Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Query a Literary Agent: What to Expect

You've done the hard work of writing and sending out queries in hopes of attracting the interest of a literary agent. Now what?

If an agent is interested in a novel or memoir, she’ll request a partial or full manuscript. If you’ve queried a nonfiction project, an interested agent will request a book proposal. (There are many great resources on writing book proposals, including Write the Perfect Book Proposal by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman, and Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, by Elizabeth Lyon.) In either case - fiction or non - you should be ready with the full manuscript or proposal when it’s requested. Unless you have a solid (read “bestselling”) track record or a close working relationship with a particular agent or editor, you shouldn’t expect to sell a book on spec (speculation) unless you’ve got a killer proposal.

As you commit to the submissions process, brace yourself for rejections at both the query and manuscript/proposal levels (more on how to handle rejections in “Live the Life”). Query rejections are generally form letters, expressing in some sort of generic language the sentiment captured in Jessica Page Morrell’s book title Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us. In many cases, these will be sent on behalf of an agent by an assistant or intern who’s charged with weeding through the slush pile (which is where queries land). Of the queries that make it to the agent herself,  most will meet the same fate—a form rejection—though if the query mentions a personal connection with the agent (met at a conference, referred by one of the agent’s clients) or if the project shows exceptional promise, the rejection may be personalized.

You may still get form rejections after sending partial or complete manuscripts (or book proposals) at the request of an agent, but at this point, more of the rejections will be personalized, including valuable information about what the manuscript’s lacking and/or how it might be improved. Sometimes these personalized rejections will include an offer to resubmit the manuscript after revision, or to submit another project in the future. If no such offer is extended, that doesn’t mean you should cross the agent off your list. Anyone who took the time to read and respond to your work would likely be open to hearing from you again, provided you’ve addressed the areas of concern.

Every personal response from an agent merits a brief note of thanks from you, along with a statement about your future intent (“I hope to have a revision finished within the year”; “Perhaps we’ll connect on another project”).

More etiquette involving submissions:

·        It’s great to be confident, but don’t grandstand. I once edited a query for a client who had included a statement to the effect that he was the next Hemingway. Not smart. Neither should you rely on gimmicks, gifts, or cutsy/clever approaches. Your query will stand out, all right, but not in a good way.
·        As a general rule, don’t query multiple agents within the same agency at the same time.
·        To meet agents in person, attend writers’ conferences that include pitch or critique sessions with agents. Sometimes agents will even extend offers to all conference participants to send queries. When interacting with agents in person, don’t over-schmooze and don’t over-sell yourself and your project. No one likes a hard sell, and when you’re trying too hard, you’re bound to miss valuable feedback from agents.
·        It’s fine to follow up on a query, but first check the agent’s website, where under their submissions (or “contact) information, you’ll often find the policy regarding responses. Usually, there’s a statement about no news being bad news: if you don’t hear back from the agent within a certain time frame, that means there’s no interest. In other cases, an agent will suggest following up on a query after a certain amount of time. If there’s no guidance at all on the website, it’s fine to follow up once, after three to four months. If there’s no response to your follow-up, consider your query rejected. Don’t nag.
·        Don’t fume about agents on social media; your venting does no good and will harm your chances of getting picked up by any agent. If you have a legitimate, documented concern about an agent’s credibility, make it known through a respected clearinghouse such as Predators and Editors.
·        Most literary agents are hard-working and above-board, but keep in mind that in theory, anyone can call herself a literary agent. The industry is self-regulated by the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), so look for agents who are members or have a proven track record representing successful authors. Be suspicious of agents who charge reading fees or who suggest in their form rejections that you hire their friends or associates to edit your manuscript.
·        Don’t give up after only a few queries. Statistically, the odds are against any book getting representation. But a great book will find readers, no matter how it’s published, as long as the author is committed to making that happen. If you’re going the traditional route, that often means committing to a long and extended search for the right representation—an agent who’s as passionate about your project as you are, and who’ll not only help you place your book but will also advance your career.
·         An offer for representation may or may not take the form of a contract between you and the agent; at the very least, though, it should include a discussion of what each of you can expect from the other in terms of duties and compensation. There should be no surprises. A good agent will keep you informed about where your work is being submitted and how it’s being received, including copies of any rejection letters the agent receives on your work. 

