Fee-charging agencies — and agencies that charge fees

If you have read virtually any guide to North American agents, you will have learned that there are two types of agents: fee-charging and non-fee-charging. Most of the agents found in guides are non-fee-charging, which is to say that the agency depends for income upon sales of its client authors’ work. Fee-charging agents, however, charge writers for feedback and/or representation, and thus often subsist not upon a cut of their authors’ royalties, but upon direct payments from writers.

As you may have noticed from the agent guides, fee-charging agencies tend to be frowned upon in the industry: if an agent cannot make a living purely through promoting its authors, maybe he should be seeking another line of work. In a way, though, this assessment is not fair. In a tight writing market, it can take quite some time for an agent to build up the contacts necessary to sell books rapidly; many new literary agencies go under after just a couple of years. (If you don’t believe me about the amazingly high turnover rate amongst agents, take your most up-to-date agent guide, go to a local library, and check out an earlier editor, say three or four years old. Randomly select ten agents from the old guide — not agency owners, just agents — and try to find them in the new guide. Were you able to find more than half?) To a struggling agent, the masses of frustrated, unrepresented writers out there yearning for attention might well look like a very tempting source of income.

Sad but true, one of the primary byproducts of the increased difficulty in gaining literary recognition has been a whole industry that serves the ostensible needs of the struggling writer. Agent guides. How-to manuals. Books on how to become a better novelist, written by people who have never written a novel. Classes. Magazines. Weekend seminars. Even my own field, freelance editing. We’ve all heard the hype: learn the secrets here of succeeding in the publishing world! Don’t miss out! You can’t ever succeed unless you buy this book!

There is no denying it: a tough market makes writers willing, even eager, to shell out big bucks to anyone who seems to be promising a quicker road to publication. Some are helpful, some are not: let the writer beware, especially of people who claim to GUARANTEE publication if you buy their products or services; a reputable provider of services to writers will be the first to tell you that there are no guarantees in this business, only probabilities.

To be fair, there are fee-charging agents who do make major sales, and most of them are far more willing to read entire manuscripts than non-fee-charging agents. Just make sure that you know in advance with which kind you are dealing, to avoid disappointment and unexpected bills. As a general rule, fee-charging agents are listed separately from non-fee-charging agents in the agents’ guides, so it is fairly easy to tell them apart. To be listed as non-fee-charging in one of the standard guides, an agency must generate more than 98% of its fees from commissions, which is to say from 15% of their authors’ royalties.

The most straightforward kind of fee-charging agent will tell authors up front that there is a cost associated with sending them a manuscript. Called a reading fee, the cost can run from $25 to $500. A higher price tag, alas, is seldom a guarantee of either eventual representation or more substantial feedback, or indeed of any feedback at all: what the writer is buying here is simply the agent’s reading the manuscript and considering whether to sign the author, not advice on how to make the book more marketable. This is, I should point out, a service that non-fee-charging agents provide for free, when they are interested in a manuscript. Fee-charging agents, however, tend to be open to a broader array of manuscripts.

With few exceptions, the reading fee is nonrefundable, so do make sure that you understand clearly what you are being offered in exchange for your money. Use the same judgment you would use for any other agent. If your work is similar to someone the fee-charging agent already represents, it might well be worth your while to submit a manuscript. If not, try non-fee-charging agents who represent work like yours first.

There are agents who are technically non-fee-charging agents (i.e., they do not charge for an initial read) who nevertheless ask potential (and sometimes even current) clients fees. These agents respond enthusiastically to a query letter, ask to see the manuscript, THEN ask for a critique fee in order to get the manuscript ready for publication. As with a reading fee, do be aware that paying a critique fee does not necessarily guarantee that the agent will sign you. All it guarantees is that you will get feedback on your manuscript.

A request for a critique fee should not automatically put you off a potential agent, but it should prompt you to ask some questions, such as how much of the agency’s income is generated by critique fees, rather than by commissions. Some critique fee-charging agents do make good sales, but bear in mind that an agent who spends a significant proportion of his time critiquing the work of potential clients must necessarily spend a lower percentage of his time selling the work of his existing clients.

Also, be aware that the quality (and quantity) of commentary varies widely amongst agents who charge critique fees. If the critique fee is low and the agent has sold many books in your market niche, it might be worth your while, especially if the agent has told you up front what specific areas she believes require work. However, an agent’s feedback carries weight that, say, a writing group’s does not. Before you invest significant amounts of time in following the advice you receive in return for a critique fee, do your research, to make sure that the critiquing agent does indeed have a good grasp of your market. Checking the Publishers Marketplace database to see if she has sold anything like it within the last two years would be a good place to start.

Another type of down-the-line fee involves agents referring querying authors to a specific book doctor or freelance editor. I’m not talking about their giving a general piece of advice after reading a manuscript, along the lines of “Gee, this could really use some professional editing” here, but about agencies that either sell their query lists to editing companies or who include an editor’s brochure as part of their rejection packet in exchange for a commission.

Often, such agencies will have asked the writer to send an entire manuscript before suggesting the book doctor, which can make the referral seem very credible. The implication is, of course, that if the author hires that specific editor, the agent will offer representation at a later date, but these agencies seldom put that in writing. No matter how complimentary a referring agent is about your work, this is still a rejection, and you should regard it as such.

I find this practice ethically questionable, because it plays on the author’s worst fears and insecurities. When such a recommendation is made by an agent who allegedly knows the market, about a manuscript that he has ostensibly read carefully, it sounds like well-informed advice. But think about it: how do you know that the agent DID read the manuscript carefully, or at all, before making the recommendation? Perhaps the agent automatically refers EVERY manuscript he rejects to that editing agency. Perhaps he gets a kickback for each writer he refers.

How can you avoid getting caught up in this type of disappointment? Check for membership in the AAR(Association of Authors’Representatives), which prohibits its members from charging reading fees; most agent guides list such memberships. Similarly, the WGA (Writers Guild of America) does not allow member agents to charge its members reading fees — which usually translates into not charging any potential clients reading fees at all. If you receive a fee request from an agent who lists membership in one of these organizations, report it to the organization immediately.

Many AAR and WGA agents do charge their clients for photocopying, postage, courier fees, and occasionally even long-distance calls, although this last practice has declined as long-distance calls have become cheaper. If your agency does so, it should be spelled out in your representation contract, and you should discuss it with your potential agent first. Often, these costs are deducted from your first advance check, but some agencies ask for some money up front; if you’re asked for hundreds of dollars, start asking very pointed questions. If the charges seem excessive, ask if you can make your own photocopies and mail them to the agency.

My point here is that you should be every bit as careful in dealing with a fee-charging agency as you would be in dealing with a freelance editor; there are good ones, and there are bad ones. Ask a whole lot of questions before you plunk down your cash, and make sure that you know what you will be getting in exchange.

And do be aware that despite the burgeoning market of products and services available to the up-and-coming writer, it is possible to navigate these waters on the cheap. A good writers’ group can provide you excellent feedback for free; libraries tend to stock the newest writing books rather quickly, and it only costs you time and effort to research agents. It may well be worth it to you to pay a freelance editor, rather than investing a year in a writing group to get feedback on your book, or to take a reputable weekend seminar on how to polish your novel, rather than reading all of the books available on the subject. It’s up to you. But for heaven’s sake, make it a conscious choice, not one unduly influenced by hype or the elusive hope of jumping the queue.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Cultivating patience

Hello, again —

As you may have noticed over the last few postings, I have been trying to burst one of the most common unrepresented writers’ preconceptions about signing with an agent: the notion that the hard work and months of waiting stops the moment that the representation contract is signed. It’s counterintuitive, now that agents expect prospective clients to send them fully-polished and print-ready manuscripts and market-ready book proposals, that the workload and time expended AFTER signing should not have compressed accordingly across the industry, but actually, it hasn’t. Even though agents are now signing writers with much more professionally-ready books in hand than every before, the time lapse between signing with an agent and selling the book is much what it ever was. Be prepared to wait, as well as to revise your book or book proposal until the agent loves it.

This is true, incidentally, even if the agent SAID she loved the book when she asked to represent you. I know many, many authors — and have had many, many students and clients — who have been left astonished when the initial raves of their new agent suddenly turned into change requests that took three months to implement. Try to take these requests as a compliment: if the agent did not think you were a good writer with a good idea, she would not be asking you to improve your work; she would not have picked it up at all.

Most writers serious enough to finish a book, however much they may think of themselves as procrastinators, do actually like the work of writing, but revising is another matter. Every agent in the world will, at the slightest provocation, regale listeners with horror stories about how hard it is to get writers to revise their own work after they have been signed. Writers, on the other hand, will happily tell anyone who will listen about the characters their agents had them write out, or the time that their agent wanted the same story to happen in fifty fewer pages.

What they do not do, almost without exception, is talk to EACH OTHER about this issue.

I think this is because translation is necessary. When an agent asks for a change, though, it is seldom (at least in his conscious mind) simply a matter of personal preference, particularly if the work in question is a book proposal. Usually, the change is to make the work more marketable — and, if I have not yet impressed this upon you, dear reader, take notes — good writing and marketable writing are not always the same thing.

And — are you sitting down for this one? — what was marketable writing two years ago isn’t necessarily marketable now, or two years hence. Standards, alas, change, and your agent is in a better position than you are to follow the fads on a minute-to-minute basis. (Remember, what you are seeing on the bookstore shelves today was actually sold to publishers a year to a year and a half ago.) Most of the time, an agent’s request for change, even if it’s purely stylistic, is either to avoid a common editorial pet peeve or to bring the work more in line with the demands of a very specific market niche.

When a writer receives a change request, however, even a minor one, he often hears it as a referendum on whether he can WRITE, or as a tactfully-put suggestion to revise the entire work, if not his entire life plan. Believe it or not, good writers have often far less experience dealing with constructive criticism than poor ones: the good students get much less feedback than the ones who are struggling. So very often, the writer who got nothing but As in English all through school crumbles into little tiny bits the first time he receives hard-core, professional feedback.

To remind everyone: agents and editors do not pull their punches to make writers feel better. Many of them regard tact as a waste of time. So what sounds like devastating, don’t-quit-your-day-job criticism to you may well be just an agent or editor’s way of being straightforward with you. As I said, in their minds, it is often a COMPLIMENT; they wouldn’t waste their vitriol on someone with no talent, right?

(Yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. I don’t make the rules. I just tell you about ’em.)

I am reminded of an M.F.K. Fisher story about being solicited to write a preface for a charity cookbook. (I am writing a preface at the moment, so I’ve been reading them like mad, to get in the spirit of the thing.) The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came to visit Fisher, a neighbor of theirs, in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause.

Well (the story goes), Fisher took the draft book from them and had a good, professional look through it. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies, all of the things that professional writers and editors automatically flag in a manuscript. When she looked up, however, the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas in fact she had been paying them the compliment of taking their project seriously.

Believe me when I tell you: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; you need to develop it as part of your tool kit. Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already acquired it. If you do not have experience rolling with harsh-but-true feedback, it is well worth your while to join a very critical writing group, or take a writing class from a real dragon, or submit some of your work to a freelance editor, before you send your work to an agent. It is much, much easier to learn the basic skills of revision with grace when your critiquers are your peers or teachers, rather than your agent or editor. The stakes are lower, and it’s less stressful by far.

If you are already in the throes of working with an agent and thus do not have the luxury of time to get your work dissected by a writing group for practice, here’s a trick for appearing to be coolly professional when you are in fact seething and sobbing inside: DON’T RESPOND TO THE CONTENT OF THE CRITIQUE RIGHT AWAY. Buy yourself time to think it over. For now, just nod, take copious notes, and say, “That’s interesting. I’ll have to think about that. Can we talk about it again after I’ve had a chance to re-read the text?”

Even on a tight deadline, few people will say no to such a reasonable request. This will enable you to go away, scream into a pillow, send bitter e-mails to all of your friends, and climb the nearest mountain to work out your aggression, out of sight and sound range of your agent.

This is not to say that you should not debate proposed changes that you feel passionately are wrong — you should. If you believe that any suggestion will harm your book — no matter who makes it, from writers’ group crony to senior editor — you have an obligation to discuss it. But calmly, coolly, rationally. You are your book’s keeper; it deserves both your protection and your best argumentative skills.

After you have calmed down, take another look at the feedback, if only mentally. Is there anything here you can use. Make a list of every single point that has merit. (If you cannot find any that you think are salvageable, have someone you trust go through the feedback and your text and pick the most reasonable. I do this for my editing clients all the time, incognita, and my clients’ agents and editors exclaim aloud at how easy the revision process is.) If you have time, go ahead and make the changes in the text.

Then revisit the other points. Are you willing to make any of these changes? Are there some that you might be willing to make if you could ignore others? Why do you hate the ones you hate most more than the others? Rank the suggestions from least to most odious, and come up with reasoned, text-based arguments for each.

Then, and ONLY then, call or e-mail your agent (or whatever publishing professional gave you the feedback. Say, “Gee, I tried out what you suggested about X, and boy, did it make a difference!” Repeat for all of the major points you used, to hammer home the underlying message: I respect you enough to take your critique seriously; I really am trying to work with you.

Then, after you have established agreement on these points and made your critiquer feel very clever, bring up one of your sore points. Ask if it is vital to make this change; could you perhaps change something else instead? Concentrate on making the process a negotiation between two reasonable people, not a resentful subject’s uneasy plea to an autocratic king. If your reasonable tack doesn’t work, you’ll have plenty of time to try resentment later, right?

If you are in a face-to-face meeting, you can still utilize this basic strategy. If you can possibly swing it, find a way to get out of the situation for a few minutes. A coughing fit will usually do the trick; no one will begrudge you a trip to the water fountain, followed by a trip to the restroom to blow your nose. Once out of the room, vent your anger on the nearest inanimate object, pick your points to praise, and walk back into the meeting, concentrating on the change you are most willing to make.

If you can’t get out of the room at all, respond ONLY to the critique you like best. This will give you time to calm down before getting into the truly contentious points. It also will disarm opposition: most people will jump right on the point they like least, and argue first about that. By finding at least one point where you can say, “Gee, that’s a great idea” (even through gritted teeth), you will be building up credit for arguing other points.

You may have noticed that I have not suggested that you don’t make any changes at all. You should, insofar as you can, trust your agent’s instincts about what will sell. But always, always, ALWAYS keep a copy of your original version, in case you later want to revert to it. Your biographers will thank you, believe me.

Whether you have serious problems with proposed changes or not, it’s a good idea to open a dialogue with your agent about them anyway. Ideally, you will be working with this agent over the course of many books: the earlier you can establish a good give-and-take, the better.

Many writers, disliking confrontation, just agree to make changes and then disappear for months on end, without ever discussing the potential problems of implementation. I feel that this is a mistake, again for reasons of translation: from the agent’s perspective, a long silence born of anger looks exactly like one born of confusion, or of laziness. If a few weeks have passed since your agent asked you to make a change and you have not sent back pages, get back in touch, if only to let her know that you are indeed working on it. If you are having problems making the suggested changes work, ask for advice. Trust me on this one: it will not make you look like a bad writer to share your concerns, but like a professional who is making a serious effort to understand what is required of her.

This, incidentally, is what agents mean when they make those ambiguous statements in the agenting guides about what kind of clients they want: they tend to list asking lots of questions as a major characteristic of both a dream client and a nightmare client. The difference lies primarily in how those questions are asked, and if they are asked in anger.

So ask your questions. The only question that I have found that agents hate universally is the grown-up version of the child’s car-tip whine of “Are we there yet?” Every agent I have ever met — and I get around, believe me — has complained about clients who call or e-mail every few days or weeks to ask what is happening with the book. Leave ’em alone; let them do their jobs. Remember, just as you want your agent to respect your writing time, your agent will want you to respect her networking time.

Which brings my little homily full-circle: to work well with an agent, you need to be both patient and flexible. Pick your battles, and remember, your relationship with your agent is not primarily a friendship, however much you may like each other. It is a business relationship, for the mutual benefit of both. Treat it as such.

Thus endeth the lesson. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Agents and geological time

I would wish you a happy Columbus Day, dear readers, but I happen to have grown up in an area renowned for the nastiness of how European settlers dealt with the locals. (I’ll spare you the whole story; it involved waiting until the native males were gathered in a ritual steam bath, then nailing the door shut. Fire, I’m told, was negatively involved.) Rather changes one’s view of Columbus, it does. But happy bank holiday anyway.

