The ethics of exclusives, or, the pros and cons of early admission

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Yes, yes, I know: the tulip encroaches upon the useful information running down the right-hand side of the page. For one day, I think we can all live with that, can’t we? Besides, its enormity is very much in line with my feeling at the moment — isn’t it about time that spring came? (The photograph, incidentally, was taken by the ever-fabulous Marjon Floris.)

Why the longing for sun, light, warmth, color, and other things we tend to take for granted for half the year? Well, as some of you may have suspected when I didn’t post for a couple of days (and weekdays, too), I’ve been a bit under the weather again — or, to be specific, I have been inside, looking out at the weather, feeling like a school kid whose bright plastic rain boots have sprung a leak.

If I’m stuck inside, it seems to me that the least my yard could do is fast-forward a month or two to provide me with colorful scenery. Is that so unreasonable?

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I’m going through my list of often-asked questions, those excellent poke-in-the-ribs reminders that I should really write a blog post or two on certain murky issues. Today’s murk comes courtesy not of a question posted as a comment here, but rather as a culmination of something writer friends ask me privately a dozen or so times per year: what should a writer who already has submissions out to agents do if a newly-responding agent asks for an exclusive?

You didn’t think I had been procrastinating about the topics on the murk list because they were conducive to EASY answers, did you?

An exclusive, for those of you new to the term, is when a writer agrees to allow an agent a specific amount of time during which no other agent will be reviewing a manuscript. Generally speaking, agents will request exclusives for two reasons: either they fear that there will be significant competition over who will represent the project, or it is simply the agency’s policy not to compete with outside agencies.

Do I feel some of you out there getting tense, doing the math on just how many years (if not decades) it could take to make it through your list of dream agents if you had to submit to them one at a time? Relax, campers: requests for exclusives are actually fairly rare.

Why rare? Well, the first kind of exclusive request, the one Agent A might use to prevent Agents B-R from poaching your talents before A has had a chance to read your manuscript (hey, A’s desk is already chin-deep in paper), tends to be reserved for writers with more than just a good book to offer. Celebrity, for instance, or a major contest win.

Basically, the agent is hoping to snap up the hot new writer before anybody else does. Or before the HNW realizes that s/he might prefer to be able to choose amongst several offers of representation.

If you suddenly find yourself the winner of a well-respected literary contest or on the cover of People, remember this: just because an agent asks for an exclusive does not mean you are under any obligation to grant it. If your work is in demand, it’s not necessarily in your best interest to sign with the first agent who makes an offer — you will want the one with the best track record of selling books like yours, right?

Chant it with me now, long-time readers: you do not want to land just any agent; you want the best agent for YOUR work.

I mention this now, in advance of when at least some of you attain either celebrity or your first big literary prize, because when either of these things happen to a writer, it can be pretty disorienting.

Contest winners, after all, are often good writers who have spent years querying agents. (Partially because it’s considered a trifle gauche for the already-agented to enter contests for unpublished work.) The switch from frantically trying to catch an agent’s eye to multiple agents asking to see one’s winning entry, pronto, can often throw even the most level-headed writer for a loop.

Trust me, this is a problem you want to have: it’s a compliment to your work.

You will, however, want to think in advance about how you’re going to respond. Yes, I am speaking from experience here — and a big, well-deserved thank-you to all of my former contest-winner friends who had drilled me to say, no matter how shell-shocked I was after receiving the prize, “I’m sorry, but I’ve sworn that I won’t grant any exclusives. Would you like me to submit to you at the same time as I send out to the others?”

Granted, this glassy-eyed response did make a few agents grumble, but believe me, it was far, far better than my having to decide on the spot whether the first agent who asked to see my pages was so much more suited to my book than the other agents at the conference that I should not even let the rest take a peek at it.

Which is, incidentally, precisely what you are being asked to do with an exclusive. Think of it like applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right? By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead.

It’s a win/win, in other words.

So if the best agent in the known universe for your type of writing asks for an exclusive, you might want to say yes. But if you have any doubt in your mind about whether Harvard really is a better school for your intended studies than Yale, Columbia, or Berkeley — to mix my metaphors again — you might want to apply to all of them at the same time, so you may decide between those that admit you.

My point is, if you are asked for an exclusive because your work is sought-after, it is up to you whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it? (If not, I can keep coming up with parallel cases all day, I assure you.)

With the other type of exclusive request, the one that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts that no one else is, the writer is not offered that choice. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to read some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.

In essence, these agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to query us, you must have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer.”

Why might such a stance be advantageous for an agency to embrace? Well, it prevents them from ever having to experience the fear associated with the first type of exclusive request: if you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be calling them in a week to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider your agency, so could you hurry up and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”

Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (PLEASE tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But let’s face it, agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of calls a fair amount. And nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.

Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in a similar Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation.

What does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Not a heck of a lot, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for his work.

But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules. Fortunately, agencies that maintain this requirement tend to be far from quiet about it. Their agents will trumpet the fact from the conference dais. Requires exclusive submissions or even will accept only exclusive queries will appear upon their websites, in their listings in standard agency guides, and on their form replies requesting your first 50 pages.

(Yes, Virginia, positive responses are often form-letters, too, even when they arrive in e-mail form. I sympathize with your shock.)

If they had company T-shirts, in short, there would probably be an asterisk after the agency’s name and a footnote on the back about not accepting simultaneous submissions. If they’re serious about the policy, they’re serious about it, and trying to shimmy around such a policy will only get a writer into trouble.

Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — agencies with this requirement are not very common.

Why? Well, because they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid querying agencies with this policy.

Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it is if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question had this policy.

In my next post, I shall talk about what a writer who finds himself dealing with simultaneous requests from both exclusive-requesting and ordinary agents, but for today, let me leave you with something to ponder.

Requests for exclusives are, as I mentioned, rather rare. Writers who believe that ANY request for a submission is AUTOMATICALLY a request for an exclusive are not. As a result, would-be submitters sometimes delay sending out requested materials until they hear back from earlier requesters.

This is a serious strategic mistake. Unless an agent ASKS for an exclusive — and believe me, if an agency requires exclusivity, the member agent interested in your work will tell you so directly — it is NOT expected. In fact, now that the agent-finding market is so fierce, the vast majority of agents simply assume that good writers are querying and submitting widely.

Long-time readers, take out your hymnals: that apparently immortal conference-circuit rumor is simply not true — expectations of exclusivity are NOT the norm amongst agents. Nor is reticence about submission requirements.

A writer is under no obligation whatsoever to stop submitting or querying other agents while one is reading requested materials. So there.

Granting an unrequested exclusive is like applying to only one college per year: you might get in eventually, but it’s a far more efficient use of your time to apply to many simultaneously. Unless, of course, the school you’re absolutely sure that you want to attend offers you early admission.

Keep up the good work!

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Protecting your pages, or, is it being paranoid if someone actually is out to get you?

Was that giant cry of “YES!” I just heard those of you who have been worrying about exchanging pages’ response to this post’s title? I expect so, because I have literally never taught a writing class or attended a writers’ conference where someone did not bring it up.

Clearly, some folks out there are worried about having their writing lifted by miscreants.

I had planned, as is my wont this time of year, to start a new series today on the ins and outs of contest entry prep, expanded to include some self-editing tips designed to reduce common manuscript micro-problems that tend to make contest judge and agency screener twitch a bit. But then I noticed that this particular issue has been cropping up on my running to-blog-upon list with more than usual frequency over the last year. Both intrepid commenter Chris and insightful reader Adam of Albion have asked me rather pointed questions on the issue in the comment sections of posts, which made me realize two important things about this blog: the comments are not searchable by the general public (I know not why), and I haven’t done an entire post on these concerns since late 2005.

Since I’ve just wrapped up a series encouraging you to give your unpublished manuscripts to other people, this seemed like a dandy moment to correct the latter. In fact, I’m going to be spending the next few days hitting topics on that patient to-blog-upon list.

One vital disclaimer before I begin: I am NOT an attorney, much less one who specializes in intellectual property law. So it would be a GRAVE MISTAKE to take what I say here as the only word on the subject, or indeed to come to me if you believe that your writing has been stolen. (And if you did, I would send you straight to my lawyer, so why not skip a step?)

However, I’ve noticed that most of the time, writers curious about this seem to be asking questions not because they fear that their intellectual property has been lifted or that they’ve violated someone else’s rights, but because they’ve heard vague rumors to the effect that every so often, an unpublished writer’s work has gotten stolen. And those pervasive rumors I can legitimately address.

To set your minds at ease: yes, writing does occasionally get stolen — but it’s exceedingly rare, and it usually doesn’t happen in the way that most hearers of the rumor fear.

Let me introduce Sharon, a writer who approached me a few years ago. I had the impression that she hadn’t been writing very long, but I wasn’t positive, as she was someone I barely knew — the on-again, off-again girlfriend of the brother of a friend of mine, which is as fine a definition of a casual acquaintance as I’ve ever heard. And yet she called me one day, full of questions.

Sharon had written a short piece — an essay, really — that she thought was marketable and had, through sheer persistence and the rare strategy of actually LISTENING to the advice she had been given by published writers of her acquaintance, gotten the publisher of a small press to agree to take a preliminary look at it. In mid-celebration for this quite significant achievement, she experienced a qualm: what if this guy stole her ideas, or her entire work?

