The post-conference query

I know a lot of you intrepid hallway pitchers out there are feverishly reworking your first 50 pp. (or, as some readers of my old blog wrote in to report, entire manuscripts! Hooray!) to send out to the agents and editors who requested them at recent conferences that shall remain nameless, but today, I would like to talk about how to handle those slippery folk whom you never managed to buttonhole, despite your best efforts. (Rumor has it that a few of the agents who attended the PNWA conference — oops — were blessed with prodigious bladders and scant appetites, so they were seldom seen in the hallways.) In short, today is going to be all about post-conference querying.

As I mentioned yesterday, I believe it is ALWAYS legitimate to use an agent’s having appeared at a writers’ conference as a personal invitation to query — in theory, they would not be there if they were not looking to sign new authors, right? (This is not always true in practice, but hey, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it is, just for today.) So if you so much as saw the agent’s name on a conference program, go ahead and write “CONFERENCE NAME” in gigantic letters on the outside of the envelope, and begin your query letter with, “I so enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent XX conference, and based upon what you said, I believe you will be interested in my book…” These are both legitimate tricks of the trade to get your submission read more quickly.

Do be sure before you lick the envelope, of course, that the agent in question actually DID speak at the conference you mention. At the recent PNWA conference (I give up), not all of the advertised agents (or the keynote speaker, I’m told) were able to show up, for various reasons. Does this mean these fine folks are not available for querying? Heavens, no. If you were interested in, say, Arielle Eckstut or Jandy Nelson, the outside of your query envelope should be handled exactly in the same way as the one described above, but your query letter should begin with some permutation of, “I was so sorry to have missed seeing you at the recent PNWA conference, because I believe that my book will interest you…”

I hear some of you murmuring out there, and who could blame you? “Why is Anne harping so much on the outside of the envelope,” I hear disgruntled voices whispering, “when it’s the quality of the submission within that will determine whether the agent will want to see more? And hasn’t Anne been impressing upon us for a year now that the first person to read ANY submission to an agency, be it requested chapters or a query, is generally a screener, and not the agent herself? If the agent is not going to see the outside of the envelope, why does it matter what it looks like?”

Reasonable questions, all. To understand, let me take you inside the average Manhattan-based agency, once that receives 800+ queries per week. I think it is safe to say that the excellent employees of the US Postal Service harbor some resentment toward agencies, because of all that heavy, heavy paper some luckless mail carrier must deliver every day. Once there, it is all dumped on the desk of a screener, often an intern (translation: this person may not even be paid to be there; he just wants to be an agent some day, and is collecting some résumé candy. If he is paid, it’s a pittance.). Let’s call him George, and assume that his unhappy lot is to decide which 2% out of this morass of pleas should be passed on to his (paid) superiors at the agency.

Got that image firmly in your mind? Good. Now think about the moment when your query letter first touches George’s damp fingertips. Since he is a bright boy (he’s a junior majoring in English Literature at Columbia, and he has NO idea how he is going to manage to pay off his student loans, if all of his early agency jobs pay as poorly as this one — and in all probability, they will.), obviously, the first thing George does when he receives a new mail delivery is to pull out everything marked REQUESTED MATERIALS: that goes into the top-priority pile. Then there is everything else, opened in the order that his hand happens to fall upon it.

Note that George is already scanning the outside of the envelopes, looking for clues as to what magic awaits within. Any envelope with a clear indication is going to make his life easier, right?

And that, dear friends, is going to get your query placed in a read-first pile, even if the agent who attended the conference did not (as some do) order George and his ilk to set all of the conference attendees’ queries aside into a special pile. After all, 98% of the querying writers in North America NEVER attend a conference at all; as agents like to tell anyone who seems remotely interested in the matter, queries from conference attendees tend to be far more professionally presented.

I would like to report that writing “Reader of Anne Mini’s blog” on the outside of your envelopes provokes the same hope, but alas, that is not yet true. But tomorrow, the world!

It pains me to say it, but I HAVE heard of some clever and unscrupulous writers who take advantage of the pervasive agency belief in the power of conferring to label their envelopes untruthfully. Since at a large conference, agents frequently will not remember everyone they asked to send material, I have known certain black-hearted souls who went ahead and wrote REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of — gasp! — unrequested materials. After all, they reason, how is George to know? They’re right: he won’t know the difference. I strongly advise against this strategy, however, on ethical grounds: for all you know, the karmic record-keeper assigned to track your triumphs and misdeeds was a literary agent in her last life. Don’t tempt that lightning bolt.

Another common, clever, and unscrupulous method adopted by those who would transfer their work into the read-first pile is to troll the net for literary conferences (large ones work best), jot down the names of the attending agents, and send “Gee, I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you at the recent YY conference, but…” queries with appropriately garnished envelopes. (This only works, of course, if the agent in question actually showed up there.) Oh, this is not good. How on earth am I going to convince you not to do it?

Hmm. It may take me weeks, or even months, to come up with a truly compelling argument that will keep my readers’ feet firmly planted on the paths of virtue. I guess you’re just going to have to consult your own consciences until then.

Whatever strategic choices you may make (hey, I believe in free will), white, gray, or buff Manila envelope, please, for any submission longer than 6 pages — more than 5 might make a normal business-size envelope tear in the post. Use high-quality (at least 20 lb.) white paper for EVERY sheet that you intend to have touched by an agent.

Why? Well, if you’re lucky, that query and submission are going to pass through quite a few hands at the agency. Do you have any idea how fast poor-quality paper wilts when it is handled by hands that have just clutched an iced latte or walked inside after brisk walk back from a power lunch on a sweltering New York day?

Tomorrow, I shall deal with some of the common mistakes made in query and cover letters (you ARE sending winsome little cover letters out with your requested materials, right?), but for today, one final piece of advice: even if you garnered permission to send your first 50 pp. to several great agents — and more power to you if you did — please consider querying the other agents who attended the conference as well, if their interests seem anywhere close to yours. And do it soon, before you hear back from the others.

I know, I know, this may seem unnecessary, or even disrespectful to those who have asked you for a peek at your baby. But listen: agencies take time to read material; since most of the publishing industry takes vacation between mid-August and Labor Day, in all probability, you will not hear back on all of your submissions before the fall. (They’re going to send George on vacation, too. Poor lamb, his eyes are going to need the rest by then.) That’s a couple of months of your life, and if — heaven forefend! — none of the requesters is ultimately interested, won’t you be happier if you already have second-round requests lined up?

The post-conference advantage fades when the days start to cool, my friends. Get your work under as many already-primed eyes before the Georges of tomorrow will no longer recognize the initials PNWA. Yes, it is time-consuming to keep querying, but honestly, it takes less energy to keep seven or eight queries out at any given time than to start from scratch each time you (again, heaven forefend) receive a “Sorry, but this is not for us” missive.

Keep up the good work!

Very practical advice, Part III

Hello, readers —

Welcome back to my multi-part series on how to figure out which agent on the PNWA conference guest list (or listed in any conference’s brochure, for that matter) is one you should rank first on your registration form. Assuming, of course, that you’re coming to this summer’s conference — but naturally you are, if you live within driving distance: I’m counting on lots of good conversations over tea with my readers there. One of the perqs of extremely minor celebrity is tea conversation, and plenty of it.

(Incidentally, if you will need financial aid to attend the conference, check out the scholarship form on this website as soon as possible.)

All right, on to the next agent in the alphabetical hit parade: Arielle Eckstut of the Levine Greenberg Literary AgencyApart from the fact that her name’s pretty fabulous in print — don’t you wish you had invented it for a character? — what can we learn from her official blurb, cribbed from elsewhere on this very website?