I’ve been concentrating in my last few postings on dealing with agencies, in the hope that some of you are even now being solicited by some of the best agents in the biz. For many writers, the actual moment of solicitation can be very, very disconcerting: after years of plowing through uncertainty and rejection, an agent who says yes can look a whole lot like the Archangel Gabriel. Often, writers are too dazzled by their own good fortune to ask pertinent questions.

One of the big questions that does get asked unasked is, unsurprisingly, “What are your plans for my book?” Equally surprisingly, at least to me, agents’ replies to this question are often rather vague, and this can give a false impression that they are either being evasive or that they have not thought about it much.

Actually, to the ear of a good agent, this question translates thus: “Who specifically will you be approaching first? Will it be a phone call, lunch, or coffee? Why is this the best publishing house for it?” Agents, in short, do not tend to think in vague terms.

So throw ’em a lifeline. Ask instead, “Are you planning to do individual submissions, or multiple submissions?” This question does not require translation for the agent to understand, and will elicit much of the information that most writers have in mind when they ask for a plan.

Did you think I was going on without explaining the difference between individual and mass submissions? Would I do that to you? Individual submissions are the more common for fiction. The agent pitches your work to an editor (via phone, lunch, coffee, chance meeting), and if the editor sounds interested, your manuscript or book proposal will wend its way to the editor’s desk. I would like to report that once there, it is instantly pounced upon and eagerly read by the editor, but in all likelihood, it will sit there for awhile, in a pile with other manuscripts. Here is where your agent’s persistence will really pay off: a good agent who cares about a project will keep on nagging unmercifully until your manuscript gets read.

How long can it sit there? Well, as I have mentioned, my agent is one of the wonders of the modern world. She believes deeply in my work, likes my projects — and I have now had a novel sitting at a well-known publishing house for seven months. In a way, this is good: I hear it has been read by most of the underlings who need to read it before the editor in charge, and if any of them had hated it, the manuscript would have been tossed out of the building. However, as you may see, this is not a situation where anyone concerned should be holding her breath, waiting for a response.

I wish I could say that such time lapses are unusual, but they are not. I know writers who have had good books held by editors for over a year — both books that the editor eventually acquired and books that the editor rejected. What will NOT happen, however, is that a book will be rejected and STILL remain sequestered in editorial files. While there is holding, there is hope.

From the writer’s point of view of course, this is maddening. The only sane response is to leave the whole matter in your agent’s hands and start working on your next book, but few among us have that kind of sang froid. In my case, I am lucky enough to have a memoir coming out next year: I certainly have plenty to do. Yet even I find myself wondering if the manuscript of my novel will sit so long in one place that the paper will spontaneously produce leaves, acorns, perhaps even an entire tree. Someday, will archeologists be trying to estimate the age of my manuscript by its rings? Or in geological time, if it petrifies?

This is, of course, the primary drawback to individual submissions of a manuscript. “Aha!” I hear you cry, “then I should press my agent for multiple submissions!”

Well, not necessarily. Multiple submission (also known as simultaneous submission; check out my postings for the end of September for a glossary of standard publishing terms) is, as the name implies, when your book or book proposal is sent to many editors at once. Nonfiction is very often sold this way, as is any book expected to generate an auction. Your agent will pitch your book (over the phone or the aforementioned comestibles), the editor will express interest, your book or book proposal will be sent, and this process is repeated with your agent’s entire A-list of editors.

The advantage of this is that interest from several editors can engender a bidding war. It can also speed up the submission process considerably. The disadvantage, however, is that it makes your book very subject to the winds of gossip. If half the editors say no, the other half will probably hear about it. (Yes, New York is a big city, but in many ways, its publishing world is a small town. Your agent’s assistant probably went to college with assistants of a couple of the editors who will see your book. People talk.) If one editor makes an offer, you can bet your boots that Books can go from very hot to very not in a matter of days.

For those of us who reside in more laid-back portions of the country, the speed of Manhattanite collective changes of mind can be perplexing. Why, we Pacific Northwesterners wonder, does everyone want the same thing at the same time? Surely, the book market is more complex than that?

I wish I could explain this phenomenon, my friends, but I can no more explain fads in the book market than I can fads in fashion. Why is it that when you walk into an NYC publishing house, all of the editorial assistants will be dressed more or less the same? Beyond me. (For a more extensive discussion of editorial fads and how they affect writers, see my posting of Sept. 6.)

Every time I encounter it, I am reminded of the time that I was writing for LET’S GO. It was my first post-college writing gig: I had been assigned to cover practically every small town of remote interest to tourists in Washington and Oregon. (What do you want to know about the pie at truck stops?) Because the job paid, essentially, nothing, I generally wrote my copy by firelight on rickety picnic tables while my boyfriend-at-the-time fended off marauding bears and curious squirrels. A good time was had by all.

In one such small town, the local tourist bureau had directed us to a genuinely unspoiled masterpiece of nature: 21 miles of unbroken beach, so much sand that intrepid souls were allowed to drive along it. It was the middle of a lovely summer day, so my boyfriend and I parked the car on a deserted patch of sand and settled down for lunch. Nothing but seagulls, water, and sand, as far as the eye could see. Until a car with New York plates came driving down the beach, parked about ten feet away from our car, and disgorged a flock of chattering children.

To West Coast eyes, this was just a tad strange. After some preliminary pleasantries, I asked the driver why, with so much empty beach, he had elected to stop right next to us. He looked at me very strangely. “It was where the people were,” he said. “It must be the best place.”

This same mentality seems to pervade the publishing world, alas. If the editor holding your book at the moment knows that other editors want it, it automatically becomes more valuable to him. Don’t try to reason it out more than that: it is one of the great mysteries of life, like the origin of evil and why the line you chose always moves more slowly than the others. Just look out your window at the Pacific Northwest verdure, reflect that you can probably see more trees from your office window than are in the entirety of Central Park, and reconcile yourself to regional differences in character. Remember that you perplex them, too.

So, too, should you regard the mystery of the alternation of glacially-slow reading times and we-need-you-to-overnight-your-changes urgency. Panic and apathy often seem to be the only two possible states of being. It might occur to you, living in an environment where the air is breathable, that it would in fact be theoretically possible for agents and editors to come up with a temporal plan, where one event follows another in a logical manner, and deadlines may be met with the calm tranquility that only comes from advance preparation.

Take my advice: don’t try to present this quaint view to people in the New York-based publishing industry, lest you be labeled a West Coast Flake. Instead, just take quiet steps to insure your own inner peace and personal tranquility, and let them get on with their heart-stopping perpetual panic. And no, I am not talking about meditation: I’m talking about adding two weeks to any negotiated deadline, so you may finish making your changes without losing too much sleep. I’m talking about pretending that FedEx does not serve your remote part of the country; the USPS’s Priority mail is more than fast enough for a manuscript that will sit on an editor’s desk until the next Ice Age.

My point here (and I’m relatively sure that I still have one) is that the more you know about your prospective agent’s preferred solicitation style up front, the more stress you will be able to save yourself down the line. Will you be dealing in the geological timeframes of individual submissions, or the live-or-die gamble of multiple submissions? Either way, get a solid explanation now, before the panic begins, because honey, trying to get an explanation from a Manhattanite agent in the middle of a panic is like Dorothy trying to talk philosophy with the cyclone that landed her in Oz.

Learn what you can first, then hold on for the ride.

And wherever you are in the process, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The agency contract

Yesterday, I discussed the desirability of getting a sense of who your agent IS before signing a binding agency contract. Today, I am going to launch into how agencies differ from one another. The short version: not all agencies are created equal.

It is, of course, vital that you understand how your new agency works before you sign the representation contract; don’t be afraid to ask questions about the fine print on the contract. Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs, covering either the selling process for a single book or a year’s time — a choice generally made by the agency, not the author. Some contracts, however, have a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year. If you sign with an agency that favors the rollover clause, make sure you know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case.

Yes, I know: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent you. But trust your Auntie Anne on this one: honeymoons do occasionally end. This is a contract to read with your glasses ON.

Because, you see, if you are successful, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer. It will be producing those nasty, messily-carboned forms that you will be passing on to the I.R.S. If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours — and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America. (If you missed my explanation about the rather bizarre distinctions between North American and foreign rights, check out my blogs of Sept. 26-28.) If something happens to your agent — a leave of absence, a move to another agency, or even just not being in the office when a crucial call from an editor comes — the agency will be handling your interests.

In short, you don’t just need to trust your agent — you need to trust your agency as well. A few quick illustrative anecdotes will help show why.

I had been signed with my wonderful, amazing, devoted agent S.G. for less than six months when she had a baby. Miracle that S.G. is, she managed to sell my book AND another client’s before they wheeled her off to the delivery room, but for some months, it looked very likely that the contract negotiations for my memoir might end up being handled by another agent. As it turned out, another agent held my hand during the rather nerve-wracking period between contract-signing and book delivery — which, in my case, was only about two months.

I think it’s safe to say that I was not always perfectly happy and level-headed during that intensely stressful period. I was lucky that I had been temporarily reassigned by my agency to a delightfully patient and kind listener.

More seriously, I was also still under the care of my interim agent when the first lawsuit threat came. (Oh, yes: it came in two waves, one in early July, followed by much silence, then another in early September. Different allegations about the book each time, I might add.) If my agency were not full of very competent, very supportive people, I might have been left to face the threat unadvised. Having known other writers who have had to deal with lawsuits over their memoirs (hey, I get around) without the help of an agent, I feel very, very fortunate.

And very glad that that I read my agency contract very well before I signed it, so I felt secure about the agency that would be taking care of me.

Okay, I hate to do this, but I am now going to share the story of Lois, a writer who did not fare so well. Lois’ agent just stopped answering her e-mails one day; returned phone calls became a thing of the past. And because Lois was, like so many writers, long trained in assuming that any silence must have something to do with the quality of the book, she naturally fell into hyper-revising mode. Yet when she meekly submitted a new version of her novel, she STILL heard nothing.

“Have I offended my agent somehow?” Lois wondered. After wondering about it for a couple of weeks, she concluded that she must have. She sent a formal apology. Still no word.

Weeks dragged on into months, and after three, Lois had had enough. She called the main number for the agency, and demanded to know how she could terminate her contract with the agent.

“Wait,” the astonished receptionist told her, “didn’t anybody tell you? She had to have emergency surgery. Poor thing, she’s been in physical therapy for months.”

Of course, Lois felt really small, but actually, I think that the agency should have been the ones apologizing. That many months sans agent, and the agency hadn’t thought to notify her clients? A quarter of a year can feel like a lifetime to an author whose book is being circulated.

When you are looking over the contract, check to see whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. Agents move around all the time, and some agencies can have pretty short lifespans. If your agent retired, for instance, would you still be represented? What about if your agent started an agency of her own?

May, one of the most gifted writers I know found out too late that her contract was with her agent, not her agency, upon learning that her agent had died. Something of a surprise; May hadn’t even known that she was sick. (After you’ve hung out around represented writers for awhile, you will start to notice how often authors are NOT informed about illness, imminent life or career changes, or sometimes even the firing of their agents and editors. We writers always seem to be the last to know.) May was very sorry, of course, because she had liked her agent very much, but it never occurred to her that she no longer had representation.

Until she received a letter from the agency, a couple of weeks later. Seems that the agency had hired a replacement agent — who did not represent May’s kind of work. No offer to help her find another agent, nothing. Just goodbye and good luck. May checked her contract and, sure enough, she hadn’t signed with the agency at all, only her late agent.

Why the distinction? Well, the contracts between agents and their agencies can vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the agency, and some run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, is an independent contractor. If you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not.

My very talented friend Sydney was recently caught in a sort of in-between situation: her contract left the issue a bit ambiguous, specifying that Sydney would be represented by Agent X AT Agency Y. So when Agent X, without any advance warning, suddenly decided to leave Agency Y to start her own agency, Sydney actually wasn’t sure if she was still represented at all. It turned out that she had three options: break her contract and sign a new agency agreement with Agency Y, but be assigned to a new agent whom she did not know; break her contract and sign with Agent X in her new agency, or break her contract and seek representation somewhere else. No matter what, her old contract was more or less defunct.

Since, like many of us, Sydney had spent years seeking the perfect agent for her work, Option 3 sounded to her a lot like putting her hand in a meat grinder. She ended up following her agent.

My point is, unexpected things can happen. If you understand your contract, you will be much better prepared to deal with emergencies as they arise.

Oh, and don’t forget, those of you who have material out with important agents and/or editors at the moment: the Frankfurter Buchmesse — that’s the Frankfurt Book Fair to those of us stateside — will be running from October 19-23. A hefty proportion of the heavy hitters in the industry attend this, often grabbing European vacation time on either end. As a result, work on NYC desks tends to pile up at the end of October.

What this could mean for you: a slower response time than usual, in an industry already notorious for slow response times. Don’t panic; it’s not about you.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

What do you want from an agent?

Recently, I had the great pleasure of teaching a class on how to craft attention-grabbing queries, full of intelligent, well-prepared students. (If you would like to be added to my notification list for my next set of classes, please give me your e-mail address via the COMMENTS function, below.) These writers had really done their homework, and most of them had novels and NF books very close to being ready to be sent out the door. Best of luck to all of them!

As widely diverse as their writing projects were, I was struck, as I always am, by the great similarity of their dream agents. Everyone, without exception, wanted a well-established agent at a well-known agency to fall in love with the book in question, particularly with the writing, and represent it with intelligence and verve.

“That;s great,” I said, when the last student had expressed this hope. “What else do you want?”

The room fell silent.

I am used to this; it always happens at this point. “What about an agent with experience in selling your type of book?” I suggested. “An agent who has built up the connections to be able to get your book or book proposal under the right eyes right away?”

Well, yes, the students conceded, that would be nice.

I persisted. “What about an agent who is hungry? Would you be happy to be represented by someone with a hundred clients, so the success of your book will be only a small proportion of her year’s income, or would you prefer to be one of twenty, where each sale counts more to the agent?”

It was difficult to get the students to talk about it; again, these are bright, talented, well-read people, yet their body language made it obvious that the very idea of setting anything but the most minimal expectations for representation rendered them uncomfortable. It was unfamiliar territory, and in a sense, by even asking them to think about it, I had broken one of the most sacred of the writers’ conference taboos: implying the possibility that not every agent who likes an author’s work is necessarily a good fit for it.

What the heck, I’m just going to go ahead and state it: I have very often seen good writers’ careers stymied by agents who, while not actually bad at their jobs, at least do not apparently share the same goals for the book in question. Anyone who has ever attended a writing conference has probably met at least one writer who gave her soul to an agent for a year or two, only to find herself dropped when the book did not sell right away.

To a writer who has yet to find representation — and if you are one of these, don’t be hard on yourself; there are plenty of brilliant writers out there who do not have agents — it may be hard to feel sympathy for a writer in this situation. Some are tempted to conclude that if the book did not sell, or if the agent stopped sending it out, or if the agent never sent it out at all, it was because the book itself had some irredeemable fault.

Don’t censure yourself if you are one of the many who would automatically assume this: it is something that writers are taught to believe, and the source of countless hours of self-doubt. Most of the writing manuals and pretty much all of the classes and conferences teach us to believe that the blame must lie with either the book or the writer. There is a reason that this is the case: what the manuals and experts are selling, generally speaking, are ways in which the writer can alter the book, the pitch, the query letter, even her own work habits, in order to make the book more marketable.

I regularly teach this type of class myself, regarding it as a way to arm writers with the tools that will help them succeed in a genuinely difficult endeavor: getting their work noticed by people who can bring it to publication. After all, it would make little sense to teach “Ten Tips on Being a Better Agent” or “Sharpen Your Eye for Talent: Make Yourself a Better Editor” to groups of aspiring writers. The fact remains, though, that even the best-prepared author of the best-written book is hugely dependent upon the skills, tastes, and connections of her agent and ultimately, her editor.

As I have pointed out in earlier postings, the power that agents wield has gone up astronomically within our lifetimes. The reason for this is simple: the consolidation of the major publishing houses. Now, none of the majors will read unagented fiction at all, as a matter of policy. (Bear that in mind, the next time an editor from a major house tells you to send a chapter or a synopsis of your novel after you have met at a writers’ conference. Even if the editor absolutely falls in love with your work — in the unlikely event that it is indeed that editor who reads over your material, and not an assistant — the absolute best-case scenario is that the editor will recommend you to an agent, not that the editor will immediately buy your work.) Some nonfiction is still sold directly, but even that has become relatively rare.

