Archive for the ‘tips on getting published’ Category

Literary Agent Blogs

September 22, 2011

I attend a lot of writers’ conferences. Most of the people I meet there, not surprisingly, are looking for agents. You can always find well-attended classes and workshops that have to do with the steps the writer must take to find an agent; subjects  like:  making effective pitches, how to compose  query letters, and how to write non-fiction book proposals.  A lot of the readers of my blog are looking for answers to help them get published. I try to do that, but frequently I seem to indulge myself in rants of one sort or another. I thought it might be nice to talk a bit about some other agent blogs. It’s a good way to get the kind of information you are looking for and to learn a little more about how agents think. There is a  longer  list of agent blogs along with other publishing and writing related blogs at

 Here are some agent blogs that I think  are pretty good and have a lot of substance.

 Guide To Literary Agents.    Chuck Sambuchino is the blogmeister of this extremely popular blog for writers sponsored by Writers Digest. His site has lots of interviews and posts of agents talking about their life and work . It also includes guest posts by writers giving tips on how they found their agent. It is one of the most widely read blogs about publishing.

 Nathan Bransford.   Nathan was a literary agent for many years until he left last year for greener pastures in the tech industry. He is still an indefatigable blogger on all matters related to book publishing.  This blog won the best publishing industry blog in 2009.  Check it out.

 Rachelle Gardner.   I love this blog. It has  sound tips and advice.  But a lot of blogs have that.  Rachelle’s personality really shows through. She has warmth and a very encouraging manner.  Rachelle is relatively new to agenting. She started in 2007. She is associated with Wordserve Literary Agency in Denver. She specializes in the Christian market. But at least one Jewish – secularist- humanist- former Berkeley radical agent (me) really likes this blog.  

 Laurie McClean Agent Savant.   Ask the Agent had a great interview with Laurie last year about genre fiction. Laurie specializes in this. In case you didn’t know, “genre fiction” is a term of art for: romance, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and thrillers. She also works in teen fiction. Agent Savant is filled with tips and thoughts about writing and publishing in this genre. When I need information about genre fiction, I always go to Laurie for advice.

 I’d be interested in hearing from you what you think of these agent blogs and if you have others to recommend.




More Misconceptions About Literary Agents

September 7, 2011

Last week we did a blog post on writers’ misconceptions about the literary agents. Here are a few more.

1) I went with the agent who promised me the six figure deal. Most of the agents I know won’t do this, but I still hear about it from writers. It’s pretty hard to predict what kind of publisher advance a project will draw these days. What I can predict is that the advance offers will be a whole lot lower than they were several years ago. It’s important to have an agent whom you can trust. Anyone who employs this kind of enticement is pretty suspect.

2) A good agent can get me a lot more money.  This is a little complicated. An agent can work with you to develop a concept that is more attractive (and valuable) to a publisher and can help you compose a book proposal that will  generate excitement from an acquiring editor. If there is competition for your book from several publishers, an agent can employ some sophisticated  bargaining strategies to help improve a deal offer. And an agent can negotiate contract terms that may address issues affecting future royalties. But if you are in a situation with only a single publisher making an offer, one must assume that the publisher knows in advance how much she is willing to pay for a project. The job of the agent is to find out what that number is. In spite of what they may tell you, agents are not in possession of alchemical powers that will turn lead into gold.  An agent can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

3) A good agent can help me find a prestigious editor. This might or might not be true, but the real misconception is whether or not the writer will be better off with a “prestigious” editor. I believe that the best editor for a project is the editor who understands and believes in that project. This might be the editorial director of a large imprint, but it might also be a young assistant editor hungry for building a list. Recently I spoke to an author whose editor was one of these legendary guys in publishing. The author was unhappy, because he felt the editor didn’t give him the time he needed. I believe that.  I had one client who insisted that I only send his work to the most prestigious editors working at the most prestigious imprints, regardless of whether those editors had any interest in the subject being written about. One of the most common causes for rejection is: “this book doesn’t really fit my list.” A good agent will find you an editor who believes in your book. That is more important than having a superstar.

4) Never work with an inexperienced agent. Since I was an inexperienced agent not too long ago, I fully understand the downside of working with one. There are lots of things in book publishing that a person can only learn from experience. Fortunately I had been in the book business for 35 years when I became an agent and came onto the job knowing quite a bit, but there were still lots of holes in my knowledge. A lot of agents, many in the big agencies, can be pretty young and inexperienced. But this is not always such a bad thing. Some of these agents are pretty sharp and have a good eye for a project. And they are more likely to take a chance on a new writer. In the book business, developing new talent is a thankless but important job and it usually falls to the agents who have not yet built their lists.

Writers’ Misconceptions About Literary Agents

September 2, 2011

Let’s face it. Most of you who have never worked with a literary agent probably think that the 15%  agency commission is  sort of …well…unfair. A kind of baksheesh paid to the  middleman in the literary souk  who can use his connections  to get you access to  the celebrity editor at Knopf. Most published writers will tell you otherwise. Check out the acknowledgements page at the back of any book.  Authors love their agents, and recognize that the agent’s work goes far beyond dickering over deal points.

I’d like to address the subject of  the misconceptions about agents that seem to be going around in writers’ circles.

