Archive for the ‘tips on getting published’ Category

Books into Movies: Everything You Need to Know (Almost). Part 1

January 2, 2011

 

 

MARLOWE (1 of 1)A lot of writers I speak with  think of  their book as a story  that would make a good movie. It’s nice to think that Stephen Spielberg is waiting in the wings to scoop up your book, but it really doesn’t happen all that often. The movie business is like the book business, only with fewer movies than books. There are a fair number of “option” deals going around, but the real money most often comes with production, not with option.

 Today I am going to interview John Robert Marlow. John is the author of  Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood.   He is also the author of Nano, a technothriller  that he adapted for film. The script  has been honored by the same Academy that hands out the Academy Awards. The Nano script then went into development with a major Hollywood director. John optioned another script to the producer of Collateral, who wanted the script so badly that when she couldn’t reach John herself, she hired a private detective to track him down.

 John has written numerous articles about writing, self editing and adaptation, both for the Writer’s Digest Books annuals and for his wonderful Self Editing Blog  This interview is going to be in 2 parts. Today we are going to talk about the how Hollywood deals get pitched and put together.

The next interview will be about book-screen options and how we move from a book to a screenplay.

 Andy: John, let’s say you have a novel. How do you determine whether it has any dramatic potential at all?

 John: Hollywood’s been at this game for a while now, and most of these folks are very clear about what it takes to make a book appealing on the screen. Some of the things that are important to Hollywood mean nothing at all to publishers—so the fact that a book is appealing to publishing houses doesn’t mean it will interest Hollywood. Which is one of the reasons that so few books are seriously considered by filmmakers.

 At the same time, if you know what Hollywood wants, you can incorporate those elements into your story as you write it, or make sure they’re included in any screenplay adaptation you may write or commission, so it’s never too late.

 Andy:  So what exactly are those elements?

 John: Hollywood looks for 10 things in any story, fiction or nonfiction: a cinematic concept that can be communicated in ten seconds; a hero that a large segment of the moviegoing public can relate to; strong visual potential; a three-act structure; a two-hour limit; a reasonable budget; low fat (no unnecessary scenes); franchise potential; four-quadrant (young and old, male and female) appeal; and merchandising potential.

 Seasoned vets with proven track records can sometimes skate the two-hour limit and budget points; newcomers cannot. Franchise and merchandising potential aren’t always necessary but are good to have, particularly at higher budget levels. The same goes for four-quadrant appeal; the more your movie costs, the bigger your audience needs to be to earn that money back. Avatar and Titanic are four-quadrant movies.

 I’ve covered these ten points extensively in my article,  What Hollywood Wants: 10 Things Studios Like to See in Adapted (and Original) Scripts 

Andy: What is the first step you take in getting interest from a production company?

 John: I can  pick up the phone or send an email. But for those who don’t have industry connections, it can be hard. The reason is simple: Hollywood, like New York, is full of people trying to sell things that aren’t ready to be seen. Some need a bit more work; others are train wrecks. And then you have the translation issue: some books are movies; most are not. Many could be movies, if carefully adapted—but until you see the adaptation, you don’t really know.

 There are more buyers for adapted screenplays than for book adaptation rights, so if I really want to get the attention of someone who’s got thousands of other people vying for their time, I’m going to do one of two things—and this applies equally to those with and without industry connections: approach them with a finished screenplay, or put together one hell of a good pitch pack.

 Whichever path you choose, you must have something professional to show, or there’s nothing to set you apart from the sea of amateurs with little more than an “idea” they think would make a great movie. And while some of those amateurs may be right, you can’t copyright an idea, and no one’s likely to pay you for it. Ideas are common; fabulous execution over the length of a screenplay (or novel, for that matter) is not—which is why New York buys books, Hollywood buys scripts, and no one buys “ideas” from strangers.

 Andy: Why is it best to have a screenplay?

 John: Because it’s closer to being a movie—the people looking at it can “see” the movie as they read. That’s vital, because the purpose of a screenplay is to roll a movie in the reader’s head, and to get them to take the next step.

If the screenplay is ready to go, the producer can skip a lot of costly and time-consuming development steps and go looking for attachments or buyers right now. Less trouble, fewer headaches, and a faster sale if things go well.

If you can’t write a dynamite script, or afford to hire someone else to do it for you, then you’re better off with the pitch pack—because a bad or even mediocre script is a swift path to rejection. There’s too much competition to get by with that.

 Andy: So what’s a pitch pack?

 John: The pitch pack is an attempt at a happy medium between raw idea and polished screenplay: unique enough to protect, and hopefully strong enough to generate real interest.

 It’s similar to a book proposal. It includes a pitch sheet with logline; synopsis or summary; an informal treatment or “scriptment” that’s basically a longer summary with perhaps snippets of dialogue or actual scenes; a bit of info on the major characters; box office figures for similar films already released; a “dream” cast list of the actors you’d want to see in the major roles, a few other things. And you let them know there’s a beatline available on request.

 If someone bites on that, you follow up with the beatline to demonstrate that you really do know what you’re doing; you’ve mapped out every scene in detail, nothing is vague or conflicting or unresolved. This kind of approach puts you light years ahead of the guy who bangs on Hollywood’s door and says, “Hey, I have a great idea.” It also makes it more likely that, if they do option or buy your pitch, they’ll give you first crack at writing the script—because it’s obvious you’ve worked this out in great detail.

I’ll be posting about this on my blog in the near future.

Andy: Okay. So you have your script or pitch pack Then what?

 John: If I didn’t have film industry connections, , I would either look for someone to team with, —someone more familiar with the territory—or go ahead and contact the producers and production companies myself.

 Keep in mind, though, that if you have a finished script, you can approach reps—meaning agents and managers. . If you find a good one to take you on, they will then approach producers and production companies on your behalf. And they’re likely to get faster, more serious reads from those people than you would, acting on your own.  So even if it takes you a while to land a rep, the total time needed to reach your target buyers could still be much shorter.

