Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part III: the graveyard of book contracts past, or, a few more good reasons to buy books by first-time authors, and still more evidence that a little contact with a book of quotations goes a long way

Looks like the aftermath of a major flood in Mouseville, doesn’t it? When I first caught sight of the scene, I instinctively glanced about to check if Anderson Cooper were reporting nearby, wet to the knees and disapproving.

Apparently, I am the mayor of poor, flooded Mouseville, because I took this picture about a foot and a half from where I am now sitting, inside my house. I came by the position honestly, I assure you: after my tirade the other day about the vital importance of good lighting in a midwinter writing space, the proverbial bee seems to have remained in my bonnet, buzzily nagging — nay, demanding — that I move my studio to the brightest room in the house in genteel protest of the notorious darkness of a Seattle winter and the news in the last few issues of Publishers Weekly.

As the far and away the brightest room in our house is also the biggest, the living room/library (so designated to differentiate it from the bedroom/library, kitchen/library, laundry room/library, etc.; see yesterday’s comment about serious writers always owning more books than shelves to house them), I was anticipating having to lobby my SO for the rest of the year to pull this off — by which time, of course, the darkest part of the year would be beginning to recede. However, in an odd twist that would be absolutely implausible in a novel, the very seasonal darkness of which I had been complaining abruptly made my case for me: my SO saw some doubtless light-craving soul jump off one of our region’s less lovely bridges the other day.

He’s been busily rearranging furniture in the ex-living room/library ever since. Heck, he even made an unprompted trip to Ikea for another bookshelf.

Fortunately, unlike most bits of real-life melodrama that don’t seem real on the page, the story of the jumper has ending rather an ancient Greek tragedy, complete with deus ex machina: at the particular moment the hapless jumper chose to end it all on that distinctly unpretty bridge (as opposed to the far more popular choice of suicidal aesthetes on the other side of town), an unoccupied ambulance happened to be trying to merge into the traffic jam on the bridge. If he had jumped directly into the ambulance, rather than off the bridge first, he probably would have been happier in the long run, but still, I hope that he will someday be grateful that King County evidently had the foresight to hire at least one psychic ambulance driver.

Just another service brought to you by the local New Age ordinances, presumably; we must have them. My proof: in yet another development that would make any hardened novel or memoir-reader snort with derision, I saw in the newspaper the other day that many Seattle City Council meetings open with a poetry reading.

If you have seen the poetry local government sees fit to post on buses, you are probably already trembling for democracy. Still, it’s kind of great to live in a town so stuffed to the gills with poets that there is actual competition over who gets appointed to be this month’s official City Poetry Curator.

In anticipation of a shiny new bookcase and the dislocation of my desk, my SO and I were gruntingly shifting the God-awful 1950s dresser his sainted grandmother had seen fit to bequeath to us. Until now, sentimental recollections had gilded the sublime hideousness of its multicolored veneer: Granny used to store her beloved Bible and handgun side-by-side in it.

A fact I discovered inadvertently years ago while helping her move, in case you’re curious. I had thought the revolver was a toy, the property of one of the grandchildren playing in the next room, until I picked it up — and realized that it was both real and loaded. Evidently, the phrase gun safe had never sullied Granny’s ears until I uttered them that day. If the words Communist plot featured prominently in her reply, well, far be it from me to speak ill of the dead.

Suffice it to say that before this enlightening discussion had unfolded far, I got the kids out of there, pronto.

For a variety of reasons, then, this particular dresser had slumbered for years under an embroidered tablecloth a globe-trotting friend had been kind enough to send me from Bangladesh shortly after Granny’s death, never moved and seldom even having its drawers opened. The discovery that our cats had been using it as a sarcophagus for the much-chewed remains of their furry toys thus seemed eerily appropriate.

For hours after we unearthed this mousy Valley of the Kings, the kitties prowled around protectively, snarling at us when we tried to discard the most decomposed of them. Clearly, that dresser had a preoccupation with death, and who can blame it, after the life it’s led?

I’m happy to say that it is no longer in the house — and that I have both a sunnier place to work and slightly more storage space for my books.

Speaking of which, 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 an aspiring writer a very solid sense of how editors and agents conceive of the category — thus rendering it easier to tell whether one’s work genuinely falls within it, a question that plagues many genre-crossers — but it will help develop a sense of one’s target readership as well.

Perhaps the lingering billows of dust from all that furniture moving have temporarily clogged my psychic antennae, but somehow, I felt that this sterling argument left some of you unconvinced yesterday. So I’m going to spend today elaborating.

Sometimes the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver requires more cajoling than others.

Reading the entire literary output of new authors in a particular subsection of the market may seem like a gargantuan task to some of you, but most of you have no serious reason for trepidation: the majority of book categories actually sport relatively few first-time authors in any year’s harvest of publications.

