Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The quid pro quo

If a top Aussie publisher has requested a rewrite on my novel, is this the time to call an agent?

It's time to get some advice, whether that's an agent or someone else who might have some knowledge about the industry (for example, a published author or someone at your state's writers' centre - links are at the right for those). It sounds as though the publisher has not promised anything much in exchange for the rewrite - they're asking you to do what may amount to a lot of work presumably in exchange only for another reading by them, not for a promise of publication. If you want to do this work anyway - you were planning to do another draft, and their feedback is just exactly what you wanted to hear - then that's great, because even if they don't end up taking the novel, you have a new draft to send to agents and publishers. But if you're only doing this work because they're asking you to, it's time to get a second opinion.

Keeping up with the Rowlings

How much attention should we pay to the current market of the genre we write in?
I was reading about current trends in fantasy at the moment from an American publisher and had no idea – he mentioned the “hot” ideas at the moment being zombie fiction and superheroes in novels, but I haven’t seen anything like this at all. When Harry Potter first became famous (I think it was the second or third novel it really started getting publicity), fantasy books about the typical coming-of-age/orphan hero stories set in a wizard school started appearing everywhere.

Then again, some people say not to care about the current market at all because by the time you start writing and finish your book, many months, if not the usual years, would have passed and it would have all changed again.

As an agent, would you reject something because it isn’t a ‘current fad’?

My general rule is that once a trend has been identified, it's over. This is particularly true of publishing, because the 'trend' books of today were actually being picked up by publishers at least a year ago, and they're probably onto something else now. It's also the case that true global trends should just be left to wear themselves out - none of the HP imitator books did as well as JK Rowling's tomes (how could they, after all?) and those authors who did imitate her might have done themselves out of the career they may have had if they'd written stories they really wanted to write rather than trying to follow a trend.

I never pick novels, in particular, because of a trend - I choose them based on the quality of the writing and the story being told. None of the first novels I've placed have been part of a trend - they stood alone very nicely, and that's what's needed if you want them to be read for several years hence. So not only would I not reject something if it's not part of a current fad, I'm probably more likely to pay attention!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Call your publicist

Beyond contract negotiations and the selling of international distribution deals and or rights, what does the literary agent do after the book has hit the shelves? In other words: after the marketing machine of the publishing company has shifted towards another writer’s book, how actively involved is the lit agent in maintaining some momentum in keeping the public’s interest in the work – as in readings, signings, panels at festivals, interviews and so forth.

What you're describing is a publicist's job more than an agent's - we don't tend to have expertise in organising signings and getting authors onto panels at festivals. We have expertise in giving you editorial advice, getting you published and keeping you writing; we provide advice on writing and other stuff, usually, that has nothing to do with writing but which may be stopping you writing; we're here to sort out any problems that may arise with you getting interviews etc, but we can't organise them. We may be able to rely on our contacts to get you a foot in the door but, again, we can't organise them.

There's a good reason for this, beyond the fact that it's not our core competency: it takes a lot of work to find you a publisher, to negotiate a contract and to handle foreign rights. In most cases, it takes many more hours than the commission actually covers. Once the book is out, we'll liaise with your publicist if the need arises (although in my experience most book publicists do just fine), and handle anything else that needs handling, but if we added publicity to our list of duties, we'd only be able to take on about two clients a year. As far as I know, there's only one agency in the US that provides those sorts of services - Folio - but the US is in a different stratosphere.

Common writing mistakes #1 – Who is the reader?

There are some common problems (or iss-ewes, if you watch Kath and Kim) that pop up in manuscripts – usually more in fiction but, as most aspiring writers are writing fiction, it could be relevant to some of you. The principles apply for fiction, non-fiction and children’s writing, though. So I thought I’d identify some of these problems/iss-ewes in the hope that it may help some of you with your writing.

