What to give a writer for Christmas, Part II, or, making room for writing in your life

Yesterday, I began talking about that reliable annual writer’s block-inducer, the winter blahs. Light-deprivation, overtaxed schedules, family demands, and constant invocations to be overtly jolly and spend lots of money leave many aspiring writers too blue — and too tired — to write. With the new year approaching fast (and with it, perhaps, the consciousness of another year’s having slipped by without landing that yearned-for agent and/or book contract), the temptation to say, “Oh, the heck with it — I’ll start writing again in January!” can become downright overwhelming.

Let’s talk today about fending off that state of mind, before any of us find ourselves glancing at our dust-laden manuscripts on Valentine’s Day, murmuring, “Will it REALLY make a difference if I don’t get back to the book until Groundhog Day?” or “Can’t I get away with not sending another set of queries until Easter?”

If you thought you were the only writer who ever thought like that, let me assure you, you’re not alone. I’ve known authors with lucrative three-book contracts in hand who still burrowed under the covers in the morning because they couldn’t imagine anyone paying to read anything they might conceivably write that day.

Listen: talent doesn’t just dry up. But motivation can.

Last time, I mentioned the possibility of refreshing writerly momentum by scheduling a writing retreat, a time when you can leave all of your everyday duties behind and just WRITE for a while. But realistically, absent a very generous gift-giver (hint, hint, Santa) or an independent income and a room of one’s own, for many writers, the very idea of arranging quotidian life to disappear for a month, week, or even a day seems like an impossible dream.

You’re a responsible person with obligations, after all, someone who is going to have to keep paying bills throughout this retreat. And let’s face it, other people’s demands and schedules would need to be disrupted. If you have kids, it may be hard even to imagine disappearing for as much as a week before they graduate from high school. If you have a demanding job, even the suggestion of being absent for a few days running may be enough to induce guffaws in your boss’ office.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have. If you have been able to find an hour or two per day for writing, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! You need to make the most of every second – which in and of itself can be intimidating; if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible.

(Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s a strategy I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. Like yesterday’s light bulb trick, it seems disappointingly simple at first, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music EVERY time you sit down to write.

Not just the same CD, mind you, but the same SONG.

The repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing – which in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. After a while, you can put on other music later in your writing sessions, as long as you always begin with the same song. Your brain will already be used to snapping immediately into creative mode.

I do the music-repetition thing myself, so I can give you first-hand assurance of its efficacy. For my most recent novel, I put on the same Cat Stevens CD (hey, I was writing about hippies) literally every time I sat down to write – and now that I have finished the book, I can’t hear THE WIND without moving instinctively toward my computer. And even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S without starting to think about my long-completed dissertation.

I tell you, it works, if you give it a chance. (So yes, Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: installing a small stereo system in a writer’s designated workspace WOULD be a delightful surprise. How clever of you.)

If you are a person who needs to write under conditions of complete silence, try lighting the same type of incense or scented candle seconds before turning on the computer. Always wear the same socks, or pull your hair into a specific type of ponytail. Do twenty-five jumping jacks immediately before sitting down to write, or lock the door and belly-dance for a few minutes.

It actually does not matter what your ritual is, as long as it is a sensual experience that occurs ONLY when you are writing – and is repeated EVERY time you sit down to write, so your body will come to recognize it as a signal that it’s creativity time.

Or you could institute a ritual in reverse, rewarding yourself for staying a set amount of time in front of your computer, even if you are feeling frustrated. Graham Greene, I’m told, forced himself to write 147 words prior to taking his first drink of the day.

While that may not sound like much — the preceding three paragraphs add up to 146 — don’t underestimate the value of cumulative endeavor: Mssr. Greene’s daily thirst added up to a very successful 30-year writing career.

It’s also helpful, when you find yourself avoiding writing, to take a good, hard look at your writing space: can you in fact concentrate there? Is there a way you could make it more comfortable — or more private? Or — and this is often the case with struggling writers — do you not have a dedicated space at all?

Yes, you CAN write in a crowded café at a table immediately adjacent to a bongo band while babysitting a hyperactive rhesus monkey. And Antonio Gramsci wrote a major work of political philosophy entirely on toilet paper while imprisoned in a small, dark cell.

But that doesn’t mean that either is an environment particularly conducive to long bursts of concentrated creative thought.

Frankly, I think the advent of the laptop, however laudable in itself, has resulted in a general lack of recognition that writers tend to be more productive if they have their own spaces in which to write. (Not that a laptop wouldn’t be a pretty great present for a writer, Furtive NDGG.) Or at least more space than is taken up by a standard-sized placemat.

Call me overly reliant upon symbolism, but a writer’s home that does not contain at least a few square feet of floor space set aside ONLY for writing has always struck me as more likely to induce writer’s block than one that does. Not to guarantee it, mind you — plenty of authors have typed up a storm in cramped spaces — just to be conducive to it. Just like a schedule too jam-packed to permit a few hours of quiet meditation at a stretch, not having space to write renders the likelihood of being able to take immediate advantage of an attack of inspiration considerably lower.

Hey, Furtive NDGG: what about converting a spare attic, bedroom, basement, or corner of the living room into a comfortable writing space as a present? How about improving an existing one to make it more ergonomically friendly to its user — good desk set-ups are definitely NOT one-size-fits-all — or a more cheerful place to be? (Remember: lighting, lighting, lighting.)

In smaller living situations, how difficult would it be to the necessary screen to create a private space for a writer? Or, if even that is spatially impossible, investing in a really good pair of noise-blocking headphones?

Seeing a pattern here, Santa?

What about you, writers? All too often, we writers assume that the only possible reasons for feeling stalled in our writing are problems within ourselves: lack of willpower, lack of commitment, an unwillingness or inability to restructure our lives in order to write (rather than fitting writing into already overcrowded lives), limited talent. Or just a book idea that’s not as good as it originally seemed.

While any or all of these can certainly stymie a writing project, it’s worth considering practical steps that may make the physical act of writing easier — and creating long-term habits that will encourage us when the words are not coming easily. Give it some thought.

And, of course, keep up the good work!

When even the weather seems to conspire against you — or, what to give a writer for Christmas

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Ah, the charms of a Pacific Northwest winter, light gray for a few hours in midday, dark gray or black for most of the time, and drizzly pretty much all of the time. I’m not kidding about the paucity of light: or the edification of those of you with the good sense to live farther south, this is the time of year when Seattlites who hold a day job droop visibly, because they are going to work AND coming home in the dark.

It can be depressing, making getting out of bed feel like an outright burden. Not the best environment, in short, for doing creative work.

Yes, the gloriously long days of summer do compensate for the blahs of a northern winter, but that’s awfully hard to remember at the end of November, isn’t it? Try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and…

Well, admittedly, the grass does stay pretty green around here all winter, but still, you know the song. My point is, back in September, you could glance lawnward on your way to work and still SEE that the grass was green without whipping out a pocket flashlight.

Seattle is, after all, where those clever doctors DISCOVERED seasonal affective disorder — just after, one assumes, having figured out that those maps schoolchildren are encouraged to color give a false sense of the relative positions of Washington and Maine with respect to the North Pole. We’re far enough north that my shampoo and toothpaste labels boast directions in both English and French, for goodness sake.

As much as I love being a three-hour drive from Vancouver, I’m a Northern Californian by birth and upbringing, and let me tell you, I spent my first Seattle winter fuming at my sixth-grade geography teacher for leading me so far astray.

So if those of you up my way been feeling sluggish lately, you have a perfectly good excuse. We who live north need to take better care of ourselves in the winter.

Which, presumably, is no surprise to the good people of Manitoba. Or to the elves in the workshop of what my politically-correct college dorm used to call the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver. (Ho, ho, ho.)

The late dawns and early dusks of winter are particularly hard on writers, I think. No matter whether you tend to get up early or stay up late to snatch your precious daily writing time, the fast-waning winter light is bound to alter your schedule a little.

And let’s face it, the longer it takes to ramp up your energy to write, the less time you have to do it.

I write and edit full-time, so I am spared the pain of the pitch-dark commute, but let me tell you, when I look up from my computer and notice that I have only an hour of daylight left, I practically have to lash myself to my desk chair to keep myself at work.

I’m noticing it even more this year, thanks to the Autumn of Mono: when you have only two or three hours of concentration in you per day, losing even ten minutes to staring out the window at gray gloom represents a sizeable blow to productivity.

Fortunately, there is a tool that makes this time of year easier: the lightbox, which, as the name implies, is a great big box on stilts that shines oodles of non-burning noon-aping light on the user’s face. They’re spendy — $200-$300 for a medical-quality one, in case the Furtive NDGG is planning a shopping trip for the benefit of writers in Fargo (which is, incidentally, SOUTH OF HERE, Mrs. Oswill) — but sitting in front of it for 45 minutes a day does tend to trick the body into believing that it should not go into hibernation just yet.

With practice, you can read or even work on a computer in front of it; I know ambitious souls who have arranged theirs to shine upon them while they walk on a treadmill or ride an exercise bike.

Me, I’m more sedentary these days: I plop myself in front of it with my laptop and a few houseplants (oh, like THEY don’t resent the winter’s loss of light?) to read my voluminous e-mail and scan comments posted to the blog.

It puts me in a good mood while I am deleting spam — which, for my money, is as high a recommendation as one can give a depression-lifting device.

I just mention this, in case any of you out there are blessed with the kind of kith and kin susceptible to suggestions for good gifts to give a writer for any major holiday that might be coming up. You have my full permission to print up this post to stuff into Santa’s pocket the next time you sit on his lap, as a gentle hint.

For those on tighter budgets, installing full-spectrum light bulbs in your writing space can also be very helpful. (Are you listening, Furtive NDGG?) Yes, they are a bit more expensive than your average light bulb, but they do undoubtedly help fight the November-February blahs.

They really are worth the investment. Write ‘em off as a business expense; most writers do find that they are more productive in the winter months with adequate lighting. And if you use them strategically, you need not spend a fortune to improve your mood.

Okay, I’m about to share a trick of the full-time writing trade, one of those professional secrets that you always suspected the published shared with one another in furtive whispers: in the winter months, have your writing space be the ONLY room in the house equipped with full-spectrum lighting, and plenty of it. Make it blaze.

“That’s it?” I hear you cry in frustration. “Light my studio differently from the rest of the house?”

Yes, oh scoffers, that is what I said. Do it, and make sure you spend at least an hour per day in the room for the first week with the new lighting. (Hey, why not spend that time writing?) Soon, you will find that your body actually CRAVES being in your writing space. You (and, most likely, any pet animals you happen to own) will automatically gravitate there.

Nifty trick, eh?

Naturally, this strategy alone will not necessarily turn around a deeply entrenched writer’s block, but it’s a start. For a lot of aspiring writers, finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer is not the hard part: it’s the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper. It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. They worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to take time away from all of their other obligations.

For instance, about a third of the writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded T-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you – if you find that you’re not sitting down on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of unused leisure time.

I could parrot other advice-givers, and order you crabbily to turn off the TV/radio/IPod/Internet connection/other electronic distractions/my blog, but my God, there’s a war on. I would be the last person to advise you to be LESS aware of what is going on in the world around you. And chances are, by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, etc.

But, as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety.

Oh, all right: spend a few moments now daydreaming about it. I’ll wait.

If you can afford such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. Such retreats may be less expensive than you expect; many hold competitions for fellowships — which, as a fringe benefit, also look good as a credential on a query letter. (A good place to seek out such opportunities is the back of Poets & Writers magazine — which is more than happy to let Santa buy a gift subscription for someone, incidentally.)

While admittedly it can be very nice to squirrel yourself away in the company of other artists, communal dining halls are not for everyone, and you don’t necessarily need a full-fledged artists’ colony to replicate the retreat experience. There are plenty of secluded bed-and-breakfasts and hotels that are delighted to cater to people who never want to stick their noses outside their rooms. Heck, when I’m on a short revision deadline, I’ve been known to lock myself in a hotel room for a week, just to get away from the phone.

In case I’m being too subtle for any Furtive NDGG who happens to be eavesdropping: the best gift anyone can give a serious writer is a chunk of unfettered time to write. No, really.

It needn’t require subsidizing a couple of weeks’ worth of room service; think creatively — and, ideally, make friends with people who own far-flung cabins and under-used second homes.

I’m only half-kidding about this, actually. Housesitting for vacationing friends can make for a lovely retreat. Even if it’s for only a day or two, scoring some unbroken time can go a long way toward pulling the stuffing out of a seemingly insurmountable writer’s block. Just don’t forget to bring some good lightbulbs along.

More tips on beating the dark winter blahs follow tomorrow — and if, in outlining strategies, I should happen to stumble across a few more items to add to the Furtive NDGG’s shopping list, well, that won’t be my fault.

Don’t say I never did anything for you. Keep up the good work!

(P.S.: as you may have guessed, the nifty photo above appears courtesy of FreeFoto.com.)

More quotable courage, and some practical uses for all of that reading in bed

Last time, I was touting the virtues of getting into the habit of reading every (or as close to every as possible) first book published in your book category this year — and next year, and the year after that. Not only will adherence to this sterling practice give a writer a very solid sense of how editors and agents conceive of the category — thus making it easier to tell whether one’s work genuinely falls within it — but it will help convey a sense of the target readership as well.

While this may seem like a very large task to set oneself, most book categories actually sport relatively few first-time authors in any year’s harvest of publications. For years, I made a practice of reading every first literary or mainstream novel written by an American woman under 40 published by a major publishing house each year. Care to guess how long that took?

I wish I could report that it was a full-time job, but in truth, it wasn’t all that time-consuming. There were few years where more then 25 books answered that description; one year, there were only 7.

And those 7 were represented by only 3 agencies, I discovered. Guess who I queried the instant I uncovered THAT unsavory little fact?

The realization could have made me despair — but instead, it convinced me to sit down and take a good, hard look at the novel I was shopping around, to see if there was any way that I could make it more mainstream, because that opened up so many more querying possibilities. And sure enough, after I had taken most of the semicolons out of the text and readjusted the thought/action ratio a little, I found that my novel was about equally welcome to agents who represented adult fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction — which makes some sense, as there is considerable overlap amongst the readers of all three.

Heck, literary fiction aimed at women is considered downright redundant in the industry. But unless a writer became awfully darned familiar with the book market, how is she to know that?

There is another, more immediately practical reason to get in touch with one’s submarket and remain so, of course: it’s a great way to identify agents to query. As I mentioned many, many times throughout my Book Marketing 101 series, every agent on the planet is flattered by queries that begin, “Since you so successfully represented Unknown Author’s recent novel, FIRST BOOK, I hope you will be interested in my novel, PROJECT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON FOR A DECADE…”

They are far likely to be buttered up, in my experience, by mentions of novels them may have struggled to sell than by similar references to their better-established clients. (Because, presumably, as Edith Sitwell tells us: “The aim of flattery is to soothe and encourage us by assuring us of the truth of an opinion we have already formed about ourselves.”)

Use this quirk to your advantage.

To slather on the butter with a more lavish hand, go ahead and say something nice about the book in your query letter to its agent. (Quoth Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach in APHORISMS: “We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.”) Naturally, nice-saying is going to be a whole lot easier if you have actually read the book in question.

Although truth does compel me to say that if you are in a hurry, you can’t go far wrong with something along the lines of, “As the agent who so ably represented Keanu Reeves’ BRAIN SURGERY FOR EVERYBODY, I believe you will be interested in my book…”

That being said, on conscientious grounds, I really should reiterate that you ought to read, if not actually buy, all of the books you are using as launching pads for query letters to agents. Buying them is ideal, of course: after all, the sales of an agent’s current clients subsidize hiring Millicent to screen submissions from new writers.

Not to mention the good karma factor. The world would be a substantially better place for writers if we supported one another by purchasing books by first-time authors early and often. Because, after all, who can forget Glückel of Hamelyn 1719 pronouncement, “Stinginess does not enrich; charity does not impoverish”?

