Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What gets mentioned in the query letter

Over the last few months I've sent my novel to several publishers that accept unsolicited mss, and have received positive replies along the lines of 'Our readers enjoyed it, and we seriously considered publishing it, but it's not quite right for us.' One publisher got as far as requesting to see a second draft, then rejected it because I hadn't made all the changes they wanted. I'm now planning to approach agents in the hope of getting my work in front of other publishers. In my cover letter, should I tell the agent of the responses I've had so far?

You don't have to mention all of this in your cover letter, because ideally the agent should read the manuscript on its merits, not influenced by the thought that it's been rejected. However, you will absolutely need to tell them if they offer to represent you, because it affects their ability to place your manuscript. The agent won't be able to send the manuscript to the publishers who have already rejected it, and that restricts their ability to help you get published.

The importance of patience

I finished my first novel about a month or so ago, and have a couple of published authors in the same genre reading it for me. So far the feedback has been all very positive, however I am still waiting on one author... But I'm getting impatient, more from the excitement of having finished than with her. Would it be rude or unwise of me to start submitting to agents before she gives me her feedback?

However long the author is taking to read your manuscript, you'll probably be waiting ten times as long for an agent to read it, and then twenty times as long for a publisher - so think of it as good practice! One month is really not a very long time, even though I know it seems an eternity when you are busting to send out your manuscript. But I can't overestimate the value of patience if you wish to be a successful writer.

It is worth waiting a little bit longer because if she comes back and says, 'This is great overall but this particular sub storyline is completely implausible', you'll be regretting that you sent it out before having a chance to fix any problems. You only have one shot at agents reading your manuscript - if we read your manuscript and you then call and ask if you can submit a revised version, the answer will be 'no'. Not because we don't necessarily like your manuscript, but because we don't have time to read manuscripts more than once for anyone other than our clients. (The mathematics of manuscript reading is: 1 full ms = approx. 8 hours of reading; time to read during average working week = 2 hours; ergo, time to read 1 ms = 4 weeks, if we're lucky. The figures are much more bloated for publishers). And all that was a slight digression but it leads me back to where I started: it's worth waiting a little bit longer.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

After my first novel, do I need an agent?

After much research and a carefully worded query letter, I sold my first novel to my dream publisher myself. I also negotiated the contract myself with the aid of the Australian Society of Authors contract advice service. I have lots of experience in this type of negotiation from my pre-writing career and I don’t believe it impedes my creative work. So far (post-editing, pre-publication), I couldn’t be happier. However recently a very successful novelist told me that if I do this for my second novel I am ‘na├»ve’. She said it was acceptable to attempt the sale of your first novel yourself, because with no contacts or profile, finding an agent can be just as difficult as finding a publisher. For a second novel, she said, there was no excuse. To avoid being ‘ripped off’ and for help in building a career, it’s essential to use an agent. She also said that if my first novel is successful, it won’t be difficult to find one.

First up: congratulations on your first novel! That is a fantastic accomplishment. Now to the question.

There are some 'ifs' here. If your previous career was as a lawyer or something like that (you mentioned negotiating), you probably don't need an agent. If you're happy with your publishing company (not necessarily your publisher/commissioning editor, as they may leave), you probably don't need an agent. If you feel comfortable handling the negotiation side of things and you think it won't get in the way of your writing, you probably don't need an agent. This country is different to the US, where every writer needs an agent and most publishers want them to have one. Often publishers here want authors to have agents, too, but that doesn't mean they won't deal with you without one.

An agent would be useful to you if you ever find yourself disagreeing with your publisher and think you can't make your case strongly enough, or if you want to explore your options with other publishers and aren't sure how to do this. Agents are of great use to authors who don't wish to deal with the business side of things, but you seem very comfortable with that. However, it can't hurt you to talk to a few agents if you're curious - having a chat doesn't commit you to anything! Ask them what they can offer you that you're not already doing for yourself. If you meet one you really like, you might think, 'Great, I don't have to worry about all that business stuff any more and I completely trust them to take care of it', and there's your answer about whether you need one. And if instead you think, 'I can do all of this myself', you know that answer too.