  •  Arielle Eckstut (Agent) is a literary agent who runs the West Coast office of the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. She is also the co-author of three books including, Putting Your Passion into Print (Workman, 2005) and Pride & Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen (Simon & Schuster, 2001).


  • Whether working with a medical doctor or an interior designer, an academic or a poet, Arielle is most excited by ideas that expand our consciousness, challenge our assumptions and seek to make our world a more visually exciting place. Her clients include New York Times bestselling author, Larry Dossey; Bellwether Award-winner, Gayle Brandeis; James Beard Award-winners, Laura Schenone and Georgeanne Brennan; While You Were Out star, Mark Montano; and numerous others. The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction clients. Their bestselling authors include The Onion (Our Dumb Century), Geoffrey Moore (Crossing the Chasm), Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs), Roslyn Wiseman (Queen Bees and Wannabes), and Patrick Lencioni (The Five Dysfunctions of a Team).


  •  A voracious reader of 19th century novels and a wide range of nonfiction, Arielle has always been a lover of books. Her “Great Books” major at the University of Chicago focused on only six texts in four years–which lent a whole new meaning to the words “close reader”. Before she became an agent, Arielle baked for Madonna, performed improvisational comedy at the Edinburgh Theater Festival Fringe, and cut karyotypes.

A karyotype, in case you were wondering, is an individual’s set of chromosomes. So I gather that the lady’s sliced up some DNA in her time, not a usual credential for an agent. And WHAT, one wonders, does one bake for someone as skinny as Madonna?

The lady also evidently wants to put out a call for quirky books, I would conclude from this blurb. Nineteenth-century storytelling is not much in vogue these days, alas; in fact, it is sort of an industry code word for REALLY LONG BOOK. So if Herman Melville is your role model (of John Irving, or Jeffrey Eugenides, or…), I think Ms. Eckstut would be a great first pick for your list.

I notice that the agents’ list for this year’s conference includes two agents who hail from the University of Chicago, Ms. Eckstut and {name removed at agent’s request; apparently, although where he went to school is in his standard blurb, that information is not to be reproduced.} . I got my master’s degree at the U of C (the unofficial motto: Hell does freeze over), and I’m here to tell you, Ms. Eckstut is not kidding about the 6 books in 4 years. I knew people there who read only a scant dozen books on the ways to their Ph.D.s. They train their students to be CLOSE readers.

Translation: do not even DREAM of handing so much as a business card to either Ms. Eckstut or {name removed} until it has been proofread 45 times. I am absolutely serious about this. Be prepared to discuss the nuances of every comma.

Also — and perhaps this goes without saying — if you are serious about wanting Ms. Eckstut as your agent, read at least one of the books she has published before the conference. Human nature being what it is, I’m betting that a graceful, informed compliment on her insights into Jane Austen will go a long way toward helping her remember who you are amongst the literally hundreds of aspiring writers she will meet at the conference. (As always, though: give only compliments that you sincerely believe. Not only is it far better karmically, but also, insincere flattery is usually pretty apparent.)

What else can we learn from her blurb? Focus in on Gayle Brandeis, author of SELF STORAGE, “a humorous story of a young mother of two who loves to attend self storage auctions, and then sells her winnings at yard sales.” There are a couple of reasons to pay attention to this particular book: Ms. Eckstut sold it to Anika Streitfeld of Ballantine; significant, because it was Ms. Streitfeld’s her first acquisition there. A two-book deal, no less. If you have aspirations for publishing with Ballentine, signing with an agent with such a good in with a relatively new editor isn’t a bad idea.

The more important thing to notice is that Ms. Eckstut represents a Bellwether Prize winner — so if your work has feminist sensibilities, or deals with issues of race or class, run, don’t walk, to make an appointment with her. The Bellwether Prize was established by Barbara Kingsolver (of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE fame) to encourage novels aimed at spurring social change. Social problem novels are not very popular these days — but they certainly were in the 19th century.

Hint: if you have the opportunity to pitch to her, work a sentence or two into your pitch showing how your book might help its readers. Just a suggestion. She is telling you something here: she wants to represent novels whose importance is more than literary.

She also mentions representing James Beard Award winners — this means that she is interested in cookbooks. (Georgeanne Brennan, incidentally, has also won the Julia Child Award.) Looking over her recent sales, I notice has been selling quite a few cookbooks of late, but it seems to be a relatively new interest of hers. If this is your area, run with it: pick her as a top choice. You might even want to bring her a homemade cupcake.

Her most recent cookbook sale (to Random House) sounds like so much fun that I can’t resist including it here: THE GREEN EGGS AND HAM COOKBOOK, by Georgeanne Brennan and Frankie Frankeny (author of THE STAR WARS COOKBOOK), “an official Dr. Suess (sic!) cookbook filled with delectable treats such as Pink Ink Drink and Solla Sollew’s Chocolate Rocks.”

Ms. Eckstut has added another interesting element here: “The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction clients,” followed by a list of some of the authors the agency (which is a very solid, large one) represents. I would assume, based upon this, that she is coming to the conference ready to pick up clients not only for herself, but for others at the agency. So a smart conference-goer might want to check out the agency’s website in advance, in order to be able to ask Ms. Eckstut for an invaluable introduction to one of her colleagues.

Looking over her recent sales, I notice that she represents a lot of journalists, so if that’s your background, definitely mention it to her. Also, her agency represents a fair amount of humor — so if your novel is funny, I would recommend that you make your pitch to her funny, too.

But now that you’ve had a little practice deriving insights from agent info, let me just give you a list of some of the major sales she has made in the last few years that are not in her blurb, so you can check them out for yourself. (The dates listed are when the presses bought them, not when the books were published, incidentally.)

Chris Baty, NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! (Chronicle; sold 2003); Shawn Carlson, CHASING FRANKLIN’S KITE (Little, Brown; sold 2001); Paul Davidson, CONSUMER JOE (Broadway; sold 2002) and BLOGOSPHERE (Warner, sold 2005);Dan Kennedy, EVIDENTLY I KNOW EVERYTHING (Crown; sold 2001) and an as-yet untitled narrative NF book (Algonquin, 2005); Nancy Levine, HOMER FOR THE HOLIDAYS (Viking; sold 2004), as well as LETTERS TO A YOUNG PUG and “an untitled pug romance” (Viking, sold 2005); Rabbi Alan Lew, THIS IS REAL AND YOU ARE COMPLETELY UNPREPARED (Little, Brown; sold 2002); Beth Lisick EVERYBODY INTO THE POOL (Regan Books; sold 2004); Andrew Newberg, WHY WE BELIEVE WHAT WE BELIEVE (Free Press; I couldn’t find the sale date); Kent and Keith Zimmerman, MYTHBUSTERS: The Explosive Truth Behind the 30 Most Perplexing Urban Legends of All Time (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2005).

Okay, pop quiz: what did you learn from this list?

If you said that Ms. Eckstut might be a good choice for pitching a spirituality book, well done! By my count, there are 2 on this list. You also score high marks if you noticed that Ms. Eckstut’s taste is pretty eclectic, as is her agency’s, and her sales are pretty consistent from year to year. If you are a producer of offbeat prose, she may well be the agent for you, but if your work is very solidly mainstream, she might not be your best top choice. (If you do mainstream, check out my write-ups on Loretta Barrett and Stephen Barbara.)

You get extra credit if you also noticed that she sells to a broad array of publishers, rather than concentrating upon a few. Why should you care about this? Because you should be thinking now about whom you would like to have publish your book, that’s why. An agent who already has connections at the press you want through previous sales will probably be more helpful to you than an agent who doesn’t, right?