However, good old Glückel aside, books ARE expensive, and I know that some of you will be in too much of a hurry to check all of the relevant books out of the library. So here are a few tips on how to expand your reading list without buying out Borders.

First, you don’t need to until a book is actually published before complimenting it agent on the achievement of selling it. Given predictable lag times between book contract and actual publication, you may be able to spot a relevant sale as much as two years before it turns up in a bookstore near you.

So in a sense, even a very hip bookstore is a graveyard of passé contracts. (As Mary Webb informed us in PRECIOUS BANE, “We are tomorrow’s past.”) What you are seeing in bookstores today, then, is not an infallible guide to what is selling NOW.

And as I am probably not the first to point out, the early bird catches the worm. By querying the agent BEFORE the book comes out, you will beat the crowd of writers who inevitably swamp the agent of any commercially big book. (Sorry, no quote for that one. This is harder than it looks, people.)

Also, your promptness will tell the agent indirectly that you are a savvy writer familiar with market trends — and you will become one, if you become a regular reader of book sales. It is surprisingly addictive, and you will quickly learn a great deal about what is and is not being sold to publishing houses right now.

Those of you who stuck with the Book Marketing 101 series already know how to pull this off, right? Start reading the trade journals, such as Publishers’ Weekly, or subscribe to Publishers Lunch, which lists pretty much every sale to a North American publishing house, by title, author, agent, and often a one-line description of the book as well.

Fringe benefit: many times, these sources will give a general indication of the advance offered, too, so you can start getting some idea of what your writing is potentially worth. (Hint: pretty much every aspiring writer believes that the average advance is exponentially larger than it actually is.)

To quote my former agent, “We don’t really have any idea of a book’s market value until we start to shop it around.” (Come on — you expected me to have a famously relevant quote ready for that one?)

If you are a novelist, pay particular attention to the debut novels, which are often broken off into their own section in industry listings. Again, there is no better way to tell which agents are willing to take on new writers than to find out who is putting that inspiring level of openness into action.

(As George Eliot told us in ADAM BEDE, “It you could make a pudding wi’thinking o’ the batter, it ‘ud be easy getting dinner.” So true, George, so true.)

Keeping abreast of who is selling what will also allow you to target your queries more effectively as agents’ (and agencies’) tastes change over time. (As Zora Neale Hurston liked to put it, “research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prodding with a purpose.”)

Since a pre-publication query is a situation where you could not possibly have read the book before querying (unless you happen to be a member of the author’s critique group), you need not worry about complimenting the book; by noticing the sale, you will be complimenting the AGENT, which is even better.

In fact, you should make sure NOT to compliment the book, since anything you say is bound to come across as insincere. Has not Pearl S. Buck taught us that “Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame”?

A good all-purpose opening, to steer clear of the slightest hint of misdirected flattery: “Congratulations on your successful sale of BOOK X! Since you so skillfully represent (BOOK X’s type of book), I hope you will be interested in my book…”

Yes, being this talented an agent-butterer does take time, as well as quite a bit of work. But unlike so many of the mundane tasks we writers need to perform to attract an agent’s attention, forming the twin habits of reading what’s newly in your area and keeping abreast of what editors are acquiring right now for your future reading pleasure will not merely be helpful in blandishing the agent of your dreams into taking a gander at your work. These are habits that will help you in later years be a more marketable — and perhaps even better — author, well versed in all of the pretty things writers in your category can do to enchant their readers.

“Unhappiness,” Bernadin de Saint-Pierre wrote in THE INDIAN HUT, “is like the black mountain of Bember, at the edge of the blazing kingdom of Lahor. As long as you are climbing it, you see nothing but sterile rocks; but once you are at the peak, heaven is at your head, and at your feet is the kingdom of Cashmere.”

Try to think of all this self-assigned reading as continuing education for your dream profession. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Quotable courage — and yet another reason to read (as if you needed one more)

I’ve been beating the drum of risk-taking so hard for the last week that I needed a day to stop and change gears. Most of the work of writing, after all, occurs long before the submission stage, alone in the dark of night. Or light of day, depending upon your schedule.

So I was very pleased to stumble across a delightfully apt quote for aspiring writers this morning, courtesy of Anaïs Nin’s DIARY (Vol. 3, 1939-1944): “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

While I don’t think that’s always true — one is not, after all, the absolute center of the universe — it’s certainly true of trying to break into the publishing world. Opportunities do in fact expand for those courageous to keep pitching and querying.

The converse is also true: opportunities contract for those not willing to put their writing out there. As I pointed out in my recent series on SIOA-avoidance, too many writers reject their own work (by not Sending It Out, Already, for those of you who took Thanksgiving week off) before a soul in the industry has an opportunity to take a look at it.

Creative minds are uniquely qualified, unfortunately, to talk their owners out of taking the big risk. The what if? muscles in writers’ brains tend to be rather sophisticated, after all.

And, as Ruth Gordon informed us in L’OFFICIEL, courage, “like a muscle, it is strengthened by use.” (Oh, like you don’t go scurrying to your quote book when you find a good new one to add, and then start leafing through what’s already there…)

Again, true of both querying and submission: plenty of writers never get past the first rejection letter; it crushes them, because they read it as an entire industry’s — nay, and entire world’s! — rejection of what they have to say.

If you have fallen into this category for even twenty consecutive minutes, ever — and who among us hasn’t? — let me ask you to take on faith, at least provisionally, something I have learned from long, long experience: the 4th rejection hurts less than the first, and the 147th less than the 146th.

Believe it or not, the vast majority of writers who have landed agents and publishing contracts have had their work rejected dozens upon dozens — if not hundreds upon hundreds — of times over their professional lifetimes. Including yours truly. But we kept ploughing ahead until the industry started to take us seriously.

As Louise Nevelson wrote in DAWNS + DUSKS, “I think all great innovations are built on rejections.”

I’m not going to lie to you — it takes courage, and plenty of it, to keep querying and submitting your work to total strangers. And while I’m on a truth-telling binge, allow me to add: I think that those of us who don’t have to query anymore (i.e., already agented writers) and those who never had to query in the first place (agents, editors, pretty much everyone on the business side of the publishing industry) have a nasty habit of pretending that querying is just like sending out any other business letter.

It isn’t, of course; it requires facing down the naysayers in your own head and risking the rejection of people you do not yet know. Yet have you noticed how often speakers at writers’ conferences and writers of articles on querying imply that it’s the easiest thing in the world?

“There is plenty of courage among us for the abstract,” Helen Keller wrote in LET US HAVE FAITH, “but not for the concrete.”

Having been on both sides of this particular aisle, I’m here to tell you: tackling the day-to-day necessities of maintaining an ongoing querying campaign is much, much, MUCH more difficult than standing up and gassing about querying techniques from behind a podium. So the next time you’re at a conference being lectured about it, remember to pat yourself on the back a little for being braver than the speaker, in all probability.

Speaking of which: Spokane-area writers, I am going to be in that toddling town next week, on December 6th, giving a talk on reasons that manuscripts tend to get rejected to the Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers. Come to listen, ask questions, or just to graze at what I hear is a pretty spectacular buffet.

It is SO easy to forget whilst hiking the querying-and-submission trail that it honestly does take more courage on the part of an agent to sign a previously unpublished writer than a published one, just as it requires more bravery for an editor to take a chance on a brand-new writer than upon the 17th work by an established name.

This is why, in case you were wondering, those of us who have been in the biz for a while cringe when we hear an aspiring writer say, “Well, my book is at least as good as the rest of the junk out there.” The standard against which a new writer’s work is held is not that of the current market, contrary to popular belief, but considerably above it.

Don’t believe me? Try this little experiment: read five books by first-time authors in your chosen book category that have come out within the last year — then go and take a gander at what the time-honored leaders of the genre have put out lately. Do they honestly seem to be edited, let alone written, to the same standard?

It’s a good idea in general to get into the habit of reading the work of new authors in your book category, anyway, to keep abreast of what is being bought and sold recently — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard agents and editors complain about aspiring writers’ not being familiar with the current market, as opposed to what was hot ten years ago.

Besides, if you want to live in a world where publishers are eager to buy books like yours, it only makes sense to convey that preference through buying them yourself, right?

And if neither is incentive enough to spur you to curl up this winter with the latest offerings in your chosen book category, here’s another: reading first-time authors is a great way to pick up agent leads. As I’m sure you’re already aware (because I’m fairly certain that I’ve mentioned it within the last few months), the vast majority of books sold to publishers each year in this country are written by the already-published.

Why? Well, they have track records. And think about it: how often do you — or did you, prior to adopting the practice of actively seeking out first-time authors I suggested above — buy books by first-time authors?

Okay, what about ones you don’t know personally, or who haven’t won major awards?

Readers tend to gravitate toward names they know — and bookstores often encourage the practice. Unless the writer is a celebrity in another medium or a politician, such books are substantially less likely to be placed in a prominent position in a chain bookstore. Certainly, they are less likely to be place face-out on the bookshelf (which increases that probability of being browsed considerably). Naturally, this results in sales statistics that show very plainly that established authors sell better than new ones.

So your chances of getting picked up are higher if you already know a particular agent has been successful selling a first-timer like yourself. You know, at any rate, that the agent has been exceptionally brave at least once.

And wouldn’t you know it, Helen Keller has ANOTHER pithy statement that’s appropriate here, and from the same book? “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Are you listening, agents?

Because the agent who compulsively sells first novels is something of a rarity, let me once again urge you to draw a firm distinction in your mind between agents whose listings in the standard agents’ guides SAY they are open to queries from previously unpublished writers, and those who have a successful TRACK RECORD of selling first books.

As Abigail Adams seems to have written to her troublemaking husband in 1774, “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” Amen, Abby!

To be fair, agents — the successful ones, anyway — only take on what they’re pretty sure they can sell. As anyone in the industry will tell you at great length after he’s had a few drinks (oh, like it’s accidental that writers’ conferences almost always take place in hotels with bars in them…As Agnes Repplier was prone to say, and even wrote in 1891’s POINTS OF VIEW, “If a man be discreet enough to take to hard drinking in his youth, before his general emptiness is ascertained, his friends invariable credit him with a host of shining qualities which, we are given to understand, lie balked and frustrated by his one unfortunate weakness.”), a first book, unless it is written by a celebrity, is quite a bit harder for an agent to pitch to a publisher than a second or third. On average, less than 4% of the fiction published in any given year is by first-time authors.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you. But as George Sand apparently wrote to some friend of hers in 1863, “Let us accept truth, even when it surprises us and alters our views.’” Or, if you prefer Thomas Jefferson, “We must not be afraid to follow the truth, wherever it may lead.”

I’m sure I could find a dozen more quotes on the subject if I really took a spade to the Bartlett’s, but I’m sure you catch my drift.

Tomorrow, I shall be talking about ways to translate your reading habit into querying leads — because while life may shrink or expand in proportion to one’s courage, chance also favors the prepared mind. Or so said Louis Pasteur.

What, you thought the boiling milk thing just came to him one day while he was thinking of something else? Keep up the good work!

Reminder: a call for submissions

Ah, the post-Thanksgiving quiet time is here, and a writer’s heart turns lightly to how to beef up that credentials paragraph in the query letter…since the deadline for this is imminent, I thought I should re-run it again.

I don’t normally post calls for submissions here, but this one represents a chance to not only to see excerpts of your writing in print — hooray! — but also a query letter-enhancing publication credit. How? By sending in your novel’s best passage to serve as a positive example in a writing how-to book by an award-winning author and editor.

Your work need not be previously published to be eligible. But let me allow the call for submissions to speak for itself:

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CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
Dynamic dialogue, fresh body language, description that doesn’t stop the action, intriguing hooks that keep going . . . and going . . . These are but a few of the fiction-writing techniques that spell the difference between a manuscript’s rejection and acceptance.

Excerpts that demonstrate the effective use of these and other techniques are being sought from writers at all levels for the next edition of a much-acclaimed guidebook for writers. Up to 145 of the best examples from unpublished as well as published novels, short stories, and screenplays will be featured in DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSIONS: An Editor Tells Writers How to Save a Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A.

This 2008 release is the expanded, all-genre edition of the original DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY, the small press book that won this year’s Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction Book, was acquired by Writer’s Digest Book Club, and became a finalist for the Macavity Award, Anthony Award, and ForeWord Magazine Reference Book of the Year.

Its author is Chris Roerden, an editor for 43 years and a former instructor of writing at the University of Maine and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Authors she’s edited have been published by St. Martin’s Press, Berkley Prime Crime, Viking, Walker & Co., Midnight Ink, Rodale, and many small presses.

Deadline for submissions: December 1, 2007. Contributors identify which examples in the first edition theirs can replace for the second. Only positive examples will be considered.

Though this means consulting the original 2006 edition, no purchase is required; Don’t Murder Your Mystery can be requested through libraries, which are acquiring the book as they learn of it. No fees or payments are involved.

Writers quoted receive full credit and retain all rights to their work, as in any review. Details and a submission form may be downloaded here or received for a 58¢ SASE sent to Don’t Sabotage Your Submissions, P.O.Box 16024, High Point, NC 27261.

SIOA, Part V: combating the “Oh, God — have I blown it?” blues

Earlier this week, I told you the story of SIOA-avoider Zack, who had talked himself into a fairly common agent-soliciting writer’s dilemma. He had pitched successfully — so much so that he had been asked to send both the first 50 and the whole manuscript, respectively, to a number of different agents — but he had become so intent upon revising the book that he never quite managed to get any of those requested materials packets out the door.

Not that he intended not to send them out when he was pitching — no, at the time, and even for a few weeks after, he was willing and even eager to place his work under as many agents’ noses as possible. He certainly stressed out often enough about it. But somehow, he kept delaying making those last crucial changes.

And one day, he woke up to realize that five months had gone by. Or seven. Or a year.

It may have been as little as four weeks, but regardless of the actual number of cast-off calendar pages involved, it was long enough to prompt that thought always so close to the front of a writer gearing up for submission’s mind:

“Oh, God, have I blown my big chance?”

From that cri de coeur, it was only a small step to talking himself into believing that the agents in question would be miffed over the delay, so his submission really didn’t have a chance, anyway. Why, he reasoned, waste postage, now that rejection was a foregone conclusion?

For one very, very good reason, Zack: it wasn’t.

What doomed the submission was not anything that happened on the agent’s end; what guaranteed failure was not pulling out of the SIOA-avoidance spiral. There are, of course, plenty of things a submitter can do to render rejection more LIKELY, but at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of being picked up by an agent is one that no agent ever sees.

So today I’m going to ask the question the Zacks of the world should be asking themselves: what precisely do you have to lose by sending it out at this point?

And yes, that’s a perfectly serious question.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t ADVISE waiting 7 or 8 months to submit requested materials (or pushing it for longer than a year, regardless of the reason), but it’s not as though Millicent the screener will take one look at the return address, consult a list of expected arrivals, and toss it aside unread, muttering, “Well, we’ll never know if THAT one had potential, will we?”

For one thing, handling it this way would require her to take the 14 seconds required to check a list — and for someone to have gone to the trouble of creating and maintaining such a list. Ripping open an envelope marked REQUESTED MATERIALS and starting to read is, when multiplied by a hundred manuscripts.

So if Zack’s long-delayed manuscript falls into her hands, Millicent probably just going to — you guessed it — rip open the envelope and start reading. Oh, she will probably roll her eyes at the line in his cover letter that mentions at which conference her boss requested the enclosed pages, but in all likelihood, she’s going to take a gander at the first page, at least.

PLEASE do not, however, regard that likelihood as carte blanche to push off revising that requested material until some future point when you’ll have unbroken time to revise. Some agents do take umbrage at long delays, particularly after face-to-face pitching.