Once the idea had taken hold in her brain, being a writer, she naturally embellished upon it in the dead of night: if it came down to the publisher’s word against hers, who would believe {her}? And how could she ever prove that she had come up with the idea first?

When she shared her fears, however, half of her friends laughed at her, saying that she was being paranoid and unreasonable. The other half told her, in all seriousness, that she should go ahead and register the copyright for what she had written before she e-mailed it to the guy. Or at the very least, they advised, she should tart up her pages by adding the copyright symbol (©) on each and every one. Whereupon the first set of friends laughed even harder and told her that nothing looks more unprofessional to folks in the publishing industry than the liberal application of that pesky ©.

Understandably confused, she did something very sensible: she called me and asked what to do. As Gore Vidal is fond of saying, there is no earthly problem that could not be solved if only everyone would do exactly as I advise. I trust all of you will cling to that inspiring little axiom until your dying breath.

The problem was, each set of Sharon’s friends was partially right: the vast majority of reputable publishing houses would never dream of stealing your material, and yet, as in any other business, there are always a few cads. At most writers’ conferences, you will hear speakers scoff at the possibility, but anyone who has been in the writing and editing biz for any length of time knows at least one good writer with a horror story.

Better safe than sorry, as our great-grandmothers used to stitch painstakingly onto samplers. (Actually, my great-grandmother was an opera diva who apparently regarded needlework as a serious waste of the time she could be spending being flamboyant, but I’m quite positive that other people’s great-grandmothers embroidered such things.)

In the United States, though, outright theft of a book, or even an essay or short story, is quite rare. To wave the flag for a moment, we have the strongest copyright laws in the world, and what’s more, a writer on our turf AUTOMATICALLY owns the copyright to his own work as soon as he produces it. So when people talk about copyrighting a book, they’re generally not talking about obtaining the right in the first place, but rather registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

So the friends who advised Sharon not to mar her footer with © 2008 Sharon were partially correct. In fact, they were passing along the prevailing wisdom: presenters at your garden-variety writers’ conference often tell aspiring writers not to use the © bug on their manuscripts when they submit them; it’s redundant.

How so? Well, everyone in the publishing industry is already aware that the author owns the copyright to her own writing. If she didn’t, they wouldn’t have to sign a contract with her in order to publish it, right?

In theory, then, writers are protected from pretty much the instant that their fingers hit the keyboard. So was Sharon’s other set of advisors merely ill-informed?

Unfortunately, no: in practice, a couple of problems can arise. Rights, as Thomas Hobbes informed us so long ago, are the ability to enforce them.

In the first place, owning the rights to what you write inherently and proving that you are the original author are two different things. Occasionally, some enterprising soul will latch on to another writer’s unpublished work and claim that he wrote it first, or co-writers will squabble over who gets custody of already-written work in a partnership break-up.

The result in either case, the usual result is an unseemly struggle to determine who coughed up any given page of text first.

Second — and you might want to be sitting down for this one, as it comes as rather a shock to a lot of writers — you can’t copyright an idea; you can merely copyright the PRESENTATION of it. Which means, in practice, that it is not possible to claim ownership of your storyline, but only how you chose to write it.

Aren’t you glad I told you to sit down first?

Learning about this second condition tends to obviate a good 85% of the concerns aspiring writers express about having their work stolen. Most of the time, writers are worried that someone will steal their STORIES, not the actual writing. There’s not a heck of a lot a writer can do about that, unfortunately.

But by the same token, unless the lifted plotline becomes a major bestseller, there’s really no reason that you shouldn’t push ahead with your version. Fiction is virtually never sold on the storyline alone, anyway; plotlines and NF arguments are almost never 100% unique.

As no one knows better than a writer, however, presentation — particularly GOOD presentation — generally IS unique. As industry insiders are so fond of telling writers, it all depends upon the writing.

This is why, as some of you inveterate conference-goers may have noticed, when agents, editors, and published writers are presented with a question about book theft, they tend to respond as though the question itself were a sign of an over-large ego in the asker. Just how revolutionary would an aspiring writer’s style have to be, the logic goes, for an agent or editor to WANT to steal it?

Which perhaps leaves the wondering writer reluctant to submit his long thought-out plotline and terrific premise to a publisher, lest it be handed to a better-known writer, but doesn’t really address his concern. Once again, we have a failure to communicate.

Do I see some hands in the air out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protesting, and rightly so, “between the time I submit a manuscript to an agency and the time a book is published and thus equipped with a nice, clear copyright page stating precisely who owns the writing between those covers, it passes through quite a few hands. I may not even know who will end up reading it. Shouldn’t I worry about some of them deciding to make off with my actual pages and passing them off as their own?”

Having some doubts about Millicent’s integrity, are we? Well, it’s a reasonable enough concern: some of those hands will inevitably belong to people you do not know very well. Agency screeners like Millicent, for instance. Agents. Editorial assistants. Editors. Mail room clerks. The people in the publishing house’s marketing department.

And anyone to whom you give your manuscript as a first reader. Guess which paragraph contains the most likely thief of prose?

If you said the latter, give yourself a big, fat gold star for the day; I’ll be discussing casual exchanges in tomorrow’s post. But let’s think for a moment about why manuscripts sent to agencies and publishing houses very, very rarely turn up with anyone other than the author’s name on the title page.

An exceedingly straightforward reason springs to mind: agencies and publishing houses make their livings by selling work by writers. In-house theft wouldn’t have to happen awfully often before writers would stop sending submissions, right? So sheer self-interest would tend to discourage it.

But I’m not going to lie to you: at a less-than-reputable house or agency, it could happen.

The single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. Not every organization with the wherewithal to throw up a website is equally credible. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to check anyone in the industry with whom you’re planning to do business on Preditors and Editors (link at right); if you have doubts about an individual agent, agency, or publishing house, check agents out with the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives). These are also good places to report any professional conduct that seems questionable to you; P&E is especially good about following up on writers’ complaints.

I always advise doing a basic credibility check before sending ANY part of your manuscript via e-mail. As I’ve mentioned several times before here, after you send out an e-mailed attachment (or any e-mail, for that matter), you have absolutely NO way of controlling, or even knowing, where it will end up.

Think about it: part of the charm of electronic communication is ease of forwarding, right? Yet another reason that I’m not crazy about e-mailed submissions.

While it’s highly unlikely that the chapter you e-mail to an agent — or that person you just met on an Internet chat room — will end up on a printing press in Belize or Outer Mongolia, it’s not entirely unprecedented for entire e-mailed manuscripts to wander to some fairly surprising places. Yes, the same thing COULD conceivably happen with a hard copy, too, but it would require more effort on the sender’s part.

Which, believe it or not, is part of the function of the SASE: to maximize the probability that your manuscript will come back to you, rather than being carted off by goodness knows whom to parts unknown.

Stop laughing — it’s true. When you send requested materials off to an agency or publishing house, you and they both are operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission, right? The mere fact that you give them a physical copy of your work doesn’t mean that you intent to authorize them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so, right?

When you include a SASE with your submission packet, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys your expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

The key word to remember here is control. Until you have signed a contract with a reputable agent or publishing house (or are selling copies that you published yourself), you will want to know with absolute certainty where every extant copy of your manuscript is at all times.

If that last sentence gave you even a twinge of compunction about work already written and sent upon its merry way: honey, we need to speak further, and pronto. However, that conversation, along with steps you can take to prove when you wrote a particular piece, is best left until next time.

In the meantime, don’t worry; keeping a watchful eye your work isn’t all that difficult, and it certainly doesn’t require living in a state of perpetual paranoia. Just a bit of advance thought and care.

Keep up the good work!

So you’re considering self-publishing, part II: how does one go about it, anyway?

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Yesterday, I began a discussion about self-publishing with two authors who have taken the plunge this year, fellow blogger and memoirist Beren deMotier and novelist Mary Hutchings Reed. Both are prolific, award-winning writers who have been fighting the good fight along with the rest of us for many years, so who better to ask the question that has been on so many writers’ minds over the last couple of years: what precisely is it like to self-publish?

Today, we’re going to discuss the practicalities of self-publishing, particularly how one goes about finding a reputable press. But before we get started, please help me welcome back our panelists. And because they are, after all, doing us a great big favor here, let’s recap what they have published and where one might conceivably go to buy it.

Beren deMotier is the author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH. It’s available on Amazon, of course, but because I always like to plug a good independent bookstore, here’s a link to the book’s page at Powell’s, too.

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The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage is a lesbian bride’s eye view of marriage at a moment’s notice, with a bevy of brides, their coterie of children, donuts, newspaper reporters, screaming protesters, mothers of the brides who never thought they’d see the day, white wedding cake, and a houseful of happy heterosexuals toasting the marriage. But that was only the beginning as these private declarations of love became public fodder, fueling social commentary, letters to the editor, and the fires of political debate, when all the brides wanted was the opportunity to say “I do” in this candid, poignant, and frequently funny tale of lesbian moms getting to the church on time in Multnomah County.

In addition to her fine memoir, Beren also has written humor/social commentary for Curve, And Baby, Pride Parenting, Greenlight.com, www.ehow.com, as well as for GLBT newspapers across the nation. She’s written about same-sex marriage for over a decade, and couldn’t resist writing the bride’s eye view after marrying in Multnomah County. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her spouse of twenty-one years, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse.

