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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although admittedly, that’s gratifying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get your characters into the game!

My, how conducive having one’s computer out of the house is to intensive reading:  even during the last few days’ power outages, I have been spending much of my time huddled by a window or endangering my eyebrows by bending over a sputtering candle, in an effort to throw enough light upon my book.  I’ve been feeling like Abraham Lincoln, studying in his log cabin.

Windstorms, the source of the recent, lengthy power outages in my neck of the woods, were very common in the small vineyard town where I grew up.  (A child’s living a mile and a half from the nearest potential non-sibling playmate is also very conducive to intensive reading, as it turns out.)  Wind-toppled live oaks took out fences, garages, etc, all the time.  Consequently, I always know where my candles are, and how to find the matches in the dark.

When I was a senior in high school, one especially salutary windstorm brought a tree branch down upon the object I hated most in the world:  the 20-foot-high sign that I, as the luckless Commisioner of Publicity and Assemblies (the things we’ll do for college application candy, eh?) was doomed to mount with a ladder every week to post notices of upcoming football games, musicals, spelling bees, and other events not likely to be of interest to the tourists driving along Highway 29, searching for wineries with offering free tastings.  The morning after the storm, the sign was such a mangled mess that I could not even wrest most of the hand-high metal letters off it.

Gravity is sometimes a very lovely thing.  It took weeks for the school to erect a replacement sign.

That was not the only miracle that occured during that particular windstorm.  Another occured at the religious retreat center just outside of town. (Or, to be accurate, at ONE of the religious retreat centers, the establishment owned by the same church that until fairly recently owned a monk-administered winery in town, not the Moonie encampment or the former commune inhabited by a guru who, a few short years later, would abscond to Tahiti with most of the ashram’s money and one of his youngest devotees.) A charming clearing in the midst of a thicket of oak and eucalyptus trees housed a marble statue of — well, let’s just say Somebody’s Mother.  The morning after the sign-destroying windstorm, the tidying groundsman walked into the clearing to discover that four trees had fallen into it.

Somebody up there must be awfully fond of statuary, or at least like it a whole lot better than garages, for all four missed Good Ol’ Mom by a matter of inches.

I’ve thinking of that pale little statue over the last couple of days, just standing there, pensively witnessing the carnage around her, helpless to do anything to save herself from falling timber — and not just because of the windstorms.  No, she popped to mind as an exemplar of a common companion issue submissions with my last post’s Manuscript Megaproblem (show, don’t tell) often have as well:  the protagonist who remains passive in the midst of plot-moving action and/or character-revealing conflict, merely observing it.

Or, to put it in the language of the Idol rejection reasons (see October 31rst’s post, if that reference means nothing to you), that little statue was afraid to speak; she opened his mouth, but nothing came out; she didn’t trust herself enough to reply; she sat there, waiting for the information to sink in. All of these phrases are common enough signposts of a passive protagonist that, as we saw on the Idol rejection, they are now regarded as cliches in their own right.

This is not to say that passivity does not frequently occur in real life — it undoubtedly does.  TV, sports, and movies have certainly encouraged us all to be mere observers of life around us. But that doesn’t mean that it will work on the printed page.

In fact, it usually doesn’t.  A protagonist who is more of an observer than a doer can slow a novel’s pace down to a crawl — and in the early pages of a submission, a plot’s not maintaining at least a walking pace can be fatal.

And the sad thing is, writers seldom make their protagonists passive on purpose, any more than they tend to wake up in the morning, stretch, and say, “You know, I think that I should be telling rather than showing in my writing today!”

Here’s how it usually happens in otherwise solid, well-writen submissions.  The writer has established the protagonist as an interesting character in an interesting situation — well done.  The protagonist encounters a thorny problem that requires thought or discussion to solve.  (Writers LOVE working through logical possibilities in their heads, so their protagonists seldom lack for mulling material.) So the protagonist dons her proverbial thinking cap…

…and two pages later, she’s still running through the possibilities, which are often very interesting.  Interesting enough, in fact, that they would have made perfectly dandy scenes, had the author chosen to present them as live-action scenes that actually occurred.  Instead, they are summarized in a few lines, told, rather than shown.


Or the protagonist encounters another character, one with whom there is genuine, organic conflict — again, well done.  But instead of speaking up, the protagonist just THINKS about how annoying/wrong/murderous the other character is, effectively deferring the conflict to another scene.  So instead of the protagonist’s anger/rightness/suspicions fueling the scene in a way that moves the plot along, the protagonist watches as the plot moves past him.

Um, shouldn’t the protagonist have caught that bus?

In both cases, action happens TO these characters, rather than the characters’ passions influencing the action, driving the plot along.