Yes, Virginia, even in the fairly large categories.

Let me share a deep, dark secret from my past: back in my thankfully long ago agent-seeking days, I made a practice of reading every first literary or mainstream novel written by an American woman under 40 published by a major US 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, counting new Canadian female authors. And those 7 were represented by only 3 agencies, I discovered.

Guess whom 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 legitimately make it appeal to readers of more book categories, 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 some circles of the industry, since college-educated women form about 90% of literary fiction buyers.

And yet the burly writings of Phillip Roth continue to sell well. Yet another cosmic mystery. As that marketing genius Jacqueline Susann once said, “I think Phillip Roth is a great writer. But I wouldn’t want to shake his hand.” (Had I mentioned that I dug up far, far more quotes yesterday than I could ever hope to work into a single post?)

Unless a writer became awfully darned familiar with the book market, how is s/he to know that a book category filled with so many prominent male authors boasts such a largely female readership? Or that literary fiction by women featuring female protagonists is often marketed not as literary fiction, a comparatively tiny market, but as what agents like to call women’s fiction with a literary voice because the women’s fiction market is so huge?

Quoth Queen Marie Leckzinska, wife of Louis XV: “To live in peace with socieity, you must open your eyes to the qualities that are pleasing and close them to to the ludicrous and eccentric that are offensive.”

Hey, she said it; I didn’t.

Following the ever-changing boundaries of one’s chosen book category is only one of the many benefits of reading all of the first-time authors within it, of course. It’s substantially easier to produce something fresh if you know what agents and editors who represent your kind of book have been reading over the past couple of years. How about learning the current conventions of one’s genre, what’s now considered de rigeur and what’s now passé?

While you’re out snooping, why not do some research on what kind of voice have been selling of late, and which eschewed as old-fashioned? Are the Point-of-View Nazis enjoying a resurgence in your selected category, or have they fallen out of fashion? How long are first books in that category these days?

I hesitate to mention length, because it tends to be a sore spot with many aspiring writers. Don’t believe me? Okay, the next time you find yourself at an agents’ or editors’ forum at a conference, stand up and ask how many pages is too long for a submission. Even if the pros are very kind in expressing the answer, the subsequent depression amongst half the audience will be palpable — and most of the time, the writer grumbling in the row behind you will not be muttering that the limits are too high.

In answer to that inquisitive whimper I just heard out in the ether and the giant unshouted question that I suspect underlies it, the long answer is that I’ve written at length on this subject under the BOOK LENGTH category on the list on the right-hand side of this page.

The short answer: in general, 65,000 – 100,000 words — estimated, not actual — or 260 – 400 pages in standard format, is considered roughly normal for a first book. (If you don’t know how or why to estimate a word count, please see the WORD COUNT category on the list at right. If you’re unfamiliar with the restrictions of standard format for manuscripts, please see MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED.)

To forestall any imminent heart problems out there, let me hasten to add that length expectations do vary quite a bit by category, genre, and even subgenre. Checking how long first books like yours are lately can save you a whole lot of uncertainty at revision time.

Am I hearing some long-suffering sighs out there? I know; that was a lot of heavy information to toss at you in a single post at the height of holiday season. I have more to say on this subject, but I’m going to sign off for today, to give you some time to digest all of this — or, for those of you whom I have already convinced of the value of stocking up on new works by first-time authors in your area, to scurry off to make a wish list for your FNDGG.

To lighten your hearts a bit before I go, let me just take a second to add: as Francis Bacon wrote so long ago, knowledge is power. In few areas of life is this as true as often as during the querying and submission stages of a writer’s career — because as painful as it may be to accept, scads of queries are rejected on sight because the book is miscategorized or sent to an agent who doesn’t represent that type of book; literally tons of manuscripts are rejected every year because they seem dated or repeat something that’s been done before or are just too long or short by current standards.

How can knowing all that make you more powerful in a situation that often seems arbitrary to aspiring writers? By spurring you to learn about the category in which you are writing, so you may market your work and revise it more effectively. That’s knowledge that can genuinely help you reduce your manuscript’s chances of rejection.

A bit depressing? Perhaps. Time-consuming? Definitely. It’s not for nothing that Lawrence Kasden said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”

But isn’t your writing’s success worth it?

More thoughts on this subject follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Keep up the good work!

Working up the nerve to pitch — or to ask pointed questions, for that matter

Sorry to have missed posting yesterday, campers, and during conference season, too: I had a lulu of a migraine, so my activities yesterday were limited to (a) moaning, (b) telling the cats to keep it DOWN, already, and (c) contemplating rolling over, then not doing it. Miserable stuff; I don’t recommend its cultivation.

As my SO (and cats) can attest, a fairly high percentage of my moans were about the fact that I really wanted to post yesterday, because I had planned to talk about a rather important topic for conference season: working up nerve to approach agents to pitch.

