Friday, August 26, 2011

Torn between two lovers

After experiencing some recent Slightly Dodgy Potential Client Behaviour, I thought I should say a little something about what an author should do if he or she finds that he or she has two or more agents or publishers to choose from (and if, in the latter case, there is no agent to advise).

We'll vault past the initial querying stage to the point where your full manuscript has been requested by an agent or publisher (editor, if you're in the northern hemisphere). Let's call this agent Agent A. If another agent, Agent B, then requests the manuscript, the polite - and professional - thing to do is to email Agent A and let her or him know, so that Agent A is aware that there may come a point at which the author tells Agent A that he/she has been offered representation by someone else; plus it may cause Agent A to hurry up with the reading. It is also polite to let Agent B know that Agent A already has the manuscript, so Agent B, too, can hurry up with the reading.

If Agent B reads faster than Agent A - which can happen for various reasons - and comes back more quickly to the author with an offer of representation, the polite and professional thing for the author to do is to contact Agent A and say something like, 'Another agent has made an offer of representation, but I'd still really like to hear from you. It would be great if you could let me know what you think of the manuscript by X date [allow a week or so].' The incorrect thing to do is to contact Agent A and say, 'Another agent has offered to represent me - see ya.'

This is the incorrect thing for the following reasons:
1. No matter how excited you may be about Agent B's offer of representation, how do you know if Agent B is the better agent for you when you haven't given Agent A the opportunity to tell you what s/he thinks?
2. It's kinda rude, and publishing people value manners. Gods help you if you ever decide to leave Agent B and seek out Agent A again, because Agent A will remember you and will likely say 'no way'.

Agent B will not withdraw the offer of representation if you stall for a few days - not even if you say why you're stalling, because Agent B would expect the same if s/he was in Agent A's position.

In short: it costs nothing and takes very little time to be courteous to people whom you hope will support your career for years to come. This also applies to dealing with people you meet along the way in publishing - today's editorial assistant is tomorrow's agent or publisher. Why not behave in a professional manner towards people you expect to behave professionally towards you?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Optioning for film - or not

There is an old, long-forgotten war memoir that I would like to adapt into a film. I should point out that I'm a far cry from being a successful film producer. Yes - a film I helped develop picked up 'Best Feature' at IndieFest ... but that isn't exactly much in the world of cinema.

However I'm also not going into this blindly. I've researched who the copyright holder is (since the original author has long died) and although the literary rights has changed hands a few times in wills, it turns out that the current owner is living in Perth.

I've spoken to her (and exchanged some letters) and she originally had no idea that her great uncle had ever written a memoir. She is an elderly lady in a retirement village and, to put it bluntly, she has zero interest in the memoir.

She has given me verbal permission to adapt it in an extremely informal 'I don't care - do what you want with it' way - but as you can imagine that isn't exactly sufficient to move forward with development. Certainly if I was just going to dump the original text onto a blog I'd be happy enough ... but verbal permission certainly isn't good enough for a film project. (Nobody in their right mind is going to put money into a film where the original rights haven't been locked down)

So I am in a curious position - I want to give her money ... but she simply doesn't want to get paid!

From her position, of course, her reaction makes a lot of sense. We all hear about scam artists preying on elderly victims ... so would you really trust a chap on the other side of the country who tells you that he'll give you money just for signing a contract you don't really have the inclination to understand?

My question is this - instead of having a literary agent represent an author and search for buyers - is it possible to get some kind of 'reverse literary agent' involved? Basically someone who can sit down with the author (or copyright holder) and get a sale on behalf of an existing buyer ?

I have spoken with a producer and his suggestion was to simply ignore this particular memoir and work with the other accounts of the events. So I suspect that the market value for this particular account isn't very high.

I'm in a position where I want to treat her fairly - and I also want to be in a position to adapt the memoir. What would you suggest someone in my position do? Obviously I can just wait another 15 years or so for the copyright to expire ... or 'file off the serial numbers' of the original story - but neither are satisfactory solutions.

**This question was quite a bit longer and contained some details about the proposed deal, which I've removed in the interest of brevity and also because it just didn't seem right to publish them.**

I believe the 'reverse literary agent' you seek is an intellectual property lawyer. This situation is already murky and could get murkier - the only way to make sure everything is clear to everyone is to get a lawyer involved and get it all in writing. The current rights owner may not be interested in the project but there's no telling who may turn up in future years, and you need to protect your interest in the project and any film that may result. And I know lawyers are expensive - but they're cheaper than lawsuits.

Alternatively, you could do as the producer suggests - you only need to option the rights to the memoir if you wish to adapt that account of the historical events. If there is primary evidence elsewhere, or there's another published account that you could option, that's a valid course of action. Just make sure you don't end up with a script that resembles the memoir.