Mary Hutchings Reed, if you’ll recall, is the author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, which is being described as ONE L for women lawyers:

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Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

In addition to a writing schedule that would make most of our heads spin, Mary has spent the last thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service (BUCKETS of it) and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

In short, in addition to being good writers brave enough to publish their own work, these are two incredibly busy people, so many thanks to both for taking the time to let me pepper them with questions. Let’s leap right into the nitty-gritty:

Anne: Last time, we talked a little bit about why each of you chose to pursue the self-publishing route, and what kinds of specialized obstacles your unusual subject matter placed in your books’ paths. Since so many of our community here at Author! Author! can identify with the experience of sending out query after query, let’s take a moment to talk about how you went about marketing the book to agents before you made the choice to self-publish.

You’re both very experienced, professional-minded writers — is it fair to assume that you went about it in the traditional way? I always like to ask this, just in case some brilliant soul has found a clever way to bypass this often drawn-out process. You’re shaking your heads and laughing — no such luck?

Beren: I used the Guide or Writers Market

Anne: Ah, the sacred texts.

Beren: …after checking online to see if the information was still accurate. If they wanted a one-page query letter, I sent that; if they wanted a book proposal, I sent that. Often, a query would lead to chapters and chapters to the whole manuscript, but not to a book contract.

Mary: I went to workshops and learned how to meet agents; I sent a lot of queries.

Anne: So you both went about it the right way. Given the original nature of your story and how evident it was that your book was going to stir up some pretty strong emotions in readers, were you were you surprised at the responses you received from agents and editors?

Mary: I was surprised more agents didn’t see right away that career women in book clubs would love Courting Kathleen Hannigan. But I didn’t get much advice from them, and not useful. The comment “in the end I failed to connect to the material” isn’t very helpful.

And don’t forget I did have an agent for Courting Kathleen Hannigan (here in Chicago), who worked with me all of 2002 to get it where she wanted it for publication, and then she died in early 2003.

Anne: I remember when it happened: one day, you had a great agent, and the next day, you didn’t have one at all, and had to start the whole process over again. You bounced back really well, though, as I recall.

Mary: It was a shock, and I put the whole selling thing on hold for a while. I got involved with other projects and only gradually got back into trying to interest an agent in this work, and then moved on to trying to sell my next works.

Anne: That’s one reason I really wanted to interview you here; we writers are so conditioned to believe that once we land an agent, we don’t need a Plan B. But that’s not necessarily the case, no matter how talented a writer you are — so much of this process is out of our control.

Before we talk about Plan B, though, I want to ask a follow-up about submitting to agents. How much feedback did you actually get, and was any of it helpful?

Beren: There was a wonderful agent who gave my book three chances—she looked at and read three incarnations, which is a lot of time to give a project, but ultimately her comment was, ”You’d have a better time selling this project if you were an alcoholic single mother.”

Anne: Oh, that’s very helpful. I know perfectly well that agents usually say things like this not intending them to be taken seriously as revision suggestions, but to excuse their passing on a well-written book, but don’t statements like this just set your mind whirring with the possibilities? Surely, she wasn’t actually suggesting that you add false memories to your memoir to make it easier to sell, any more than she was suggesting that you should look into alcoholism as a career-enhancing move, but I have to say, those comebacks certainly would have occurred to me.

Beren: She felt that there wasn’t a big enough “problem” in the story—no one died, no one went to jail—and so she couldn’t sell it. I had some similar reactions from others, and it was shocking to me that being denied one’s civil rights and getting constitutionally designated as unworthy of marriage (and all the bitter pain that involved) wasn’t a big enough “problem.” I wonder if they had read the whole book, because the ups and downs aren’t apparent in the beginning—perhaps that was a mistake—but I wanted to tell it as it was experienced.

Anne: In other words, as a memoir; as a memoirist myself, I completely get wanting to tell the story from the inside-out, to place the reader inside a world s/he has never experienced before.

What about you, Mary? Any useful feedback?

Mary: The most helpful advice from any agent, of course, was from Jane Jordan Brown before she died. That was to get it down to 300 pages.

I got a ton of feedback from Enid Powell, from my workshop fellows, from a couple different paid services (as I recall) and then from my non-writing, women-lawyer friends. All feedback is helpful, either to confirm your confidence in your own work or to give you insight into what can be done better or more clearly.

Anne: I’m about to ask a totally insensitive question, but one that I’m sure many of my readers are going to be too polite to write in and ask. Did you ever consider just giving up on this project, when it did not receive the response from agents and editors that it deserved?

Beren: Oh yes, I did consider just giving up. Especially since writing about same-sex marriage for a couple of years kept the pain of having the marriage annulled alive, and kept me conscious of every mean letter to the editor or hopeful legislation. Partially what kept me going was a stubborn streak and pride, to give up would have been to admit that I thought the project was unworthy of publication or readership.

There were times I closed up my files and left my desk to collect dust between query waves, but even one positive thing kept me going—a compliment from a friend on the book, a nice note at the end of a rejection letter, the publication of one of my editorials on the subject. Keeping a lot of balls in the air about the book kept it a live project, even when I thought I was done with the actual writing.

Anne: It’s SO important to keep moving forward. If I hadn’t had a novel to revise and a blog to write after my memoir was hit with the lawsuit threats, I can’t imagine how I would have coped. Work can be a positive blessing in the midst of book turmoil. That, and reminding oneself that a setback on the road to publication doesn’t necessarily mean that the book doesn’t have an audience waiting out there to be moved or helped by it.

Mary: What keeps me going is the pure enjoyment and satisfaction I get from writing. It is, for me, soul-making.

Anne: What a nice way to put it. That scratching sound you hear is me writing that down, very possibly to steal it for my next class.

Mary:In a sense, I did give up on finding a commercial publisher. I published it privately because I finally got my own ego out of the way and the time felt right. Some part of me also wanted to be able to give it to my librarian-mother, who was losing her memory. Even though we published it in about a 75-day turnaround, she unfortunately didn’t quite get it, even with my picture on the back. But the nurses in her Alzheimer’s unit loved it!!

Which was a gift—convincing me that there was an audience way beyond just “lady lawyers.”

Anne: Which to my eye, it very clearly does. I don’t understand why it wasn’t obvious to agents in both your cases that people like me — who read a great deal by living writers, but who are neither likely to be practicing law in a high-powered firm or marrying people of the same sex — would be the audience for these books. I already know about people whose experiences are just like mine — I want books that will introduce me to points of view other than my own.

Somehow, I doubt I’m the only habitual book-buyer in North America who fosters that preference.

Let’s talk about your segue into Plan B. What were your feelings about self-publication prior to this project? Had you ever considered it before, and do you think your advance impression of it was accurate?

Beren: I did think of self-publishing as vanity publishing until recently. And to vanity publish would have been a shameful thing to me, an admission that I couldn’t cut it. So yeah, I had baggage.

Mary: My impression was that–as they say in the books—it’s all about the writing, and if the writing is good, you’ll get published—so I thought of self-publishing as a failure. That good writing will always get published commercially just isn’t true. I got lots of compliments on my writing, from lots of highly-regarded agents and publishers—but they didn’t know how they would “sell” my work. They apparently don’t find it all that easy to sell plain old “good writing.“

Anne: There have been plenty of periods in publishing history when it has been pretty darned hard to sell plain old good writing. Just ask anyone who tried to sell a memoir just after the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal. It’s just one of the facts of the business.

Beren: I’ve wanted to be published since I was ten; my grandfather was a successful novelist and screenwriter, so I’ve been aware of the business side of writing from an early age. This wasn’t the first book I queried, and with those others I considered self-publication, but wisely knew it wasn’t the right time or the right project. They weren’t good enough.

Mary: Several friends of mine self-published and had fun with it. One sold 4000 copies by hand in less than two years.

Anne: Wow — that’s practically unheard-of. I’ve always heard that most self-published books sell under 500 copies ever. You’re talking about Erin Goseer Mitchell, right?

Mary: Yes. Her book, Born Colored. is about growing up in Selma before Bloody Sunday—she knew her audience, and wanted to tell the story of the strength and dignity of the black community which made the civil rights movement possible.

In the same way, I thought I knew my audience, and that I should be able to sell a couple thousand copies. If I don’t believe I can, why would a publisher believe they could?

Anne: That’s an interesting way to think of self-publishing.

Mary: I don’t exactly use the words “self-publishing.” While I financed the publication and am primarily responsible for marketing, my publisher, Ampersand, Inc., doesn’t publish everything they are asked to publish. She picks and chooses the products to which she will lend the Ampersand name. We’ve coined the term “privately published.”

Anne: I like that; it sounds very Edwardian.

Let’s talk about how one goes about getting a book privately published, then. How did you go about finding a press to use, and why did you pick your press? What did it offer you that others didn’t?

Beren: I did quite a lot of research on self-publishing before committing. Looking at writing books and online reviews of publishing companies, it was clear there were some that rose to the top of the list, including iUniverse and Infinity Publishing. Amazon.com had just started publishing books, too, through Booksurge, and it had a lot to offer—it was a hard decision between iUniverse and them.

Ultimately, iUniverse offered the chance to have a book distributed on standard wholesale terms basis if you sold 500 copies, and I was pretty sure I could do that, plus the initial cost was much lower. Booksurge is astoundingly expensive compared to some POD publishers, but they have a lot to offer.