And — brace yourselves — to start to think of the pitching process as your interviewing agents as much as their interviewing you.

Okay, perhaps not quite as much, given just how competitive the agent-finding market is these days, but certainly, it’s not a face-to-face meeting to approach uncritically. As, alas, the vast majority of pitchers — and queriers, for that matter — seem to do.

Oh, I’m not saying that it isn’t understandable — undoubtedly, it is. In the flurry of pitching and querying, signing with an agent can start to feel like the end goal, the point at which all of the hard work is going to end, rather than a victory to be celebrated along the way. Yes, you do want an agent to fall in love with your writing — but never forget that the point of having an agent is to market your book.

Before you shout, “Well, duh!” at me, allow me to add that this means it is very much in your interests be considering if the person in front of you is a good bet for helping you meet your ultimate goal of publication, rather than whether you happen to like this person.

Because believe me, the author’s work does not end when the ink dries on the agency contract: its nature merely changes. So you’re going to want to ask some questions about who these people are, what they typically represent, and how they like to work with writers.

Stop cringing — if you’re going to be a successful author, this is CRUCIAL information.

Why? Well, agenting styles are very different: some are very hands-on, line-editing the work they represent, and some prefer to, as the saying goes, “leave the writing to the writers.” Some enjoy explaining the publishing process to their clients, and some are infuriated by it.

It really does behoove everyone concerned, therefore, that such preferences be aired up front.

I know: it’s intimidating, and you don’t want to offend anybody. But remember, these people come to a conference to discover people like YOU. Don’t talk yourself out of approaching them. Yes, the deck is stacked, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to make it: writers find agents at conferences all the time.

Including, incidentally, yours truly. After asking simply mountains of very pointed questions.

Fortunately, you need not wait until your pitching appointment or you have buttonholed an agent in the hallway to ask such questions: most writers’ conferences, including this coming weekend’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named, feature panels where agents and editors talk about their work. Almost universally, the moderator will ask for questions from the audience.

That prospect should make you start rubbing your hands in glee like the villain in a melodrama: here’s a risk-free chance to ask many agents at once about what they like in a book — and in a client.

It’s a golden opportunity — yet much of the time, it’s is squandered with the too-specific question of the conference newbie who thinks this is an invitation to pitch. “Would you be interested,” such a fellow will stand up and ask, “in a book about a starship captain who finds himself marooned on a deserted planet where only mistletoe grows, and his only chance of escape is to court the ancient Druidic gods?”

Now, personally, I would probably want to take a gander at that particular book, if only for giggles, but question time at an agents’ forum is NOT an appropriate venue for pitching.

Let me repeat that, as it may sound a bit strange coming from the fingertips of the queen of the hallway pitch: the agents’ and editors’ forums should NOT be construed as pitch sessions. You should feel free to walk up to the panelists afterward to try out your hallway pitch, but you will make a much, much better impression if you use the question time for, um, questions.

What is likely to happen when our misguided friend above ignores this dictum — as, I assure you, someone invariably does? One of two things, depending upon the mood and generosity level of the agents so approached. If they’re feeling kind, one of them will try to turn this too-specific question into an issue of more general concern, as in, “It’s interesting that you ask that, because the SF market right now is very much geared toward…”

The other, less charitable and more common response is for the agents all to say no and the moderator to ask for the next question from the audience.

Just don’t do it. It will get you talked about negatively in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. Trust me on this one.

A popular variation on this faux pas is a questioner’s standing up, describing his book, and asking how much he could expect to receive as an advance.

From the writer’s point of view, this certainly seems like a reasonable question, doesn’t it? Yet to industry-trained ears, it says very clearly that the asker has not gone to the trouble of learning much about how publishing actually works.

Why is that so evident? Well, in the first place, advances vary wildly. Think about the deal memo: pretty much everything that has to do with the author’s cut is a matter of negotiation.

Which leads to the second point: a book that attracts competitive bidding today may not interest any editor at all six months from now.

So really, when an aspiring writer asks such a question, what an agent tends to hear is, “I want you to predict the market value of a book you know absolutely nothing about, which may or may not be any good, and I expect this advice to be applicable at any time I may try to market this book concept.”

Again: not the best idea.

So how does one use question time correctly, you ask? You’re going to want to keep your question general and, if at all possible, have everyone on the panel answer it, so you don’t appear to be targeting one of them for something he said.

Oh, it happens. It’s pretty to see how quickly agents — who, after all, are in competition with one another just as much as writers are — will rush to defend one of their own.

Another common faux pas is to challenge what an agent on the panel has already said. Often, the writers who go this route will cite another source, for added credibility, “You said X ten minutes ago, but Miss Snark says…”

If you take nothing else I say into the Q&A session, remember this: this question format will not help you win friends and influence people.