As a last recourse, find another project. There's plenty of great stories out there.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Query early, query often

Is there any point to asking an agent if they're open to considering a particular subject? Should you just go ahead and put in the effort to meet their submission requirements?

My novel is about a teenager who was born with a genetic condition resulting in short stature and a sexually ambiguous body. It's written from a Christian perspective and based on ten years of answering inquiries on behalf of a support group for the parents of such children.

I've written to several agents who represent Christian authors and the replies have been fairly consistent: They don't know of any Christian publishing houses that will handle the subject material. A few of the smaller Christian publishers I've contacted directly have asked to read the manuscript, but even one of them said they wouldn't ordinarily consider the subject. They were offering to give feedback on the manuscript, not consider it.

I'm assuming that, because most of the novel is written from the teen's perspective, I should be approaching agents who represent YA. Is it a waste of time to ask them if they'll consider a book that is explicitly Christian in outlook? Should I look for agents who represent Christian fiction as well as YA?

For the reader's benefit I'll state that this question came from a writer in the USA, a land of many and varied publishing houses and agents; this variation in turn facilitates the allocation of very specific genres for fiction. Also, Christian fiction is not a big genre here in the land of widespread godless-convict ancestry and declared-atheist prime minister; accordingly, I'm answering this question without knowing much about the genre at all. First things first, however ...

I can understand why it's tempting to ask a question about subject matter/genre without doing a full submission, but here's why agents don't like it: first, everyone would do it and we'd spend most of the day answering these questions; second, it's a question asked out of context, because we really need to see your writing before we can say definitively whether or not we like a subject or genre. I could, in abstract, say I don't want to see stories about this or that, but if the manuscript was amazing, I'd change my mind. So for a writer to give him- or herself the best chance of getting an agent or publisher, you need to show us your writing.

Also, going through the submission-writing process can be very useful for your writing. It forces you to think about whether or not you have a clear storyline; whether or not there's a readership for your story. If you don't ask yourself these questions before you send off a submission, you can't expect an agent/publisher to answer them for you.

When it comes to [Kevin '07 reference there for those feeling nostalgic] who you should query: query as many people as possible. If you think your book could have three different genre labels attached to it, query agents who look after books in those genres. Let them work out if it's exactly right for them or not - by reading what you've written. Yes, it's a lot of work, but you've spent all that time writing the novel - don't you want to give it the best chance of finding the right agent?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

It's just not that complicated

I'm a starry-eyed novelist eager to undertake the Great Publishing Adventure. So over the past few years while working on my craft, I tried to absorb as much information about the industry and the ideal submission package as possible from sources in the know.

Unfortunately, I am cursed with a terrible affliction: I'm as easy to confuse as a drunk peacock at mardi gras.

Because I’m painfully aware of this flaw, I quadruple-check everything to make sure I don’t have my wires crossed. To that end, I caved and bought the ‘A Decent Proposal’ guide from the ASA, and though I found the advice and the examples therein to be an extremely helpful addition to my resources, I was struck by a clash of terminology that’s left me befuddled and chewing my nails in uncertainty.

The synopsis has always been the bane of my existence (isn’t it always?), and I felt that I had finally got a good handle on the stygian beast. All the advice and examples I’d read online pointed towards an abridged thematic summary of the story. However, the description of an ideal synopsis in the guide -- categorising the kind of information one would normally find in the query letter: word-count, genre and the long pitch with market information etc -- and the related successful examples have left me wondering if I’ve missed something important.

What I was hoping you might be able to clarify is, is this actually typical of what Australian agents want to see in the synopsis? Or is it acceptable to submit the typical query & author details cover letter + a summary-style synopsis that I’d been under the impression was the norm?

The guide also refers to things like chapter outlines and market rationales and series summaries. How important do you think these things are to a fiction -- specifically a YA fantasy series -- submission? I'm aware that YA fantasy is very competitive because there's a lot of hopefuls like me out there, so I feel the pressure is really on to stand out as best I can.

That's a long, somewhat complicated question that has a fairly simple, two-part answer.

First: what you need to put in a submission is what's in the submission guidelines. Yes, it's frustrating that there's not a universal code of submission guidelines but there's not a universal code for anything, including laws and recipes, so it's just the way it is. Follow the guidelines for each agent and publisher you submit to - they're likely to be similar, so you shouldn't have to do too much extra work for each submission.

Second: to my way of thinking a synopsis is closer to the 'abridged thematic summary' than the word count, market information etc, but I suspect the ASA is trying to give authors a hand by telling them that that information is important. Some authors won't know the term 'query letter' but they know 'synopsis', so the ASA has grouped that information under the latter.

One last point: I hope you're putting as much thought and energy into your writing as you did into this question. The writing is what's important. Your query letter and synopsis are an introduction to your writing, but if the writing itself isn't any good, it doesn't matter how much effort you put into the letter and synopsis.