As for whether a successful first novel makes it easier to find an agent: yes. Particularly if we've read it and liked it! But you'd need to have a manuscript to take to the agent - they won't sign you up with nothing to send to publishers, unless you wanted to talk to them about handling your foreign rights. And that's a different topic ...

If my genre has limited local appeal, should I go overseas?

I write fanatasy humour because, as we all know, this is a licence to print money, particularly for Australian authors. Given the limited market for this genre, should I consider chasing local and international agents at the same time?

You should always query as many agents as you want to. Check out agents' submission guidelines to see whether they have a policy about simultaneous submissions, but generally speaking you should query your little heart out. It's a numbers game - the more people you submit to, the more responses you will get, and the faster you'll work out whether your novel is any good or not. Agents in the UK and US would not be surprised to receive a submission from an Australian. Good luck!

PhDs and publishing

Is it advisable to admit in cover letters to publishers/agents that one is completing postgraduate studies in writing (in my case, a PhD in Philosophy, writing a novel and exegesis)? Does this suggest a degree of dedication to the craft, or scream 'run for the hills'? Published and highly successful Australian writers have said (at least, privately) that a PhD is strongly advisable to ensure continuity of income from teaching — to supplement the money coming in from publishing. Yet I’ve heard from the publishing industry in the past that academia tends to produce uncommercial/unsellable writing. With more and more post-grad writing pupils winning big literary prizes, is this still the general feeling?

I can't imagine why anyone would think that postgraduate study is a bad thing - whether we like your novel or not is, of course, a different matter. But it would be a pretty bad state of affairs if you were to spend all that time working on your PhD and then feel you have to hide it! There are two separate issues here, though: the PhD and what is produced from it. The PhD will teach you patience and discipline to write a novel (as it takes years), and you shouldn't leave it off your CV. If, however, what you produce from it is uncommercial and unsellable, that's not the fault of your higher education. Certainly, PhDs don't usually produce cracker crime novels, but why shouldn't they? I don't know enough about PhDs in writing, but surely the idea of one (or part of the idea of one) is to produce writing that people - even just your supervisor - want to read.

As research is involved in completing the PhD, perhaps some of that research should look at bookbuyers. Lots of readers shy away from literary fiction because it's not telling them a story they want to read or they feel it's too much hard work. Lots of them flock towards 'commercial' fiction because it's entertaining, and they don't mind being made to think about serious stuff so long as it's easy to read. And creating writing that 'easy to read' is actually extremely difficult - just like writing a catchy pop song is harder than it looks. A PhD that produces a novel that can be entertaining while simultaneously addressing the issues the writer wants to address would take some skill but probably be a great read. Jodi Picoult does this sort of thing on an annual basis.

The non-fiction-to-fiction trajectory

How much easier is it to get agented for a work of fiction once you have a couple of published non-fiction titles to your name?

I won't lie - it certainly helps. Because it shows that you can write enough words to finish a book; because you've been through the publishing process before and will be more understanding of it; because you can, in all probability, write; because you'll already have a readership. However, some agents believe you should just pick one form of writing - either fiction or non-fiction or children's - and stick to it, so not every agent may agree with me on this one. But I'd certainly always read a submission, at least, from this sort of author and I'd usually make it a priority.

Non-fiction writers - no sales experience necessary

Is there a particular number of expected sales that an agent would have in mind before agenting a non-fiction writer?

Non-fiction writers don't need any sales at all to get an agent - in fact, they don't even need a manuscript. The hunger for good non-fiction is so great amongst publishers and, thus, agents that all you need is a good idea, a good proposal and some proof that you can write. It helps if you're a journalist - because you can point to a body of work, an ability to meet deadlines and an acceptance of the editing process - but it's not essential. It's also helpful if you're an expert in something if you're writing about health or science or gardening. If you're a previously published writer, that's nice too - but none of it guarantees you'll be considered by an agent or guarantees that you won't. It all comes down to what you're writing about and how you write it.

Regional writers

Do you need to be based in Sydney or Melbourne to get and keep an agent? Does it disadvantage your chances of publication if you are a regional writer and can’t get to major writers festivals or meet industry professionals in metropolitan areas?

Due to the wondrous Internets, I don't (personally) believe it makes a fig of difference where writers live in this country. Meeting clients in person is lovely, but I - and, no doubt, all other agents - maintain relationships with writers who live all over the place, many of whom we have never met.