In the best of all worlds, your book will get snatched up by one of the first agents you query. But usually it’s a longer process, one that involves lots of queries and therefore lots of recordkeeping. To keep track of your queries, you can use a service like QueryTracker, but I prefer my own Excel spreadsheet, set up in a way that makes sense to me. I include columns for status (active, revise, rejected, no response), date, project, submitted to, email address, response (date and language copy/pasted from email), and notes (why I’m submitting to this agent; agent policies and guidelines for submission).

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Publishing: How to Query a Literary Agent

For most authors, traditional publishing begins with a query, a brief letter in which you pitch yourself and your project, usually to a literary agent, though in some cases (small presses; some specialty houses), the query may go directly to an editor at a publishing house. The query represents a turning point in the way you think about your project. It’s where your work of art becomes a commodity and where your passion morphs back toward business. Query-writing is such a valuable process that even if you self-publish, it’s worth the time to develop a query to yourself as the first step in the promotional process.

When I first began writing queries, I followed the usual formula—why I’m writing, what my project is, who I am—and I didn’t put a lot of time or energy into my approach. But as the market tightened, I began to spend more time crafting my queries, treating them like mini-manuscripts, prewriting and drafting and letting them sit and doing multiple revisions. When I query, I now pay careful attention to my audience and to figuring out what my project is really about, and I make sure my unique voice—the voice reflected in my manuscript—shines in the query letter.

These days, emerging writers seem to focus most of their attention on the one or two sentence “elevator pitch” and then build their query around it. I find this backwards. Any project, even a marginal one, can be reduced to a sentence or two that’s rattled off on the fly. If you take the time to produce a finely-crafted query letter, you’ll have all the content and confidence you need to pitch your project to any agent you happen to meet in an elevator.

Though it may sound odd, I often draft part of my query in the early stages of my projects, as soon as I feel the book beginning to take shape. Even though it will most certainly change, I find it helpful to consider how a project will appear to potential publishers and readers, in the form of back cover copy, which is how I think of the pitch line or lines of the query.

Despite the grumbling you hear (possibly even from me), placing your manuscript is not merely a crap shoot or a numbers game. It’s about knowing your book through and through and understanding enough about the market to know where it fits, and it’s about the project earning your conviction that it absolutely must reach its readers.

There’s all sorts of query advice floating around, but the best I’ve found is in a slim little volume called The Last Query by Cindy Dyson, a guide-book that also happens to be a fine example of the type of project that lends itself to self-publishing even though the writer has already published traditionally (a fine novel, And She Was): a viable topic, a knowledgeable author, and a niche market.

Dyson approaches queries from an agent’s perspective. What will make your query stand out among hundreds and thousands that all follow the same formula? We all like to think our projects are entirely unique, when in truth they’re not nearly as special as we imagine. That’s not to say they’re not worthy of publication, only that we must work hard to figure out how to help our target audience—first the agent, then the publisher and then readers—understand that they MUST have this book. Consider the fears and desires of agents, Dyson suggests. Ask yourself significant questions about your project, things you might not have considered before, like the metaphorical highlights and the soul of the story. Examine yourself as a writer, including what Dyson calls the “sexy hooks” of your life.

I’ve distilled Dyson’s query writing questions into a worksheet that I use for nearly every book I write. The worksheet pulls together my thinking about the book; in completing it, I inevitably discover new angles that have been lurking around beneath the surface of my project.

Once you’ve done the deep thinking about your project, you’re ready to draft a query letter. Ideally, a query letter should be personalized; you should research specific agents and let each know why you’ve chosen him or her—either because another author or agent referred you (that’s best), or because you admire another author represented by that agent, or because your research has shown you that this agent is especially interested in books like yours. 

