Monday, December 12, 2011

Humorous novels and agent specialisation

Just browsing your site re US agents and wondering if there are many agents in Australia who are dedicated to humour/satire genre or is it best to approach a US agent?

Would much appreciate any advice you have regarding this, my partner has written 2 complete novels and madly starting his third, is as yet unpublished and about to approach some agents with one of his manuscripts.

Agents in Australian can't really afford to specialise in one genre of anything - some reasons can be found here - so you're not going to be able to find out if they're interested in humour/satire unless you send a submission. You can presume that if an agent or agency is accepting fiction submissions, they'll be interested in a funny story unless they explicitly say otherwise. Your partner may also wish to query US agents at the same time and he should mention that he's doing so when he sends his submission to Australian agents.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Staying on the right side of the law

I'm looking to write a kind of Bill Bryson memoir of my year working in a coal mine. Can I just change the names of the people and not mention where the place was and be O.K.?

To be safe you should change names, places and identifying characteristics (don't just change a person's name, change their hair colour and height), and also make sure you keep a record of what you've changed and what the new name/place/etc is. Of course, I'm suggesting you do this on the presumption that what you've written is potentially defamatory, or may be construed as such, because that's the main reason to be nervous about using identifying details. But even if you're not defaming anyone else, it's often a good idea in a memoir to be vague about some of this information.

What intrigues me most about your question, though, is that fact that you're writing a 'Bill Bryson memoir' about working in a coal mine. My brain is trying to understand what that would be like!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Greatest hits: The slush pile and how to emerge from it

**Recently I was talking to a friend about this blog and I mentioned that there wasn't much for me to do any more, as I've answered a lot of questions over the past four years. She suggested that I post some 'greatest hits' for the newer readers. So here's the first of them. Let's hope I can find others! And thanks to my friend K for the suggestion.**

Reader kaz posted the following question in a comment, and I thought it was worth pulling into the main site:

"I’ve placed three first novels in the past few months, with good prospects for others." How do you find new authors, Agent S? Do you just stumble upon them in the 'slush pile'? If so, what makes them stand out from the crowd?

I have stumbled across some in the slush pile; others have come through referrals from existing clients or are writers I've met in the course of work.

Those who came from the slush pile have a few elements in common:
1. Fantastic query letter. You'd be surprised how often the covering letter says something like, 'Here is my novel. I hope you like it' and that's it. All the written communication from an author is an indication of how they write, from their cover letter to their emails and all points in between. I'm sure that often writers don't know that they shouldn't do this (hence one of the reasons for this blog - to shine a bit of light on what authors need to do), but they really shouldn't. Because a letter like that makes me think that the author can't articulate what their novel is about, they can't tell me who they are or what they want from their writing, and they certainly can't tell me why they approached my agency. Writing a query letter is a skill, and good writers refine their query letters several times. There are workshops on it in the US, and you may find the odd one at a writers' centre here too.

2. The author has taken their time with the manuscript before sending it in; it is usually the fourth or fifth draft or beyond by the time they send it in (and they say this in the query letter). They may also have done some courses, such as QWC's 'Year of the Novel' or a program at Varuna. This indicates that are realistic about how much work is involved in writing a novel and will therefore be more realistic about the publishing road ahead.

3. They are great writers. Their prose may shine like a jewel; or maybe it doesn't but they tell such a fantastic story that the prose is not the focus.

4. They are polite in their communication with the agency and respectful of the amount of time it may take us to make a decision about their manuscript. This point is actually quite important, because I, at least, feel that I'm 'auditioning' writers for publishers (and that does not mean that I think agents should be treated as if on a pedestal - although I do like my grapes peeled occasionally). Writers who are unreasonably difficult with their publishers often never get published again, because the Australian publishing culture is quite genteel and really doesn't take well to foot-stompers. So if someone is routinely shirty with me, I know exactly how they'll behave with their publisher and what that will mean for their book: usually, not much. It takes more effort to be angry than to be reasonable, and it's easier to be reasonable when you remember that agents and publishers aren't the enemy. We love books - that's why we work in publishing. We just don't have 24 hours a day to read submissions, so it will take us some time to get back to you. If you respect our request to give us three months to read your submission, we'll respect your writing. If you, instead, call after two weeks to complain that we're taking too much time, that doesn't really bode well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pitch, wait, wait, wait, follow up

I recently pitched to a publisher at a writer's festival and forgot to ask how the follow-up procedure worked. I left them with a query letter and the first chapter of my novel. What do you suggest the follow-up procedure should be? Should I call after three months if I have not heard anything etc?

Three months is very reasonable but I actually think you don't need to wait that long if it was a letter and a chapter and you met someone - six weeks is enough time. Only call if you have a number for an actual individual - if all you have is a switchboard number, you're probably not going to get through. And the reason for that, in my experience, is that us publishing folks don't like phone calls. We like things in writing (this probably won't come as a surprise). So send an email - if it's to a general email address, mark it for the attention of whomever it was you met, briefly say where you met and what you gave her/him, say that you're following up and that if you haven't heard back within another six weeks, you'll send another note. Keep it short and polite. Don't ask for anything. Don't use any words that could be construed as a complaint that you haven't heard from her/him already. Do not look directly into their eyes. Do not feed the animals. Et cetera.