Mary: My friend founded Ampersand. She’d been in publishing all her life (as president of an educational publishing company), and had turned out highly professional projects for a couple other people I know. It’s more expensive than publishing on demand, but the product itself and the marketing materials have very high production values. I may have been able to figure out how to put together a book, and go to a printer and get my own ISBN and all that, but the physical product would not have been nearly as professional and classy as the one Ampersand produced. Plus, it’s a better use of my time to do what I do—practice law—and pay her to do what she does.

Anne: It’s great that you had someone you already knew you could trust.

Mary: I’m suggesting it’s not a matter of printing or finding a good press or the right print-on-demand. I think it’s finding a publishing professional, like Susie Isaacs at Ampersand here in Chicago to make the product indistinguishable from a commercially-published book.

Anne: Not having that advantage going in, Beren, what criteria did you use to decide which press to select?

Beren: I looked at how the books were distributed (wholesalers and online stores), author discounts (very important if you plan on selling books at conferences, library events and directly to local bookstores), the “look” of the books that press had produced—did they look professional, could you pick them out as a self-published book?—and the timeline from submission to publication. I needed the book out sooner, and not at an outrageous price.

Anne: It’s SO interesting that you both mention the importance of the end product being indistinguishable from a traditionally published book — it hadn’t occurred to me to think about in those terms, but now that you mention it and I look at the volumes in front of me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference without looking at the press’ name.

Which makes me doubly eager to ask my next question, because you’re both so well-versed in this: What questions should someone thinking about going this route ask a potential press up front?

Beren: I think it is worth finding out how many of their books actually sell more than five hundred copies. I use that number because that is the number by which iUniverse decides it is worth investing its own money in a book, by redesigning the cover, any additional editing services free and by selling it at standard wholesale terms.

Anne: I wasn’t aware that they did that. I’m so glad that I asked.

Beren: Of the thousands of books iUniverse publishes every year, only about twenty sell over five hundred copies. I think that Infinity has returnability, and for a fee, the Amazon company, Booksurge, has returnability, but it doesn’t advertise that fee. Booksurge has the highest royalties for online sales, which might work brilliantly for some kinds of books. Their turnaround is quick, too.

Anne: Are there pitfalls writers looking into it should avoid?

Beren: Beware of editing costs—iUniverse has a reputation for suggesting huge edits before awarding a book Editor’s Choice designation, which it must have to eventually become available at standard wholesale terms.

The recommended services for my book would have cost about $1400, far more than the $695 original price for a publishing package. The edits weren’t that extensive, either (and the recommendations were done very well by a professional who really liked the book) so I did them in a twelve-hour editing spree and was able to get the Editor’s Choice designation after receiving two positive reviews post-publication.

Mary: I know some of the self-publishing or print-on-demand companies have packages that offer listings in ads they place in media like the New York Times. I can’t imagine that most fiction benefits from that. So, I’d say, don’t pay for mass marketing. Do invest in good cover design and bookmarks, but don’t pay for advertising that’s not highly, highly targeted. (I bought ads in my Brown alumni magazine and in the Chicago Bar Record.)

Don’t think that the publisher will do your marketing for you, though. They won’t.

Beren: One thing you must do as a self-published author (if you don’t want to pay big bucks to someone else) is to write your own promotional materials. It is hard enough for most of us to write a query letter or a proposal, writing book jacket copy, getting blurbs, and providing advertising copy is a different type of writing for most of us. I worked really hard on mine, and it was a good education.

Anne: I’m glad you both brought that up. What do you think are the biggest differences in authorial responsibility between a self-published book and one handled by a traditional publisher?

Mary: My responsibility is to turn out the best book I can.

Anne: But isn’t that always the case, no matter who publishes our work?

Mary: I fantasize that I would have more confidence that I’d done that if a traditional publisher gave the book its imprimatur.

Anne: I suppose I have an unusual view on that, having sold a book to a traditional publisher that didn’t come out. I can’t say that experience exactly bathed me in self-confidence.

Let me turn the question around for you, Beren. What did you have responsibility for that you wouldn’t have if you’d gone with a traditional publisher?

Beren: I did a lot in creating the look of the book. My spouse took the photo on the cover, and I was able to influence the design, font, and colors used in the final product. It became a group project when we shared the photo and necessary copy with friends who all had an opinion on how it should look.

Anne: That was a great day, opening my e-mail and finding the photo of the cover there.

Beren: I’m happy with the outcome. The questions iUniverse asked me about the book provided their designers with enough to make it look right. I did pay extra for this option; self-publishing with all your own design work is much less money if you have the expertise, which I do not.

Anne: One hears that a significant advantage of self-publishing lies in not having to revise a book to match — how shall I put this? — the sometimes arbitrary or misguided editorial standards authors sometimes encounter at traditional publishing houses, where the writer doesn’t have much say, if any, over title and book cover design, not to mention issues of content and style. Did you enjoy that freedom? How much control did you have over the final product?

Beren: I had a lot of control over the final product. If it had gone to a traditional house, I would have had to write it as fiction and have an alcoholic single mother as the main character! Or gotten divorced and developed a drinking problem!

I did have a lot of control, and iUniverse provided a lot of information on the book publication process. They send all prospective authors their book, Getting Published, which is a comprehensive guide to traditional publication and getting published through them. I used it a lot.

Mary: I’d be happy to revise if Simon & Schuster or Random House wanted me to. With an advance in hand, I could probably see my way clear to making changes…

Anne: Okay, okay, you have a point — and I don’t think I could hope for a better exit line than that, so let’s stop for today. Thank you both again for being generous enough to share your experiences with us.

Happy holidays, everyone, and keep up the good work!

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See for yourself, part VI: but wait, there’s more!

I was all set to clamber onto my moral high horse again and dispense more of yesterday’s philosophy, honest — but then sharp-eyed long-time reader Janet caught, as is her wont, the missing puzzle piece in my illustrated romp through standard format. So I’m sliding elevated ethical questions to the back burner for the nonce and diving right back into practicalities.

As Janet so rightly pointed out, I completely skipped over one of the more common first-page-of-chapter controversies (and yes, in my world, there are many from which to choose), whether to place the title and/or chapter designation at the top of the page, or just above the text.

To place the options before you, should the first page of a chapter look like this:

/snapshot-2007-12-19-20-40-58.tiff

Or like this?

/snapshot-2007-12-19-20-42-20.tiff

Now, I had been under the impression that I had waxed long and eloquent about the side I took in this burning debate, and that quite recently, but apparently, my eloquence has been confined to posts more than a year old, exchanges in the comments (which are not, alas, searchable, but still very worth reading), and my own fevered brain.

So let me clear up my position on the matter: the first version is in standard format; the second is not. No way, no how. And why do they prefer the first?

Chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT TO THEM.

Yet, if anything, agents and contest judges see more examples of version #2 than #1. Many, many more.

Admittedly, anyone who screens manuscripts is likely to notice that a much higher percentage of them are incorrectly formatted than presented properly, this particular formatting oddity often appears in otherwise perfectly presented manuscripts.

And that fact sets Millicent the agency screener’s little head in a spin. As, I must admit, it does mine and virtually every other professional reader’s. Because at least in my case — and I don’t THINK I’m revealing a trade secret here — I have literally never seen an agent submit a manuscript to a publishing house with format #2. And I have literally never even heard of an agent, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry’s asking for a chapter heading to be moved from the top of the page to just above the text.

Oh, I’ve heard some pretty strange requests from agents and editors in my time, believe me; I’m not easily shocked anymore. But to hear a pro insist upon placing the chapter heading where you have to skip down a third of a page to read it…well, that would have me reaching for my smelling salts. (Do they even make those anymore?)

But clearly, somebody out there is preaching otherwise, because agents, editors, and contest judges are simply inundated with examples of this formatting anomaly. We see bushels of ‘em. Hordes of aspiring writers are apparently absolutely convinced that the sky will fall in if that chapter heading is located anywhere but immediately above the text.

In fact, it’s not all that uncommon for an editor to find that after she has left a couple of subtle hints that the writer should change the formatting…

/snapshot-2007-12-19-20-56-36.tiff

…the subsequent drafts remain unchanged. The writer will have simply ignored the advice.

(Off the record: editors HATE that. So do agents. Contest judges probably wouldn’t be all that fond of it, either, but blind submissions mean that a writer must submit the same chapter two years running to the same contest, have the entry land in the same judge’s pile — in itself rather rare — AND the judge would have to remember having given that feedback.)

This may seem like a rather silly controversy — after all, why should it matter if the white space is above or below the title? — but sheer repetition and writerly tenacity in clinging to version #2 have turned it from a difference of opinion into a vitriol-stained professional reader pet peeve. (See earlier comment about how we tend to react to our advice being ignored; it isn’t pretty.)

Which, unfortunately, tends to mean that in discussions of the issue at conferences degenerate into writing-teacher-says-X, editor-at-Random-House-says-Y: lots of passion demonstrated, but very little rationale beyond each side’s insisting that the other’s way just looks wrong.

