Posts Tagged ‘literary agent’

Flaubert’s Kettle

June 24, 2013

“Human Speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” – Gustave Flauflaubertbert,  Madame Bovary

 

I see a lot of writing coming over the transom from people who seem smitten by metaphorical imagery. Unless you can write it like Flaubert, I recommend finding another way to depict whatever it is you are trying to describe. The metaphors and similes I see usually don’t work that well. When you start using these figures of speech, it’s easy to fall into cliché. (I advise writers to “avoid metaphorical imagery and clichés like the plague.”) Editors and agents tend to view this kind of writing as characteristic of the novice and a sign of the writer’s insecurity. Like you’re trying too hard. You don’t have to model yourself after Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. But still… to paraphrase Freud, sometimes the best way to describe a green tree is to just call it a green tree.

How to Organize Your Own Book Tour

June 2, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Andy: I’m all ears, Carl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andy: Do you have any other wisdom to impart?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sometimes I Really Do Discover Writers at Conferences

May 25, 2013
Tawni Waters

Tawni Waters

The first time I met Tawni Waters was  at the  San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference this February. I  was  participating in  the workshop on “voice” given by Dinty Moore. At the end of the class, Dinty asked us to do an exercise, to write a short piece  and read  it to the class. Just before my turn to speak, a woman in back stood up to read what she had written. That was Tawni. It was electrifying and astonishing, particularly given the fact that we only had ten minutes to write it. When I stood up, I was nervous. I’d never given a public reading of my own writing. What made it worse was  having to follow Tawni. I felt as if I was the guy who had to give the speech after Lincoln at Gettysburg.

I returned to Oakland to find Tawni’s manuscript for her literary novel in my email. When I started reading it, I could tell right away that she had talent  — a lot of talent. But for a number of technical reasons, I didn’t think I could sell it. She asked me, almost apologetically, if I would look at another novel that she had written some years before.

When I started reading  Gold Dust, I knew at the end of the first paragraph  this was something  special. As I continued, I became more excited with every page. But I also kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. That usually happens with novels. They sort of peter out after about 50 or 100 pages. But Gold Dust just kept getting better and better, until late at night, when I reached the end, I  was crying like a baby.

When I told Tawni this was an amazing young adult novel and I wanted to represent it, she was excited to find an agent, but she didn’t realize the novel was YA. It’s the story of a teenage girl growing up in a small town in New Mexico, living with a violent and abusive father, and, at the same time,  discovering  she is a lesbian. The town is dominated by a fire and brimstone minister, who is particularly homophobic. The book tells how the heroine, Mara Stonebrook,  finds the courage to triumph over these obstacles.

We sent it out and started getting lots of interest from multiple publishers. Last week we sold it to Simon/Pulse, one of the most successful and prestigious YA imprints. They are thrilled with it. So am I.

Tawni Vee Waters is a writer, actor, college teacher, and gypsy.  In 2010, she won the Grand Prize in the Solas Awards Travel Writing Competition. Her travel essay on San Miguel de Allende was featured in The Best American Travel Writing 2010.  She teaches creative writing at Estrella Mountain College in Phoenix.  Her young adult novel, Gold Dust, is being published by Simon/Pulse in Spring, 2014.

 

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing

March 4, 2013

elmore 2As an agent, I get a lot of fiction submissions. Usually I can tell if I don’t like them by the end of the first page. Sometimes by the end of the first paragraph. I’m a little embarrassed to make this admission. Some people might think that my method makes me a literary philistine. And sure, there are lots of examples of masterpieces that I probably would mistakenly throw out because I was bored on page one or even page 10. Most of the great novels of the nineteenth century might not pass muster. As an example, just look at Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We all know the story, don’t we? Well, in the likely event that you loved the play or movie, as I did, you probably tried to read the book but gave up. The hero, Jean Valjean, doesn’t even show up until about page 50. And the stuff before his entrance is deadeningly, crushingly boring.

When I talk to inexperienced writers, I usually tell them to read Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing. And if you don’t treat the rules inflexibly, they are all very sensible. We’ll let Victor Hugo get by with a few peccadilloes. Well, actually Les Mis has about 800 pages of peccadilloes. So here is Leonard’s list with my modest annotations:

1. Never Open a book with a weather report. We all remember the most celebrated bad first line in literature: “It was a dark and stormy night.” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford. The novel was considered a masterpiece when written. Now it has become a subject of ridicule and condescension by high culture snoots. There isn’t anything wrong with writing about the weather if you are building a scene. But for me this kind of beginning smacks of the equivalent of novelistic throat clearing, a sign that the author lacks the self-confidence to jump into the story.

