Archive for the ‘tips on getting published’ Category

Attorney Helen Sedwick on Legal Issues for Book Authors

April 2, 2015

sedwickToday we are going to interview Helen Sedwick, business attorney and author of Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook: The Step-by-Step Guide to the Legal Issues of Self-Publishing [Ten Gallon Press, 2014]. The book is available in paperback and as an ebook. It’s geared toward self-published authors, but the information equally applies to authors who are considering publishing with a small or large commercial publisher or a hybrid publisher. It has great advice. It’s easy to read. If you are intimidated by lawyers (or agents), this book will be indispensable.

Andy: Helen, welcome to “Ask the Agent”. Let’s start out by you telling us what you see as the biggest legal risks for writers?

Helen: Many writers assume their biggest risks are defamation and privacy claims, but I disagree.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of books are published, and only a few hundred defamation or privacy cases hit the courts. But tens of thousands of writers have signed on to unfavorable contracts they come to regret.

I have seen contracts where the author grants a self-publishing company or small publisher an exclusive license to exploit a manuscript in print, digital, audio and any other format, in any language for the life of the copyright. No reversion, no termination provision, little or no advance!

Yet, many writers don’t even read their contracts. One told me a contract looks like 5000 words run through a blender!

I am something of fanatic about this. I believe any writer who can master plot, character, and voice is capable of understanding key provisions of a contract, particularly the grant of rights clause. All they need is the right information. In the Appendix of Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook, I include a line-by-line explanation of key contract terms.

Andy: But many writers are afraid to show their manuscripts to agents, editors and film producers because they are sure their work will be stolen. Isn’t that a big risk?

Helen: In reality, industry professionals are not likely to steal someone’s work. Being accused of stealing work would damage their reputations, and maintaining a good reputation is worth more than an untested manuscript.

Protecting ideas is a different matter. The basic idea of a work is not protected by copyright. In some industries, ideas are protected by Non-Disclosure Agreements, but in the publishing industry these agreements are rare. From what I have heard, anyone who asks for an NDA is seen as a newbie. Andy, is that your experience?

Andy: I agree with you there, Helen. Sometimes I get clients who want me to represent them, but don’t want to tell the publisher what the book is about. I always tell them that  we can’t play “no peaky” when we are asking them to pay an advance.  How else can writers protect their copyrights?

Helen: Writers should understand that they own the copyright in their work as soon as they put it down on paper or a hard drive. It’s automatic, whether or not the work is published or the copyright is registered.

But it makes sense for U.S. writers to register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration establishes a record of the work and is required before an infringement suit is filed. Registration within three months following publication increases the damages recoverable in an infringement action. Online registration is $35 and easy. No lawyers required.

Andy: I should point out that a lot of the book contracts from commercial publishers obligate the publisher to register the work with the Copyright Office. But some publishers require the author to do this.  Let’s go to back the problem of defamation and privacy claims. How can writers use real people in their work without ending up in court?

Helen: Writers use real people in their writing all the time, either as models for fictitious characters or by name in nonfiction. If they couldn’t, I suspect 95% of books would disappear.

But there are legal risks in using real people; defamation, unauthorized disclosure of private facts, and misappropriation of the right of publicity. Here are a few measures writers can take to minimize the risks.

For starters, writers should not print, tweet, or post anything they would not say in a room full of lawyers, at least without consulting with a lawyer.

Fiction writers should mask distinguishing characteristics and avoid retelling life stories too closely. The more villainous the character, the more the writer should mask. They should also use the standard disclaimer in their novels: “This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”

Non-fiction writing involves more risk. Writers should take the time to educate themselves about the elements of defamation and disclosure of private facts. I summarize these claims on my blog.

For instance, writers should not say someone is criminal, sexually deviant, diseased, or professionally incompetent or use labels such as crook, cheat, pervert, or corrupt. They should stick to verifiable facts, and let readers come to their own conclusions. In other words, show, don’t tell.

Andy: Let’s look at a real situation. I represented an author, a former paparazza, who took a photo of a famous movie star smoking hash by her front door. The picture was all over the tabloids. Would the author have legal exposure if the picture were in the book?

Helen: Unlikely.

Writers may be liable for disclosing private facts about an identifiable person if the facts are “offensive to ordinary sensibilities” and “not of overriding public interest.” What is offensive and what is public interest? Ultimately, a judge or jury decides, but generally the information must be very private and damaging.

As a preliminary any conduct in public is not protected, particularly today when everyone carries a camera. Public figures have almost no reasonable expectation of privacy. The starlet in your client’s image should not have been surprised that cameras are pointing her way.

Information in publicly available court documents and news reports are also not private.

However, writers should be careful about the misappropriation of the right of publicity; namely, using someone’s name or image for advertising or promotional purposes. Writers should never use anyone’s name or image on a book cover, advertisement, or in any way that implies an endorsement without express permission. Using someone’s name or image within a book as part of the editorial or creative expression is different; writers have more leeway.

Only living people (and in some states companies) can make defamation and privacy claims, but in many states the right of publicity survives death. In California, for 70 years. In Indiana, 100 years.

When in doubt, writers should engage an attorney for one-on-one advice.

Andy: Writers love to use song lyrics as part of setting a scene. Is it safe for a writer to use only a line or two of lyrics buried deep in the body of the book?

Lyrics are intellectual property, like text and images. If a writer uses someone’s property without permission, whether it’s a car, a bicycle, or the words to a popular tune, he is violating their property rights.

Using lyrics is particularly risky, not because they are special in the eyes of the law, but because they are owned by music companies that aggressively protect their rights. A writer could get a “cease and desist” letter from some big law firm. Translation–shred every copy of the book, even though the infringing words are 25 out of 95,000. Worse, a writer could be liable for monetary damages.