Begin with a comprehensive search using an annual guide such as The Writer’s Market or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents and/or online databases such as Agent Query or Query Tracker. Professional organizations (Poets & Writers, Society of Children’s BookWriters and Illustrators) also maintain databases of agents and editors that can be accessed by their members. Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog is a great way to keep up on new agents who are acquiring clients.

Besides your explanation of why you chose to query a particular agent, your letter should also include your pitch, or hook—a captivating sentence or two that would also work as back cover copy, something so riveting that a potential reader feels she simply HAS to read more. The query should also show that you understand how your book fits in the marketplace, and it should include something about you as an author—your experience, why you’re the person to write this particular book, your ways of connecting with readers—and it should end with an extension of thanks to the agent or editor for considering your project. As much as possible, your query should also convey the voice of your book. 

As you query each agent, be sure to check online for the agent’s policies and guidelines. At any given time, a particular agent may post a notice saying she’s not accepting unsolicited submissions. If that’s the case, don’t query that agent—your letter will go directly to the trash unless the agent has specifically requested your manuscript, which generally happens after meeting you at a conference or other event. However, if the agent’s website says she’s not accepting unsolicited manuscripts but gives instructions for sending queries, go ahead and contact her. If your query piques her interest, she’ll solicit your manuscript.

Also pay attention to whether the agent accepts queries by email or by regular mail. Most have gone digital, though there are a few holdouts for the slow and cumbersome system of querying by snail mail with an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) for reply. Many agents ask for the first page to ten pages to be copy/pasted into the email that contains your query. (Because of the threat posed by computer viruses, few will open attachments unless it’s a manuscript they’ve specifically requested.)

Some agents will also ask for a synopsis, a one or two page summary of your book that, like the query, shows your voice and piques interest. No cliffhangers, though—a synopsis should include the book’s ending. Few authors enjoy writing the synopsis, but like the query, it needs to shine if you want your submission to stand out from the rest. For a sample synopsis, see the appendix.
With digital queries, most agents are now also amenable to multiple submissions, though upon requesting a manuscript, some still ask for an exclusive reading period (usually a few weeks). 

My advice: once you’ve cultivated a list of agents specific to your project, query eight to ten at a time. If you’re still getting form rejections after sending out two or three of these batches, take another look at both your query and your manuscript; revisions may be in order. In some ways, submissions are a numbers game—it may take forty or fifty queries before one lands in the inbox of someone who’s intrigued by your book premise and impressed by your chops as an author.
Once you send out the first batch of queries, the waiting begins. Next week, I’ll talk about what sorts of responses you can expect, how to keep track of them, and more query etiquette.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What to Do with Your Book Rights