2. Avoid prologues. Screenwriters love prologues. But then screenplays are usually about 20% as long as even the shortest novel. Movies have to get backstory information out quickly and concisely, and the prologue is an obvious vehicle for this. But novels are different. Again, prologues were ok in the nineteenth century. Probably the most influential artist of that time was Richard Wagner. His masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelung, runs for 4 nights and is over 14 hours long. The entire 2 1/2 hour first opera, Das Rheingold, is a classic prologue written entirely to bring out the backstory of the epic myth. Wagner gets to break the rules; but you, gentle writer, do not. Editors in New York are pretty demanding about how authors should handle backstory. They expect it to be dribbled out on a “need to know basis”. Editors condescendingly refer to backstory prologues as “info dumps”. Another sign of an inexperienced author.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Ok. This is a little extreme. I’m sure Elmore wouldn’t have a problem with “asked” or “thought”. But it’s probably a good idea to avoid most other tags. Plain vanilla tags like “said” are transparent to the reader and keep the reader’s attention on the dialogue and the story. More complex and descriptive tags like “he wondered” or “he mused” or “he regurgitated” [unless, of course, the subject is actually tossing his cookie] are distracting. An exercise in “telling” rather than “showing.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. Same as rule #3 above. Adverbs tend to be clumsy and lazy. That said, I just finished rereading The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald loved adverbs. And who am I to criticize Fitzgerald? So, like Wagner, we’ll give him a literary “get out of jail free” card.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. YOU HEAR THAT RULE, BUB?! You try using those exclamation points with me, and you’re outta here!!!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” What Elmore is really saying here is that you should avoid clichés like the plague (ha, ha. joke). Another sign of lazy writing. And you might also take the advice of Strunk and White and not use “weak” adjectives like “nice”, “beautiful”, or even “weak”.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Dad gummit! I agree with Elmore on this. It’s another example of how good style should be invisible. A novel should draw the reader into a kind of trance-like state. When the style distracts the reader from the story, she falls out of the story. I see a lot of stuff by inexperienced writers who are smitten by the need to flaunt their style. Excessive alliteration and misplaced similes, for example. There are lots of examples of great writing where style trumps substance, but in general this is a good rule.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I’m not sure I would agree with this as a general rule. But what I think Elmore means is that characters are best described by their actions and their words in dialogue. Another admonition of “show, don’t tell.” But go ahead, you can break this rule if it works.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. I’d really like to make a snarky remark about Henry James right now, but I will forgo that temptation. As above, sometimes this rule is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Sure, if you are writing like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, or even Elmore Leonard, rule #9 is sound advice. But there is room for other styles in good writing. Certainly you should avoid unnecessary detail. Actually you should avoid unnecessary anything.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. This rule speaks for itself –uh– Henry James? Are you listening?

My Stern Lecture to a Client

February 7, 2013

Sometimes I can’t sell a book to a publisher. Actually, a lot of times I can’t. Even after doing this job for 5 years and getting an estimated 5000 rejection letters explaining why the editor turned me down; even after my rigid filtering process where I reject at least 500 unsolicited author queries for every one that I decide to represent; even when I have become so smitten with a project that I am convinced the publisher will offer a seven figure advance and Spielberg will be on the phone next day begging me to make a movie deal; I still have projects I can’t sell. All agents do. Even the coveted celebrity New York agents who have daily lunches with the coveted celebrity executive editors. Whenever any agent is representing an unknown author, taking a risk, trying to sell a book based on the merits of the project, not just on the author’s celebrity status, there will be rejections.

And when I do sell a book, sometimes for a lot of money, it is usually after I have received 30 rejections from other editors saying: “it’s a really great book, but I just didn’t fall in love with it”, or “it’s competing with another one of our titles”, or “the author has too modest a platform”.

And authors can be even less realistic than I am. After all, they look at the bookstore shelves and see a lot of dreck. They read lots of literary novels that are all well crafted but have a feeling of being sort of the same. They see some really horrible exploitative celebrity memoirs. Really crappy social analysis by gas bag political pundits. And some of these book deals really are getting seven figure advances.

So now what I do just before I submit the project to the publisher is give my client this stern lecture:

“Today I am sending out your book. I believe in it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have worked with you for 4 months polishing the proposal, refining the concept, and (in my humble opinion) making it perfect.

“But you must be realistic. It’s hard to get books published these days. You should hope for the best but expect the worst. I have experience in these matters and will make sure that your book gets to the right editor at the right imprint. I don’t just send books to the same 10 editors and then give up on it. I will send it to all major and not so major publishers who would have an interest in your book. If I can’t sell this book, you can be assured that all avenues have been explored.