1) It’s better to be represented by a New York agent. Obviously I’m annoyed by this surprisingly widely held belief, since I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. A lot of writers seem to think that getting published is all about the agent’s physical  proximity to editors and the number of times per month they have lunch with them. The famous “publisher’s lunch” is from another era. And it is unclear that this was an important ritual in the acquisition process  even then. All of the editors I talk to  will tell you that the key consideration  of an acquisition decision is whether the book has commercial potential. Publishers are under incredible pressure from their multimedia conglomerate parent corporations to make money on every book they publish. If your book is a bad business proposition, no amount of martinis at lunch is going to convince the publisher otherwise. I talk to a lot of book editors even though I work in California.   They tell me that the most important thing you can provide them with  is a convincing book proposal.  You don’t have to be in New York to do that.

2) It’s better to be represented by a big (prestigious) New York agency. There are no good or bad agencies. There are just good or bad agents. That said,  there are some advantages to having one of these big agencies on your side, but not the advantages that you might think.  At the end of the day a celebrity agent isn’t  going to give you an edge, and can’t  deliver a contract for a project that would not otherwise get published. If you have a big book with lots of subsidiary rights opportunities (movie deals, foreign markets, merchandise tie-ins), it would be nice to have a big agency that could seamlessly handle all these deal elements. But even there, most good independent agents can serve you well.  

And  there is a downside to working with these  big agencies as well. They are extremely selective in the projects they take on.  A lot of these agencies are not looking for new writers. If you aren’t a literary superstar, you might be better served by a newer agent who is building a list and  is willing to take some chances by seeking out new talent.  And always, always, you are better served by an agent who has the time and the imagination to help you shape your ideas and the passion to believe in your talent. You want an agent who will not just flip a contract but who will work with you to develop your career as a writer.  There are some very good agents at the big New York agencies who will do this and other agents who are just too busy. The same is true of independent agents.

3) The agent’s 15% commission is a rip off.  It’s nothing more than payola to help you  get your foot in the door. Actually, sometimes that’s true. I’ve heard a lot of stories about agents who have done very little other than send your proposal around (usually to the same ten editors they like to work with) and then either drop you or flip a contract and disappear. That’s a bad agent. If you are going to give an agent a 15% commission, you might as well make sure that they are earning it. The work of an agent is a lot more than sending out your project and dickering over deal points. A good agent will help you refine your idea in a way that will make it easier to sell, will lead you through the book proposal process, may even provide detailed edits on your novel or memoir, will negotiate the contract, will be your advocate during the publishing process, will help you exploit all the subsidiary rights opportunities for the material in the book,  and will advise you on promotion when the book comes out. A good agent will earn that 15%. So try to find one of those.

I’ll talk about some more misconceptions on my next blog post.

Platform is More Than Just a Website and a Blog

July 29, 2011

Now That's Platform!

There is a lot of nonsense about “platform” floating around. You hear about it from  motivational speakers at writers conferences, and you read about it in “tip” pieces in magazines and blogs  directed at  writers. A lot of people charge hefty consulting fees to tell you how to “create your own platform”.

 There is really nothing wrong with this advice. Most of these tips are true and useful. Yes. You might find it helpful to set up a blog and, if you have a book published, you will need to have a website. You should  mine the social media. Facebook is de rigeur. Some people swear by Twitter; although when I set up my Twitter account, I only seemed to get invitations from prostitutes.

 The problem is that most of this advice is motivational, inspired by the gospel of “positive thinking”, and, not to make too fine a point, deceptive. The subtext of a lot of this  is that if you follow a few simple  tips, you can develop a platform that will be the key to getting your book published. This is not true. Book publishers have set a very high bar for platform.  A robust platform is not just a blog, a website, and a  twitter account, even if your  friends and followers  are legion.

    A syndicated New York Times columnist has an impressive platform. A holder of a chaired professorship at Harvard has an impressive platform, but only if she is writing in her specialized field and only if the subject is going to interest a wide non-academic audience. Unlike the Harvard professor, a Nobel laureate has an impressive platform and can pretty much pontificate about any old nonsense that suits his fancy. A Pulitzer Prize winner   has an impressive platform, but he also needs a book idea that a publisher thinks will make money. I’ve gotten rejections from publishers  for books by  Pulitzer Prize winners.

 A popular blog or website with a lot of hits  may or may not be an impressive platform. I had a client whose website got 75,000 views per day. But I couldn’t get a book contract for him. And no matter how popular your blog is, book publishers do not want to recycle your blog posts. How can they justify charging money for material that is being given away for free?

 A television or media personality has an impressive platform. But if the personality is regional, that reduces the value of their platform. Publishers are wary of regional titles.  However national media celebrities, especially those with a certain kind of reputation, especially those whose tawdry personal lives you read about while checking out your groceries, especially those who have no reason for being famous other than the fact  that they are famous — now that is the platinum standard for platform. If I were the agent for the Sisters Kardashian, I’d be on easy street. I could afford a Rolex watch. I might even be able to buy a diamond pinky ring.

 As readers of this blog know, I do not believe in the power of positive thinking. I believe in the power of realism and transparency. And in that spirit, I want to say that positive thinking  and bullet points in Writers Digest are not going to help you build a platform by itself. Real platform arises from your work in the real world. And if that work is likely to be of interest to a wide audience, then it will also be of interest to a book publisher or literary agent.