 Also, there are some very good reasons to avoid approaching producers or production companies by yourself—not the least of which is overexposure. A good rep—agent or manager—can get your script into the hands of all the right producers in a matter of days.

 Those producers will not have heard anyone talking trash about your script, because they’ll all get it at pretty much the same time, and they’ll feel pressured to get to it quickly because they know that the rep has also put it in the hands of their competitors, who may be reading it at this very moment.

 Some low-end producers also do bad things, like “shop” your script to everyone in town, hoping someone, anyone, will bite. This doesn’t help you, and can do quite a bit of damage when you later try to approach those same people with your project—particularly when you don’t know they’ve already seen it. I learned this the hard way.

 Q: How does the pitch in Hollywood differ from what is expected in book publishing?

 The Hollywood pitch happens in steps, because no one has time to listen to long pitches or read material that hasn’t been pre-screened or pre-qualified in some way. The first step is the logline, which boils your story down to a 10-second pitch. It sounds ridiculous, but it can be done, and is in fact a sort of art—one I cover in a blog post called Building the Perfect Logline 

For example, this is how I would pitch The Fugitive: “A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless US Marshall.” Or, to pitch a more complex adaptation with multiple protagonists: “A family struggles to escape a remote island park whose main attractions—genetically restored dinosaurs—have been set loose by a power failure.” Which is, of course, Jurassic Park.

 What you leave out of the pitch  is as important as what you put in. An agent or producer can read 700 to 1,000 loglines in the time it takes to read a single script. So, obviously, that’s what they do. If the logline grabs them, they take the next step, and ask for more info or the script itself.

 If they ask for more info, you give them a synopsis or a pitch sheet teaser, which is the equivalent of a movie trailer in words: your story in one minute. I recently wrote about pitch sheets in a blog post called The One-Minute Story: Crafting a Pitch Sheet for your Book, Screenplay, or Other Tale 

If they like the pitch sheet, they’ll usually ask to see the script. In some cases, you can get by with a pitch pack in place of the script. In other cases, not. Without a script, for example, agents and managers have nothing to sell—unless they’re interested in selling the film rights alone, which is less profitable and therefore less attractive from their perspective. Though if you’re brand-name author, this may not apply.

To Purchase Make Your Story a Movie: Amazon.com    Barnes and Noble    Indiebound   iTunes

 

 

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9 Tips for Effective Query Letters

November 28, 2010

 

I give a lot of classes and presentations at writers’ groups and conferences. Whenever I do, I get questions about how to write effective query letters.  You can find advice about writing queries floating around the Internet and in magazines like Writer’s Digest.  So this information is widely available. I see a lot of misinformation and bad advice as well. It usually comes from people who promise sure fire success getting published if only the writer will  follow a certain technique. Don’t buy that for one minute. The only road to success in publishing (and it is by no means sure fire) is by working on good projects, writing it well, and having the platform to get attention by an audience of readers. There is no kabalistic knowledge of query technique that will bring you closer to getting an agent. 

These tips are what work for me. Other agents will likely see things differently.

1)      Do your research in preparing your submission list. There are over  2000 literary agents listed in Publishers Marketplace. Most of them specify the subject areas they are seeking. You can find it on their websites or on databases like:  Association of Author Representatives   and Agentquery.com. Don’t waste your time and theirs sending queries to agents who aren’t interested in your genre.

2)      Always do multiple submissions. The odds for finding an agent through unsolicited queries isn’t so great, so you might as well maximize your chances. I get about 3000 queries a year. Out of that number I probably will respond to about 50 asking to look at their   proposals. From that number I might take on 5 as clients (probably less, really).  And I might succeed in getting one published. Agents’ decisions are subjective.  Harry Potter was rejected by lots of agents.

3)      Follow agents’ submission guidelines. This might also be on the  agent databases mentioned above , but it will always be on agents’ websites. Specifically look to see whether the agent wants queries by email or post, and what and how much information they want included . Some agents will even specify what words to use in the subject heading of the email.

4)      Keep the query short. I like less than half page for the entire query. Save the rest of the information for the book proposal. Remember that agents are getting hundreds of unsolicited queries a month. Chances are that they will be spending about 10 seconds deciding whether they want to follow up with you. Make sure those 10 seconds are used effectively  to find the information the agent needs.

 5)      Answer the key questions: What? Why? Who? What is the genre? What is the book about? Why does it need to be published? Who am I to have the authority to write it? And remember that in this day and age “platform” is everything in commercial publishing, so most agents will look for your qualifications first.

 6)      Be professional and sound professional. Writing for publication is a business as well as an art. Familiarize yourself with the proper terminology and terms of art in  publishing. When you specify the genre of your project in the query, make sure you know what the standard genres are. More than once I have received queries that begin: “This book is a narrative non-fiction novel.”  This is not an impressive way to start a query.

 7)      Be transparent. Avoid hype. After hearing thousands of pitches, agents (and publishers) have pretty good bullshit detectors. A query brimming with hyperbole sends a message to me that the author is either imbued with grandiose delusions or playing me for a fool. Neither of these messages bodes well for a happy author-agent relationship.

 8)      Be patient. As we have mentioned above, agents get hundreds of queries a month. Responding to them is not always the highest priority of an agent. Some agents are not even interested  in new clients and  accordingly may  not respond  at all to your query. You can usually determine this by looking at their submission guidelines in the databases. I try to respond within a week, but I don’t always succeed and I am in the minority on this. If you don’t hear back, assume that the answer is “no”.

 9)      Writing queries isn’t very hard. Chances are that you didn’t need to read this list of tips to write an effective query. Agents are all looking for good projects that have a chance of finding a publisher.  We aren’t going to reject one of those projects because the query diverges from a desired format. If you have a great idea and are the right person to write it, I’m going to discover that regardless of the form of the query.

 

 

 

 

Authors Guild vs. John Wiley: Royalties on List or Royalties on Net. What’s at Stake?

June 14, 2010

Authors Guild vs. Wiley: Royalties on “List” vs. “Net”.