“If I can’t find a publisher, it doesn’t mean that your book isn’t good. Sometimes, most times, the decision to publish a book comes down to issues of marketing, not quality or aesthetics.

“But even though your book is good, there are also a lot of other good projects going around. Editors may look at 10 proposals a week or 300 fiction manuscripts a year. Most of them have been heavily vetted by agents. And most of them are publishable. In other words, there is lots of competition.

“You have asked me several times how much your advance will be. I won’t venture a guess on that because my estimates have been wrong so often. Sometimes I expect $20,000 and get an advance for $100,000. Sometimes I get an advance for $7,000, even from the big publishers. Times are tough for publishers just like for the rest of us. The big ones are owned by multimedia conglomerates who are putting a lot of pressure on the publishers to make a lot of money. So publishers have become skittish about big advances. As an agent, I probably can get a publisher to sweeten the deal a little. But publishers base advances on their calculation of sales. They always have a figure in their head of the maximum they will pay. My job is to find out what that figure is and try to find other ways of sweetening the deal when they won’t budge on the advance. I’m an agent, and I don’t have secret alchemical wisdom. I can’t turn lead into gold.

“Don’t expect your publisher to spend a lot of time and energy promoting your book. All those full page ads in The New York Times usually are focused on a very few name brand authors. The publisher really expects you to do the heavy lifting and to promote your own book. They used to send a lot of authors around on 7 city tours. They don’t any more. I have never met an author, no matter how successful, who was satisfied that their publisher promoted their book well. You might ask yourself what kind of added value you get from having a commercial publisher as opposed to self-publishing. It’s a reasonable question to ask. But the answer is complicated.

“I know you would give a great interview on Oprah, Fresh Air, or The Daily Show. And a lot of publishers will make contacts to these and other “A” list venues. But competition for this is fierce and these shows have their own criteria that are often hard to fathom. Again, hope for the best but expect the worst.

“And then there is the Big Enchilada, the Holy Grail. I mean the call from Spielberg. Even though your novel would make a great movie or a tv series, it might not happen. There are a lot of “option” deals for books. Most of them are for very little money, and most of them never go beyond the option. Just like Oprah, movie producers have their own calculations that are not easy to comprehend. Does the book have the kind of 3 act structure that producers want. Will the character in your novel fit with a star who could attract financing? Would the subject of the book require so much resources for production that the film couldn’t make money? Has the producer gone into drug rehab and become unavailable for an indeterminate amount of time? Hope for the best, expect the worst.

“So now I’m sending out the book. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for that seven figure deal. But….remember my #1 rule: be realistic.”

Questions to Ask Before Starting to Write Your Book

January 11, 2013

I see a lot of non-fiction book proposals that are based on wishful thinking about whether the project is publishable. If writers asked some basic questions before beginning the process, they would save themselves a lot of time and grief. They would either refine their concept into one that is attractive as a commercial publishing venture, or they would realize that the idea is ill-conceived. Here are some questions you should be asking yourself.

1. How many books am I trying to write? You have no idea how often I speak to prospective authors who can’t decide which of their many fabulous ideas they want to write about. So they try to shoehorn all of them into a single book. I see short descriptions in proposals such as : “This book is a self-help book about curing back pain with elements of a memoir included.” My advice. Save the memoir for the next book. I always sense a problem when the proposal announces that the project “crosses genres.” Yes, there are some cross-genre books, but more often the author is just being lazy and is unwilling to choose what genre she really wants to write in. Publishers say they are looking for “fresh new approaches”, but if the approach is too fresh and too new, if the publisher can’t figure out what the book is about, if the bookseller can’t visualize what section the book will be shelved in, then they’ll just take pass on it. I know. I bought books at Cody’s for 30 years. When I couldn’t figure out where I’d shelve a book, I tended not to order it.

2. Is this a blog, not a book? Is this a long form article, not a book? I get a lot of rejection letters from publishers because of these concerns. A lot of us are blogging and we’d like to take our precious material and put it all together into something that will make us some money. There’s also the added benefit that the hard work has already been done, and it just needs a little slicing and dicing. Publishers don’t want books derived from blogs. Why would readers pay for stuff that is already available for free online? The question about whether the subject works better as a shorter journalistic piece is a little more complicated. But if your manuscript is less than 50,000 words, it probably is too short for a book. With e-books, publishers are exploring new formats and are doing projects with shorter word counts.

3. Who are my readers and what do they care about? A lot of writers don’t ask this question, but it is the single most important question that needs to be addressed in an effective book proposal. In the world of commercial publishing, the reader is sovereign. I once tried to sell a self-help book about how to deal with a variety of office injuries, written by an author with very good bona fides. It got rejected. Editors pointed out that readers who have back pain don’t really care about how to treat repetitive stress syndrome. The reader is selfish and self-absorbed. She wants you to speak to her concerns. That’s why she paid good money to read your book.