If you still haven't heard after three months, leave it. In the meantime, you should be querying elsewhere. Unless this publisher asked you for exclusivity they don't expect it, so put some other irons in the fire while you wait.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The possibility of offending people and other thoughts on submissions

A commenter to the previous post posited the following:

... the pool of people potentially to offend (ie people and companies taking submissions, especially in Australia) is so small and so apparently interconnected, the possibility of getting it wrong seems like a big risk to take -- is it unreasonable to fear that a mistake will affect all your future submissions as well as the current one? It seems hard to condemn someone for overthinking it, the way it is in the publishing industry at the moment.

And the answer is: yes, it's unreasonable. The reason I say that is that the publishing industry - as monolithic and impenetrable as it seems - is not a collective of vindictive individuals, let alone individuals who have enough time and brain space to remember the name of each author who sends in a submission, the better to be able to give them a black mark for a future submission. Nor do we discuss submissions with each other. So while, yes, the industry is interconnected - as many are - we don't tend to conspire.

So for those of you who are submitting now or in the future, or who have submitted in the past and not been successful, please bear this in mind: in almost 100% of cases rejection isn't personal to you, the author. It is about your work. If the rejection is personal, then it means you have already had some kind of interaction with an agent or publisher and it's not working out for whatever reason, and thus the relationship is severed, regardless of what the work's like. But usually it's the work.

Accordingly, when you're planning to submit, ensure that your work is the best it can be. Then do your best with the query/submission letter and the synopsis if these things are requested. All you can do is your best. Everyone in the publishing industry understands this. And we won't know if you're not doing your best, of course, because we don't know you; so we presume that you do your best and make a decision accordingly.

If you have not done your best, do not be surprised if you're rejected - you haven't given yourself much of a chance, so why should an agent or publisher give you a chance? This reaction, by the way, is not evidence of malice on their part.

Finally, before submitting, work out what sort of person you are: the sort who believes that things happen to them because everything is against them and they can't control what happens - the 'why me?' or 'God hates me' type - or the sort who believes they have some kind of agency in their own fate. Because this, more than anything, will determine how you handle the submission process and the inevitable rejections - which the vast majority of published authors have received, by the way, at some stage of their career.

You can make your work the best it can be but still be a 'why me?' type who is going to fall at the first hurdle; you can submit work that is not your best but also be a person who believes that they can have control over their own life. The ideal combination is to be a writer who makes their work the best it can be and also be a person who believes that things that happen to them are not the result of a malevolent force that's out to get them. Both of these things are within your control. Both of them affect your ability to succeed at what you want to do. Being a successful writer - however you define that - takes talent and application. Mostly application. And application is also within your control.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tripping over genres

This may sound odd or, sadder, not sound odd. I've completed a manuscript ("Ack! Another one! Quick run away!!!") and am about to seek representation in North America.

I've written a supernatural mystery, but have a question about genre. It is an unwarranted imposition, but would Supernatural Mystery be used and universally understood in the industry or would I be better advised going with Paranormal or just staying with the umbrella of Fantasy? Are there genre identifiers that should be avoided? What is common parlance in the publishing industry today?

You know better than anyone, the publishing and agenting worlds have changed. Ten years ago there were a dozen subgenres of Science Fiction. Today there are scores not counting the sub-subgenres.

'Supernatural mystery' sounds pretty clear to me - it's a mystery story with supernatural elements, yeah? I guess you could call it 'paranormal mystery' if you prefer, but then you'd want to make sure that it conforms to the (many, it seems) rules about the paranormal genre.

'Supernatural' probably gives you a bit more freedom and - newsflash - no one is going to reject you if you don't get your genre just right, unless you send this supernatural mystery to an agent who only looks after romance novels or one who only does non-fiction. When someone sends me something with a genre on it, I use it as a guide but only that, because if I take on the manuscript and submit it to publishers, I may have to change the genre anyway to suit what the publishers are used to. Genre is a fast-and-loose proposition these days.

As always, though, the most important thing is your writing. If you have written a brilliant paranormal romance and somehow labelled it 'supernatural mystery', will I care about the genre mis-identification? No. I just care about the writing. Of course, if you have a screaming match with me about the fact that you want to call it supernatural mystery when it's clearly not, then may change my mind about wanting to have you as a client ... but the problem there is the screaming, not the genre itself.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Oh, woe is you

Do any Australian agents have their books open at the moment?

(I can't find any)

Then, mate, you're just being lazy. It took me five minutes to find out that the following agencies have submissions of one kind or another open:

And they're just the ones I found in five minutes - and in case you weren't sure, 'accepting submissions' means 'books are open'. However, since I now know your name and also know that you have lazy tendencies, don't expect me to look kindly on your submission if it ever darkens my door ...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Stell-aaaaaa Stell-aaaaaaa

I wonder if you've been keeping up with the recent debate about a perception of bias against women in the publishing industry (widely defined to include publishers, publications, writing prizes, and book reviewers)? And if you are across the debate, what are your thoughts?

See also:
Love your blog, by the way, and only wish you'd post more often.

Okay, last point first - thanks for the compliment, and the reason I don't post more often is, first, that people don't ask me questions that often any more and, second, after four years of doing this I don't have too much left to say that I haven't already said. Oh, and there's a third reason: blogging takes up a fair bit of time and I seem to have more to do than ever, what with the keeping up with digital issues and whatnot. So even if I wanted to blog about non-questiony things, I just wouldn't have the brain power or, frankly, the time.

Now, to your question.

Yes, I've been keeping up the debate. I try to keep up with current debates in all sorts of things because it makes me seem less unedumacated when I talk to people.

I don't think the problem is bias against women in the publishing industry. I think the problem is bias against women in the culture generally. Male sports players, male musicians, male writers, male film-makers, male newsreaders dominate our cultural outpourings. Et cetera. This is not new news. We have a male-dominated culture - for now. This is not to say that all men support this culture, or that men are solely responsible for it.