An interesting dispute has broken out between The Authors Guild  and John Wiley Publishers   over what is the best way to calculate royalties. The dispute may seem a little arcane but it is interesting in that the issues bring to light fundamental questions of how best to structure royalty rates that are in the best interest of the author.

The dispute with Wiley  involves authors who signed contracts with Bloomberg Publishers. Bloomberg closed its doors and sold the existing contracts to Wiley. Last week Wiley sent out letters to Bloomberg authors asking them to sign off on a new royalty structure that is in accord with Wiley’s existing policies. Wiley claims that the new royalties are more favorable to authors. Authors Guild claims that they aren’t and the dispute has gone back and forth.

The biggest issue and one that illuminates an important subject for author royalties is that many of the Bloomberg  contracts had royalties based on “list price”. Wiley is asking these authors to modify their contract and base the new royalties on “net”.

Let’s look at this. The distinction is fundamental. Most royalties by the large New York publishers offer rates based on the “suggested list price” of the book. That is the printed price that you see on your book at most book stores. As you know, there is a lot of discounting going on particularly on internet sites, although lots of physical stores discount best sellers as well. But this is irrelevant for calculating royalties.

Let’s say that your book has a suggested list price of $25. And let’s say you are getting a 15% royalty. The dollar amount you would receive on each book would be $25 x 15% or $3.75. This would be the case regardless of whether the book in question is being discounted by the retail bookseller or not.

Royalties based on “net” are calculated by giving the author a percentage of the net amount of revenue flowing to the publisher. A lot of small presses base their royalties on net and apparently Wiley does as well.  In an ideal situation,  “net” would be the amount the publisher charges the retailer or other customer.  Most books are sold at about 50% (more or less), but there are some important issues that we will discuss later.

This shouldn’t necessarily be a problem if, for instance, the percentage royalty based on net is double the royalty based on list. In the above example, if the author received a 30% royalty on net, it would be very close to the same as the royalty based on list.

But it gets even more complicated when you consider that all publishing contracts have a so-called “deep discounting” clause. These provisions usually reduce the author’s royalty when discounts are given in excess of a specified amount. In theory this isn’t unfair if the reductions only apply to very high discounts and if the amount of the reduction is proportionate to the deep discount. These provisions can also be minimized if the author or agent can limit the application of the reduction in author royalties to books “outside normal trade channels.”

In a lot of contracts, the deep discount provision is triggered on any discount granted at 50% or more. If the contract says that for every percent of discount in excess of  50%, author’s royalty will be reduced by ½%, this is pretty fair. But more frequently the terms are that if the discount is 50% or over, the author’s royalty will be based on net instead of list. This effectively cuts the author’s royalty by half. In this situation, you could have the publisher offer a 51% discount (a price that reduces publisher’s income  by 25 cents), but would reduce the author royalty by  $1.75). Thus, the publisher makes windfall profits on the book even with a deeper  discount, and this windfall is entirely supported by reduced author royalties.

It gets even worse when the trigger discount is reduced to something like 48% (which is the case with one of the major publishers). In this situation, all sales to Barnes and Noble and Borders warehouses, all sales to Amazon.com and BN.com, all non-returnable sales, all sales to jobbers,  and all sales to mass merchants (Wal-Mart, Target, Costco) will have royalties reduced by half. This could include the vast majority of sales on the title.

It’s a bad deal for the author. And that is the reason that The Authors Guild is upset.

Linda Watanabe McFerrin on Social Media for Writers

May 12, 2010

Linda Watanabe McFerrin is an author and  teacher of creative writing.  Her new novel, Dead Love , is being published this Fall by Stone Bridge Press . Dead Love is an incredible Zombie story that takes place in Tokyo, Haiti, Malaysia,  and Netherlands.  For those of you who have, how shall we say, somewhat exotic taste in the sexual, you will be turned on by the slightly green, slightly clammy, slightly putrescent  sex scene.  You can find out more about it on Linda’s  Dead Love blog   and her website . Linda will be attending the Book Expo America Convention  in New York this month and will be signing copies of Dead Love there on Thursday,  May 27.

Linda understands that the hard work of the writer really begins after the book is written. Book publishing, has become focused on the mass audience. They concentrate their resources on the few big blockbuster books and frequently give short shrift to everything else. That is why it is essential for the writer to promote her own book. Linda is going to talk to us today about social media for writers.

Andy: Linda, welcome to Ask the Agent. Tell us why it is so important for authors to understand the new social media and how to use it to promote books.

Linda: Well, Andy, though my undergraduate degree is in English and Comparative Literature and my Masters is in Creative Writing, I also have a background in sales and marketing. Even though I spent years doing sales and marketing in the apparel industry and knew how important marketing is, I had trouble applying what I’d learned to my own projects. Artists and writers sometimes recoil from this part of the process, but if you are getting  your work published,  it means you want to share it.  Visibility is critical to achieving that end. We expect our publisher to provide this, but sadly, it’s often what’s missing. What’s really exciting … or, I should say “revolutionary,” is the way the Internet has made new and volatile communication channels available to everyman and everywoman. Writers can now reach the potential audience online directly and without the costs and restrictions that used to be associated with that kind of outreach.

Andy: So let’s break this down to the major venues: Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, etc.   Can you go through each of these and tell us their strengths and weaknesses?

 Linda:  Sure. Let’s walk through the fundamentals and let’s do it in bullets. That’s easiest.

  • Website : This is the foundation of any online presence. It defines the artist and the artist’s product. My first website went up in 1998 and it has served me well and saved loads of time. It certainly eliminated the need to mail out lots of author bios and portraits and it allowed people I hadn’t yet met to become more familiar with my work.

 

  • Blog: Many websites today are no more than this. Blogs are the new journalism and one of the key sources of information and interaction on the web.

 

  • Twitter: The fastest moving, most mobile method of interaction is the phone or the hand-held device. Twitter is a micro blog designed for short, immediate, and constant updates.

 

  • E-mail: This is still the most widely accepted method of online communication. In 2009 ninety trillion emails were sent. The average number of emails a day is 247 billion. Clearly, this is where contact lists are key.