If this does not seem completely self-evident to you, think a bit about the stages of marketing a book. Your target market isn’t just the group of readers you ultimately envision buying your work; it’s also agents who represent that kind of book and editors at publishing houses who sell to that market. Start trolling bookstores, paying attention to who publishes work like yours, and think about querying agents who have a successful track record of selling to those publishers.

If you learn nothing else from this series, learn this: agents are not a monolithic group, a collection of people with identical tastes. They are individuals, with individual tastes.

Let me say that again: every agent has an array of individual tastes.

Think about the implications of this. Let’s say you send out ten queries to ten agents, and receive ten rejections (not uncommon at all). You are sure that your queries contain none of the standard mistakes (I blogged about many of these in August and September), and you are not marketing a book that is terribly out of fashion at the moment (like, say, a memoir set in a rehab facility, a travelogue about eating your way through some well-traveled part of Europe, or a how-to book on reading the tarot). Should you conclude that the entire agenting community has rejected your work with one voice?

No: ten agents, with ten individual sets of criteria have — and that is a MAJOR distinction. Thinking that it doesn’t matter who reads your queries is like believing that it doesn’t matter who sits on the Supreme Court on the day you happen to be arguing your big case: what will strike Antonin Scalia’s fancy will not, I assure you, generally make Ruth Bader Ginsberg chuckle. Individual agents look for different things in submissions, and what’s more, they look for different things at different times.

Reminding yourself of this from time to time throughout the often long and drawn-out querying process is very, very good for your sanity. These people are not all ganged up against you: you just have not hit a good match yet. Keep on querying until you do.

And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Very practical advice, Part II

Hello, readers –

For those of you who missed yesterday’s post, I’m in the midst of doing a series on how to read agents’ blurbs in conference brochures, as well as giving you some idea what you can turn up on agents through standard industry background research. I’m hoping that this will save you some time (and give you easier access to some of this information) as you are carefully considering your rankings for your agent appointments at this summer’s PNWA conference. The wonderful volunteers at the PNWA honestly do screen potential agents very carefully before inviting them; I just thought those of you new to querying could use some help telling them apart.

Again, some standard disclaimers: I am listing the agents scheduled to attend this summer’s conference in alphabetical order here, not ranking them. I am not going to give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on any individual agent; my dual intent here is to teach you how to read a blurb and to give you enough background, wherever possible, so you can weigh your options. (My agency is not represented this year, alas, so I have no stake in pushing one or another.) I have gathered this information from the standard industry databases, and so cannot be sure that it is all 100% up-to-date. So if you find out that I’ve conveyed some misinformation here, please let me know, so I can pass the correct information on to my readers.

Okay, next on the alphabetical Loretta Barrett of Loretta Barrett Books. Here is her official blurb, lifted from the PNWA website:

”Loretta A. Barrett (Agent) is a literary agent and president of Loretta Barrett Books, Inc. in New York. She founded the agency in 1990. Prior to that she was Editor-in-Chief of Anchor Books and Vice President and Executive Editor at Doubleday. She is a member of AAR, and has representation in every major foreign market, East and West.

”Ms. Barrett’s nonfiction interests cover a wide range of topics. These include psychology, science and technology, religion, spirituality, current events, biography and memoir. She represents the New York Times bestseller Symptoms of Withdrawal, by Christopher Kennedy Lawford; the New York Times bestseller Mother Angelica, by Raymond Arroyo, the national bestseller The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil, and Stressed-Out Girls, by Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D. Other notable clients include George Weigel, Ann Douglas, Wayne Muller and Stephen Levine.

”Her fiction preferences are largely mainstream and contemporary. She is particularly drawn to women’s fiction and thrillers. Her current fiction list includes the New York Times bestseller Cold Truth, by Mariah Stewart, and national bestseller The Lake of Dead Languages, by Carol Goodman. In addition, she represents noteworthy novelists such as Gary Birken, MD, Laura Van Wormer, M.J. Rose and Dora Levy Mossanen. For a complete list of clients, as well as submissions guidelines, please visit .”

What can we learn from this blurb? First of all, when an agent gives her website in her blurb, VISIT IT BEFORE YOU SELECT HER AS ONE OF YOUR TOP CHOICES. I would bet a nickel that there is information there, particularly in the submissions guidelines, that will prove useful to you in both your decision-making process and in prepping for your meeting at the conference.

(Fear not; as the conference draws closer, I shall be giving you tips on how to pitch your work more impressively in these meetings – and in hallways. They are very different venues, and require different approaches!)

Second, judging from this blurb, I would suspect that Ms. Barrett is pretty sympathetic to writers: she has gone to the trouble of including enough information here that an aspiring writer could glean a sense not just of the genres she likes, but of the kind of WRITING. If you will be listing her as a top choice, it will be well worth your while to spend a few moments in the big bookstore nearest to you, reading a few pages from the works of the authors she lists.

Why? I’m guessing that you’re going to see some stylistic patterns amongst her clients. And if you can walk up to an agent and say, “My writing style is very similar to that of your client, X,” the agent’s eyes will generally light up.

See, I’m trying to make the conference a better experience for the agents, too. I’m just generally hospitable.

She has also, I notice from checking her recent sales, provided in this blurb quite a nice mix of very recent sales and ones made longer ago, to give a better impression of her interests as they stand now. No book on this list, as nearly as I can tell, was sold more than 5 years ago, and she has sold books by some of these clients within the last few months. Nice of her; it saves you some trouble in your research.

Third, she mentions that she’s a member of AAR, which saves you the effort of looking it up. Why should you care? Well, AAR members agree to adhere to certain professional standards in dealing with writers – most notably, members cannot charge reading fees. (They can, however, charge editing fees. For a list of other membership restrictions, see most of the standard agent guides.) Also, AAR members are not supposed to do nasty things like sell lists of authors who query them to editing services or writers’ publications, nor are they allowed to make working with a particular editing service a precondition of their reading your work.

The idea here is that an AAR member agency will make the bulk of its income through commissions on sales of its authors’ writing, rather than by charging eager aspiring writers for the opportunity to have an agency screener read a chapter of the book. In the long run, this is for your benefit: if an agency cannot sell your work, being signed with it will not help you much.

Not every non fee-charging agent is a member of AAR, of course, so you should not necessarily write off any agent who is not. (Especially if you write screenplays: many, many screenplay agents are not AAR members.) Some agencies choose not to become members because they are set up as management agencies, which means that they reserve the right to bundle their clients into package deals (novelist + screenwriter + director, for instance).

Being an AAR member does not guarantee that an agent is a decent human being (although it helps), but it does guarantee that if something goes terribly wrong down the line, you will have a court of appeal. For instance, AAR specifies that its members can charge only reasonable fees for photocopying, so if you signed with an agent, and then found you were being charged $2.00/page, you could pick up the phone, and AAR would straighten it out for you.

Ms. Barrett has also been kind in defining her interests with precision: in fiction, mainstream, contemporary, women’s, and thrillers (translation: novels with wide market appeal); in NF, psychology, science and technology, religion, spirituality, current events, biography, and memoir. If you have even the vaguest doubt about the category into which your book falls (and, no, Virginia, “it’s sort of a cross between thriller and literary” isn’t going to fly here; we’re talking where your book would be shelved in a bookstore), check out my blogs for February 13-16. And if you have any doubt about whether your work is mainstream enough for Ms. Barrett, check out her website and her authors’ work for comparison.

A quick aside about pitching NF at a conference: there are usually fewer NF writers at a literary conference, which does make one stand out a bit. However, the first thing that ANY agent will ask a writer pitching NF is, “What is your platform?” In other words, what background do you have that makes you a credible author for this book?

(And P.S., you need to be able to state your platform for a memoir, too. Yes, it’s your life, but memoirs are generally about something else, too. Why are you the best person to write on that secondary topic? And why is your life so compelling that it needed to be turned into a memoir?)