However, there is a pretty good reason that moving the chapter heading information to just above the text looks wrong to someone who edits book manuscripts for a living: it’s a formatting tidbit borrowed from short stories, whose first pages look quite different:

/snapshot-2007-12-19-20-58-59.tiff

There, as you may see for yourself, is a mighty fine reason to list the title just above the text: a heck of a lot of information has to come first. But that would not be proper in a book-length manuscript, would it? Let’s see what Noël’s editor has to say, viewing this as the first page of a book:

/snapshot-2007-12-19-21-02-21.tiff

Ouch. (That last bit would have been funnier if the entire page were readable, by the way, but my camera batteries were running low.) But as Millicent and that angry mob of pitchfork-wielding ignored editors would be only too happy to tell you, short stories don’t HAVE chapters, so who on earth are they to be telling those of us in the book world how to format our manuscripts?

Stick with version #1.

While I’ve got the camera all warmed up, this would probably be a good time to show another ubiquitous agent and editor pet peeve, the bound manuscript. As with other ploys to make a manuscript appear identical to a published book, binding the loose pages of a manuscript for submission will NOT win you friends in the publishing world.

Why? Not only does this not look right (I spared you the chanting this time), but it seems so wrong that Millicent will be positively flabbergasted to see a submitter to do it.

Seriously, this is one of those things that is so engrained in the professional reader’s mind that it seldom even occurs to authors, agents, or editors to mention it as a no-no at writers’ conferences. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it once within the last six months — and by anyone’s standards, I’m unusually communicative about how manuscripts should be presented.

So pay attention, because you’re not going to hear this very often: by definition, manuscripts should NEVER be bound in any way.

Not staples, not spiral binding, not perfect binding. There’s an exceedingly simple reason for this: binding renders it impossible (or at least a major pain in the fingertips) to pull out a chapter, stuff it in one’s bag, and read it on the subway.

Hey, paper is heavy. Would YOU want to lug home ten manuscripts every night on the off chance you’ll read them?

In practice, I’m sorry to report, a bound manuscript will seldom survive long enough in the screening process for the chapter-separation dilemma to arise, because — and it pains me to be the one to break this to those of you who’ve been submitting bound manuscripts, but if I don’t tell you, who will? — those pretty covers tend never to be opened.

Remember that immense pile of submissions Millicent has to screen before going home for the day — and it’s already 6:30? Well, when she slits open an envelope that reads REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside, she fully expects to see something like this lurking between the cover letter and the SASE tucked underneath:

/snapshot-2007-12-11-01-28-43.tiff

But in the case of the bound manuscript, she instead sees something like this:

/snapshot-2007-12-19-21-05-59.tiff

Kind of hard to miss the difference, isn’t it? And unfortunately, nine times out of ten, the next sound a bystander would hear would be all of that nice, expensive binding grating against the inside of the SASE.

Honestly, it’s not that she is too lazy to flip open the cover; she just doesn’t see why she should. Her logic may not be fair or open-minded, but it’s a fairly common argument throughout the industry: if this submitter does not know this very basic rule of manuscripts, how likely is she to know the rules of standard format? And if she does not know either, how likely is she to be producing polished prose?

Yes, this logic often does not hold water when it comes down to an individual case. But from her perspective, that matters less than we writers would like — because, as unpleasant as it is for aspiring writers to realize, her agency is going to see enough technically perfect submissions this week to afford to be able to leap to unwarranted conclusions about this one.

Don’t waste your money on binding.

Now that I have depressed you all into a stupor, let me add a final note about learning to conform to these seemingly arbitrary preconditions for getting your book read: any game has rules. If you saw a batter smack a baseball, then dash for third base instead of first on his way around the diamond, would you expect his home run to count? Would an archer who hit the bulls-eye in her neighbor’s target instead of her own win the grand prize? If you refused to pay the rent on Park Place because you didn’t like the color on the board, would you win the Monopoly game?

I can go on like this for days, you know.

My point is, submitting art to the marketplace has rules, too, and while your fourth-grade P.E. teacher probably did not impart them to you (as, if I ran the universe, s/he would have), you’re still going to be a whole lot better at playing the game if you embrace those rules, rather than fight them.

You’ll also, in the long run, enjoy playing the game more.

And remember, you’re playing this game by choice: you could, after all, make your own rules and publish your book yourself. Weigh the possibilities, and keep up the good work!

SIOA! Part III, in which your humble hostess does battle with the “what if” demons on your behalf

For the last couple of days, I have been urging those of you who received requests to submit all or part of your manuscripts to an agent or editor more than a season ago to take some swift steps to get them out the door as soon as possible. Yes, you do want your work to be in tip-top shape before you slide it under a hyper-critical reader’s nose — and agency screeners who are not hyper-critical tend to lose their jobs with a rapidity that would make a cheetah’s head spin — but once you’ve shifted from your summer to winter wardrobe without popping that those pages requested when your Fourth of July decorations were up into the mail, it’s easy to keep sliding down the slippery slope toward never sending it out at all.

Whoa, Nelly, that was a long sentence! But you get my point.

For most writers, holding on to those pages too long can create an increasing sense of shortcoming that starts to color the editing process — rendering it MORE difficult to make those last-minute changes as time goes on, not less. And then there’s the self-doubt.

“If my pitch/query were really so wonderful,” a nasty little voice in our heads starts to murmur, “why hasn’t that agent followed up with me, to see why I haven’t sent it? Maybe s/he was just being nice, and didn’t want to see it at all.”

Little voice, I can tell you with absolute certainty why that agent or editor hasn’t followed up: BECAUSE THE INDUSTRY DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY. It has exactly nothing to do with what the requester did or did not think of you or your book, then or now. Period.

You wanna know why I can say that with such assurance? Because their offices look like this:

/snapshot-2007-11-20-15-53-49.tiff

Trust me, the agent who requested your manuscript seven months ago is not currently staring listlessly out her office window, wishing she had something to read. She’s been keeping herself occupied with those thousands of pages already blocking her way to her filing cabinet.

Which is why a writer who is waiting, Sally Field-like, to be told that the agent likes her, really, really likes her before submitting is in for a vigil that would make Penelope think that Odysseus didn’t take all that long to meander back from the Trojan War.

I hate to disillusion anybody (although admittedly, that does seem to be a large part of what I do in this forum), but unless you are already a celebrity in your own right, no agent in the biz is going to take the initiative to ask a second time about ANY book that she has already requested, no matter how marvelous the premise or how much she liked the writer.

And before you even form the thought completely: no, Virginia, there ISN’T a pitch you could have given or a query you could have sent that would have convinced her to make YOUR book her sole lifetime exception to this rule. The Archangel Gabriel could have descended in a pillar of flame three months ago to pitch his concept for a cozy mystery, and it still would not occur to the slightly singed agent who heard the pitch to send a follow-up skyward now to find out why the manuscript has never arrived.

Gabriel got sidetracked at work, apparently.

So while that agent who legitimately fell in love with your pitch five months ago might well bemoan over cocktails with her friends that great book concept that the flaky writer never finished writing — which is, incidentally, what she will probably conclude happened — but she is far more likely to take up being a human fly, scaling the skyscrapers of Manhattan on her lunch hour on a daily basis, than to pick up the phone and call you to ask for your manuscript again.

Sorry. If I ran the universe, she would call after three weeks. But as I believe I have pointed out before, due to some insane bureaucratic error at the cosmic level, I do not, evidently, rule the universe.

Will somebody look into that, please?

By the same token, however, the agently expectation that the writer should take the initiative to reestablish contact can be freeing to someone caught in a SIOA-avoidance spiral. It’s very, very unlikely that the requesting agent is angry — or will be angry when the material arrives later than she expected it.

Agents learn pretty quickly that holding their breath, waiting for requested manuscripts to arrive, would equal a lifetime of turning many shades of blue. SIOA-avoidance is awfully common, after all.

So a writer who has hesitated for a couple of months before sending in requested materials can mail them off with relative confidence that a tongue-lashing is not imminent. 99.998% of the time the agent in question’s first response upon receiving the envelope WON’T be: “Oh, finally. I asked for this MONTHS ago. Well, too late now…”

I hate to break this to everyone’s egos, but in all probability, there won’t be any commentary upon its late arrival at all — or, at any rate, commentary that will make its way back to you. But that is a subject best left for a later post.

For now, suffice it to say that even if it has been four or five months since an agent requested your manuscript, I would still STRONGLY advise sending it out anyway — with perhaps a brief apology included in your “Thank you so much for requesting this material” cover letter. And I would advise this not only because the agent might pick it up, but because it’s important to break the SIOA-avoidance pattern before it becomes habitual.

Think about it: once you have put your ego on the line enough to pitch or query a book and then talked yourself out of sending it, do you honestly think either the pitch/query or submission processes are going to be emotionally EASIER the next time around?

Typically, after one round of SIOA-avoidance, they’re considerably harder, because the last time set up the possibility of NOT following through as a viable option.

I’m not saying this to judge anybody, but because it is a legitimate occupational hazard in our profession: I know literally hundreds of good writers who have been in pitch-reedit-talk self out of submitting-reedit-pitch again next year cycles for years. One meets them at conferences all over North America, alas: always pitching, always revising, never submitting.

Please, I implore you, do not set up such a pattern in your writing life. SIOA. And if you have already fallen into SIOA-avoidance, break free the only way that is truly effective: SIOA now.

I can tell that all of this begging is not flying with some of you. “But Anne,” I hear the recalcitrant say, “what if I’ve been feeling ambivalent toward sending it out because there is actually something seriously wrong with it? Shouldn’t I listen to my gut, and hang onto my book until I feel really good about showing it to the pros?”