 

  • Facebook and other online social media networks like Myspace: There are so many of these. They are a super way to expand a platform and reach out to those with similar tastes. Each network has a distinct identity. Best to know what it is and whether it meets your specific needs before sinking time into development.

 

  • Google and other search engines: These tie it all together. We feed search engines with content and we use them to find content relevant to our objectives.

 

I use all of these on a daily basis and could devote hours and pages to further defining each and every one of the areas. The Internet is massive, fast moving and, once you overcome certain insecurities, it’s also fun. For a totally shocking real-time update on statistics, you can go to http://www.peterlang.us/index.php?s=statistics and read and scroll to the “Social media statistics in real time” section.

Andy: Ok. It sounds like it is essential to develop an Internet marketing and promotion plan and to take control quickly. We can assume that your publisher is too busy to labor in the Internet trenches. What are the elements of a good plan?

Linda: A good plan begins with a well-crafted Mission Statement. To be really clear on something, you need to know what you want to achieve. I want, for instance, to use the Internet to reach out to readers who would enjoy but might not know about my work. It’s actually a lot like the writer’s task of selecting a protagonist and defining his/her inner and outer story goals, which is—as any writer knows—key to developing a plot.

Andy: Describe how you are implementing the plan for Dead Love.

Linda: I have four websites: www.lwmcferrin.com, the oldest (1998); www.leftcoastwriters.com, www.hotflashessexystories.com, and the newest: www.deadlovebook.com. For Dead Love, the most active is the www.deadlovebook.com site. Everything about the book finds its way onto the site and is mirrored variously in other Internet locations. www.deadlovebook.com  is the hub where the bulk of my content in support of the novel is captured. It has a fairly high ranking with search engines. Erin, the near-zombie Dead Love protagonist posts daily on the site in a blog called “The Daily Slice.” It’s a little bit of the dark side, often but not always zombie-related. I share the link with social media networks on an ongoing basis. To me this is the new journalism. Erin reports on Dead Love related topics—literary, pop culture, current events—every day. The novel is also serialized on the site in bite-sized, easily digested segments once a week.

Andy: Penguin Books has a spiffy little .pdf pamphlet on Internet marketing for writers that lays out the fundamentals of Internet marketing. But you are saying that the author needs to be an expert in this. What resources do you recommend to help the authors improve their expertise and develop strategies.

Linda: Things are moving so quickly in the social media area that it’s difficult to keep up. I’ve had a number of marvelous advisers every step of the way and I was truly resistant at first! Bradley Charbonneau www.likoma.com  got me started with my new site models. Laurie MacAndish  King www.laurieking.com  also helped tremendously. I deeply respect the knowledge and advice of Cheryl McLaughlin www.cherylmclaughlin.typepad.com  ; she created my first YouTube video. Then there’s social media guru, Peter Lang www.peterlang.us, my current key mentor. Peter’s recommendations follow. These are online resources and tools that are available to everyone:

http://www.google.com/reader/ (Follow top industry sites in order to keep up with this ever changing online world)

Resources:

 http://Mashable.com (a favorite!)

http://www.searchenginejournal.com/

http://www.quickonlinetips.com/

http://www.toprankblog.com/

Tools:

http://bit.ly/

http://sendible.com/

http://pluggio.com or  http://hootsuite.com

http://mailchimp.com

Andy: Do you do any consulting on this?

Linda: I do, but with a “total marketing” focus. I work on brand establishment and communication for writers. I have a new program that allows for a full year of training and consulting. I meet with selected writers every month to discuss platform and marketing and tailor outreach programs that work in today’s fast-paced, hyper-creative environment. The program features guest speakers in major marketing areas online and in print. It’s intense and exhilarating, and if anyone’s interested, they should send me a note via Facebook, which is one of my favorite Internet playgrounds.

Andy: And what about traditional media? Advertising is expensive,  but is there any way an author can exploit it to promote their work?

Linda: Certainly. I’ve used postcard mailings to drive web traffic, and when we go to  the BEA (book) Convention later this month, I’ll be signing advance readers copies of Dead Love. There’ll also be Dead Love T-shirts and buttons. I used to direct art for a major T-shirt line and I love T-shirts; they are wearable art. Also if a writer has expertise in an area, that writer should be publishing stories that demonstrate that expertise both in print and online. I think the key thing is to produce interesting and enlightening content. That’s what writers are supposed to do. The problem has been, in the past, that there was no sure outlet for all that creativity. There is now with the Internet. Finally, we have a way to share it.

Laurie McLean on Genre Fiction

February 25, 2010

Laurie McLean

Laurie McLean is a literary agent specializing in genre fiction. That is a term of art for such categories as: romance, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, horror, westerns, science fiction, etc.. Laurie has been a literary agent for 5 years and works at the Larsen Pomada Agency in San Francisco. The agency’s website is at: http://www.larsen-pomada.com/lp/pages.cfm?ID=15. She has a fantastic blog, Agent Savant at: http://www.agentsavant.com/as/, which is a good place to start learning about genre fiction.

Today I’d like to talk to Laurie about genre fiction.

Andy: Laurie, can you give us a definition of genre fiction? I mean, don’t all book subjects fit into a genre?

Laurie: The term, genre fiction, is used by marketing folks inside publishing and bookstores to help book buyers, also called readers, find the type of books they like to read. If one is a reader of mysteries, then it makes sense that a bookstore would shelve all mysteries together to increase overall sales. That’s really why the term genre fiction was coined—to differentiate these specific genres from general commercial or literary fiction.  It’s also similar to the way non-fiction is shelved by interest rather than author.

Andy: I’d like to go through each of the genres and have you describe them and tell me what publishers are looking for now.