Why? Well, no one particularly likes to be contradicted in front of a roomful of people, right? Being told that someone out there is laying down rules of her conduct is far more likely to raise hackles than provide clarification.

And it’s not as though the average agent reads the many writing blogs out there, even if she happens to write one herself. So any name you cite — up to and including Miss S’s, who enjoys at best a mixed reputation amongst agents — is unlikely to seem like an unimpeachable source.

Although should you happen to bump into MY fabulous agent at a conference, you may certainly feel free to preface your remarks to him with, “I really like Anne Mini’s blog,” should you be so moved.

As long, that is, as you did not add immediately thereafter, “…and she says that what you told us before is wrong.” Trust me: as an opening gambit, it just doesn’t work.

So what should you ask that intimidating row of agents? A few suggestions that designed to elicit information you would probably have a hard time gleaning anywhere else — and will generally provoke interesting comments, rather than the usual bleak diagnoses of how tough the market is right now:

“What was the last book each of you picked up at a conference? What made that book stand out from the others you heard pitched?” (I love this question, as it gives pitchers hints about how the agents like to hear a book described; darned useful information.)

“Who is your favorite client, and why?” (This is a question they tend to love, as it enables them to promote a client’s work. Make a great show of writing down names.)

“How long do you stick with a book you really love that’s not selling before you give up on it?” (In many ways, this is the single most important thing to know about an agent with whom you’re considering signing — and it’s an agent-friendly question, because they almost invariably answer it by talking about a pet project that was hard to place, but eventually succeeded.)

If I were looking to understand what a great first novel from an agent’s point of view read like, what books recently out would you suggest I read?” (Another question that tends to be popular — because, trust me, no agent on earth is going to name a book that s/he DIDN’T represent.)

“How is selling a first-time author’s book different from selling the work of someone more established?” (They’ll like this question less, but it will give you a pretty good idea of who has sold a debut novel lately and who hasn’t.)

“Are you looking for a career-long relationship with a writer when you consider a submission, or are you only thinking about the book in front of you? If you thinking in the long term, how often do you expect your clients to produce new books?” (This last varies a LOT.)

“How much feedback to you give your clients before you submit their books? Do you usually ask for a revision before you send a book out? How much do you like to get involved in the revision process?” (Yes, this is an enormous question, but the agents who never edit at all will usually say so immediately.)

“Is there any kind of book you specifically do NOT want to hear pitched this weekend” (Hey, someone’s got to pull the pin on that grenade. Sometimes they will answer this question unsolicited, however, so do keep an ear out during the forum.)

“I’ve been hearing that many of the big agencies employ submission screeners. How many other people need to read a submission before it will reach your desk — and what kinds of comments to you like to see from them?” (It can be difficult to get an answer to this question — some agents who normally employ screeners pride themselves on reading requested materials from pitchers themselves — but it can reveal quite a lot about the unwritten rules of screening.)

“What’s the worst query letter you ever got, and why?” (This is a great question to ask if you’re not planning to do any hallway pitching, but only intend to query the attending agents after the conference. The responses are usually pretty colorful. It’s also worth asking if they have any automatic red flags for submissions.)

These are pretty fundamental questions, but you are well within your rights to ask them. Every agent has a different representation style, and you will want to know about any pet peeves or preferences before you stick your pages under their respective noses, right?

You’ll be pleased to hear, after all that, that there is really only one question that someone absolutely needs to ask at the editors’ forum — although most of the questions above will work in this context, too. Since most publishing houses now have policies forbidding their editors from picking up unagented work, everyone in the room will be happier in the long run if you just pull the pin on the grenade:

“If you found a fabulous book here at the conference, which of you could sign the author directly, and which of you would have to refer her to an agent?”

Yes, it’s a bit in-your-face, but the fact is, the editors from houses that have this policy tend to assume that pitchers are already aware of it. Asking to know whether you’ll be pitching to someone who could act directly or not can help you streamline your pitching attempts.

These questions will also help you decide to whom to pitch (in the hallways, probably) on a more professional basis than whether the agent or editor struck you as a nice person whilst speaking on the dais. This is not the best criterion to use, and certainly not the best ONLY criterion to use, because:

(a) Most people are rather different when speaking to large groups than one-on-one, which is how a signed writer would be dealing with them; your first impression might not be an accurate one.

(b) Agent and editor fora tend to be rather early in the morning, and folks in the arts are often not morning people (see conclusion on previous point).

(c) The pro who comes across as nastiest may in fact just be trying to save writers some chagrin. Telling the hard truth from a podium is not usually conducive to popularity, but the truth about the publishing industry is what you paid to come to the conference to hear, right?

(d) The pro who just oozes affection for writers and good writing may not have the best track record for picking up clients. (Of which, more in a couple of days.)