There is no need for writers to take these risks. Asking for permission is not difficult or expensive in most cases.

On my website, writers can download a PDF with instructions on how to identify who owns a song and how to ask for permission, How to Use Memorable Lyrics Without Paying a Fortune or a Lawyer. I have a similar PDF for using images.

Andy: Helen, I’m a little surprised by this. I represent a biography of a recently deceased songwriter and performer. The title of the book is the title of one of songwriter’s most famous songs. And the author wants to use an occasional line or two of lyrics as chapter headings. Isn’t there a Fair Use Doctrine that allows you to use a minimum amount of lyrics or other copyrighted material without a permission? What about the title of the song being the title of the book?

Helen: I would encourage the writer to seek permission. If that’s not possible, then this is a perfect example of when someone should consult with an attorney on how to minimize risks. Sorry to punt here, but there is no one answer fits all.

While we are talking about titles, what if another  writer releases a book using the same title as mine? Are there any legal claims?

Most writers are surprised to hear that titles are not protected by U.S. copyright law.

It’s ironic, really. Anyone who has written a novel will tell you how difficult it is to come up with a title that is resonant and eye-catching. Yet titles are not protected under copyright law, because they are considered too short to contain sufficient “original expression.”

A very famous title or the title of a series may become a trademark however. If a writer’s title becomes as famous as The Da Vinci Code, then it’s time for to consult with an attorney about trademark protection. This a problem of success. I hope all our readers have this problem.

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Writer and lawyer Helen Sedwick uses 30 years of legal experience to show writers how to stay out of court and at their desks. ForeWord Review gave her Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook Five Stars, calling it “one of the most valuable resources a self-publisher can own…well-written and authoritative yet unhampered by legalese.” Her blog coaches writers on everything from protecting copyrights to hiring freelancers to spotting scams. For more information about Helen and her work, check out her website at http://helensedwick.com

Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is an attorney licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.

 

Questions About Literary Agents Asked and Answered

February 7, 2015

I attend lots of writers conferences all over the United States. Almost all of them have “agent panels” where participants ask agents to address their questions. Here are some of the most common. And if you have other questions, send them to me and I’ll try to answer them.

1) Can I send my book to a publisher without being represented by an agent?   The legendary publisher, Alfred Knopf, once said “An agent is to a publisher as a knife is to a throat.”  Things have changed since then. Now the largest publishers will only accept agented submissions. They expect agents to filter out the  projects that are unsuitable for commercial publishing. Publishers  believe, probably correctly, that  agented submissions as a group  are more likely to be of higher quality. Many of the smaller publishers don’t require agent representation.

2)  Can an agent get me a bigger advance? Most writers think that an agent is in possession of secret alchemical powers that will get them more money. This is true to a certain extent. Going into negotiations  publishers usually have a sense of how much they are willing to pay for a book. An experienced agent will be more likely to know what the publisher’s bottom line is and secure it for you. Otherwise you might find yourself accepting  a very modest offer. Book deals and book contracts are loaded with “roadside bombs”.  You need to be aware of them or work with someone who is.

3) Other than helping me get more money, what will an agent do? A good agent will earn her commission in a myriad of ways. There are dozens of publishers, big and small, who would serve as good homes for your book. A good  agent knows which publishers are appropriate and which editors within the publishing houses would be most open to your project. You don’t want to send your literary novel to an editor who specializes in science fiction.

Most novels and non-fiction book proposals aren’t ready for submission when an agent receives them. A good agent will work editorially on a client’s novel and will improve a book proposal to make it more convincing to a publisher. A good agent will work to enhance a client’s career as a writer and serve as an ally throughout the publication process and after.

A bad agent will do none of these things.

4) How can I tell a good agent from a bad agent? Sometimes you can’t, but here are some things you ought to be aware of. An agent should work for a commission only. If the agent can’t sell your book, he will receive nothing. The biggest red flag signaling   bad agents is that they charge money up front for such items as editorial services or  reading fees. Don’t work with these agents. Check out the website “Author Beware”. It has good advice about how to avoid unscrupulous agents.

More difficult to assess are agents who are simply too lazy or too busy to provide you with the kind of support you need to find a publisher. Many of these agents are very successful and have a large number of high profile authors they represent. I have frequently worked with extremely talented writers who had been previously represented by one of these “celebrity” agents. Those authors were not served well. One of them, for instance, had written a fine literary novel, a genre difficult to sell. His first agent sent it out to the usual 10 big houses. When the book was turned down, the agent gave up. I loved the book and decided to represent it. I found another 30 publishers who would have made a good home for the book. When you are looking for  agents, it is a good idea to ask them if they will go the mile to get  your book published, even if the likely advance will be modest.

5) How do I do the research to find the right agent for me? I wrote a blog about this called: “11 Steps to Finding an Agent”   which will give you more details. There are several good websites that provide resources for finding agents. My favorite is Agentquery.com.  It allows you to do searches based on defined criteria. You can specify that you only want agents who are actively seeking projects in your genre. Once you develop a list of possible agents, you want to go to each one’s website and try to evaluate further whether this agent seems right. Always look for their submission guidelines on their websites but also check out their list of books and authors to see if you are going to be compatible. Watch out though. Agents are inveterate name droppers. And just because they have some big name authors doesn’t mean they won’t be interested in your book.

6) How important is it to have a New York agent, a “celebrity” agent, or an agent from a big agency?  As we said above, having a “celebrity” agent may not be right for you. It’s impressive dropping their names at literary parties,  but that’s probably not your main objective.