You don't need to go to writers' festivals to meet industry professionals - in fact, you're unlikely to meet them there as they're usually working and wary of being approached by hopeful writers. In fact, you don't really need to meet them at all to succeed as a writer, provided you have Internet access and a phone. Most agents do not want to meet writers before they decide to sign them up; the submission process is the same from anywhere in the country, so it doesn't matter where you live when you send something in. I've never discounted anyone because they don't live in Sydney or Melbourne - if anything, I'm more interested in their stories because they're likely to be different to what I usually see.

However, I do know that a lot of regional writers feel that there is a barrier of some sort between them and the prospect of publication. I wonder whether some of this isn't an entrenched belief that their stories are 'less than' - they're certainly not. If anything, living outside of metropolitan areas, in parts of the country where two hours a day aren't lost in getting to and from work, means that regional writers often have more time to give to their writing and can be more thoughtful about the whole process.

If you're a regional writer and feeling a bit disconnected, the first thing to do would be to make contact with your closest writers' centre, or the one in the capital city. You can even choose a writers' centre interstate if you like the look of their services better. The next thing - or maybe equal first thing - is to look into the LongLines program at Varuna (http://www.varuna.com.au/) as this is specifically tailored for regional writers. Peter Bishop and his team at Varuna are longtime champions of regional writing, and he regularly goes around the country meeting writers.

There is a lot of help out there for regional writers - the first step is to believe that people want to read your writing, and then be confident as you send it out into the world.

Can a new agent do the best job for me?

I just finished reading your answer to 'So many manuscripts, so few agents' - about the shortage of agents in Australia. I recently had the good fortune to sign with an agent. Her agency is new, so I was just wondering what effect that has to whether publishers will take work recommended by her, or will they be less inclined as she is yet to establish a reputation as an agent? I was hoping the fact that she was new would work in my favour, as she would be hungry to succeed.

Having a new agent isn't necessarily a concern (after all, we were all new agents once). It depends on the background of the agent in question. If she's been working in publishing for a while, then she should have the necessary contacts to do the best job for you, because a large part of being an agent is having the relationships with publishers that make the agent better able to place books. This is the major hurdle to succeeding as an agent - if you don't have the relationships, you have to make them from scratch, and that can take a considerable amount of time. If the agent has never worked in publishing before, it may be almost impossible to succeed as he or she will probably not understand the cultural quirks that make the book industry so different to other types of publishing. But I'm going to presume that your agent has worked in the industry, so none of this may apply.

As for being 'hungry to succeed' - this comes back to the aforementioned cultural quirks. Australian publishing is quite genteel - aggression is not welcome. In fact, it's not even welcome in the US. Everything takes time with books, and patience tends to pay off. People who push (whether it's prospective authors calling me to check on their submissions, or me pushing a publisher to make a decision) tend to find themselves on the end of a 'no'. So while I'm sure your agent will do her very best for you, give her some time to do it. By all means ask questions about the process and what's happening, but don't be surprised if it takes a while for her to answer - we spend most of our day doing stuff to place manuscripts, and it takes more time than most people think.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

When do I need an agent?

At what stage should a new writer think about using an agent? If, hypothetically, a new writer has a paperback coming out in 2008 with a major publisher, and a YA novel contracted for 2009 with another major publisher, and several things about to be released by the Educational press, and two already published items in the US Chicken Soup for the Soul Series, should he/she have an agent? What if he/she currently has two other manuscripts being considered by said two publishers? Still speaking hypothetically, what can an agent give a beginner who has worked really hard on his/her own behalf so far, that he/she has not been able to achieve?

The first thing to deal with here is the term 'new writer', because it affects how the question is answered. The hypothetical author mentioned above isn't really a 'new' writer because s/he already has books heading for publication. But a really new writer - one who has had no contact or contract with publishers - is a different case, so I'll straight to the questions at the end: what can an agent give a beginner who has worked really hard on his/her own behalf so far, that he/she has not been able to achieve?

