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And in the same vein, I was just sent a cri de coeur from a new and unpublished writer who got a circular through the mail from a decidedly scummy so-called literary agent - that’s an easy accusation to make because hell will freeze over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 email@example.com. 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.