Perhaps, reluctant submitters; if a manuscript is indeed deeply flawed, I would be the last person on earth (although I know other editors who would arm-wrestle me for the title) who would advise the writer against taking serious steps to rectify it. Joining a first-rate writers’ group, for instance, or hiring a freelance editor to whip it into shape. Almost any such steps, however, are going to take some time.

Before anyone screams, “AHA! Then I shouldn’t send it out yet!” let me hasten to add: your garden-variety agent tends to assume that a concerned writer will have implemented this kind of extensive long-term strategy to improve a manuscript BEFORE querying or pitching it, not after.

I would go ahead and send it now anyway, just in case your sense of shortcoming is misplaced, AND take steps to improve it thereafter. It might be accepted, and even if it isn’t, there’s nothing to prevent you from querying the agent again in a year or two with a new draft, gleaming with all of that additional polishing.

(For the benefit of those of you who have heard that apparently immortal writers’ conference circuit rumor: no, agencies do NOT keep such meticulous records that in 2010, the Millicent du jour will take one glance at a query, go rushing to a database, and say, “Oh, God, THIS manuscript again; we saw it in 2007. I need to reject it instantly.” Although she might start to think it if you submitted the same manuscript three times within the same year.)

Again, PLEASE do not be hard on yourself if you wake up in a cold sweat tomorrow morning, screaming, “Wait — she’s talking about ME! I’m in SIOA-avoidance mode!” (For your ease in waking your bedmates, I pronounce it SEE-OH-AH.) The important thing is to recognize it when it is happening — and to take steps to break the pattern before it solidifies.

Don’t worry — before I’m done, I’ll give you some pointers on how to phrase a cover letter to accompany a much-delayed submission without sounding like you’re groveling or requiring you to pretend that you’ve been in a coma for the last six months, unable to type. You can move on with dignity, I promise.

Have a nice Thanksgiving, everybody, and keep up the good work!

SIOA! Part II: why can’t I seem to send the darned thing out?

For those of you who missed yesterday’s post, the nifty little acronym above stands for Send It Out, Already! It, in case you are curious, refers to requested materials that an agent or editor asked to see more than three months ago. While such a piece of advice may come as something of a surprise falling from the fingertips someone who routinely advises going over submissions with a fine-toothed comb — and a diverse array of highlighter pens — many aspiring writers do get stuck between the query (or pitch) and submission stages of agent-finding.

This week, I’m concentrating on helping those writers become unstuck.

First of all, if you’ve found yourself in this kind of stasis: don’t be too hard on yourself. All too often, writers (and their well-meaning non-writing kith and kin) attribute not sending requested materials is attributed to procrastination, but in my experience, that isn’t usually what’s going on.

Many, many writers lose the vim to submit, despite beginning with excellent intentions, yet they certainly don’t start out intending to be slow in getting their work out the door. They just want to make absolutely sure it’s perfect before they drop it in the mailbox.

And that, as we all know, can take time. Here’s the progression I see most often:

1. The writer believes the book to be in good shape; query or pitch is full of enthusiasm.

2. The agent says (or writes) some permutation of, “Sure, send me the first 50 pages.”

3. The writer is THRILLED for a week. (During which time the aforementioned non-writer friends and relatives may be relied upon to ask the ego-dampening question: “So when is your book coming out?”)

4. Upon looking over the piece again, though, the writer begins to wonder if the book IS good enough. (Oftentimes, this is accompanied by a rising feeling that this submission is the ONLY chance the book may have to be read by an agent.)

5a. The writer starts to revise the first 50 pages wildly in order to make it perfect, OR

5b. The writer starts to panic and puts off submission until after some future defined period when he’ll have time to completely rework it. (“By Christmas” is a popular choice for writers attending summer and autumn conferences, I notice.)

6. Revising — or thinking about revising — continues. Since the self-appointed task is to make the submission 100% perfect, the amount of time the writer mentally allots to the task of revision continues to grow exponentially over time. (Here, “years on end” becomes the preferred option.)

7. One day, the writer looks at the calendar and finds that X amount of time has gone by since the original request for materials, and decides that the agent will actually be angry (read: will reject it without reading it) if the requested pages are sent now. Since the revision process has been so stressful, this conclusion often comes as something of a relief to the writer.

8. Result: the requested materials are never sent.

This scenario is slightly more likely to play out, I notice, when agents and editors ask to see the whole book, as opposed to the first 50. Or — and I’ll deal with this option a bit more tomorrow — if the writer has already been through steps 1-8 before.

The progression is perfectly understandable, right? That’s what makes it hard to diagnose in the early stages.

Because, you see, many of these writers run straight to their desks after receiving a positive response and throw themselves into a revising frenzy. Often, far from procrastinating, SIOA-avoiders put in many, many productive editing hours before they give up on submitting.

“I just want to get this ONE part right in Chapter Two,” they say, “so the agent of my dreams can see my best work.”

Which is, of course, a laudable and even professional sentiment — if the writer can get to this worthwhile endeavor within a reasonable amount of time. But when the writer starts thinking things like, “Well, okay, I didn’t get it out by Labor Day, as I intended — but I have some vacation time coming to me at Christmas; I can work on it then,” that should start setting off a few alarm bells.

Why? Because a lot can happen between Labor Day and Christmas.

That made some of you perfection-seekers sit up and take notice, didn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear some of you say, “that’s not the only issue. I care more about this book than anything else I’ve ever done, and once it’s published, this book is going to be bearing my name for the rest of my life, possibly even after. I don’t anything less than my absolute best writing to end up between those covers.”

Ah, but the draft you’re going to submit to the requesting agent isn’t going to be the book in its final form. It will be the version upon which future revisions will be based.

Did some coffee-drinker out there just do a spit-take?

It’s quite true — yet and the vast majority of unpublished writers do not seem to be aware of it. Yes, your book does need to be as polished as possible before submission, but realistically, you will almost certainly be expected to revise it between signing a publishing contract and publication. And perhaps between signing with an agent and signing with a publisher as well.

I don’t need a crystal ball to predict this, either. Merely simple observation: almost every book you see on the shelves at Barnes & Noble was revised significantly AFTER an agent or editor picked it up.

It may seem almost sacrilegious to say about a work of art, but the author’s vision of the book is not the only one that matters to the publisher. Your editor will definitely have some opinions on the subject; your agent probably will as well. It’s not unheard-of for a publishers’ marketing department to weigh in, as well as the legal department, copy editors, proofreaders…

In short, even if you produced the Platonic version of your book for submission, chances are that it would not be the version that would see print.

Another early warning sign that a writer may be beginning to fall prey to SIOA-avoidance behaviors: when the intended changes are in Chapter 10, and the writer is unwilling to send out the first 50 pages the agent requested. “But what if she asks for the rest?” the writer worries. “I want to be completely ready to send the entire book.”

I hear this one all the time, too, and my answer is invariably the same: “Um, if you send the first 50 now, won’t you have until AFTER the agent asks to see the rest to polish the book? From where I’m sitting, that could be 2-3 months from now! SIOA, and get right to work on the rest of the book!”

How do I figure 2-3 months, you ask? Well — and those of you who have not yet begun querying might want to avert your eyes for a moment; this news might make those new to the biz a bit queasy — at almost every agency on the planet, turn-around times for submissions are SIGNIFICANTLY longer than for queries. Three to six weeks to read a requested 50 pages is what a CONSCIENTIOUS agency strives to achieve; I tremble to tell you how long the ones who don’t respect writers take.

For an entire manuscript, it can often run 2-3 months or longer, even at the writer-friendliest agency.

A quick digression, to remind you of a former admonition: from a professional perspective, 2-3 months is too long to wait between queries; there is no legitimate reason that your marketing efforts must be stymied by an agency’s slow turn-around time. Keep sending out queries while your submissions are being considered, please: trust me, if the agent reading your first 50 decides to pass, you will be much, much happier if you already have Plan B queries in the pipeline.)

Was that pause long enough for those of you new to the industry to pick your chins up off the floor? See why I always advise writers that under no circumstances should they overnight their books to agents or editors unless THEY agree to pay for it? (99% of the time, they won’t.) Why overnight something that’s going to be sitting in a file drawer for the next month?

And if THAT’s not enough incentive to give serious pause to those of you with the opposite problem to SIOA-avoidance — the compulsion to send out requested materials instantly, without giving them a last-once over — I should like to know what would be.

Trust me: a LOT of those manuscripts moldering unread in piles at this very moment were overnighted by their authors; the overnight packaging doesn’t get a submission read any faster. Save your sheckles, and send requested materials via regular mail — or Priority Mail, if you really want to rush.

I’m bringing this up as a precursor to suggesting something fairly radical: under these predictably slow turn-around conditions — over which, after all, we writers have absolutely no control, right? — I would argue that no writer is under any obligation to send the rest of a book within a nanosecond or two of receiving an agent’s request for it.

I’m quite serious about this: you may well have 2 months, and possibly as much as 4, of reasonably predictable rest-of-the-book revision time AFTER sending a requested first 50 pages. If you sent off the initial chapters and an agent asked for more, you could legitimately (after an initial polite e-mailed explanation, of course) take an additional month or six weeks AFTER the request to finish revising, if you felt it necessary.

