Thursday, November 20, 2008

Patience, grasshopper

I have published five books and been on the editorial board of two more. My most recent book is a textbook. Over the last ten years I have written a memoir and in the last two years have been seeking representation. As a scholar, this is an entirely new world to me even though publishing and writing are not. I feel like I'm working in an alien landscape :-).

Here's what's happened. A friend of mine who is a prof wrote a book and it went popular. A major publishing company bought the rights. As a result, she began working with an editor there. When she heard about my book, she thought it could go popular, too. So, she very generously put me in touch with that editor. I met with her, she read some of my chapters, liked them, gave me suggestions for revision, even edited my query letter and book proposal, and offered to query agents for me. All of these were very kind gestures.

Of those agents contacted, one has stuck with me over the last year as I have revised the manuscript. She has been tremendously helpful with ideas for revisions and making the book marketable to a popular audience. She has not signed with me-- I want to make that clear but she has expressed interest throughout our communications. She's a top-flight agent, too, and represents a lot of people who I totally admire. I'm both thrilled at her interest and, well, completely freaked by how novice I am in this new world.

Early last month I sent her a full, revised manuscript of plus 400 pages in which I tackled all of her suggestions as well as I could. Several weeks have now passed. I have sent her three follow-up emails, mainly just politely asking how she is, what her time frame might be, etc. I've heard nothing. Does this mean she is no longer interested? Or, am I being an idiot? Should I be sending this finished ms and/or query letters elsewhere? Or, should I sit tight and just be patient? I don't want to do anything to compromise this agent's potential support of my work or our ability to work together in the future, of course. But I also don't want to waste my time if she's just sending me a signal I'm too thick to get.

She's had just over a month to read it, and she's a 'top-flight' agent, which means she probably has a lot of authors and a lot of things to read. If she gave you a set time in which she'd read it, that's one thing - but if someone only gave me six to eight weeks to read a 400-page manuscript, I wouldn't have any clients ... and I particularly wouldn't like being emailed three times by the author! Being chased up tends to make us go even slower. We already know that we haven't read the manuscript, and being asked about it makes us feel guilty and then, possibly, not want to read it at all. No one in the publishing industry reads at their desk - they all read in their private time. The manuscripts we read in that time thus take on a bit more weight than if we were reading them at our desks, and it doesn't take much to decide you'd rather read one and not another.

I suggest you now just wait to hear back from her - if you haven't heard by early next year, write a letter (not email) and say thanks for all the support she's shown but as you haven't heard back from her you're going to query other agents. I don't recommend you send queries elsewhere right at the moment, because this agent has given you a lot of hands-on support already - and the start of next year is not that far away (in publishing terms).

A book for the new age

i am an established awarded environmental activist and an ex-international new age teacher. my online environmental writings are well supported. for many years i have been pushed to write some of my new age knowledge - now, i have put together a 36 page book of short conversations with a 21st century prophet - with another in draft. there is enough material to construct one on environmental conversations as well - it is written in a similar format to gibrans the prophet - now how do i find a publisher with the gumption to promote the ideas for change that i have constructed over many years of contemplation?

First, the bad news: if you're unable to use capital letters to start your sentences then it's unlikely any publisher will take you seriously. Also, 36 pages is way too short for most publishers to consider - there may be the odd small publisher in the US for whom it's not.

Second, the practical news: research the market. Visit a bookshop that specialises in New Age texts or go to Amazon and check for New Age titles - then note who publishes them. Then go to the publishers' websites and check their submission guidelines. If they only take submissions from agents, try to find an agent who has New Age writers on their books. But I think you'll find most New Age publishers don't require you to have an agent. There is no substitute for research, and no one can do it for you.

Third: consider self-publishing. You have a blog, so you have access to a direct marketing tool. It's possible that you could put out this book yourself and do it just the way you want to. Call the Australian Society of Authors or the writers centre in your state for information on self-publishing.