4. If there are no other books on this subject, is there possibly a reason for that? Most authors think that a great pitch is: “there are no other books out there like mine.” For publishers, this begs the question of “why aren’t there any?” And the answer for them is usually that there is no audience big enough to justify publishing on this subject. What publishers really want is a book on a subject that has been written about in other very successful books. But you need to prove that you have something special that will make this robust audience spend money to read what you have new to say.

5. How different is my book, really, from all the others on the subject? You need to ask yourself if the things which distinguish your book from all the others really make a difference to the reader. And this is important. You may have come up with an astoundingly original interpretation of Jefferson’s role in the expansion of the young American republic. And it may have led to much bloviation and vitriole amongst the Jefferson scholars at the convention of the American Historical Association. Publishers aren’t so subtle. Their evaluation of the proposal will probably begin and end with: “Sorry. We don’t need another book about Jefferson.” Or maybe something like: “Sorry. Barnes and Noble didn’t order our last book on Jefferson.”

6. Do I have “platform?” We have written at length about platform in this blog, because publishers are obsessed with platform in our media-driven age. In non-fiction genres, platform is very, very important. And publishers’ idea of platform is probably different from yours. I often tell audiences that platform is either an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser (the latter is vastly preferable). Being a local tv personality with an audience of 500,000 viewers is not impressive platform. It’s “regional” unless your audience is in Manhattan. Then it’s national. Winning the Pulitzer Prize is good platform if your project is about the subject you won the prize for (and if it isn’t regional). A blog with 5000 views a month isn’t platform. A blog with 50,000 views a month also isn’t platform. Get the picture? Celebrities operate by their own rules. Nobel Laureates, presidential candidates, and Lindsey Lohan can write any nonsense they choose.

7. Wouldn’t this book make [a great profile in The New Yorker? ] [a great movie?] [a great subject for Oprah?] The answer is easy. “Maybe, maybe not. It probably won’t happen anyway, so stop dreaming and get realistic.”

How to Write a Great Marketing Plan For Your Book Proposal

December 23, 2012

Most writers are intimidated by book proposals. I can see why. Writers are writers, not salesmen, not marketers, not researchers,  and not necessarily aggressive self-promoters.  But all of these qualities are necessary when you are putting together your proposal.

I don’t think proposals are that hard, that is unless you don’t have a clear idea of what your book is about. And even then, I have found that in the process of writing the proposal, the writer’s ideas become clarified, the structure of the book tightened up, weaknesses become apparent,  and more often than not  the concept of the book gets  strengthened.  Writing the proposal is time well spent. And a good agent will lead you through that process.

Simply put, a book proposal is a business plan. The purpose of the proposal is to describe   your book idea to a publisher and to get them excited about it.  But you also need to be careful not to oversell. Publishers are going to give you a lot of money (well, probably only an insultingly small amount of  money) based on the material in the proposal, and they have a right to know what they are buying.  Trying to dazzle them with hype or baffle them with bullshit  isn’t going to work. We have heard the pitches  a million times about the book being  a shoe-in for Oprah,  being the newest Eat Pray Love, or the next Spielberg blockbuster. Certainly all of those things would be nice, but they usually don’t happen. Trying to oversell the book sends the message that the writer is either  unrealistic or manipulative. These are messages you don’t want to convey in the proposal.

A good proposal anticipates the questions and concerns an editor is going to bring to her reading of your proposal. I did a blog post about this last year called “Think Like an Editor.”  You need to know what those questions are, and your proposal needs to answer them convincingly.

Of course, the $64,000 question is going to be whether your book will make money. And one of the questions you will need to answer is “what will the writer do to help sell the book”.  That question needs to be addressed in the “marketing” section of the book proposal. That’s usually the section that authors have the most difficulty with. So let’s talk about that today.

The marketing sections that come to me in draft proposals usually fall between the Scylla of  being totally lame and the Charybdis of grandiosity. I’ve previously written a blog post called “The Art of the Pitch” where I tried to evaluate pitches that work compared to those that don’t. We have already mentioned above some examples of grandiosity. I will not  allow the word “Oprah”  to be mentioned in a proposal that I am submitting, unless you happen to be sleeping with Oprah’s latest diet guru. At the other end of the scale, I see marketing plans which tell the publisher that the author will have a publication party at her mom’s house and might contact local booksellers to (try to) schedule events. These pitches are totally lame. My favorite pitch was by an author who said  that he would agree to be on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, time permitting.

