible. Which in this instance probably means you agree to the agent’s terms.
So far so good and no gauntlet is thrown.
But that the agent should have the guaranteed right to represent the book if after reading it on this claimed-to-be-expedited schedule, she/he wishes to do so? Not if you’ve got any brains at all.
An agent making this demand is trying to insulate herself/himself from competition. Which is just what the editors of old were trying to do with their one-editor-at-a-time policy. The agent suspects you have a good and a saleable book of a sort that she/he can sell. She/he wants the time to examine that assumption and lock down the deal without worrying about another agent breathing down her/his neck. Well, that would be nice, but does the agent deserve that security? Does anyone? If you call in a plumber for an estimate, do you have to hire that plumber? Can your doctor forbid you to get a second opinion? Are all agents equal? Much less equally likely to get you the best possible deal?
If you do not know that the answer to these questions is no, stop writing with the goal of publishing. You are far too naieve to succeed in this very tough business, no matter who represents you.
And maybe you will be. Hell, it happens to some authors all the time. It isn’t however, about who your agent is. At least not if you’re with a legitimate, full time agent who actually sells books to royalty-paying publishers for a living. Meaning that he/she has an active client list of regularly published writers. As in the only kind of agent I would ever recommend when I do a Customized Fingerprint report.
I’d think that was perfectly clear from everything else on this site and the length of time we’ve been in business, etc. But apparently it isn’t. As in I get told all the time by clients filling in the questionnaire they get after they order a CFP that what they’re looking for is an agent with good connections in Hollywood. Trust me on this, with a professional agent - whether an independent or with one of the hydra-heads like Morris or ICM - they all have good connections in Hollywood. Once you know how it’s done, a monkey with a briefcase can get a script read in la-la land. How it works will be the Basics column in the October Talking Agents, so I won’t go into it here. Except to say that getting the deal done is another matter. As in getting an option or an outright buy once the script is read.
That, my friends and colleagues, depends more on you than on your agent.
My own agent, for instance, sells stuff to Hollywood all the time. Never my stuff. (It’s no secret - I’ve been represented by Henry Morrison for over twenty years and some dozen books.)
I don’t write the kind of thing that people can easily see as a big Hollywood movie. Historicals are notoriously disappointing at the box office. Even when they’re not supposed to be. Did Master and Commander do anything like as well as the latest date whatever? Doesn’t Russel Crowe open a movie? You bet he does. Except when he doesn’t. Or that American patriot thing with Mel Gibson? Before we found out he’s really an anti-semitic nutcase? Still didn’t do one of those gazillion dollar opening weekends.
See, I know that. But I go on writing the great big wide-canvas historical fiction for which I’m known. Those are the voices I hear in my head, at least for now. So no movie deal. That’s not Henry’s fault, it’s mine. If fault it is. (But hey, guy, a mini-series? Here you are doing yet another Bob Ludlum Jason Bourne movie with Matt Damon and you can’t even get me an HBO mini-series? Showtime? The History Channel forgawdsake?)
Point made. Wearing my novelist’s hat I’m as crazy as all the rest of you. I just know I’m writing stuff that will translate to the screen. But I also know that a this level, if the movie moguls say no, it’s my fault, not that of my agent.
Okay, not perfect maybe, but right at least some of the time.
Just read an article on copyright by an NYU professor, Siva Vaidhyanathan, writing in no less an authority than the Columbia University Journalism Review making the point we have made repeatedly in e-mails and in Basics columns in Talking Agents: “… one cannot protect facts and ideas, only specific expressions of ideas. Dan Brown and Random House U.K. prevailed in the London court because the judge clearly saw that the earlier authors were trying to protect ideas. Most people don’t understand that important distinction.” Certainly a lot of new authors do not. So let me say it again here COPYRIGHT is a protection for how you say, not what you say. “I never saw a purple cow, I hope I never see one” might be protected by copyright. That X has never seen a purple cows is a fact that can be appropriated by anyone who cares to do so.