So you can SIOA those early chapters with a relatively clear conscience, knowing that you have some time at your disposal to fiddle with the rest of the book.

And you should do both.

Why? So you can move on as a writer without feeling that you might have let a wonderful opportunity slip through your grasping fingertips. So you do not label yourself as a procrastinator, because that’s a hard, hard self-label to peel off from yourself before the next round of queries. So you can act like a professional writer, one who knows that to risk success is also to risk rejection, and that the only book that has absolutely no chance of being picked up is the one that’s never submitted.

And, last but certainly not least, because a REAL, LIVE agent or editor asked to see YOUR writing!

More on this topic follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: how much does size matter, really?

Last time, I mentioned that, contrary to what many aspiring writers seem to believe, a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for any particular book, any more than signing with just any agent is a sure path to publication. While queriers, understandably, tend to focus on how picky agents are about what projects they take on, it’s worth giving some serious thought at the query list-generating stage to what kind of agency — and agent — is most likely to have the connections not only to sell your book well, but to walk you through the often difficult and perplexing publication process.

So while admittedly every agency — and indeed, every agent — is different, let’s spend the day wallowing in some sweeping generalities about size, shall we?

I am certainly not the first to write on this topic, nor, I suspect, the last. Writers’ periodicals seem to have an especial fondness for the issue — so much so that I sometimes wonder if a visiting alien picking up a writers’ magazine would not automatically assume that every writer in America chooses representation based upon size alone.

It’s a big country, the alien might reason. They like EVERYTHING big.

There are, of course, some reasons for this preference — and not just because it’s kind of cool when you mention your agency at writers’ conferences or industry parties and people say, “Oh!” as if they’ve just learned that you won the silver medal in pole-vaulting two Olympics ago.

Although admittedly, that’s gratifying.

As the client of a large agency, you do enjoy many benefits: the prestige of signing with a recognized name, more support staff to answer your questions (or not, depending upon prevailing attitudes), and often more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, in going with a major agency of good repute, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.

Emphasis on connections. Read Publishers Weekly or Publishers Marketplace for even a couple of months — not a bad idea, if you intend to stick with the writing gig for the long haul — and you’re likely to notice the same agency names turning up again and again, coupled with particular publishing houses. Agencies do specialize, and obviously, it’s in a writer’s interest to be affiliated with one of the top agencies for her book category.

Even when an agency does not focus on a particular category to the exclusion of others, the agents within it often will — and that, too, sets a discernable pattern. It’s not at all uncommon for an editor who likes an agent’s literary tastes to buy books from several of his or her clients.

Which makes a certain amount of empirical sense, right? As we’ve seen through querying, there isn’t universal agreement across the industry about what constitutes good writing, even within a single book category. Individual tastes differ, and what one editor at Random House likes to see in a mainstream novel will not necessarily be what another is seeking. If Editor Sam already knows from past acquisitions that she likes the kind of books that Agent Maureen enjoys, Sam is probably going to be more open to a pitch from Maureen than one from Agent Joe, who hasn’t sold her a book before.

Remind yourself of this dynamic, please, the next time you hear an agent say at a conference that a particular kind of book can’t be sold anymore. Translation: he would have trouble selling it to his already-established editorial connections.

With a new agency, it can be harder to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s not uncommon for a successful agent to break off and form her own agency, taking her connections — and often her clients as well — with her.

(This is one reason why, in case you were wondering, I like the Publishers Marketplace database so much — you can look up agents by name, not just by agency, so you can see how their representation preferences change as they move around. An agent with a passion for SF might not be able to give free rein to it as the junior agent at an agency that specializes in mysteries, but might well have leapt into SF after a promotion or move elsewhere.)

But that doesn’t mean that other brand-new agencies may not be worth your while. Sometimes, the hungry can be excellent gambles — they are often more energetic in pursuing sales. And lest we forget (because it’s not mentioned much at writers’ conferences, for some reason), how many of the big agents initially established themselves in the industry was by taking a chance on an unknown client who turned out to be a major author.

Something to think about: if your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Which probably means you and your work will get more attention than with a similar achievement at a larger agency, where you would be just one of their in-house stars.

Even before that (and often after), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Intensive coaching through rewrites, for instance. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. Extensive free editing. (If you missed my earlier posts on FEE-CHARGING AGENTS, or you are unfamiliar with how much freelance editing can cost, you might want to check out the category at right before you discount the value of such an offer.)

This is more a matter of math than a matter of nice: an agent with 10 clients is going to have a lot more time to devote to these helpful services than an agent with 80. If you are a writer who wants a lot of personal attention from an agent, the less busy agent might well be the way to go.

Does it seem presumptuous to think about what an agent can offer you, rather than what you can offer an agent? To the kind of thoughtful querier who knows better than to send out rude letters that say things like, “This is the next bestseller!” it often does. (Begging for attention for a good long while can do that to you.)

But think about it: if you are a writer lucky enough to garner multiple representation offers — and let’s all keep our fingers crossed for that — do you really want to realize with a shock that you do not have any criteria for picking an agent other than the willingness to say yes to you?

Stop laughing — established authors don’t admit this much, but this is not an uncommon dilemma for good writers to face. It certainly happened to me. I received offers from three agents, each of whom was apparently a nice person AND I had researched enough to know that each had a dandy track record selling the kind of book I had been pitching them — and I was stunned to recognize that I was utterly unprepared to judge them on any other basis.

Fortunately, I had many agented friends eager to offer me advice. But that’s a luxury not every writer has.

So believe me when I tell you: giving some advance thought to what you want from your future agent, over and above the willingness and ability to sell your book, is not a symptom of creeping megalomania. It’s a means of coming to understand the value of your work and how it might conceivably fit into the already-existing literary world.

It can also, to descend from the heady heights of hope for a moment, give you some solid clues about how to prioritize a large potential query list. It would be prudent, for instance, to consider very, very carefully how important personal contact is to you, because if this relationship works out, you will be living with your decision for a very long time.

Will you, for instance, go nuts with speculation if an editor has your manuscript — and you haven’t heard from your agent in a month? Many writers would, you know — I’ve heard justifications by authors of manuscripts that have been sitting on an agent’s desk for 4 or 5 months that positively rival the tales of the Brothers Grimm for invention.

(The actual reason a writer hasn’t heard back tends not to be all that interesting, by comparison: typically, if you haven’t been told yea or nay, the submission has yet to be read. The paperweight was invented for a reason, you know: to keep bits of unread manuscripts from migrating all over agents’ and editors’ desks.)

Once you have established where you fall on the update-need continuum, there are other questions to ask yourself. Do you want to hear the feedback of editors who have rejected your work, so you can revise accordingly, or would you rather get through as many submissions as quickly as possible? Would you prefer an agent who wants to micro-manage your book proposal, or would you be happier with one who leaves more of the writing decisions to you?

How prone are you to ask questions or take concerns to your agent? When you do, would you be happy with the occasional e-mail to answer your questions, or would you prefer telephone calls? (If you live outside the United States, this last question is even more essential: the farther away you reside, the less likely it is that you will ever meet your agent face-to-face, right? Many small agencies would not be able to afford unlimited international phone calls.)

The answers to all of these are very much dependent upon how busy the agent is, and what kind of demands the agency places upon her time. Generally speaking, the bigger the agency, the busier the agent.

Seems a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Big agencies have greater resources for support staff, whereas in a small agency (or with a stand-alone agent) the agents may be doing support work as well; it would make sense if the small agency agents were busier.

However, nowhere is the old adage “tasks expand in direct proportion to the time available to perform them” more evident than in the publishing industry: as an agent becomes more important, he takes on more clients. Big equals powerful here.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. A few “boutique agencies” deliberately keep themselves small in order to occupy a very specific niche, but it is rare.

There’s no mistaking these agencies — they ALWAYS identify themselves as boutique in their blurbs, lest anyone mistakenly think that they were small because they were unsuccessful. Often, they sharply limit the proportion of unpublished writers that they will represent, or do not represent the unpublished at all. They do, however, tend to lavish attention upon the few they select.

As do, admittedly, some agents at major agencies, but do bear in mind that no matter who represents you, no matter how much your agent loves your work, you will be only ONE of the authors on the agent’s list. Time is not infinitely flexible, despite anyone’s best intentions.

So before you set your heart upon a big agency or a major agent, it’s a good idea to ask yourself: do I really want to be someone’s 101rst client?

This sounds like a flippant question, but actually, it is a very practical one, and one that speaks very directly to your personal level of security about your work. Big agencies and important agents have made their names, generally speaking, on high-ticket clients; often, that high-recognition client is why aspiring writers covet their representation skills.

However, it takes time to cater to a bigwig client. I once had a lovely chat with a past president of AAR who handled one of the biggest mystery writers in the biz; apart from handling her book negotiations, he told me, he also spent a week a year with her in a mountain retreat — not skiing, but micro-editing her next work to make its market appeal as broad as possible.

Nice perq of fame, isn’t it? Beulah, peel me a grape.

Before you float off into fantasies about being successful enough to command your own personal slave copyeditor and/or mountain lodge, stop and think about the implications of being one of this agent’s OTHER clients. That’s a week a year when he is not available to pay even the most fleeting attention to the needs of Clients 2 – 143.