Finding out more about these people’s personal tastes and professional interests is also just good manners — and this is an industry where manners do count to a surprisingly great extent. From a more self-interested perspective, wouldn’t you rather learn in an impersonal forum that Agent A isn’t remotely interested in your kind of book than during a face-to-face, one-on-one meeting?

Of course you would. See why I was so adamant about your picking a book category?

Once you have figured out which agents and editors from small houses (again, all of the major US publishers currently have policies against picking up unagented authors) represent books in your category and like your type of voice (not always the same thing, in practice), try to get appointments with ALL of them.

Standing by the appointment desk and listening for cancellations is a good way to do this — although fair warning: this does tend to annoy the volunteers manning the appointment desk. If you can’t get appointments, try to pitch to them in the hallways.

I felt your chest seize up, but please, don’t be afraid: you’re there to learn how to market your work better, and they are there to pick up new writers. You are not a second-class citizen begging the nobility for a favor, as so many first-time pitchers seem to think: you are trying to find the best collaborators for your writing career.

As Francis I of France put it: “The sun shines for me as for others. I should very much like to see the clause in Adam’s will that excludes me from a share of the world.”

You deserve to be heard, in short. Don’t let ‘em intimidate you.

But if you DO find yourself too intimidated to walk up to someone in the industry and gasp out your magic first hundred words, do not despair: that information you gathered at the agents and editors’ forum will still serve you well. After the conference, you can query ALL of them — or at least the ones on your narrowed-down list.

And do you know what I would do in your quivered-in shoes? I would go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope or put it in the subject line an e-mailed query.

Why? Because in most agencies, conference-goers are regarded as a bit savvier than the average querier; their queries, therefore, tend to be taken a bit more seriously AND read with greater attention. So it’s well worth your while.

Oh, and for those of you who will be pitching this weekend and are already determined to ignore my advice about waiting until after my submission packet series next week to send off requested materials: make sure to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the envelope or place it in the subject line of your e-mail, for the reasons above.

Assuming, of course, that an agent or editor DID request those materials. Don’t scrawl it otherwise.

Tomorrow, a few hints on maintaining your energy throughout what can be a pretty exhausting event — that is, if my head remains clear. Keep up the good work!

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!

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!

The great advance mystery, Part III

Well, it’s a beautiful day — sunny, without being too hot — and after that refreshing dip in the self-esteem pool with Jordan yesterday, I think we’re all in good shape to tackle the great advance mystery once again. The good news is that this time, there is some good news.

Oh, yes — I heard those whimpers of anguish after my last two posts on the subject. “So, Anne,” I heard some of you crying, “are the stories we’ve all heard about monumental advances just great big lies? Why, oh why would anyone do anything so cruel to people who are treading a hard path and want to dream big?”

No, the huge advances still do happen sometimes, if the book seems marketable enough to a publisher — but again, the big numbers are usually affiliated with NF books that already have plenty of name recognition behind them. A sterling platform, as they like to say in the biz. Occasionally, though, a first book has BESTSELLER written all over it in letters so large that even the accounting department at a major publishing house can see them, and those books do in fact attract large advances, often due to competitive bidding.

But again, it’s extremely rare. Usually, the big advances go to writers with established track records — and thus established readerships. The big advances, in short, are not often evidence of a publishing house gambling on a new voice, but rather of their putting their chips on a relatively safe bet.

As you may have noticed if you have been querying for awhile, people in this industry are not, generally speaking, wild risk-takers. You also may have noticed that their rhetoric at writers’ conferences might lead a naïve listener to conclude the opposite. That’s one of the mysteries of the industry, too.

But honestly — how big a chance is a publisher actually taking by bringing out the next HARRY POTTER book? Practically none. And when a publishing house does take the occasional chance on a new author, they like to hedge their bets, putting as little money on the line as possible.

Often, too, the big numbers we hear for fiction are for multi-book deals, which throws the aspiring writers’ sense of realistic expectations off still further. But they do undoubtedly happen from time to time, so please, do not give up hope.

At the same time, you will probably be better off in the long run if you are not expecting so much money that your life will change radically overnight when your first book sells. It’s not a bad idea to do some research. For those of you who are taking Jordan’s advice and tracking down the 411 on a favorite author, try to find out how much that writer got for her first book. And if your favorite writer is not someone whose big break came within the last decade or so, you might want to do some research on someone who writes in your genre who did. Not to stomp on your hopes, of course — just to inoculate yourself against elevated expectations of the industry.

Trust me, the more you understand how publishing works, the juicier you can make your dreams about succeeding in it. It honestly does make more sense to think in terms of making your entire writing career a success, rather than just dreaming big about one book — and not working on the next while you are marketing the first.

If you really want to get a clear mental image of what could happen if everything goes right with your first book, and if you have an extra $20 lying around that you are willing to invest in it, you could do worse than to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace’s daily e-mail updates: they give a ballpark estimate of how much books sold each day commanded. After a couple of weeks of following the sales, it becomes pretty apparent that the vast majority of first sales are on the low end. “A nice deal,” as PM likes to call it.