Why it seems weird in publishing is that women buy most of the books. Often they buy those books for men and, rightly or wrongly, they have their own perceptions about what sort of books men will read. As do the men themselves.

This often goes no further and is not more complicated than the author's name on the cover. Female name: men don't buy. Gender-neutral name (i.e. female author uses initials or has a first name that is gender-ambiguous): men probably buy. Male name: men buy. NB: women will buy books by anyone for themselves, but not usually for their son, father, brother or husband. (This is my observation and not a scientific statement.) But I know men who are really eclectic readers, in that they will read books in any genre, but they categorically will not buy a book written by a woman because they think it has no relevance to them. Apparently women don't have the same issue regarding male authors - and thank goodness, because Dan Brown and John Grisham et al would never have had careers.

So where does this bias start? At school? In the home, when those men are little boys being read to by their parents? Who knows. But it's there. And booksellers and publishers are businesses - they will go where the money is, so they are reluctant to publish books in certain genres that will only appeal to women. That's why you see a lot of authors with initials on the covers of crime novels and thrillers. And not just in those genres: JK Rowling, anyone?

This debate has focused on so-called literary fiction. There has been a lot written about it by people far more eminent than me. But, in short, the genres that women traditionally read and write are not, and are unlikely ever to be, considered to be 'literary' fiction. So that genre is in the blokes' domain. Hence, there are more blokes nominated for literary prizes for literary fiction. As far as I'm concerned, they can have fun with their prizes while Harlequin laughs all the way to the bank and dominates the publishing landscape in the digital age. But I am not a literary novelist trying in vain to get published in a genre that seems to favour people with different chromosomal structures, nor am I a book reviewer or someone trying to get a book reviewed. I completely understand their frustrations. And to that I shall say what I usually say to people seeking to change institutions and institutional structures: subvert from within.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Becoming a literary agent: introductory course

I've been reading your blog and you answer questions asked by aspiring authors. I was just wondering if you could possibly give advice on becoming a literary agent? Especially in Australia. I'm in my penultimate year at university, and I would love to know how to get a foot in the door of becoming a literary agent. It's often noted how important networking is, but it seems you need some sort of established background before someone even takes notice.

Currently, I'm trying to get an internship over the summer holidays. There are very few literary agencies in Australia, but do you still think there would be a chance they'll accept an intern? If it's a yes or no, and why? I thought it would be a good time since many individuals would go on holiday with their kids.

Also, I've been reading on submission guidelines. And there seems to be very little agencies that represent Young Adult work. Is there a reason for that or are Australian agents just not interested at the moment? My favourite genre is YA, and I think there should be more Australian YA authors in the market. I'm honestly curious because I see so much potential.

I can't imagine how anyone would become an agent straight out of university unless she was going into a fairly large, established agency where she could be trained. Being an agent, like many jobs, depends on relationships. If I don't have relationships with any publishers, I can't place books with them. Certainly, when I started I didn't have as many relationships with publishers as I have now, but I had some. It would be very difficult to start with none, unless you work with an experienced agent who can take you around and introduce you to people. It also helps to have a fair amount of knowledge about how the publishing industry works, which you can learn on the job, but, again, you'd ideally have someone to teach you if you haven't learnt it from personal experience. So if you're intent on only working in an agency, make it a large one. But you can also get a lot of relevant experience working in a publishing company or as a bookseller. I actually think bookselling is the closest parallel to agenting: both booksellers and agents are trying to place stories they love with other people who may love them too.

Regarding an internship: again, it's probably only a large agency who can accommodate a trainee. Small agencies or agents who work for themselves would be less likely to take on an intern, simply because it would create a lot of work and not give them any help whatsoever. Small operators of all types are used to doing everything themselves. Trying to hand some work off to someone else requires a lot of time and probably creates a fair bit of stress. And that's if they even have somewhere to put you - they may only have one desk and one computer.

As to agents and young adult fiction: it's a matter of personal preference. It's very hard to effectively represent something if you don't love it. So if an agent doesn't naturally have an interest in young adult fiction, it's better if they leave it alone because at best they'll be making educated guesses about what's going to work, and then their heart won't be in it, and that's not the best result for the YA authors. There are certain genres I don't represent because I don't love them, don't know much about them and therefore shouldn't touch them with a ten-foot barge pole. There are other agents who love the genres I don't, and they are rightfully the ones who should represent them.

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.

Friday, June 10, 2011

This question is very long and it is about ebooks

I'm reading in various places lately the advice that authors who aren't sure about electronic self-publishing can (even should, according to some) bet both ways, by self-publishing some stuff and seeking professional representation for other stuff. I'm thinking about self-publishing some spec fic under a pseudonym, and continuing to seek an agent for other works in a different genre under my own name. My question is, if I acknowledge the pseudonym openly (wishing more to use it for branding purposes, not to pretend that a subset of my work isn't really mine), does this self-publishing turn off (specifically Australian) agents and publishers as it once might have, given that a) self-published books seem to be more accepted by many readers than they used to be, and b) I would be seeking representation for a different type of work, written for sale under a different brand?
I'm curious also about the idea that large sales of self-published ebooks would (at some fuzzy value of 'large') become an advantage in seeking representation and publication (for, let's say, other as-yet-unpublished works) in spite of any remaining self-pub stigma, since it would imply a platform and a potential financial win for a conventional paper publisher. Do you have any thoughts about what kinds of values of 'large' an author would need to be in possession of for this to be the case? If an author could claim to have sold, say, 2000 mainstream fiction ebooks, would that make you think they were a commercial proposition? Or would you only start to notice if it were more like 20,000, or more than that? Or is there still some quality-driven (or snobbery-driven, even) stigma that overrules the idea completely? I think these are questions requiring new answers, now that it's clear that self-publishers are not limited in the number of copies they can physically distribute and sell. I've seen a lot of opinions on this from leading self-published authors, but not so much explicitly from publishers or agents.
I guess I'm asking whether you think there has been much change in the risk of shutting yourself out of the publishing industry by going down the self-publishing route, especially in light of new attitudes (at least on the part of some authors and readers) to self-published ebooks and this currently-fashionable advice about having a bet both ways.