The result is that agents and editors at small publishing houses (who usually also prefer to work with agented writers, but often make exceptions) have become the arbiters of what does and doesn’t get published in the United States. The editors at the major houses see only a hand-picked minority of the writing actually being produced.

Since you are probably already aware of the importance of having an agent, I shall not harp upon this point, except to say: since the author now does not participate in the selling process, it is more vital than ever to find an agent who will represent your work well.

My students did not like this conclusion at all. “If an agent loves my work,” one of them asked, “won’t he automatically represent it well?”

The short answer is a resounding NO, but the long version requires a two-part answer. First, a certain percentage of the people working in any field will be still learning how to do it, and in the publishing industry, where success is so heavily based upon connections and luck, the agent who likes your book best (or, as usually happens, the one who likes your book FIRST) may not necessarily be the one with the right connections. Thus, that story we have so often heard: the agent falls in love with a book, signs the author pronto, sends the book out to an editor or two — then sits helpless after the first few contacts reject it. Since it is traditional for a book to be submitted to only one editor at each imprint, having your work sent out by an agent with the wrong contacts may actually endanger its chances of being seen by the right editor.

Lest you think that this is just the smug analysis of a writer who has already passed the gauntlet, I speak from personal experience here: my wonderful agent, S.G., is in fact my THIRD agent. As longtime readers of this blog are already aware, #1 wanted me to turn a serious literary novel on sexual harassment into a romance novel (that, or dump it entirely and write a self-help book, as she evidently believed everyone with a Ph.D. is qualified to do. I tried in vain to explain to her that not every doctorate is in psychology, to no avail), and #2 sent a cookbook to three editors, then I never heard from him again. Neither of these stories is at all unusual; I could introduce you to literally dozens of good writers still mourning similar experiences.

I should point out: all three professed genuine love for my writing, and I have no reason to doubt their veracity on the subject. All three expressed great admiration for the projects they respectively represented — and only S.G. has been able to sell so much as a line that I have written. I like to think that she loves my writing more than the others, but I know for a fact that I owe a great deal to her acumen, her experience, and her connections.

The second answer to the question is less well-recognized amongst writers, or at any rate, most of the unpublished writers I meet are surprised when I mention it. Now, it is the NORM for good agents to ask for significant revisions on a book or a book proposal BEFORE sending it out to editors. Effectively, this means that the agent you choose — and who chooses you — is your first editor. Which means that it is absolutely vital to sign with an agent whose taste and integrity you trust.

I want to get the word out there about the edited-by-the-agent phenomenon, because I have found that most unagented writers are quite unaware of it. Not all agents require up-front revisions, but a significant minority amongst those who work with previously unpublished writers do. I spent the first two and a half months of my representation contract with S.G. revising and re-revising my book proposal, at her behest; one of the best novelists I know spent a YEAR AND A HALF in agent-required revisions before her agent so much as photocopied it.

Other agents prefer to suggest only minor tweaking before sending out the first round of submissions, then, once they have garnered significant editorial feedback, ask the author to revise the book in accordance with the changes editors said they would like to see. (Be warned in advance: if three editors saw it, in all probability two of them will ask from mutually contradictory changes. A good agent can help you figure out which advice is worth taking.) Here again, many first-time authors are astonished to find themselves, a year or two after signing with a terrific agent, still in the throes of revising an as-yet unsold book.

My students, by this point in my explanation, were sitting speechless, aghast and disappointed. It is my sincere hope that their work will sell well and immediately, but the fact is, a quick sale of an unrevised work to a major publishing house has become quite rare. Frankly, I think it is quite unfair to writers everywhere that the prevailing wisdom so often says otherwise. Yes, from the agents’ and editors’ points of view, publishing is a fast-moving business, but from the authors’, it sometimes seems as if it barely runs on electricity.

I feel a trifle disingenuous saying this, because actually, my process has been one of the few exceptions: from winning the 2004 PNWA Zola Award for NF to signing with S.G. to book sale was only eight months, which is lightning speed. To put this in perspective, though, my book was only being circulated to editors for the last two of those months. The period between when I signed with S.G. (October, 2004) through when the book was first sent out to editors (end of January, 2005) was entirely devoted to tweaking my book proposal at S.G.’s behest.

Let that sink in for a moment: that revision time was unusually QUICK, with my getting pages back to her significantly prior to the deadlines we had agreed upon.

This realization, as you may well imagine, made my students groan, as it would many writers. Since attracting an agent’s interest is so very arduous, the vast majority of unagented writers tend to idealize just how much of a relief it will be to sign that contract. “Phew!” they think. “I’m working my fingers to the elbow now, but once I sign with an agent, my period of hard work will be over. I can just hand my finished book (or book proposal) to my agent, and wait for her to sell it. And because she will adore my writing, that will happen in a matter of weeks.”

With such expectations, it’s no wonder that so many writers give little thought to the personality of their dream agent: they are not expecting to have much interaction with this paragon.

Please don’t make that too-common mistake of not taking the time to learn a little about an agent before you gasp a grateful “YES!” to that long-awaited offer of representation. Ask a few questions: will you be working with the agent directly, for instance, or an assistant? (If the latter, it is definitely worth your while to have a conversation with the assistant before you decide, too.) Will the agent want revisions to what you submitted, and if so, would she be open to setting aside some serious time to discuss them? What exactly does the agent LIKE about your book, your ideas, your writing style? If you are not a person who likes hand-holding, is the agent willing to give you your space to work?

And so forth. The AAR (Association of Artists’ Representatives) puts out an excellent list of preliminary questions new authors should ask agents, to get you started. While the answers are important to figuring out how the agent will expect you to work with her, the discussion actually serves an even more important secondary purpose: it gives you are foretaste of what it will be like in the weeks and months to come, when your new agent is ruling your writing life.

It behooves you, then, to make very sure that this person is someone with whom you would be willing to be in frequent e-mail contact; make sure that this is a person you would be comfortable picking up the phone to call if you run into problems with your editor. Ask about her taste in literature, to get some indication if this is a person you can trust to give you writing feedback. (You should ask the same question, incidentally, of ANYONE you ask for feedback, from your best friend to a freelance editor. If you do not like the same kinds of writing, chances are lower that the feedback will be truly useful to you.) Ask for a list of clients, and for a few days to rush to the bookstore and see what their books are like. You would even be well within your rights to ask if the agent to pass your phone number along to another client who writes similar books, so you can chat about what it is like to work with this particular agent.

See why I have been so adamantly pushing the idea of querying several good agents simultaneously? Ideally, I would like you to have the luxury, as I did, of having these conversations with several agents before you decide who should represent you and your work.

Because, again, I speak from experience: I spent an hour and a half on the phone the other day with my agent, and not just because she and I are both charming conversationalists. The very idea of spending that long in unalloyed contact with either of my first two agents is laughable; I would not have been comfortable enough to do it. Thank goodness I had listened to the excellent advice my more established writing friends had given me, and made absolutely certain that I was signing with an agent I LIKED.

Oh, and she loves my writing, too.

If you are at the point of signing with an agent, or if you are waiting to hear back from an agent who has asked to see your work, and would like to discuss your experience, please drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below. It can be as confusing as it is exhilarating.

And to all, regardless of where you are in the process, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The editorial memo

I received a package in the mail from my editor today, containing some manuscript pages he had marked up. When I opened the FedEx box, I swear that a puff of smoke came out of it, as if my editor had mailed me a small dragon. Turns out that those lovely-to-touch cotton-based papers that I like to print my manuscripts upon soak up cigarette smoke like the proverbial sponge.

The pages are lying all over my dining room table, airing out. My cats, who normally like to mark every manuscript that enters or leaves our house by rolling on it, won’t go near the table.

Ah, the chain-smoking, blunt pencil-wielding editor! Nice to know that some publishing clichés are still operational, isn’t it?

Marginal feedback, however, is actually not the primary means of instruction passing from editor to writer anymore. (Although it is still common enough for it to be worth your while to print your manuscripts on nice paper that render it a pleasure to turn the page. Even if you do not want to splurge on an expensive ream, never print your work on anything less than 20 lb. paper — you can see through anything lighter.) Nor, surprisingly, do many editors prefer to make changes, or even commentary, on soft copy, although the technology is certainly available and easy to use. As I have mentioned before, the publishing industry is paper-oriented: most agencies and even many publishing houses in NYC do not have in-house tech support. If computer-based changes are to be made, then, it is almost always the author who makes them.

So how does commentary pass from editor to author? Through a document called the editorial memo (a.k.a. the editorial letter), a brief, formal missive in standard letter format that gives a straightforward overview of what the editor would like for the author to change in the book.
Often, the editorial memo accompanies a marked-up manuscript, but not necessarily.

What does the editorial memo do that marginal comments or direct conversation do not? In the first place, it is not only sent to the author, but to the editors’ higher-ups as well, both to let everyone concerned know how well the editor feels the manuscript has lived up to the initial expectations of the publishing house and to demonstrate the editor’s active involvement in the book. Second, the editorial memo sets forth a series of requested changes, along with the justifications for them, that the author is expected to make prior to the copyediting phase.

It is often surprising for new authors that the content editing stage (performed by the editor), the copyediting or line editing stage (performed by a lower-level editor), and the proofreading stage (performed by poorly-paid flunkies) are broken out into distinct steps. Surely, the average author feels, the content editor might as well catch a few typos while he’s at it?

Content editing, however, is not always geared toward producing the artistically best possible book. Much of the time, the editor is actually editing for marketability, suggesting additions and cutting lines in order to emphasize the major selling points of the book. With a nonfiction book, this may entail suggesting moving chapters, adding explanations, footnotes, and appendices, and/or adding or removing examples. My memoir’s editorial memo asked me to write a preface to my book, explaining for readers unfamiliar with Philip K. Dick’s work just why his writings are literarily important.

For a novel, editors may ask for more radical changes: deletions of entire characters or plot lines, or a change in the running order. I once had an editing client who was asked to make a family smaller, bring a dead character back to life, and change the moral — a revision that more or less required the writing of an entirely new book. And every time an editor writes such a memo, somewhere in heaven, a writing angel gets a charley horse.

However, the fiction market has changed in one significant respect with regard to editorial instructions within the last fifteen years: in the past, editors would generally buy the novel in question first, before asking for radical revisions. Now, it is extremely common for editors to REJECT books that they would have bought with an eye to revision twenty years ago, merely telling the agents what they would have liked to see work out differently in the book. The book continues to be shopped around by the agent, and if it does not sell, the onus is then upon the author to select WHICH set of advice to take and how to implement it before submitting the book again. Basically, this arrangement allows editors most of the advantages of the editorial memo, without having to ante up an advance that might, if not allow the author to quit her day job, at least take enough time off to revise her book.

I shall spare you a description of what happens to a writing angel every time an editor indulges in such a rejection.

The result, though, is that now, editorial memos for purchased fiction tend to be a lot less scary than they were in days of yore. We’ve all heard the writers’ conference horror stories, I think, about authors being asked to change a character “in order to give the book more mainstream appeal”; Philip once had an editor change a starship captain from black to white with a single sweep of a pen. Don’t you wish you had a nickel for every time an author was told to remove a character that was too feminist, too openly gay, or too interested in politics?

The changes put forth in the editorial memo are, of course, only suggestions: most publishing contracts actually allow the writer quite a bit of leeway in implementing them. From the point of view of the first-time author, however, they are suggestions made by an extremely powerful authority figure: the publisher is really not expecting much opposition. Like having approval rights over the title or the book jacket design, the author’s consent is more or less assumed.

And it’s not as though the publisher and author go through an endless round of suggestion-revision-suggestion-revision to work out conceptual differences of opinion: that, too, is more or less a thing of the past. Contractually, it’s actually rather rare for a book to go through more than one revision after a publisher buys it. Usually, the contract specifies that the author must deliver a book by date X; the publisher must submit requested changes (via the editorial memo) by date Y, usually 60 or 90 days after date X, and the author must deliver a manuscript revised accordingly by date Z, usually 60 or 90 days after that. If there is squabbling over changes, it almost always occurs immediately after the editorial memo is delivered to the author.

Since I have already received my editorial memo, I am relatively confident that the pages on my dining room table hold no truly terrible surprises for me. I already know that they contain enough second-hand smoke to make my cats’ whiskers curl, but, hey, that’s a small price to pay to maintain a publishing tradition. I can always wear a gas mask while I’m revising.

May your editorial memos be positive and plentiful, my friends, and your revise-and-resubmit suggestions be few. And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The vital importance of documentation

Hello, dear readers —

Well, my gag is still pretty firmly in place, but I have figured out a way to derive a universal publishing lesson for you from the turmoil of the last few days: document, document, document.

Those of you who read this blog loyally will no doubt remember my extensive lecture (see posting of August 22) on the vital importance of documentation for memoirists. Because anyone mentioned in a memoir (and those who are insulted when they are NOT mentioned, or not mentioned enough: more common than you might think) could conceivably make, if not actual legal trouble for you and your publisher, then at least a few sleepless nights, YOU NEED TO KNOW WHO TOLD YOU WHAT AND WHEN. Trusting to your undoubtedly excellent memory is not enough — you should be able to produce a list.

For a memoirist, this can be very difficult. Who took good notes as an 8-year-old? However, you can cover yourself by documenting how and where you tried to verify those long-ago memories by speaking to the living in the present day.

You will be pleased to know that I did everything right in this respect. I was trained as an academic, where practically every statement requires an extensive documentary footnote, and keeping track of my own research is second nature. Also, I have an unusually good memory — not photographic, but nearly so. One of the first readers of my manuscript, declining to believe that I could in fact remember the color of curtains in a room where I was once at the age of ten, decided to quiz me on a book I mentioned in the memoir. To be specific, I discussed the impact of the relatively short treatment of Katherine Wright, sister of Orville and Wilbur, received in a history of flight I’d read once in the third grade. Unable to stump me on the facts, he challenged my claim to remember the typeface in which the book was printed. So he checked.

I was right, as it turns out.

However, this level of detailed memory is unusual, to say the least, and frankly, I don’t think it should be required for a memoirist to be credible. All the more reason to document whatever you can.

Curious about what could have gone wrong with my book (as opposed to what IS going wrong, which has little to do with the book’s actual credibility, but instead with who owns an individual’s own memories), I chatted with my marvelous agent about the topic. “What if,” I asked her, “I hadn’t done everything right? What if I hadn’t documented so heavily that my writing friends laughed at me?”

Now, I’m a pretty hardy soul, but I must admit that her answer, dear readers, chilled me a little. “The publisher would have dropped your book,” she told me, “the second that anyone from the Dick estate questioned it.”

This, incidentally, was said about a book that the publisher claims to LOVE, one where the editor gushes to anyone who will listen about the writing. (She mentioned modestly.) It has a target audience so obvious — Philip K. Dick’s literally millions of fans worldwide — that the publisher’s sense of risk is exceptionally low in publishing it. Yet even with all that going for it, they would have dropped the book in a heartbeat if I hadn’t been able to counter a series of unfounded charges with good documentation.

If learning this does not turn you into a super-documenter, nothing I can say will.

I have to say, this unspoken requirement strikes me as unfair to writers in general, and memoirists in particular. Surely, we all have the right to write about our perceptions of our own lives — which is, after all, more or less the definition of a memoir. Why, then, would publishers be so jumpy?

Because, I am now learning through experience, a suit for slander does not have to have any actual basis in fact to be frightening to a publisher. I REALLY have evidence of this: in the United States, it is legally impossible to slander or libel a dead person, and the primary character in my memoir, other than me, has been dead since 1982. AND I don’t say anything particularly nasty about him. However, those facts tend to fall out of the discussions at senior editorial meetings. It is not the content of the charges made by the complaining party that strikes fear into editorial hearts, but the financial status of the complainers. Translation: deep pockets equal major threat, shallow pockets equal minor threat, regardless of the actual basis for the suit.

I like to call this phenomenon censorship by checkbook.