Agents, editors, contest judges, and even members of book groups complain frequently and vociferously about passive protagonists —  and as an editor, it’s a pet peeve of mine, too, I must admit.  I suspect this feeling is shared is shared by many bloggers:  for every thousand readers of a post, perhaps 4 or 5 post comments — and of those, at least two are commercial links to other websites. As a result (and if you visit many writers’ sites on the web, you’ve probably already noticed this), bloggers tend over time to gear their content to the responders more than to the more passive members of their readerships.

If a blogger posts in the middle of the woods, and nobody responds, did the post make any noise?

But I digress. Protagonists who feel sorry for themselves are particularly prone to being mere observers: life happens to them, and they react to it.  Oh, how lucidly they resent the forces that act upon them, while they wait around for those forces to strike back at them again!  How redolent of feeling do the juices in which they are stewing become!

This is fine for a scene or two, but remember, agents, editors, and contest screeners are not noted for being fond of reading for pages and pages to find out where the plot is taking them.  Try to avoid toying with their impatience for too long.  Remember, professional readers measure their waiting time in lines of text, not pages.

To say that they bore easily is like saying that you might get a touch chilly if you visited the North Pole without a coat:  true, yes, but something of an understatement, and one that might get you hurt if you relied upon it too literally.

When in doubt about how long is too long, ask yourself this:  is there something my protagonist could DO here, however small or misguided, that would affect the status quo?  If I had him do it, would the part where he thinks/talks/worries about the situation for X lines/pages/paragraphs be necessary, or could I cut it?

I hear some grumbling out there (we bloggers have to develop superhuman hearing in order to hear those of you who don’t post comments, you know):  yes, there are plenty of good books where the protagonists sit around and think about things for chapters at a time.

But before you start quoting 19th-century novelists who habitually had their leads agonize for a hundred pages or so before doing anything whatsoever, ask yourself this:  how many novels of this ilk can you name that were published within the last five years?  Written by first-time novelists?  Okay, how about ones NOT first published in the British Isles?

Come up with many?  If you did, could you pass their agents’ names along to the rest of us with all possible speed?

Because, honestly, in the current very tight fiction market, there aren’t many North American agents who express this preference — and still fewer who act upon it in establishing their client lists.  They see beautiful writing where not much happens more than you might think.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an agent out there who would be fascinated by a well-written, first-person narrative from the point of view of that little marble statue in the middle of that wooded retreat.  Her thoughts as she stood there, motionless, as hundred-year-old oaks crashed down around her might well be priceless.  However, at some point, even the most patient agent — or editor, or contest judge, or screener — is going to want her to get the heck off her static pedestal and DO something.

Tomorrow (or whenever the local windstorms allow me the necessary electricity to post again), I shall talk about how to tell if your protagonist needs to get a more on.  In the meantime, watch out for falling trees, everybody, and keep up the good work!

What if they asked you to e-mail it?

Before I begin today’s post: yes, there is a problem with the website at the moment; for reasons that I am tempted to attribute to the sense of humor of a vengeful minor deity, the usual goodies at the right-hand side of the screen aren’t showing up at the moment. So while the links, categories of post, my bio, etc. are still there, technically, it’s not clear how a reader would access them.

Please be patient — we are scrambling around behind the scenes, trying to fix the problem. And to those of you who got a little panicky when my archives disappeared before: rest assured, they are not gone forever. Lots o’ backups.

On to today’s topic. I’ve received quite a few questions privately from writers who have had agents and editors respond to their queries or pitches with requests for e-mailed submissions, rather than paper copies. I have to say, in general, I do not think complying with this request is a good idea from the writer’s point of view, for a variety of reasons.

The first, and the most practical, is that it is MUCH easier to reject someone electronically: one push of a button, and the submission is deleted. This one reason that e-mailed queries are usually answered so quickly: the moment the agent’s eyes fall on something she dislikes, a few simple keystrokes guarantee that query is gone from her life forever.

The same principle, unfortunately, applies to e-mailed submissions.

The second reason — less of an issue with a well-established agency than a new one, but one still worth considering — is the copyright issue. Remember back on the 9th, when I was filling you in on the logic behind the SASE, how I explained that it is vital for a writer to keep control over where and how her work is available to be read? Well, with ANY e-mailed attachment (or any e-mail, for that matter), you have absolutely NO way of controlling, or even knowing, where your work will end up.

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

Again, part of the charm of electronic communication is its speed.

Also, it’s been my experience that people in the publishing industry like to pretend that it’s normal and sensible to place an entire book into a single Word document, as though that did not render the manuscript both infinitely harder to edit and significantly more likely to have technical problems. If a document is difficult to open, or there are computer incompatibility problems (especially likely if you are a Mac user or are running an operating system launched within this decade: I tremble to tell you how many agencies and publishing houses are still running Windows 98 on ten-year-old PCs), I can tell you with absolute assurance: YOU will be blamed.