Laurie: Science Fiction: It seems that the UK is the biggest audience for hard science fiction, while US readers prefer space opera and softer speculative fiction. There is also cyberpunk, where man has integrated with computers; time travel; alternate history; military SF; and the newest craze, post-apocalyptic or dystopian speculative fiction.  Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Fantasy: Epic fantasy, also called sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy, is the coming of age quest tale like the Lord of the Rings or the Sword of Shannara books. It has gone down in popularity today by what is called urban fantasy, stories that revolve around the conceit that supernatural creatures, mainly vampires, werewolves or other shapeshifters, ghosts, demons, etc., have lived among us forever but are now recognized by humanity and begrudgingly accepted—until a rogue creature starts wreaking havoc and humans and preternaturals must team up to put things back in balance.  It features a lot of ass kicking but no quests.  There is also interest currently in steampunk, where everything from appliances to weaponry to transportation runs on steam and the devices and clothing are very Jules Verne-esque; futuristic fantasy; superhero fantasy, etc.  Fantasy and Science Fiction can sometimes genre blend or bend and are often located in the same section of the bookstore.

Romance: When you have a hero and heroine who meet, with sparks flying, then internal and external conflicts keep them apart despite their mutual attraction until the end of the book when a happy ever after ensues, you know you are talking about the largest genre in fiction by far: romance. More than 50 percent of mass market [pocket size paperbacks] fiction sales in the United States each year are genre romance.  The biggest trend in genre romance lately is paranormal romance, but there are also contemporary, historical, comedies, romantic suspense, inspirational and erotic subgenres.

Mysteries/Suspense/Thrillers: I’ve lumped all these together, although they are all different. In mysteries you have a murder in the first scene and the remainder of the book is spent trying to figure out who dunnit.  In Thrillers, the fate of the world is at stake and the clock is ticking.  Suspense novels are somewhere in between where a family could be in jeopardy, or a town or group of friends and the protagonist(s) must save them with, again, time against them.  You’ve also got subgenres within these categories such as cozy or detective mysteries; legal, crime, action, disaster, conspiracy and religious thrillers; and more.

Horror: While horror, now sometimes called Dark Fantasy, is more popular on the movie screen than in books, you have everything from serial killers to splatterpunk (think the Saw movie series) to dark fantasy, to more psychological horror.

Young adult: This is not a genre, per se, but one of the healthiest and fastest growing categories in fiction. The young adult, or YA, category was created by a savvy bookseller who observed families coming into the bookstore, the young children going to the children’s section, the parents going to the adult stacks and the teens going to the coffee shop. The young adult section was created and all of a sudden teens had a comfortable place to shop for books about subjects ranging from chick lit and teen fantasy to more contemporary realistic gritty fare about teen suicide, pregnancy, drugs, sexuality preferences and more. Urban fantasy and post-apocalyptic fantasy are currently big trends for teens.

Andy: In the greatest works, doesn’t genre fiction cross over into literary fiction? Isn’t the greatest romance novel ever Wuthering Heights? Can you give us some examples of contemporary works in the genre that are also literary masterpieces?

 Laurie: When a genre book is superbly written and an instant classic, it rises out of the genre shelves and migrates over to the general fiction or bestseller stacks.  Think anything from Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer for romance—or modern names like Nora Roberts and Jayne Anne Krentz; Stephen King or Dean Koontz for horror; Terry Brooks, Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling for fantasy; John Grisham, Dan Brown and Tom Clancy for thrillers; William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Orson Scott Card for science fiction; Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton for mysteries; Stephenie Meyer and Scott Westerfeld for young adult.

Andy: Which of these categories are hot and which of them are not?

Laurie: Hot: Young adult, steampunk, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, political thrillers, apocalyptic fiction.

Not hot: Chick lit, contemporary and inspirational romance, epic fantasy, quaint cozy mysteries.

Andy: Do you think that the rise of the e-book offers opportunities or challenges for genre fiction? It seems to me that these titles are perfect for the new electronic formats.

Laurie: Erotic romance was one of the first genres to do well in the eBook format and some credit this subgenre for the rise of eBooks today. Ellora’s Cave was a pioneer in racy romance. But really all genres do well in eBook format. They are perfect for this digital format in terms of storage (you can fit a lot of vacations reads on your eReader but not in your suitcase) and anonymity (no one can see that you’re reading a “bodice ripper”, the disparaging term for romance novels).

Andy: You ran a public relations agency for 20 years in Silicon Valley. Why did you get out? How do you like being an agent?

Laurie: I got out of high tech public relations when the lucrative nature of the business could no longer hold my interest as the challenges declined and ethics began to get compromised.  Being a literary agent, to me, combined the best of both halves of my brain, similar to the way being a publicist allowed me to be creative and strategic simultaneously. I love the publishing industry because it really is about the writing. They money’s not the greatest unless you’re a bestseller or handle a stable of bestselling authors, but every day is different, the pace is often bracing and exhilarating, and the people I deal with on a daily basis are wonderful. I think I’ve found my calling!

Andy: How has your experience in public relations been helpful in your second career?

Laurie: All the facets of what made me successful in PR—time management, marketing savvy, the ability to think on my feet, contract negotiations, interpersonal skills, a diligent hard work ethic, attention to details, the ability to think outside the box—all come in handy for a literary agent.

Andy: When we had lunch the other day, you astonished me by saying  that you receive 1200 unsolicited queries a month. How do you manage to address this ocean of pitches?

Laurie: Well, this is kind of like the frog in boiling water analogy. If you put a frog in boiling water, it jumps out immediately. But if you put a frog in cold water and turn on the heat, that frog will boil to death because of the gradual nature of the temperature rise. I started off with a small number of queries each day and could easily give personal suggestions for improvement and reasons for rejections. When I got busier, I switched to a form rejection letter where I could add a few sentences of advice in many cases.  But by the end of 2009 I was receiving more than 1200 queries a month. I was boiling. So, I’ve had to change my submission process. Now I have a separate email address for queries only (query@agentsavant.com) where I have an automated reply that informs the writer that I’ve received his or her submission, but they will not hear from me again unless I want to read more of their work. It’s not something I ever thought I’d do, but once I’d given up my spare time, some of my sleep and meal time, and it still wasn’t enough, something had to give. Now I don’t have the monkey on my back screaming and clawing at me. I can read queries on the weekend, as many as I can fit in the hours I have, and ask for more from those that interest me.