“Say you keep the electronic rights,” my publisher said. “What are you going to do with them?
I had no idea.
The year was 2004, and while the buzz among authors was that you should try to hold onto your e-rights if you could, I was among those—the majority, I suspect—who had not a clue as to what that really meant.
Flash forward ten years. While I’d signed away those particular e-rights, I recovered all rights for two other books that had gone out of print (back when such a thing was still possible) and have brought them back into print on my own, as e-books and with print-on-demand (POD) print editions.
Now I’m a hybrid author, publishing both traditionally and independently. And I even have a hybrid book, one for which the rights are divvied up between a traditional publisher and me. The publisher has English language print rights. With their reputation and distribution network, the softcover of my latest novel, Cold Spell, is showing up all over, especially after reviews came in from places that would have punted it right out the door had the book been entirely self-published: Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Foreword Reviews (though the latter does feature indie books, Cold Spell was a selected rather than paid review)
As for the rest of the rights—digital, audio, foreign—I’m working those in ways the print publisher can’t; they simply don’t have the resources. For the e-book, I run giveaways and specials. The audiobook is in production with a well-known radio host. Worldwide, a go-getter agent is representing the translation rights on my behalf.
Like so much else in publishing these days, the hybrid book is an experiment, one that works with the right combination of publisher, author, and book. Publishers want authors to sign over all rights; that’s how they do business. If you want to propose a different arrangement, you need to bring something special to the table—ideally, a book that the publisher couldn’t otherwise get. With large crossover potential—it's literary, and it's women's fiction, with book club appeal—I knew a well-marketed digital edition of Cold Spell would find its way to readers who might never consider picking up the softcover from the university press that holds the English language print rights. More readers mean more buzz, which means more sales in both digital and print, a win-win for the publisher and me.
There’s no way a Big Five Publisher would negotiate a hybrid arrangement with a small-time author. But in a changing market, small presses have the advantage of being nimble and forward-thinking. Some will understand this and use it to their advantage—those are the publishers you want to approach if you think you and your book are right for a hybrid deal. It also helps to have a previous working relationship; in my case, I’d done two prior books with the press.
And this time, when asked what I’d do with the rights I wanted to keep, I had a long and detailed answer. I had proof that I knew what I was doing, and I shared particulars about how I’d promote the non-print editions—and how that would mean a greater return for the publisher on the print edition, to offset the potential revenue lost from sales of the e-book.
If you propose a hybrid deal, keep in mind the publisher’s investment in bringing your book to market. Your book will benefit from the efforts of professional editors, proofreaders, and designers. Expect to generate your own digital files. Discuss contract language to ensure that the content of the book is the same in all editions. Decide whether cover files will be shared.
Sales figures will tell the full story, but so far, everyone’s benefiting from the hybrid arrangement for Cold Spell. The book is getting far more exposure that it would have under a traditional arrangement, and readers are enjoying access to the book (at competitive prices) in editions that wouldn’t otherwise have been made.
After thirteen previous books in print, I’ve finally got an answer: yes, I know what to do with those rights.
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored more than a dozen books. Her most recent is Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. This post first ran at the blog of ALLI, the Alliance of Independent Authors.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The 20% Book Marketing Plan

No matter how you publish, promotion and the obsessive behaviors that come with it (tracking sales, worrying over social media numbers, comparing with other authors, etc.) can suck a whole lot of your time, energy, and even cash. Don’t let that happen. You’ve got a life, and you may even have other books to write.

You’ve perhaps heard of the 80/20 rule: that in any given market, it’s the top 20 percent of the players doing 80 percent of the business. I’ve seen that applied to book marketing in a way that pushes all my buttons—“experts” who say that to sell books, an author needs to spend 80 percent of her time on promotion and 20 percent actually making the books.

Call me contrary, but I’m in this because I love writing and telling a good story, and I’m convinced the best way for me to enjoy the creative life and build a readership is by doing exactly the opposite—80 percent of my time spent creating books that leave readers begging for more, and 20 percent of my time building my fan base. So I devote the best and largest portion of my writing time to actually writing—not emails, not Facebook posts, not tweets, but my next book.

With those proportions in mind, I make a promotional plan for each book. Components vary, depending on whether I’m partnering with a traditional publisher and/or publicist (you can hire your own publicist, and lots of authors do, even if they’re working with traditional publishers who also have publicists, but expect to pay big bucks for their services—as in thousands of dollars). When you formulate your plan, don’t try to do everything. Be flexible, adjusting as you discover what works for you and your book. Budget your time and money in proportion to what you can realistically expect to net from sales of your book, and don’t be afraid to innovate.

Think of promotion as happening in phrases: pre-launch, launch, post-launch and ongoing. Ongoing promotion includes efforts like your e-newsletter and social networking; these build relationships and keep you visible while (hopefully) growing your fan base. The other phases are associated with each title as it meets the world. The pre-launch phase revolves primarily around ARCs—advance reading copies provided to reviewers, including authors and other high-profile people who will endorse (or blurb) your book; there may also be some pre-launch buzz, if the book warrants it. If you're self-publishing or with a small publisher, the pre-launch phase also includes a soft launch period in which books are available but not heavily promoted, allowing for online reviews to be posted as social proof for the launch.