I bring this up in the context of Ms. Barrett’s blurb, because I notice that many of the areas she lists are ones that generally require professional platforms: people who write psychology, science, or technology books tend to have Ph.D.s after their names, for instance; religion and spirituality books tend to be written by those with extensive experience with their subjects, and current events books are generally written by journalists. Not that this should discourage you from pitching these kinds of books here – just be very, very well prepared to answer the platform question before you walk into the meeting.

If you are planning to be pitching fiction, do be aware that Ms. Barrett represents many heavy hitters in the industry, and thus may be rather difficult to impress. (One reason I think so: I noticed only one fiction sale in the last three years specifically identified as a debut novel, anthropology professor Lila Shaara’s debut literary thriller “about a former model turned college professor whose scarily obsessed students create a website of doctored photos from her previous career, and soon the danger they pose to her and her two young sons becomes shockingly real.” However, this Feb. 2005 sale was part of an apparently terrific two-book deal to a major publisher.)

I think it’s safe to assume, then, that she may not be as hungry as a less well-established agent. (Hungry is an industry term: it means to be very, very eager to sell books; typically, the better-heeled agents are less hungry than those newer to the game.) So if you’re going to pitch to Ms. Barrett, I would suggest taking the time before the conference to make your book sound as appetizing as possible. Plan to walk into your meeting with her very, very prepared to make your book sound like the best novel since, well, ever.

More agent blurb deciphering follows in the days to come, but before I end today, let me add what I’ve heard on the writers’ grapevine: I have heard from many who have pitched to her (as I have not) that she is a good person to ask for recommendations for OTHER agents who might be interested in a particular book. That, too, is a good thing to know before you walk into a pitch meeting.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Nonfiction book categories (and no, I couldn’t think of a catchier title for it)

Hello, readers –

Here we are at our last installment of book category choices, the nonfiction array. Granted, most of the sections of the PNWA contest are devoted to various flavors of fiction, but as a memoirist myself, I would be the last to slight all of you brave and excellent writers of nonfiction.

Like genre, NF categories are the conceptual boxes that books come in, telling agents and editors roughly where it would sit in a bookstore. By telling an agent up front which category your book is, you make it easy for her to tell if it is the kind of book she can sell.

In a way, nonfiction writers have an easier time boxing their books, for the nonfiction categories give a much rougher indication of shelf location than the fiction. In fact, the categories used in the publishing industry are not necessarily the same as those used by bookstores. In my own area, for instance, I have noticed that Barnes & Noble tends to shelve biography, autobiography, and memoir together; Amazon lumps memoir into the autobiography category. Go figure.

As when you are querying fiction, the category designation belongs in the first paragraph of your query letter, as well as on the title page of your book and as part of your verbal pitch.
As an aside, do bear in mind that the first things an agent or editor now tends to look for in a NF book query is not just a great idea, but the platform of the writer. Platform is the industry term for a writer’s credentials or background to write a particular book. Your job in the query letter will be to sell yourself as the world’s best-qualified person to write this book.

So if, hypothetically speaking, you were entering the nonfiction/memoir category of a major regional writers’ contest, do you think it would be to your advantage if your synopsis gave some indication of your platform?

On to the categories. Fortunately, most of the them are pretty self-explanatory.

ENTERTAINING: no, not a book that IS entertaining; one ABOUT entertaining.

HOLIDAYS: a book about entertaining people at particular times of year.

PARENTING AND FAMILIES: this includes not only books about children, but books about eldercare, too.

HOUSE AND HOME: so you have a place to be PARENTING and ENTERTAINING your FAMILIES during the HOLIDAYS. This is for both house-beautiful books and how-to around the home. At some publishing houses, it also includes GARDENING.

HOW-TO: explains how to do things OTHER than house- and home-related tasks or cooking.

SELF-HELP: a how-to book for the psyche. If you have ANY platform to write one of these, do so. These are the books that can land you on Oprah if you’re NOT James Frey.

COOKBOOK: I suspect that you’ve seen one of these before, right?

NARRATIVE COOKBOOK: where the recipes are presented as part of a story, most often a memoir. Ruth Reichl’s COMFORT ME WITH APPLES is the usual example given, but my favorite narrative cookbook is Sylvia Thompson’s FEASTS AND FRIENDS.

FOOD AND WINE: where you write ABOUT the food and wine, not tell how to make it.

LIFESTYLE: Less broad than it sounds.

HEALTH: body issues for laypeople. If your book is for people in the medical professions, it should be classified under MEDICAL. Diet books are sometimes listed here (if there is a general philosophy of nutrition involved), sometimes under FOOD (if it is less philosophical), sometimes under COOKBOOK (if there are recipes), sometimes under FITNESS (if there is a substantial lifestyle/exercise component).

FITNESS: exercise for people who consider themselves to be out of shape. Usually includes diet tips, as well as exercise.

EXERCISE: fitness for people who consider themselves to be in relatively good shape, and thus do not need many diet tips.

SPORTS: exercise for competitive people in all shapes.

HISTORICAL NONFICTION: Your basic history book, intended for a general audience. If it is too scholarly, it will be classified under ACADEMIC.

NARRATIVE NONFICTION: THE hot category from a few years ago. Basically, it means using fiction techniques to tell true stories; while IN COLD BLOOD is the classic example simply everyone gives, it would today be classified as TRUE CRIME.

TRUE CRIME: what it says on the box.

BIOGRAPHY: the life story of someone else.

MEMOIR: the life story of the author, dwelling on personal relationships.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY: the life story of the author, focusing on large, generally public achievements. The memoirs of famous people tend to be autobiographies.

ESSAYS are generally published in periodicals first, then collected.

WRITING: technically, these are HOW-TO books, but editors love writing so much that it gets its own category.

CURRENT EVENTS: explanations of what is going on in the world today, usually written by journalists. In this category, platform is especially important. Why? Well, if you are not already a recognized expert in a current event field, your book probably will not be rushed to market, and thus perhaps will not be on the market while the event you have chosen is fresh in the public mind. Bear in mind that most books are not published until over a year after a publisher buys the book. This really limits just how current the events a first-time writer comments upon can be.

POLITICS: About partisan ideology.

GOVERNMENT: about the actual functions, history, and office holders of the political realm.

WOMEN’S STUDIES: a rather broad category, into which history, politics, government, and essays related to women tend to migrate. Logically, I think it’s a trifle questionable to call one book on labor conditions in a coal mine in 1880 HISTORY, and call a book on labor conditions in a predominantly female-staffed shoe factory in 1880 WOMEN’S STUDIES, but hey, I’m not the one who makes the rules.

GAY AND LESBIAN: Much like WOMEN’S STUDIES, this category includes works from a varied spectrum of categories, concentrating on gay and lesbian people. Again, were I making the rules…

LAW: This includes books for the layman, as well as more professionally-oriented books. Some publishers compress this category with books about dealing with governmental bureaucracies into a single category: LAW/GOVERNMENT.

ARTS: a rather broad category, no? Books on the history of painting or ballet go here.

PHILOSOPHY: thought that is neither overtly political nor demonstrably spiritual in motivation.

RELIGION: books about the beliefs of the major established religions.

SPIRITUALITY: books about beliefs that fall outside the major established religions. Often, the Asian religions are classified under SPIRITUALITY, however, rather than RELIGION. Go figure.

EDUCATION: books about educational philosophy and practice. (Not to be confused with books on how to raise children, which are PARENTING AND FAMILIES.)

ACADEMIC: books written by professors for other professors. Tend not to sell too well.

TEXTBOOK: books written by professors for students. Tend to sell quite well.