The Slush Pile

January 20, 2010

Let us consider the slush pile.

David Patterson, a senior editor at Henry Holt, whose taste in books I admire greatly, sent me an article from The Wall Street Journal online entitled: “The Death of the Slushpile.”

Way back when, the slush pile was an uncomplimentary term used by publishers for the  unsolicited manuscripts they received by the bucket load from aspiring writers. As the above article will tell you, “slush is dead.” At least it is with commercial publishers. Apparently they  were finding that it exposed them to copyright infringement lawsuits. Every time a book was published with even the most remote parallels to an unsolicited submission, the publisher was accused of using the slush pile as a flower garden of ideas to pluck. Copyright infringement suits are to publishers what medical malpractice suits are to doctors. Publishers have attempted to reduce their exposure by inserting an “indemnity clause” in the book contract. This provision, hateful to all writers and their agents, puts the onus of defending against copyright infringement claims, no matter how frivolous, on the shoulders of the author.

 But I digress. Publishers were also finding that the payoff  from  sorting through slush didn’t justify the time and expense of a 22 year old entry level editorial assistant plowing through unpublishable manuscripts. And, in truth, finding  something good out of the slush pile was a little like winning the lottery.

So now if you push the “acquisitions” button on a publisher’s website, you will see that they will  accept only agented submissions. The slush pile is no more. On  one level, I find this puzzling. The legendary publisher, Alfred Knopf, once said, “Agents are to publishers as a knife is to a throat.” Now they have bestowed upon us at no cost the exclusive license to act as the toll gates of the literary superhighway.  

Well, ok. There is a cost. And that cost is – slush. Agents have replaced the editorial assistants in sorting through the unsolicited manuscripts. I don’t call it slush. It’s a demeaning term. I have spoken in a previous blog posting (Ann Lamott and Albert Camus on Writing ) that writing is a courageous act. And the activity deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. I  prefer to use the term: “queries received over the transom.”

A lot of the big-time agencies don’t have much truck with slush either. And I am told that finding an agent for a number of genres is about as hard as finding a publisher. But, look. I hear about agents who get 100 queries a day. What are they to do? I’m a smaller and newer agency. I get about 40 queries a week. It seems to be growing though.  Most of the queries I get are for fiction or personal memoir. My website and my listings on agent directories clearly state that I don’t accept fiction and personal memoir. But I try to respond in a timely manner. Mostly I politely copy and paste a “thank you, but it is not for me.”

I have taken on a few projects from the slush pile. Excuse me. From over the transom. And I got one published by an author who was living in his brother’s under heated attic in Maine. On the day of publication, he wrote the op-ed piece in The New York Times.  I’m pretty proud of that. And other agents whom I respect all have stories of great projects that they fished out of the slush. So I urge aspiring writers to send their projects out. Hope for the best…. But expect the worst.

People in publishing always like to talk about the great projects by unknown authors that rose above the slush. The Diary of Anne Frank was originally rejected by the Paris office of Doubleday.  Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was discovered by a young assistant agent. Philip Roth got his first story picked up by The Paris Review.  And J. K. Rowling had her Harry Potter rejected by 20 publishers before it was sold to  Bloomsbury UK.. John Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by just about everyone in publishing until it found a home after the author’s death. It went on to sell several million copies and win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

When I first became an agent, I went around New York for a few days talking to editors. I asked all of them what was their biggest mistake in book acquisition. (This would be a good blog posting. We’ll do it another time.) My favorite response was from a very prominent editor who rejected The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. But she said it wasn’t really a mistake. She thought it was lousy and boring. Because of her judgment on the book, it would never have succeeded with her as editor.

 And so, gentle reader,  if you will excuse me, I need to go back to reading my slush. I  will set aside my world-weary cynicism and approach the task with eagerness and hope. Because I know that, amidst the dross and the folly, lies the novel of the next Jane Austin – waiting to be born.

DECONSTRUCTING PUBLISHER REJECTION LETTERS

August 31, 2009

In my line of work, I get a lot of rejection letters. I tell my authors that it is a little bit like my social life in high school. Rejection is painful to everyone.  Reading these letters  always feels like a stake in my heart. I can’t imagine how much it hurts the writers who have labored for two years on their life work only to have a capricious 2 line rejection.

 You read about these high profile deals in the newspaper: Sarah Palin (or Tina Fay), Dr. Phil, Stephen King. These deals are actually pretty simple affairs and mostly revolve around the concept of a lot of money changing hands. But the vast amount of publishing deals are something entirely different.

 Most of my projects are what is referred to in the trade as “midlist”.  The midlist books are the ones that aren’t lead titles. The midlist is most of the books that are getting published. The midlist appears to be what publishers are most shy about acquiring in bad economic times.

  Even though advances for the midlist are pretty modest (often less than $10,000),  publishers see these books as a risk. Like every other business in America, publishing is having a hard time. The lead titles seem to be holding pretty well, but the midlist is struggling. There are other factors involved in the decline of the midlist as well. Concentration of retail bookselling in the hands of chain stores and mass merchants, the cult of celebrity, a reading public that  has developed internet-inflicted ATD, irrational exuberance over all things media-driven.  All of this works against good books with smaller audiences.

  I try to send out a lot of submissions for any given project. As long as the title submitted seems appropriate to the mission of the publishing imprint and the taste of the particular editor, I like to give the publisher  a look-see.

 When you read about the big deals, the word “auction” usually comes up. But with most midlist books, you might find only one publisher who really falls in love with the book. – Or no publisher. So you can see why there are a lot of rejection letters in my inbox.

 My authors all want to see the rejection letters. We talk about them a lot. Authors seem to think that there is some hidden wisdom in the letters that can be uncovered through hermeneutical exercises.   I tell them that frequently there is very little to be learned. Sometimes these letters are simply polite ways of saying: “we aren’t interested”.

 I’m going to give you some examples of rejection letters I have received (I will protect the privacy of the author and the editor). And in true, post-modern fashion,  I will  try to explain the hidden meanings through exegesis of the text.