The first one is: WHO IS YOUR READER? It becomes quite obvious early in a manuscript if a writer has addressed the story only to him or herself. This is a problem that usually arises with a first novel, but it’s a killer, because if you’re the designated reader of your own novel, who else is going to want to read it?

There is nothing wrong with writing a novel only for yourself; the difficulty arises when you send it off to agents and publishers and then become distressed when they don’t want to see your story published. But they’re just being pragmatic – if they can’t identify who your reader is, they’ll logically assume the reading public won’t be able to either and thus won’t buy the book. So if you’re hoping that a publisher will invest some money in publishing your pride and joy, you need to make it easy for them to identify who they’re going to sell it to. Quite early on in the writing process, identify your target readership and keep them in mind while writing. This is no different to a musician deciding whether they’ll write a pop song that lots of people will like, or whether they’ll record a three-hour chord progression that only they understand.

You may need to give your novel to trusted friends and readers, or investigate some professional development programs, in order to work out if you have this problem – let’s face it, if you’ve written the novel for yourself, you’re unlikely to truly see that it is a problem. Remember also that it’s only a problem if you want to get your book published – if you just want to read it to yourself, don’t worry!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Reading times and multiple submissions

I am wondering about at what point it is okay and not impatient to give up on an agent assessing your work if you haven't heard from them. I have had a submission (chapters 1-3, synopsis, etc) being assessed by an agent since October 2006. In January they asked for the full manuscript. It was sent to a reader, who really liked it but was not sure if it was right for the young adult market. Instead of sending it back to me, they sent it to a second reader, which I was happy about, but due to their backlog they still hadn't got back to me - and it had been almost 10 months - so I rang them and politely said if they haven't decided I would like to send it to other agents/publishers as well. They said it's still with the second reader who hasn't read it yet due to their backlog, but if I want an answer at this point, they'd have to say no. Did I do the wrong thing by getting impatient and indicating I was going to send it out more widely? I had thought that most people do send submissions out to lots of agents/publishers, but in my case, as my manuscript was being assessed by a well-respected agent, I had been advised by the ASA to hold off on sending it to other agencies, until I heard back from this first big-name agent. Did I wreck my chances or generally speaking if they haven't signed me up after 10 months it's unlikely they were going to?

Short answer: If the agency you send it to didn't ask for an exclusive, you didn't do the wrong thing by calling and saying you were sending it to others. Ten months is not necessarily a long time for a full manuscript, but it sounds like they have already said 'no' so hopefully you have already sent it to others ...

Long answer: Each agent seems to have a different policy about whether authors should submit to multiple agents/publishers at the same time. I always expect that authors will submit to more people than just me, precisely because it does take so long to read submissions and make decisions, particularly for first novels, particularly in a genre like YA, in which there are a lot of very good, published authors still writing great work. I'm not sure why the ASA has that policy - and that's just their policy, obviously: you should always check with the agents you send it to. Because I don't ask for exclusivity, I don't like being told by authors that I'm the only one who has it and I should therefore hurry up and make a decision - the reason I don't ask for exclusives is so I don't have those sorts of time pressures, and also because I don't think it's fair on writers.

The conundrum for agents is this: we read and assess prospective clients' manuscripts on our own time, because we don't charge a fee for this (and nor should we). The agency to whom you sent your manuscript bore the cost of the first reader and the second, if it's gone that far, and they may then decide they can't take it on - but they've still paid for that reading time. Because the cost of reading new manuscripts may or may not ultimately bear fruit, it has to be rationed and considered carefully. This agency has obviously taken a while to consider your manuscript, and it's probably because it's been in a queue - most agents in this country have more reading than they can handle, and that's just from their existing clients. It could also be because sometimes manuscripts get mislaid - most of us would have huge stacks of paper around our desks, and things do get lost. And then, sometimes, the agent may end up weeping atop one of those stacks of paper because she has no idea how she's ever going to get through her reading ... At this point, I'm glad this blog is anonymous :)