 Now before you decide to give up writing  and direct your  future toward sacking groceries at Safeway, you need to know that a weak platform is not an absolute impediment to getting your book published. But not having one is a significant hurdle that must be overcome.

 Platform is not especially important if you are writing debut literary fiction. Most agents will make the decision to represent you based on the quaint notion that your book is great writing.  Still, platform plays a part. As an agent, when I’m going through the queries for fiction manuscripts,  I will pay more attention to authors who have previously been published in prestigious literary magazines or have won literary awards. Being a Stegner fellow doesn’t hurt either. Having an agent is a kind of platform. At least the literary editor will consider your manuscript. Maybe read the first 5 or 10 pages.  But  truthfully most agented manuscripts for debut novels never get a book contract.  

  Having a previously published novel is a great platform, but only if that novel sold well. If your last novel bombed, it is worse than  having no  track record at all. I have heard that some agents have submitted second novels under a nom de plume in order to overcome this challenge.

 I speak to a lot of writers who are composing memoirs, often about overcoming a personal or family crisis. These stories are inherently dramatic but hard to get published. You do see memoirs by unknown writers occasionally showing up in a publisher’s catalogue.  Usually the memoir is tied to a big news story. A memoir by one of the Chilean miners, for instance. Otherwise the memoir is going to have to be a literary tour de force. I mean the caliber of J. D. Salinger or Joan Didion.  The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wells comes to mind. Then, of course, there is Eat, Pray, Love. It is neither a celebrity book, a news story, nor is it a literary masterpiece. Oh well. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

 All this being said, I want to tell you that I have gotten book contracts by authors without platform. Yes. Memoirs even.   Todd Farley, the author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry published by Berrett-Kohler, had no platform. I pulled his query out of the slush pile. He had written the book while living in his brother’s under heated attic in Maine.  He told an amazing story with sidesplitting humor about his hapless career grading standardized tests. The week of publication, Todd wrote the guest op-ed piece for The New York Times, a spot usually reserved for people with platform.

 I agented Peter Rudiak-Gould’s memoir, Surviving Paradise: One Year in a Disappearing Island published by Union Square Press. It was another unsolicited query. Peter was a 24 year old graduate student at Oxford. His book tells the story of the year he spent teaching on a small atoll in the Marshall Islands. His writing, his style was stunning. The book was acquired simply because of its inherent quality.  Certainly not because of his platform.

 I participate in a lot of agent panels. Aspiring authors usually ask us what are our tips for effective pitches or query letters. I usually say that the best way to develop a pitch is to have a good project to pitch.  Similarly, and not to be too Zen about this, the best way to develop a platform is to have a good platform to develop.

Think Like an Editor – Nine Tips on Writing Book Proposals

July 12, 2011

 Book publishing is run like real business now. The six largest publishers are all owned by multimedia conglomerates. The corporate bosses have very high expectations for return on investment, far higher than in the old days when book publishing was a cottage industry. Accordingly editors are under intense pressure to acquire books that will make money, a lot of money. In those old days, deals were made informally over the famous three martini lunch. Personal relationships were key to getting a book published. At least that’s the conventional wisdom on the way things were back then. I’m not sure if it was ever true. Now the acquisition decision is primarily based on the material contained in the book proposal. A bad book proposal can kill a good book idea. Well, maybe if you are Kim Kardashian, you can get away with a lousy proposal or none at all. But gentle reader, don’t fool yourself. You are not Kim Kardashian. A good book proposal is an honest book proposal and one that will address the concerns of the editor and give her confidence that the book will meet her expectations and requirements. Put yourself in her shoes for a minute and it will help you write a better proposal.

 1. A book proposal is a business plan. You have probably heard the old saying that publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. At the moment the relationship is sort of S/M with commerce holding the whip. Never forget that an editor’s acquisition is a business decision and your proposal must convince the editor that your book is not just great writing. It is good business as well.

 2. Get the editor hooked right out of the gate. An editor’s life isn’t all that glamorous. She works in a 10′ x 10′ office all day, every day. She has to attend boring acquisition meetings with a bunch of other fatuous editors who are pitching their pet projects for the same slot as hers. The publisher, the sales director, and the marketing manager are all there too. Maybe they have read your proposal. Maybe they have only read the first page. Maybe just your agent’s pitch letter. Everyone in the room including your acquisition editor has a busy life leading to attention deficit disorder. If you can’t get them excited in the first two paragraphs, I’m sorry, but you are probably sunk. Make sure your writing in the first paragraph is sparkling. Make sure you can say what the book is about in one or two sentences. If you can’t, you probably haven’t figured that out yourself. And remember, you have a lot of competition. Every acquisition editor gets 20 proposals a week. Every one of those proposals has been heavily vetted by agents. Every one of them will have a very compelling reason to get published. What will make yours pop out?

 3. Don’t play the editor for a fool. Editors have seen every kind of hype that you can think of many times over. Just remember this. Don’t mention Eat, Pray, Love. Don’t mention Oprah and while you are at it, don’t mention Terry Gross. Don’t mention The New Yorker. Don’t mention Spielberg either. When you talk about your promotion opportunities, don’t use the word “might” ( as in “I might get on Oprah.”) Editors will read this as “might not” or more likely “doesn’t have a chance in hell.” This kind of hype sends a message that you are either dishonest or deluded. Neither of these are good messages to send.