In my case, what makes this censorship by checkbook particularly frustrating is that the scary money in question is, as I understand it, entirely derived from the proceeds from the books, short stories, and movie rights of a writer who was deeply, profoundly opposed to censorship of any kind. Even to those who know Philip K. Dick’s work only through the movies made from it, his name is synonymous with a distrust of corporate entities, governments, and any other powerful force that tries to silence individual thought and creativity in the name of its own prurient interest.

On my good days, the irony of HIS posthumous checkbook being used to try to silence any writer, much less me, amuses me considerably. It is, in fact, precisely the kind of thing that would have happened in a Philip K. Dick novel.

So that is why, dear readers, in case you have been wondering, the legal issues surrounding my memoir continue to irk me, and I continue not being allowed to discuss them here with much specificity. Deep, deep pockets: in effect, Philip’s fans are unwittingly bankrolling my chagrin, and that’s definitely unfair to everyone concerned. I try to keep a sense of humor about it all, but it’s hard.

Regardless of what happens to my book, PLEASE learn from my experience to document your research conversations impeccably. And not just your research conversations: keep those e-mails from kith and kin where they tell you that they are hugely supportive of your project, because they may claim later that they did not even know about it; keep the ones where they praise you and your work, because they may later say that they always hated it. Keep the ones where they tell you that you are telling an important story, because they may change their minds about that, and while you’re at it, keep the ones where they tell you in secret the stories they don’t want the rest of the family to know they told you.

Not that I have any personal experience that would dictate that these are good ideas, of course.

If you cannot get the relevant kith and kin to put these thoughts in writing, send an e-mail or letter (with a carbon for your files, of course) confirming what you were told verbally. Send follow-up questions in writing, and be sure to keep thanking them on paper for helping you so kindly. The day may come when being a little bit compulsive in your record-keeping may save your bacon as a writer.

And, as usual, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: Many, many thanks to those of you who took the time to weigh in on the Philip fansites about the censorship issues around my book; if you haven’t had a chance to yet, check out the very interesting discussion at www.philipkdickfans.com. I assure you, everyone concerned has been taking those postings very, very seriously; I’m really looking forward to the day when I can be explicit about that.

Trying to speak through a gag is hard

I’m absolutely livid today, over developments with my memoir that I am not allowed to tell you about, for legal reasons that make absolutely no sense to me. In fact, I’m so angry that I’ve just spent the last hour writing version after version of what’s happened as a hypothetical rumination on the implications of the First Amendment, as an allegory set in Roman antiquity, and as an 8-line poem ostensibly about flowers. There was even one version peopled entirely by goblins and werewolves. Yet even in these formats, as distanced from real-world events as it is possible to be, what I had to say was still so pointed, so scurrilous, that people who love me and who possess good legal reasoning skills have convinced me not to post any of them. Even the haiku was deemed too pertinent to what is actually going on, more’s the pity.

 

Sorry – I can’t compose something new with all of these people sitting on me.

 

I’ll fill you in the second I can figure out how to do so without violating any of the restrictions my publisher has placed upon my freedom of speech. I may be reduced to interpretive dance soon.

 

Mmmmph mmmmph mmm.

 

— Mmmm Mmmm

 

Still more terms every writer should know, but many are afraid to ask

Here are the rest of the industry glossary terms; every fiber of my being wants to call for a pop quiz now, but I am resisting the temptation with all of my might. Just a flashback to my former incarnation as an academic. It’ll pass.

 

Once again, if there is a term that you were waiting breathlessly for me to define that did not make the list, feel free to drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below, and ask about it in the days and weeks ahead. It’s going to be a long, cold, dark winter, my friends (at least up here in Seattle, where the days start getting AWFULLY short after Halloween, and where already the squirrels and raccoons in my backyard are displaying a suspicious plumpness of fur), and nothing lights up a dreary day like a good industry-speak definition.

 

(Okay, okay — it’s possible I’m mistaken about that. But through the magic of self-delusion, I shall attempt to act as though I believe it all the same.)

 

Here are more definitions:

 

Rookie mistake, n.: An error in a manuscript or finished book that a pro would be unlikely to make, which betrays the fact that the writer (or sometimes, the editor) is new to the publishing industry. The classic rookie mistake is submitting a manuscript that is not in STANDARD FORMAT.

 

Shameless friend, n.: A writer’s buddy who appoints him/herself part time publicist for the writer’s work. A shameless friend does everything from gushing to everyone who will listen (“This is the best book in the world! You’ve got to read it now!”) to posting flattering reviews on Amazon to downright guerrilla marketing, such as picking up the friend’s book off the shelves at Barnes & Noble, walking around with it prominently displayed under her arm, and then setting it down casually on the bestseller table. (My standard shameless friend activity is to find my friends’ books and turn them face-out on the shelf, rather than spine-out, so they are more likely to sell.) The more shameless friends you can recruit before your book hits print, the better off you will be; other writers make terrific shameless friends. Treat them very well: they are worth many times their weight in gold.

 

Shelf life, n.: The length of time any given book will remain on a bookseller’s sales floor before being returned to the publisher or — stuff a pillow in your mouth, because this is horrible — being pulped. In some major bookselling chains that shall remain nameless, this time can be as short as three weeks, which leaves little time for word of mouth to develop. The moral: it really behooves an author to be out there plugging his book for the first few weeks after publication.

 

Ship date, n.: The date upon which actual copies of your book will be sent to booksellers (and those fine folks who pre-order my memoir on Amazon!), as opposed to the publication date, which is when bookstores may begin selling the tomes. You may have heard about this differential with respect to the latest HARRY POTTER book: bookstores had the books from the SHIP DATE, and thus were responsible for implementing security measures that would have made J. Edgar Hoover writhe with envy in order to prevent any copies from being leaked prior to the publication date. (Those of us who have friends who write book reviews have heard about this endlessly, because Scholastic has not sent out REVIEW COPIES for the last two HARRY POTTER books – so I know several book reviewers for major newspapers who were forced to buy the books at midnight like everybody else, read it overnight, and write the review before the next day’s deadline. Somehow, I suspect that sleep deprivation does not render a reviewer kindly.)

 

Simultaneous submission, v. (also known as MULTIPLE SUBMISSION): (1) The practice of querying more than one agent at the same time. Contrary to rumor amongst writers, most agents are more than willing to accept that the querying process is too time-consuming if the writer sends out only one submission at a time. If a given agent objects to the practice, the agency will say so explicitly in the standard agenting guides, so do check. (2) When agents send out a book (or book proposal) to several editors at once, in the hope of engendering competitive bidding. Not all agents favor this practice, particularly for fiction. (3) Being involved with more than one dominatrix at once.

 

SLUG LINE, n.: (1) The line in the top margin (either right or left-justified) of every page of a standard manuscript, bearing the following information in caps: author’s last name, abbreviated title, page #. Thus, every page of my memoir has MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/# on it. (2) The trail left by a Pacific Northwest invertebrate.

 

SLUSH PILE, n.: The holding pen in a publishing house or agency where UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPTS await Judgment Day or for someone to have time to read them; basically, these books are on indefinite hold. In the bad old days, senior editors would buy pizza and beer for the junior editors one night per month, and everyone would sit around and go through the slush pile. Now, most of the major publishing houses will NEVER keep an unsolicited novel in the slush pile; it will simply be returned unread. A few still hold pizza parties for NF, but the practice has become exceptionally rare. The moral: bypassing the rules of submission is not very likely to work in your favor.

 

STANDARD FORMAT, n.: The way everyone in the publishing industry expects a manuscript to look. Manuscripts not in standard format are often discarded unread. (If you want to learn the rules of standard format, check out my posting of August 31.)

 

SUBSIDY PUBLISHING, v.: The act of printing and distributing a book with a press that purports to share the production expenses with the author. In fact, most subsidy presses charge authors significantly more than the actual cost of publication, as these presses’ profits tend to be derived from author contributions, rather than book sales. As a result, subsidy publishing is usually quite a bit more expensive for the author than SELF-PUBLISHING. Most of the time, the authors end up distributing the books themselves, and the vast majority of reviewing publications have hard-and-fast rules against reviewing books produced by subsidy presses.

 

SUBSTANTIVE EDITING, v.: Giving content feedback on a manuscript, as opposed to COPY EDITING or LINE EDITING, which is concerned with grammar and clarity. Increasingly, editors at major publishing houses have time to do neither kind of editing, which leaves the author in the uncomfortable position of editing her own book. (As soon as the final editing of my memoir is complete, I shall be blogging EXTENSIVELY about my experience with this phenomenon.)

 

SYNOPSIS, n.: A brief exposition in the present tense of the plot of a novel or the argument of a book. (See my blog of Sept. 9 for tips how to write a stellar synopsis.)

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS, n.: A list of chapter titles and the corresponding page numbers where those chapters begin in the book. Not to be confused with an Annotated Table of Contents, which is the 2-3 page section in the nonfiction book PROPOSAL which gives the title of each chapter, accompanied by a 2-3 sentence description of what is in each chapter; including a simple TABLE OF CONTENTS in a book proposal is one of the most common ROOKIE MISTAKES. The Annotated Table of Contents does not include projected page numbers. (For guidance on how to create an Annotated Table of Contents, or indeed any part of a NF book proposal, see my posting of August 29.)

 

TITLE PAGE, n.: (1) The page of a manuscript that contains the title (obviously), the author’s pen name, the author’s actual name, contact info for the author (or the author’s agent), book category, and WORD COUNT. (If you are in the throes of formatting a TITLE PAGE, check out my posting of Sept. 9 for tips.) (2) The page of a published book that contains the title, author’s name, and name of the publishing house. To format a manuscript’s title page like a published title page is a ROOKIE MISTAKE.

 

TRADE DISCOUNT, n.: The percentage off the cover price of a book granted by publishers to booksellers; generally, the trade discount is in the 40-50% range. Most PUBLICATION CONTRACTS specify that the author may purchase an unlimited number of books at the TRADE DISCOUNT, but let the author beware: books so purchased do not count toward the author’s sales totals.

 

TRADE LIST, n.: A publisher’s catalogue of all books currently in print. (If you want to see a real, live example, here is the link to my listing in my publisher’s catalogue: http://www.pgw.com/catalog/catalog.monthly.asp?ShipMonth=22006&Action=View&Index=Title&Book=344556&Order=43. You might want to check it out soon, because I suspect that a ROOKIE MISTAKE was made regarding the cover, and it may be changed soon.) The purpose of listing the ISBN and other publication data is to make it as easy as possible for booksellers and private citizens to order the book in question.

 

TRADE PAPER, n.: The level of print quality between hardcover and mass-market paperback; a book with high print standards, but no glossy dust jacket. Increasingly, publishers are releasing serious fiction and memoir in trade paper, bypassing the hardback stage entirely, because hardbacks are so very expensive to print.

 

TRANSLATION RIGHTS, pl. n.: The publication rights to an English-language book printed in any other language, sold on a by-language basis. (Perversely, books sold in English in Great Britain are considered to be foreign-language books for contractual purposes.) These are sold usually separately from the RIGHTS, which refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal and try to get the WORLD RIGHTS as part of the initial deal, but if the book is expected to have LEGS abroad, this generally does not work out well for the author: typically, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American house owns the foreign rights, the domestic publisher scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this seems a trifle technical, it’s because I had rather a struggle to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; my publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

 

UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPT, n.: (1) The doorstop of the publishing world. (2) Any book excerpts, up to and including entire manuscripts, sent to agents who have not asked for them. I tremble to tell you this, but often, these are sent INSTEAD of query letters, and thus end up as definition (1). (3) Any manuscript sent to a publishing house without the author’s first ascertaining that a specific editor there would like to see it. At best, these manuscripts end up in the SLUSH PILE; at worst, they are thrown out. (As nearly as I can tell, few publishing offices are serious about recycling, alas.)

 

VANITY PRESS, n.: (1) The more virulent version of a press that specializes in SUBSIDY PUBLISHING. Vanity presses often woo aspiring authors with misleading promises, in order to tempt writers into plunking down hard cash to see their words in print. (2) A SUBSIDY PUBLISHING press that produces extremely expensive, coffee-table quality books for its clients. (3) What almost everyone in the publishing industry calls a press that specializes in SUBSIDY PUBLISHING; a term of insult.

 

WOMEN’S FICTION, n.: A category of prose whose definition varies depending upon whom you ask. The more old-fashioned use it as a synonym for romance novel, often with a slight sneer, but these same people virtually never refer to thrillers as Men’s Fiction, although the actual purchase rates would indicate that this would be an apt moniker. Currently, the term is used to denote novels whose readership is expected to be overwhelmingly female. However, this is less descriptive than one might think: over 80% of the fiction purchased in North America is bought by women, including the vast majority of literary fiction. So there.

 

WORD COUNT, n.: Not, as one might imagine, the ACTUAL number of words in a document; no, that would be too easy. Rather, the actual number or words rounded to nearest 100 OR the number of manuscript pages in Times or Times New Roman multiplied by 250. The latter is the standard by which the publishing world operates.

 

WORLD RIGHTS, n.: First North American rights + all foreign rights = world rights.

 

WRITING RESUME, n.: A list of an author’s writing and speaking credentials. You should be maintaining one of these on an ongoing basis, and no, you don’t have to have been paid for a publication to include it here. Ideally, to keep your writing resume up to date, you should try to add at least one item to it per year: placing in a contest, giving a public reading of your work, publishing an article or story (no matter how small the publication…The idea here is to show that you have been spending your time while you wait to be discovered wisely, adding tools to your writer’s bag of tricks, so you will be ready when your big break comes.

 

YA (Young Adult), n. and adj.: The moniker attached to novels intended for readers from the ages of 12 to 17, despite the fact that literally no country in the world considers 12-year-olds to be adults. Created, as I understand it, by those who felt that “Children’s books” had a pejorative ring to it.

 

That’s the end of the alphabet — hurrah! Starting tomorrow, I shall be alternating between the kind of practical advice that I’ve been giving for most of the past month and blow-by-blow accounts of my memoir’s rather amusing and totally counterintuitive adventures traveling from contract to print. Follow my book’s hilarious journey from first book proposal to sale to traumatic lawsuit; look on in awe as I struggle to obtain ANY feedback from my editor, who has apparently taken a vow of silence; marvel at the bizarre sense of timing (wait three months, rush around for two days, wait two months, demand results overnight…) that renders it a perpetual miracle that any books are ever published at all!

 

And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

 

— Anne Mini

 

P.S.: For all of you kind souls who have tuned in because you heard on the grapevine about the threatened lawsuit against my memoir: while the legal folderol is going on, I’m actually not allowed to talk about it here in any amount of juicy detail, as much as I would LOVE to do so. In fact, some earlier discussions have required trimming, alas. Since it’s all very interesting — the question of who owns memories is certainly one that would have fascinated Philip K. Dick, and whether I can publish my own memories of him is the crux of the current case — I would love to be able to share the ins and outs on a daily basis, but my typing hands are tied, so to speak. I hope to be able to fill you in soon, though, in vivid Technicolor, so watch this space.

 

Even more terms every aspiring writer should know (but most don’t)

Well, I had thought that I could get through the rest of the alphabet today, but it turns out that people in the publishing industry favor words starting in N and beyond. Go figure.

 

And, to be perfectly honest, blogs full of definitions are a trifle easier on me. I write this free, gratis, and without pay, out of my great love for the PNWA and its members, and I have a HUGE deadline coming up this Saturday. As in BOOK deadline.

 

Thus, I’m a little strapped for time. Since Friday is my birthday, I would like to have enough done so I could sneak away from my computer for a couple of hours to celebrate. It’s my 39th, and since there’s a lawsuit pending over my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, available for presale now on Amazon! The more often I repeat this information, the happier my agent is.), I may well not have any worldly possessions remaining by my 40th. This year, then, would seem to be the year to whoop it up.

 

And if you would like to give me a birthday present, loyal reader, do me a favor: READ YOUR ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT IN HARD COPY AND OUT LOUD BEFORE YOU SEND IT OUT TO ANY AGENTS AND EDITORS. It would make me very, very happy.

 

Okay, here are the definitions du jour:

 

LEGS, n.: A book’s capacity to keep selling over a long period of time, as in, “My, that book has legs!” This is one of the few advantages that books by unknowns have over books by celebrities: celebrity books, even the ones that sell magnificently at first, almost never have legs.