And in the same vein, I was just sent a cri de coeur from a new and unpublished writer who got a circular through the mail from a decidedly scummy so-called literary agent - that’s an easy accusation to make because hell will freeze over before you get any kind of solicitation from a real one - and was trying to figure out which of the websites she logged on to had sold her name and address. Well number one, we have never passed on any aspect of our mailing list to anyone. Never. Ever. We never will. Period, end of story. Did you copyright your book we asked…
The reason that’s such a dangerous step to take is that it violates the convention. Publishers register the copyright in the names of their authors; authors do not do it for themselves. And the Library of Congress list of newly granted copyrights is a public record and as such available to one and all. So the scumbags run their grubby fingers down the list, pick up any copyright registered directly by the author, and figure, “Aha! A mark!”
I don’t usually approve of sentences that end in exclamation marks. But in this case, I all but see the villains rubbing their hands together and twirling their handlebar moustaches.
Someone sent me a long how-to-blog article and I discover that to be effective and praiseworthy, I am supposed to write something here every day. I am also expected to interact with my readers. All the best bloggers do. So the “comments off” notation at the end of this page is an affront to bloggerdom. At least the better sort.
Listen my friends, I am a full time working novelist. (As in when I finish one book, it’s time to start another. Otherwise effective and praiseworthy will not be the adjectives my agent and publisher will choose.) And I do the Customized Fingerprint Reports for Bill’s AR&E. (I am married to him and intend to remain so, stopping would not be a good plan). And I sometimes mentor new writers, and in fact sort of think of this blog as an extension of that - though mentoring involves many, many hours while this I do when and as… But according to this long - and did I mention authoritative? - article, that is a problem.
It’s one I cannot solve. It is not within my power to add hours to the customary twenty-four, and apparently slothfulness is deeply embedded in my DNA. If my being incommunicado is deeply offensive, try firstname.lastname@example.org. I won’t guarantee to answer, but if I’m sitting around doing nothing, I just might.
Your agent needs to be a pig, not a chicken.
You know where this is going, right? When you sit down to a plate of bacon and eggs, consider the fact that the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.
There are a few good and reputable agents around - as in they sell books to major houses, often for major money, and they make no upfront charges, i.e. meet the minimum standards any writer should demand - who are, nonetheless, chickens. They float the project a bit, and if it is not an immediate winner, as in it will make them a few bucks and not cost them any, they drop you. Excuses tend to run from the lame - I want to spend more time with my family - to the exotic, I’ve been elected president of the parakeet society and it is hugely demanding. Whichever, commitment this is not.
One of the ways you can tell if this will happen to you is to have your antennae alert for any suggestion that the agent will read the ms when he has time, but meanwhile he’ll run it by a few likely editors and see what kind of comments he gets back. No matter how desperate you are for representation, run don’t walk in the opposite direction. This agent is saying that he’s not sure the book has merit, but it might. Probably needs some work. But rather than pass outright on a possible profit opportunity, he’ll see if maybe his reservations are ill-founded and it will be an easy sale. Cluck, cluck, cluck. Meanwhile he’s burning your potential editors. As in the good agent who eventually takes you on won’t be able to go back to them with the ms once you’ve rewritten it.
To be absolutely clear, not every agent with every project suggests revisions. That’s not what this is about. You can separate the I-think-it’s-ready type from the tentative maybe-I-don’t-want-to-get-involved type by one marker, enthusiasm. So what’s the oink reaction?
Either the pigs are enthusiastic, full of plans for marketing, etc., or they say I like this, but I see some weaknesses. If you’re willing to revise, call me and we’ll talk about what I think the fixes to be. Or some variation on same. It means the agent is committing time to making the project as good as it can be. He/she knows there’s going to be some back and forthing, a few calls, revisions to be read and commented on…
Time is a large part of the agent’s capital (the rest is reputation/clout) and they are justly unwilling to squander it, but if they will spend none on you, keep looking.