Some authors still think that there is some advantage working with agents in New York. This isn’t true either. In the old days we heard that most book deals were the result of “connections”  and were consummated over the famous “publisher’s lunch.” It probably wasn’t true then, and it definitely isn’t true now. The big publishers are all owned by multimedia conglomerates. Editors are under intense pressure to acquire books that will meet the often unrealistic expectations of their corporate bosses.  Ask any editor and they will tell you that the single most important element for them in the acquisition decision is a good book proposal. For fiction, it’s all about the story. Of course an author’s previous track record will play an enormous role in the decision.

There are some advantages and disadvantages working with a big agency. Sometimes there is considerable collaboration within the agency and accordingly there may be useful collective wisdom. Some agencies have foreign rights departments or film /tv specialists who can work to sell subsidiary rights. A good independent agent, though, will have a network of foreign and entertainment co-agent specialists who will perform the same services. Regardless of the size of the agency, you need an agent with a passion for your project, a belief in your talent, and the will to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. There are no good agencies or bad agencies. There are only good agents and bad agents.

 

To be continued. We will ask and answer questions about query letters, book proposals, book deals, commercial vs. self-publishing, and more. Send me your own questions and I’ll try to address them.

How Not to Flog Your Product on Facebook

December 5, 2014

Most writers seeking to get published for the first time have to think about  the challenge of developing platform. “Platform” is a big thing for publishers, particularly for non-fiction projects. Before you start having fantasies of speeches by Mussolini, I should point out that we are talking about  the kind of platform that gives you credibility or access to national media. I have said before that platform is either an endowed chair at Harvard or  you’re sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser.

There are a lot of people out there who will charge  money to tell you that you need to blog, twitter, and have a Facebook presence in order to develop your platform. I do hereby tell you the same thing for free.  But realistically, these tools are not going to help you sell thousands of books unless you have many thousands of Facebook friends and followers of your blog. And even then, those people have to care about YOU, not just whatever it is you are hawking.

You have to be careful about how you use Facebook to promote yourself. I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook. It’s a great way to  waste hours by engaging in errant political bickering, spreading celebrity tittle-tattle,  or viewing cute  pictures of kittens. Most of my 900+ friends on Facebook are associated with writing and book publishing. I  enjoy communicating with them and seeing what they are thinking about. I like to rant about Amazon.com.  Sometimes I try to be funny or gently snarky. I try to be respectful, even when I am utterly contemptuous of an idiotic political position someone is espousing. And sometimes I take the opportunity to promote my business or the books of the authors  I represent. My Facebook friends  tend to root for me when I do.

And then there are people who just want to flog their product. They don’t seem to have much of an interest in me other than as a potential customer. And they assume that I don’t have much of an interest in them except to buy their… whatever. Some of them won’t even post pictures of their kittens, for crying out loud! When I see this, when I get dozens of posts each day  on my Facebook feed that just promote a person’s stuff, I kind of feel manipulated. I kind of don’t want to buy what they are selling. I kind of react to it like I do to telemarketers.[“Please, take me off your call list!”]

I guess what I want to tell you is that people spend time on Facebook because they like to talk to other people, to share ideas, to express their feelings, to be connected. It’s a  personal thing. And when people engage with you on that level, they will be interested in your work and might even be motivated to buy your book or watch your movie. But they don’t like being used. And they probably won’t want to support you if they feel like that’s all you are doing.

In other words,  if you want to make Facebook part of your platform, then remember the platform is YOU, not your product. And when your friends really care about you, well, they might even buy your stuff.

Bad Pitches

October 9, 2014

I have written a number of blog posts on query letters. All of them get plenty of reads and shares. There are people who charge a lot of money to coach writers on how to write effective query letters. It seems as if every issue of Writers Digest has an article giving lists of tips on making the perfect query that will land you a 6 figure advance. I don’t think query letters are difficult to write. There are only about 9 things you really need to know. I have also said many times and continue to believe that a bad query letter won’t kill a good project and a good query letter won’t help a bad project.

All that being said, it’s important to remember that agents get dozens of query letters every day and tend to skim through them quickly. You need to have the right tone, to provide the relevant information, to avoid verbosity, and to sound professional. Here are some particularly bad pitches I see frequently along with some commentary by me.

“This is a fiction novel.” [Editors don’t like redundancy in writing. Agents don’t like redundancy in query letters. Rather say “This is a novel, or this is a work of fiction – and maybe include the genre as well.]

“This is a non-fiction novel” [More common than you would imagine and a particularly clueless pitch; one that elicits squeals of laughter when agents bring it up with each other and with audiences.]

“I know you probably won’t want to represent this book, but here goes.” [ It’s really a very convincing pitch. The writer has given a compelling reason for me to reject his project. If the writer doesn’t have confidence in his book, then why should I?]

“I’ve already been rejected by 25 agents, but here goes.” [Similar to the previous. Most agents are aware that writers make multiple query submissions and that is perfectly ok. You don’t have to call attention to how many rejections you have received, though.]

“There is nothing like this book that has ever been published.” [ This is the opposite of the examples above. It’s one of the worst pitches you can make. It sends the message that you have delusions of grandeur and will be a difficult client to manage. And it also raises the reasonable question of whether there is, perhaps, a good reason why such a book has never been published.]

“I am wondering if you might possibly be interested in considering….” [ Literary throat-clearing like this in a query letter is indicative of literary throat-clearing in the text of the project. It’s horrible style. Better would be “I am submitting” or “I am submitting for your consideration”]

“Because you represent NAME OF A GREAT SCHOLAR, FAMOUS POLITICAL JOURNALIST, etc, I thought you might be the right person to represent my work of erotic women’s fiction.” [This bad pitch needs no further comment.]

“I am looking for an agent to represent my film script.” [It’s ok if the agent you are querying represents film scripts, but most literary agents don’t or else they work in collaboration with an entertainment agent.]