 4. Focus on your competitive analysis. A lot of writers gloss over the competitive analysis and treat it as if it were an unpleasant exercise that one must get through in order to please her agent. Don’t fool yourself. Editors look very carefully at this, because it gives them important information about the potential audience for the book. The editor is looking to see if there are other books on the subject that have had impressive sales. But they also want to know that you have something new and important to say on the subject. Make sure you use comp titles that will be useful to the editor in evaluating whether there is an audience. Use books from major publishers that were successful. Don’t use books that flopped. Don’t use books that are so old that they are irrelevant to the editor’s analysis. Don’t use books that aren’t truly comparable. And, for God’s sake, don’t use self-published books. And, one last thing, remember: never say that your book is totally unique and the only book on the subject. That means to the editor that there’s probably no audience for it.

 5. Make sure your audience analysis is realistic and robust. The audience analysis section of the proposal is also an area that authors give short shrift to. When an editor looks at a proposal, the first question she will ask herself is, “Is there an audience for this book?” In the audience analysis section, you need to answer this in a compelling manner that shows you mean business and are not acting under your own illusions or just blowing smoke. I get a lot of proposals about health related topics. Frequently the author will define the audience as “everyone between 20 and 70 years old interested in health.” This is not an audience. This is a demographic. The editor doesn’t want to know how many billions of people in the world might think about your subject area from time to time. She wants to know what specific and discrete groups of people will be motivated to pay $25 to buy your book. The editor wants you to get real or get lost.

 6. When writing your bio, think like an editor. The editor will read your bio and be looking for these things. 1) Does the author have the authority to be writing about this subject? and 2)What kind of platform does the author have that will allow her to drive sales? This should not be a curriculum vitae (although if you have one, you may include it in an appendix). You will have to describe the work that you do in the real world. You will have to include a modest list of important books and articles –if such a list exists — that you have written and published. You should include media connections past and present. You must mention major venues where you have spoken and will be speaking, and any significant awards you have received. Don’t put in filler material that will not impress anyone. Don’t say that you will teach a class on the subject at your local junior college. Don’t say you came in 3rd in an unknown literary award. Don’t pretend you have a platform when you don’t. [See #3 above]

7. Impress the editor with a solid, realistic, effective and honest marketing and promotion plan. The marketing and promotion section of the proposal is another area where authors have difficulty and sometimes try to wing it. Don’t. Editors will be able to see whether you have a sophisticated understanding of marketing and promotion, whether you will do an effective job flogging your product, or whether you are callow and naïve. Show the editor that you have a good plan. Go into some detail. Don’t say “I will do Internet marketing.” Say exactly what you will do. Don’t say, “I will try to get interviews on my local radio station.” Tell them exactly what media events you will realistically be able to line up – and don’t lie about it. Don’t mention that you will have book signings at local bookstores. They know that already. Don’t say your mom will host a publication party.

8. Don’t suffer delusions of grandeur. This is primarily for those of you out there who are writing memoirs, but it applies to everyone. Don’t get me wrong. Memoirs are a very popular genre but they are hard to get published. I usually advise memoirists that it is best to look outside themselves. I have no doubt that your life has been dramatic, even the stuff of legend. Everyone’s life is a hero’s journey. But this doesn’t mean that there is an audience who will want to read about it or a publisher who will see it as a marketable commodity. By all means, write your memoir. It will give you a deeper understanding of your life and your place in the world. But try to be realistic about the chances of getting published. Again, think like an editor.

 9. I want to say one word to you, just one word: “transparency”. This is my golden rule of proposal writing. The editor must know when he has finished the proposal that everything in it is true and deliverable before and after publication and that the author is who he says he is and has the authority, connections, and savvy to make this book sell. I need to trust my author just as she needs to trust me. And the editor needs to trust both of us. There is probably an agent out there who will be able to get you a contract based on some fancy footwork. But that isn’t the way I do business, and it isn’t the way the agents I respect do business either.

Resources for Finding Literary Agents

June 24, 2011


I get a lot of  unsolicited queries from writers, most of which I must respectfully reject. Many of these writers ask me if I can refer them to another literary agent. Usually I tell them to find a reputable and well-vetted website that has a data base of agencies and that includes information on whether an agency is currently open to new authors, the genres that they are specifically looking for, and whether the list is searchable  on some of these fields. These lists are all free. Here are a few of them that I like.


Association of Author Representatives   .  The Association of Author Representatives (AAR) is the trade association for American literary and dramatic agents. It has a searchable data base that includes important information about genres an agent works in, whether she is actively seeking new projects, submission guidelines, and other relevant information. The AAR list is very selective, only 350 agencies are listed members. In order to become a member of the AAR, you must have sold at least 10 books in the 18 months prior to your application (this is a significant hurdle).  You must get a written  recommendation  by 2 other AAR members, and you must agree to a rather stringent code of ethics. A lot of the members are from large agencies. But many are not. If an agent is a member of AAR, you can usually assume that the agent is a fulltime and reputable agent. However many good and successful agents are not members of AAR. So you need not limit yourself to this small list of agents. (I’m a member of AAR and proud of it!)  . This site has a much larger list of agents than AAR.  It has over 900 agents listed. It is also vetted, so most, if not all, of these agents are reputable and full time. It has a great searchable data base, and it is all free. It also has lots of other information that writers want including lists of agent blogs, information about writing effective query letters, how to identify scammers, and information on self-publishing options, I like this site.