 

OPTION CLAUSE, n. (also known as RIGHT OF FIRST REFUSAL): In a PUBLICATION CONTRACT, the section that specifies that the publisher gets the first look at the author’s next book (or sometimes, the next book in the same genre), before it is shown to other publishers. The option clause does not guarantee publication of the next book. Basically, this is the standard clause that came into fashion when two-and three-book contracts, which used to be the norm, fell out of favor. (There were too many second books that did not live up to the promise of the first. Judith Guest’s ORDINARY PEOPLE was brilliant, but did anyone but me read her next? Not enough of us, apparently.)

 

PROPOSAL, n.: An array of materials about a NF book or article not yet written, designed to sell the book in question to editors. If you are interested in writing a nonfiction book, check out my earlier blogs (August 23–29) discussing the ins and outs of this difficult task.

 

PUBLICATION CONTRACT, n.: The formal agreement between the publisher, the author, and the agent (if any) that specifies that timing and terms of publication. This is the document that will spell out the ADVANCE, ROYALTY rates, etc., all of which your agent will negotiate for you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it over very carefully before you sign it, however.

 

PUBLICIST, n.: A person who sets up readings and interviews for book; often also the person who prepares the PRESS KIT. In the past, publishing houses had in-house publicists; now, it is not unusual to expect the author to be her own publicist. (And lest you think that sending out your own media kit is a waste of time, recall this: well over half of the stories in any given newspaper are either placed by publicists and/or are the direct result of material provided by press kits.)

 

QUERY, v.: To send a cover letter and synopsis out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest. Do keep that in mind: the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender interest; make sure you are marketing your work effectively. If you are gearing up to send out a query, do yourself a favor and read my earlier posts (circa Sept. 7-8) to get tips seldom seen in writers’ guides.

 

QUERY LETTER, n.: A polite, formal introduction of the author to the agent or editor.

 

READING, n.: Any opportunity to read your work aloud in public, to be listed on your WRITERS’ RESUME. It’s definitely worth your while to give readings periodically before you have a book out, both for the experience (it’s not as easy as it looks to read aloud well, especially if you are nervous) and as a SELLING POINT for you as an author: editors like authors who have experience presenting their own work.

 

REQUESTED MATERIALS, n.: What you should write on the outside of the envelope containing chapters an agent or editor has asked to see. This phrase will help keep your work out of the SLUSH PILE.

 

RETURNS, pl. n.: Unsold books that the bookseller sends back to the publisher for credit. Publishers, understandably, do not like these.

 

REVIEW COPIES, pl. n.: BOUND GALLEYS sent to book reviewers and other opinion-makers in advance of publication. Very often with plain or unattractive covers, the major publications get literally hundreds of these per week.

 

RIGHT OF FIRST REFUSAL, n.: See OPTION CLAUSE.

 

RIGHTS, n.: Generally, refers to the ability to be the first press in North America to print a piece of writing. The foreign rights (also known as TRANSLATION RIGHTS) are usually sold separately.

 

ROYALTIES, n.: The author’s share of the cover price of a book; as these are not standardized, first-time authors generally receive a lower rate than established ones. Hardcovers, TRADE PAPER, and paperbacks usually yield different rates of royalties for the author. Often, contracts will specify that the author’s percentage rises with the number of books sold (e.g., 10% for the first 10,000 copies, 12.5 for the second 10,000…). The PUBLICATION CONTRACT will specify these rates, as well as the rates for serialization rights, etc.

 

SASE, n.: Acronym for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. What you should send with EVERY submission to an agent. Use actual stamps, rather than metered postage.

 

SELF-PUBLISHING, v.: When the author pays for every aspect of publication, handles distribution herself, and keeps all of the profits. Often confused — erroneously — with SUBSIDY PUBLISHING. A risky venture, but occasionally very lucrative. (Kevin Trudeau’s controversial NATURAL CURES ‘THEY’ DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT, for instance, has been immensely profitable, but then, he had an immense promotional budget that permitted lengthy infomercials.) A big caveat, however: most newspapers and periodicals have hard-and-fast rules that prevent self-published books from being reviewed.

 

SELLING POINT, n.: Any attribute that makes you and your book stand out from the mass of other books. Too many writers assume that their books should be published simply because they have written them. To a publishing professional, the question is not so much WHETHER a particular book should be published as “WHY should I publish it?” The selling points form the answer to this question. I have discussed selling points within the context of my earlier postings on how to write a book proposal, but if you missed that, I shall be writing about how to determine what your book’s selling points are again soon. Same bat time, same bat channel.

 

I shall stop here for today – Ss are inordinately popular in the industry, so there isn’t a convenient stopping-place nearby. Remember, if you have a term you would like to see me define that I have not covered here, drop me a note via the COMMENTS function, below. Always glad to be of service.

 

And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

 

— Anne Mini

 

More terms you should know

Last week, I started a glossary of terms that every book-loving, agent-seeking aspiring writer should know, phrases that are tossed about in writer-oriented publications with a blithe disregard of whether those new to the field might not know them. (And not just the newbies: I have been a professional writer and editor for over a decade, and I still run across terms I do not know from time to time.) So it’s time to bite the bullet and learn what those phrases mean.

 

Again, if there is a term that you were really hoping I would define here that did not make the list, please send me a message via the COMMENTS function, below, now or at some point in the future. I am always happy to track down definitions for my readers.

 

My apologies to readers of my last posting: alphabetically, the first listing of today’s should have been in last Friday’s. However, someone suggested over the weekend that I include it, and I’m not about to let the tyranny of the alphabet deprive my dear readers of a necessary definition.

 

ELEVATOR SPEECH, n.: The three-minute version of a book, designed to be spoken aloud while in transit, containing the essential PREMISE, the target MARKET, and hitting all of the MARKETING POINTS of the book. All too often, aspiring writers walk into conferences with a PITCH (the three-sentence version) all prepared, but neglect to develop this longer selling tool. As a result, authors often run out of steam a minute into an all-important first meeting with an agent. The essence of a good elevator speech is knowing when to stop talking. (The more I define this, the more I think it deserves a blog of its own – watch for it in the coming week.)

 

JACKET BLURB, n.: The short synopsis of the book typically printed inside the flaps of a hardback’s dust cover. Generally runs about 100 words. (Not to be confused with BLURB, defined last week.)

 

LITERARY FICTION, n.: (1) Another ambiguous category of prose. Depending upon whom you ask, it can mean either character-driven fiction where the writing style is more important than the plot or character-driven fiction that assumes its target audience has a college-level vocabulary. (The average book published in North America assumes a tenth-grade vocabulary, by contrast.) If you want to start a lively controversy at any literary gathering, start asking people whether they consider John Irving’s work literary or mainstream. (2) Any work of fiction that contains a semicolon.

 

MAINSTREAM FICTION, n.: The vast majority of fiction sold in North America. Conforming to none of the standard genre classifications, mainstream fiction appeals to readers from across demographic groups. When mainstream fiction is well-written, or when it receives either a significant prize or critical adulation, it tends to be categorized as literary fiction. If you want to start a lively controversy at any literary gathering, start asking people whether they consider Alice Walker’s work mainstream or literary.

 

MANUSCRIPT, n. (often abbreviated MS): An unbound, single-sided complete draft of a book, for submission to editors and agents. Manuscripts differ from published books in a number of important ways: for instance, they always have at least 1-inch margins, are double-spaced, and are in 12-point type. For other ways in which manuscripts differ from published books, see STANDARD FORMAT.

 

MARKET, n.: (1) The demographic group most likely to buy a specific book, as in “Wow — your book would do really well in the YA market.” You should know the target market of your book, and why your book will appeal to that market, BEFORE you start pitching your work. (2) The current selling environment for books, as in “I can’t place this book in the current market.”

 

MARKET, v.: To present work to people who might buy it. Thus, a novelist markets his work to an agent; the agent then markets it to an editor; the editor markets it to the rest of the publishing firm, and the publishing company markets it to the public.

 

MARKET ANALYSIS, n. (also known as a COMPARATIVE MARKET ANALYSIS): A semi-objective view of the other books currently available on your topic AND an examination of the demographics of who might buy your book. For nonfiction, this is a formal section of the book proposal; for fiction, it’s just a good idea to for the author to conduct. In a conversation about your work with a publishing professional, under NO circumstances should you EVER admit that you have not performed a market analysis, because from the point of view of an agent or editor, the FIRST thing an author should do upon coming up with a great idea is to find out who else has written something similar.

 

MARKETING POINTS, pl. n.: Any facts about you or your book that will make it easier to sell. Make sure that your query letter AND your pitch both include the major marketing points for your book.

 

OUTLINE, n.: For nonfiction, an outline is essentially an expanded table of contents: a list of chapter or section titles, with each title accompanied by a 2-3 sentence summary of what that chapter or section will contain. Generally, when discussing fiction, the person using this term actually means a SYNOPSIS. Double-check.

 

PACKET, n.: An array of materials about a proposed book, used to attract interest within the publishing community. For fiction, this might include a synopsis, a bio, and the first chapter of the novel; for nonfiction, it would include the BOOK PROPOSAL and a cover letter.

 

PITCH, n.: (1) Verbally, your 30-second synopsis of your book. Frequently, agents and editors at conferences will prefer to hear pitches from authors, rather than reading any of the author’s work. (2) In writing, the three-sentence teaser for a book. (3) The second paragraph of most query letters to agents. (See my earlier postings about how to write query letters, if this is news to you.)

 

PITCH, v.: To recite your pitch to an agent or editor. If you are really doing your job at a conference, you should be pitching at least several times an hour, to anyone who will listen. It’s great practice.

 

PLATFORM, n.: For nonfiction, the array of credentials, expertise, and life experience that qualifies you as an expert on the topic of your book. Generally, the first thing an editor will want to know about a prospective NF author.

 

PREMISE, n.: The underlying logical proposition of a piece of fiction; often synonymous with the HOLLY WOOD HOOK. Usually, the premise is easier to identify for genre fiction (“hardboiled detective with a soft spot for curvy dames gets embroiled in city hall intrigue”) than for MAINSTREAM or LITERARY FICTION. In the latter case, the premises of, for instance, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (“A butler butles for years on end.”) or THE ENGLISH PATIENT (“A severely burned man lies still and has flashbacks.”) must have required considerable embroidery upon the underlying premise to pitch successfully.

 

PRESS KIT, n.: An array of materials used to convince newspapers, radio stations, and television stations that you and your work deserve attention. It used to be that publishing houses put these together for authors, but now, most authors need to assemble and distribute their own press kits. (Don’t worry; it will be the subject of a future blog.)

 

That’s all for today – I should be able to finish the rest of the alphabet tomorrow.

 

But while I still have your attention, I am going to digress from my very serious subject matter to pursue the shade of the lovely and talented Ralph Fiennes. This weekend, I took a MUCH-NEEDED break from manuscript revision to see THE CONSTANT GARDENER and CORPSE BRIDE, a double feature with a whole lot of dead women in it. Has anyone but me noticed that, cinematically speaking, the mortality rate of any female character that gets romantically involved with a Ralph Fiennes character in a movie is 100%? This film, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, SCHINDLER’S LIST… What’s next, ANNA KARENINA? I’m sure women worldwide would have much happier fantasy lives if his love interests were occasionally allowed to survive the final frame. If I met him in a dark alley – or, still worse, in a desert – I would instantly run in the opposite direction.

 

All right, there is your dose of serious career-building information AND total whimsy for the day. Go out and enjoy the first days of autumn.

 

Keep up the good work!

 

– Anne Mini

 

Glossary of terms you need to know

Now that conference season has wound to a close, many of you are probably poring over agent and editor guides, trying to figure out whom to query. Isn’t it annoying that every single one of them seems to ask for something different?

 

At the risk of seeming too basic, I thought it might be useful to pass along definitions of the terms that tend to get tossed about in these guides (and at conferences), in case anyone was afraid to ask.

 

ADVANCE, n.: Money paid to an author prior to the publication of a book; often quite small. Typically, the advance is paid in three installments: 1/3 on contract signing (although it is not unusual for this to arrive MONTHS after the ink is dry), 1/3 upon acceptance of the manuscript by the editor (or, again, months afterward), and 1/3 upon publication. As this money is a prepayment of anticipated royalties, the author will then receive no royalties until the advance amount has been reached. However, if the author’s share of sales does not ever reach the amount of the advance, the author generally does not have to pay back the difference.

 

AGENT, n.: For fiction, the first judge of whether your book will get published; for non-fiction, the person who uses his/her connections to get you a publishing contract. Your advance, royalty, etc. checks will go directly from the publisher to your agent, not directly to you, so do make sure to sign with someone you trust.

 

AGENCY CONTRACT, n.: What an agent has you sign prior to representation; you should read it very carefully, for it lays out with great specificity what your financial arrangements will be. Contracts can either be per book (so you would need to renew it when you wrote your next) or per year (regardless of how many books you write.) Typically, agents receive 15% (non-negotiable) for North American sales of your writing, 20% or more for foreign sales. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuanian.)

 

AUTHOR PHOTO, n.: A picture taken at the author’s expense that graces either the inside back cover or the back of the dust jacket; often, it will appear in the publisher’s catalogue and/or on the publisher’s website as well. It need not be in black-and-white, but often is; for established authors, author photos are often a decade or more out of date, which is why you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings. Since you will need to produce this picture immediately after the book contract is signed, you might want to consider getting your picture taken now. Trust me, it will take you several tries to get a photo you like enough to want to see mass-produced.

 

BIO, n.: A 1/3 – 1/2 page (single-spaced) description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational background. Writers are now responsible for producing these themselves.

 

BLURB, n.: A statement by a famous person/published author/anyone you can cajole about how good your book is. Typically, these are printed on the back jacket. If you have a really good one (say, from a famous writer), for heaven’s sake, include it in your query letter. It is completely acceptable to start garnering blurbs prior to selling your book; if some Eminence Grise of the literary world says your novel is the most important book since MADAME BOVARY, feel free to mention it in your query letter. However, skip including rave reviews from your friends, family, or professors: in a professional context, they will not come across as impressive.

 

BOOK PROPOSAL, n.: The indispensable marketing tool for selling a nonfiction book, to be prepared with care, as everything in it is essentially a writing sample; you wouldn’t believe how many book proposals look as though they were thrown together in a couple of hours. The typical proposal includes a synopsis of the book being proposed, a narrative description of what the book is about and why this author is the best person to write it, an outline, a comparative market analysis, a marketing plan, an author bio, and 1-3 chapters of the book. (If you missed my many-part series of postings on how to write a book proposal, check them out below.)

 

BOUND PROOF, n.: A softback edition of a book that is sent to reviewers, potential blurb-givers, and other “opinion-makers” prior to publication of the book.

 

CHICK LIT, pl. n.: Definition varies upon whom you ask: some say sex-positive work for adult women readers; some say bouncy novels about Republican bimbos; some say anything vaguely humorous written by an American or British woman under the age of 40. Like art, everyone knows it when she sees it, but has trouble defining precisely what it is.

 

CLIPS, n. (also known as CLIPPINGS): Photocopies of your previously published articles, often included in a book proposal or query letter to a magazine.

 

CONTRACT, n.: See AGENCY CONTRACT and PUBLICATION CONTRACT.

 

COPY EDITING, v.: (1) Proofreading a manuscript for grammatical, spelling , and logical errors. (2) What editors at publishing houses used to do for authors, and authors are now expected to do for themselves.

 

COPY EDITING, n.: The stage of the publication process AFTER the editor’s substantive editing changes have been incorporated. Generally speaking, this process is not conducted by the editor him or herself.

 

COVER LETTER, n.: The massively polite missive you should send along with ANYTHING you EVER submit to an agent or editor, reminding them that they have asked to see the work enclosed. A lot of writers forget to include this, instead just sending an undirected manuscript or book proposal. ALWAYS include a brief cover letter, thanking the agent or editor for their interest in your work.

 

EDITOR, n.: For fiction and non-fiction, the official who does acquisitions for a publishing house. For articles, the person who does acquisitions for a magazine.

 

EXCLUSIVE, n.: When an agent or editor wants you to promise not to show your work to any other agent or editor until she has made up her mind. A courtesy you extend to people who have the power to make or break your work. Exclusives are always requested specifically; if an agent has not asked for an exclusive, either directly or through a listing in a guide, then you are free to submit to several agents simultaneously. Always place a time limit on exclusives (3 weeks is reasonable).