REFERENCE: books intended not for reading cover-to-cover, but for looking up particular information.

MEDICAL: books for readers working in medical fields. (Not to be confused with HEALTH, which targets a lay readership.)

ENGINEERING: I’m going to take a wild guess here – books written by and for engineers?

PROFESSIONAL: books for readers working in white-collar fields that are not medical, legal, or engineering.

TECHNICAL: books intended for readers already familiar with a specific field of expertise, particularly mechanical or industrial. Unless the field is engineering, or computers, or cars, or medical…

COMPUTERS: fairly self-explanatory, no?

INTERNET: again – speaks for itself.

AUTOMOTIVE: I’m guessing these aren’t books for cars to read, but to read about cars. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything remotely funny to say about this. I’m pretty stressed today.)

FINANCE: covers both personal finances and financial policy.

INVESTING: finance for those with more than enough money to pay the rent.

BUSINESS: this is another rather broad category, covering everything from tips for happy office interactions to books on executive manners.

CAREERS: books for people who are looking to break into a field. Includes books on how to find a job, how to interview, how to write a resume…

OUTDOORS AND NATURE: again, rather broad, as it logically encompasses everything outside a building that does not involve SPORTS, EXERCISE, FITNESS…

TRAVEL: books on how to get there and what to do when you do get there. I used to write these, once upon a time, so if you want to know how to scrawl copy for a tight deadline while balancing a camp light on a rickety picnic table and simultaneously watching out for bears, I’m your gal.

TRAVEL MEMOIR: first-person stories about someone who went somewhere.

PHOTOGRAPHY: both books about and books of.

COFFEE TABLE BOOK: books with big, gorgeous pictures and relatively little writing.

GIFT BOOK: small books, intended as impulse buys.

Looking at this list, it strikes me as rather incomplete set of categories to explain all of reality. However, these are indeed the major categories – and as with fiction, you definitely need to specify up front which your book is.

One final word on the contest front: typically, nonfiction categories are underrepresented; most of the entries in your garden-variety NF contest will be either memoirs, history, or narrative nonfiction. Where are the cookbooks? the contest judges cry. Where is the really well-written how-to book?

I just mention. Don’t write off literary contests just because your work may not be, well, traditionally literary. A well-written book is a well-written book, and I, for one, would not be inclined to sneeze in its general direction.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

A major milestone!

Hello, readers –

Guess what? This is my hundredth posting as the PNWA’s resident writer on writing! Honestly, the landmark snuck up on me. To celebrate, I am going to delay my planned discussion on how to fix a Frankenstein manuscript and devote my post to a good, old-fashioned stream-of-consciousness blog on keeping sane while marketing one’s writing.

I also added a byline today, just to see how it looks – and to reiterate my personal commitment to passing along to you as many hints, shortcuts, and for-heaven’s-sake-don’t-go-theres as I can to help PNWA members and other aspiring writers on their long, hard climb to publication.

One hundred posts — who knew I had so much advice to give? In case you’re interested, that’s 454 pages of writing in standard format, 12-point Times New Roman. (Those of you who have been paying attention for the last month should be able to make the word count calculation easily: 113,500 words, about three times the length of my master’s thesis.) Thanks to all of you whose excellent questions, concerns, and attention have made this space what it is today: bulky, crammed to the gills with information on how to navigate the difficult waters of the current writers’ market — as well as stories designed to help readers appreciate the publishing world’s delightful absurdities.

While you’re trying to break into the business, it is often difficult to see the industry as anything but a Manhattan-sized rejection machine, a cold, heartless behemoth that eats writers’ egos whole. After years of trying to please the people who run it, agents and editors may begin to seem like vengeful spiders, determined to pounce upon any promising market prospect and drag it into their webs. Form rejection letters start to read like personal insults, and those agents you meet at conferences remind you of that snooty popular kid in high school, the one you had a heart-stopping secret crush upon who never asked you to dance.

Come on, admit it: when an agent or an editor at a conference agrees to listen to your three-minute pitch, don’t you get that same little stomach flutter you got when your 7th-grade crush smiled at you in class?

When you show the fruit of your labors and the work of your soul to someone who can whisk it away to publication, naturally it is going to stir up raw, primal emotions – and honestly, I don’t think that most of the experts giving advice to aspiring writers acknowledge that enough. While we’re trying to find an agent and get our first book sold, almost all writers feel like the wallflower at the junior high school dance. We stand there in our dressed-up best, waiting to be noticed, and it seems like everybody else is dancing. We want to ask someone to dance with us, but the fear of rejection can be crippling. So we introduce ourselves unobtrusively and hope for the best.

When I was in junior high school, our dances featured a sadistic phenomenon known as the snowball. In other, less scrupulously venomous environments, I’m told, a snowball is where a single couple begins the dance by dancing together, then each partner picks someone else, forming two couples, then those couples break up and pick new partners, and so on until everyone in the room is dancing. How nice that sounds; how inclusive.

Not so at the Robert Louis Stevenson Intermediate School. (No, I’m not making that up. Stevenson once spent a year guzzling wine in my Napa Valley home town, rendering him an ideal role model, the town elders decided, for impressionable youngsters.) At R.L.S., the snowball placed partnering decisions in the hands of third parties – all you had to do to force two people to dance a slow dance together was write both of their names on a piece of paper and drop it into a box. Anonymously. At snowball time, the pairs were read out, and the selected couples would be herded into the center of the cafeterium (an unappealing architectural attempt to combine the functions of eating room, assembly room, and gym into a single structure) to cling together in public view for the duration of an interminable song.

The kindness of junior high schoolers to one another being legendary, you can probably guess what happened: almost invariably, couples were constructed for purely comic value. Girls who got their growth spurts early were partnered up with boys who hadn’t grown since the second grade; couples who had broken up amid screaming fights three weeks earlier were summarily brought back together; arch rivals for class president were made to hug to music. But every now and again, some well-meaning soul placed in the box the names of two people who honestly had crushes on each other, but were too shy to act upon them.

And that, for those of you who have not yet gone through it, is what the moments leading up to a conference-assigned 10-minute pitch session with an agent or editor you’ve never met before feel like. (Thought I’d just gone off on a tangent of reminiscence there, didn’t you? I really was illustrating a point.) If you have been paired up thoughtfully and well, there is the potential for a real professional romance to blossom in those intense few minutes. But if you find yourself sitting across from someone who does not handle your genre (despite having listed in the conference guide that she is eager to represent all kinds of fiction), you are sort of stuck there for the duration of the dance. Neither of you wants to be in the situation, but politeness dictates that you will both just live through the slow minutes as they tick by.

I know, I know: it makes you feel hopeless, but actually, as I have been trying to show over the course of my hundred blogs, there are things you can do to empower yourself. For instance, you can research the agents and editors who will be at a conference over and above the brief blurb in the conference brochure, to find someone who actually does have a strong track record of representing your kind of writing. You could do research on the web, or in a bookstore, to find out who and what the agents represent, or go to events like the seminar the PNWA is offering at its February 15th meeting, where you can hear about the strengths and preferences of the attending agents, and make your choices accordingly.

Once you get to the conference, you can listen attentively to the agents and editors at the podium, to try to get a sense whether you actually like the person to whom you have been assigned. (Having spent two years with an agent I did not like and who did not like me before I signed with my current agent – who is a doll and a peach and represents me with the fierceness of a tigress defending her cub – I cannot recommend enough signing with someone with whom you feel a sympathetic resonance.) If not – or if the agent announces she’s no longer looking for your kind of book – find out if you can switch appointments. If not formally, then informally – ask other conference attendees whom they are seeing, in case they are willing to trade with you.