“I am submitting to you because you represent” GENRES THAT I DON’T REPRESENT.” [Similar to the previous bad pitch. Do your research and make sure you are sending projects to agents specifically interested in the genre of your submission.]

“I am looking for a New York agent who….” [A particularly hateful pitch to me. First of all, I have a big chip on my shoulder about “New York agents”, because it no longer matters whether the agent is in New York or elsewhere. Second of all, the author needs to do his research and find out if the agent is, in fact, a “New York agent.” Many of us are not, thank God!]

“I submit for your consideration my Literary-Commercial novel with YA possibilities.” [There are numerous variations of this. Although there are times when a project can only be described as cross-genre, frequently this pitch is simply indicative of the fact that the writer can’t decide who his audience is.]

“This book is bound to make a great movie.” [ I’ve never known an author who didn’t think his novel would make a great movie. And that’s ok. But you can probably leave it out of a query letter. Most book and entertainment agents are probably better suited for deciding if a story is a good bet for film adaptation than the author. It also sends a message that the writer may have delusions of grandeur.]

“Oprah/Terry Gross will love this book.” [Another indicator of delusions of grandeur. Avoid mentioning Oprah at all.]

“This book is like Eat, Pray, Love meets Malcolm Gladwell.” [These books are the most often cited comps. Realistically your book is not going to sell as well as Eat, Pray, Love or the works of Gladwell. And realism is a very important virtue in a writer.]

“This book is like Eat, Pray, Love meets Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” [I don’t particularly like this kind of blah blah meets blah blah kind of pitch. But some agents do. So if you are going to do it, try to at least make the comparables intelligible. Otherwise it’s just name dropping.]

“This is a combination diet book/ memoir” (or any other combo that includes a memoir). [Sneaking a memoir into a book of another genre is almost irresistible, and there are some rare instances where it makes sense. But if you aren’t, in fact, writing a memoir, it might be a good idea to leave yourself out of it. If you are writing about, say, how to discipline your child, the reader is looking for answers for themselves, and is likely not interested in your life experiences, fascinating though they may be.]

“This book was previously self-published, but I want to have the marketing power of a commercial publisher behind me.” [It is unrealistic to expect that a commercial publisher is going to put lots more resources into promoting your book than you already have as a self-published author. What is true, though, is that you are more likely to get review attention or get placed in a bookstore if your book is commercially published.]

“This book was previously self-published and had very good sales.” [Normally when I look into this further, I discover that the writer’s idea of “very good sales” means about 500 copies, which is to say it had not very good sales. You need to be honest in this business. Probably best to tell the agent exactly what those sales were. But even if your sales were very good, if you were selling your e-book for 99 cents or, as is often the case, giving it away for free, it isn’t all that impressive a pitch.]

This book will sell millions of copies.” [Delusions of grandeur.]

“Anyone interested in women’s health will buy this book.” [I see this frequently in book proposals. You need to be able to distinguish between an “audience” and a “demographic”. There are, for instance, about 4 billion people in the world interested in women’s health. In all probability, most of them will not be reading your book.]

“This book is side-splittingly funny.” [Humor is difficult to write and very subjective. This pitch is another indicator of delusions of grandeur. I have represented a number of books that to me actually were side-splittingly funny. But I failed to sell them, because the acquisition editors didn’t “get” it.]

“This book is darkly comic.” [I hear the pitch for “darkly comic” a lot. To me that usually means “not particularly funny”.]

I have written about pitches and query letters in a number of blog posts. You can check these out:

How to Pitch to an Agent
The Art of the Pitch
The Best Query Letter Ever Written
9 Tips for Effective Query Letters

The Best Query Letter Ever Written

August 4, 2014

tolstoyRecently I attended the Taos Summer Writers Conference.  It was fabulous and I urge everyone to check it out.   I taught a class  in which the participants workshopped their query letters. Most of the queries were too long. The writers tended to delve into too much detail in the plot summaries. A number of people also wasted precious space – in the words of one of the students – “sucking up to the agent.”

A query letter is typically in three parts. The first paragraph should state the name of the book, the number of words, and the genre. You should try to use terms of art that are common in book publishing. It sends a message that you are serious and know the territory. In particular, avoid characterizing your book as “a fiction novel” and, for pete’s sake, don’t characterize it as “a non-fiction novel.”

The second part of the query is the so-called “elevator pitch.” You should briefly describe the story and why it is important or memorable.

The final section should be a short paragraph enumerating your qualifications to write the book. Be sure to mention previous publishing history, awards, and what you do in your real life. If your previous books are self-published, make that clear.

I get about twenty unsolicited queries every day. I try to look at them and get back to the writer in a timely manner. But that means I have a very limited time to think about each one. I prefer queries to be short, maybe 400 words or less. That means you need to make every word count.

As an exercise, I decided to compose the perfect query letter. I gave myself  an almost insurmountable challenge, to create a  query for the longest book in the western canon and to make the elevator pitch in six sentences. Here it is, my masterpiece (the query letter, not the novel):

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 I am submitting War and Peace, a 350,000 word work  of historical fiction.

 War and Peace is the  epic story, written in a realistic style,  of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and how 3 characters, members of the  Russian nobility,  live their lives or die in the course of the novel.  In addition to the dramatic and interrelated stories of  Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and Prince Andrei Bolkosky,   I also bring in themes that try to explain how the events in the narrative help us to understand the inexorable truths of history. Some of the memorable secondary characters are  real historical figures, notably Napoleon and the Russian general, Kutuzov.  My description of the climactic Battle of Borodino is so realistic that  the reader can almost smell the gun powder.

The book has received enthusiastic praise from some of the most distinguished novelists of all time. Thomas Mann said of War and Peace that it was “the greatest ever war novel in the history of literature.”   John Galsworthy has called War and Peace “the best novel that had ever been written.”