So who do you think ends up handling those other clients’ concerns? That’s right: not the bigwig agent at all, but his I’m-working-my-way-up-the-ladder assistant. Who, I have it on reliable authority, is somewhat overworked — and, if his last few assistants’ career trajectories are any indication, may well move on to become a full agent at another agency within the next year or two.

Which raises an interesting question: if a writer is actually dealing most of the time with the agent’s assistant, rather than the agent, with whom is the long-term, mutually beneficial interaction occurring?

Still, you cannot deny the appeal of the contacts and oomph of a big agency, even if you are not represented by the most important agent in it. Personally, I am represented by a big agency, one that handles more than 300 clients (and very well, too, in my admittedly egocentric opinion).

How much of a difference does it make on a practical level, you ask? Well, do you remember earlier in this series, when I was talking about how ALL nonfiction book proposals are presented to agents and editors in conservative dark blue or black folders, because a unique presentation is generally regarded as an indicator of a lack of professionalism?

My agency is influential enough to present its clients’ proposals in GRAY folders.

And if the glamour of THAT doesn’t impress you, perhaps this will: each time I’ve handed them a book proposal, they’ve been able to garner an offer within two months — lightning speed, in this industry — because they had the right connections to place MY work under the right sets of editorial eyeballs.

Ultimately, it’s going to take more than enthusiasm about your project for an agent to sell your first book. It’s going to take connections — the right connections for your project. You don’t have to attend very many conferences before you meet your first hungry new agent, willing to promise the moon, nor to meet your first 100-client bigwig. It’s in your interests to look beyond the generalities.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: there’s no such thing as an agency that’s perfect for every single conceivable book. This process is — or should be — about finding not just acceptance, but forming the best possible alliance with someone who is going to help you build a career as a writer.

Give some hard thought to how you want to be supported on that path, and make your querying choices accordingly. Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: tracking the wily agent in the wild

Yes, I am sticking my toe back into the blogging pool again today, but don’t worry: I’m dictating this immediately after an afternoon-long nap, whilst wrapped up to my nose in blankets, reclining on a couch, clutching a mug of herbal tea AND using a long-ago post as a crib. No low-tech effort has been spared, you see, to render this post as minimally energy-sapping as possible.

I’m anxious, you see, to get you out querying before the industry’s long winter’s snooze. This week marks the Frankfurt Book Fair, an annual literary extravaganza that leaves many high-powered agencies and publishing houses down a few bodies each fall, but from next week through Thanksgiving is prime querying time.

It’s a good time to send out a few additional queries even if you are already on the query-a-week plan — and especially if the best agent in the known universe has the full manuscript of your novel sitting on her desk even as I write this.

As my long-time readers are well aware, I’m of the keep-querying-until-the ink-is-actually-dry-on-the-contract school of thought. Think of keeping the query flow going as insurance: if, heaven forefend, something goes wrong with your top prospect, you will have possible alternates waiting in the wings. Or at the very least will be spared the effort of having to come up with a new prospect from scratch.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: contrary to pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, being sought-after by more than one agent is a GOOD thing — after all, nothing speeds up reading turn-around like the news that another agent has already made an offer.

I know it’s tempting to rest on your laurels while waiting to hear back on a partial or a full, but believe me, if — heaven forefend — the answer is no, you will be far, far, FAR happier if you have already begun to seek out pastures anew. The law of inertia tells us that a process already in motion tends to remain in motion; as anyone who has done serious time in the querying trenches can tell you, it takes quite a bit more energy to restart your querying engines again after they have gone cold than to keep plowing forward.

I know you’re tired of querying; it’s a whole lot of work. You have my sympathy, really. Now go out and send a couple of fresh queries this week. And next. Repeat until you’re picked up.

But to keep that flow going, you’re going to need to generate a hefty list of prospects. Today, as promised, I am going to talk about how to find agents to query — not just any agents, but the kind of agents who represent writing like yours.

And by writing like yours, I don’t mean books along vaguely similar lines — I’m talking about books in the same marketing category.

Didn’t I tell you that those exercises earlier in the Book Marketing 101 series would come in handy later on? Those of you who have been reading all the way through should already have a fairly clear idea of which categories come closest to your work — and if you do not, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES category at right.

Why is nailing down your marketing category so important? Because it is the language agents and editors use to describe books. Until you know in which category (or categories; many overlap) your baby falls, you will have great difficulty not only understanding agents express their professional preferences at conferences, but also deciphering their wants as stated in agency guides and on their websites.

I cannot overstress the importance of targeting only agents appropriate to your work, rather than taking a scattershot approach. I’ve written about why at some length in this series, so I shall not repeat myself, except to say that if you’ve ever heard a successful agent talk about the business for five consecutive minutes, chances are you’ve already heard four times that one of the biggest mistakes the average aspiring writer makes is to regard all agents as equally desirable, and thus equally smart to approach.

As a rule, they don’t like being treated as generic representatives of their line of work, rather than highly-focused professionals who deal in particular types of books. This is true, incidentally, even of those agents who list every type of book known to man in the agency guides. Go figure.

As I mentioned earlier in this Book Marketing 101 series, the single best thing you can do to increase your chances of acceptance is to write to a specific person — and for a specific reason, which you should state in the letter. Agents all have specialties; they expect writers to be aware of them.

Later in this series, I will go into why this isn’t a particularly fair expectation, but for now, suffice it to say that it’s expected. Within the industry, respecting the agents’ preferences in this respect marks the difference between the kind of writer that they take seriously and the vast majority that they don’t.

This is probably old news to most of you, right? If you’re taking the time to do research on the industry online, you have probably encountered this advice before, right? Although perhaps not its corollary: don’t approach agents — at conferences, via e-mail, or through queries — unless they have a PROVEN track record of representing your type of writing successfully.

This is for your protection, as much as to increase your probability of querying success. Think about it: do you really want to be your new agent’s FIRST client in a particular genre?

Of course not; it will be twice as hard to sell your book. You want an agent who already has connections with editors who buy your type of work on a daily basis.

Which brings me to the most logical first step for seeking out agents to query. If you attended a conference this year, now is the time to send letters to the agents to whom you were NOT able to pitch.

However, be smart about it: don’t bother to query those who client lists do not include books like yours.

I’m dead serious about this. No matter how much you may have liked the agent personally at the conference: the second easiest ground of rejection, after a “Dear Agent” salutation, is when the query is for a kind of book that the agent does not represent; like “Dear Agent,” an agency screener does not need to read more than a couple of lines of this type of query in order to plop it into the rejection pile.

Allow me to repeat: this is true, no matter how much you may have liked the agent when you met her, or how well you thought the two of you clicked, or that the second agent from the left on the panel bears a startling resemblance to your beloved long-ago junior high school French teacher. Deciding whom to represent is a business decision, not a sentimental one — and it will save you a tremendous amount of time and chagrin if you approach selecting your querying list on the same basis.

So do a little homework first. If you didn’t take good notes at the conference about who was looking for what kind of book (and didn’t keep in touch with the person sitting next to you, scribbling like a fiend), check out the standard agents’ guides, where such information abounds.

Then, when you find the right fits, go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of your query envelopes, and mention having heard the agent speak at the conference in the first line of your letter; at most agencies, this will automatically put your query into a different pile, because conference attendees are generally assumed to be more industry-savvy, and thus more likely to be querying with market-ready work, than other writers.

If you went to a big conference, this strategy might yield half a dozen more agents to query. Where do you go after that?

This is a serious question, one that I have argued long and hard should be addressed explicitly in seminars at writing conferences. Far too many aspiring writers abandon their querying quests too soon after their first conferences, assuming — wrongly — that once they have exhausted the array of attending agents, they have plumbed the depth and breadth of the industry.

This is simply not true. The agents who show up at any given conference are just that — the agents who happened to show up for that particular conference, people with individual tastes and professional preferences. If you didn’t strike lucky with that group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you would have the same luck with another.

But obviously, conferences are expensive; few writers can afford to attend an unlimited number of them. So how else can you find out who is eager to represent what?

The common wisdom on the subject, according to most writing guides and classes, is that you should start with the agents of writers whose work you like, advice predicated on the often untrue assumption that all of us are so myopic that we will only read writers whose work resembles ours.

Me, I’m not so egocentric: I read books by a whole lot of living writers, most of whose styles are nothing at all like mine; if I want a style like my own, I read my own work.

However, especially if you write in a genre or NF, querying your favorite authors’ agents is not a bad idea. Certainly, the books already on your shelves are the easiest to check the acknowledgments page for thank-yous.

Actually, you should get into the habit of checking these pages anyway, if you are planning on a career in this business: one of the best conversation-starters you can possibly whip out is, “Oh, you worked on Author X’s work, didn’t you? I remember that she said wonderful things about you.”

Trust me, there is not an agent or editor in the business who will not be flattered by such a statement. You would be amazed at how few of the writers who approach them are even remotely familiar with the average agent’s track record. But who doesn’t like to be recognized and complimented on his work?

So, knowing this about human nature, make an educated guess: would an agent would be more or less likely to ask to see pages from a writer whose well-targeted query began, “Since you so ably represented Author X’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, I believe you will be interested in my work…”

You bet your boots, baby.

So I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you call out, “I already knew about querying agents I saw at conferences and checking acknowledgement pages. Aren’t there more creative ways to expand my query list?”

As a matter of fact, there are — but even as a dictator (dictatrix?), I have run out of steam for today. Hang in there, folks, and keep up the good work!