 

FREELANCE EDITOR, n.: A person who edits writing for clarity, grammar, etc., who is paid by the author, not a publishing house or agency. Many editors also do substantive editing as well.

 

FRESH, adj.: Industry term for an unusual look at a well-worn topic; marketable. The industry truism is that they’re always looking for an author who is fresh, but not weird. (Weird can mean anything from a topic never written about before to an unpopular political spin to a book proposal in a non-standard folder.)

 

GALLEYS, n.: The unbound proofs of a book in production, produced so the author and editor may check them for accuracy. Unlike the manuscript, the galleys will show the book as it will actually appear in print.

 

HOLLYWOOD HOOK, n.: 1-sentence or 25-word description of the concept of a book at its most basic level, cast in terms of other people’s successes. A famous example was Star Trek’s original pitch: “It’s Wagon Train in space!”

 

I shall continue with the rest of the alphabet on Monday, tightness of deadline and legal conditions permitting. In the meantime, if you see a term, here or elsewhere, that you would like me to define for you, drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below.

 

And keep up the good work!

 

–Anne Mini

 

The questions to ask about your work before you send it out

Let’s assume for the moment that you have done everything I spoke about in yesterday’s post: found a sterling feedback-giver or two (and actually listened to them!), and you feel that your manuscript is good to go. Then, mirabile dictu, after an admirable query, you have been asked to send a few chapters (or even the whole book!) to your dream agent.

 

First, take few minutes to feel hugely, immensely, magnificently proud of yourself. It is no small achievement to have stood out in the crowd enough to be asked to send material, and don’t let your anxiety over the ultimate goals — in the short run, to get an agent; in the long run, to sell your book — convince you to under-celebrate the fact that you have reached a legitimate milestone. Dance and sing in the streets a little.

 

Then, get down to work. “It is time to smooth the hair,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “and get the dimples ready.” Read every page that you are sending OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY, to weed out any lingering errors, then sit down and ask yourself some hard questions:

 

(1) Am I sending what the agent asked to see, no more, no less?

 

A surprisingly high number of aspiring authors blow their chances by failing the first test an agent sets them: demonstrating that they know how to follow directions. I know that it is tempting, when asked to send the first 50 pages, to round it up a little, to round out the chapter.

 

Don’t. Leave ‘em in mid-sentence – your goal here is to make them clamor to see more.

 

(2) Is my manuscript in standard format?

 

See my earlier posting on the rules of standard format, if you’re not sure. If it’s in a fancy typeface, change it to 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier immediately. Make sure that your margins are at least one inch on all sides, and double-check your slug line (the line in the header that reads AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE OF WORK/#).

 

Yes, these are purely cosmetic matters, and they have nothing to do with the actual quality of your writing. But if you do not use standard format, I assure you, your work will not be taken as seriously — basically, your writing will have to be twice as good to capture an agent’s attention. (The standard rejection-letter euphemism for this is “Consider taking some classes on marketing your work.”)

 

And think about it: would you show up for a job interview at a Fortune 500 company dressed in a clown suit? (Okay, I have to admit, if you actually would, I have a certain fondness for you already. However, you probably would not get the job.)

 

(3) Do I have a great opening line, or is my real killer buried a few pages in?

 

This may seem like an odd question, but it is my editorial experience that most good writers tend to put their zinger first lines somewhere on pages three to six. What comes before tends to be set-up or preamble.

 

Read your submission carefully to see if you have done this. Once you find your killer first line, reconsider what comes before it: could it go? Could the information it gives come more gradually?

 

(4) If I took away everything in my packet except for the first page of my submission, would the agent be desperate to learn what happens on the subsequent pages? What about if I took away everything but the first paragraph?

 

If the answer to both questions is not yes, you should probably perform a few revisions.

 

Writers know their own work so well that it sometimes becomes very hard to see it from a new reader’s perspective. Getting a reader to continue past the first few lines, and definitely past the first page, is an act of seduction, my friends. Those first few bits really have to count.

 

The best way to test for this is to hand the first page to someone who doesn’t know the plot of your book, have him read it, and then ask him to speculate on what comes next. If his guess is too dead-on, you might want to incorporate a bit more quirkiness into your opening.

 

If your reader looks puzzled and says, “I honestly have no idea where this is going,” take a good look at your opening. Does it actually fit your book?

 

(5) Would I buy this book, based upon these short excerpts?

 

This is a tough question for you to answer about your own work, but a necessary one. If your best writing is not in your first chapter or two, consider presenting the parts you deem best AS the first chapter. I know this sounds wacky, but you can always say later that you’ve rethought the running order of the book. Remember, both fiction and nonfiction often changes considerably after an agent takes it on – and often even more after an editor acquires the book. Your first pages as they currently stand will probably be revised at some point in the future.

 

And the sole purpose of your first chapter when you submit it to an agent is to get the agent to want to read more of your writing. Period. It needs to be your very best writing, even if the chapter in question will ultimately be in the middle of the book. If it sings, and you can legitimately present it as a first chapter, consider presenting it as such.

 

If this seems a bit draconian to you, try rearranging the chapter so that your favorite passage appears on page one. Don’t think of this page one as the opening to your long dreamt-of book. Instead, think of it as your very first opportunity to show this agent that you can write up a storm.

 

(6) Is there sufficient action in the first five pages, or is it mostly build-up? (Check this, even if you are writing nonfiction.) If I do not currently begin with action, could I?

 

It is also very common for first novels not to get going for awhile. In Britain, this is actually considered rather stylish: I keep reading acclaimed British novels where almost nothing happens for the first 50 pages! And as much as I enjoy them, I invariably shake my head and think, “This author would never be able to land an agent in the U.S.”

 

Remember how busy I said agents and their assistants were in my earlier postings about query letters? Guess what: they’ll still be extraordinarily busy when the time comes to read your chapters. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for agents to reserve a new author’s manuscript to read at home, in their spare time: I think the theory here is that if they like your style enough to keep reading when they could be doing something else, you must be really talented! It means, however, that your chapters may well be competing with the agent’s children, spouse, aikido class, rottweiler, favorite TV show, and many other claims upon her attention.

 

So keep it exciting. In a submission, even the most literary of literary novels has to keep moving.

 

(7) Does the material I am sending stand alone, or would I be happier if I could be standing over the agent’s shoulder, explaining?

 

This is no joke: it is a serious question. If your answer was the latter, read through again: if there is so much as a parenthetical aside that you feel will not be utterly clear from what is actually said on paper, go back and clarify it.

 

(8) Read every syllable of your submission out loud, preferably to another person. Does it make sense? Have you left out a word here or there? (A very common mistake that computer screens render difficult to catch.) Are there logical leaps?

 

Aha, you thought you could get away with ignoring this sterling piece of advice when I suggested it above, didn’t you? There is no excuse for not doing this, even if the agent asked you to send your materials right away. Don’t blow your big chance on a simple error or two.

 

Tinker accordingly. Once you are happy with your responses to all of these questions, send it out — and see if you don’t get better responses.

 

Oh, and for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to take a great big marker and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of your envelope, so your marvelous submission doesn’t get tossed into the unsolicited manuscript pile for a few months. It’s a good idea, too, to mention that these are requested materials in your HUGELY POLITE cover letter that you enclose with the manuscript: “Thank you for asking to see the first three chapters of my novel…”

 

Always, always include a SASE — a stamped, self-addressed envelope – with enough postage (stamps, not metered) for your manuscript’s safe return, and MENTION the SASE in your cover letter. This marks you as a polite writer who will be easy to work with and a joy to help. If you want to move your reputation up into the “peachy” range, include a business-size SASE as well, to render it a snap to ask you to see the rest of the manuscript. Make it as easy as possible for them to get ahold of you to tell you that they love your book.

 

One last thing, another golden oldie from my broken-record collection: do not overnight your manuscript, unless you have specifically been asked to do so; priority mail, or even regular mail, is fine. You may be the next John Grisham, but honey, it is unlikely that the agent’s office is holding its collective breath, doing nothing until it receives your manuscript. Hurrying on your end will not speed their reaction time.

 

And since turn-around times tend to be long (a safe bet is to double what the agent tells you; call or e-mail after that, for they may have genuinely lost your manuscript), do not stop sending out queries just because you have an agent looking at your chapters or your book proposal. If the agent turns you down (perish the thought!), you will be much, much happier if you have other options already in motion.

 

The only circumstance under which you should NOT continue querying is if the agent has asked for an exclusive – which, incidentally, you are under no obligation to grant. However, politeness generally dictates agreement. If you do agree to an exclusive (here comes another golden oldie), specify for how long. Three weeks is ample. Then, if the agent does not get back to you within the stated time, you will be well within your rights to keep searching while she tries to free enough time from her kids, her spouse, her Rottweiler, etc. to read your submission.

 

And the best of luck!

 

Before I sign off, I’d like to thank all of you who have been sending me such wonderful, supportive messages about my memoir’s stormy publication process, both through the Comments function and (for those of you who already knew me) by e-mail. I really do appreciate it.

 

The saga is going to go on hiatus for a little while, however, as I’ve been asked by my publisher not to talk about it directly. So, if, for instance, something exciting happened to occur, I would perhaps have to present it as a hypothetical, if there were in some alternate universe any development that might conceivably be of interest or help to you. But for now, ix-nay on the lawsuit-lay.

 

Keep up the good work!

 

— Anne Mini

 

So they’ve asked you to send chapters – and a request for your help

Once you have sent off a great query letter, or made a fabulous pitch at a conference, you hit the jackpot: an agent asks to see your work. And you’ve got it made, right?

 

Well, not necessarily, if your writing is not in apple-pie order. (And no, I don’t know where I picked up that particular homey phrase. Probably in my wayward youth, from someone like Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March or Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn. It has a 19th-century ring to it.) Just as your marketing materials should be so impeccably put together that they can travel by themselves with no excuses, even in the most literate circles, just as your title page has to be a paragon of professionalism, your initial chapters need to be in well-nigh perfect shape before you send them out.

 

I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM. Thus, for many writers, the agent’s feedback, which is often quite minimal, is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

 

Or at least without having been read by anyone at all likely to be able to give an objective opinion; as I have discussed before, the feedback of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover (s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs. No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Even if your mother runs a major publishing house for a living, your brother is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback. Nor should they have to. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself – or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

 

If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback. I know it seems as though I’m harping on this point, but I regularly meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.

 

At that point, trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you.

 

I can’t tell you what a high percentage of my clients come to me after years of following the advice of people who, while well-meaning and sharp-eyed, could only identify problems in the text, but had no idea how to fix them. I want to save you, dear readers, as much disappointment as possible. Out comes my broken record again: good writing is a necessary condition for getting published, but not sufficient alone. Good writing needs to be presented professionally, or it tends not to find a home.

 

And emotionally, what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a stranger who can change your life? It’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency. Professionals have no reason to pull their punches; very often, the criticism comes back absolutely unvarnished. Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.

 

I’m trying to save you some headaches here.

 

But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Emily Dickinson types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy souls would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? (Despite the fact that the PNWA provides contacts for those who are interested in joining one within its geographic confines. For free, no less.) You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.

 

And maybe you are right.

 

I am not saying that a writer can’t be a good judge of her own work — she can, if she has a good eye. I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings; hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.

 

However, I would argue that until you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure how good your own eye is — and I would suggest that it is a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills. Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.

 

Dear me, I have gotten so carried away with my topic that I shall have to defer my actual tips until tomorrow’s posting! (For those of you who haven’t been following my saga over the last 6 weeks, I am in the midst of fighting off a lawsuit against my forthcoming memoir AND have a deadline for getting a book to a publisher by the end of next week – by my birthday, as it happens. So my time is a LITTLE tight these days.)

 

For those of you who have been following my saga of triumph and woe, may I presume to ask a favor? This is National Banned Books Week (September 19-23); in celebration, would you consider logging on to one of the Philip K. Dick fan sites (www.philipkdickfans.com would be an admirable choice) and weighing in on the subject of the Dick estate’s continuing attempts to censor my book, A FAMILY DARKLY? It would only take a couple of minutes, and it would help both me and all future writers of memoirs. The issue here is actually very simple: is it or is it not fair to tell an author what she can and can’t write about her own life?

 

Normally, I would not ask, but after all, this is the week to speak up.

 

And if you are writing or know of other books that have been stymied at the point of publication by pernicious lawsuits, please fill me in via the Comments function, below. At the moment, I’m in a pretty good position to pass along links and resources that might be useful to silenced authors.

 

As always, keep up the good work! And happy National Banned Books Week!

 

– Anne Mini

 

Standard format for title pages

Yes, I know: title pages seem pretty straightforward, right? Surely, if there is an area where a writer new to submissions may safely proceed on simple common sense, it is the title page.

 

Wrong.

 

Believe it or not, the title page of a manuscript tells agents and editors quite a bit about both the book itself and the experience level of the writer. There is information that should be on the title page, and information that shouldn’t; speaking with my professional editing hat on for a moment, virtually every manuscript I see has a non-standard title page, so it is literally the first thing I will correct in a manuscript. I find this tendency sad, because for every ms. I can correct before they are sent to agents and editors, there must be hundreds of thousands that make similar mistakes.

 

Even sadder, the writers who make mistakes are their title pages are very seldom TOLD what those mistakes are. Their manuscripts are merely rejected on the grounds of unprofessionalism, usually without any comment at all. I do not consider this fair to aspiring writers, but once again, I do not make the rules, alas.

 

In fact, properly-formatted title pages are rare enough that a good one will make your manuscript (or your excerpt, if an agent asks to see the first chapter or two) shine preeminently competent, like the sole shined piece of silver amidst an otherwise tarnished display. It is well worth your effort, then, to make sure that your title page does not scream: “This writer has never sold a book before!”

 

In the first place, the title page should be in the same font and point size as the rest of the manuscript – which, as I have pointed out before, should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Therefore, your title page should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. No exceptions, and definitely do not make the title larger than the rest of the text. It may look cool to you, but to professional eyes, it looks rather like a child’s picture book.

 

“Oh, come on,” I hear some of you saying, “the FONT matters that much? What about the content of the book? What about my platform? What about my brilliant writing? Surely, the typeface pales in comparison to these crucial elements?”

 

You’re right — it does, PROVIDED you can get an agent or editor to sit down and read your entire submission. Unfortunately, though, this is a business of snap decisions, where impressions are formed very quickly. If the cosmetic elements of your manuscript imply a lack of knowledge of industry norms, your manuscript is entering its first professional once-over with one strike against it. It may be silly, but it’s true.

 

Most of my clients do not believe me about this until they after they switch, incidentally. Even queries in the proper typefaces tend to be better received. Go ahead and experiment, if you like, sending out one set of queries in Times New Roman and one in Helvetica. Any insider will tell you that the Times New Roman queries are more likely to strike agents (and agents’ assistants) as coming from a well-prepared writer, one who will not need to be walked through every nuance of the publication process to come.

 

Like so many aspects of the mysterious publishing industry, there is actually more than one way to structure a title page. Two formats are equally acceptable from an unagented writer. (After you sign with an agent, trust me, your agent will tell you how she wants you to format your title page.) The unfortunate technical restrictions of a blog render it impossible for me to show it to you exactly as it should be, but here is the closest approximation my structural limitations will allow:

 

Format one, which I like to call the Me First, because it renders it as easy as possible for an agent to contact you after falling in love with your work:

 

Upper left-hand corner:

 

Your name

 

First line of your address

 

Second line of your address

 

Your phone number

 

Your e-mail address

 

Upper right-hand corner:

Book category

Word count

 

(Skip down 10 lines, then add, centered on the page:)

 

Your title

 

(skip a line)

 

By

 

(skip a line)

 

Your name (or your nom de plume)

 

There should be NO other information on the title page.

 

Why, you may be wondering, does the author’s name appear twice on the page in this format? For two reasons: first, in case you are writing under a name other than your own, as many writers choose to do, and second, because the information in the top-left corner is the contact information that permits an agent or editor to acquire the book. Clean and easy.

 

If you are in doubt about which category your book falls within, read one of my last three postings.

 

Word count can be approximate — in fact, it looks a bit more professional if it is. This is one of the advantages of working in Times New Roman: in 12-point type, everyone estimates a double-spaced page with one-inch margins in the business at 250 words. If you use this as a guideline, you can’t go wrong.