I am a published novelist, author of the best selling novel, Anna Karenina that has been translated into every major   language in the world and adapted for film multiple times, most recently in 2012 from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law.  I have also written works of short stories, philosophy and social criticism.

The manuscript is complete and available at your request.

Count Leo Tolstoy

 

 

Author Mary Mackey Interviews a Celebrity Agent (That Would Be Me)

April 25, 2014

Mary Mackey, AuthorToday I am reprinting an interview by myself and Mary Mackey originally published in her fabulous writer’s blog: “The Writer’s Journey.” Mary  is a bestselling author who has written six volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of thirteen  novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. Mackey’s novels have been translated into twelve languages including Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Greek, and Finnish. Her poems have been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Marge Piercy, and Dennis Nurkse for their beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. ”     Her newest book,  a collection of her poetry entitled Travelers With No Ticket Home was published this spring by Marsh Hawk Press.

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Mary: Andy, you’re a famous, successful agent. Given this, I suspect the most common question people ask you is: “How do I get an agent?” Let’s answer that one first. Could you please tell us in two sentences or less what writers need to do to get an agent? Also, I’m sure people will want to know if you are currently accepting clients.

Andy: You get an agent the old fashion way,  by having a fantastic, original idea for a book  and a brilliant writing style.  I have a blog that explains the steps you need to take to find an agent.  Check out my Eleven Steps To Finding An Agent. And yes, I am actively seeking new clients. I want query letters by email. You can send them to:  andyrossagency@hotmail.com.

Mary: Before you became an agent, you owned several bookstores including Eeyore’s in Cotati, California, and Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.  Tell us about your early experiences as a bookseller. How did you get into the business? What did you love about it?

Andy: I got into it for all the wrong reasons. I was a graduate student in European history. I liked to hang out at bookstores.

Mary: How did you come to buy Cody’s Books?

Andy: Like most of my important decisions in life, it was pretty impetuous. I was visiting my friend, Neal Coonerty, who owned  Bookshop Santa Cruz. He told me that Cody’s was for sale and that I should consider buying it. I told him probably not. It was daunting.  I was only 29 at the time, and Cody’s was already a legendary bookstore. I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge or confidence. The next morning he asked me again if I would consider it. Again I said, “no”.  But as I was driving home, I decided I would do it.  A month later, I owned the store.

Mary: What were the best things and the worst things about being a bookseller?

Andy: Well, everybody I know has the fantasy of owning a bookstore. Being surrounded by books.  Wow! But when I think back on my 30 years at Cody’s, I realize that a lot of my time was spent on pretty mundane stuff. The bad plumbing on Telegraph Avenue comes to mind. And I was never very good at supervising employees. I was always trying to make people happy, and I never seemed to be able to.

Mary: When you owned bookstores, what was your best-selling book?

Andy: Probably my best seller was Bill Clinton’s memoir.  It helped that he came to the store to sign it.

Mary: How did you make the transition from bookstore owner to literary agent?

Andy: It was another impetuous decision, but one I never regretted. I had been a bookseller all my adult life.  When I left Cody’s in 2007, I thought that I was probably cut out for sacking groceries at Safeway.  I woke up one morning and decided I’d make a good  literary agent. At first I was worried that I didn’t know anything about it. But then I realized that I’d been learning the job for 35 years. Being a bookseller all that time was pretty good experience for being an agent. Most agents come out of publishing. I have the advantage of having spoken to book buyers all my life.

Mary: How is your relationship to authors different at present than it was when you were selling their books?

Andy:  Now I’m working at the other end of the literary food chain. I’m involved much more in creative work. I like that a lot.  The process of writing, particularly writing fiction, is a mystery to me and really quite miraculous. When I first decided to become an agent, I thought that my main job would be making deals. But I spend much more time working with authors and helping them polish their book. It’s tough getting published. You can’t submit a project unless it’s perfect.

Mary: What are the major problems you see in the work of clients you decline to represent? In other words, what do writers need to do to make their books better and more saleable?

Andy: That’s really the $64,000 question. Publishing has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. I saw that happening at Cody’s, and I’m seeing it now as an agent. Most of the commercial publishers have been bought up by multimedia conglomerates. The pressure to produce huge profits is intense.  The word that keeps coming up in publishing is “platform,”  which means you have a recognized national or international  authority  in the subject you are writing about or you have the kind of celebrity that gives you the  ability to garner media attention. I like to tell people that platform means  you either have an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. Platform is less important with fiction.  But the hurdles are even more challenging. The writing has to be exceptional. But that is only the beginning. Almost all the novels that are submitted to fiction editors have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good. Publishing decisions tend to get made based on marketing rather than aesthetic considerations. A literary fiction editor might look at 300 novels a year. They will probably decide to publish 10.

Mary: What is your favorite book of all time?

Andy: Probably War and Peace.

Mary: What are you reading right now?

Andy: Something trashy. I’m too embarrassed to say.

Mary:  What books by your clients are coming out in the near future?

Andy: Sometimes its better to be lucky than smart in this business. But it’s  even better to be both. The most recent book I represent is Water 4.0 by David Sedlak published by Yale University Press. It’s the most important book yet published on the challenges of drinking water. The book was released the week Governor Brown declared a drought emergency in California.  Bloomsbury Press has just released Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. It’s a profound and important book, one that will have a huge impact on the way we think about animals.  Also Sourcebooks has just released Shooting Stars: My Life as a Paparazzi by Jennifer Buhl. Definitely the most fun book I have ever worked on. Also one of the funniest. She was recently interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. I have three magnificent novels being published this fall. I can’t wait.

How Not to Freak Out and Get Humiliated When Pitching to Agents

February 22, 2014
San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

I just got back from the writers conference at San Miguel de Allende. The city was voted the number one travel destination in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. And I would rate this writers conference number one in the world as well.