I've read your question a few times and it's still slightly doing my head in. And that's because you're basically asking me to predict how publishing will 'end up' overall. And that topic makes my head hurt because it's just everywhere, all around, at the moment and I often feel like I can't get my actual agenty work done because I have to spend all this time thinking about change and how to manage change and how it may affect authors and publishers - and agents.

I've already written some posts about what's changing in publishing and my potentially crackpot theories about what may happen - they're here if you're interested - so I've possibly already addressed some of what you want to know.

Generally speaking, though, I have this to say: we don't know what is going to happen. I can't, with any certainty or real authority, tell you that this or that is going to happen and, thus, what you should do. What is going on now is unprecedented since the printing press was invented because, well, we're dealing with the invention of a new type of printing press. So I can only offer more crackpot theories. Pay attention to them at your peril.

First I'm going to address the question about what will constitute 'large' sales. Currently sales figures have to be taken in the context of their territory - the figures that make a bestseller in Australia barely raise an eyebrow in the US, for example. That is probably about to change in the English-language market in relation to certain types of books. There will be a day, probably not too far off, when I believe certain types of genre fiction by certain authors - even those published by large multinational publishers - will be published as digital only. At that time the worldwide rights holder will probably not think there is much reason to sell rights to other English-language territories when they could release the English-language ebook into world territory all at once. That way they get to keep all the royalties and they don't have to worry about getting files to other publishers, etc. If that happens, how, then, do we measure 'large' sales? If there is only one territory, what is the benchmark for a bestseller? These are questions I cannot yet answer. And accordingly I can't answer your question because it depends on what's going to happen in future.

Now let's look at the self-publishing 'stigma' - true, it's not what it once was - for certain types of books. Again, what's changing in publishing is probably going to change at different times in different ways depending on the types of stories and content involved. If you are self-publishing a children's picture book at this point in time, you'll probably still find there's resistance to that; if you are self-publishing an urban fantasy ebook, not so much.

So now to your question about whether or not you should self-publish some material and not others - I've written before about how authors can think about categorising their content. If we combine that with what was said in the paragraph above, there is certainly an argument for self-publishing some types of stories and not others. Will this prevent you from getting an agent or publisher for the 'others'? I really don't know. Publishers and agents may decide that protecting their brands is more important than anything and, thus, anyone who has published other stories/content that don't fit with their brands isn't welcome. Maybe that's how they'll sort through the increasingly large amount of submissions that we'll all see. But that's a hypothesis.

Something else to consider: if you are writing enough material that you can publish in two or more streams - and keep up the pace - I'd say go for it. But that's a lot of writing. At this point in time, when authors are actually in a very good position to start making decisions about how, when and where they're to be published, I'd advise a bit of patience. Keep writing, stockpile some stories and see what happens over the next few months. And it's probably only a few months we're talking about. The pace of change that's happening now is such that everything is going to look different for certain types of books within the next year or two.

And if you really want to keep track of what's going on, as it happens, I cannot recommend The Shatzkin Files highly enough.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Some things just don't bother us that much

RIDICULOUS question I know! I was wondering, when I send sample chapters, given that they are random chapters from amongst the novel, do I leave the actual page numbers that they are in the book (like 65-72) or is that too confusing for the poor person trying to read them?
Does it even matter!? There is nothing in the submission guidelines that I've been reading about page numbering.

If there's nothing about it in the submission guidelines, then clearly it doesn't matter enough to the agents/publishers who composed those guidelines. Therefore, don't worry about it. Of course, if you're really worrying about it and it will put your mind at rest, make the numbers sequential. But whoever is reading it is unlikely to notice. We only notice on full manuscripts. And only then usually if there are no page numbers at all.

This earlier post may also help:

What to give away for free, what to keep etc

Just a simple question: is there any reason why I should not post a chapter except of my novel onto my blog? I'm printing out copies of the complete manuscript for my friends to evaluate, and I want to give them an idea of what to expect before they sign up for the read. I've heard of publishers/agents getting quite touchy about manuscripts that have had an online existence, whether in forums or blogs, in excerpt or complete format. Indeed, is it wise to simply keep all of my work offline for the sake of future publication consideration?

I'll start my answer to this question by referring you to an earlier post in which I expound, in a mildly bossy fashion, about what I think authors should give away for free and what they should retain for Potential Future Book Publication.

Actually, most of my answer to your question is in that post, so please go and read it. I'll also say this: I can say 'do this, do that', a published novelist may say something else, a publisher may say something completely different. Ultimately the decision rests with you. You should do what you want to do. I'm also a big fan of working from instinct. If you *feel* you want to publish a chapter of your novel online, who am I to say that that feeling is wrong? We're all just guessing about what's going to happen - about what is happening. It's your novel and your intellectual property.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Voucher winner

There were several good entries to win the $100 voucher for courses at the Sydney Writers' Centre and the winner is ...