You can see their point, can’t you? Listening to many pitches in a row is pretty exhausting, after all, and one of the first reactions someone who makes her living by selling books is likely to have to the pitch that truly excited her is to start brainstorming quietly about which editors might be interested in the book in question. Don’t you want to keep that train of thought going — or at least (hold on, racking my brains for a train metaphor here) place your good writing under her nose while that moment of excitement is still within living memory?

(Couldn’t come up with an appropriate follow-up railroad metaphor, obviously.)

If you want to build upon the excitement generated by a pitch or query letter, it’s prudent to try to get it out the door within 6 weeks of the request (not counting standard publishing not-at-home periods, like the three weeks leading up to Labor Day). The common wisdom dictates 3, but since agents hear SO many pitches at conferences and Millicent sees SO many queries, it’s unlikely that either is going to recall details of a pitch or query.

It IS nice, though, if you can get it to ‘em soon enough so SOMETHING about your project seems at least vaguely familiar. More than that isn’t necessary, strictly speaking, because you will have written REQUESTED MATERIALS in big, fat marker on the outside of the envelope and reminded them in the first line of your cover letter that they did, in fact, ask to see it. (If anything in the last sentence came as a surprise to you, I would highly recommend taking a gander at the SUBMISSION PACKET category at right.)

Less than 6 weeks is ideal, but if you can send it out in under 3 months, there really is no need to apologize for the delay. (As writers often do, and at great length.) Longer than that, though, and it’s a good idea to add a sentence to your cover letter, apologizing for the delay.

What you do NOT need to do is query again and ask for permission to send it at all. A crisp, businesslike cover letter set on top of your requested materials will do beautifully. Something along the lines of this is ample:

Dear (Requesting Agent’s Name),

Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my novel, INVISIBLE INK. Please find it enclosed, along with a SASE for its safe return.

I had hoped to get these pages to you a trifle sooner, but the confluence of an unusually protracted work crisis and a bright idea for improving Chapter Two rendered my proofreading eye a bit slower than usual. I apologize for the delay.

Thank you for considering this, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Charlotte Brontë

Nice, clean, professional — and most importantly, not maudlin. No need to go on at length about what actually delayed you; you’re just being polite here, not filling in a long-lost buddy about the last six months of your life. (If you don’t like the work crisis line, try a computer meltdown: everyone can identify with that.) All you really need to do here is to establish that you realize that you may have been slow to SIOA, and that you don’t plan to make a habit of it.

If you DO plan on making a habit of it, you can buy yourself some additional time if you are polite about any anticipated delays early on. Naturally, if you experience a genuine life crisis, that’s beyond your control — and if one occurs within the first couple of months after a request, it is perfectly proper to send out a courteous (and BRIEF) e-mail or letter to the requesting agent, stating that there’s going to be an unavoidable delay in sending those pages he asked to see.

Do everything in your power, though, to keep the lapse between request and submission under a year, especially for a follow-up on a conference pitch. (Since conferences are annual, and agencies frequently send different agents in different years, it can be really, really obvious if a submitter’s cover letter refers to the 2007 or 2008 conference.)

One more piece of practical advice: if you are SIOAing after a substantial delay, I would HIGHLY recommend submitting your work via mail, rather than as an e-mail attachment. Yes, even if the agent or editor originally suggested that you send it via e-mail.

Why? Because while Millicent will almost certainly open even a months-late envelope, she may not open a months-late attachment. Most agencies will not open unrequested e-mail attachments, anyway, due to fear of viruses, and the chances of your submission’s being mistaken for unsolicited grows as your name recognition at the agency fades.

If, knowing all this, you still find yourself firmly in the do-not-send-it-out-until-Groundhog-Day camp, I have one last question for you: are you positive that you really want to submit this book at all?

That may sound flippant, but listen: chronic SIOA-avoidance is a extremely common phenomenon, but in my experience, its severity does not correlate with how ready the book in question is to be marketed or the inherent talent of its writer. It’s very frequently a manifestation of fear of rejection, a way to protect one’s baby from criticism.

And that’s completely understandable, right? A manuscript that is never submitted cannot be rejected. It’s logically impossible.

So for many aspiring writers, it just feels more comfortable to cut the process short by not mailing requested materials — in essence, rejecting their own work before the agent can do it — than to take the risk of exposing their books to professional critique. That way, they can never learn for sure whether their books are marketable or not.

Let me be clear here: I have absolutely nothing negative to say about writers who create solely for their own pleasure. Bless the Emily Dickinsons of this world, I say, who limit their audience to people they already know. This can be wonderfully fulfilling, if the writer is honest about it, embracing the desire for an intimate readership — and doesn’t torture herself by continually trying to find an agent and/or editor she doesn’t really want or need.

However, the VAST majority of writers write in order to be read by people they DON’T know. To do that necessarily means risking rejection.

And let’s not kid ourselves about the kind of personal strength taking that level of risk requires: you have to be damned brave to send your work out to hyper-critical strangers. Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of professions where the practitioner’s FIRST official act is to take a piece of her soul and allow people a couple of time zones away to examine it under a microscope for minute flaws.

So, just for today, let’s celebrate how courageous we are when we do send out our work, rather than castigating ourselves when we don’t. Just for today, let’s clap our hands for all of us who have taken the great leap of submission. And for those who are going to pluck up the courage to break the SIOA spiral now.

Chins up, my friends, and keep up the good work!

Steering between the Scylla of over-confidence and the Charybdis of under-confidence, or, a Thanksgiving meditation on the blessings of interactive gratitude

Yes, yes, I know: this is a national holiday, and by all that is right, patriotic, and holy, I ought to be lying prone on some big, well-upholstered piece of furniture, moaning about how much turkey I managed to stuff down my gullet over the course of the day, rather than posting here. But I’m still convalescing, thank you very much, a state not very conducive to reveling with pie.

This is also the first Thanksgiving within the span of my memory when I haven’t at least helped with the cooking, so I burn to be useful. Don’t get up off the couch; I’ll just lecture you from afar.

My charming SO has spent the last hour telling me that I can — and, presumably, should — take at least a few days off a year from burning to be useful, lest I find myself reduced to a Joan of Arc-style pile of cinders (which, frankly, didn’t look awfully good on her, and probably wouldn’t look any better on me). But one of the first things any editor learns upon getting into the advice-giving business is that writerly angst doesn’t take holidays.

Lest you doubt this: when I sat down to write tonight, I found no fewer than three e-mails from writer friends in my inbox, asking for advice. (I knew that they must be from friends, because mere acquaintances would have waited to send them until tomorrow.)

So: back to business. For those of you just joining us after a long winter’s nap, I’ve been yammering for the last couple of days about the desirability of SIOA — Send It Out, Already! — when one is faced with a request for pages, rather than revising and revising the manuscript for so long that the window of opportunity closes on the agent’s request.

Yesterday, I gave a pep talk to those good writers who find themselves currently in the painful throes of SIOA-avoidance, as well as laying the conceptual groundwork so writers who have not yet encountered “But is it REALLY ready?” turmoil will be prepared for it when it comes. Because, frankly, at one time or another, fear of submission has struck every successful writer I have ever known.

Okay, not EVERY: some are blessed with a superabundance of self-confidence, but in the publishing industry as in so many others, the hugely confident tend to be the folks who leave the air in their wake positively blackened with the smoke of their burning bridges.

Give me a worried nail-biter any day, I say. (Well, perhaps not on Christmas… or my birthday… but I can walk away from my e-mail any time, I tell you.)

The most confident writer I have encountered was a cookbook author who blandished me a couple of years ago (around Christmas, as a matter of fact) into introducing her to my agent and helping her with her book proposal practically to the point of co-authorship, only to pretend that she didn’t know me as soon as the ink dried on her book contract. She never seemed to doubt for an instant that the world needed her book — and apparently, a publisher agreed with her, because it’s out now.

For some reason, the agented encounter this stripe of bizarre super-confidence amongst favor-askers all the time: evidently, the shy, self-effacing, and polite are substantially less likely to approach us. (Which is one reason, in case you’re curious, that I respond so enthusiastically to those of you who post questions as comments here — here, I can answer a question once for the benefit of many, rather than one at a time privately.)

The persistence of the over-persistent ought to annoy the polite a little, because the boundary-pushers make it harder for everyone in the long run. For instance, one of the reasons that published authors tend to be reluctant to give feedback to hopeful strangers is that such a favor so often engenders not the gratitude it should, alas, but a detailed (and not always courteous) explanation from the overly-confident about how the kind author’s advice could not possibly be anywhere near the ballpark of correct.

Why, just the other day, the excellent and hilarious Bob Tarte, FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) and animal life memoirist extraordinaire, sent me this illuminating anecdote on the subject:

A writer who had read Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather emailed and asked me questions about how to write her query, attaching a copy of the query. I answered the questions and made suggestions about re-writing the query. The response from the writer: a detailed argument about my suggestions. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no authority on queries, but it seems to me that if you ask an author for input, then you should probably accept or dismiss the suggestions — and ask additional questions if you need to — but don’t argue with a person who is trying to help you out.

I’m with you, Bob: I can’t even count the number of times that writers have asked for my advice on a particular point — not infrequently by buttonholing me at a social event to ask me to summarize, essentially, an entire category’s worth of blog posts — and then came back to tell me with evident glee that they decided that it wasn’t worth taking, for the following fourteen reasons…

If I’m the only habitual advice-giver who doesn’t find it especially satisfying to be thanked this way… well, I won’t complete that thought, because I know for a fact that I’m not.

And how do I know that? Because spend an hour at any gathering of established authors, agents, editors, writing teachers, and the like (at, say, the bar at a writers’ conference), and you will almost certainly hear at least three complaints (often in the form of hilariously-embellished anecdotes, complete with mimicked voices) about this kind of behavior.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: while it’s perfectly fine to ask an author you admire for advice — because, after all, s/he always has the option of saying no — if the author is generous enough to respond, recognize that granting you a one-time favor does not imply an invitation to a lifetime of debate.

Simple thanks would do. Flowers would be nice, of course, but not strictly speaking necessary.

Sometimes, though, the super-confident camouflage argument under the cover of thanks. I once had a writer friend hit me up for detailed advice on a contest entry. After I gave it, he was so good as not only to explain to me in vivid Technicolor why my advice was misguided, but go on to hit up my mother (also a writer and editor) for feedback on his entire manuscript.

Wait — there’s more. Over my gasps of disapproval, my dear old white-headed mother was generous enough to ignore the fact that the book was half again as long as novels in that genre generally were and gave it some gentle analysis.

Need I even tell you that the writer responded promptly by sending her an EXTENSIVE letter, ostensibly thanking her for her trouble, but also meticulously addressing each point she had raised to demonstrate that she didn’t know what she was talking about? Or that many of the issues he raised there were ones for which I had already established well-defined categories here on the blog?

I’m bringing this up not to complain (okay, not ONLY to complain), but because over-confident writers often extend this type of behavior to agents and editors at publishing houses as well. Calling an agent to pitch on the phone, for instance. Or e-mailing a flame-mail response to a thoughtful rejection letter. Walking up to a rejecting agent or editor at a conference and demanding, “Why did you reject that manuscript I sent you six months ago?”

Or, the engenderer of many an embellished cocktail party anecdote, shooting back a letter to a rejecting agent jumping on one of the standard industry euphemisms: “What do you mean, you just didn’t fall in love with it? HOW doesn’t my book fit our needs at this time?”

This just isn’t good long-term career strategy.

Why am I harping upon the outrages upon etiquette committed by the tiny fraction of aspiring writers who happen to be blessed (or cursed, depending upon how you look at it) with complete confidence that they are so extraordinarily talented that everyone in the publishing industry not only should be delighted to help them — and that within seconds of having formed the acquaintance, or even before — but should confine their critique to Gee, your query letter/pitch/manuscript is magnificent. Don’t change a thing?

Because it doesn’t take very many such approaches to render the approached wary of ALL aspiring writers, including the 80% who would never dream of being so rude. Bombarded with many such approaches, as agents are, often from aspiring writers who have not learned enough about the industry to be aware that there IS any other way to try to market a book, wariness can turn fairly quickly to standoffishness toward the hopeful.

An attitude that, alas, is very discouraging for the shy. Having witnessed it in action– as a coldly-worded form rejection letter, perhaps, a slow response to a submission, or a “Well, that kind of book just isn’t selling right now” response to a pitch — the sensitive writer can fall prey to frightening fantasies about, say, how nasty the next rejection may be.

Or how mad that agent is going to be that three months have passed, and I haven’t sent those requested materials yet. Oh, it’s going to be terrible; maybe I’d better not send them out at all.

Starting to sound familiar? The over-confident’s dream transforms into the under-confident’s nightmare: the pushiness of the former feeds the environment that in turn feeds the fear of the latter.

Perhaps I’m overly-optimistic, but I believe that if more writers took the time to express gratitude for the help we DO get — and no, I’m not fishing — there would, in time, be more help available. I’ve met plenty of folks involved in publishing who honestly do like to lend a hand — and would do so happily, if not for the fear that the extended hand was going to be used as a ladder.

But this is a change that’s going to happen incrementally, through a lot of small acts of kindness in return for kindness.

Case in point: Bob Tarte sent me a really helpful anecdote to use here on the blog, and I’m grateful. So not only am I going to mention that I REALLY admire his writing — he is genuinely funny, not praise I bestow lightly — but I’m going to go ahead and post his book jackets here, for ease of recognition in a bookstore:

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Heck, I’m even going to add a plug for his new project, a weekly 30-minute podcast on exotic pets (anything other than cats, dogs, and livestock) on the aptly-named PetLifeRadio.com. The show is called, much to my amusement, What Were You Thinking? and he co-hosts it with his lovely wife, Linda.

Okay, so it’s a small thing, but it gets the ball rolling.

And illustrates perhaps the best argument I can possibly give to the super-confident about why their tactics may not serve them in the long term: you don’t see me plugging the work of that forgetful cookbook author here, do you?

As my beloved first writing teacher, Philip K. Dick, liked to say: “Never screw over a living writer. You’ll only end up as material.”

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:

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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!

SIOA!

Now that I have finally wrapped up the Book Marketing 101 series (phew!), I am looking forward to a nice, leisurely couple of months’ discussion of common red flags that tend to traject submissions into the reject pile faster than a writer new to the process can say, “But I didn’t know that there WAS a standard format for manuscripts, or that a manuscript page wasn’t supposed to look just like the same page in a published book!” (If that last sentence didn’t make you smirk knowingly, you might want to check out the FORMATING MANUSCRIPTS category at right before you proceed much farther in your writing career.)

Before I launch into that worthy endeavor, I would like to take the opportunity to urge those of you who have owed requested materials to an agent for a full season — from, say, having pitched successfully at a summer conference or received a positive response to a query prior to the annual August holidays — to send it out, already.

As in, if possible, this week.

Did that request make panic-generated fireworks go off in some writerly heads out there? I shouldn’t wonder; the last time I checked, over 70% of requested manuscripts were never actually sent to the agents and editors that requested them. That’s a whole lot of potentially publishable writing sitting in a whole lot of desk drawers.

Let’s give some thought to why that might be.

Consider, if you will, Zack, a good-but-as-yet-unagented novelist. Zack has been looking for an agent for quite some time now for a well-written, complex book — the kind of book that folks in the industry like to describe, if they’re feeling charitable, as “needing precisely the right agent/editor/push campaign.” (If they’re not feeling charitable, they describe it as “difficult.”)

In short, Zack’s novel is original, and the perfect agent has yet to fall in love with it.

We’ve all been there, right? If I haven’t said it again recently, allow me to remind you that the time elapsed between when a writer begins to seek an agent for a particular project and when she finally signs with one is NOT necessarily an especially reliable predictor of the writer’s talent.

In fact, it usually isn’t a predictor at all: if the writing quality were the only factor involved, we wouldn’t ever see a bad book on the tables at the front of a chain bookstore, would we?