As usual, I took a lot of pitches from writers. As usual, they were pretty nervous when they sat down. And probably some were pretty disappointed when I told them I didn’t want to represent their book.  As usual, a lot of talented people showed me some  good writing, but  I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell it to a publisher.  Of course, nowadays there are lots of alternatives to mainline commercial publishing. And  writers are exploring these alternatives.

When it comes to rejection, I’m a real wussy. I don’t think I could ever pitch my writing to an agent. I’m amazed at how courageous writers are, and I always feel shame when I know that I have hurt someone with a rejection. In my job, I get  plenty of rejection letters from editors  in response to my submissions. I estimate I have received over 5000 in my few years at this job. Sometimes it seems a little like my social life in high school.  (See my blog post on Publishers’ Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler.)

Many of the pitches at San Miguel were for memoirs and novels. Here’s what I can tell you about  how publishers evaluate these genres. So many of the published memoirs are driven by celebrity. These are,  in reality, book-like glitzy packages, usually written by someone other than the putative author. For those of you who like that kind of book, I refer you to Kardashian Konfidential, St. Martin’s Press (2010), written by God only knows who. For the rest of us, it’s almost impossible to find a publisher for a personal memoir. Certainly there are some examples of family memoirs that have succeeded. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls comes to mind. Or The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. These books rise to the level of high literature. They’re  the exceptions though, and I can only imagine the difficulty they must have had finding a publisher. I’ve represented some very good memoirs. Yes. As good as The Liar’s Club. I couldn’t get them published. No dishonor. Just disappointment.

Similarly with fiction. And I have written about this as well in a previous blog post. Literary fiction is especially difficult to get published for the simple reason that it rarely sells enough to be a profitable venture. Most editors evaluate 200-500 novels a year. All of them have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good enough to get published. An editor may acquire 10. And the rejection is usually based on marketing, not on aesthetics. (“This book is too dark for book groups.”  —  “This book seems too quiet.”) As a result I only represent a few novels a year. Most of the greatest novelists of our time have experienced these kinds of rejections.

Some agents are nice guys and have a warm and fuzzy vibe. Others may seem dour, forbidding, arrogant, or world weary. If you are fearful of laying yourself  wide open to an agent, here’s what I recommend: Don’t even try to pitch your book. It’s probably more effective  sending an agent a query letter and a sample when they get back to the office. Instead, just ask them some questions. Agents know about the publishing process and the market, and you can learn a lot by having a conversation with them. Ask them what they are looking for when they read a memoir or a novel. Ask them what turns them on and what turns them off.  Ask them for advice about finding the right agent. Try to find out what agents and editors are talking about with each other. Ask them what grabs their attention in the first paragraph. The information will be invaluable. And you won’t have to suffer the indignity of a face-to-face rejection. Of course, ask them at the end if you can send them a query and submission. More than likely they will put it at the top of their queue.

Most writers who attended the conference at San Miguel de Allende, most writers who pitch to agents at any conference, aren’t going to find a home with a big New York publisher. But it’s important to remember that the writing, itself, is the end, not the means. It’s the journey that counts. And a few people  will reach the end and receive the gold cup.  More likely though you will slip on a banana peel ten feet from the finish line. Ah, but what a trip it’s been. How much you must have grown in the process.  Writing is a profound journey of discovery. Publication, well, it’s  a business transaction.

Nobody said it better than Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird. She tells us:

“…publication is not all it’s cracked up to be.  But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

How to Organize Your Own Book Tour

June 2, 2013

LENNERTZToday we are going to talk about how  authors can organize their own book tour. We’re speaking with book marketing maven, Carl Lennertz.

Carl has worked with Random House, Knopf, and HarperCollins, as well helping independent bookstores through the American Booksellers Association. He is now Executive  Director of World Book Night U.S.; more on that in a moment. Over time, he has helped organize over a thousand author tours.

Andy: Carl, when my clients prepare a marketing plan for their book proposal, they usually have something in there about their willingness to go on an 8 city publisher organized book tour. I have to tell them that this is probably unrealistic these days unless you are a very big celebrity. When I owned Cody’s, we had touring authors every night. What’s happened?

Carl:  Cost. Hotels, airfare, gas; they all went way up in price. At the same time  authors and agents didn’t have the right frame of mind about them. It all became about selling stacks of books and making ‘the list’ – which was a recipe for disaster. I’ll come back to this, but author events are NOT about selling  large numbers  of books at reading events; they are ALL about making relationships with the booksellers and reaching a few new readers each time.

Andy: I always thought  publishers in these hard times encourage authors to organize their own book tours, right?  But some of my clients have tried to do this and have gotten flack from their publishers. Why is that?

Carl: No, please don’t. The publisher is on the hook for hundreds of  dollars in promo money owed to the store for an event, AND there is no guarantee the books will arrive in time if not coordinated with the publisher. There’s a better way; read on.

 Andy: I’m all ears, Carl.

Carl: Let me suggest something different, something I call a muffin and coffee tour. Get in your car (yes, book sales and book buzz can be built locally/regionally), and just visit some stores. Do this before publication date, if you can, with some galleys from the publisher. If you’re doing this  after publication, do NOT stroll in and ask to sign your books. Just introduce yourself and state specifically that you are NOT there to sign books (this lowers bookseller stress significantly). Instead, walk in with some locally made cookies or muffins, or even ground coffee (and yes, I’ve known authors who put images of their book cover on the coffee bag!) Just say you wanted to thank the booksellers for their hard work…and then let it flow from there. The owner or manager may or may not be free to greet you, but let serendipity reign. You might get the part-time info desk person with attitude, or your new best friend. Then walk the store. Enjoy yourself; you’re a booklover, right? Half the time, they will find you and say, hey, we have 2 of your books; would you sign them? And you will, and thank them profusely.