Lynda Young.

Her entry was:

'As an unpublished writer I deserved to be published because I pour all my energy into my writing. I don’t have time to do the dishes, vacuum the floors, or cook. If I don’t get published soon, I’ll need to find a new excuse for avoiding housework.'

I found this appealing mainly because I could, ahem, relate.

Congratulations, Lynda! I'll be in touch by email to tell you how to claim your voucher. And thanks to the Sydney Writers' Centre for offering the voucher in the first place.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Why do so many good novels get rejected by agents?

The title of this post was the search term someone used to find their way to this blog - yes, occasionally I check the traffic sources - and it struck me as a good topic for a post.

The first answer that struck me was: Because so many good novels get rejected by readers.

Agents are readers too. Readers first and foremost, hopefully - usually people who work in the publishing industry start out as passionate readers. Quite often we're rejecting good novels because they're just not novels that we want to read. It doesn't mean they're not good. It means they're not good for us. The person who used this search term has no doubt gone to a bookshop more than once and ignored the hundreds - thousands - of very good novels because he or she only wanted one good novel. Only had time to read one good novel right then.

I reject good novels. I have to: I simply can't take on all the good novel manuscripts I read because (a) I can't physically manage that many authors and (b) I can't place that many good novels with Australian publishers, who are also limited in how many good novels they can publish.

And that's as much as I've come up with on this particular matter. Now I have to get back to cramming things in to make up for the amount of time the Sydney Writers' Festival will consume next week ...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

$100 Sydney Writers' Centre voucher to give away

The nice folks at the Sydney Writers' Centre have sent me a $100 voucher, as this blog was a finalist in their Best Blogs 2011 competition.

The voucher can be used on any of their 30 courses - details are available on their website.

I'm going to offer this voucher to one of you*. And here's how you can win it.

Unpublished writers: in 100 words or less, tell me why you deserve to be published. You don't have to be too earnest about it.

Published writers: in 100 words or less, tell me why you deserve to get the voucher more than an unpublished writer does.

Email your entry to call [dot] sydney [at] gmail [dot] com by 1700 hours AEST on Friday 13 May . I will pick one winning entry only (I've made the unpublished/published distinction above because asking published writers to tell me why they deserve to be published didn't seem like a good idea).

*You don't have to live in Sydney - they offer online courses.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Fantasy, submitting overseas, 'US agents are superior' etc

I have written a fantasy (i think?) novel which is complete at 165,000 words and is also the beginning of an intended trilogy. I sent it to agents about 3 weeks ago and i only have two left to reply to me. There aren't an enormous amount of agencies who are looking for new clients in the fantasy genre, and i was wondering whether it would be a good idea to start trying to submit to international agents? I feel like there might be a better chance of an international agent - say, from America - picking up my manuscript because many seem to have far fewer clients and therefore potentially more time. I have also noticed that many agencies in America state that they offer editorial help, and most Australian agents say they do not offer any. It gives the impression that a manuscript will be rejected if the grammar isn't always perfect or there are sections which need to be cut out, but the novel itself could be very marketable. Does that make the chances higher for an American agent to accept a manuscript?

Lastly, can you give any advice on how to make sure your cover letter is good enough to not be rejected before they hit the "thank you"?

Here's some information about why American agents can offer those services and Australian agents can't:

Here's me giving a whole lot of feedback on query letters that may help you craft your own:

Here's a post about submitting fantasy overseas:

Happy reading.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Yes, non-fiction is popular - next!

I notice another politician has come out with another book. One of the premises is that politics isn't interesting to mainstream Australia. If that is so how, do so many politicians get books published and how do so many other mildly interesting non-fiction ideas get up? Looking at some of the agents' websites and seeing the non-fiction titles they're boasting I can't believe enough people would read them. Is the market for fiction tiny and the market for non-fiction endless?

Politics aren't interesting to mainstream Australia but politicians are, because they've made themselves into celebrities. You may wish to read the book Things Bogans Like - or the website of the same name - to fully understand this rationale.

As for the other 'mildly interesting non-fiction ideas' - well, they're mildly interesting to you, but how do you not they're not very interesting to others? Non-fiction books can appeal to almost anyone, whereas fiction, sadly, cannot. Fiction reading is a habit, usually acquired in childhood; it requires patience and dedication to, first, become acquainted with a story and, second, stick with it, especially when there's a lot competing for your cultural attention. Non-fiction reading is often performed for the gleaning of information, and one doesn't need to have developed a habit for it - one just needs to want to know the information. Thus publishers are more prepared to take a risk that their non-fiction books will hit enough information-gleaning targets for the book to make its money back and, every once in a while, make a profit.

So to answer your last question more concisely: the fiction market is relatively tiny compared to the non-fiction market. And just because you wouldn't buy any of the non-fiction books you can't believe agents are displaying on their websites, it doesn't mean other people wouldn't. Books are for everyone, not just you.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What's hip and groovy for young adults

In my opinion, the wave of YA vampires is collapsing into seafoam and air (boy wizards are LONG gone), but the wave of YA steampunk is building. I also think it's higher in America than anywhere else - which means Australia will love it more and more over the coming months and years. 

Although it's never wise to follow a current trend (because you'll finish that book when the trend has just been tapped out), what trends are you seeing and/or liking lately?

While I'm quite fond of highly imaginative (i.e. speculative) fiction for adults, I actually like more realistic YA, so that's usually what I'm looking for - and no doubt that's just because it's what I was used to growing up, so I'm constantly trying to recapture the days of rapture of my reading youth.