Remember that the marketing section is about what you are going to do. You don’t have to advise  the publisher  about what they already know. You don’t have to make a list of  major national periodicals to send review copies to. But if you are aware of niches that the publisher might not know about, you should bring that up.

And you should be quite emphatic about what you will do. And that means don’t fill up the proposal with  errant speculation and wishful thinking. I generally tell my clients not to use the word “might” in their marketing section. It’s weak and sends the message that you also “might not” do what you are proposing and probably won’t. And while you are at it, don’t use the word “try” either (as in “I will try to get Cameron Diaz to give me a blurb.)

A good marketing plan needs to be robust, but it also needs to be convincing.   You have to speak with authority. That means that you need to have a realistic and professional tone. And you also have to be honest. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.

Here are some  points you should be thinking about when writing   your plan.

  • Websites. Publishers expect you to have a website for your book. So you should mention that you intend to do it. Now if you already have a website with lots of fans and lots of unique views, then you have a compelling pitch and you should make it.
  • Blogs and social media. Publishers like authors to blog. If you have one, that’s great. And if you have impressive numbers of followers and viewers, let the publisher know.  But a lot of writers aren’t going to do blogs. Maybe you don’t have that kind of time. So don’t promise one unless you are committed to it.  Publishers also expect you to engage in social media like Facebook and maybe Twitter, so you should address that. And if you have an impressive  amount of friends and followers in social media, then let the publisher know.
  • Media appearances. If you have strong connections with media and have a realistic chance of getting bookings, then mention that in the proposal. It helps if you have had previous appearances in those venues or if you have a close relationships with people who can help you line them up. But again, don’t engage in wishful thinking.
  • Blurbs are good, but make sure that you either already have the blurbs or have firm commitments. It’s ok to say that Cameron Diaz will blurb your book if she has agreed to do it. Don’t make a list of celebrities that you will “approach” for blurbs, although by all means, start thinking about who to approach for blurbs after you get a book contract.
  • Speaking engagements. If you  do public speaking as part of your job or your platform, then talk about the major venues where you will be speaking at the time of publication. You should probably limit this to major venues with significant audiences.
  • Book signings. It’s ok to say that you will aggressively seek out book signings. Remember that publishers usually make the initial contact with the bookstores.
  • Book tours. Publishers won’t send you on a book tour unless you are a huge author. Some authors will go on a tour at their own expense. If you intend to do this, mention it in the proposal. Give the publisher a list of cities and tell them you will work with the publisher to line up signings and media appearances in those cities.
  • Book groups. Offer to meet with book groups reading your book or to do Skype appearances. It’s always a little tricky trying to ferret out these groups. If you have ways of doing it, let the publisher know.
  • Press kits. It’s always nice to put this in the marketing plan, because it shows that you are savvy at promotion. Describe the press kit a little. And if you have creative ways to disseminate it,  let the publisher know. Again remember not to tell the publisher how to do their job.
  • Other  stuff. You should try to think of other creative ways to promote the book that won’t be done by the publisher. Do blog tours, giveaways, op-ed pieces. Hire your own publicist, but let the publisher know and make sure that you will be working closely with the publisher on promotion
  • Platform. Platform is a subject unto itself. I have another blog post called “Platform is More than Just a Website and a Blog”. If you have a platform, make sure that you leverage it for marketing the book and explain in detail how you plan to do that.

These are just a few ideas. You need to think long and hard about this. Remember whatever you say in this section, the most important thing is to be realistic and convincing. And that means –in this and in all things–be honest.

How to Pitch to an Agent

October 23, 2012

I just got back from the Surrey International Writers Conference in Vancouver.  I loved it. I spent a lot of time taking pitches from the 400 participants.  But I also saved some time to attend some wonderful classes taught by writers. Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling Outlander series, gave a presentation on how to manage backstory in a novel. I’ve always felt that finding a way of getting the backstory out without just dumping it into a prologue is not easy.

The other class that I attended was about point of view and was  taught by mystery writer, Hallie Ephron. Most of us know that point of view has to do with the novel’s  narrator. Sometimes first person, sometimes third, rarely (thank God) second. But Hallie showed that the devil is always in the details, and that point of view is infinitely complex.  She told me after the class  that getting point of view right is the hardest thing in fiction writing. Even  harder than managing backstory. After taking her class, I think she’s right.

One of the best attended presentations of the conference was a workshop on making effective pitches to agents. It was given by a panel of 3 agents: myself, Vickie Motter, and Bree Ogden. The three of us are getting to be a bit of a dog and pony show. We gave the same presentation at the Willamette Valley Writers Conference last month. Vickie has a cool blog called: “Navigating the Slush Pile.” Check it out.