But try convincing a well-meaning friend or relative — the kind that might lecture one over turkey at a certain annual family gathering about the desirability of dropping a time-consuming hobby that has not yet yielded fortune or fame — that even the best books often take time to find the right home, eh? Non-writers tend to assume that talent is the ONLY factor, but then, the non-writing world lives under the happy delusion that the only reason a book would not get published right away is that it isn’t any good!

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: plenty of good writers have queried for years before getting picked up, and frankly, it’s harder to land an agent today than it was even five years ago.

Okay, pep talk administered. Back to my tale.

Like a sensible writer, Zack knows that his book’s only chance of getting published lies in his promoting it to agents and editors, so he routinely spends the spring and summer going around to literary conferences. Since he both has an interesting story to tell and is a talented pitcher, he always picks up a few requests to see all or part of the book.

Yet invariably, when I see him at holiday parties, he responds uncomfortably to my eager inquires about how agents have responded to his submissions. “I’m still revising the end of the book,” he says, eyes averted.

We have this exchange down to a ritual now, so I ask, “Does that mean that you haven’t sent out the first 50 to the agents who asked you for it, either?”

Zack looks sheepish, self-righteous, and fearful all at once, a facial feat I would have sworn was not possible. “I want to be completely ready when they ask to see the rest.”

Readers, care to know how often you are on my mind? Exactly three seconds before I start to read him the riot act on the virtues of SIOA (Send It Out, Already!), I routinely think, “Gee, how long has it been since I’ve blogged about this? I really should do a reminder post.”

So here I am, telling you: if you got a request prior to the first week of September (and I mean this LAST September, not the one before) to send all or part of a manuscript to an agent or editor, please, please SIOA!

Yes, even if it isn’t perfect. Requests for materials are like vitamins, boxes of cereal, and hunks of meat: they come with expiration dates.

Not firm ones, of course, but when a request is made, it is considered professional to follow up on it in a timely manner. It shows what a good client you would be: after all, your agent would like to be able to tell editors, “Oh, she’s great about meeting deadlines.”

More to the point, I’ve never met an agent or editor yet whose raving praise about an author included the words, “And when I ask for something, she doesn’t get back to me for eight months!”

Sounds flippant, I know, but from a business perspective, it’s a legitimate question. After all, an author working under a book contract would not have the luxury of setting aside a manuscript for a few months until she had a few unbroken weeks’ time to make requested revisions, right?

Most of the time, of course, a requesting agent is not going to be drumming her nails on her desk for months on end, wondering where a particular submission is, unless the submitter is already a client. If a project that particularly excited her in query or pitch form doesn’t appear, she’s likely to assume that the writer went with another agent — or dropped the project entirely.

She’s going to move on without following up.

Please, please don’t wait for her to nag you about sending those requested materials; it’s not going to happen. Just SIOA.

Many aspiring writers misinterpret silence from the requester’s end as a lapse of interest, but that isn’t necessarily the case; a good agent simply has too many books on the brain — and too many eager writers clamoring for her attention — to badger writers slow to submit.

And even if she were so inclined, remember, this person doesn’t know you. From the requester’s end of the relationship, there isn’t necessarily any visible difference between not receiving requested materials because the writer’s obsessing over whether every comma is right, because the writer just hasn’t had time to give it a once-over, because the writer has had a sudden bout of massive insecurity, and because the writer had been pitching or querying a book not yet written.

And frankly, most pros would expect that if those first chapters did need to be written from scratch post-request, it could be done successfully between midsummer and Christmas, anyway. From a writer’s POV, that may not be a particularly realistic expectation, given how most aspiring writers are already struggling to sandwich their writing between work and family and friends and a million other demands upon their time, but remember, at the submission stage, intentions don’t count for much.

Agents and editors want to judge a writer by what’s on the page, and they can’t do that without having pages to read. The general expectation –for fiction, at least — is that if the book is at the querying/pitching point, it ought to be ready to send out.

Which isn’t always the case in practice, admittedly. An aspiring writer might jump the gun on querying for a number of reasons: because conferences fall at particular times of year, for instance, or because that terrific new character didn’t pop into the mind until a week after the query letter went out. Or because some darned fool of an Internet expert told you that the industry moves with glacial speed during certain parts of the year, and you wanted to beat the post New Year’s rush.

Heck, I once won a major literary award for a memoir for which I had written only the first chapter and synopsis. But I knew enough about the industry to respond to agents’ requests for a book proposal with a chipper, “Great! I can have a proposal to you in six weeks.” Then I sat down and wrote it during the August publishing lull.

But the point is, I did send it out, and that’s how my agency was able to figure out that it wanted to sign me.

“But Anne,” I hear those who had planned on spending another few months polishing their submissions piping up, “you said that the industry shuts down between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that it’s not a good idea to query just after the New Year. Why does it make any difference if I send it now or in February?”

A couple of very good reasons, actually: first, enthusiasm is not a permanent condition, but a fleeting one.

The fact is, the chances of the requester’s remembering you (and, more importantly, your book) are significantly higher now than three months from now. A long lapse is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s not unheard-of for an agent to respond to a submission that arrives six months after a pitch with a statement that she doesn’t remember having requested it.

The second reason is that many, many agents and editors spend the next month and a half catching up on their READING. The industry slows down not because everyone who works in a publishing house takes six weeks off, but because there are so many Judeo-Christian holidays during that period that it’s hard to get enough bodies together for an editorial meeting.

Why is that significant? Well, unlike agencies, where an individual agent can decide to take a chance on a new author, a publishing house’s acquiring a book requires the collective agreement of a great many people. If the requisite bodies are heading over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, it’s kinda hard to obtain their consent to anything.

But as anyone who has had much contact with the industry knows, it’s full of folks who tend to deal with the most immediate crisis of any given moment. Naturally, this workplace orientation results in much work being put off until some nebulous future date when the agent or editor has time to deal with it.

Wild guesses as to when they get around to it? Right: between now and the end of the year. And because agents know that editors will be occupied with what is already on their overburdened desks, they tend to curl up with a few good manuscripts and take a well-deserved breather, too.

In other words, it behooves a submitting writer to adhere to their calendar, rather than expecting them to follow yours.

“Why,” I hear one plaintive-but-reasonable voice out there demanding querulously, “in an industry where it is considered perfectly acceptable for an agent to take several months to get back to a writer who has submitted a manuscript, and six months or more for an editor to read a submission via an agent,” (yes, it happens) “should there be ANY restrictions on how long I have to send out requested materials? Why is the writer the only one expected to adhere to a tacit deadline?”

Want the honest answer? (Look away NOW if you don’t.) Because the writer is the one with the least power in this situation, and the competition for scarce representation and publishing slots is fierce.

Any well-established agent or editor sees hundreds upon hundreds of perfectly-formatted, well-written submissions per year: they don’t worry too much about the one who got away. And that gives them the power to set unreasonable (and, yes, as regular readers of this blog already know, often unwritten and unspoken) rules for writerly conduct.

Unfortunately, it’s as simple as that.

Amongst agents and editors, the writer who pitches well but never sends in the requested follow-up materials is as notorious as the guy who doesn’t call again after the first date. As is the NF writer who comes up with a stellar book idea but never actually submits a book proposal. Ask any agent: they find this phenomenon genuinely frustrating.

But it is common enough that after an agent has been in the biz for a while, she usually isn’t holding her breath waiting for ANY pitched or queried book to show up on her desk just because she asked for it. No, she’s not the kind of girl to sit by the phone.

Now, logically, one might expect that this ambient cynicism would mean that the writer had MORE time leeway, rather than less. Even an agent who flatly fell in love with a pitch wouldn’t be at all upset if the requested pages didn’t show up for a couple of months; if he’s at all experienced, he would already be aware that almost every writer on the planet likes to give the book one last read-through before submitting it, to catch any rookie, grammatical, or continuity mistakes. And, of course, he’s not the kind of boy to sit by the phone.

However, as I mentioned above, publishing is very much a seasonal business; the pros even talk about the year that way. Is your book a summer novel, a fall culture book, or a late winter special interest release? In practice, this means that submissions that might be tossed into a pile of fifty to molder during one month might be being placed in much, much shorter piles in another, where they might be read within a week or two.

But that’s not the only reason you should SIOA now. As any of my editing clients (they’re the ones cringing in that corner over there) can tell you, I am the last person on earth who would advise submitting a manuscript that has fundamental problems. And realistically, if you absolutely had to, you might be able to get away with sending requested materials as much as 5 months after the request, if you were polite enough to send a letter explaining the need for delay quite early in the process.

However, it has been my experience that if a writer puts off sending requested materials for more than a couple of months, they may not get sent at all. Let me repeat that statistic from above: somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of requested materials are NEVER sent to their requestors.

That’s a whole lot of lost opportunity, isn’t it? And that’s just sad. SIOA, my friends: it may be scary, but it’s a necessary – and indispensable — step in becoming a professional writer.

But don’t beat yourself up if you recognized yourself in this post; many, many good writers sometimes have a hard time SIOA-ing. Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about the major reasons that SOIA-avoidance happens, and what a writer can do to snap out of the pattern.

Keep up the good work!

FYI to new comment-posters

The blogger’s road is, for better or worse, often the path of soliloquy. The difference between a blog and a column, as I see it, is the comparative ease with which readers can talk back, to turn what would have been a monologue on paper into a multi-party conversation. Since this is, after all, a blog for writers, I have been delighted to see many of you jumping in to share your views.

As I mentioned last time, this blog is set up so that I must read and approve comments by each and every comment-poster new to this site. I try to check frequently, but I’m not logged into the blog full-time (and recently, not every day, so there can be a bit of a lag before I get to any given comment. But rest assured, I actually do read every single comment posted to this site.

Why do screen so carefully? To prevent the comment sections from becoming clogged with spam, offers for pharmaceuticals, and links to sites featuring people involved in sex acts not legal in my part of the world. On some days, I get as many as three hundred spam postings, so this really is necessary.

Also, I reserve the right to delete the profane, the obscene, or questions that my professional experience tells me the writer may in future years prefer were not addressed in quite so public a forum.

Sometimes, though, writers hoping to promote their books, writing teachers hoping to promote for-pay services, or bloggers hoping to attract traffic to their sites will attempt to post links here, via the comments function. As a matter of policy, I typically delete these posts, as I want to keep the forum open for discussion, rather than commerce.

However, sometimes it is legitimately hard to tell the difference between a self-promoting post and a comment posted by someone who HAPPENS to have a website and wants to join the discussion. If I have mistakenly deleted some of these, my apologies.

To prevent confusion in future, here are a few ground rules for posting comments:

1. Links unaccompanied by actual English sentences will be deleted automatically. Even if the comment is in a language I happen to read, the comments should be in the language of the post, so all readers may enjoy them.

2. Although I welcome general questions, comments should, if at all possible, be relevant to the post to which they are attached. That way, later browsers are more likely to find the discussion. (And don’t worry: the blog program will notify me if someone comments on a post from a couple of years ago.)

3. Unfortunately, I cannot post comments with only generalized content like, “Good point!” or “LOL!” Spammers often use generalized praise in order to post links to quite inappropriate sites.

4. Please, do not ask me to exchange links with you simply to increase web traffic. It’s unfair to readers.

5. To be considered for posting, any comment containing a link to a book, blog, service, or any other website must be legitimately a link to what it says it is (spam often isn’t) AND the comment must make it plain how the link is relevant to the specific post being commented upon.

6. There is one kind of self-promotion I welcome in the comments: feel free to post comments with good news about your career, such as contest triumphs, landing a great agent, selling a book, etc. The more specific, the better!

7. Please do not post excerpts of writing for my feedback unless I have SPECIFICALLY asked for readers to do so. (My editors’ guild frowns upon its members giving away our services for free.)

8. Keep your commentary G-rated, please; not everyone who reads this site is over the age of 18.

9. Please do not list a business’ website as your URL, unless it happens to be YOUR business; I do check. (Spammers often try to post legitimate-sounding comments with links that turn out to be far from what we’re talking about here.)

10. Please bear in mind that even though all of us are typing this at home, this IS a public forum. I would strongly discourage you from posting comments that might harm your reputation — or others’.

11. If you are asking me a question, please be aware that I may not have time to answer it immediately — so it’s a good idea to post those questions at a time OTHER than immediately before an imminent submission deadline.

If I decide to write a post in response to your question, please bear in mind that there are probably other questions already lined up before it in my to-blog-upon queue. Writing this blog is, after all, a volunteer activity, so I reserve the right to set my own turn-around times.

And perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I prefer questions that are phrased politely, rather than as demands for information. Taking the extra three seconds to add please and thank you won’t hurt anybody.

12. if you have a LOT of links you would like to post within a comment, please send me a private e-mail clearing the volume with me first, so I may set aside the time to follow all of the links as soon as it goes up.

Why is this necessary? Well, a comment that contains many links to other sites are prone to get flagged as spam — because posting comments with a zillion links in them is how this kind of spamming tends to work. This is why I actually visit all of the outgoing links that people post here, because 99.9% of the outgoing links I am sent are not legit, but lead to commercial sites, porn sites, etc.

Thanks in advance for following these rules. I’ve been meaning to codify this for a while, but haven’t had the energy to formulate a policy.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

At long last, the final installment of Book Marketing 101: tell me again why are we going to all this trouble?

If you have made it all the way through this series, either reading it as I posted or in retrospect, please give yourself a big ol’ pat on the back. By committing to learning how querying and submission works, you can, I hope, avoid the most common mistakes that lead to rejection — and approach the process of finding an agent for your work not as a massive, ugly mystery, but as a professional endeavor that’s going to take some time.

You know how I’d like you to celebrate? Send out a few additional query letters this weekend. (Five is a nice number. Ten is better.)

Did I hear a few exasperated gasps out there? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and not unreasonably, “doesn’t the industry slow to a crawl between Thanksgiving and Christmas? If I haven’t gotten a raft of queries out by now, shouldn’t I wait until after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?” (That’s the third week of January, for those of you reading outside the US.)

I have to admit, that’s a pretty reasonable objection. I’m not going to tell you it’s okay to put the querying on hold, mind you, but I give you full points for a good argument.

Even this late in the season, the autumn is an excellent time to be looking for an agent, much better than the dead of winter. Not only are there always a lot of great new books hitting the shelves in the fall (including most of the year’s crop of literary fiction and culture books), but by querying now, you’ll also get a jump on the literally tens of thousands of aspiring authors who will suddenly decide at the end of December that their New Year’s resolution is going to be to query fifteen agents per month.

Since the average New Year’s resolution lasts only about two and a half weeks, January is when ALL of those well-meaning resolvers’ missives hit agents’ desks — right after a long holiday break AND in the middle of tax-preparation time for agencies. With the monumentally increased volume, agents and their assistants tend to get a MIGHT testy around then.

Since the vast majority of those rejected during that period will not query again until, oh, about twelve months later — if they try again at all — Millicent’s life calms down considerably toward the end of January. And wouldn’t you rather have your query under her nose while her joie de vivre is on the upswing?

The moral of the story: get your queries out now, and beat the post-Christmas rush.

Even with predictably slower turn-around times over the next month and a half, making a big push now, rather than after the New Year, will make it easier to keep up the momentum an aspiring writer needs to keep a query cycle going as long as necessary to land an agent.

Stop groaning. If your book deserves to be published — and I’m betting that it does — it deserves to make the rounds of the fifty or hundred agents that even the best books sometimes make these days. Yes, that’s a long haul — but nothing extends the querying process like taking extended breaks from it.

Query 5-10 agents at once — hey, your time is too valuable to query them singly — and keep that momentum going. The moment one rejection comes in, send out another query, so there are always a constant number in motion.

Why send out a new query on the same day as the last comes back? Because it’s the best way to fight off rejection-generated depression, that’s why: it’s something you can DO in response to that soul-sapping form letter. Recognize that rejection by an agent, any agent, is only one person’s opinion (or, more commonly, one person’s screener’s opinion), and move on.

It can take a lot of asking before a writer hears yes. Yes, even a very good writer with a great book. Remember, you don’t want to sign with just any agent, any more than you would want to marry just anyone the law says you can: a relationship with an agent is, ideally, a very long-term commitment.