The launch is a brief period (a few weeks, normally) in which you (and your publisher) celebrate the official release of the book—much anticipated, in the case of big-name authors. In traditional publishing, the launch is a lot like fireworks set off to draw attention to the book: boom, boom, boom, and then nothing, unless the book has gotten enough traction in the marketplace to warrant the publisher’s continuing investment. When you’re traditionally published, the success of your book and, in large part, your future in publishing, boils down to how each book received at the launch, though much of that depends on how much effort and cash the publisher and the author have expended to build buzz and generate pre-orders in advance of the launch. 

A huge source of frustration for authors is that with traditional publishers, it’s hard to know how a book does at launch. Royalty statements reflecting pre-orders won’t come in for six months at best, maybe a year. You’ll (sometimes) get copies of reviews, but unless your book hits a big, bonafide bestseller list, expect a quiet lull when you most want to know how your book’s doing.

A few weeks after launch, and you may feel as if your traditional publisher has lost interest. That’s not exactly true—of course they hope your book keeps on selling, so they can recoup their investment—but if it’s not gotten off to a stellar start, don’t expect them to expend much in the way of effort or money to change that. Traditional publishing is launch-centric. If a book doesn’t prove up in pre-orders and launch-related buzz, your publisher is going to move on to promoting the next author’s title. There are things you as an author can do in the post-launch period to help more readers discover your book, but expect to feel a bit like the lone ranger as you pursue them.

When you publish independently, you can take a more long-tailed approach to promoting your book. The launch itself is a nice opportunity to let the world know that a great new title’s available, but your future as an author isn’t going to hinge on how many copies were pre-ordered by bookstores or whether sales projections indicate that you’ll earn out your advance. You can be the tortoise to the hare that is traditional publishing: slow and steady can win the race, if your book is worthy and you’re committed to reaching readers. 

To see what happens when a publisher and author work together on marketing a book, check out Cold Spell, a novel recently released in a joint effort between the University of Alaska Press and my own Running Fox Books (They've got the English language softcover rights; I've got the rest.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Options in Publishing: What's Best for You and Your Book?