Preditors and Editors.   This is a very unusual site that has a long list of agents annotated with cautions against certain agencies. P&E  frequently gives details about why these “not recommended” agents have received this dubious honor. Some of these examples are pretty gruesome. The site explains criteria for including a negative rating. Some of those criteria are: agent charges fees, has burdensome engagement agreements, has tie-in arrangements with other fee charging entities, and a whole lot more. Some agencies have special “recommended” notations. But it is unclear what the criteria is for these qualifiers.   Querytracker has a decent agent data base and some good information that will be useful for writers. It also has some interesting tracking information with statistics about how responsive a particular agent is with unsolicited queries. I’d take these statistics with a grain of salt. It is usually based on a very small sample by writers who take the time to report back to this site. Example. My report is based on 14 responses sent to the site. That is about as many queries as I receive every day. So this is not a particularly robust sample.  They also have some nifty chat rooms for authors. For $25 per year, you can receive their premium membership that offers some more reports and services. I generally advise against spending money on any of the sites. The information is usually available for free elsewhere.

Writer Beware.   This is not a list of agents. Rather it is a very good free resource that gives comprehensive advice on how to avoid scams by agents, editors, and publishers, along with good legal advice on your recourses. Some of this information is also available on other sites that we discussed above. But this one is particularly complete. It is on the site of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but the information applies to all writers in all genres.

A Great Annotated List of Blogs for Query Letters

April 18, 2011

 Check out Marci Seidel’s blog. She has a great annotated list of other blogs by authors, agents, and book industry people giving great advice about query letters.

The Indie Publishing Option

March 23, 2011

Laurie McLean is a literary agent specializing in genre fiction and  middle-grade/young-adult children’s books. She has really become a guru on this subject and is the agent I always turn to when I need to know the ever-changing fads and fashions of fantasy, science fiction, supernatural fiction and young adult fiction. A few months ago we had a great interview with her about the subject on “Ask the Agent.”  If you want to know whether the vampire train left the station, ask Laurie. 

Laurie has been a literary agent for 6 years and works at the Larsen Pomada Agency in San Francisco.  She has a fantastic blog, Agent Savant,   which is a good place to start learning about genre fiction.

Laurie has started a new consulting business separate from her agency called Agent Savant Inc. She specializes in creating custom digital marketing plans for eBook authors, authors with significant back lists of titles who want to get their rights reverted and sell them as eBooks and POD books, and midlist authors who want to know how they can market their books more effectively online.

Today the publishing landscape is changing almost weekly. Commercial publishers are struggling to redefine themselves in the new digital marketplace. And new venues seem to be sprouting up almost daily that give writers alternatives to traditional publishing. Today I want to talk about what these transformations mean to writers. Both the challenges and the opportunities.

 Andy: First of all, Laurie, congratulations on your New York Times best seller. Tell us a little about it.

 Laurie: My client, Julie Kagawa, writes amazing young adult fantasy. Her Iron Fey YA series, with The Iron King, The Iron Daughter and The Iron Queen out now and The Iron Knight coming out in the fall, has really resonated with today’s teens. She put her own spin on the traditional mythology of Oberon, Mab and the summer and winter fairy courts by adding a new dimension—The Iron Fey. They are cobbled together out of what kids truly believe is magic today: technology.  The Iron Queen is the book that landed Julie on the NYT bestseller list a mere year after her debut, and we just sold three more books in this series plus three more in a new post-apocalyptic series.

 Andy: It seems to me that there is an awful lot of good writing being done today and most of it is having a hard time getting published in traditional channels. That’s true isn’t it?

Laurie: That’s one of the reasons I am so bullish on digital publishing and eBook publishing. A writer commented during a writers conference workshop I was giving several years ago that the worst part of my job must be reading so much bad writing, and I replied, “No. The worst part of my job is reading good or very good writing and knowing that I was going to have to reject it because it either wasn’t marketable at that point in time or because it wasn’t perfect.”  The bar has been placed so high for writers,  it’s made it nearly impossible for even the strong writers to break in. You must be good at every facet of writing and marketing and know the publishing business inside and out to even have a chance at the brass ring. But now opportunities have opened up with eBook and POD (print on demand) indie or self publishing, and the successes of some of the early adopters have destroyed that notion of who is a published author and how you can make a living as a writer. You can publish your book on Kindle Direct Publishing,  Smashwords,  or Barnes and Noble PubIt! sites and, voila, you are now a published author. Does that mean you don’t have to put in the hard work of always improving your craft and marketing your books? Hell, no. Cream will always rise to the top. You still have to learn and grow and pay attention and be diligent.

Andy: I know this changes every week, but can you go over the kinds of options available if you can write great books and still can’t find a publisher?  Tell us the pros and cons of each.  (POD, ebooks, smashwords, etc.)