I was asked the other day - by a really sharp guy and a long time
client - if the agent who’d left a message on his machine asking
for a call-back might be getting in touch to say thanks,
but no thanks. OF COURSE NOT!
Unless you are a dewy-eyed, pink-skinned, chubby-cheeked
born-yesterday baby, you have probably received your share of rejection
notices before coming to this page. They range from abrupt to
downright rude - and they almost always are lies in the form of, for
example, we’re not taking on any new fiction just now… How do
we know that’s a lie? Because of all the times we’re told that
when the day before we placed a client with a debut novel
with the same agent. Not even the most calloused of bitches or
bastards in the agent world would take the trouble to leave a message
on your machine so they can deliver the probably lying kiss off viva-voce.
So two points:
One - however the rejection is worded, it always means the same
thing. “We’re just not that into you. Your query didn’t
excite us and we don’t want to waste time looking at more.”
Always. No exceptions. This may be about the concept
- the agent can’t see how to sell the book, because it’s too
different from everything out there. Or too much like everything
out there. More often it’s because the writing wasn’t
wonderful. In publishing only wonderful makes it to the next rung
of the ladder. Good isn’t good enough.
Two: A phone call means the agent is interested.
He/she is going to talk about representation straight away, or about
revisions. As in are you willing to make them.
So, say you say sure (I don’t think you’re likely to say anything else), does that mean you’ve got an agent?
Watch this space.
Can be quite a lot. Kathy Anderson and Jill Grinberg have dissolved their partnership and each is now an independent. They’re both good agents and no doubt their reasons for splitting up are personal and business related and not to do with their lists. But it does interest me that they take on very different kinds of books - Kathy does mostly fiction and often literary fiction while Jill is a lot of non-fiction, kids’ books, some quirky stuff. And over and over again the record shows that the most successful multi-person agencies are like with like. It’s counter-intuitive, but that’s how it works.
I was also struck recently by an article that claimed that authors always change their names because their numbers weren’t good on a previous book and they were afraid that Bookscan would nail them and bookstore orders would be lousy. Well sometimes. But you also have a problem if your readers expect one thing and you deliver something else. Except if you don’t. John Grisham’s venture into non-fiction THE INNOCENT MAN is expected to be huge. Admittedly it’s non-fiction, but on his usual kind of subject. And the issue may be where you are in your writing career. Nora Roberts wanting to write more suspense than romance developed other names, but that was long before the Roberts name was a household brand. Bottom line, publishers are the greatest nervous nellies on the planet. So it isn’t always simple.
As no doubt Kathy and Jill can tell you.
So now we’re blogging. Or at least I am. Beverly Swerling Martin here.
I’m the writer in the crew so naturally this page falls to me. At least
most of the time.
And for my first rant…
A guy just came to us with very impressive
journalism credentials and a terrific non-fiction book idea in his area
of expertise. I got a big grin on my face when I first read the answers
to his questionnaire because it was going to be so easy. The names of
half a dozen perfect-for-him agents came immediately to mind.
Then I probed a little and found out he had already taken the project
to a “part time agent” not, of course, in NYC, and this dear person
shopped the damn thing to every decent house with no takers. Doubtless
because she brought no clout to the table to grease the deal making;
made worse by the fact that she had neither the experience nor the
knowledge to spot any weaknesses in his proposal, or tell him how to
fix the same before they burned every good editor who buys his genre.
What a shame. Instead of coming to us first, he saved three hundred
bucks, got his own agent, and blew his chances for a good, maybe a
terrific deal - the kind with multiple zeros on the check - and a
launch pad for future books. Now we’ll see if we can find him an
effective not quite top tier agent who can market the book to a smaller
house. If he’d come with the same project in its virgin state I’d bet
money two or three über agents would have been really anxious to take
him on. And known how to guide the process to a successful result.