Do you honestly want to begin your relationship with an agent as the writer whose attachment wouldn’t open? (Yes, I know; it’s unfair, but remember, it’s not as though the publishing world tends to employ in-house computer experts. A surprisingly high percentage of agents and editors have significant love-hate issues with their computers. Don’t stick your thumb in that sore spot.)

Then, too, whenever you send something as an attachment, it is too tempting not to proof it in hard copy before you send it, which can be disastrous. Admit it — you probably have in the past tried to edit e-mailed documents right on screen, when you were in a hurry. An odd illusion most of us have, that reading on screen is faster: actually, the typical reader who is concentrating on content reads 25% MORE SLOWLY on screen than on paper. You’re making your proofing job harder — and less efficient — by doing it this way.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: proof your work in HARD COPY before you send it to ANY agent or editor.

Because it is empirically harder to read on a screen, 79% of on-screen readers scan the page, instead of reading word-for-word — which can have serious implications for your submission over and above proofreading. Ideally, you would like your dream agent to spend MORE time than average reading your sentences, not less, right?

The implication, of course, when an agent or editor asks a writer to e-mail a submission, is that it will be read faster than the same submission sent via regular mail. In my experience, this is usually not true; the submission merely goes into an electronic backlog, rather than a stack of papers. Or it gets forwarded to an assistant, to languish in HER backlog.

And realistically, now many people do you know who would read a 300-page book on screen? If they like the first few pages, they are going to print it out, anyway.

So what would I advise you do if an agent or editor asks you to e-mail your work? Personally, I will not e-mail any writing I intend to sell to anyone with whom I do not have a contractual relationship: agent, editor, editing client. I prefer to have an iron-clad guarantee that my writing is not going to go winging out into the world unbeknownst to me. In cases where there isn’t a pre-existing contractual relationship, I just say that I’m not comfortable sending the material electronically, but assure them it will be in the mail that day.

I have never yet had a soul object to this.

I know that a lot of aspiring writers are too nervous about alienating their potential agents to put their wee feet down on anything major. They want to make sure that they follow the agent or editor’s directions to the letter. If they’re asked for an attachment, they’re going to send an attachment, by gum.

If you fall into that careful category, I have a couple of suggestions. First, are you POSITIVE that the agent or editor DID ask you to e-mail the submission? After all, attachments are how viruses are typically spread. Or did you just make that assumption because the agent or editor responded by e-mail to your query?

Don’t laugh — it is very, very common for writers to send an e-mailed query, then mistake a “fine, send me the first 50 pages” for a direct order to e-mail those pages. However, unless the publishing professional asked SPECIFICALLY that you send your submission as an attachment, feel free to send your pages via regular mail. No excuses necessary.

Second, publishing is a very courtesy-based industry. Generally speaking, most agents and editors will respond well to a prompt, polite return e-mail where the writer explains that she would prefer to send the submission via regular mail. In most cases, they will not care one way or the other, but they will appreciate your consideration.

If the very idea of being that assertive shocks you, close your eyes for a moment and picture the agent or editor who has asked you for your submission. In your mental image, what is that person doing? Scanning the other 700 queries he received this week? Reading over the 20 other requested manuscripts already on his desk? Haggling on the phone, trying to sell a book for an already-signed client? Or is he drumming his fingertips on his barren desktop, muttering, “I asked for Susie Q’s first chapter a week ago. WHERE IS IT?”

Hint: if you said the latter, you may be worrying too much about offending this person.

Agents and editors are really, really busy people. Realistically, yours is almost certainly not the only manuscript any given editor requested at any given conference; yours is definitely not the only query that prompted the agency to ask for pages on the day yours made that agent smile. They receive, at minimum, dozens of packets of requested materials per week.

So what if yours takes an extra few days to get to them? Well, let’s just say that they’re not going to be wandering listlessly around their offices, waiting for your manuscript to show up. They will be keeping occupied, I assure you.

If, even knowing all this, you still find that you are not comfortable saying that you prefer to send your submission via regular mail, consider this: there is an excuse for sending it in hard copy instead that literally no one will question. Particularly someone who is not too computer-savvy.

And what are these magic words? “I’m sorry — my server has been acting funny lately. It’s been mangling attachments. Since I do not want you to have to hassle with it, I am going to send you the chapters you requested by regular mail.”

Simple, clean, unanswerable. And it works every bit as well as a response to an initial request for the first five pages as it does as to send a hard copy of the entire manuscript to an agent who has already seen the first chapter as an attachment.

Piece o’ proverbial cake. Keep up the good work!