Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Do you need a literary agent?

Hang around with a bunch of writers, and sooner or later the talk will turn to literary agents: who has one, who’s looking for one, who’s thinking of switching, who’s unhappy with theirs.

Of the twelve books I’ve published through traditional channels, none has been placed with the help of an agent. That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to working with agents, nor that I’d not want to work with one at some point in the future. In fact, for nine years I worked as an agent myself—a real estate agent, that is, because the average writer’s royalties don’t do much toward helping her children through college.

A book is not a house, but by working as an agent, I did learn quite a lot about the value of a third party in important transactions. In most cases, I still advise buyers and sellers that they’ll come out ahead if they work with an agent who knows the business.

In the end, it’s an individual decision—whether to seek representation or go it alone, which in the book business could mean either placing your manuscript directly with an editor or bringing it directly to readers.  Here are seven things to consider when you’re contemplating a literary agent:

·        Your project: Can you convince an agent that your book has real breakout potential? It used to be that agents would sign authors with the idea of developing them over the long haul. But in today’s market, the place of the midlist author is becoming more and more precarious. That’s why you hear so much about platforms—agents prefer authors who bring their own readers. If your project’s worthy but not destined to be a chart-busting success, you might be better off publishing independently, or with a small press where you can submit directly to the acquiring editor. The genre matters, too. In children’s books, for instance, many editors (even at big houses) will consider unagented manuscripts, while in other genres, that’s almost unheard of.
·        Your ambitions: Will you still feel like a writer if you don’t have a literary agent? When others are talking about their agents (complaining about them even), will you feel left out? While this may seem trivial, the gravitas that comes with having an agent may signify to you that you’re part of the game. And if only a big New York house will do for your book, you’ll likely need an agent to place it there.
·        Your connections: Agents are middlemen. They network. Ironically, it’s the writer who’s been in publishing awhile, someone who has established a few industry relationships on her own, who may be most able to navigate without a literary agent.
·        Your skills: Agents know contracts. They’re negotiators. They see the big picture. Many are fine editors, and can help authors fine-tune their manuscripts. Yes, you can hire out some of those services, but in the end, it may be a lot more efficient to work with one person who can do it all, someone who has a vested interest in your success, since commissions are dependent on sales.
·        Your expectations: As in any profession, there are good agents and bad agents. There are no licensing requirements for literary agents, so if you pursue one, make sure that person is well-affiliated and well-recommended. Keep in mind, too, that whether you acknowledge it openly or not, one of the reasons you’re drawn to an agency relationship is that you simply want someone to believe in you and your work. The reality, though, is that agents are very busy, and you may get little personal attention. And despite her best efforts, there’s no guarantee that an agent will place your manuscript. On the other hand, if you’re eager to see your book on the shelves in France or on the big screen, you’ll need an agent, as foreign and film rights are notoriously difficult to sell.
·        Your options: By signing with a particular agent, are you narrowing your options strictly to the traditional publishing path—a path that’s becoming increasingly narrow and difficult to navigate? Or is yours one of the forward-thinking agents whose services include helping independent authors get noticed? Once you enter into an agency relationship, you’ll have certain legal and ethical commitments to that agent. Yes, agents and clients “break up” all the time, but the understanding is that as the agent invests in your career, you’ll be loyal to your agent.
·        Your patience: Good agents have lots of clients. Out of hundreds (if not thousands) of queries a year, they can often take on only a handful of new authors. Much as they may like you and your project, the numbers aren’t in your favor. Do you have the time and patience to keep shopping for an agent in an increasingly tight market?  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Writing a book you love

Having published a dozen books, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t love them all equally.

Don’t get me wrong. I worked hard on each of my books, and I’m not ashamed of any of them. But some are real labors of love, including a book I’m touring this week—a book I’m not yet finished writing.

I know it’s odd to tour a book that’s not finished. After all, the point of a book tour is to sell books, and you can’t sell a half-finished book. (Or can you? Dickens did.) But when the National Park Service asked me to do a program on Kate Carmack, the subject of my forthcoming book Wealth Woman, I scheduled the program into a final research trip, lining up presentations at several museums along the way.

I’ll get a few comped travel expenses. I’ll sell a few copies of titles that are already in print. But mostly, the reward for this particular journey—and for this book—is setting Kate’s story straight. It’s been a long time coming.