If the beginner is not the hypothetical author with the contracts - if s/he has been working hard on their own behalf but hasn't yet found a publisher - then an agent can offer them access to publishers, and to the right publisher (who is not necessarily the publisher with the biggest advance). About half of an agent's work is with publishers and half with authors. The half that is to do with publishers is often just staying in touch, finding out what they're up to and what they're looking for, so that when one of the authors has a manuscript to send out, it goes to the publishers most likely to consider it seriously. Each agent could send out a manuscript willy-nilly, but that's wasting everyone's time. The other aspects are the deal, the contract and the ongoing relationship with the publisher. An unagented author may not know what to ask for when they're made an offer by a publisher - which rights should they keep, for example? And they need to look carefully at the contract - sometimes I will look over contracts for authors who aren't clients but need another eye on the contract, and I'm always amazed by what's in those contracts. As to the relationship with the publisher - usually things go well, because publishers are well behaved in general, but when something goes wrong you may need a third party to help sort it out.

Which brings me to our hypothetical author with lots of contracts. This person is doing pretty well for themselves - they're obviously good at getting to the right people in a publishing company and at promoting their own work. That's fantastic - but atypical. Most authors, particularly when they are starting out, aren't sure how to do any of this. But if you're the author who does, then you may not need an agent. You'll probably only need an agent if you'd prefer to have someone else handling your contracts and making sure your subsidiary rights are being looked after, or - because there are multiple publishers - if you'd rather have someone else do all the talking for you. Ideally the agent frees up the author to concentrate on the creative work while we take care of the business (and also advise on the creative). If our hypothetical author likes the business side, though, and they're happy with their publisher/s, they don't really need an agent.

Unconservative YA publishers

I have written a YA novel about teenage male body-image issues. I think this is a unique and relevant theme, and I also think that the construction of my protagonist differs from those most prevalent in YA novels. That is, he's not morally upright like the New Age Boy, but cynical, occasionally neurotic, and self-obsessed. He undergoes some change (and realisation of his flaws, like in most novels), but he doesn't achieve perfection, or, for that matter, an overt desire to do so. I think he is realistic and he deals with issues common to male teenagers today. My supervisor (it's a Master of Arts project) believes it could have a market. Before I submit, I'd like some advice on which Australian publishers (if any) are most likely to go for a YA novel that willingly faces current issues and isn't too conservative.

Unfortunately I can't point you to particular publishers (see 'About Me' at right) but it would probably be unhelpful to do so anyway, as the personnel of publishing houses can change, and what one house favours today may not be to its taste next year. The best thing to do is spend some time at your local library and bookshop, going through the YA section and finding titles that you think are loosely in your subgenre (current issues/not conservative), then see who has published them. Publishers with YA lists are generally cognisant of the fact that their readership is changing all the time and don't want to be patronised - in my experienced children's publishers in general are passionate about what they publish and very well read in their field, so they're abreast of trends and they know what's working and what's not. Even if they may seem conservative, if the story and writing are good enough, they're going to be interested, because decisions about which books to publish are made largely by committee these days, and there's probably the odd forward-thinking individual in the bunch. For fiction, regardless of the age of reader, it always comes down to how you've executed your story.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ahhh query letters - a favourite topic!

What are the elements of a good query or cover letter? How long should it be? What does an agent want to know from a query letter, and what information is superfluous? Do Australian agents expect a query first, or is it sufficient to send a sample with a cover letter?

Query letters are one of my favourite things to blather about, because they're so often the difference between an author getting read - by an agent or a publisher - or not. When I submit a manuscript to a publisher, I do my own 'query letter' of sorts, to pitch it to the publisher; if the author has helped me by sending a great one of their own, I'll immediately want to read their manuscript.

Query letters are de rigueur in the US but haven't really made much of here by agents and publishers, but they should be. Query letters show us how you can pitch your own work. And before you say, 'But I wrote a novel - why do I have to do anything else?' consider this: you're a writer - ergo, you should be able to write a query letter that reflects the standard of your manuscript. And if you can't, that's a concern and will immediately raise a red flag to an agent.

So I was delighted to get these questions and the chance to talk about query letters; I'll answer them one by one (and there are some useful links at the bottom of the post).

1. What are the elements of a good query or cover letter? The query/cover letter should tell an agent (or anyone who reads it, for that matter) who you are and why you are writing to them; what your manuscript is about and why the agent would want to read it above all other manuscripts (but don't use the phrase 'I'm the greatest unpublished writer in the world' because you'd be surprised how many people try that one), and any information you think might 'sell' the manuscript or you as an author (e.g. 'I recently completed a LongLines program at Varuna'; 'this story is very topical because of XYZ').