You want to find the best one for you. Finding that special someone is going to take some serious dating around.

And that is not, contrary to popular opinion, necessarily any reflection at all upon your level of writing talent.

Oh, you’ll want to write a good query letter, as well as avoiding the most common writing problems that lead submissions to be rejected. That, like other matters of format and craft, can be learned. Talent, however, can’t — but you can’t know for certain how talented you are until you get the technical matters right, so you can get a fair reading from the pros.

Not to worry — I’m going to spend the weeks to come going over some of the more pervasive writing problems. But if you’ve been following this series, you already have the skills to write a professional-quality query letter, don’t you?

Get on out there and do it. At this point, you’re probably not going to hear back for a month or more, anyway. That’s plenty of time for us to work on polishing your manuscript.

I feel in my bones that some of you out there are still resisting my pep talk — I’ve been hearing it bouncing off your psyches like bullets off Superman’s chest. Okay, I’m going to pull out all the stops, and end this series with one last blast of kryptonite-laden truth, to help you see why it just doesn’t make sense to take the vagaries of this often drawn-out process personally.

Throughout this Book Marketing 101 series — originally intended to encompass only a couple of months of summer — I have been trying, in my own small way, to educate aspiring writers to the hard facts of the current literary market: it is, in fact, as difficult as it has ever been to land an agent and/or sign a publication contract. In my experience, understanding the basics of how the acceptance (and rejection) process works can save good writers time, chagrin, and wasteful expenses of despair.

Yet as I have been writing, even I have caught myself wondering from time to time whether it is really THAT hard to break into the biz. Oh, I certainly haven’t been exaggerating, say, how small, inadvertent mistakes can and do lead to instant rejection or the level of competition one must beat in order to sign with a good agency; by comparison with the conversation you’d be likely to hear behind the scenes at a top-flight writers’ conference, my rendition has been positively mild.

But still, I worry about scaring good writers away from trying at all. And then I read an article like this one in a trade journal:

Hachette moves to firm sale on backlist
Hachette Livre UK is taking the radical step of moving its backlist publishing to a firm sale basis for environmental reasons. The UK’s largest publishing group, which includes Orion, Hodder, Headline, Octopus and Little, Brown, told staff and authors this morning…that it intends for all of its trade publishing to be put on a backlist firm sale footing by the end of 2008, following consultation with retailers. (For the rest of this article, follow this link.)

If this piece of news did not make you gasp spontaneously, I would guess that you are only dimly aware of just how many books are already pulped each year — that is, sent back to the publisher unsold for paper recycling — or how backlist sales typically work. Most bookstores buy new books from publishers on a provisional basis, with the understanding that they can send clean, unread copies back if they do not sell within a specified period of time. Often, the returns, especially paperbacks and trade paper, will be ground down into pulp to provide the raw material to print other books (thus the term pulping).

From a marketing point of view, this arrangement makes quite a bit of sense: with certain rare exceptions (think Harry Potter), it’s pretty hard for a bookseller to know in advance how well a book will sell. Stocking extra copies encourages browsing, which is potentially good for retailer, publisher, and reader alike. In recent years, however, books have been remaining on shelves for shorter stints than in the past. The length of time a bookseller will choose to keep a particular book on a shelf varies considerably by book and retailer — the same book may be allowed shelf space for a year at a small bookstore, yet last only a few weeks at a megastore like Barnes & Noble.

All of which means, in practice, that these days, a new book typically does not have very long to establish a track record as a seller before being subject to return. This, in turn, renders it more expensive for publishers to promote books, as the window of opportunity can be pretty small. (See why publishers might be willing to pay a premium to have their books displayed face-up on tables for the first few weeks, rather than spine-out on a shelf? Or why authors sometimes see fit to hire their own publicists for the first month after a book’s release?)

Backlist titles, by contrast, have been out for a while; they’re the releases from past seasons that the publisher elects to keep in print. Although they do not receive the press attention of new releases, backlist books have historically been the financial heart of most publishers’ business — and this, too, has tended to work to all of our benefits. How often, for instance, have you discovered a genre author three books into a series? Or fell in love with a writer’s latest book and went back to read everything she ever published? (As I sincerely hope you do; after all, if we writers won’t purchase the more obscure works of living writers, who will?)

Or, to take a very up-to-the-minute example, discovered a great writer who has been plugging away for years because he suddenly wins the National Book Award? (Well deserved, Sherman Alexie!)

If you’ve been able to find these books at your local bookstore, you’ve been buying backlist titles, gladdening publishers’ hearts and keeping the heartbeat of the industry alive. Because of readers like you, stocking backlist titles has been good bet for retailers: you might not move many copies of Clarissa in a given month, but when a reader wants it, it’s great if you have it to hand.

But if a bookseller has to buy those backlist titles outright, with no opportunity to return them, it becomes substantially more expensive to keep, say, the complete opus of Sherman Alexie in stock in the years when he is NOT winning prestigious awards.

Speaking as a hardcore reader of English prose, I think that would be a genuine shame. And since I hear that other UK publishers are considering implementing similar policies, I worry about all of those British writers whose work may go out of print before those of us on this side of the pond have had a chance to hear how wonderful they are.

Call me a worrywart, but this news also made me gnaw my nails, pondering the financial prospects of UK authors already in print. Just as increasingly quick shelf turn-around for a current season’s books have rendered retailers less likely to take a chance on new authors (how much word-of-mouth can a small book garner in under a month, after all?), it’s probably safe to assume that a policy shift like this will make it harder for backlist authors to remain in print.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you saying, “you’ve just spent the last week telling us that publishing trends change all the time — and that even if I get an agent tomorrow, it might be a couple of years before my book hits the shelves. Do I really need to worry about return policies now?”

Well, perhaps worry is too strong a word, but it is something to keep in mind when planning out your writing career in the long term. Working authors often rely upon sales of their backlist works to pay the bills. If backlist sales decline — as they well might, if such a policy is embraced industry-wide — it may be significantly more difficult to make a consistent living as a writer of books in the years to come.

In other words, this change may affect your ability to quit your day job after you’re published.

In the short term, however, I think it’s always helpful for an aspiring writer to be aware that there is almost always more to an editor’s decision to acquire a book — and by extension, to an agent’s decision to offer it representation — than simply whether the writing is good. During periods when booksellers are taking fewer risks, publishers have historically relied more upon their tried-and-true authors than upon exciting new talent.

Thus tightening the already tight market for what used to be called writers of promise, excellent authors who don’t catch on with the public until the fourth or fifth book. (Mssr. Alexie’s first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was originally published in 1993. Fortunately, it’s still available as a backlist title.)

Do I think this change is cause for rending your garments and casting your hard-collected query lists into the nearest fire? No, certainly not. But I do think that aspiring writers who approach the querying and submission processes as though the book market had NOT become significantly tighter in recent years are more likely to give up when faced with rejection — because, unfortunately, there’s still a very pervasive myth out there that the ONLY reason a manuscript, or even a query, ever has trouble finding a professional home is because of a lack of writerly talent.

That’s just not true. Like the common fantasy of walking into a writers’ conference, pitching to the first agent in sight, getting signed on the spot, and selling the book within the month, that misapprehension makes too many good writers stop trying after only a handful of efforts. What is true is that the competition is fierce, and the more a writer learns about how the business works, the more she can hone her queries and submissions to increase their likelihood of success.

There is an immense gulf between the difficult and the impossible — and, as I have stressed time and again, the only impossible hurdle for a book to overcome is the one that confines it in a desk drawer, unqueried and unread.

No matter how tight the book market becomes, it’s not the industry that controls the lock on that drawer; it’s the writer. Never, ever allow the prospect of rejection to seal that drawer shut permanently.

This is your dream — give it a fighting chance. Send out those queries.

Thank you for your patience with my slow posting during my illness, and keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: surfing the sea of book reviews, or, free the bound periodicals!

Earlier in this series, I talked about how to track down who represents whom, so that you may address queries to the agents who represent authors whose work you like, or (even better) whose work or background resembles yours in some important respect. Yesterday, I suggested an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area: reading book reviews, particularly those published in periodicals that cater to the same demographic as your intended readership.

As I signed off yesterday, content with a job relatively well done, I heard faint plaintive cries from those of you who have been paying especially close attention to the Book Marketing 101 series. “Um, Anne?” I heard you saying, “wouldn’t books coming out right now necessarily be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year or more ago, rather than now? What about your passionate diatribe earlier in this series about how agents live in the now, so we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

If you thought this, or some reasonable facsimile of it, give yourself a gold star for the day. Because, you see, you are — as you so often are — quite right.

For those of you new to the publishing game, with very few exceptions, the time lapse between when a book is purchased by a publisher and the date it appears in bookstores is at least a year. Often longer, depending on how far out a publisher establishes a print queue and what season the marketing department believes would be most advantageous for a particular book to appear.

Yes, yes, we’ve all seen books hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble more quickly than this, but those tend to be nonfiction, books about current events or celebrity meltdowns. Your garden-variety novel, however brilliantly written, is unlikely to do much leap-frogging within the print queue. Besides, it is far from uncommon for editors to request that authors make changes to book between acceptance and publication.

One reason, in case you were curious, that advances are generally paid in installments, rather than in one lump sum — typically, a third on signing, a third on manuscript acceptance (i.e., after the author has made all those requested changes), and a third upon publication. That way, the publisher has a stick as well as a carrot to induce authorial compliance with editorial demands.

Not a bad motivational strategy, admittedly, but often a bit inconvenient for writers who have been dodging student loan payments and living on Top Ramen while they were writing their books.

This lag time renders keeping up with publishing trends significantly more difficult than simple perusal of the bestseller lists. Professional opinions about what will and won’t appeal to readers a year or two from now can fluctuate wildly, sometimes with remarkable speed: to take a couple of famous recent examples, the same agents who were clamoring three years ago for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES were telling writers a year later that memoir was impossible to sell. The agents who were combing conferences for the next SEX IN THE CITY at the height of the show’s popularity have spent the last year and a half insisting that chick lit is doomed.

And, of course, six months from now, some other book category will be pronounced permanently dead, too. The only thing that is constant is change.

Oh, except for the facts that in the United States, generic queries don’t work, gravity generally makes things fall down instead of up, and women readers purchase roughly 80% of the fiction sold, and pretty much all of the literary fiction. All of that’s been true for an awfully long time.

Other than that, bet your bottom dollar on the malleability of change. Since it takes substantially longer to write a book than for a bunch of people in Manhattan to decide what the next hot thing will be, all we writers can do is monitor the squalls from afar and hope we’re ready when our time comes.

As I have been pointing out in various ways over the last couple of weeks, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what NOW requires vigilance. You could, if you had the time and the resources, subscribing to one of the standard industry publications, such as Publishers Marketplace or Publishers Weekly.

As a dispenser of free advice myself, though, and someone who began blogging in the first place because there was at the time a dearth of inexpensive means for aspiring writers to learn how the biz works, I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available. Most aspiring writers are already struggling to make time to write, and for those with the spare cash to spend, there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping them become better and more publishable writers — often for a rather stiff fee. Not to mention freelance editors like me, whose services typically do not come cheap.

So if I can save my readers a few shekels from time to time, I like to do it. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where if you do a cost/benefit analysis, weighing the value of your time against the difficulty of obtaining free yet up-to-the-minute information, you might want to shell out the dosh.

Although it only tracks current publications, rather than sales to editors, the book review method, is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. The book review will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books well.

How so, you ask? Well, as you have undoubtedly noticed, the vast majority of books published in North America are NOT reviewed in the popular press; it is no longer sufficient simply to send a bound galley with a polite cover letter to a publication to get it reviewed. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bound galley is a low-cost print of a book cheaply packaged, without a hard cover, for circulation to reviewers. They look a little bit like thick scripts for plays.)

Talk to anyone who works at a large-circulation magazine, and they will tell you: they receive hundreds of bound galleys every month, but unlike an industry publication like Library Journal, they simply do not have room to review them all. Out of all those submissions, a publication might review perhaps a dozen per issue.

To narrow the probability of any given book’s being reviewed even more, most print media outlets have a policy to review only books released in hardcover — although since it has gotten so common to release fiction in trade paper, you’re starting to see some shift on the subject — and only books released through traditional publishing.

Self-published and electronic books are almost impossible to get reviewed, alas, unless you’re Stephen King. In fact, most newspapers and magazines have a standing policy against it.

Thus, if you see a book reviewed in a major publication, it is because it is either expected to be a big seller, is by an author already well recognized, or someone (usually the publicity department at the publishing house, but with increasing frequency, the author or the author’s press people) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales than no review at all (remember when John Irving’s last book got savaged by THE WASHINGTON POST?), it is very much in your interest to find an agent who is good at bullying publishers into nagging reviewers on behalf of her authors’ books.

If reading through weeks and months of reviews seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you simply blanket the agenting world with generic pleas for representation.

Yes, I know: I’ve been reiterating that particular sentiment quite a bit lately, but it honestly is the single best piece of advice an agented writer has to pass along to the aspiring. Just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, I, and literally every agented writer I know, have learned not to query agents who are not DEMONSTRABLY interested in our kind of writing or our kind of writer NOW.

Trust me on this one, please. Invest the time. But do it strategically.

Finding well-reviewed first-time authors in your genre should be your first goal in review-scanning, as their agents will probably be most open to your work. Once you start reading the major book reviewers on a regular basis, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their august notice.

Odd, isn’t it, considering that ostensibly, a book reviewer’s primary job is to alert his readers to the existence of good books they might not otherwise read? But no: the vast majority of reviews are of well-hyped books by already-established writers.

Personally, I would find it a bit tedious to keep on informing the world yet again that Alice Walker can write up a storm or that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author’s first novel. But as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules governing the miasma of publishing; I merely tell you about them.

For this reason, you might want to move beyond the major book review sources in your search for new agenting pastures. If you have read several issues of a publication without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication.

The easiest way to do this is to check back issues: here again, the public library is your friend. (But when isn’t THAT the case?) Librarians, dear souls that they are, often shelve current magazines so one does not even have to move three steps in either direction to find a year’s worth of back issues.

To save yourself some time, don’t bother with issues more than a year and a half old; longer ago than that, and the agents’ book preferences may well have changed.

Why? Chant it with me now: because the book market is malleable.

It’s also sensible to start with the smaller publications aimed most directly at your target audience or demographic, not the broader-based publications. After all, if you write anything at all esoteric, you could easily spend a month leafing through the last two years’ worth of the New York Times Review of Books and only come up with a handful of books in your genre.

And don’t forget to search the web for sites that habitually review your type of book. Yes, the Internet is wide and vast and deep, but if you narrow your search focus enough (how many habitual reviewers of werewolf books could there possibly be?), the task should not be terribly overwhelming.

Remember, part of the point of this exercise is to find the smaller books by first-timers, and no one is faster than your garden-variety blogging reviewer at finding these.

If you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the reviews to a well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books off the shelves. I’m sure that you are a good enough reader to tell in a paragraph or two if the agent who fell in love with any given writer’s style is at all likely to admire YOUR prose flair.

Or – and this is particularly important if you are writing about anything especially controversial – if the agent is brave enough to take a chance on a topic that might not, as they say, play in Peoria.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers have the endearing habit of rushing to compare new authors to immensely well-established ones, often within the first few lines. Let’s say you found a review of Stephanie Kallos’ work that mentioned her John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this in line 1 can render reading the rest of the review superfluous. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent (who, if memory serves, is also his wife), you would be well advised to try Kallos’.

Get it?

Admittedly, sometimes the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, which is less than helpful for our purposes. Again, taking a gander at the actual books in question will help separate the true analogies from the bizarre. For example, Layne Maheu’s amazing literary fiction debut SONG OF THE CROW is told from the point of view of a bird along for the ride on Noah’s ark, several reviewers automatically compared the book to Richard Bach’s 1970s megaseller JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Actually, apart from the sheer flesh-to-feathers ratio in these two books, they don’t have a lot in common. But sure enough, the merest flutter of feathers, and the reviewer had a conceptual match.