Andy: As a former bookseller, I can vouch for that. Cookies make a difference.  It didn’t happen all that often, but when it did, I never forgot that author or that book. I remember whenever Meredith Maran had a new book out, she kept coming into the store with homemade cookies. And by the way, she also bought books on consignment from us whenever she did a reading and sold them for us at her readings. In return we promised to report the sales to Bookscan. You better believe that everyone in the store knew about Meredith and her book.

But still, my authors want readings! What do they do?

Carl: Now, say you DO actually get a reading booked. Rule # 1: It’s not about the reading; it’s about the things that happen because you go there, especially making a bookseller friend who will hand sell your book afterwards. Expect 0 people  to come to the reading and be surprised. If it’s 1 person, give the reading of your life. Don’t read for more than 10 minutes; talk about the book, how you came to write it; be funny, and take questions. And feel like the luckiest person in the world. Do you know how many authors want to be in your shoes at that moment?

Andy: Carl, again I can speak from experience as a bookseller. Cody’s had over 5000 author readings during the time that I owned it. Particularly with debut fiction but sometimes with National Book Award winners, we’d get 10 or 20 people in the audience and sell 5 books. Of course, if you are a local author, you could pull in all of your friends and contacts. And they’d buy books for sure. But I digress. Let’s assume you have scheduled a tour at your own expense. How do you collaborate with the publisher to make that experience successful?

Carl: The publisher will get books there, if you keep them advised. And send along press materials. And please, pick tour cities based on where the book is set, where you have friends, where you may have lived at one time or gone to college. And let the publicist know if any friends now work in the media in the area. Disgorge every connection you can think of. (I got the front arts page of the St. Louis paper for my lil’ book because I’d lived there years ago and was friendly with the booksellers there.)

Still – and I love publicists; they are genuinely helpful but overworked people – it still falls to you to work your social media before and after the event. To visit other stores in the area (with muffins), depending on time and geography. And, dear god, send a written thank you note afterwards.

Andy: Do you have any other wisdom to impart?

Carl: The key is still managing expectations: yours, that is, and appreciating the hard work of the booksellers in each store. Meet them, talk, be generous. Don’t mention some other website while there. And most important, work your social media before and after the event. Praise the store on Twitter and Facebook, and yes, broken record, mention other authors’ works to the bookseller, to those in attendance, and on FB, etc. It’s not all about you or that day; it’s about all those who can help sell your book for many moons to come if you build up a reservoir of good will. Take the long view. Praise others.

 Andy: You are director of World Book Night. Can you tell us a little about this event.

Carl: It’s a volunteer, grass roots effort to hand out a half million books in the US all one day: April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday. It started in the UK 3 years ago, and we just finished our second year here. 25,000 volunteers applied online via essay, telling us where they would go to find light or non-readers. We did it all by social media: ourselves, indie booksellers, librarians, and publishers, and it was extraordinary. We got books to shelters, underfunded schools, food pantries, and hundreds of other locations. Don’t take my word for it: check out our FB page of testimonials and our YouTube 52 second videos. There is also a book list, FAQ’s, notes about process and materials at our website – and you can sign up for a newsletter so you can here when to apply to be a giver next year:

 World Book Night books are chosen by a panel of independent booksellers, Barnes and Noble buyers,  and librarians in two rounds of voting, working off a  long list of paperbacks drawn from IndieBound picks, BN Discover picks, ALA prize winners, Pulitzers, ReadingGroupGuides.com favorite picks and Above the Treeline top category sellers.  The previous year’s givers also vote, and there are no publisher nominations for the title selection. The voting gets down to 50 books and I choose the final 30 in order to insure balances in gender, ethnicity, subject matter, age group, and geography, as well as a literary and commercial balance. We also want at least several indie press books in there, as well as books in Spanish.

Andy: Carl, thank you so much for sharing this with us. And keep doing that good work with World Book Night.

 

The Absolutely Most Important Agent’s Tip For Writers: First Impressions Count

May 17, 2013

Readers of Ask the Agent know  I’m suspicious of the seemingly endless stream of  publishing tips that you read in writers publications, blogs, and workshops. Given my skepticism about this kind of shorthand advice, my tips tend to be framed with a lot of ironic and self-deprecating humor.  And I also try to be realistic to the point of blunt. This blog is not for the faint of heart. Those seeking flittery feel-good inspiration will likely be uncomfortable here.

 But there is one tip that is as indisputable and immutable as  a law of physics. That is: first impressions count. And your first paragraph will be the agent’s first (and possibly) last impression of your work. So it better be better than good.

 When I  started working with fiction, I found that I usually could decide by the end of the first paragraph if a writer had talent. I was a little ashamed of this, so I asked around with other agents and editors. They agreed. This is not to say that I can tell by the end of the first paragraph whether a book is publishable. If the first paragraph makes me fall in love, I’ll keep reading until that first blush of romance disappears. It usually does at some point. Sometimes in the second paragraph. Sometimes on page 100.  Only rarely do I find myself reading the last line at 3 in the morning crying like a baby. But when that happens, it makes everything all worthwhile. 

 First impressions with an agent are no different than anything else in life. If you were going for an interview at Knopf, you probably wouldn’t show up wearing a NASCAR t-shirt and a John Deere hat. (Unless, you were looking for a job as an editor of a new imprint on ironic detachment.) If your first paragraph is characterized by clunky style, pretentious and flowery figures of speech, clichés, literary throat clearing, descriptions of the weather, clumsy efforts to shoehorn backstory into the narrative,  or other stylistic bads, it’s going to take a lot of brilliant writing to dispel that first impression. And chances are editors and agents aren’t going to afford you that much more time.