2. How long should it be? Ideally no longer than one A4 page single-spaced. As most agents receive a lot of queries, they want to scan things quickly and sometimes turning the page doesn't make things quick ...

3. What does an agent want to know from a query letter, and what information is superfluous? We want to know, in plain language, why you have sent us your manuscript and why you think people should read it. Superfluous information is any biographical information that is not pertinent to your writing - if it's a memoir about Tibet, it's helpful to mention that you lived in Tibet for 20 years, but don't tell us where you went to school. Most importantly, be honest but don't puff yourself up with unnecessary adjectives. Other superfluous information (at query stage, at least) is a list of which magazines you think might want to interview you.

4. Do Australian agents expect a query first, or is it sufficient to send a sample with a cover letter? Each agency has its own submission guidelines, so it's best to check their website first or, if they don't have a website, call or email. If their guidelines are unclear, it certainly can't hurt to send a query first and mention that you weren't sure what their procedures were, so you didn't send a sample of the manuscript. And remember that agents aren't scary - they just have too much reading. It's not school, either - no one is going to yell at you if you get it wrong. So it's best to be honest and say 'I don't know what you need to see but I'd like to submit a manuscript to you please' and remember that it's not a combative situation. Agents aren't waiting to reject you - they want to find great writing. So make it easy for them.

Some handy tips on writing query letters can be found here: http://misssnark.blogspot.com/search/label/query%20letters
And here:
http://www.sfwa.org/writing/query.htm
Also here:
http://www.jennybent.com/letter/index.html – good sample query letter

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

When is a new author not new?

I now have 13 previous publications under my belt, from short stories to poems, and a novel published online. Yet I still find myself submitting as a 'new' author or 'first-time writer' to most agencies and publishing houses. Even after seeing my credentials I am still considered to be so. At what stage does one cease to be a 'new' author, is there a magical number?

A 'new' writer - in terms of how the publishing industry might define it - is someone without 'credentials'. Credentials can include winning short story competitions and having book reviews published in The Australian (for example) - there are many fledgling novelists who start out publishing journalism in order to build up their credentials. I guess the unspoken rule is that someone else needs to have adjudged your work worthy of publication, which is why publishing online often doesn't count as a credential (if you've published it yourself). And the biggest credential of all is having a book published - so you're technically new until that has happened.

The other aspect of being a 'new' writer is genre: if you're submitting a fantasy manuscript, for example, but the short stories you've had published were all chick lit, you're definitely a new writer in the fantasy genre; your short stories will give you some runs on the board, but not as much as if they were fantasy.

Categorising literature - a specific case

I have a finished manuscript which is a biography of my son's life. I have written part of it in my voice, and the other half in his voice. The story is about his conversations with family, and friends, and how he lived his life. He died of cancer at seven! I have now been told by agents, and editors, that I can't write a biography in someone else's voice. If I do the book is just classed as 'fiction' - therefore, not credible as 'non-fiction'. So, after a 'scathing' report on my manuscript from an agent, I am now wondering if I should change the entire book to my point of view? I have been advised that my book could also be classed as 'Literary Non-Fiction'. So, the question is - what do I do next? Also, is there such a 'category' as Creative Non-Fiction?

As you are imagining what your son would be thinking and saying, strictly speaking what you're writing in relation to him is fiction. Autobiographies can be written by others - that's what ghost writers are for - but what you're talking about here is an amalgamation of non-fiction (your voice) and fiction (what you're writing about your son). This is certainly not the first time someone has combined the two, but in the end the category doesn't matter as much as whether the writing is any good: agents and publishers look at the writing first and worry about the category later (that's the marketing department's domain, anyway). So in answer to the question 'what do I do next?' - keep drafting your manuscript until you find someone who responds positively. That might take you eight drafts, but it will be worth the work if you get it published. Writing is work, and getting published is work, and some of it is hard work but hopefully it's rewarding, and that's why you're doing it.