I try to stay away from trends for YA because once the trend is identified it's usually on the way out - although this may change as publishing time frames become shorter with more digital publishing (although children's/YA publishing probably won't move as quickly to digital as genre fiction for adults). So it's just the boring old finding-identity-in-a-small-town-or-bit-city kind of thing for me. I also love it when there's a dark edge to a story - genuine darkness, not a showy attempt at juvenile delinquency to suggest 'bad boy' behaviour - but it's often very hard to get those stories published. Adults, you see, don't like to be reminded that teenagers have a fully functioning awareness of the crappy things in life and, more specifically, the crappy things adults do.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Whither horror?

Where is the demand for the horror genre market on a scale of 1 to 10 today, and why hasn't there been another horror author to even come close to achieving the staggering heights of Stephen King in the 1980s?

I'd say horror is about 1 or 2 and likely to stay there. And it was there when Stephen King was at his horror peak too. Stephen King is Stephen King - he's an extraordinary storyteller with an equally extraordinary work ethic. Regardless of the genre he chose, he was probably going to be wildly successful. He wrote horror stories because they were the stories that came to him, and some of them become movies that were 'scary' more than pure 'horror', and thus he entered the mainstream in a massive way. This is a wildly generalised summary of a long, rich career.

My own theory about why horror isn't more popular is this: chicks don't dig it. And when chicks* don't dig a book genre - either to read themselves or to buy as a gift - it's very, very hard to get it consistently on any bestseller lists. Most women I know - including me - would not voluntarily read a horror novel or watch a horror film. Alien is probably as horrific as they'll go, and even then it's a 'space film' so we can convince ourselves that it could never happen on earth, ergo, it's not as horrific as it could be. We'll watch/read crime stories that come close to being horror, but we're mainly not interested in horrific - really nightmare-creating - stories. The women I know who read voraciously (and some of the men) will not go anywhere near a horror story. Of course there are exceptions to this. There are lots of women who've read Stephen King. But he's Stephen King. He's a genre unto himself.

The comments section is there for anyone who wants to seriously go to town on my theory.

*Culturally ironic use only.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sorry, I don't accept submissions

One of your road rules is: 'I'm not able to accept manuscript submissions'.
Forgive me my ignorance but what submissionable form of manuscript are you able to accept?


This is an advice website only - it is not the official website for a literary agency. Plus I have enough manuscripts to read in my offline life. If you'd like to know what sort of manuscripts I accept when I'm being the 'real me', check the submission guidelines for every literary agency in Sydney and you're bound to come across what I'm looking for. That's as much as I can tell you.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sydney Writers' Centre Best Blogs update

Well, well, it seems as though I'm a finalist! Well, this blog is a finalist - in the Words/Writing category of the Sydney Writers' Centre Best Blogs 2011 competition:
Apparently I am able to download some HTML code thingy to this site regarding this award but it may stretch my technical capabilities a bit far ... I'll give it a whirl though.

Thank you so much to those who voted in the People's Choice Award, too.

And now, a request: does anyone have any questions or requests? I haven't been posting much lately because it's been All Quiet on the Question Front. But I'm also happy to just write about non-question-related stuff if anyone has a request - about the publishing industry, about agents and agenting, about writing ... Anything! Try me!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Vote early, vote often

Thanks to a kind reader, this blog has been nominated as a Sydney Writers Centre Best Australian Blog 2011. If you would like to vote in the People's Choice Award - for this blog or for anyone else's - please go here:

And if you do vote for me, thanks in advance - it's a crowded field and I have absolutely no expectation of winning anything, but if I do the prizes will be offered to readers of the blog ...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What manuscripts am I looking for? Hmm ... good question

What sort of manuscripts would you like to see cross your desk?
[NB: this question is short because it came from Twitter]

This is a timely question because I was just reflecting the other day on my deep desire to read the riot act to potential submitters.

My short answer to your question is:


But that's not very helpful, is it? Fundamentally, in my dream submission-reading life, what I am reading are manuscripts that are ready to be seen. Manuscripts that have been redrafted once or twice. Or non-fiction submissions that contain ideas that have been properly thought through. Or 'young adult novels' that actually consider their readership instead of having main protagonists who are thirty.

Most agents and publishers who read submissions spend a lot of time reading manuscripts that are simply not ready. And the time that we take reading and then rejecting them is time we'd really rather spend on the manuscripts that are ready. Instead, we are always short on time to read our clients' manuscripts and to find new clients.

The best thing that any writer can do for themselves when they're in the submission phase is to make sure that their work is really, truly ready to be sent out. That doesn't mean that it should be perfect. It means that they should make it as good as they, individually, can. Because none of us can ask any more than that. And making it as good as they can means not sending it in with typos everywhere. It means not sending in something that that agency isn't interested in - this is a 'rookie mistake' and it immediately reveals that the writer has not read the submission guidelines, which doesn't predispose the agent/publisher towards the writer.

If what my question-asker really wanted was for me to say what genres I'm looking for, well, that would be telling. What I'm always looking for are great stories for adults and children, and great non-fiction ideas. I can never define exactly what I'm looking for because it's very much a case of knowing it when I see it. Great writing is alchemy. None of us knows which chemicals go into it - we just know that we like the gold at the end.