Laurie: Boy, I could blog about this for weeks on end, Andy. So instead I will challenge your readers to discover how easy it is to post an eBook themselves. And I’m not doing this to be mean. Part of do-it-yourself publishing means you have to roll up your sleeves and actually do it! No agents or editors or cover designers or sales force will be there to hold your hand and make it happen. Give one more polishing edit to that  work in progress –or to an old manuscript, novella, short story or article that has been sitting in a digital drawer on your computer–and at the very least go to Kindle Direct Publishing  and then Smashwords  and see how simple and straightforward it is to take your MS Word document, cobble together a cover from clip art or the like,  and publish that book. Oh, and did I forget to mention that  IT IS FREE TO DO THIS? Well, it is. Price your book anywhere you like it or give it away for free to generate some buzz. Then dive into social media (Twitter, blogging, Facebook, etc.) to let the world know you’re out there. If readers request a print copy of your book, go to, CreateSpace, Author Solutions or directly to a printer and make POD available. Some options will give you a number of books in return for a price and then you keep 100% of the sales dollars, like in the old days of vanity publishing, but newer options like Lulu cost you nothing up front and you collect a small royalty on each book you sell and they ship.

 Andy: So it is pretty cheap and easy to get your book published either in print on paper or in e-book format. But the real challenge is how do you get the word out. Can you give some advice to the reader on marketing your books?

Laurie: Here’s a link to my blog post  that presents a digital marketing plan writers can use as a starting point. I spent 20+ years in high tech marketing and publicity before I became an agent, so this has a lot of knowledge behind it.

Andy: Internet gurus used to use the term “disintermediation” to describe the new world of Internet commerce. What they meant was that the Internet would eliminate the middleman and allow consumers to buy direct from the producers at a reduced cost. It hasn’t exactly come out that way. In our business is a classic middleman. A typical retailer, really. But with the explosion of self-publishing, disintermediation seems to be a real possibility, no?

Laurie: That’s the billion-dollar question, Andy. How will this incredibly disruptive technology change the publishing industry? No one knows the answer, even though many offer their guesses daily. My informed opinion is that indie publishing will progress along the same lines as indie movies and indie music. You’ll have some overnight indie sensations that either thrive (for example American Idol megastars Carrie Underwood or Jennifer Hudson) or fizzle (can anyone remember AI runner ups?). For every  self published Amanda Hocking superstar (and if you don’t know who she is, please find out), you will have hundreds of eBook authors making a decent wage and doing what they love without the baggage of being a household name. Yet, like Carrie Underwood, 26-year-old Minnesotan Amanda Hocking now has an agent who is about to sell her next series to a traditional publisher for seven figures.

Andy: Laurie, if Amanda Hocking is doing so well self publishing, why on earth should she bother to sign a contract with a commercial publisher. I bet she is getting better royalties on her own.


Laurie: Why? Because Amanda would rather spend her days writing than tweeting, giving media interviews, working with cover artists and editors, and negotiating with foreign publishers. There is so much work that must be attended to if you want to become successful in publishing—whether indie or traditional. And so when fame finds them, I predict indie authors will eventually straddle the line. They may continue to self-publish work that the traditional publishers don’t think will sell (short fiction, non-fiction, blogged books of advice, experimental writing, co-authored work, etc.), but their bread and butter mainstream books will come out in digital and print from established multi-national conglomerates. That’s why this chaotic stew is driving publishers insane. It’s impossible to predict the outcome of any decision. Everyone’s experimenting from authors to agents to publishers. I think your concept of  “disintermediation” is really a fancy word for do-it-yourself. And some DIY projects look homemade, while others look crafted. It all depends on skill level and attention to detail.

Andy: Other than Amanda Hocking, are people really making money doing this kind of self-publishing?

Laurie: Some are, some are not.  Self-publishing juggernaut Author Solutions estimated that the average number of books sold by their customers last year was 150. That’s not a lot. It’s not going to make you rich. But one of my new clients, Kait Nolan, sold 1,000 copies of an e-novella herself in January at 99 cents each. And she’s sold more copies of her three short stories in the first three months of 2011 than she did in all of 2010. So her momentum is growing to the point where I found her because of her awesome social media presence last month and offered her representation before she had even written one query letter to an agent or editor! The point is that some indie authors who really work at it are making money. Some are not. Which one will you be?

Andy: You have set up a separate business recently to help people navigate the new landscape. Can you describe what you do?

Laurie: Anyone interested in Agent Savant Inc. should  check it out. For a flat fee I help authors discover their unique author brand; I help them publish their writing online as an eBook; and then I create a customized digital marketing plan to help them sell their eBooks and POD books more effectively. I don’t do the work for them. I create the plan and get them started. Sometimes all it takes is a push with some direction behind it to take off.

Andy: Thanks, Laurie. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have to go make a phone call to Amanda Hocking to see if she needs a new agent. I think I’ll tell her that I can get her an 8 figure deal!

Great Article on Blogging Tips For Writers

February 11, 2011

Blogging tips for writers. Check it out.

Books into Movies: Everything You Need to Know Part 2

January 4, 2011

Today we are continuing our interview with John Marlow, author of Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood. We are discussing the mechanics of the Hollywood dealmaking process as it applies to book adaptions.  If you want even more information about this subject, I highly recommend John’s Self-editing blog.

 Andy:  What is an “option,” and what are the steps that get taken before a decision is made to make a film or tv show?

  John: In the case of a book or manuscript or screenplay for that matter, an option is just that—an “option” to secure all film-related rights to the work, for an agreed-upon price, at a later time. Let’s say you have a story that I want to option as a producer. I pay you—or provide some valuable service to you—in exchange for exclusive permission to buy the film rights to your story at a later time, typically within 1-3 years.