Specialist agents - religious books

As a writer, and a dedicated Christian, I have had three overtly Christian books published and one republished by two publishers which is still in print. I would really love to have an agent to do all the negotiating and initial 'business' side of getting published. Most agents ask for non-religious manuscripts. So do you know of anyone who handles these things? (I mainly write biographies and fiction.)

Agents don't always state what specialties they might be interested in as it could end up being a long list so it's worth, first, researching agents and finding one or more you think you might like to work with, and then sending an enquiry (or calling, if they give a contact number). You're a published author, so tell them that up front - it doesn't matter what 'genre' you write in. The agent-writer relationship is fundamentally a personal one - you have to like each other - so if you find someone you like and who likes you, I doubt that they'll worry too much about what your writing specialty is.

Friday, July 6, 2007

So many manuscripts, so few agents

You have said previously that the US has hundreds of agents just in New York whereas 'Australia has a mere handful of agents' - why is this? Is it only because the small market and our dispersed population? (Australia has a population of 21 million and NY 19 million). If this is so, then I assume there is no hope of having a significant increase in the number of Australian agents in the future?

This is an issue I was going to raise in a general post, but I'm glad to have a question to answer ...

The agents in NYC serve the whole of the US - the US publishing industry is centred in New York City, with only a handful of satellites elsewhere. So, while there are agents in other places, the bulk of them is in NYC, because they need to be. Australian agents are in Sydney and Melbourne for similar reasons, but obviously catering to much smaller numbers.

As to why there aren't more Australian agents ... The brutal truth about agenting is that it's a lot of work for generally not a huge financial gain. We all have to do it because we love it, and sometimes we have jobs on the side so we can keep doing it. The other brutal truth is that you pretty much have to come from within the book industry - from publishing or bookselling - if you're going to hang out your shingle and become an agent (unless you're going into an established agency), because you need to have the network of contacts amongst publishers in order to make a go of it. So for new agents to appear would mean that people have to emerge from the publishing industry and be willing to work on commission - knowing that they won't see income for quite a while, because getting books published takes a long time, especially when you're just starting your own list. In order to take this sort of risk, they'll need an independent income - but they've been working in publishing for years, and that's not a lucrative industry, so they're probably not in a great position to take a risk on becoming an agent. A salary usually looks more appealing than working on commission!

Additionally, being an agent requires lots of different skills, and a whole lot of ball-juggling, that requires a certain personality type - mainly extroverts, who are not normally found in captivity in publishing. You also need a high tolerance for disappointment and an ability to deliver bad news in a way that doesn't leave us sobbing in the bathroom at lunch.

So, in short: you're right, there's not much prospect of a significant increase in the number of agents in this country, although there's an increasing reliance on them by publishers and thus, necessarily, by authors. We just have to ask you all to bear with us while we try to get through our reading and manage our lists, because we so much want to see you published - we just need more help!

To trilogy or not to trilogy

Is it true that stand-alone fantasy novels are more likely to be picked up than the first of a trilogy/series if you have never been published before (or only as short stories)? I know a lot of people say that publishers will not take trilogies/series if you have never been published, but in Australia I see a lot of new fantasy authors getting their series published without any previous experience (e.g. Fiona Mcintosh, Jennifer Fallon). Is this an old myth or is it still relevant?

The quality of the writing and the story are always going to matter more than whether the novel is the first of a trilogy or not. If you want to write a trilogy, write it - just don't submit all three novels to an agent or publisher! Send the first one and tell them that it's the first of a trilogy. I can assure you that, if they love the first one, they will be excited that there are two more after that.

The main point to bear in mind when aspiring to have your fantasy novel published is that you'll need to be more patient than other novelists. Not only does the average size of fantasy manuscripts mean that they can't be read as quickly as other novels, but there aren't as many publishers specialising in fantasy. Stephanie Smith, who publishes Voyager at HarperCollins, has been at the vanguard of fantasy publishing in Australia (but don't send her manuscripts without checking first!) and now Hachette Livre has its Orbit imprint, and Arena (Allen & Unwin) is also looking for some. But there are lots of people writing fantasy, and it's all funnelling into this tiny stream. So that gives you lots of time to write the trilogy :) I should also say that publishers who are committed to fantasy are usually knowledgeable and they love the genre - they're just short on reading time ... Given the growing popularity of fantasy, though, you'll probably see more publishers getting on board.