The wonderful people who run the agent/editor desk at the PNWA conference will probably not appreciate my asking this, but why on earth should you limit yourself to only your assigned appointments? If there is an agent or an editor you desperately want to see, hang out near the check-in desk in case there are cancellations. Buttonhole your dream agent in the hallway and ask if you can give a pitch – or if he will squeeze in an appointment for you. They’re there to find undiscovered talent; assume that they want to hear about your project, if it’s in their line.

And if you find yourself in a conversation with an agent or editor who you realize would never be a good fit, don’t be afraid to stop the conversation, thank him for his time, and walk away. Trust me, in a conference situation, where pitches fly at agents and editors constantly, they will appreciate your candor. Alternatively, you could use the time to ask, “So, what other agents/editors here at the conference do you think will appreciate my work? What about other people at your agency?”

I have, in the throes of appointments that were a bad idea in the first place, been known to start pitching the work of people in my writing group, if they seem like better fits than I. Why not? The agent and I are both there, we already have the time booked – and honestly, isn’t it’s something you would like your friends to do for you? The agents and editors are always surprised, but invariably gracious, and on a couple of occasions have eventually signed the writers to whom I’ve introduced them. (On one particularly memorable occasion, I dragged a friend of mine up to his dream agent during a conference banquet, introduced them over the pasta bar, and jokingly told them that neither could eat until she let him go through his pitch. They complied. He hadn’t been able to get an appointment with her.)

My point is, you need not be passive in the face of the highly competitive, often intimidating process of trying to get your work published. If you are having trouble getting positive responses to your queries, find out why from someone who has been successful at it; if your manuscript keeps being sent back to you with form rejections, see if there’s anything you can do to improve your presentation. Ask questions of those who’ve been there; writers tend to be awfully nice people, glad to help one another out. And once you have achieved some success, don’t hesitate to pass your knowledge along to others. All of this will genuinely help you keep your chin up throughout the long, hard process of bringing your work to publication.

You can also, as I have been trying to help my readers do over the course of the last six months, learn to appreciate the absurdities of the business, for they are abundant, and in laughter there is power. For instance:

Like many publishing professionals, I read Publishers Lunch, the online daily (or nearly) update about what’s going on in the world of books. Yesterday, I found the world’s best job listing there:


Inside Metaphysical Sales Associate [Full Time]

Llewellyn Worldwide (Woodbury, MN)


Raises a great many perplexing philosophical questions, doesn’t it? Does the company also employ an Outside Metaphysical Sales Associate, who deals only in cold, hard facts? (For those of you who don’t know, Llewellyn is an alternative spirituality publisher; if you’ve ever picked up a book on shamanism, skrying, or channeling, chances are good that they published it.) Is Inside Metaphysical the name of a series of books, or does it refer to a sales methodology? What is it about inside metaphysical selling that makes it impossible to do effectively on a part-time basis? And to what specific locale does inside refer? People’s heads? Their souls? The Llewellyn building?

Not only does having a laugh about the industry render it less intimidating, but it also provides an important reminder that agencies and publishing houses are not monolithic entities: they are staffed by people, and those people have individual preferences and foibles. Whether you are querying an agent, soliciting a publisher, or trying to impress the Inside Metaphysical Sales Associate with your great interior beauty, there is a human being opening that envelope.

Your task when querying is not to wow an entire industry, but to charm a person.

Realizing that can only help you market your work. Aspiring writers seldom seem to think about this, but take some time to wonder: if I had to sell this book to an editor who gets 500 hundred submissions for every one he accepts, or if I had to sell this book to competing departments within a publishing house, each with its own pet project, how would I do it? What would I say about this book, if I could only get two sentences heard at an editorial meeting? How is this book important enough, or fresh enough, or brilliant enough that it is different from everything else on the market?

Now, once you have come up with tentative answers to those questions: are all of these selling points in your query letter? Does your synopsis demonstrate them abundantly?

And so forth. The more you can place yourself in the Manolos of a senior editor at a major publishing house, the better your chances of figuring out, not how to write a book from scratch that will sweep her off those size 10 feet, but how to pitch the work you already feel strongly about to her. And the more you can learn about how the publishing industry works, the better you can picture what will appeal to its denizens.

I’m still learning, myself. But what I know so far, I am happy to keep passing along to you.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The stigma of stereotyping

Ah, January: the time when agents are running around in circles, scooting to provide necessary tax documentation for their authors’ royalties by the end of the month, writers are feverishly sending out their New Year’s resolution queries and unsolicited manuscripts, and contest judges are steeling themselves for the next batch of entries. Actually, it’s such a busy time of year in the publishing industry that I always tell my editing clients: just stay home for now. Give the queries a rest for a few weeks because, honestly, this is far and away the hardest time of year to get picked up by an agent. With everyone under the sun querying at once, competition is at its most fierce.


You can always start querying again next month.


The timing is good, too, for PNWA members, because contest entries are due at the end of February. Now’s a fabulous time to be polishing up the work you plan to submit; for those of you new to the blog, check out the posts from the three weeks around the holidays for a ton of advice about how to improve your entries in the eyes of judges. (And lest this sound like a sales pitch for the organization that sponsors my passing all of this advice on to you, consider: winning the 2004 Zola award for my memoir propelled me directly into the path of my wonderful agent, who sold the book to a fine NYC publisher within 8 months of my night of pride at PNWA. I’m just saying.)


Even if you don’t, for some reason beyond my ken, want to enter the contest — hey, I know that you all have lives — it’s still a great time to be working on your submissions, rather than submitting them. Which is why today I chose a topic that will help you no matter whether you are entering a contest or querying an agent: avoiding stereotypes in your work.


Television and movies have rather hardened us to stereotypes, haven’t they? In visual media, stereotypes are accepted as a means of shorthand, a way to convey intended meaning without adding length to the plot or character development for minor characters. In this shorthand, we are all expected to accept that “regular guys” on screens large and small will invariably be commitment-shy, inarticulate about their emotions, and into meaningless sex; pretty women will be shallow, especially if they’re busty; anyone whose name ends in a vowel will be Mafia-connected; every Southerner will be bigoted, and every politician will be corrupt, unless played by the romantic lead.


In other words: the moment that Oliver Stone decided to show us Jim Morrison having a metaphysical experience, didn’t we all already know that he was going to stick a Native American somewhere in the frame as a spiritual merit badge?


Personally, I find this kind of predictability utterly boring. Honestly, as soon as any man in a horror movie is mentioned as having had “a hard childhood,” don’t we all know by now that he’s going to turn out to be the serial killer? Don’t we all know instantly that if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she must be pregnant? And oh, lordy, as soon as we see Jackie Chan standing next to a ladder, don’t we all instinctively brace for a fight to break out?


Don’t get me wrong — I adore Jackie Chan; he’s a wonderful comedy writer. But after seeing dozens of ladder-related incidents in countless movies throughout his career, I suspect that he could garner laughs at this point by walking up to any given ladder, turning to the camera, and inviting the audience to join him in counting until a gang of ruffians appears to beat him up.


If I find such predictable elements boring, imagine how their appearance must make the fine people who read thousands and thousands of agency submissions for a living want to tear their own hair out, strand by painful strand. Because, alas, this sort of stereotyping is not limited to screenwriting alone. It has found its way — oh, how abundantly — into novels.


The sad thing is, it’s often unconscious on the part of the writer. Most of us imbibe truisms from our television sets, so it seems natural to us that every professor should be absentminded, every redhead should have a fiery temper, every high school cheerleader be a bimbette who cares only for boys with expensive cars. And, for what it’s worth, there are many, many readers out there who won’t lift an eyebrow if you reproduce these stereotypes in your work.