I wanna be an agent

I am an editor/contributing writer at a small website that launched this past summer. In my day job, I'm a legal recruiter. By training, I'm a lawyer. As a college student, I ran two businesses. I'm on track to read about 50 books this year. I'm spouting off these semi-narcissistic tidbits because I'd love to mix all of these skills together to become 'an agent'.I write 'agent' in quotations because, to me, it's some sort of fantasy occupation. I don't know any agents personally and I also don't know much about what an agent does on a day-to-day basis. Would you be able to provide me with any insight? How did you find your profession? What motivates you every day when you go to work? How does one go about seeking a position as an agent? What are the key skills to bring? What can one expect in terms of compensation? Is it a percentage/commission-driven occupation? What are your supervisors/office mates like? Do agents work closely with other members of a writers' entourage (publicists and the like)? Do writers have entourages?

Hmmm ... I needed a lie-down after reading this. If I were to answer all of these questions comprehensively I'd probably need to write a thesis. So I'll try to give some information but not so much that my top-secret identity would be revealed.

How did you find your profession? - It found me - I was approached by the agency I work for. The best possible preparation for being an agent is to work in some part of the publishing industry - bookselling or a publishing company - for a while so you understand how it all works. It's also very important to have relationships - if you want to become an agent and you know no one in the industry, it could take you two to five years to build up relationships to the point where publishers trust you enough to look at your submissions. Thus, it's easier to make these relationships before you become an agent, through a job in some sector of the industry. The publishing pond is small. A lot of the publishers (and publicists and editors and sales managers) I deal with are people I've worked with in the past.

What motivates you every day when you go to work? - At the moment, panic. Panic at the amount of work I have to do every day. Panic at the amount of reading I have. But, sometimes, there are the sweet spots. Recently one of my authors who has been writing for years, and is successful and well known and all those lovely things, sent me their next manuscript and after I'd read it told me I was the first person on the whole planet to read it. I felt incredibly privileged - especially because it was wonderful.

How does one go about seeking a position as an agent? - See the answer to the first question. Also, agent jobs don't come up very often and if they do the applicants are usually sourced from within the industry. If you want to have any job in publishing, you really have to start at the bottom and work your way up. I have never applied for a job in publishing since the very first job I applied for years ago - once you're in, people know you and you know them and you just find out when jobs are available.

What are the key skills to bring? - Obviously, a passion for books. You also need to be able to manage people, quite often when they're in a fractious state. You need to be able to negotiate and to understand contracts. Editorial skills help. Overall, though, you need to be able to juggle ten balls at once, while standing on a tightrope, and not let any of the balls drop.

What can one expect in terms of compensation? - Not much. Authors don't make much money and we take a small percentage of that. You don't become an agent to become rich. It may happen if you hit the jackpot, but generally it doesn't.

Do agents work closely with other members of a writers' entourage (publicists and the like)? Do writers have entourages? - To the latter question: no. Writing is a solitary occupation. Even legendary socialisers like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer eventually crawled back to the garret alone. Most writers are introverts who are forced to become extroverts on the publicity trail and the trauma usually drives them back to their computers quick smart. The people I work mostly closely with are the publishers, but I also have contact with editors and publicists where necessary.

The publisher doesn't like my illustrations!

I have a musuem-quality picture book published in Russian and English and available only in Russia. Am looking to sell the rights to US, UK, AU, etc. The problem is that everyone says it's gorgeous, well written, but publishers don't want a package...they want their own illustrator. This seems strange, since I own the artwork, etc. and it will take far less to simply reprint and sell than to do it from scratch. What's your advice?

These publishers don't want to use your artwork, either because they don't like it or they don't think it suits their market (and styles of picture book illustration do differ from one country to the next). And that's the bottom line: these publishers don't want to use your artwork. There's no getting around that. So if you want to get the book published, it seems as though you'll have to agree to let them find their own illustrator. If you really, truly want to keep the package as it is, though, you should keep sending out submissions until you find a publisher who does want it just the way you intended.

Getting published

I have written a children’s book. I don’t quite know how to go about getting it published ... I can’t seem to find the finances to even get it illustrated ... could you perhaps offer me some advice?

Yes: call the Australian Society of Authors or join the writers centre in your state; send submissions to agents; check the websites of publishers who publish picture books and see if they're taking submissions. And before all of that, make sure that your manuscript is as good as it can be - children's picture books are pretty much the hardest type of book to get published for a new writer (for the reasons giving here).