Study the exceptions: what can you do to make your book seem that appealing on a marketing level? Not to make it more shallow, mind you — one of the surprising things you will learn from following the trends is that some deep books are very sought-after — but to see what the fad-hungry industry thinks is hyper-marketable right now. Is there a way to spin your book concept so it sounds more like the sought-after ones?

This is a useful exercise, because it helps ground your understanding of the ever-changing industry in the present, not the past. And this is a distinct advantage, since so much of the information writers get about this industry is still geared to the way it was 20 or 30 years ago — which, come to think of it, is often when the wild success stories we hear on the writers’ conference circuit are set, isn’t it?

This can be a trifle misleading to writers trying to break into the biz now, because back then, new authors were routinely offered three-book contracts by major publishing houses. Thus the big advances. It wasn’t because people in the industry felt more affection for writers as a group back then; it was a simple matter of economics. Given that the publishing house hoped that the newly-signed author’s second and third books would be even bigger than the first, as the author’s name recognition grew amongst readers, it only made practical sense to give writers of promise enough money that they don’t need to be working 40+ hours per week in order to pay the rent. When you are banking on someone’s future books, it’s definitely in your best interest for him to be writing full-time.

Those were the days, eh?

But by the end of the 1980s, too many second and third books did not justify the promise of their authors’ first — and pop quiz: why was this a problem?

Good for you, those of you whose hands shot in the air immediately: it IS because once a publisher pays an advance to an author, they cannot get it back, even if the book did not sell enough to justify the advance.

The publishers lost money, and multi-book deals for new authors became comparatively rare. And since publishing houses are investing less in their new authors — both in terms of advance money and in terms of expectations for profiting of these authors’ future books — they have also fallen into the habit of promoting new authors’ books less assertively.

No, you didn’t just fall into Never-never Land there for a moment: it really is a Catch-22. Books that are not well promoted by their publishing houses are far less likely to sell well than those that are — which means that they do not establish as strong a track record for their authors. Which means, in turn, a smaller advance next time, typically.

Yet, basically, when a publishing house takes on a new author, it is looking for that author to establish a track record with the first book, the kind of sales success that used to be the result of massive publicity campaigns by the publishing house. Then, if that sells well, they will be eager for the second. And yes, that generally means the process is less lucrative up front for writers.

Unless, of course, there is competition over which publishing house will buy a book. Then, the sky’s the limit. That’s prime NYC publishing logic for you: something that other people want is viewed as inherently more valuable than something only one person wants, or even knows about.

I can’t resist bringing in my favorite example of this kind of thinking. Years ago, when I was writing for the LET’S GO travel guides, my companion and I found this marvelous beach in southern Washington, 21 miles of unbroken sand, so much beach that people were allowed to drive along it, scanning for sand dollars. It was early on a weekday, so we were the only people as far as the eye could see. So, naturally, being good West Coasters, we settled down to enjoy all of that natural solitude.

After we had been there about 15 minutes, another car came driving slowly along the beach. It drove past us, disappeared for a few minutes, then returned to park perhaps 20 feet away from us. A bunch of cooped-up, fractious kids jumped out, whooping, and their presumptive parents began setting up a fairly elaborate campfire set to roast hotdogs inches from our outraged noses.

Understandably, my companion and I were fairly miffed. Surely, with 21 miles of beach to choose from, their party and ours could have shared the scenery without being on top of each other’s lunches. It seemed like such bizarre behavior that I felt compelled to ask the mother of the screaming children why they had picked that particular place.

She looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu. “Well, that’s where the people were. It must be the best place.” Need I even say that their car had New York plates?

And that, my friends, is the basic logic behind competitive bidding, or indeed, any industry buzz that makes a book seem more valuable. Not everyone who gets into the bidding, or who is doing the buzzing, has actually read any of the book in question, so it usually isn’t a matter of the writing, or even necessarily of the story: it’s all about wanting to grab that elusive object of desire before the next guy does.

There are a couple of ways that a book can become the object of competitive bidding. First, if there is enough initial interest from publishers (again, often a matter of name recognition and industry buzz), the agent could elect to put it up for auction, as was the case with THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, which the industry had decided would be a major bestseller long before it hit print.

More commonly, though, an agent will send out a book to several editors at once, and if more than one editor wants it, the publishing houses start bidding against each other for the book. The one who offers the higher advance, of course, gets to publish the book.

And that, as you may well imagine, is a great situation for any writer, first-time or experienced.

It’s also a pretty good reason to ask any agent who offers to represent you, “So, how do you plan to market my book?” before you sign an agency contract. There are plenty of agents out there who do not favor mass submissions, where editors at several publishing houses are all reading the book simultaneously. Instead, they prefer to target one editor at a time, tailoring the submission to wow that person in particular.