However, in ANY querying situation, just as in any contest or in submitting to any small publishing house on the planet, a writer can have literally NO idea who is going to read her submission. What that crucial reader — crucial because that person will make the decision whether your work is worth promoting or not — believes or does not believe about the patterns of human interaction is a big mystery. You cannot assume that this person is going to, say, laugh at the same jokes as everyone at your office.


And this can be counterintuitive, because as anyone who follows standup comedy can already tell you, there are a lot of people out there who will laugh at sexist, racist, homophobic, and other humor not particularly insightful about the nuances of the human condition. (Anyone want to hear about the differences between New York and LA? Anyone? Anyone?)


Many years ago, when e-mail was just starting to become widely used, an old high school classmate of mine looked me up. For awhile, we exchanged messages (okay, I’ll admit it, while we were both at work; it’s how Americans have gotten their revenge for losing coffee breaks and paid overtime) about what was going on in our daily lives, but like many people, Mark’s idea of keeping in touch with far-flung friends was to forward jokes that he’d found on the internet. Jokes he would not necessarily tell face-to-face.


Some of those jokes were awfully darned offensive, but my gentle twitting in response did not make him stop sending them. My bouncing them back to him did not work, either. So, on a day when he had sent me three jokes that were sexist (and two of them racist as well), I sent him a reply wherein I detailed exactly WHY the jokes were not funny to me; because I am a funny person, I rewrote one of them so it was funny without being offensive, to show him the difference. I thought he’d get a kick out of it, and he would stop forwarding such jokes to me.


You can see this coming, right?


When I went to work the next day, my inbox was crammed to the gills with nasty responses from people I had never heard of, much less intended to e-mail. (Seems I had accidentally chosen REPLY ALL.) About the nicest thing any of them called me was a snob; many suggested that my hobby was doing unpleasant things to men for which dominatrixes are very well paid indeed, and most seemed to think I was of the canine persuasion. In short, it was a bloodbath.


It took me several hours to figure out what had happened: apparently, Mark had been routinely forwarding these same jokes to everyone in his office. How did I figure it out? Two clues: a sharp rebuke from Mark, beginning with, “Are you trying to get me fired?” and five e-mails from female coworkers of his, thanking me for asking him publicly to stop. According to them, since the boss routinely forwarded (and told) this type of joke himself, they were all afraid that they would get fired if they said anything about it. I suspect they were right — the boss sent me one of the nastiest of the flame-mails.


Now, the content of the jokes is actually not my point here: other people might well have read them without finding them offensive; it’s entirely possible that I was simply the wrong audience for them. The important thing to note is that both Mark and I made, in one sense, the same mistake: we each sent something out assuming that the recipients thought the same way we did. And that is always a mistake.


In this case, our respective assumptions merely ended a friendship — which, given that we’d known each other since junior high and this incident occurred when I was in graduate school, was not an insignificant loss. But consider this: was what either of us did really so unlike what writers who include stereotyping in their work do every day when they submit to agents and editors?


Trust me, because I have learned this from long experience: when you send in a submission, you have even less idea about the interpersonal politics and personalities at any given agency or publishing house than I did all those years ago about the corporate culture of Mark’s company. You may not intend to hurt anyone’s feelings or raise anyone’s hackles, but honestly, you have no way of knowing that the agent’s assistant WASN’T a cheerleader in high school —and class valedictorian to boot. Maybe your use of an ostensibly harmless bimbo character will be one use too many for her — because maybe, just maybe, that reader is the kind of really nice person who worked at Mark’s company, who has been shrugging off offense after offense for years, because that’s how you get along at a job.


You never can tell. But just once, it would be nice to see a Native American character actually WALK into or out of a room, rather than appearing mysteriously and/or melting away into the darkness, wouldn’t it?


I’m not saying that you should strip your sociopolitical views from what you write. Definitely not. But do be aware that, like the law professor I mentioned a couple of weeks ago who struck up a conversation with an unknown colleague without realizing that the unknown’s wife was a Supreme Court justice, your reputation can only be improved by utilizing every ounce of tact at your disposal. Every time you use a stereotype, even one you’ve seen a million times on TV, you run the risk of offending someone’s sensibilities on the receiving end.


That’s just a fact.


Besides, you’re more talented than that. I know you’re more than capable of making your characters your own, without taking the easy way out of invoking stereotypes as a substitute for character development.


Keep up the good work!


– Anne Mini


P.S.: Oh, and so you know, the PNWA website will be on hold for a few days later this week, so it may reemerge in its new and fabulous form!

It’s all in the timing

Have you finished sending out your fall’s quota of query letters to agents yet? Or, if you are dealing directly with editors, have they already received your manuscripts? Well done, if so: I release you to pursue a well-deserved long winter’s nap. I’ll wake you up around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.


If you have not, and if you are the kind of impatient person who gets upset if her letters are not answered within a month or two, I would seriously advise delaying your next set of queries until well after everyone’s New Year’s resolutions have had time to peter out — the experts say that takes about three weeks, on average.


As regular readers of this blog already know, you’re far better off using the intervening time to polish your submissions into perfection than sending out fresh queries. From now through the end of the year, the publishing world is a dead zone; for the first month of the year, it is a madhouse. Either way, it means delays and frustration for writers caught in the maelstrom.


For those new to the sad reality, almost no new business is conducted between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the NYC publishing industry. Agencies recognize this, and roll back their efforts accordingly. Some ambitious souls do launch back in with a will between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, although it is rare, because everyone is cringing with anticipation over the annual descent of the twin horrors of January: both publishing houses and agencies need to get all of their tax data out to authors by the end of the month, which invariably causes a flurry of paperwork, and almost every unpublished author in North America sends at least one query letter in the first month of the year.


Including all of those timid souls who were too intimidated by the process even to consider sending out queries back in June. Think about it: if you have spent the last eight or ten months working up nerve to show your work to others, what’s your single most likely New Year’s resolution?


The result, as any agent or editor will tell you with rays of horror shooting from her eyes, is a perfect avalanche of queries and unsolicited manuscripts. Tends to make the readers a might testy – and testy is the last thing you want the person screening your precious submission to be, right?


If you were not aware of this two-month hiatus, it’s not your fault: it is just one of those rules of the game that someone has to tell you. I have met writers with YEARS of submissions under their belts who continued, mystified, to rush to their mailboxes throughout each Yuletide season, only to be disappointed to find nothing more than holiday cards from long-lost friends, presents from close kith and kin, and perhaps a few candy canes left by the postman. That most coveted of presents, a contract from an agent or a publisher, is almost never found under the Christmas tree.


So don’t bother asking your local department store Santa for it. I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work.


Fortunately, you have come to the right place to avoid your work getting lost in the crowd. In the first place, NEVER send an unsolicited manuscript — even if you read in a fairly credible guide that the publishing house or agency will consider them. Yes, you should always send exactly what the agent or editor has asked to see, but trust me, you are ALWAYS better off asking first, rather than going to the considerable expense and trouble of sending an entire manuscript. Unsolicited manuscripts almost always end up in one of three places: in the garbage can/recycling bin, in the author’s mailbox, accompanied by a form letter stating that it does not meet our needs at this time, or, in the best-case scenario, sitting in a dank storeroom with hundreds of other unsolicited manuscripts, waiting for the company’s annual let’s-go-through-the-slush-pile party or the Second Coming, whichever comes first.


Second, and even more important for your sanity, don’t bother querying during the dead time. It’s far, far better to be one of three hundred query letters in a week than one of three thousand.


I found out only this last week what publishing houses and agencies are DOING during the December dead time. I had always thought that they just whooped it up during the holidays, but no: it is a sort of winter cleaning, when everyone catches up on the work that has fallen through the cracks in the previous eleven months. Think of it as the chrysalis stage of the publishing process, when all the little editors are wrapped up tight in their cocoons, waiting for spring.


