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’.
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!