Every conference seems to have a class on techniques for presenting effective pitches to agents. I don’t agree with a lot of what is getting passed off on this subject. When I get pitched at conferences, too often I find that the attendees have been so over-coached that by the time they get in front of the agent, they act like their heads are going to explode. They read from note cards, they recite  from memory in a sing-songy way, they stare at me with an intensity that spooks me out. A lot of times they are taught that the 10 minutes they get to spend in front of an agent will determine whether their book will get published. AND EVERY SINGLE WORD THEY SAY DURING THE PITCH MUST BE PERFECTLY CRAFTED AND CALIBRATED.

Oh, puh – lease!  I certainly don’t want a writer to sit down with me and present a rambling and  incoherent description of his book project. But I find that most of the people who do that have an incoherent book concept. If you have a good book, you need  to convey the virtues of that book during a pitch session, but you should be able to do it in a more relaxed and conversational way. This says to me that you have confidence in the quality of the book. So when  authors sit down with me, I tell them to put away their notes and let’s just talk.  I think that makes us all feel a lot better.

I find that pitching fiction is particularly difficult. Usually the author sits down  and proceeds to rattle off the plot for 10 minutes. Hard as I try, I just can’t follow it. And neither can any agent I’ve spoken to about this. For me there is no way I can judge whether a novel is good or not by being bombarded with a plot recitation. It’s been said that there are only 10 plots in all of literature. That might be an exaggeration. But for me good fiction is not  just a plot but how you tell the story. And it’s pretty hard to get that across during a 10 minute pitch.

The best an author can do is to give a very short description of the story  and try to convey  something meaningful  about it even though that is, ultimately, ineffable. I always want to know something about the writer too. Has he published before? Has he won any awards? Is he respected by his peers?  That’s important.

Let’s try this for a pitch:  “I’ve written an historical novel. It’s long. About 300,000 words. It is the epic story, written in a realistic style,  of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and how 3 people, members of the  Russian nobility,  live their lives   or die in the course of the novel.  Readers have told me that the 3 protagonists, Prince Andrei, Natasha, and Pierre are among the greatest characters in all of literature.  I’ll let you decide that for yourself. But I’ve tried to make those characters come alive in a way that all readers can engage with them. I also bring in some themes that try to explain how the events in the narrative help us understand the inexorable truths of history. You know, kind of weighty stuff.  Some of the secondary characters are major historical figures, notably Napoleon and the Russian general, Kutuzov. I think my description of the Battle of Borodino is memorable. I tried to make the battlefield come to life so that the reader can almost smell the gun powder. I’ve tentatively titled the novel, War and Peace. The publisher may want to change it though. That Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is a big fan of this book. He said it is the greatest novel in all of literature. He’s something of a crank, but  he said he was willing to write a blurb to that effect.”

That takes about a minute and says about as much as I can absorb. Of course, I may think that the author making the pitch suffers delusions of grandeur. You might want to tone it down a bit and show a little modesty. At least, if you aren’t Count Tolstoy. Actually, that’s an important point. I really get turned off by people who try to convince me that their book is unique in the annals of mankind. Or that it will definitely be made into a movie, or that Oprah will kneel before him and wash his feet. Managing clients’ expectations is always tough, and I insist that they take a realistic approach to getting published and remember it’s a business and, at least at some level, the book is treated like a product.

Non-fiction pitches are a little easier. What I need to know is what the book is about, why is it important, who’s going to buy it, and what authority does the author have to tell it. This is all information that I will need to consider later on in a book proposal. But maybe you can pique my interest so that I’ll ask you to send one.

So potential authors, I recommend that you relax a little bit and just be yourself. If you have a great idea for a book, you will probably be able to communicate that without resorting to notes and gimmicks.  I don’t really care if your pitch isn’t perfect,  as long as your project is.

Rayme Waters Talks About Promoting Her Novel, The Angels’ Share

September 17, 2012

Rayme Waters

Today we are interviewing my client, novelist Rayme Waters, whose new book, The Angels’ Share was published by Winter Goose Press this August. The novel is the story of Cinnamon Monday, a girl born into the 1970’s Northern California counterculture. Her family, originally owners of a great Nob Hill hotel, have suffered a reversal of fortune. Her parents are hippies without reliable income and have fallen into drug and alcohol dependence. After nearly dying of meth addiction, Cinnamon finds work at a small Sonoma County winery and rebuilds her life through her  own resilience and  courage.

When I decided to represent Rayme, I read her manuscript at the request of a mutual friend (not in the writing world) who asked me  to do him a favor and take a look. I could tell by the end of the first page that Rayme had talent and that I really wanted to work with her.