 Fiction submission: “Thanks for sending us _______. This is a beautiful and stirring look into the lives of people who are living in a time and place surrounded by tragedy. [The characters] are both very well-wrought and intriguing. That said, the pace was a bit too slow for me….. As you know, selling fiction is difficult these days, and I think a book as well-thought out as this one needs to move at a swift pace, in order to keep American readers interested. I’m sorry.”

 Analysis: Publishers are nothing, if not polite. And they always like to be as complimentary as possible. But when the phrase “that said” comes up, we know the ax is going to fall. In order to determine if a letter  is meaningful, one must look for something personal and unusual. Letters that begin with “This is beautiful and stirring”… [followed by] “that said” [followed by ] a rejection are usually of a garden variety. There is not much to be learned here except that fiction is difficult  these days and publishers really want fast moving stories. We already know that.

  Narrative Non-fiction submission: “Thank you for sending me the proposal for ______ She has had such incredibly fascinating experiences, and her perspective as a _______ in that volatile and dangerous location is captivating. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. ….”

Analysis: “I didn’t fall in love with this” happens a lot in this business. There is always some truth to this. In art,  de gustibus non disputandum est (I’m sorry. There is no accounting for taste). Even though publishing has become a highly rational business focused on the bottom line, at the end of the day the decision to acquire a book is ultimately based on a highly subjective and emotional response. And that  is how it should be, and I suppose this is some cause for optimism.

Memoir: “I took a look at this early this morning. What a story. Her commitment and passion are beyond admirable. It’s also a piece of history incredibly important to our generation, little known to people in their twenties and even thirties. But I feel memoired-out….”

Analyis: “Memoired-out”. I’ll say! I go to writers conferences. A lot of people are writing personal memoirs. Publishers are very cynical about them. They call them “ME –moirs” or “misery memoirs”  or the like. I tell my clients that memoirs are ok if the writer is looking outside themselves. I ask them to think about who is the audience for the  book. That is what the publisher is going to ask me. Most people think that their life is interesting. And, in fact, everybody’s life is interesting. But one must ask who will spend $25 and several weeks reading about it?  (BTW, I found a publisher for this particular memoir.)

Humor: “I don’t find it as funny as you do, and I don’t see much of an audience for this.”

 Analysis: Well, what is certain is that this rejection letter isn’t  trying to be too polite. It is blunt but honest, even if there is little that the author can learn from this. What I learn is that humor is especially subjective. What I see as one of the funniest books ever written may leave another person cold. Before I submitted this, I looked at every humor deal that had been made in the last 2 years. There is a data base where one can do this. Virtually every humor title was from a successful web site. Successful web site usually means more than 100,000 hits a day. If it’s less than this, chances of getting a publisher diminish.

 Humor: “Sorry.  I just don’t get this one.  I’ll pass, but thanks for thinking of me.”

 Analysis: Same as above but even blunter and more honest.

 Current Events: “Andy, I’m passing.  It’s so funny and smart and relevant but also, and obviously you’ve already found people who disagree with me, it felt like a lead article for New York Times Sunday magazine.  That’s no mean feat in and of itself, but I just worry it won’t have a big enough book audience. ”

Analysis:  The message in this is that this is an article, not a book. That is a big cause for rejection these days. As big as: “I just didn’t fall in love with it”. I have started telling this to my authors. That they really need to understand this concept. Some concepts for books  are probably better expressed in a 5-10,000 word article than in a 50,000 word book.

 Dating Memoir: “Many thanks for sending me this funny and candid proposal–I did enjoy myself, and I admire [the author’s]  verve and headlong sense of humor. She does have a great platform…. (I also want to acknowledge my own subjectivity here, ….I am about to give birth for the first time–my focus is just in a very different place than the territory this book covers, and I’m afraid I am rather self-absorbed at the moment!)”

 Analysis: Now how can you feel bad about an editor as honest as this, even though it’s just another  rejection. When I read this, I wanted to give her a big hug and send her a teddy bear.  She’s having a baby! She isn’t interested in issues around finding the right man. Editors are like everyone else.  Sometimes they reject a book because they got up on the wrong side of the bed.

  History Book: “Andy: thanks for sending this to me.  She’s a great writer and it’s a terrific story but my fear is that this happened so long ago, I’m just not sure how you make 1989 of interest to people in 2010 or 2011, especially by a woman who’s not a household name, so I’m going to pass.”

Analysis: This rejection letter is extremely annoying. After all, the book is about a war and an important moment in history. The editor seems to be saying that she would be more amenable in an historical subject more current. But then, it isn’t history. And the current war in Iraq has been so over published, that there is simply no new way to slice it and dice it. But I was not able to get this book published. 20 other publishers said the same thing. They felt that there was not a sufficient audience for a subject  that took place 20 years ago. In this case, the message was loud, clear and unambiguous.

 Narrative Non-fiction.” I like the chapter and the idea of the book but to be honest, I’m not sure from the proposed chapters what makes this a book with a narrative arc of some kind rather than just a collection of essays.”

Analysis. The key concept here is “narrative arc”. This is a big reason for rejections. Alan Rinzler wrote about this on this blog several weeks ago. A good narrative non-fiction book must read like a novel. It needs a beginning a middle and an end. It needs an Act 1, Act 2, Act3. Just like a good play or a movie. That is “narrative arc”.

 Narrative Non-fiction. “Apologies for getting back to you so very late about this (I thought I had responded but can’t find the email).  I thought the writing was excellent and the subject intriguing, but ultimately I wasn’t convinced we’d reach a large audience with this project, so alas it’s not for me. ”

Analysis: There is the “A” word again: “audience”. Publishers keep asking me this and so I keep asking my clients. Who’s the audience? Who is going to read this? Authors really need to think pretty hard about this. And take some time to make a compelling case in the book proposal. Because if you can’t make a compelling case, chances are that there isn’t an audience.

 Non- Fiction Proposal. ” I didn’t receive it. We’ll check my spam filter for it, and we’ll let you know if we find it there.”

 Analysis: You would think that these big corporations have sophisticated logistics that make things work better, but clearly they don’t.