Some things are beyond comprehension.

I’m not going to lie to you, my friends: pulling together a solid, appropriate, well-researched querying list is not just a lot of work; it involves quite a bit of creativity. And no, I have absolutely no idea why writers are not given credit for that more often.

Keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: when your querying list starts to thin out

I’ve been writing for a few weeks now (on and off, as my health permits) about nifty ways to figure out which agents would be most productive for you to add to your first-choice query list, which you might want to place farther down on the list, and which might just be a waste of an investment in stamps. As I argued last time, being the right agent for YOUR book requires more than merely being a person who represents authors for a living.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the definition of an agent, period?

Being the best choice for you requires, at minimum, all that, having a delightful propensity for saying yes to you, AND being eager, equipped, and able to get your manuscript under the right set of bloodshot editorial eyeballs. Oh, and it really, really helps if this sterling soul not only thinks your book is marketable, but truly well written as well.

So it’s an excellent idea to find out, if at all possible, what the candidates for this enviable position like to read — or at any rate, what they like to read professionally. As I MAY have mentioned several dozen times earlier in this series, the single best indicator of an agent’s taste in representation at the moment is to find out what she’s been selling lately.

Some weary brainpans beginning to gyrate out there, aren’t they? “But Anne,” some of you who have been treading the querying for a while whimper, “I’ve already done a boatload of research, combing the agency guides and tracking down the fine folks who represent my favorite authors. But frankly, I’m starting to run out of faves who write anything remotely like my work, and I don’t have unlimited reading time.”

In other words, what do you do AFTER you’ve gone through your ten or twelve favorite living authors and tracked down their agents? What about taking a gander at agents who habitually represent books aimed at you as a READER? Who is representing the books that are being marketed to people like you these days?

Stop chortling — I’m quite serious about this. Successful authors in a particular book category very frequently spring from its devoted readership.

Come closer, and I’ll whisper a secret seldom heard in the hallowed halls of writers’ conferences and classes: the people who run it don’t always have all that complex an idea of who reads, or even writes, any given type of book. Particularly in a relatively new category. They tend to assume that for all intents and purposes, the people who write in a particular subgenre and the people who read it went to high school together, or at any rate share substantial life experiences.

So believe it or not, it’s entirely possible that you are a precise fit for some agency’s already-formulated author profile, which might make them more willing to take a chance on you and your book.

Those of you who happen to have been female, under the age of 45, and trying to market an adult novel with a female protagonist to a US or UK agent or publisher during the brief-but-pervasive reign of chick lit have probably experienced this phenomenon in reverse, right? Back in the day, a woman born after the Johnson administration pitching a literary novel about a woman who lived in a damp cave in Antarctica could practically count upon being cross-examined about how she expected to market such a book to the readers of BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, as if it were actually impossible for the pre-menopausal set to pen anything for any other audience.

This phenomenon has subsided a bit, thank goodness, since chick lit seems to have had its heyday, but if you fall into that demographic, you might be able to interest a chick lit-heavy (I know; that seems like a contradiction in terms) agency in your non-chick lit novel. After all, they’re already set up to deal well with authors in your demographic, right?

How might you go about this? Well, for starters, I might suggest finding out if any of the staff writers or columnists at your favorite magazines have written books, and querying THEIR agents, on the grounds of similar worldview and target audience.

For example, if you are a Gen X or Gen Y woman who writes books aimed at college-educated women — which is pretty much synonymous with the literary fiction market, lest we forget — you might want to take a good, hard look at the last year’s worth of issues of BUST, which is aimed squarely at your demographic.

Naturally, it’s not the only publication intended for those eyes, but BUST has something very definite to offer a young female writer: n every issue, their book review pages tout work by writers affiliated with the magazine. By definition, those books are being marketed to the same demographic as the magazine.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I would imagine that every single one of the authors of those reviewed books is represented by a literary agent. And that can add up to a hefty handful of queries beginning, “Since you so ably represented Book X…”

The same technique could easily be applied to any book-reviewing periodical designed to appeal to any group of target readers, right? If you’re not certain which publications to choose (or which review books), trot on over to your local library and strike up a conversation with the lovely person in charge of the magazine section. Chances are, s/he will be able to tell you precisely who reads which magazine.

A word to the wise, from someone’s who’s spent a lot of hours blandishing assistance from a lot of librarians: you’ll get a better response to this question if you (a) are polite, (b) have already identified your book’s target market (for tips, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right), and (c) don’t approach the librarian either five minutes before closing or when the joint is jumping. And don’t forget to jot down this helpful person’s name for later thanks in acknowledgments.

Obviously, you could work similar wizardry with magazines that publish your kind of writing — it’s often worth searching to see if article-writers are agented. An author does not necessarily need to have a book out to prove a good lead for you — a lot of magazine writers are aspiring book writers, and many of them already have agents.

(Before you literary fiction writers out there get too excited, I should probably add: THE NEW YORKER very seldom publishes fiction by any writer who isn’t already pretty well-established, so these authors tend not to be represented by agents over-eager for new blood, if you catch my drift. Starting with a less prestigious magazine might be a more efficient use of your research time.)

The other big advantage to checking out periodicals is that they will give you insight into what is coming out NOW, not five years ago, in your book category. Also, someone else — the editorial staff of the publication in question — is essentially doing your market research for you, pointing you toward the agents who are good at selling books aimed at your target demographic.

How so? Well, think about it: the average magazine receives review copies of hundreds of books every month; they obviously cannot review all of them, right? Someone is making a choice about what does and does not get reviewed in any given issue. Ostensibly, a magazine will pick a book for review for one of only three reasons: either the book is being marketed to the same target reader as the magazine (who will, we hope, be your reader, too, in time), the book was written by someone who writes for the magazine (who by definition is writing for your target market), or because the author is a crony of someone on staff. (I’m looking at YOU, BUST).

So essentially, in the process of selection, a review editor at a well-respected magazine geared toward your book’s target market is telling you what current books are being marketed best in your book’s area. Why turn up your nose at such well-informed advice — even if it does mean you occasionally end up querying the agent who represents the editor’s college roommate?

Has that gotten your brainstorming muscles warmed up a little? Next time, I shall delve a little more into how reviews can help you at the agent-finding stage. In the meantime, 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: look, lady, all I know is that I have a book in Category X; cut to the chase, already

As I have been arguing throughout this Book Marketing 101 series, queries tend to work best when they are sent to specific agents who habitually sell similar books. Not just because that’s the single best indication of what the agent in question likes to read — although that’s definitely good to ascertain, if you can, before you query — but also because it’s a dandy indication that the agent has some pretty good connections with editors who happen to like to acquire that type of book.

Thus, I have so far been approaching the guide listings, blurbs, etc., on the assumption that a writer will want to narrow down your first-round query list to just a handful of near-perfect matches. To that end, I’ve been encouraging you to track down as much specific sales information as possible on the agents you’re considering.

That strategy, I suspect, will not be everyone’s proverbial mug of oolong.

“Wait just a minute,” I have heard some of among you murmuring, and who could blame you? “What you’ve been suggesting is a heck of a lot of work. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the industry yet for a list of sales to make me cry, ‘Yes! This is the agent for me!’ I’m willing to do some legwork, but for heaven’s sake, querying eats into my writing time, and the agency guide before me lists a hundred agencies that accept books in my category! Since they’ve said point-blank that they want to see books like mine, why shouldn’t I take their word for it and query them all without researching the last five years of sales for each and every agent at all hundred of those agencies, which would take me until next March at the earliest?”

Oh, how I wish there were a quick and easy way to avoid the sometimes-lengthy research process! Honestly, if I knew of one, I would share it with you toute suite. (I would also bottle it and make a million dollars, but that’s another story.)

Hold onto your hats, because I’m about to say something controversial: it does pay in the long run to double-check what one finds in the guides, in my experience — yes, even down to book categories.

Why? Well — are you still clutching those chapeaux? — not every agency that lists itself as representing (or even actively seeking) a particular book category will be equally receptive to queries for that kind of book. To my eye, one of the most common ways in which listings and blurbs confuse agent-seeking writers is by appearing to be open to virtually any kind of book — or at least to so many categories that it’s extremely difficult to tell WITHOUT substantial further research what any member agent’s actual specialties are.

Let me hasten to add that my views on this subject are not the prevailing opinion, as nearly as I can tell; it’s not one you’re likely to hear at your garden-variety writers’ conference (unless, of course, I happen to be teaching there). There, you are far more likely to be told — with a certain impatience of tone — that the only reason that a query might end up in the wrong hands is if its writer did not do his or her homework. The information, it is implied, is all easily available to anyone who looks for it.

Personally, I don’t believe that this is entirely true; as I’ve shown in my last few posts (and in last year’s AGENTS/EDITORS WHO USED TO ATTEND PNWA series, categorized at right, where I took on real-world examples), there is a wide range in the level of information that agencies make available to potential queriers — and a great deal of that is in industry-speak, the meaning of which may not be immediately apparent to those new to the biz.

I did not, after all, invent the oft-seen guide entry This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales.

There are plenty of quite authoritative sources out there, however, who will tell you (as they certainly told me, with some asperity) that no good can come of writers’ pointing out that some of the emperors out there are slightly underdressed, to say the least. And in a sense, they’re quite right: marching up to the nearest agent or standing up at a writers’ conference and demanding to know why a particular blurb or guide listing is confusing probably isn’t the best means of endearing yourself as a potential client.

But as James Joyce wrote, “We cannot change the country; let us change the subject.”

In other words, we writers can’t control how agencies choose to present their preferences; we can, however, learn to be better interpreters of those preferences by recognizing that there are some informational gaps out there. We can teach ourselves the norms of querying, what tends to work, what tends not to work, and thereby save ourselves a whole lot of chagrin.

So there. I never said it wasn’t going to be a lot of work. And if I’m wrong, and every blurb out there conveys with pellucid clarity precisely what every agent would and would like to see, well, as Aunt Jane would say, at least the credit of a wild imagination will be all my own.

I’m not just talking about blurbs that say vague things like, We’re open to any good writing, We accept all genres except YA, or Literary value considered first — although I think a pretty good case could be made that, to a writer seeking to figure out who might conceivably represent say, a Western romance, such statements are at best marginally useful. I am also talking about those listings where the agency professes to represent virtually every major book category.

You’ve seen ‘em, haven’t you? They tend to look a little something like this:

Represents: nonfiction books, novels, short story collections, novellas. No picture books or poetry.
Considers these fiction areas: action/adventure, contemporary issues, detective/police/crime, erotica, ethnic, experimental, family saga, fantasy, feminist, gay/lesbian, glitz, graphic novels, historical, horror, humor, literary, mainstream, military, multicultural, mystery, regional, religious/inspirational, romance, romantica, science fiction, spiritual, sports, supernatural, suspense, thriller, westerns, women’s fiction, YA.
Considers these nonfiction areas: agriculture, Americana, animals, anthropology/archeology, art/architecture/design, autobiography…

And that’s just the As.

Since I have already sung the praises of further research to determine who is representing what lately, let’s set aside for the moment the sometimes knotty problem of figuring out, over the course of a couple of dozen different listed genres, which is the agency’s specialty. Let’s also, and for the same reason, table discussion of the difficulties of determining which member agent would be the best to query for any given category listed without doing an internet search to see who has been to what conference lately — and if so, did they state any preferences in their blurbs? (Although while we’re at it, let’s all shout hallelujah for agencies kind enough to state who represents which category outright in a guide listing, saving writers everywhere a whole lot of time.)

Even apart from all that, I think such voluminous lists are potentially problematic. To pick one quandary out of that hat I told you to cling to, I think their breadth often tempts writers into thinking that they do not need to specify a book category when they query.

After all, the logic runs, if the agency says it represents all three of the closest marketing categories, why take the trouble to figure out into which the book fits?

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because categories are how the industry thinks of books, that’s why. Agents and their Millicents tend to reject queries that do not specify a book category out of hand.

Quoth Joyce: “The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” (Hey, I had to double-check the earlier quote, anyway; I did a little quote-shopping.)

If it makes you feel any better, the problems caused by such all-inclusive lists are not just on the writer’s end. Uninformative guide listings, minimally communicative conference guide blurbs, and agency websites that, to put it mildly, do not give a clear indication of what kind of books would make their little hearts sing must, logically, tend to INCREASE the percentage of queries they receive for books outside their areas of specialty in any given day’s mail drop, not discourage them.

Think about it: if the agency doesn’t make its likes and dislikes clear in its guide blurbs or on its website, most potential submitters will be relying upon guesswork in addressing their queries. Which, logically, is going to lead to a whole lot of queries landing on the wrong desks and being rejected summarily — and to Millicents across the industry wringing their overworked hands with increasing frequency, troubling the ceiling with their bootless cries about why oh why are these people sending queries for books that the agency doesn’t even represent. So they send out form rejection letters, so no one learns anything from the process, and lo and behold, they keep receiving queries for book categories they don’t want.

Excuse me, driver, but I’d like to get off. This vicious circle is making me dizzy. I’m guessing that it’s made those of you given to staring helplessly at agency websites and vague guide listings dizzy, too.

Even though it is honestly is in their own best interest to be specific, there are a number of perfectly legitimate reasons an agency might say it is actively seeking a list of categories that looks less like an agent’s specialties than the entire stock of your local Borders.

For example, they might have the editorial connections to place all of those different types of books successfully. This kind of reach is certainly not out of the question for a large, well-established agency, but a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for every writer and/or every book. (Don’t worry; I’m going to talk how and why tomorrow.)

Fortunately, the standard agency guides routinely print how many clients any listed agency represents, so you need not necessarily track down their entire client list. If it is good-sized — 300 clients, for instance, handled by six or seven agents with different specialties — your task is clear: do a bit of further research to figure out which of those probably well-connected agents has been selling books in your category lately.

(I feel another zany personal opinion coming on: although guide listings typically list a single agent as the contact person for the entire agency, I’ve found that it’s generally in the best interest of the writer to write directly to the member agent who represents YOUR kind of book, rather than the listed contact.)

If the agency in question is small, check to see how long it’s been around — this information, too, is routinely listed in agency guides, and with good reason. Selling books to publishers is hard work; agencies go in and out of business all the time.

Before they have established a reputation and connections within particular book categories, new agencies — and new agents — sometimes spread a pretty wide net for new clients. In such cases, the list of categories they are seeking can turn into a wish list, rather than a true reflection of what they have sold in the past.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: a list of categories is not necessarily proof positive that an agency has actually sold books in each of them within the last couple of years — or even within living memory. It can also be a list of what the agency WANTS to sell over the next couple of years — a definitional haziness not limited to small agencies, certainly, but common to them.

Which means, in practice, if a particular book category is hot right now, or industry buzz says it will be the next big thing, it’s going to turn up on the lists of quite a few agencies that have not yet sold that type of book — and thus in the index of this year’s agency guide.

Ideally, you would like to be represented by an agent with a solid track record selling your type of book, right? And as I have mentioned, oh, 70 or 80 times in the last year, agents specialize. So do editors. If you write women’s fiction, even a brilliant agent whose sole previous focus are in self-help will probably have a harder time selling your book than someone who sells women’s fiction day in, day out.

An agent who has managed to sell a particular category of book in the past is not only going to have a better idea of who is buying that type of book these days — she’s infinitely more likely to be able to call up the right editor and say, “Listen, you know that fantasy I sold you six months ago? I have one you’re going to like even better.”

Or if she’s not more likely to say it, she’s more likely to be believed when she does.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? But when editors start saying things like, “You know what I’m really looking for right now? A book from Hot Category X,” it’s not all that uncommon for an agent without a track record in Hot Category X to think, “Hmm, I wish I had one of those handy right now.” Completely understandable, right?