 This may seem harsh and unforgiving, but here’s my advice. Make that first paragraph sparkling and brilliant. And after that, make the second paragraph sparkling and brilliant.

Eleven Steps to Finding an Agent

March 18, 2013

 

I teach a class on finding and working with agents. A lot of prospective authors who attend the class are a little intimidated by the process and need to know the basics of agent research. So here are the steps you need to follow to find the right agent for your book.

1). Decide if you really want to work with an agent in the first place. I recommend you read my blog post on writers’ misconceptions of literary agents. Agents are going to charge a 15% commission on your income. Smaller publishers don’t require agented submissions. Some even refuse to work with agents. Large publishers will almost never accept unagented submissions. And even when an editor is interested in your project, she might insist that you find an agent before proceeding with her.

2) Make sure your project is ready to submit before seeking an agent. If your book is non-fiction, have a complete and polished book proposal and sample chapter. If fiction, the manuscript must be in final form. (Frequently publishers will insist on a finished manuscript for memoir as well.) If you are preparing a book proposal, do your homework on how to write a good one. Read some books about it, attend some classes, or get a freelance editor to work with you. Books are sold based on the proposal, and it has to answer the questions that the agents and publishers will be asking. Having a compelling idea isn’t good enough. Agents have to know that the idea works as a book, not just as a magazine article or a blog. Publishers need to know that they will make money on this book, not to make to fine point. To get a better idea of what agents are looking for, check out my blog post, Think Like an Editor.

3) Be careful about bad agents and scammers. Before preparing a prospective agent list, do a little research on things to watch out for. Check out the Writer Beware website. They have some very good advice on avoiding unscrupulous agents.

4) The next step is to start doing research on agents who are most likely to be appropriate for your specific genre and project. Remember that you can and must send multiple submissions. Almost all authors, from Joe Schmo to J. K. Rowling, have gotten lots of rejections from agents before finding the right one. I recommend that you make a list of 25 agents who would seem to be a good fit and proceed from there.

5) Begin by mining the data bases. I have a blog post about the resources you can use for finding agents. You might want to start with the list of members of the Association of Author Representatives. The AAR is the trade association of literary agents and has some strict requirements for membership including a code of ethics. For a larger list, I recommend Agentquery.com. In all of these lists you can limit your search only to agents who are working in your genre. Most of the agents will have brief statements that give you a more subjective feel for their sensibilities. You can also get links to the agents’ websites for further research. I went into some detail on a previous blog post about resources for writers.

6) After you have developed a tentative list of agents, it’s time to move on to the agents’ websites. Almost all agents have websites and almost all agent websites have a similar structure. You are likely to find:

• a page describing the agent’s orientation including a fuller description of the types of books she is looking for. Sometimes this will give you a better feel for the agent than simply a list of genres she works with.
• background information about the agent. This might include her education, previous occupations, honors and awards, and personal interests. Sometimes you want to go with your feelings on this. Your relationship with your agent will be very personal.
• A list of books that the agent represents and/or recent book deals. It’s important for you to see if these books seem compatible with your project. An agent whose list is primarily cookbooks might not be the best agent to represent your political journalism. But you need to find out if that agent in moving into other areas that would be more appropriate for you.
• Submission guidelines. This is crucial. Every agent website will have a page on submission guidelines that will tell you: how much and what information they want in query letters, whether submissions should be electronic or paper, some specific requirements about book proposals, and how long you can expect to wait before hearing back.

If you want to delve deeper into the dark recesses of an agent’s mind and soul, some agents will have blogs that could be revealing and always provide useful tips for prospective authors. Check out my blog post on agent blogs.

7) Next compose your query letter. The number of articles, books, and podcasts on this subject is legion. Some of this stuff though is mystification and hype. Don’t let a query letter guru tell you that a good query letter will result in publication. It won’t. But it is important to present your query in a format that is familiar to an agent, that provides the specific information an agent is looking for, and in a style that is clear and intelligible. Always sound professional. Never indicate that you suffer delusions of omnipotence. (Avoid mentioning: Oprah; Eat, Pray, Love; or movie deals.) Don’t be dumb. (Don’t say you are offering a “literary fiction novel”. That’s redundant. And for God sake, don’t say you have written a “narrative non-fiction novel.”)

8)Most writers want to know how long they should expect to wait before hearing back from an agent and how they should go about nudging those agents who haven’t responded. Response times are all over the map. I generally read queries every day and respond within 4 or 5 days. Other agents may take weeks or even months. Usually agents will give an indication on their website how long they take to respond. And….a lot of agents aren’t going to respond at all. It’s rude, but that’s life. Don’t expect agents to give you incisive advice on how to rewrite your book. And don’t ask them to refer you to other agents. You need to do your own research. Agents get 10-100 queries a day. Rejections tend to be pro forma. I recommend that after a few weeks, start sending out more query letters. It’s ok to send a follow-up after a month or two though.

9)If an agent is interested in your project, be responsive. If your project is non-fiction, she will usually ask for a complete book proposal. If it’s fiction, an agent will usually ask for the first 10 pages. And those 10 pages had better be good. Most agents and editors can tell good writing by the end of the first paragraph. If the agent gets excited, she will ask for the complete manuscript.

10) If you are in the enviable position of having interest from multiple agents, you can and should do your due diligence. Ask for references from other authors the agents have represented. If an agent tells you she can get you a 6 figure deal, she’s probably lying. She doesn’t know. That’s a bad sign. Having a New York agent is no longer important. Having an agent from a big agency is less important than having a good agent who believes in you.

11). You will get rejected. You will probably get rejected by dozens of agents. Get used to it. Authors get rejected by agents; agents get rejected by publishers; publishers get rejected by book sellers; and booksellers get their books rejected by consumers. That’s show business.


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