Both methods have their pros and cons, of course – but that is a matter for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The great advance mystery, Part II

When I left off last night, I was initiating you into the mysteries of how advances work, working up to an answer to Jude’s excellent question, ““How much does a first book usually garner in way of an advance?” Today, I want to talk about how the general rules governing advances might apply to you, and how you can prepare yourself for your first publishing contract.

An advance, as I told you yesterday, is essentially an unrepayable loan against the author’s future royalties for a particular book. (Unrepayable in the sense that if your book sales are slow, and your royalty percentage does not reach the amount of the advance, you are not obligated to return the difference to the publishing house.) The more copies the publishing house expects to sell, the higher the advance — with certain exceptions, of course, because this is the publishing industry, and there are exceptions to most rules.

Royalty rates vary, based upon what your agent negotiates into the publication contract, but generally speaking, first-time authors get a lower percentage of the cover price than better-established ones. Also, the author typically gets a significantly higher percentage of hardback sales than trade paper, and trade paper endows a higher percentage than paperback. So the anticipated format of release — which is utterly beyond the author’s control — will have a significant impact upon the amount of the advance a publisher offers.

Everyone with me so far? Okay, let’s get down to dollars and cents.

I could sugar-coat this, but I’m not going to lie to you; if you’re serious about your writing, you deserve to know the truth. The plain fact is, these days, it is EXTREMELY rare for a first book by a non-celebrity to attract a large enough advance to allow its author to quit her day job (yesterday’s first blog to the contrary). Buy a car, maybe — but for fiction, it might not always be a NEW car, if you catch my drift.

Why so low? Because the advance will be a reflection of how the publishing house thinks the book will sell, and a first-time author is usually not walking into the deal with an already-established readership. This is why, for those of you who read Publisher’s Weekly , bloggers tend to command higher advances for their books than other first-time authors, even when those books are simply the blogs repackaged into book form: there is an already identified, preexisting audience for such books (who have, presumably, already read everything the book except for the introduction and Library of Congress number). Unfortunately, while there are quite a few fiction blogs out there, they tend not to command immense readerships, so this route to self-improvement is not available to all writers.

Also, for a first book, the planned print run is generally small. For the purposes of illustration, let’s assume that you’ve written a beautiful, lyrical literary fiction book that the publisher anticipates will sell 3,000 copies. You do the math. If it comes out in hardback (and, increasingly, first novels are being released in trade paper, which automatically means a lower royalty percentage for the author), it might retail for around $24. Let’s assume you got a good contract, and you’re entitled to 10% of the cover price. That’s $2.40 per book, less your agent’s 15%, so $2.04 per book is yours. If every single copy of the initial printing sells, your share would be $6,120.

And at most publishing houses, they would assume that the first print run of LF would not sell out; they’d be banking on readers of your second and third books coming back and buying it after you are better established. So your advance might be in the neighborhood of $2,000 — less, of course, your agent’s 15%.

I heard that gigantic collective gulp out there. Well might you gulp. If only one publisher is interested in a book, there is little incentive for the advance to be larger.

A small advance can be quite a shock to those new to the game, especially if the acquiring editor makes a ton of manuscript revisions a condition of the sale — which is far from uncommon — or with a nonfiction book, where the book is sold not on the finished manuscript, but upon a proposal and the first chapter. Ideally, if you write NF, your agent will fight to try to raise the advance to a point where you could be writing full-time in order to finish the book, but it does not (and I hate to tell you this, but it’s my job) always work out that way.

There is a huge difference, from the writer’s point of view, between being paid a month’s salary to make major revisions and being expected to take an unpaid vacation or use up all of your accrued sick leave to do it. Or, still worse, NOT having benefits and needing to take the time off anyway, or not being able to take any time off at all. How to pay for revision time can be an issue even if the advance is relatively large: even if the sum offered is princely, it’s not as though the author gets the entire amount in a single chunk when the ink is still fresh on the publishing contract.

Was that primal scream I just heard the sound of 500 of you crying, “Wha-?!?”

That’s right: the advance is paid in installments, either in two (one upon contract signing, the second upon the publisher’s acceptance of the manuscript) or three (one upon signing, the second upon acceptance, the third upon publication). To burst even more bubbles, some publishers are notoriously slow in coming up with the dosh; yet another excellent reason to affiliate yourself with an agent, so you have someone fighting hard to extract your money from sometimes recalcitrant publishers’ pockets.

Which continues to be true down the line, incidentally. Royalties are not typically paid to the author as soon as they come in: most publishing contracts specify that they will be paid every six months. So even if your book is selling extremely well, you might not see your share for quite some time.

Have I depressed you into a stupor? Or motivated you to get started on that second book?