 

Do not, under any circumstances, include a quote on the title page. Many authors do this, because they have seen so many published authors use quotes at the openings of their books. Trust me: putting your favorite quote on the title page will not make your work look good.

 

While the Me First format is perfectly fine, the other standard format, which I like to call the Ultra-professional, is more common in the industry. It most closely replicates what most agents want their authors’ ultimate manuscript title pages to look like:

 

Upper right corner:

 

Book category

 

Word count

 

(Skip down 12 lines, then add, centered:)

 

Title

 

(skip a line)

 

By

 

(skip a line)

 

Your name (or your nom de plume)

 

(Skip down 12 lines, then add in the lower right corner:)

 

Your name

 

Line 1 of your address

 

Line 2 of your address

 

Your telephone number

 

Your e-mail address

 

Again, there should be NO other information, just lots of pretty white space. After you sign with an agency, your agent’s contact information will appear where your contact information does.

 

That’s it, my friends – the only two options you have, if you want your title page to look like the bigwigs’ do. Try formatting yours accordingly, and see if your work is not treated with greater respect!

 

Having trouble picturing this? Completely understandable. You’ll find visual examples here. Keep up the good work!

 

— Anne Mini

 

Nonfiction book categories – and a cheerier Anne

Hello, dear friends —

 

Well, I’m in a much better mood than I was last week: I realized over the weekend that since I don’t own much of anything, it matters less if I’m sued over my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY, than if I were well-to-do. If my publisher, which I believe IS well-to-do, isn’t taking the lawsuit threats particularly seriously, I suppose I should be even less concerned.

 

It did get me thinking, though, about the ironies of this business. When the marketing department came up with the title of my book, I was actually pretty annoyed: I had wanted to call it IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?. (Just so you know, first-time authors very seldom get to name their own books; I have it on reliable authority that there are publishing houses that automatically change EVERY title that they acquire, just to put their stamp upon the book.) “What does that title MEAN?” I asked, with some heat. “What precisely is dark about my family? And while we’re at it, can I at least beg for a comma, to create at least the illusion of its being grammatically correct?”

 

I never really got an answer, except to have it pointed out to me repeatedly that a movie based upon one of Philip’s books (A SCANNER DARKLY, which everyone should rush out and read immediately) is scheduled to come out approximately when my book does. The connection between my book and the movie, I gather, is to be almost subliminal.

 

In any case, I threw a fit over it at first. I told them that I could never bring myself to say it with a straight face. I argued; I complained; I believe I even whined, to no avail. A FAMILY DARKLY it was.

 

I’ve had the summer to get used to it, but to be absolutely frank, it didn’t really start to grow on me until I started receiving threats from the Dick estate. Actually, I had kind of liked Philip’s kids before that; I had thought we were getting along pretty well, until they decided that I was the Anti-Christ, for reasons I have yet to fathom. Many other writers have said far, far worse things about their father than I do, and yet I’m the only one that they’ve ever threatened to sue. Go figure.

 

They threatened first in early July, promising a bumper crop of demanded textual changes by the first week of August. The list of demands never came, however, so I thought, understandably, that they’d changed their minds. So the letter from their lawyer, delivered to my doorstep in early September, came as something of a surprise.

 

Turns out that one of their objections is that they believe that my book gives the false impression that they agree with my point of view. It doesn’t, but there’s no convincing angry people of anything that they don’t want to hear. In fact, the only thing in it that I can find in the book that might remotely be construed, if read backwards and upside-down, to indicate approval is a description of one lunch we had together, and one brunch at my house.

 

I don’t know about you, but I often eat meals with people who disagree with my opinions. I don’t feel it commits me to anything.

 

In any case, I’ve been revising like mad, to remove any vestige of an impression that these people and I ever agreed on so much as the time of day; unless I’m very much mistaken, the draft going to press will not even allow the reader to conclude that they were remotely civil to me. I hope they shall be pleased. (The funny thing is, it was not even hard to switch the tone: one of the complainants spent the first half-hour of her visit to my house rudely snooping around, staring at all of my possessions as if she were trying to value them for future sale. For all I know, she was: how am I to know if she was already contemplating a lawsuit, before she had even read the book?)

 

Now, I feel the title of the book is really, really appropriate: not to describe my family, but theirs. All’s well that ends well, right?

 

Okay, on to the promised topic du jour: the categories of nonfiction books. Again, the category 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. Like genre, NF categories are the conceptual boxes that books come in, telling agents and editors roughly where it would sit in a bookstore. (The nonfiction categories are a much rougher indication of location than the fiction. Do be aware that 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.)

 

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. Do bear in mind that the first things an agent or editor now tends to look for in a NF book query is not a great idea, but the platform of the writer. Your job in the query letter will be to sell yourself as the world’s best-qualified person to write this book.

 

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

 

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

 

HOLIDAYS: 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, includes GARDENING.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

LIFESTYLE: Less broad than it sounds.

 

SELF-HELP: if you have ANY platform to write one of these, do so. These are the books that can land you on Oprah.

 

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.

 

EXERCISE: fitness for people who consider themselves to be in relatively good shape.

 

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.

 

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. Do be aware that 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.

 

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?

 

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.

 

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

 

PROFESSIONAL: Books for readers working in particular fields.

 

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?

 

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’ve had a really long day.)
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 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.

 

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: 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.

 

Boy, am I glad to be finished with this set of information! I’m not a big fan of lists, as reading matter goes. Tomorrow, I shall show you how to format a standard title page, which will be much more fun.

 

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

 

— Anne Mini

 

Genre categories — and more of my saga

Okay, take a deep breath, boys and girls: we’re going to tackle the rest of the fiction book categories today. (Don’t worry, I’ll get back to that jolly interesting stuff about my memoir being the target for an ill-conceived lawsuit threat at the end of the post. I just didn’t want to leave all of you anxious queriers out there in the lurch, category-less.)

Yesterday, for those of you who missed it (I posted considerably later than usual), I went through the standard general fiction categories. Picking a category for your work is important, because (a) you only get to pick one, no matter how badly you would like to form hyphenate composites like Erotica-Western (and who wouldn’t want to read THAT?), and (b) the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work. Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their chosen categories.

Furthermore, you cannot dodge this kind of negative snap judgment by avoiding making a choice at all amongst the dozens of available categories, or by hiding your choice in the middle of your query letter. Oh, no: agents expect to see a straightforward statement of your category in the first paragraph of your query letter, on the title page of your manuscript (I’ll show you how to format a title page next week, legal difficulties permitting), and in your pitch.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time.

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that a genre label automatically translates into writing less polished than other fiction in professional minds. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are markers of where a book will sit in a bookstore, not value judgments. Naturally, agents and editors expect a book to reflect the conventions of books within the stated genre, but believe me, an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER, rather than just FICTION.

Case in point: I once had the misfortune to be assigned at a writers’ conference to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle mainstream or literary fiction, which is what I was writing. Since he had been good enough to read my first chapter and synopsis, I sat politely and listened to what he had to say. What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, but he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two thirds of the way through the book, concerning the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He looked at me as though I had just told him that the sky was bright orange. “Then why are you talking to me?”

The rumor that genre carries a stigma has resulted in a lot of good manuscripts that would have stood out in their proper genres being pitched as mainstream or even literary fiction. Thus, queries and pitches have been aimed at the wrong eyes and ears. By labeling your work correctly, you increase the chances of your query landing on the desk of someone who genuinely likes your kind of book astronomically.

So label your work with absolute clarity. Many first-time genre authors make the completely understandable mistake of simply labeling their work with the overarching genre: MYSTERY, ROMANCE, SCIENCE FICTION, etc. However, did you know that each of these categories has many, many subcategories?

The more specific you can be, the more likely your work is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up your book. (Or so the professionals claim. Really, it’s a shortcut that enables them to weed out queries outside their area with a minimum of letter-reading; that’s why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can weed it out almost instantly.)

Let me state outright that the major genres all have wonderful writers’ associations which can undoubtedly give you more specific information than I can here. This list is intended to guide people’s first forays into picking a category.

Let’s start with SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, because it is the genre closest to my heart. My first writing teacher was an extremely well-known science fiction writer, so my first efforts at short stories were naturally in that genre. It may amuse those of you who write SF (the professionals NEVER call it Sci Fi, incidentally) that Philip, arguably one of the best-selling SF writers of all time, told me from the very beginning that he thought I should not write in his genre, no matter how well I did it: it was, he said, too hard for any good writer to make a living at it.

But times have changes substantially since Philip was writing, and if you write SF or Fantasy, you have many options within the genre. You can, of course, simply list SCIENCE FICTION or FANTASY, if your work does not fall into any of the subcategories.

SCIENCE FICTION ACTION/ADVENTURE: The protagonist must fight incredible odds or impressive beasties to attain his (or, less frequently, her) goals. Eek — is that an Ewok behind that tree?

SPECULATIVE SCIENCE FICTION (what if X were changed?) and FUTURISTIC SCIENCE FICTION (what if my characters lived in a future society where X was different from now?) are often mistakenly conflated into a single category. Wait — is this a government plot?

ALTERNATE HISTORY: What if X had changed in the past? What would the present be like? Philip’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, predicated on the premise that the other side won World War II, is the usual example given for this subgenre.

CYBERPUNK: I have heard a lot of definitions for this subgenre, ranging from THE MATRIX to NEUROMANCER. Think technology-enhanced alternate realities with a dark twist.

DARK FANTASY: Fear skillfully woven into a what-if scenario. Until CYBERPUNK got its own following, its books tended to be marketed as DARK FANTASY.

COMIC FANTASY: Elves on ecstasy.

EPIC FANTASY: Wait — my friends the centaur, the half-human, half-canary, and a centipede have to save the universe AGAIN? If Tolkein were writing today, his LORD OF THE RINGS series would probably be marketed under this category.

If you are in serious doubt over where your SF/FANTASY book falls, go to any bookstore with a good SF/fantasy section and start pulling books off the shelves. Find a book similar to yours, and check the spine and back cover: the subgenre is often printed there.

VAMPIRE FICTION is sometimes categorized as fantasy, sometimes as horror. But there is something hypnotic about your eyes.

HORROR is its own distinct genre, and should be labeled accordingly. Never get into a car without checking the back seat, and for heaven’s sake, if you are a teenager, don’t run into the woods.

Okay, take another deep breath, because we are now going to delve into the many, many ROMANCE subcategories.

EROTICA is not your grandmother’s idea of pornography anymore. (Well, I guess it might be, depending upon what your grandmother was into.) Sexually-explicit writing where arousal is the point.

HISTORICAL ROMANCE has a zillion subcategories, primarily because its subcategories are often specific to period and locale. A few of the biggies: REGENCY, SCOTTISH, MEDIEVAL, TEXAS, WESTERN, MIDDLE EASTERN. ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND.

TIME TRAVEL: You have given up on the opposite sex in your own timeframe.

INSPIRATIONAL: If your romance novel is informed by spirituality, it belongs here.

CONTEMPORARY: Having a current-affairs issue at its core OR a protagonist who is a woman deeply devoted to her career.

FANTASY and CHICK LIT are hyphenates within the genre: basically, the conventions of these categories are grafted onto the ROMANCE genre. Natural choices, I think.

MULTICULTURAL: Not all of the people falling in love are white. Seriously, that’s what this means. I don’t quite understand this euphemism, since generally books labeled MULTICULTURAL are about a single culture, but hey, I don’t make the rules.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: this used to be called Women in Jeopardy or, more colloquially, Bodice Rippers. No comment.

PARANORMAL and GHOST ROMANCE are divided by a distinction I do not understand. Sorry. Check with Romance Writers of America.

CATEGORY ROMANCE: This is actually what many people think of automatically as a romance novel — the Harlequin type, written according to a very rigid structure.

Okay, hang in there, because here comes the last of the many subcategoried genres: MYSTERY. Again, I would urge you to consult the excellent resources provided by the Mystery Writers of America, if you are in serious doubt about which subgenre to select.

HISTORICAL: Again, self-explanatory?

COZY: An amateur sleuth is solving the crimes. VERY popular: about a quarter of the mysteries sold in North America fall into this category.

POLICE PROCEDURAL: The people who are supposed to be solving the crimes are solving the crimes.

LEGAL: A lawyer misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PROFESSIONAL: A doctor, professor, reporter, etc. misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: A PI reads his or her job description correctly, and gets involved with solving a case.

PSYCHOLOGICAL or FORENSIC: A psychologist or forensic scientist plays around with his or her job description, refusing to leave the rest of the crime-solving to the police.

SUSPENSE: Wait, is ANYBODY going to solve the crime here? Hello? Is anybody else in the house? Hello?

THRILLER: AAAAH!

HARDBOILED: There’s this guy, see, who lives by his own rules. He ain’t takin’ no guff, see — except maybe from a beautiful dame with a shady past. Often, she has legs that won’t quit AND go all the way to the ground. (A genre with surprising longevity: in 2003, hardboiled mysteries were 5% of the mysteries sold.)

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: This time, the beautiful dame with a past and the legs IS the protagonist.

COPS AND KILLERS: What it says on the box.

SERIAL KILLER: Baaad people.

CHICK LIT: With how much time the protagonist spends in bed, it’s AMAZING that she finds the time to solve the case AND coordinate her shoes with her Prada handbag.

BRITISH: You may be wondering why I asked you all here.

SPY THRILLER: You may be wondering why I have you tied to that chair, Mr. Bond.

NOIR: This loner drifts into town, where he collides romantically with someone else’s wife under magnificently moody lighting conditions. What’s the probability that he’ll get fingered for a murder he didn’t commit?

CAPER: The protagonists are non-career criminals, often with wacky tendencies. Can they pull it off? Can they?

The remaining genre categories, WESTERN and ACTION/ADVENTURE, speak for themselves. Or, more precisely, I don’t have anything smart alecky to say about them.

And that’s it. In my next posting, I’ll cover the nonfiction categories — and we’ll finally be done. Hurray!

To put my own adventures into perspective, the threat to my book, A FAMILY DARKLY, has now entered the LEGAL THRILLER stage of its development. Even as I write this, lawyers are scratching their learned heads over the puzzling allegations made about my memoir. Of particular interest is the issue of whether my telling the truth about a relationship that has been hush-hush since, oh, before the Bicentennial (yes, one of my claims to fame is that Philip K. Dick laughed like hell when I told him about having to dress up as a miniature colonial wife and wield a mean flatiron in an elementary school diorama on Housework Before Modern Technology) should seriously bother anyone now.

Also at issue: since the woman who, ahem, borrowed my mother’s first husband on a semi-permanent basis has written her own book about the break-up of one marriage and the establishment of the next, and Philip has written a fictionalized account of it, is there any logical or ethical reason that my mother’s side of things (as seen through my vision, darkly) should not see print? Can you, in fact, be a public figure and be selective about what is divulged about you after your death?

On the bright side, though, everyone concerned seems rather eager to get these issues resolved before A FAMILY DARKLY comes out, or to be more precise, before the marketing blitz for A SCANNER DARKLY begins. A big-budget film, I’m told, based upon Philip’s 1979 novel. Sort of the end of an era for me, to see concepts and characters I pictured in my head while Philip so much about during revisions, translated into big-screen images. Let no one say that the creative process isn’t often pretty surreal.

It may surprise you to learn — it surprised me, I’ll confess — that the author actually has very little to do with a lawsuit of this nature: it’s all handled by the publishing house and, at the moment, a wildfire of argument about whether my book should be censored amongst habités of the many PKD fan sites. It’s actually rather maddening, to be stuck on the sidelines while discussion rages over what is after all my baby.

I shall keep you posted, of course, on what happens. And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Book categories — and yes, you have to pick one

Heavens — I got so wrapped up in my own saga that I almost forgot that I promised you a posting on book categories! To return to a theme from last week, labels, like standard formatting rules, are very important to agents and editors: if they can’t place your work within a conceptual box, chances are they will reject your work as weird. (And remember, in industry-speak, weird is bad; fresh is good.) Thus, before you submit your work to any agent or editor, you will need to decide which box is most comfortable for your book.

To be precise, you will need to mention your book’s genre in your query letter, on the title page of your manuscript (upper right corner is standard), and anytime you pitch. Hard as it may be to believe, to professional eyes, the category is actually more important than the title or the premise. To an agent, the category determines which editors on her contact list she can approach with your book; to an editor, it determines which market niche it will fill. If your work is difficult to categorize, or straddles two categories, their brains go into a tailspin: on which shelf in Barnes & Noble can it rest?