Quite a lot is written (by the minute, it seems) on publishing. What's tough is sorting through all of it, to compare and contrast and decide what will work best for you. 
While there are numerous variations, you've got basically three viable options for getting your book into print. Having done all three, I'm positioned to give you the low-down on each. You can take it from there, deciding which way to publish is best for you and your book. 
Let's start with traditional (legacy) publishing, which involves placing the book, usually with the help of an agent, through a publisher that restricts acquisitions based on quality and their best guess at sales potential. The exchange of money is strictly from publisher to author (via the agent, assuming there’s one involved), generally in the form of royalties (though some projects are contracted on a flat-fee basis), including (usually) an advance on royalties. Royalties vary, but in general you might expect between 5 and 10 percent of the retail price (the best arrangement) or net (after the publisher subtracts expenses). The agent’s share of the author’s share is generally 15 percent.
The publisher typically prefers to acquire all rights (print, digital, foreign, audio, film, etc.), though if the agent has the wherewithal to place some of those rights, she may negotiate to keep some of those and attempt to place them on the author’s behalf. In all cases, rights may revert to the author if a title goes out of print, but with the advent of digital publishing, books need never go out of print, so rights may in fact remain indefinitely with the publisher.
The benefits of traditional publishing are many. You get the confidence that comes with passing through an increasingly narrow gate—agents typically receive hundreds of queries per day; of those, an individual might take on two or three new clients a year. If your agent places your book with a traditional publisher, you generally get money up front. Your book benefits from professional (those not always top-notch) editing, design, production, marketing, and distribution. It’s more likely (though not guaranteed) to get noticed in the traditional ways—through reviews and other industry “buzz.” The publisher’s sales team will work to get it into bookstores and libraries, though shelf space is limited, so again, there are no guarantees.
But there are downsides, too, beginning with that narrow gate. In all but the rarest of cases (my first book was a happy exception), expect much waiting and disappointment as you work to acquire an agent and then as the agent works to place your book and then again as it gets queued up in the publishing cycle, which in most cases is at least a year or two out. And while your publisher cares about all its books, some books and authors are pre-selected each season to get a lot more attention than others; statistically speaking, odds are that your book will get less rather than more. 
This can be especially frustrating once you realize that if your book doesn’t make a big splash before it enters the market, in the form of pre-orders, you’ll be relegated to the dreaded category of “midlist,” meaning that your book wasn’t a bestseller; thereafter, you’ll find it harder to publish the next book and the next, because those average (or less than average) sales figures will hurt your prospects. In general, publishers are a lot more excited about discovering a brand new author with bestseller potential than continuing to publish an author whose sales record is mediocre. 
Except in those rare cases of instant success, you’ll find a fair amount of disappointment among published authors: they expected more marketing, more books in bookstores, a longer attention span from their publishers, larger royalty checks, more accurate sales data (because of the traditional system of returns, publishers themselves can’t really tell for a year or two whether the pre-orders actually resulted in sales).
Another option is independent, or self-publishing, done with or without the assistance of an author services company. In any case, the author generally keeps all rights, but she also bears the responsibility (and cost) for all editing, design, production, marketing, and distribution of the book. Editing, design, marketing, and some aspects of production (such as generating validated e-book files or professional recordings for audiobooks) are generally handled on a fee-for-hire basis, either through the author services company or through independent contractors.
 In exchange for certain aspects of production (physical printing, for instance) and distribution, authors split royalties with distribution companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Lightning Source, with the author’s share generally in the 60 to 70 percent range for e-books, depending on cover price. For print books, independent publishing can be accomplished either through print-on-demand, in which books are printed as they’re ordered, or through offset printing, in which the author orders and warehouses a large number of books. Print on demand arrangements involve a set fee for printing and distribution (the cost varies greatly depending on the physical format of the book) that’s generally paid on a book-by-book basis (though there’s also a set-up fee). In an offset arrangement, the per-book printing price will be cheaper, but keep in mind that there’s no distribution, and to get the best prices, you’ll need to order thousands of copies up front. In either case, if you’re able to get bookstores to carry your books, they’ll expect a 40 to 55 percent discount off the cover price.
By publishing independently, you'll receives more revenue per book sold, and you'll retain control of the entire process, bypassing many of the frustrations of the traditionally published author. Your rights are always yours, to place as you like—if you can generate interest. But independent publishing also has its drawbacks. There’s no money up front; in fact, unless you’re doing the barest of bare-bones efforts, or you’re amazingly talented in every aspect of publishing, you’re going to have to pay - sometimes handsomely - for professional editing, design, production, marketing, and distribution. 
Unless you already have a large and devoted following, you’re going to have to work (and work and work) to get your book noticed among the 3000 or so books that enter the market each day. You'll have no professional sales team to encourage booksellers and librarians to order your book. You’ll get reader reviews, but good luck getting traditional reviews, because there’s still a stigma to self-publishing, a stigma that won’t go away completely until the truly fine books released every day outnumber the bad ones. Figuratively speaking, your book is swimming in an ocean of crap. And unless readers reward you with glowing reviews (no, your momma’s review doesn’t count) and you get the sales figures to match, your confidence starts to feel false.
The third way to publish is less common and harder to pull off: the hybrid arrangement, where some rights are handled independently and some are placed through traditional avenues. My novel Cold Spell is one example. Without an agent, I sold the print English language rights to a traditional publisher. I contracted with an agent to represent the foreign rights. I produced and marketed the e-book through my own press, independent author cooperative Running Fox Books. For the audiobook, I contracted a royalty split with a producer.
A cautionary note: when it comes to publishing, there's a lot of choosing up sides - authors who advocate strongly for the avenue they've chosen. While it's natural to defend one's position, the noise isn't all that helpful when you're trying to make up your mind. Shut it out, study the pros and cons, and choose what's best for you and your book.