Unfortunately, from the perspective of a Hot Category X writer new to the business, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between an enthusiastic neophyte and a seasoned veteran of Hot Category X sales. Both, you see, are likely to say, “Oh, I know PRECISELY the editor for that.”

This is not, unfortunately, just a matter of my opinion. Ask almost anyone who’s been in the biz for the last decade or so, and you will probably hear a horror story about a great chick lit, historical romance, and/or memoir writer who was hotly pursued by an agent who later turned out to have few (or even no) editorial connections in that direction — and who, having unsuccessfully shopped the book around to 4 of the wrong editors, dropped it like a searing stone. Everyone seems to know someone to whom it has happened.

Yet another reason that it’s an excellent idea to double-check actual sales before you commit to a representation contract. Or indeed, before you query.

If the lead agent (whose name, as often as not, is the name of the agency) peeled off recently from a great big concern, taking her clients with her, she may well have clients across many, many genres. Connections definitely carry over — and since the agent will probably want to advertise that fact, check the listing, website, or conference blurb for a mention of where she worked last.

Then check out THAT agency, to see what they sell early and often.

Do your homework, but try not to get paranoid about it. Much of the time, inappropriately-listed categories aren’t the result of anyone’ being mean or misrepresenting themselves. Industry trends often move faster than guides are released, after all.

Perhaps a category that was hip seven months ago, when the agency filled out the guide questionnaire, but has since fallen out of fashion. Obviously, if an agency was seeking a particular kind of book only because of its marketing potential, and not because they love that kind of book, and it stops selling — or selling easily — they’re going to tell their Millicents to look askance at queries for it.

Yes, it’s a whole lot of work; as our old pal Joyce wrote about something entirely different, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” He was talking mechanics, of course, but I doubt you’d find a querier who has been at it for a while who wouldn’t wholeheartedly agree to add Trying to sell to the front of the statement.

This may be a minority opinion, but this process is genuinely hard, even for the best writers. I have faith that you can do it, though. Keep up the good work.

Book Marketing 101: is it too much to ask to find someone nice?

I was thinking about you yesterday, readers, as I was taking scones to the poll workers. (For those of you reading this outside the U.S., yesterday was Election Day.) I usually take bagels — I volunteered as a poll worker once; it’s a 15-hour day — but a new bakery’s just opened up in the neighborhood, and what better way to introduce ‘em to the locals?

Why did this remind me of you, you ask? Because no matter how many election days see yours truly and partner coming through our local high school’s absurdly heavy double doors with goodies, the poll workers are always surprised to be treated with kindness. In the midst of dealing with the super-rushed, the resigned, and the confused, they always seem shocked that anyone would recognize that their job is a hard one.

I constantly see this same “What do you mean, you’re going to treat me like a human being?” weariness in the eyes of aspiring writers who have been querying for a good long time.

It’s completely understandable, of course. After a couple of dozen form-letter rejections — basically, being told by a faceless entity that one’s work is not good enough, but not being told how or why — it’s very, very easy to start to believe that agencies and publishing houses are staffed by writer-hating ogres, leering loreleis who cajole writers into sending in their hopes and dreams, purely for the pleasure of smashing them into the ground.

But the fact is, this just isn’t the case. There are a few mean people, of course, as in any profession, and I suppose it’s not out of the question that some perversely masochistic hater of the written word might choose to torture herself by becoming an agency screener.

For the most part, though, if you have the opportunity to talk to an agent, editor, or one of their overworked screeners, you will discover someone who genuinely adores good writing and is sincerely eager to promote the interests of those who produce it.

Stop laughing; it’s true.

Not everyone agrees on what constitutes good writing, of course — one doesn’t have to hang around the industry very long to realize that there are folks out there who apparently don’t make too strong a distinction between what is marketable and what is well-written — but contrary to cynical rumors perennially circulating on the writers’ conference circuit, it’s rare to find an agent or editor who genuinely regards writers as merely the necessary evil behind a successful book.

So why do so many of their form-letter rejections, conference speeches, websites, and even statements in agency guides convey, to put it politely, the opposite impression?

An array of reasons — absolutely none of which have anything to do with you or your writing. Please, please do no fall into the trap of taking it personally.

In the first place, form-letter rejections are now the norm in the industry. Period. Even for submissions — yes, even when an agent or editor has asked to see the entire book. It’s annoying as heck for the writer who receives them, of course, but the fact is, boilerplate rejections are the industry’s reaction to the incredible rise in queries since the advent of the home computer.

Like so many other puzzling aspect of the submission process, it can be explained by the agents’ desire to save time. Which, as long-time readers of this blog know, can be darned hard in an agency that receives 1000 queries per week.

See why I don’t think you should take it personally?

And while reason tells us that it would take only a few seconds per query for the agent or screener to scrawl a couple of words of explanation in the margin of a pre-printed rejection (which does happen occasionally, if a screener has mixed feelings about the rejection), the sheer volume of envelopes on Millicent’s desk tends to discourage it.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” a few lone voices cry, “this isn’t what I’ve heard. I’ve always been told — sometimes by agents speaking at writers’ conferences — that if I have been querying for a while and receiving only form rejections, I must be doing something terribly wrong.”

I’ve heard that one, too — and interestingly, I’ve sometimes heard agents who use form-letter rejections heavily say it. So my first response is: poppycock.

This is, in fact, an outdated notion. Gone are the days when only those illiterate queries and submissions without a prayer of being salvaged were brushed off in this manner — although, to tell you the truth, since the invention of the photocopier, there have always been more agencies and publishing houses using boilerplate rejections than was generally recognized.

It’s just too good a way to plow through the day’s mail.

To understand why, place yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: she’s been screening submissions all day, and she wants to go home on time in order to crank out those grad school applications sitting on her desk at home. (Oh, she dreams big, our Millicent!) Standing between her and the door are the 150 query letters that arrived in the morning mail — probably more, if it’s a Monday — and she knows that another 150 or so will be dumped on her desk tomorrow.

Isn’t it in her interest to get through each of those queries as quickly as humanly possible?

This is precisely what she does, of course. For a bone-chilling insight on just how draconian that process can be written by an actual Millicent, I highly recommend the excellent Rejecter blog, but those of you who have followed this Book Marketing 101 series already have a basic idea of the carnage that follows, right? “Dear Agent” letters and queries for book categories her agency doesn’t represent are rejected unread, of course, as are letters that fail to conform to the norms of submission. (For a crash course on just what those norms are, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category at right.) For each, she stuffs the agency’s boilerplate rejection into the accompanying SASE.

Those are quick; the more professional ones take a little longer. But almost all of them are going to go.

And that, too, is partially a function of time. Think about it: since an acceptance requires a personalized letter or e-mail, it takes longer to accept a query than to reject it, right? And if Millicent has already decided to reject a query, which is she more likely to do when she’s trying to get out of the office, give a detailed explanation why, or just reach for that pile of rejection letters?

Would it affect your answer to know that take the easy route might save her a full two minutes? Not a lot of time in the life of the writer who has poured years into writing the book being queried, I’ll allow, but the sheer volume she faces precludes lingering. (150 queries x 2 minutes/query = 300 minutes, or 5 hours)

If she works at an agency that accepts e-mailed queries — still not the norm, but becoming more common all the time — her rejection rate is probably even faster, and she is probably using pretty much the same boilerplate.

This seems to come as a surprise to many habitual e-queriers: after all, how long could it possibly take to give a sentence or two of actual feedback?

We writers tend to forget this, but to most of the earth’s population, the transposition of thought into written sentences is a time-consuming and sometimes even painful process. A good reader is not always a good, or even adequate, writer.

Which is a nice way of saying that Millicent is unlikely to reinvent the wheel each time she taps out an e-rejection. It’s much more time-efficient to paste the same surface-kind language her agency has been cramming into SASEs for years.

To experienced eyes, the same stock phrases — and often even the same sentences — are evident in pretty much every boilerplate rejection, be it electronic or paper-based. I’m sure you recognize them: Your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time. We are only accepting clients selectively. I just didn’t fall in love with it.

And that’s just from the agencies that bother to respond to e-queries; increasingly, I’ve been noticing, agencies that accept electronic queries have started to state outright on their websites that the querier will only hear from them if they are interested, a level of brusqueness practically unheard-of for mailed queries. Presumably, then, they prefer e-queries primarily for the ease with which they can be deleted.

Personally, I find this practice kind of appalling: with a form-letter rejection, at least, the writer can be sure that the query reached the agency; without a response, how can she ever be absolutely sure that her missive didn’t just go astray?

Not to mention the fact that the human eye tends to skim on the screen, zipping across even the most beautiful prose with a rapidity it never would on paper. (See why I habitually discourage e-querying?) And since e-querying and e-submission is substantially less expensive than paper querying for writers based outside the US (to query an agency here, the stamps on the SASE need to be in US currency, which can be quite spendy to track down abroad; to buy them online at face value, try the USPS website), I worry that foreign writers might be encouraged by the relative cheapness of e-querying to place their queries at a competitive disadvantage.

Okay, I’ll admit it: all of this may not be the best way to make my point that most agents and editors are really rather fond of writers and their work. My point is that precisely because such practices — form-letter rejections, non-response rejections, writing in blurbs — are impersonal by definition, it doesn’t make sense, logically, to read them as a reflection upon your work.

Seriously, there is nothing to read into a statement like I’m sorry, but this does not meet our needs at this time, other than a simple, unnuanced No.

Which, admittedly, is lousy enough to hear — but it certainly is not the same as hearing, “You know, I really liked your premise, but I felt your execution was weak,” feedback that might actually help a writer improve the next query or submission. And it’s definitely better than hearing what so many writers read into such statements, hostility that amounts to ”Take it away — this is loathsome!”

At minimum, it should NEVER be read as, “Since I’m saying no, no one else will ever say yes.” Just note the response — and send out the next query immediately.

I sense some lightening of writerly hearts out there, but still, some strategic-minded spirits are troubled. “But Anne,” I hear a few quiet voices saying, “this is all very well as encouragement, but why are you telling us this in the midst of a series of posts on how to build a querying list?”

Because, sharp-minded questioners, in working with my clients and preparing these blog posts, I reading through quite a few listings, websites, conference blurbs: in short, I have been sifting through what a writer trying to glean some sense of a particular agent’s preferences might find. And over the years, I haven’t been able to help but notice that just as many aspiring writers read a certain hostility into form rejections, they sometimes read a coldness into the listings and blurbs themselves.

I don’t think this is in the writer’s best interest, as far as pulling together a querying list goes. Here’s why.

While some agencies seem to go out of their way to be encouraging, others come across as off-puttingly intimidating. Most of the time, it’s just businesslike advice: Query first by mail. Include SASE. Query before submitting. No e-mail queries. A bit terse, perhaps, but nothing to cause undue dismay.

Sometimes, though, these statements — which are, the shy writer thinks, how the agency is choosing to promote itself to potential clients — can come across as positive discouragement to query at all.

Chief among these, naturally, are the ones that actually ARE intended to discourage queriers: We do not accept submissions from previously unpublished writers. New clients considered by recommendation only. Does not consider science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries. Or my personal favorite from the first page of the guide currently at my elbow, Although we remain absolutely dedicated to finding new talent, we must announce that until further notice we can no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. We also cannot accept queries or submissions via e-mail.

While a thoughtful peruser might be left wondering, in this last case, how precisely the agency in question acts upon the absolute dedication it mentions, having so emphatically cut off the most logical manners of exercising it, it is usually best to take such statements at face value. If an agency isn’t considering books like yours, or if it relies upon its existing client list to recruit new writers for them (not all that unusual), querying them isn’t going to be a very efficient use of your time, anyway.

Similarly, when a listing or blurb includes a simple statement of preference, along the lines of No phone calls or Include first five pages with query, this information can be very helpful to the writer. It’s worth seeking out. After all, practical information like We never download attachments to e-mail queries for security reasons, so please copy and paste material into your e-mail is always worth following.

Hey, I’m all for anything that keeps Millicent’s itchy finger away from that delete button.

Frankly, I consider specificity a very good sign in a listing; as anyone who has flipped through one of the standard guides can tell you, it’s fairly rare. Whenever I see a website whose organizers have taken the time to give the logic behind their preferences, I think, “Wow, this agency has given the process some thought. Vive la difference!”

But listings, websites, blurbs, and even conference speeches that bark advice at the writer — and, once notice, it tends to be the same advice, over and over again — can be harder to decipher. Does the assertion that I do not take on books described as bestsellers or potential bestsellers, for instance, mean that the agent is specifically looking for less commercial work, that he doesn’t like to see target market demographics in an e-mail, or just that he’s tired of receiving boasts? Does This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales mean that they don’t have many big names on their client list, that they tend to sell to smaller presses, that they are too new an agency to have many clients’ books on the shelves yet — or just that the guy whose job it was to fill out the questionnaire was in a hurry?

Here, too, the impulse to read character into the responses can easily run amok — but what a temptation some of agencies do provide! For example, does the order Be professional! mean that the agency stating it is interested in working with a writer new to the business, or doesn’t it? And why, the nervous would-be querier wonders, does this agency immediately leap to the conclusion that I intend to be unprofessional in my approach?

Keep reminding yourself: this is generic advice, not intended for your eyes alone. Nor is it a personality evaluation for the agent who wrote it — again, probably not a professional writer.

There are a couple of reasons for the barked advice — the first of which is, perhaps not surprisingly, the same as the primary justification for form-letter rejections: an attempt to save themselves some time. An agent doesn’t have to receive very many phone calls from aspiring writers before she notices that each takes up quite a bit more time than reading a query letter, after all, or be buried under an avalanche of unrequested manuscripts before establishing a policy that she will read only what she has asked to see.

In practice, though, you are probably not the target audience for these bits of advice. The terser listings and blurbs tend to focus upon what NOT to do or send, after all. This implies a focus upon the avalanche of queries they receive, not on the plight of the sender of this week’s 657th letter.

In my experience, the habitual readers of the standard agency guides — at least the ones who are predisposed to follow directions — are not the ones who need to be told always to include a SASE, or never to send an unsolicited manuscript; these are the wholly admirable souls who have done their homework, bless ‘em.

But the overwhelming majority of generic queries — and pretty much all of the much-deplored “Dear Agent” variety — come from aspiring writers who have not taken the time to learn the rules of the game. (Unlike, say, you.)

So when a listing strikes you as off-putting, ask yourself, “Is this snappish list of don’ts aimed at me — or at the nameless person who sent a query without knowing to include a SASE? If it’s the latter, I’m just going to glean this listing or website for what applies to me.”

“I can understand why an agent might want to give generic querying advice at a conference or on a website,” you argue, and cogently, “but the standard agency guides have entire articles about how to query, for goodness’ sake! Do we really need 74 agents also reminding us to query before sending a manuscript?”

Good point, oh skeptical one. But it brings me back to my earlier point: most agents are not writers. Thus, few of them have ever queried a book of their own.

This sounds like a truism, but actually, I don’t think that aspiring writers tend to think about its implications much. It means, among other things, that the average agent may not be aware of just how hard it is for even the best manuscript to attract representation these days. (Tell the truth now: if someone had told you how hard it was before you tried it yourself, would YOU have believed it?) They may not realize that it is now quite common for a very good writer with a truly fabulous book to NEED to query 50 or 100 agents before finding the right fit.

Which makes it entirely safe to conclude that they are not given to thumbing through the nearest agency guide in their odd leisure moments. I seriously doubt most of them are aware just how much repetition there is.

Again, useful for the writer who is predisposed to reading character into trifles (and what novelist isn’t?) If you approach those pithy little bursts of advice recognizing that their producers could conceivably believe that this listing might well be the first time anyone has ever heard of a SASE, they make considerably more sense.

Whew, this is a long post, isn’t it? And yet, amazingly, I still have a bit more to say on the subject of how to read agency listings; saving up my thoughts for intermittent posts has evidently produced a backlog in my brain. More follows after I have rested up a bit.

Keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: finding out who represents what — as in NOW

I’m getting close, I hope, to winding up the how-to-track-down-agents-to-query part of this series — and, ultimately, the Book Marketing 101 series as well. Frankly, I’m eager to get back to some issues of craft… although, of course, given my very practical focus, I shall probably discuss them within the context of common manuscript failings that make agency screeners’ hair stand on end.

Which wouldn’t have been a bad image to use on Halloween, come to think of it: Millicent in a fright wig, permanently scarred by the haunting memory of submissions past.

Last time, I waxed long, if not eloquent, on the desirability of bolstering up the information one might find in a standard agents’ guide, a conference blurb, or even an agency’s website with a little further research. Today, I’m going to talk about where to go to do it.

Fasten your seatbelts, everybody: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you have been conscientiously haunting the library for the past month, shaking the Dewey Decimal System vigorously until a dandy list of authors of books like yours dropped out of it. You’ve already tracked down the agents thanked in the acknowledgments, and now you’re all set to track down the others. And, having embarked upon that laudable endeavor, one question is ringing in your mind like the Liberty Bell:

Why on earth is this most basic information SO difficult to come by?

There’s no good reason for it, you know, at least in North America. Since all publishing deals in the U.S. are matters of public record (not the financial specifics, perhaps, but definitely the players), gathering this data should be the proverbial walk in the park. But it undoubtedly isn’t, at least without paying for access to an industry database.

Sometimes, you can learn who represents an author via a simple web search, but this, as I’m sure some of you know from frustrating experience, can be very time-consuming.

Why? Well, a standard search under the author’s name will generally pull up every review ever published about her work. As well as every article in which she is mentioned, and prompts to buy her book at Amazon AND B & N — not in that order — as well as the author’s own website, which often does not include representation information, surprisingly enough.

Wading through all of this information can be a long slog, and does not always lead to what you need.

That doesn’t mean, however, that none of what turns up will help you. If you are searching for the agent who represented a specific book, it is worthwhile to check out the industry reviews excerpted on the booksellers’ sites. Occasionally, the agent’s name is listed at the end of these reviews.

(Why would these reviews list such an arcane detail? Well, the industry reviews are the advance press — KirkusLibrary JournalPublishers Weekly — reviews written primarily for the benefit of retailers who are considering stocking the book, not readers who might conceivably buy it from retailers. They appear considerably before the release date; long enough, in fact, that it is not unheard-of for editors to pull a book from the print queue that has received a less-positive-than-anticipated advance reviews, so that the book may be re-revised prior to release. Print reviews, by contrast, tend to coincide with the book’s release, and are aimed at the general reading public. Thus, they seldom contain information of interest only to people in the industry.)

Actually, Amazon, B&N, and Powell’s all often post industry reviews, too, and it’s always worth checking to see if Publishers Weekly did an article on the deal. And if you really wanted to take a month to get a feel for who was who in your genre, you could sit down and read the last year’s worth of advance reviews. (If you do, and you write SF/fantasy, stick with Kirkus.)

But honestly, who has the time to read all of that AND write?

You were thinking that already, weren’t you? I can hear chairs shifting out there; skepticism is in the air, I can feel it. “Anne, Anne,” I hear some of you restless-but-observant types muttering, “you’ve been telling me for over two years that agents and editors are massively busy people who become impatient during the course of a two-minute pitch. Do you seriously expect me to believe that if THEY wanted to find out who represented a particular book, they would go shuffling though 50 websites?”

Okay, you’ve got me there: they wouldn’t. They would consult one of the standard industry databases. The catch: those databases are by subscription.

Translation: it’s gonna cost you something over and above your time.

Usually, you ostensibly join a sort of club, and one of the perqs of membership is database access. Almost invariably, you buy membership in specified time increments (often a month), rather than per-use, so if you are up for gorging yourself on agent info, you could conceivably lock yourself in a room with your computer for a week or two and generate a list of a couple of hundred names, along with the specifics of who has sold what lately, then cancel your membership.

You might be a little sick to your stomach afterward, having learned so much about what is and isn’t selling at the moment, but at least you would have a very up-to-date list.

Personally, I prefer the Publishers Marketplace database; it’s not terrifically expensive, and agents often use it themselves. It has a very straightforward function called WHO REPRESENTS, very easy to use. Feed in your favorite authors’ names, and presto! you have instant access to who sold their most recent projects. This, as those of you who have been trying to ferret out such information already know, can literally save you months.

You can also track individual agents, to see whom they represent and what they have sold in the last few years. If you sign up for the for-pay Publishers Lunch e-mailings (which isn’t a bad idea, as pretty much everyone in the industry reads it and/or Publishers Weekly; it’s a great way to gain a basic idea of how the biz works and how swiftly publishing fads change), you will gain access to this database.

PM charges month-to-month, so if you are strapped for cash, you could easily generate a list of authors, join for a month, search to your little heart’s content, then cancel. But you didn’t hear it from me. Or you could corral a few of your writer friends to go in on an ongoing subscription with you, with the understanding that you’ll share the data.

Even then, you might find it a little spendy, so I hasten to add: as savvy reader Nadine pointed out a few days ago, PM’s website does allow non-members to search at least part of its database; if you’re looking for who represented a book sold within the last few years, this is a good quick option. I notice, however, that such searches do not yield specific deal information — which renders it considerably more difficult to check what, for instance, an agent has sold in the last 6 months.

The difference, really, lies in the ability to fine-tune that query — and how much information you want to get about who is selling in your chosen book category right NOW, as opposed to a year or two ago, when the books hitting the shelves now were being acquired by editors.

Personally, I kind of like being able to look up everything that’s sold in my genre within the last month, but as we all know, my tastes a trifle odd.

Before you dismiss the idea of spending money on professional database access, do sit down and figure out how much your time is worth, because the practically-free method of acquiring the same information that I am about to suggest is so time-consuming that a subscription service may start to look downright reasonable.

If you DO have the time to invest, there is a free way to find out who represented any book, if it was published within the United States. As I mentioned above, the sale of a book is a matter of public record, and as such, publishers must provide information about who represented the author to anyone who asks.

So how do you get ’em to do it? Pick a book, call the publisher (there is often a phone number listed on the copyright page, to facilitate further book sales; if not, try the publisher’s website), and ask to speak to the publicity department. When you reach a human being (have a magazine handy; it can take awhile), ask who the agent of record was for the book.

You may encounter a certain amount of incredulity at your old-fashioned approach, but do not let that deter you: they are obligated to give you the information.

See why I thought you might find it a tad too time-consuming?

Don’t worry; I still have a few time-saving tricks up my sleeve. Keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: playing hide and seek with agents

Oh, how I am looking forward to the day when I can be writing and editing in my office again! There’s nothing like a nice, ergonomically-correct computer set-up and full-spectrum lights for writing, and I’ve been missing both terribly.

Yes, I’m still bed- and couch-bound these days, for the most part. (The other parts consist of making tea and dragging myself to the doctor’s office.) The worst of it is that short of cutting off communication with the outside world altogether, I can’t avoid all of those annoying telemarketing calls with which home phones are continually plagued all day long.

It’s just like spam, but with a loud, persistent ringing sound attached. And if I refuse to answer, my caller ID informs me, they just call again later.

I’ve tried everything to stop them: I routinely ask to be taken off their lists (which they are required by law to do, but often don’t); I’m on the national do-not-call list (which, alas, does not apply to charitable organizations or political causes); I ask point-blank if the telemarketer is incarcerated (not uncommon, as prison labor is notoriously inexpensive). Yet still they come.

The other day, I got a real lulu, a bone fide prizewinner in the coveted rudeness category. First, the call began with a recorded message telling me to hold for the next available operator, as it I had called them. I can’t imagine anyone’s being so bored or lonely as to stay on the line for any reason other than mine: to order them to remove me from their call list. When a representative came on the line (with tell-tale sounds of other telemarketing voices in the background), I did just that.

And he refused, insisting that he was not a telemarketer at all, but instead offering a service. I explained, none too gently, that soliciting business over the phone was, in essence, telemarketing, and that I still wanted to be taken off the list. Ah, but there wasn’t a list, he told me triumphantly: he had my file.

“What’s the difference?” I asked. “And how does that affect the fact that I’ve already told you no twice?”

He could not explain the difference; neither could his manager. In the end, I had to threaten to call the Federal Trade Commission before they would agree to take me off their non-existent list. “Look,” I told the manager, “the fact that you call your telemarketers representatives and your call lists files does not change the facts of what you are doing. You’re soliciting customers via telephone, so you’re subject to the same rules as any other telemarketer.”

Apparently, this is what is known in the call center as giving attitude.

I’m sure that you’re wondering by now: is this anecdote merely the rambling of someone who has barely seen the outside of her house for seven weeks and counting, or does this actually have something to do with the topic at hand, finding agents to solicit?

Hold for our next representative, and you shall see.

For the past couple of weeks (in fits and starts), I have been going over the standard advice about how to find out who represents whom, so that you can query the agents of authors whose work resembles yours. And, as you’ve probably noticed, most of the methods I have covered so far involve a heck of a lot of legwork for the writer: spending hours in bookstores, searching for acknowledgment pages that may or may not be there, going to author readings, making use of connections made at conferences, through writing groups, etc.

In essence, this advice is predicated on the assumption that the information is out there; it’s just the writer’s responsibility to search for it. And in a world where even reputable journalists’ primary research methodology is the Internet search, this seems agonizingly slow.

But as anyone who has ever typed the words literary agency into a standard search engine, trolling for agents online is not necessarily any faster. Indeed, it is sometimes even slower, as like telemarketing calls, the results can be pretty indiscriminate. Even when one finds an agency’s website via a generic search, it often takes significant further research to figure out if they are reputable, have a good track record, and represent what you write.

A writer does need to be careful, after all: an attractive website does not necessarily credibility prove, and there are, unfortunately, scammers out there who pose as legitimate agents. For someone new to the game, it can be awfully hard to tell the difference.

Why? Well, the aspiring writer market is a large one; just look at how many conferences, seminars, books, and magazines there are designed for it. Because success is elusive and the process genuinely confusing even to many who have been at it for a while, a business that offers what appears to be a means around the usual long, hard slog can sound awfully appealing to many.

But the fact is, there just isn’t a short cut around the hyper-competitive querying and submission process. You can learn how to do it more professionally, but as far as I know, no one has yet bottled sure-fire literary success and offered it online to any comer.

Many of the businesses that profess to do just that are clever about it, though. Just as my caller used a name switch from telemarketer to call center to imply that his business was something it wasn’t, sometimes websites aimed at appealing to the desperation of the querying writer give judicious small tweaks to their sites to give the impression that they are offering representation, whereas they are actually offering something quite different.

Usually, it’s an editing service — at a price far, far higher than a reputable freelance editor would charge.

A good rule of thumb for weeding out the questionable: if an agency requests money from potential clients up front — usually called a reading or editing fee — it should set off warning bells. (If you’re in doubt about what fees are and are not reasonable, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.)

Why should an up-front charge render you suspicious? Because reputable agencies, my dears, earn their money through commissions on their clients’ writing — and that requires selling books. If a website tells you otherwise, it would behoove you to double-check its credentials.

How can you check? First, if the agency is located within the U.S., find out if it is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives. The AAR takes the ethics of its members very seriously, bless ‘em, and it flatly forbids them to charge extraneous fees.

So you see, I’m not the only one who considers agents’ charging reading fees highly questionable.

Another good place to check is the Preditors and Editors website, which allows you to look up both individual agents and agencies. P&E acts as a clearinghouse for complaints; if they learn that an agency has been charging fees, they will say so. Also — and this is useful — they code their listings by whether they have been able to verify if an agent or agency has actually sold any books.

The mere fact that they have seen fit to note that should give you some indication of just how many good writers have been burned by fake agencies.

A third great resource is the Absolute Write water cooler, where aspiring writers’ comments on individual agents and agencies are indexed for your perusing pleasure. They also garner information on publishers and share advice about avoiding scams.

This is not a complete list, of course, but it should get you started. (And please, those of you who have done your time in the agent-searching trenches: if you have other suggestions for sites useful in the searching process, share ‘em via the comments section, below.)

While it may seem Luddite-like to suggest it, two of the most reliable agency guides are in book form, the Herman Guide and Writers Digest’s perennial bestseller, Guide to Literary Agents. Both come out every year — and since agents move around so much, it is a good idea to rely upon the current guide, rather than one from a couple of years ago.

Yes, buying them every year can be a mite spendy — but there’s no law saying that you and twelve of your writer friends can’t all chip in on a single copy, is there?

These guides are both excellent places to find contact information for agents — which is to say, I have always found them more useful to get the nitty-gritty on agents already identified as appropriate for a particular book than as a first stop for agent-searching.

It certainly would be possible to use them as a first stop, however. Both list agents by specialty — a boon for anyone seeking basic information about whom to solicit — and both routinely ask agents to specify which book categories they are seeking, and which they would reject on sight. Personally, I prefer the Herman Guide — it is chattier and tends to ask more interesting questions — but usually, it covers a smaller range of agencies.

So why shouldn’t you just flip to the index, make a list of every agent who represents your kind of book, and send the same category-specific query to each without further research?

Well, frankly, you could; truth compels me to say that I do know many authors who landed their agents that way.

However, this kind of broad, one-size-fits-all solicitation tends not to be as successful, for precisely the same reason that telemarketing calls are so annoying to receive: they are geared for a generic audience, rather than the desires of a particular human being. (For some impassioned disquisition on why vague querying is unstrategic, please see the WHY GENERIC QUERIES DON’T WORK category at right.)

As you may be gathering, I’m a fan of gathering information from a number of sources — which the guide listings’ seeming completeness often discourages. Since the amount of information offered varies quite a bit from agency to agency (I’ll explain why in my next post, I promise), most aspiring writers simply assume that where there is little presented, there just isn’t much to tell.

However, that’s not really true. Most guide listings are pretty terse, focusing upon the agency’s preferences as a whole rather than those of the member agents.
Although admittedly, there are exceptions, it can be very difficult to glean enough information to personalize a query well.

The usual problem: when they list what authors an agency currently represents, they tend to stick to the best-known clients — in other words, generally not those who have sold a first book within the last year or two.

Yes, it’s nice to see names that you recognize, but an agency’s big sellers are often neither their most recent sales nor a particularly good indicator of that they are looking for NOW in a NEW client.

Why is getting up-to-date info so important? Well, agents’ preferences change all the time; so does the book market. What they were looking for three or four years ago isn’t necessarily what they are seeking today. I always concentrate on what the agent has sold within the last year as the most reliable indicator of what s/he would like to see in a query next week.

And even in the rare instances where the blurbs do provide up-to-date titles, few of the guides include the authors’ names in the index, so the aspiring writer is reduced to skimming the entire book, looking for familiar writers. Not terribly efficient, is it?

I have, of course, much more to say about using the standard guides, but for today, let me leave you with this: we all know how annoying it is to be solicited by a telemarketer or spammer who hasn’t the faintest idea of our personal likes and dislikes, right? That kind of mass marketing operates on the assumption that if it sprays widely enough, it will eventually hit someone who is actually interested it what its purveyor is selling.

It is every bit as annoying to agents — and still more to our old friend Millicent the screener, who reads queries all day, every day — to be solicited in this manner by aspiring writers. Targeting makes more sense. Yes, it is time-consuming to do the legwork to find out about individual agents’ literary preferences, but ultimately, it’s more likely to be successful.

I know that it seems practically Victorian to say this in the age of instant web searching, but often, tracking down those preferences requires looking in more than one place. It requires, in fact, a bit of cross-checking, not only because preferences change and agents change agencies but — as I’m sure those of you who have been at it a while have are already aware — frequently, the information posted about an agency in one source does not match what is posted elsewhere.

The world is a complex place, my friends: more on using the guides and other resources to navigate it follows next time. In the meantime, wish me the best of luck in dodging telemarketers, and keep up the good work!