Friday, April 15, 2011

It's all in the timing

I have a query about how to address an issue with my (UK based) agent. He approached 5 publishers for my sci-fi novel seven weeks ago. So far, 3 rejections.
I'd like him to now move on and send out the next round of submissions, but he doesn't want to do that until the remaining two respond. I understand that he needs to maintain good relationships with the publishers, and part of that means being open with them about simultaneous submissions. I also know that 7 weeks is not really very long for a publisher to respond. But I am concerned that this process could be unnecessarily delayed by waiting for publishers that might be slow to respond.
Is there a reason why he might want to wait that I'm not seeing? How long should we reasonably wait before moving on? And would it be appropriate for me to raise this concern with him? I don't want to appear too pushy.

Your question is a good one, because it raises the issue of how agents submit to publishers and the delicate dance therein. When I'm submitting I send out the manuscript to the publishers I think are most likely to be interested and also the ones I would most like to take the manuscript - this is round one. Of course, I always hope that I only need one round. Round two publishers are the ones I originally deemed less likely to want the manuscript and also the ones I thought may like but whom I thought may not be a good fit with the author, for whatever reason. I will usually wait to exhaust round one before moving to round two, simply because I think the round one publishers are more appropriate for the author and/or their book.

That doesn't mean that I haven't been pleasantly surprised by a round two publisher - I have. But it doesn't happen often. And, truthfully, the Australian market is so small that usually I only have one round anyway. The UK is different, even when you're writing sci fi (which isn't published by everyone). Your agent would have more choices and is, no doubt, hoping to get one of his first choices before moving to his second choices.

Thus the reason he might want to wait (and I'll say 'might', because I don't know for sure) is that he really wants one of the two remaining publishers to take it and he wants to wait and see if one or both are interested before going further. Also because, for an agent sending out sci fi (or most fiction), seven weeks is not that long to wait, so as far as he's concerned there's no urgency. (Of course, we know that authors feel differently but we exist in our own time frame. Time not being linear etc etc.)

Having said all of that, you are the client and it is your manuscript. You should be able to raise this with your agent and feel comfortable about doing so. A simple, 'Hi, I'm just curious - how long do we wait before moving to the second round of submissions?' would do it. You don't need to explain your reasons for knowing - you are entitled to know. And the agent should explain his process, and give you the opportunity to discuss it. It's not as though we're all working on the Large Hadron Collider, after all - there are no mysteries here. But things can sometimes seem more fraught with meaning and intent than they really are, so just keep it light and friendly, and feel free to tell me what he says if you need some interpretation.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Graphically yours

I have written a fantasy adventure story (that does not have elves, dragons or vampires). The story is complete at 11 500 words. I am now considering if the story would be better served / more likely to be published by sending it to a publisher that could treat it as a manuscript for a graphic novel or just try to get it published as a short story / fantasy piece. If I can get it published as a short fantasy piece will it support or limit my options to later sell / adapt the story for a graphical format?

Graphic novels, while increasing in popularity, are not handled by Australian trade publishers in any real, meaty way (I'm presuming you're in Australia - if you're not, I can't really help you). That's because the market here is still small. The French and the Japanese are mad for a graphic novel but they've not (yet) formed a significant part of the Australian national culture and thus they don't seem like a winning business proposition. So the main thing I have to say to you is: go yonder. Submit overseas first. Whether you're submitting this for a graphic novel or as a short fantasy story, it's probably better to go overseas as that's where most of the activity is. Of course, there is a robust fantasy community in Australia and you should immerse yourself in that (if you haven't already), and that may lead you to explore some avenues here, but we're still small potatoes, really, when it comes to fantasy or graphic novel publishing. One only has to go to Galaxy bookshop in Sydney to see where all the books are coming from (clue: not the southern hemisphere).

However, I freely admit that I am not an expert on graphic novels or fantasy, for that matter, so if any readers have anything to contribute here, please do so!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ruled by rules

The genre I read to death, that I love the most, is chick lit (the typical ones like Marian Keyes, Sophie Kinsella and Catherine Alliott) so when I wrote my book, that's the sort of tone I feel I have written it in. HOWEVER the storyline has a love triangle that includes a ghost. It doesn't delve into the whole afterlife aspect a great deal, but basically the main character moves to an apartment haunted by a young male ghost and after learning to communicate with him she eventually falls for him.

When I first attempted a query letter I described it as chick lit. After posting it on a website to have others critique it I was told it was a 'paranormal romance' and therefore the word count was insanely too high (115 000 words). What are your thoughts? What genre (given my very simple description) would you class it as, and based on that do I need to cut the word count down a huge amount? I suppose I'd also like to know if an agent likes the query letter, thinks the storyline sounds interesting but the word count seems too high, would they still be interested or reject it based on word count?

Paranormal romance, like all genres/subgenres with 'romance' in the name, has specific rules. I am no expert in them, although I do like to read a bit of the ol' paranormal romance. With the rules come rules about submitting: if you want this story to be categorised as paranormal romance, then you need to submit to agents and publishers who handle that genre and you may, accordingly, need to trim down your word count if that's what the genre calls for (and I must say that the novels are on the 70 000-words-or-thereabouts size).

There is no rule, however, that says you must submit your manuscript as paranormal romance. If you think it's chick lit then it's chick lit. Or 'women's contemporary'. Or just fiction. Accordingly, you can keep your 115 000 words and submit to agents and publishers - just don't submit to those who specialise in paranormal romance.

If an agent/publisher likes the cut of your jib but thinks you are word-heavy, they'll likely tell you. However, I never advise cutting just for the sake of it. The story takes as long as it takes. If your story needs 115 000 words and there's no fat in there, then there's no point cutting just because someone else thinks it's too long.