Kate Carmack, first called Shaaw Tláa, was once known as the richest Indian woman in America. She claimed to have made the discovery of a lifetime, Klondike gold. But when she’s mentioned at all in writing about the Klondike, it’s as a difficult woman, a drunkard who gave her husband nothing but trouble. “After reading about her, who could blame a man for shedding her!” wrote an editor to George Carmack’s biographer.

As it turns out, nothing could be further than the truth. Though cheated out of her wealth, Kate defied convention and proved that defeat need not follow loss. The more I learned of her, the more passionate I became about her story, and the more I knew it had to be told.

The more I learned, the more I also realized the overwhelming extent to which the prevailing Klondike narratives glorify individualism and colonialism. As it turns out, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold will be the first authentic rendering of the gold rush from the perspective of those who were there first, the Natives of Alaska and the First Nations of Canada. 

My passion for Kate’s story comes from thirty-four years of living and traveling in Alaska and the Yukon, including villages where I was the outsider. I want silenced voices to be heard. I want fresh perspectives on familiar history. Though not yet fully birthed as a book, Kate’s is already a story I love.

You can read a chapter from Wealth Woman in draft here.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Dead fish, free books

Forget those back-to-school sales. Summer’s not over yet. In Alaska, the silvers are running, and so is the Ode to a Dead Salmon bad writing contest, sponsored by Running Fox Books.

Judges Ned Rozell and Howard Weaver have narrowed the stinky field to three finalists, displayed here. Now it’s up to the public to choose the best of the worst. So don’t delay—click over to the Ode to a Dead Salmon site and hold your nose as you choose. Voting ends Monday, Aug. 19, with the winner to be announced on Thursday, Aug. 22.

As a special thanks for your vote—and to anyone else who sees this post—Running Fox author Deb Vanasse is offering the Kindle edition of her novel Out of the Wilderness free on Friday, Aug. 16 and Saturday, Aug. 17. Mark your calendars, tell your friends, and reward yourself with a free book!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Publishers: Is it wrong to jump ship?

When I write about independent publishing and hybrid authors (those who publish both traditionally and independently), I’m routinely asked about whether it’s fundamentally wrong for an author to strike out on her own after being published by someone else.

In one sense, these questions are heartening. Relationships matter. We should respect those we work with. But they also point to a huge disconnect between what writers think goes on in traditional publishing and what actually happens.

Let me say first off that no author’s experience in publishing is exactly like anyone else’s. With that in mind, here’s my perspective on the ethics of jumping ship:

  • After a publisher commits resources to publishing your book, isn’t it wrong to publish your next book somewhere else, or to publish it yourself? With the exception of a few big-name authors, publishers aren’t courting writers, and they’re not looking to marry. They’re selling books, title by title. Their investment is in a particular title at a particular time for a particular market. It’s a calculated risk. If your publisher wants first option on your next book, they’ll include an option clause in your book contract.
  • But it’s hard to get a contract with a publisher. Once you’ve got one, shouldn’t you do everything you can to get another one with the same publisher? Not necessarily. Each book deserves the best home you can find for it, and these days there are more options than ever. Sometimes that will be with the publisher who published your last book. Sometimes it will be with a different publisher. Sometimes a book is best served by you bringing it directly to readers.
  • I thought publishing was about relationships. Once you’re working with people who believe in you, shouldn’t you stick with them? Decades ago, it was common for agents and editors to identify and mentor writers with promise, nurturing them from one book to the next. Those relationships tended to be exclusive. These days, it’s a rare and beautiful thing to find someone in the industry who has the time, energy, and freedom to develop a long-term relationship with an author. Unless you’re able to bat book after book out of the park in terms of sales, market forces require most industry professionals to turn their attention to the next author and book with hit potential.
  • When you publish independently, aren’t you competing with the traditional publishers you worked with in the past? Not if the book’s not right for that publisher. In fact, the reverse is true: Your previous publishers will benefit from the marketing and branding you do when you promote books you’ve published on your own—and frankly, you will do more of it for those books because your return in sales is so much higher than for traditionally published books. As more and more readers discover your writing, sales of all your titles increase—and those previous publishers had to risk nothing to achieve it. That’s a win-win for everyone.