The latter, I hope, because the good news is, this is a business where your efforts may be slow to pay off initially, but when they do, they can pay off for decades. Most writers who make a living at it are receiving royalties on multiple past works, not living from advance to advance. So if you’re in it for the long haul, remember, your first book is the Open Sesame to the publishing world, not to the room with the heaps of gold in it.

The Open Sesame is the first necessary step, however, and by being aware that a big advance may not mark the occasion of your first book’s sale, you can concentrate on the achievement itself, rather than the up-front monetary award. I know too many authors who were so intent upon the advance that they were disappointed — disappointed! — at their first publishing offers.

As I’ve said before and shall no doubt say again, if you’re planning a lifetime of writing, it is VITAL to recognize your achievements along the way. Yes, there are overnight successes in this business, but usually, those overnight successes have been toiling for years in obscurity first, either having trouble finding an agent or publisher, or writing books that sold only a few thousand copies each. (Again, you do the math.)

But those small books were successes, too, as was finishing each manuscript, landing an agent, and yes, signing with a publisher for a tiny advance. All should be celebrated, and heartily — because, frankly, are any of us in this ONLY for the money?

That being said, I hope all of us make a lot of money at it.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this topic, talking about ways you can find out what first books in your genre are attracting these days and how to talk to a prospective agent about it without sounding greedy and/or unrealistic. Also, I will discuss how agents’ submission strategies can affect the probability of your book’s being the object of competitive bidding, which is the best means to a larger advance.

Keep up the good work!

The great advance mystery

Okay, I didn’t want to leave bad feelings hanging in the air, so I’m posting for a second time today. I hate not feeling upbeat about the publication process, even for a few hours. Onward and upward, as I always like to say.

Thank goodness, then, that intrepid reader Jude wrote in this weekend to ask the burning question on everyone’s mind: “How much does a first book usually garner in way of an advance?” I was shocked — SHOCKED, I tell you — to realize I had NEVER done a post on the subject. So thank you, Jude, for reminding me to do it.

We’ve all heard the stories, haven’t we, of the struggling author plucked from obscurity by the sale of that first book? How Stephen King misheard how many digits were in the advance for CARRIE when his agent called to tell him about it — and then dropped the phone when he finally understood how much money was involved? How Jean Auel’s THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, garnered what was at the time the highest amount ever commanded by a first novel at auction? How occasionally literary novels wow ‘em so much at Farrar, Strauss that the advances run into six figures?

And on a more modest level, how, referring to my last blog, authors get large enough advances to take extended leaves of absence from their day jobs in order to write and revise?

Before I launch into a description of how the average book’s experience is different from these, let me ask a few questions to those of you new to dealing with the publishing industry: are you sitting down? With a cool drink in your hand, and perhaps a teddy bear to clutch? Have you taken any necessary medication to ward off heart attack or stroke?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, let’s back up a little and define our terms, so we can discuss the first-time author’s advance productively.

For those of you new to the biz, it’s called an advance because it is an up-front payment of the author’s future royalties, a percentage of the cover price of the book. Essentially, the amount of the advance is the publishing house’s very conservative estimate of how many copies they expect to move. Why conservative? Because if your book does not sell as well as they think, you don’t have to pay back the difference.

Sort of like THE PRODUCERS, isn’t it? An author could conceivably make more money on a heavily-hyped failure — defined by the industry as a book that was expected to sell 100,000 copies but only sold 10,000 — than on a sleeper that was originally expected to sell 3,000 but actually sold 10,000. What a world!

Actually, that doesn’t happen all that often, since (a) a large advance usually means that the publisher will invest more resources in promoting the book ,and (b) the advance calculations are ALWAYS intended to fall on the short side, so the publisher will not be out of pocket much.

How do they calculate it, you ask? Well, it’s sort of as if your parents sat you down a year before your wedding and said, “Here’s what we expect the cash value of your wedding presents to be. If you will sign the rights to any future presents over to us, we will pay for the wedding — gown, invitations, food, everything — and pay you, say, 7% of the cash value of the first 50 gifts, 10% of the second 50 gifts, and 12% for gifts #101 on. We will give you now, at this very moment, a check for 2% of what we think the ultimate cash value of all of your gifts will be, in return for signing our contract. We’ll pay you the rest of your percentage after the gifts have rolled in. Of course, if you would prefer to pay for the wedding all by yourself, you don’t have to agree to this, but we can afford to throw you a much, much bigger wedding than you can possibly throw for yourself — with invitations sent out to thousands of people on your behalf — which may ultimately translate into many more presents.”

Welcome to the world of publishing. A heck of a lot happens before the author gets to toss that bouquet around.

Tomorrow, I shall go into why it actually is good for you to be aware of the norms of the industry, and how you can go about making yourself a savvier hoper. The more you know, the better you can work the system, and the more of a joy you will be to the agent of your dreams!

Onward and upward, everybody. And keep up the good work.