 The option payment itself is relatively small, but if the option is “exercised”—that is, if the film rights are actually purchased before the option expires—you get paid a lot more.

 Why is it done this way? Let’s say you’ve written something like Nano, my own first novel. That might cost in the neighborhood of $100 million to film, which means it’s not going to be a tv series; it has to be a movie. As a producer, I don’t have that kind of money, so I’m going to have to take a hard look at this book, and figure out how to adapt it in a way that appeals to multiple buyers who do have that kind of money.

 I may want to approach other producers, directors, or actors to get them interested in the project, because if they’ll “attach” or commit to being involved—and if I’ve chosen them well—that makes the project more attractive to potential buyers.

 I might want to involve a manager or agent to help “package” (attach desirable people to), pitch or sell the project. I might hire a screenwriter and work with them to develop the story and adapt it into a screenplay, so I have something solid to show to the people I want to involve. Because unless the underlying property—the book, in this case—is already very well known and very successful, I’m unlikely to sell the project without having a screenplay.

 If I’m looking at independent financing, it’s almost impossible to approach investors without a screenplay—because what are they investing in? My notion that this book would make a cool movie? Amateurville.

 Doing all of this takes time and money. Having an exclusive option allows me to invest the time and money required to make things happen, because I know that if I can pull it all together before the option expires, I can sell the project, get my name on the screen as producer, and maybe make some money in the bargain.

 Andy: So let’s go through the steps between the option and the decision to produce.

 John: Again, let’s assume I’m the producer. When everything goes right, what happens is this I secure the option up front, do the producer thing, and find a buyer. That buyer then pays me a producer’s fee and exercises the option by paying you the full purchase price. Then they make the movie. The process is much the same for tv series.

 Books are almost always optioned, not bought—because as you can see, there’s a lot of work to be done downstream. Screenplays are often optioned as well, but you also have the opportunity to sell the script outright—which almost never happens with adaptation rights to books, unless the book is already huge.

 Andy: What are the typical deal points in an option contract, and what is a good negotiating strategy?

 John: Real Hollywood “long-form” option contracts run about 20 pages, with far too many deal points to cover here. What it boils down to is this: the eventual buyer (the one who exercises the option) wants to acquire all rights, except those specifically exempted or “reserved” to the author by the terms of the agreement.

 You typically get to keep book rights; live stage and radio rights; sequel, prequel, and character rights in book and ebook format; and so on. Everything else (movies, tv, merchandising, soundtrack, etc.) belongs to the studio. You might get to keep additional rights if you’re already massively successful, or wind up dealing with a very small or very independent company. But when it comes to the studios–to whom many of the small indies sell their movies–it’s their way or the highway.

 Andy: This is a little bit of a problem if you have a published book. Typically a book contract will grant to the publisher all print and electronic verbatim book rights but also a bundle of subsidiary rights: abridgements, serial rights, sometimes merchandise, non-verbatim multimedia rights (being used in “enhanced e-books or aps), and audio for verbatim. Which of these rights should the author try to reserve if they are seeking a movie deal?

John: It’s only a problem when you don’t know any better, which many new writers don’t. As you know from experience, publishers are almost always willing to back off on things they ask for in the first contract they send out. Things like—for example—film and merchandising rights A good agent will know which of these rights can and should be reserved for the author.

 Short version: the studios want everything that moves; they are not, for the most part, interested in any format that consists primarily of words and letters—unless it’s a screenplay, or a novelization or other adaptation based on the script or the movie itself. So whatever you want to do with your book is fine—print, ebooks, serializations, audiobooks, sequels and prequels, live stage, musicals for the most part, non-dramatic adaptations and so forth.

 Whether dealing with New York or Hollywood, it’s always a good idea to involve an attorney familiar with the field; in most cases, an “entertainment attorney” is what you want, and they’ll be very familiar with Hollywood’s requirements. Non-entertainment attorneys will be clueless, because it’s a very specialized field of law. If you can’t afford their hourly rates, many—including some of the best—will work for a 5% commission if you already have a deal on the table. They should save or make you more than that.

 Andy: What does a production company need in order to make an option offer? Do they need a manuscript?

John: That depends on the production company or the individual producer. Some will option books without scripts, some won’t. Hollywood is very heavy into adaptations right now, which is good for authors. At the same time, it’s important to realize that there is a vast difference between the amount of money you will be paid for film rights to a manuscript or book, and the amount you will be paid for a screenplay.

 Rights to unpublished manuscripts generally fetch the least, unless the manuscript just sold for a bundle. Film rights for an unknown or modestly successful book may—and may not—fetch $50,000 if the option is exercised and the movie is made, which takes years. The average price for a first-sale screenplay, on the other hand, hovers between $300,000 and $600,000, with some going well north of $1 million. And you get quite a big chunk of that—typically a third or more—up front. That’s yours to keep, even if the movie is never made.

 Andy: Can you describe the process that a writer should take in order to convert his or her novel into a film script?

 John: There are three basic approaches: do it yourself, hire a consultant, outsource. The basic differences are time, money, and quality. Doing it yourself costs nothing but time—and it will take an enormous amount of time. Very few writers are capable of doing both books and screenplays well. This is why so few famous novelists adapt their own books, and also why virtually no screenwriters pen novels.