 Proposal: “Acquisitions are still on hold over here, so I’ll have to pass.”

 Analysis. This is pretty distressing. But publishing is suffering from the same economic problems as the rest of us. And there are some fine publishers who are having difficulties. [The publisher above closed its doors for the last time this year].

  Humor.”I’m sorry to be slow getting back to you about this. I found the illustrations and the story to be very clever and charming. But, it’s such a tough publishing climate right now and I worry that without authors who have a more visible platform, it would be a challenge for us to get the word out about this.”

 Analysis:  Platform, platform, platform. That is the word you keep hearing about from publishers. What is it? It means that the burden of promoting this book is going to fall on the author. And you better have fame, money or access for promoting your book, or the publisher won’t be interested. Sometimes, but not always, prestige will suffice for platform. As in having an endowed chair in a department at Harvard. Publishers love Harvard. I don’t know why. I have gotten books published by authors without platform. But not having one creates huge hurdles.

 Fiction: “Thank you for sending me ___________  [The characters] are engaging and likable, and this thoughtful examination of their relationship feels incredibly honest and revealing. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. ”

Fiction (letter from the same editor as above):“Thank you for sending me ____________This is an incredibly heart wrenching, moving perspective on________, and her brutal honesty is truly brave. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. I found it difficult to get entirely swept up by the characters, and without a stronger connection I’m afraid this didn’t capture my attention throughout.”

Fiction (letter from the same editor as above): “Thank you for sending me the proposal for_____________. She has had such incredibly fascinating experiences, and her perspective as a ____________in that volatile and dangerous location is captivating. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. As compelling as her experiences are, I never quite got to the point where I was really driven to turn pages, and so this didn’t entirely capture my attention throughout.”

Analysis: The 3 rejection letters above were all sent to me at different times by the same editor. Obviously  there is some serious cutting and pasting going on here. I’m tempted to make some snarky comment. But really, these letters tell us a lot about the life of an acquisitions editor. They get twenty proposals a week. Fiction editors probably acquire less than 1% of the proposals they receive. So it is not reasonable to expect a huge amount of nuanced analysis in a rejection letter. There really isn’t much to learn from these letters, except that the book was not for them.

And here is my favorite letter of all time from an editor

” Yes, I just got out of the meeting this minute, and the book was approved. Yay!”

 That’s  what makes it all worthwhile.

The Art of the Pitch

August 12, 2009

This blog is called “Ask the Agent”. But I haven’t been dispensing much agently advice yet. There are some excellent books out on how to write book proposals, how to find an agent and how to get published. But I am here to give some tips as well. It is a tough world out there. And if you aren’t a disgraced ex-governor of Alaska, it is pretty hard to get a book contract. So here are some tips and examples of weak and strong pitches to make in your book proposal.

Weak: I am willing to go on an 8 city tour (they probably won’t send you, and this indicates  that you might have unrealistic expectations. They used to let you travel first class and stay at the Ritz Carlton. They’re hard up now, so expect to go by Greyhound.)

 Strong: I am willing to schedule an 8 city tour at my expense (or  any other ideas that include:  “at my expense” are always popular with publishers)

Weak: This would be a great story on Oprah (uh-huh. It’s also the oldest story in the book. Similarly unrealistic)

Strong: I am sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. ( If you are going to pitch media connections, they should  be concrete and have reasonable expectations of results. But don’t oversell yourself. They can smell bull shit.)

Weak: I am willing to go  to book signings at my local bookstore (They know that anyway. And this won’t sell books).

Strong: I have arranged presentations with the staff at Google. Steve Jobs loves my book and has agreed to purchase 5000 copies to give to the key employees at Christmas time. They are also interested in purchasing non-verbatim electronic multi-media rights as an app for the I-pod. (This is too good to be true, so you better get Steve to write a letter to that effect. Publishers love sales outside of bookstores. It is like extra money.)

Weak: I will reluctantly agree to be on Fresh Air, schedule permitting.  (If you are not going to aggressively flog the product, this will not be well received. )

Weak: This will make a great movie (see Oprah above).

Strong: Film rights for this product have been optioned to Stephen Spielberg (there might be a possibility here, but there are many options out with few movies ever made).

Very Strong: Film Rights have been sold to Stephen Spielberg.  Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are signed up. Currently being filmed on location in Montana. (This pitch doesn’t happen very often).

Strong: I am the extremely charismatic and controversial governor of Alaska and vice-presidential candidate. (Don’t worry that she is inarticulate, has nothing to say, and can’t write).

Almost as strong: I am the extremely charismatic and controversial governor of Alaska who has quit with disgrace and lack of dignity. (Hey, it’s all about celebrity).

Weak: My neighbor will host a publication  party. (See booksigning above)

Strong: My neighbor is Barack Obama, and he will give a publication party at the White House (nuff said)

Weak: My friends loved this book. (Your friends won’t tell you the truth).

Strong:  My friend, Bill O’Reilly (Rachel Maddow) loved this book. (Connections, connections connections).

Weak: My mother and spouse loved this book. (Oh, come on!)

Strong: My mother is the disgraced former governor of Alaska and she loved this book. My former boyfriend hated this book and will go public and tell tawdry and salacious tales about me. (In this business, there is no such thing as bad publicity.)

 Weak: I’ll set up a blog and a website (whoopee!)

 Very Weak: I have a blog that gets 50,000 hits a day and will promote my new biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. My blog is called GO.NASCAR.com. (All blogs are not equal. All successful blogs are not equal).
 
Strong: I have a blog that gets 50,000 hits a day and will promote my new biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. My blog is called LudwigRocks.com.

Weak: Your  readers are going to love this book. It is like Petrarch meets Robespierre. (Although publishers are infatuated with pitches premised on dubious and glib equivalencies, the pitch must be based on subjects that are readily recognized – usually in the Safeway checkout line.)

Strong: Your readers are going to love this book. It is like the Bronte sisters meet the Olson Twins.

 We welcome examples of Good pitch / Bad pitch from our readers