To a lot of writers, particularly fiction writers, the requirement to pick a single category for a work that may legitimately appeal to three or four target audiences often seems, if not repressive, a little foolish. You may be an expansive, freewheeling soul who longs to transcend narrow conceptions of genre; you may have a great love of two distinct genres, and long to combine them; you may feel that the value judgments placed upon certain genres render it undesirable to pick the most obvious label. (Why, for instance, is women’s lit so often sniffed at, when thrillers — bought disproportionately by men, and thus could legitimately be named men’s lit — are not?) You may feel, and with some justification, that the agent you are querying has a far greater knowledge of the market, and is thus in a far better position than you to decide in which category your book belongs.

No matter which you are, you will need to pick a category for your book anyway. Sorry. If you shilly-shally, or even hesitate when you are asked at a conference, you run the risk of appearing uninformed about the industry. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there do exist agents so category-minded that they will automatically disregard any query that does not specify the book’s category clearly within the first paragraph.

This is serious business.

Okay, let’s tackle fiction first. Genre fiction has subcategories, just as general fiction does, so these lists will be quite extensive. Hey, don’t blame me: I’m just the messenger here.

In general fiction, the categories are:

FICTION: also known as mainstream. This is the bulk of the market, so do not be afraid of the plain-Jane moniker.

LITERARY FICTION: fiction where the writing style is a major selling point of the book. Assumes a college-educated audience.

HISTORICAL FICTION: pretty self-explanatory, no?

WOMEN’S FICTION: not to be confused with romance; WF is mainstream fiction specifically geared for a female readership. Since women buy the vast majority of fiction sold in North America, however, this category’s edges can get somewhat nebulous. Think of the YA-YA SISTERHOOD.

CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION: Novels about what used to be called “career women.” If your protagonist is a doctor or lawyer who takes her work seriously, chances are that this is the category for you.

CHICK LIT: Assumes a female readership under the age of 40; always has a protagonist who is good in bed. In fact, some agents and editors refer to this category as GOOD IN BED.

LAD LIT: Similar to CHICK LIT, except the good-in-bed protagonist is a troubled young man; all of us have female co-workers who have dated the prototypes for these characters. The only example I have ever heard anyone use for this category is HIGH FIDELITY.

LADY LIT: Similar to CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION, but the protagonist is often independently wealthy, or regards her relationships as more important than her work; the protagonist is always older than a CHICK LIT heroine. (I swear I’m not making this stuff up.)

FUTURISTIC FICTION: Not to be confused with science fiction, which is its own genre, these are literary or mainstream books set in the future; I gather the point of this category is to permit agents to say to editors, “No, no, it’s not genre.” Think THE HANDMAID’S TALE.

ADVENTURE FICTION: Not to be confused with ACTION/ADVENTURE, this category encompasses books where the protagonists engage in feats that serve no business purpose, yet are satisfyingly life-threatening. If your protagonist surfs, mountain-climbs, or wrestles wild animals, this may be the category for you.

SPORTS FICTION: Similar to ADVENTURE FICTION, but focused on conventional sports.

POETRY: If you do not know what this is, go knock on your high school English teacher’s door at midnight and demand to repeat the 10th grade.

SHORT STORIES: a collection of them. Generally, authors who publish short story collections have had at least a few of them published in magazines first.

CHILDREN’S: another fairly self-explanatory one, no?

YOUNG ADULT: books written for people too old for CHILDREN’S, yet too young for FICTION. YA, unlike other categories, may often be successfully combined with genres: YA FANTASY, YA WESTERN, etc.

COMICS: exactly what you think they are.

GRAPHIC NOVEL: A book with a COMICS format, but a specifically adult-oriented plot line.

Whew! And that’s just the non-genre fiction categories.

Do allow me to reiterate: you only get to pick one for your book. If you are wavering between close categories — say, between CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION and CHICK LIT, do not be afraid to guess; there is quite a bit of overlap between categories, whether agents and editors admit it or not. Take a good look at your manuscript, decide whether sex or job is more important to your protagonist (if you are writing about a call girl, this may be an impossible determination to make), and categorize accordingly. If you’re off by a little, an agent who likes your work will tell you how to fine-tune your choice.

The distinction that seems to give writers the most trouble is between FICTION and LITERARY FICTION. Let’s face it, most of us like to think our writing has some literary value, and critical opinion about what is High Literature changes with alarming frequency. When asked, even most agents and editors have a hard time telling you precisely what the difference is — but, like art, they know literary when they see it. Yet ask any three agents whether THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE are mainstream or literary, and you will probably get at least two different answers.

Lest you think, as many aspiring writers do, that all good fiction is literary, let me remind you that these are marketing categories, not value judgments. LITERARY FICTION is quite a small percentage of the fiction market, so do be aware that if you pick that category, you may be limiting your book’s perceived market appeal. When in doubt, FICTION is usually safe, because it is the broadest — and most marketable — category.

If you are in serious doubt whether your book is sufficiently literary to count as LITERARY FICTION, apply one of two tests. First, take a good, hard look at your book: under what circumstances can you envision it being assigned in a college English class? If the subject matter is the primary factor, chances are the book is not literary. I once mortally offended an English professor by bringing in an example from GONE WITH THE WIND, as mainstream a book as ever you would hope to see: “That’s mass market,” the professor snapped. “We don’t study that sort of thing here.” Ooh — touchy.

The other test — and I swear I am not suggesting this merely to be flippant — is to open your manuscript randomly at five different points and count the number of semicolons, colons, and dashes per page. If there are more than a couple per page, chances are your work is geared for the literary market. Mainstream FICTION tends to assume a tenth-grade reading level: LITERARY FICTION assumes an audience educated enough to use a semicolon correctly, without having to look up the ground rules.

Do be careful, however, when applying this second test, because writers tend to LOVE punctuation. Oh, I know this is going to break some tender hearts out there, but if you want to write fiction professionally, you need to come to terms with an ugly fact: no one but writers particularly LIKE semicolons. If you are writing for a mainstream audience, you should consider minimizing their use; if you are writing most genre fiction, you should get rid of them entirely.

If you don’t believe me, I implore you to spend an hour in any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, going from section to section, pulling books off the shelf randomly, and applying the punctuation test. If you are writing for most genre audiences (science fiction being the major exception), most agents and editors prefer to see simpler sentence structure.

Again, I don’t make the rules: I merely pass them along to you.

Tomorrow, I shall go into the genre categories and subcategories, as well as the nonfiction categories. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

I got feedback on my LIFE?

I have been thinking again today about those of us who write about true events — and yes, alas, my publisher is still being sued over my memoir — and I want to speak about a topic that is discussed only very rarely amongst memoirists, and that in hushed tones and only amongst ourselves. It is, successful memoirists assert behind closed doors, extremely difficult to expose your own cherished notions of yourself and your past to outside scrutiny.

If you are brave enough to want to share your life story with the world, do keep in mind that you will be tying up your most cherished and hated memories with a nice red ribbon — and handing it to people whose life’s work is pointing out logical holes in stories. I’m not talking about predatory lawyers here, or even reviewers, but agents and editors.

Be prepared to answer questions from your agent and editor that most therapists would blush to ask. Do try to keep a sense of humor about it, because after all, you are the person who invited the scrutiny. (And do remember, as I did not, that you are under no obligation to show your manuscript to your kith and kin. As the lawyers say, it’s always better to ask forgiveness than permission. How I wish now that I had followed my own advice in this respect!)

The first serious barrage of ultra-personal questions about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK caught me totally by surprise, even after a lifetime listening to would-be biographers interview my mother about her glory days. When I first began shopping the book around, a good half of the publishing professionals I spoke to asked the same first question: was this book about a love affair that ended when I was 15?

Oh, please. As if no young woman ever had anything interesting to say that didn’t have something to do with sex.

If I had been a savvier marketer back then, I suppose I would have answered, “You’ll have to read the book and see,” but it’s pretty difficult to treat the story of your own life like a commodity. It’s hard not to take the prurient questions personally. They probably were not actually asking, “Were you a teenage slut?” but that’s certainly how I heard it.

Yet once you have written a memoir, your telling of your life IS a commodity. Like any other salesman with any other product, your agent has to understand it well enough (or repackage it well enough) to be able to sell it to editors. And your editor has to be able to sell his or her vision of it to his publisher, and the publishing house’s marketers to the world.

This may be self-evident logically, but emotionally, it is anything but. You learn a lot about yourself, and about how others see you. For a memoirist, the process of bringing out reminiscences is roughly akin to conducting a year’s worth of therapy by shouting deep, dark secrets across a crowded opera house to a hard-of-hearing therapist seated on the far side. His questions and your answers are essentially public — as is your story, the instant you start to market it. And, given the peculiarities of the NF market, perhaps even before you have written it.

There are easier things to do.

And you unquestionably have a higher chance of maintaining plausible deniability if you write your life as fiction. But some of us have led lives too wacky to make for realistic fiction. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it is believable on the pages of a novel.

Let me repeat that, because it’s the single biggest problem the memoir-writer faces: just because something happened doesn’t mean it is plausible. It is the memoirist’s job to make the improbabilities of life credible, by creating rich characters and compelling story arcs out of the materials real life has given him. A memoir is not a transcript of everyday life, because that would be unreadable — a good memoir is real life illuminated by an insightful eye and a heart not afraid to reveal its own foibles.

All this being said, if you are considering writing a memoir, I can’t encourage you enough to do it. There is liberation in shouting your deepest, darkest secrets across that crowded opera house that the veiled whispers of fact-based fiction simply cannot provide. Go ahead and shout — but only if you’re telling the truth as you know it. You may need to cling to the security of knowing you are being honest in the dark night of criticism to come.

Before I sign off for the day, I’d like to throw a question out to all of you truth-tellers out there: how do you work up nerve to write about matters you have never discussed with your family? Is there a line between what is legitimate to use in a memoir and what is too personal to tell, and if so, who gets to draw that line?

Please send your good ideas on this subject via the COMMENTS function, below. I would love to get your thoughts; obviously, these issues are very much on my mind at the moment. Let’s get a conversation going!

And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

One of a kind

I am calmer today, thanks for asking; my sense of humor shows signs of only being sprained, rather than broken. If certain people want to launch frivolous lawsuits at my memoir because I tell the truth in it about someone who has been dead for 23 years, I have only two options: to make up lies that will please them, or to keep right on telling the truth. I prefer the latter, and I don’t see how I could, in all integrity, do anything else.

I’ll keep you posted on how all of this truth-telling works out for me.

It has made be think, though, about what I have been taught over the years by doubtless well-meaning teachers and writers about how to write the truth. In retrospect, I am honestly struck by how much of the advice was simply not useful at all. There is a great deal I wish I had known, and even more that I wish I had not needed to unlearn before I could finish writing my memoir. (Which WILL see print, I swear. I’m not going to be intimidated by bullies with buckets of money.) So what is the newly-minted memoirist to believe?

Case in point: the advice to write what you know.

We’ve all heard this, right? I assume so, because the result has been an apparently endless stream of short stories about upper middle-class teenagers with angst and very lovable English teachers. It has also — unfortunately for someone like me, who has written about a well-known literary figure survived by unfortunately testy heirs — has led to far too many biopics about writers where the Great One in question lives a life IDENTICAL to the world depicted in his work. So much for creativity: in the biopic universe, the work IS the life.

Personally, I like to give writers a bit more credit for imagination. I prefer to think, for instance, that Dorothy Parker occasionally had a happy love affair, that Ernest Hemingway was something more than a mindless thug fond of killing things, and that John Irving does not actually harbor a pet bear. I could be wrong about all this, of course, but I suspect I am not.

With a memoir, writing what you know seems like basic common sense, right? In a way, yes, but will everybody’s personal story make a good book, even in skillful hands? And is telling the unvarnished truth enough to make a book interesting to people who have never met you?

If you have had an extraordinary life, obviously you have good memoir material, but what about an ordinary life examined with sensitivity and insight? Surely, common experiences would resonate with more people than unusual ones? Think about ANGELA’S ASHES: there were quite a few kids who could have grown up to write similar memoirs, weren’t there?

Again: yes, but — there’s a fine line between speaking to shared experience and reproducing what has been written before. Despite what editors say at writers’ conferences about searching high and low for the next ANGELA’S ASHES, copycat books seldom sell well to the general public. (If you doubt this, take this quick quiz: close your eyes, turn around three times, and now name at least three of the BRIDGET JONES clones’ authors. Could you do it?) To paraphrase Mae West, a copy is forgettable, but the public loves an honest-to-goodness original.

Unfortunately, there are scads and scads of people in the publishing industry who seem to forget this. You may recognize them by their distinctive stripes: they are the agents who snap up a book that sounds like the currently hot thing, show it to one or perhaps two editors — then drop the book flat when it doesn’t sell instantly. They are the editors who will pitch a book to their colleagues as “the next X” (where X = current bestseller), acquire it enthusiastically — then lose interest in them as soon as fashion turns, leaving the poor author high, dry, and without any book promotion budget whatsoever. They are the marketing people who change their minds about what is marketable on a daily basis, and who eschew whimsy. I do not recommend their cultivation, unless you have a skin the approximate thickness of the average bark on a 100-year-old cedar; otherwise, it will only end in tears.

In my opinion, the reading public is actually less fickle than this, bless its collective heart. Once a reader finds a writer she likes, she tends to keep buying that writer’s subsequent books, with an unstinting loyalty rare in this hyper-competitive world. This sterling reader will often even go back and try to find earlier works by a favorite author, the ones that got dropped by a once-enthusiastic press when the time came to ante up for publicity or the ones that did not get stellar advance reviews. Honestly, I do not think authors spend enough time being grateful to readers of this caliber: they are the ones for whom it is genuinely a pleasure to write.

That being said, do bear in mind that this sterling reader probably spends a fair amount of time hanging out in bookstores and/or browsing on Amazon: to catch her eye with a book about a common experience, the writing has to be far above average, and the take has to be unusual.

This attitude, unlike the latest-hot-thing prejudice, expresses itself similarly in the reading public and amongst agents and editors. There’s simply a higher bar for originality for common experiences. At this point, there have been so many books about, say, a Baby Boomer caring for her dying parent(s), (or a 60’s radical simmering down over time, or a high-powered businessman coming to terms with his own mortality and learning in the process that there is more to life than money, or city folks learning the value of country ways, or the loss of anyone’s virginity) that the storytelling must necessarily be stellar to sell the book. By writing on a common subject, unfortunately, the author automatically runs the risk of the agent taking one look at the query, crying to the heavens, “Oh, God, not another book about X!” and hastily shoving it aside unread.

So how do you make your story stand out from the crowd? In my case, I had a built-in advantage: I spent much of my childhood in secret telephone confabs with a brilliant science fiction writer who was afraid to leave his house. That’s not the kind of thing that happens very often , I am told — and that is precisely what I would suggest you look for in your own story: what about you is absolutely unique?

In asking this, I am turning the standard advice on its head. I would advise you to write not just what you know, but what ONLY YOU know. In other words, what is the story that only you can tell?

It doesn’t have to be spectacular, just original and close to home. Think about Marjorie Rawlings’ children’s classic THE YEARLING. A simple, classic story, far removed from the potboilers that were selling well at the time. But these were characters that Rawlings knew and loved down to her bones — and thus, the reader learns to love them, too.

I would suggest that if you want to write a memoir, the people in your life need to spring off the page with all the intensity of fictional characters; if you want to write a novel, its characters need to leap into the reader’s mind with all the solidity of real people. And that will be hard, because you won’t want to step on the toes of the living or the memories of the dead — or, in my case, excite the lawyers of the heirs.

You’re too nice a person for that, right?

Ah, but your responsibility to your future reader demands that you are honest — that you write not the story that your family or your friends or your coworkers or the nearest person with a scary lawyer thinks will make them look good, but the story that only YOU know.

Necessarily, others will disagree with you; that’s the nature of differing points of view. But if you stick with the story you know in your gut to be true, and tell it from the perspective that only you can show, you’re bound to end up with an honest memoir or truthful-feeling novel.

And, unfortunately for the kith and kin of memoirists everywhere, there really isn’t any other way to write a good memoir. Honest, your honor: it just can’t be done any other way.

Keep up the good work, my friends.

– Anne Mini