The publisher, Winter Goose, is small, so most of the work in promoting  The Angels’ Share is going to fall on the author. By the way, this is no less true with authors published by large houses. The single most common complaint I hear from published authors is that the publisher didn’t do anything to promote the book.

Today I want to talk to Rayme about her experience and wisdom in promoting her literary novel.

Andy: Rayme, when I first finished reading The  Angels’ Share,  I was sure that you must have been a recovering meth addict. The scenes  describing Cinnamon’s addiction were utterly convincing. When we finally met, it was clear that you just weren’t that kind of girl. How on earth were you able to describe the experience with such verisimilitude?

Rayme: Before the explosion of vineyards, the two main crops in Sonoma County were apples and marijuana. However, when I was in high school in the 1980s, meth—speed is what we called it—was suddenly everywhere. Meth was cheap and took the edge off rural boredom. Girls thought it would make them skinny. Although I was more a wallflower at the drug party, I watched childhood friends take Cinnamon’s path. In a way, The Angels’ Share honors the memories of these friendships and wishes  those friends a happy ending.

Andy: Let’s talk about how you, as a first time published novelist, have gone about promoting your book.  I know you have been pretty relentless about it. What are the first steps?

Rayme: This is my first rodeo and I am certainly learning as I go. That being said, there are some marketing strategies that I’ve employed: create marketing materials that have your basic information displayed pleasingly and professionally, have an “elevator” pitch ready and deliver it with enthusiasm, and work your network—find out who reads, or who would be willing to read your book, then ask them to buy it. Then, if they love it, ask them to recommend it to other readers they know. You have to really ride that fine line between being assertive and aggressive—it’s tough.

Andy: Ok. Stop. “Elevator Pitch”. I hear that word a lot at writer’s conferences and by people in film. What’s an elevator pitch? Why do you need it? And tell us the elevator pitch for Angel’s Share.

Rayme: Elevator pitch is slang for a two to three sentence description of a novel. Everyone  will ask you and you never know who might be able to help you find an agent, be a popular book blogger or be the decider for their next book club pick.

I describe The Angels’ Share as the story of a young woman rebuilding her life while working at a small Sonoma County winery. With elements of a mystery and a love story, the novel is a great pick for book clubs.

A reader said I should pitch The Angels’ Share as Breaking Bad meets Jane Eyre. I think that’s great, and if I’m ever in an elevator with a Hollywood producer I’d add that in.

Andy: Everybody says that an author has to have their own website. Yours is pretty stunning. Can you tell us what goes into making a good site and what features are most effective?

Rayme: I really wanted something that didn’t have a “template-y” look to it, so I went to a pro. Ilsa Brink, was willing to do the design work to make my website unique. She’s fantastic and had already done websites for many other writers. It is good to post early reviews or advance praise on your website because you can point people to it when you let them know the book is for sale.

Andy: Can you tell us what one can expect to pay for this kind of professionally produced site?

Rayme: I saw offers on Etsy.com to design a very simple website for three hundred dollars but if you go with a lot of custom design work and content creation I’d say you are looking at closer to two thousand. I provided much of the content for mine and the price fell somewhere in the middle.

Andy: What has been your experience with social media? Are you active on Facebook? Twitter? Goodreads? What else?

Rayme: This was a huge topic of conversation at AWP (Association of Writing Professionals) this year in Chicago. Social media can help expand your potential audience, but really how many more books do you sell by Tweeting three times a day? No one can say. My advice would be to do as much social media as you can stand. I have a Twitter account and a fan page on Facebook. I could do more, but just these two outlets keep me as distracted as I want to be from my writing.

Andy: What about writers conferences? Have you gone to any? Are they worth it? What should a writer expect to get out of one?

Rayme: I have been to Sewanee, Tin House and the John Milton Writers’ Conference. They were excellent networking opportunities and most of the advance praise and university speaking invites I’ve gotten so far came out of the contacts I made at these three conferences. One regret I have is that I didn’t go to more of them and make more connections before the novel came out. I highly recommend them.

Andy: Give me a few more details. What is the value of networking opportunities?  Other than networking, what kind of concrete and useful information to you walk away with?

Rayme: While you can certainly make connections online, when you meet someone in person the bond is so much stronger. At conferences, I met editors of literary journals who I could send stories to directly, agents who wanted to see my work and my workshop leader at Sewanee, Diane Johnson, gave advance praise on my novel. I could have emailed all of these people and asked for the same opportunities, but because they had met me I had a much better chance of success.

After meeting people, the next best thing to come out of writing conferences was advice on improving my craft. This came sometimes through critique I received in workshop, but more often in the lectures and panel discussions. It was also very affirming to meet other writers who were in my same situation or a little ahead of me in the process. Stories they told of their own tenacity were encouraging.