 The formats are almost mutually exclusive, and demand opposing skills. Authors must expand upon things, provide rich detail, and delve into the minds of their characters over hundreds of pages; screenwriters must compress a story into 120 pages or less, guide the director but avoid stepping on his toes, avoid minute detail, make everything visual, create compelling characters while externalizing thoughts and portraying them through actions—all while showing deference to the actors and being ever-mindful of budget.

 The hardest transition of all is going from novelist to screenwriter, because most of the things that make for a good novelist make for a lousy screenwriter. This can be overcome, but—like learning to write novels—often takes years. If you have that kind of time, read good, recently-sold scripts and lots of adaptations, and give it your best shot.

 The second option—hiring a consultant to guide your adaptation—will speed your learning curve, and might just save you years of work. He or she can evaluate your book, help develop an outline for the adaptation, and act as a coach along the way. While it’s possible to do this with a pure screenwriter, you’re likely to get better results with someone who writes both books and screenplays. Ideally, you find someone who’s done that and also specializes in adaptations—an “adaptation specialist.”

 If you can do that, you’ll have someone on your team who not only knows where you’re going, but also where you’re coming from—and how to get from there to where you need to be. This doesn’t mean your job will be easy, but it will be easierThe consultant approach will cost you a bit of money, but save you a lot of time.

 The third option is to outsource the writing entirely—find a screenwriter or, preferably, an author-screenwriter adaptation specialist. Work with them to develop a detailed adaptive outline you’re happy with—so you know where things are going before the writing begins—and turn them loose. Let them write the script for you, checking in every 30 pages or so just to make sure everything’s on course. After a few months—viola!—you have a finished script in your hands. Which is where most successful Hollywood stories begin.

Doing it this way is also a fast-forward learning experience, because there’s nothing quite like seeing general principles and specific techniques applied to your own work by someone who really knows their stuff. This is of course the most costly option in terms of money, but the least costly in terms of time.

 Andy: Can you talk a bit about your work as a developmental editor and adaptation specialist, and specifically what’s involved in the process of turning a book into a screenplay?

 John: I do a lot of development and editing work on books and screenplays, and I write both. I’ve done adaptations going both ways—book-to-screen and screenplay-to-book. The first one I did was my own, adapting the Nano novel into a screenplay. I was fortunate enough to get some recognition for that from the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships Program, which got me and my script mentioned in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and the Los Angeles Times, and led to a development deal with Jan de Bont, who directed/produced Speed, Twister, Minority Report and other films.

 That interest helped sell the book to Macmillan. And it taught me that there can be a kind of synergy between New York and Hollywood, where interest on one coast can be used to bump up interest on the other. Which is why it’s best to have both a book and a screenplay to sell.

 When it comes to helping others with adaptations, I do a number of things. The most basic service is an adaptation evaluation; I look at what the author has—let’s say it’s a book or manuscript—and give them my take on the work’s adaptability:

 Does this look like it would make a good movie? If yes, how can we make it a great movie? If no, could it be a good or great movie—and what kinds of changes would we need to implement to make that happen? How can we make those changes while remaining true to the heart of the story or—if it’s nonfiction—the actual events? When you’re talking about taking a 300+ page book and turning into a 120-page screenplay, even a book that’s cinematic to begin with is going to undergo a significant transformation. Books that are not obvious movies will require bigger changes.

 I often consult with my significant other at this point, because she’s worked as story editor for a major producer, and also worked for Nielsen, which does most of the film marketing research for the studios. And she wrote and produced a number of tv documentaries. She provides a female perspective, as well as added story savvy.

 Then I generally get on the phone with the author and bat things around. If they want to go forward with the adaptation, and want me to consult/coach or adapt it for them, then we’ll work together to lay out the structure and “beats” or significant events of the existing story. We do this with what I call a digital outline or “beatline,” which is a lot easier to work with than a standard outline. For more on this, see my recent post The Digital Outline: Creating a Beatline for Your Story.

 Starting with that, the author and I will develop a working outline and a 7-point story structure. My recent post Story Structure: Laying Down the Bones goes into great detail on this.

 After that, we put our heads together, brainstorm and create an adaptive outline or beatline of what the script story should look like. Working in this format, where each significant event is a simple bullet-point, allows us to move quickly and change, rearrange, add or delete things on the fly. It also enables us to take in the whole story in a few minutes, instead of repeatedly plowing through 300 or 500 pages to see how many things any given change is going to affect.

 I’ll often bring my story editor in on this as well, so it’s a bit of a two-for-one deal for the client. We work ten feet away from each other, so it’s no big deal.

 If the author wants me to write the script, I go off and do that—and we check in every 30 pages or so to make sure everyone’s happy. In either event, we’ll put together a final logline and pitch sheet, do a final polish—and the author is ready to rock.

 Andy: John, thanks so much. There is so much in this interview. I hope readers will take the time to read your Self Editing Blog to go into this more deeply. Now if you will excuse me, I have Spielberg on the other line and have to give him my pitch pack.

 John: Tell him to wait.

MARLOWE (1 of 1)



You can learn more about adapting your book to a movie by reading John’s new book: Make Your Story a Movie. St. Martin’s Press, 2012

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