Did you find that image soothing? Did it reconcile you to the long wait to come?


I didn’t think so. But once again, here is a situation where knowing a bit about how the publishing industry works can save you minutes, hours, or even weeks of soul-wrenching doubt about whether the quality of your work is the reason you have not heard back yet.


Let me save you some chagrin: the quality of the work, good or bad, is almost NEVER the reason for a delayed response; internal pressures at the agency or publishing house almost always are to blame. (For a more complete explanation of how these factors work, see my postings from early September.) It’s tempting to attribute a long turn-around time to the agent’s showing your query or your manuscript around to a delighted staff, in order to get everyone on board, or to an editor’s wanting to read your submission for the third time, in order to convince himself that it really is as brilliant as he had thought the first time through. For the more masochistically-minded, it is tempting to conclude that the work is terrible, and so has been set aside, pending future guffaws.


But the simple fact is, this is an industry where people are EAGER to clear paper off their desks: if you have not heard back on a submission, far and away the most probable explanation is that no one has read it yet. And if you sent it between Thanksgiving and MLK, Jr., Day, that probability soars to a near certainty. Is it really worth torturing yourself with that kind of delay?


Instead, why not treat your work to a stimulating rewrite during the holiday season? Better still, why not read it from front to back in hard copy, so you can catch any lingering errors? Then – rested, refreshed, and perfected by its holiday spa treatment – you can send it out into the world in the new year, confident that your work is at its best and brightest.


Just an early holiday notion, my friends, designed to keep that seasonal sparkle alight in your eye. Keep up the good work!


— Anne Mini

Surfing in the sea of reviews

Hello, all —


In previous postings, 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 resembles yours in some important respect. Today, I am going to talk about how to expand your querying list by reading book reviews, an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area.


“Wait!” I hear those of you who have been paying attention to my recent postings cry. “Wouldn’t any list of books just coming out now be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year ago, rather than now? Aren’t you always yammering about how agents live in the now, and how we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”


Why, yes, intelligent readers: you get a gold star for the day. However, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what NOW pretty much requires subscribing to one of the rather expensive publishing databases, such as Publishers Marketplace, or an industry paper, such as Publishers Weekly. As a dispenser of free advice myself (free in both directions: writing these blogs is my volunteer contribution to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, a fine organization devoted to helping all of us), I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available to writers. Most aspiring writers are already struggling to find time to write, and there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping all of them become better and more publishable writers. So if I can save you a few shekels, I like to do it.


And the book review method is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy the newspaper to read book reviews. While print media book reviews almost never list the agent of a book in question (as opposed to industry advance reviews — see several posts ago — which occasionally do), reading the reviews will enable you to single out writers who are either writing for the same micro-niche you are (and the more specific you can be about that, the better, in terms of soliciting an agent) or whose style is similar to yours. Then, once you have identified the writers whose representation you covet, you can use the methods I have already discussed to track down their agents.


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. 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. If you see a review in a major publication, it is because it is 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) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales, 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.


Obviously, 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, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their notice. Personally, I would find it a bit tedious to keep on informing the world yet again that Alice Walker is talented and that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author, but as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules; I merely tell you about them.


If you have read a publication several times without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication. And if you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the review section of the paper 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 book is at all likely to admire your prose stylings.


Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers rush to compare new authors to established ones, often within the first few lines: just today, I was reading a review of Stephanie Kallos’ John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this can make it unnecessary to read the rest of the review. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent, you would be well advised to try Kallos’. Get it?


If all of this seems like a lot of work, bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you blanket the agenting world with generic requests. Allow me to reiterate: 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. Sending only targeted queries can substantially reduce your rejection rate.


Especially if you have been going the mass mailing route — most agents simply ignore “Dear Agent” letters, but they genuinely do pay attention to queries that pay them the compliment of noticing that they have sold books in the past. As I have mentioned before (see my late August and early September postings), it is VASTLY to your advantage to be able to open your query letter with a clear, book-specific reference to why you have selected that particular agent: “Since you so ably represented David Guterson’s SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, I believe that you will enjoy my book…”


Trust me on this one.


In postings to come, I shall be turning my attention from agent-finding to other aspects of the publishing process. This does not mean I am leaving the subject forever, though: if you have questions you would like answered, or agent stories you would like to share, feel free to chime in via the COMMENTS function, below. Heck, if you’re having an unusual amount of trouble finding out who represented a particular book, let me know, and I’ll see if I can help you out. (Within reason, of course; please don’t just send me your entire list.)


Keep up the good work!


– Anne Mini

Does size matter?

Dearly beloved:


Today, I am resuming my series of posts on agencies with a discussion on the merits of big ones vs. small ones. 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.


However, a big agency is not necessarily the right choice for everybody. 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), and often more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.


With a new agency or new agent, it can be hard to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established. Sometimes, the hungry can be excellent gambles — if your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Before that (and often after), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Extensive free editing, for instance. (If you missed yesterday’s post on fee-charging agents, read it before you discount the value of such an offer.) Intensive coaching through rewrites. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. 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.


Remember the question I asked a few posts ago: what do you want from your agent? 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 go nuts if a month goes by silently while an editor has your manuscript? Would you be happy with the occasional e-mail to answer your questions or keep you updated, or would you prefer telephone calls. 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? 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, which can seem a bit counter-intuitive. 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” that deliberately keep themselves small in order to occupy a very specific niche, but it is rare. There’s no missing 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. Before you commit to a big agency or a major agent, 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.


Before you float off into fantasies about being successful enough to command your own personal slave editor 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 vaguest 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.


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 opinion). How much of a difference does it make, on a practical level? Well, do you remember last month, 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.


Yes, yes, I am very lucky, and people in the industry recognize that. When I was deciding between agents, I attended a small writers’ conference in Montana, one of those gloriously intimate ones where perhaps only one agent attends, but you can talk with her for an hour. Since I already had several irons on the fire, I did not approach the agent du jour, except to introduce a writer who I thought would interest her (I’m notorious for doing this; writers are often too shy to introduce themselves). By the end of the conference, the agent had heard that I’d won the PNWA award, and her curiosity piqued, she sought me out to see if I had signed with anyone yet. A couple of minutes into her pitch, I mentioned who I was deciding between, and the agent instantly deflated. “Oh,” she said. “We’re talking THAT league.”


As I said, I have been very lucky: winning the PNWA contest got me a hearing with many agents in THAT league. (In the unlikely event that I am being too subtle here: ENTER THE CONTEST!) I have also been lucky in that while I enjoy the benefits of a large agency, my agent has the time to answer my questions and talk with me about my future and current writing: whether our quite-frequent contact is primarily the result of our respectively scintillating personalities or the roller-coaster ride my memoir has been taking on the way to publication, I leave you to speculate. I suspect that I am taking up disproportionate amounts of her time, amongst her many clients, and am writing furiously on my next book to make it worth her while.


Which brings me back to a point I made a few postings ago: it honestly is a good idea to try to get some sense of who your agent is, beyond the cold statistics of her clients’ sales, before you sign. 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. There are a lot of alternatives in between, but the only way you are going to find your best fit is to give some hard thought to what you want and ask good questions until you figure out if the agent who wants you is in fact the best choice for you and your work.


In my next post, I shall talk about how to decide which agents to approach, beyond simply opening up a standard agent guide at random, sticking a pin in a page, and querying the agency with a hole in its description. Like most parts of the long endurance test that leads to publication, there are a few shortcuts I think you should know.


In the meantime, have a lovely weekend, and as always, keep up the good work!


– Anne Mini