Andy: Rayme, thanks so much for sharing with us.  The Angels’ Share is available for purchase in either paperback or e-book edition. Check out Rayme’s public appearances coming up.

First Lines in Young Adult Novels

September 3, 2012

I  get about 10 queries for fiction every day. Most of the time I reject them after only reading the query letter and try to send a timely and polite reply. If my curiosity is piqued, I’ll  request the first 10 pages of the manuscript. And if I get excited by that, I’ll ask for the complete manuscript. Fiction is so hard to sell that I end up representing only a few titles a year out of the several thousand submissions received. What really surprised me when I first started evaluating fiction is that I could usually tell by the end of the first page, sometimes by the end of the first paragraph, whether the writer had talent or not. I thought perhaps there was something wrong with my own critical faculties. But when I asked experienced book editors, they acknowledged that they do the same.

Last year at the Book Passage Children’s Writers Conference, I sat in on a wonderful workshop conducted by author Kristin Tracy about young adult fiction. We spent a lot of time looking at some examples of first paragraphs. And we talked about why they worked and how they were able to express so much in so few words.

So today I’m going to use 3 examples of beginnings of some young adult titles and try to understand what makes them work. Let’s start with Kristin Tracy’s first novel and see how she does it.

 Lost It, Kristin Tracy

“I didn’t start out my junior year of high school planning to lose my virginity to Benjamin Easter – a senior – at his parent’s cabin in Island Park underneath a sloppily patched, unseaworthy, upside down canoe. Up to that point I’d been somewhat of a prude who’d avoided the outdoors, especially the wilderness, for the sole purpose that I didn’t want to be eaten alive.”

Kristin  likes to write stories that start right out of the gate. No prologues, no weather reports. And I think that is generally  a good idea.  She gets  a lot of information out in the first 2 sentences without sacrificing the very engaging and natural voice of the narrator. We learn in the first 15 words that this is going to be a story about losing your virginity. We know that the narrator is 16 and her “seducer is probably 17. Important information for a teen reader.  We learn that the critical incident occurs under  an old canoe somewhere in the wilderness.   And we also know from the writing a lot about the tone of the book. The book will probably be funny, given the lighthearted voice of the narrator and even more the comical description of the place where she lost it. It wasn’t in a grave yard or a haunted house (for a paranormal novel). It didn’t take place on the field of Gettysburg (historical). Or in Middle Earth (fantasy). It’s just a cabin by the lake  (or something). A realistic genre with a realistic story.  The style is fun and you gotta love the character after just these 2 lines.

 The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

“Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time thinking about death.

“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.”

Sometimes it’s hard to define great writing. But I usually know it when I see it. John Green tells us in the first sentence that this is not going to be a whimsical book. And he tells us in the second sentence that it is about disease. And in the 4th sentence, about dying. But what makes this short passage amazing is the way the words get put together and the way the sentences sound when you are reading them. Try reading it out loud. It seems effortless, but it isn’t.  Look at his careful selection of words. “Winter”, for instance. I think that word really sets the stage for a book with a lot of elegiac qualities in style and content. This  wouldn’t work at all if it began in the spring with blossoms bursting forth.   Check out the cadence in these first few sentences. The first sentence is long, lots of subordinate clauses.  The second sentence is of a normal length.  The third, shorter still and with a kind of staccato feel to it. All a build up to the last sentence, made all the more dramatic by the brilliant use of the rhetorical repetitions of “depression” and “side effect”. A powerful release that hits the reader with a wallop.

A less experienced writer might have started this story: “I woke up feeling depressed…again. It was, after all, my seventeenth birthday.  I pulled myself out of bed and looked out the window. More snow. The third time this week.”

The Hunger Games,  Suzanne Collins.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

“I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together.  In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so broken down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a rain drop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.”

We all know that this book is based upon Katniss’s decision to risk her own life to save her sister’s. And most of the book is about the violence and the horrors of The Hunger Games.  To me it seems perfect that Collins begins the book by painting this incredibly intimate scene at home as a contrast to what will befall Katniss in the coming story. Think about the evocative atmosphere of  intimacy and love Collins creates in this scene.  Katniss’s fingers stretching out, Prim’s warmth. Climbing in bed with the mother where she is curled up.  A lot of manuscripts I see from inexperienced writers have similes and figures of speech that seem overwritten and  usually miss the mark. But here Prim has a face “as fresh as a rain drop”. It’s simple and short and profoundly expressive. Even the choice of the words adds to the feeling of warmth of the scene (curled, cocooned, cheeks, rain drop, primrose).  The few words Collins uses to describe her mother tell us about the harsh conditions of the post-apocalyptic world they live in and prefigure the story to come.