So your task now is to decide what sort of novel you think you have written, identify agents/publishers to submit to accordingly and do not under any circumstances say in your query letter that you are prepared to cut the length if the agent/publisher thinks it's warranted. We know that authors will usually cut if we ask them to - if we think it's needed. But you shouldn't lead with that, as it's tantamount to saying that you don't have confidence in what you've written.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Please stop sending me query letters

Dear folks who keep sending me their query letters: I don't do it on a regular basis. This is not usually a query-letter-critiquing website. You'll have to wait until the next time I feel like saddling up that particular horse and, until then, I'm going to politely ignore your emails.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Anonymous means anonymous

I was wondering how people send submissions to you without knowing who you are? May I ask who you are and which agency you work for so I know if I’ve sent a submission to you or if you’re the next person on my list to send to?

Sure, you may ask - but I may not answer. Because, well, if I wanted people to know who I was I'd use my real name, wouldn't I?

Sometimes I'm sent submissions through this website but my About me page clearly states that I'm not doing the blog so I can be sent submissions; I see enough of those in my offline life. So it doesn't matter if you've already submitted to me in the real world or if you're about to, because you're not going to double up.

If you're asking the question because you'd like to make sure you're really submitting to the real-life version of me, perhaps this will narrow it down: I look after fiction, non-fiction and children's authors. So if you're one of those, I'm probably on your submission list ...

Friday, March 4, 2011

Conundra about querying

The particular agency I have chosen to try first has great specific submission guidelines on their website BUT says that the initial contact needs to be via phone or email. Does this mean I send my query letter (without anything else) via email? A ditzy question I imagine but no amount of googling has found me the answer! Also, there are agents' names listed on their website ... I've had a snoop via google into each of them and whilst they all seem great, I'm not sure whose name I should put on the initial query email?

And breathe ... two ... three ... four ...

Just relax. You're not going to be rejected just because you're not sure which agent to send it to. If this agency's guidelines are unclear that's their fault, not yours.

'Initial contact by phone or email' is a little unclear when there are also specific submission guidelines, so hedge your bets: send just the query letter by email, with no sample text, and it's also okay to say that you weren't sure how much to send initially, and you're happy to send more if required. You're not going to be rejected for being thoughtful and polite.

In terms of whose name to use: use the agency's name. 'Dear [agency name] ...' The agency I work for gets enquiries about which name to use but, really, it doesn't matter to whom you address the query - it will get read regardless. Just don't say 'Dear sir' unless you happen to know it's run by men. The Australian agents are overwhelmingly female in number and nothing sets the teeth to grinding like a 'Dear sir', because it indicates a complete lack of attention to any sort of known detail about Australian agencies.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

No, I can't help you turn your website into a book

Continuing a theme from the previous post ...

More and more I'm being sent submissions that aren't really submissions. Rather, they are letters or emails that say, 'I've been doing X and I've made a website. Can you please give me advice on what I should do next?' or 'Can you please tell me how to turn it into a book?'

I've probably said it before but just so we're clear: agents aren't a general advisory service for writers. If I'm not getting letters like this then I'm seeing things like, 'I want to write a novel but I really don't know how. What advice can you give me?'

Well, none. I'm not running a public service. Having said that, I would love to have the resources and time to give this type of advice, if only so that ultimately fewer and fewer people will be in the dark, but luckily I don't have to: writers centres (or writers' centres, depending on whether or not you think it's a centre for writers or a centre possessed by writers) already offer this service.

No doubt agents seem like logical people to ask for advice about writing, but the parameters of our jobs are fairly clear: we work with authors who have already written something (well, most of the time). There is enough information available on the internets for fledgling writers - I'm fairly sure none of that information suggests that agents are the go-to people when you are first thinking about writing something or pre-thinking about writing something. And every one of these letters and emails that asks for advice has to be answered, meaning my submission-reading time gets squeezed (hence this ranty-type post).

So, please, if you are ever tempted to ask an agent for some general career advice and they're not already your agent: don't. There are writers/writers' centres to help you. And the Australian Society of Authors. They're all helpful people. They would love to help you turn your website into a manuscript. And then you can contact me and any other agent you wish.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Thirtysomething is not just a TV show

I’m one of those folks who grew up telling myself that one day, I’d write a book. I’m almost 30 now, and while I don’t seem to hold any of those ‘big birthday’ reservations that many of my friends went through, getting a book published was the one thing that niggled at me. I soon realised that fiction isn’t my forte. So I put together a concept based on my approach to impending thirty-dom and I am currently six months into it. I’m diarising through a blog (a rough first draft, I guess) and am starting to wonder how this is going to translate into a memoir when I have completed the year.

My main question is – and I’m pre-emptively shielding myself for your response - is it too early to approach agents with the idea? I know it’s a cardinal sin to send a first draft of anything, let alone an unfinished one. But a friend who has dabbled in this stuff suggested that there was no harm in sussing out the market, particularly as an interested agent may have ideas on how to ‘steer’ it. A couple of the things I’ve experienced while doing this project have already generated some media interest in the form of radio interviews, and I want to know if I can use this to my advantage at this early stage.

[I have removed details of the author's project to protect her idea - AS]

The part of your message that leapt out at me was: 'am starting to wonder how this is going to translate into a memoir when I have completed the year'. That's exactly what I would wonder, too, if you sent me a submission about it.

It's one thing to be an expert or almost-expert in a subject that has been established to have general appeal to the public, to then write a proposal about a book on this subject and try to find a publisher. That's what journalists, academics and Ben Cousins get to do. But it's another thing altogether to be attempting to find a publisher without these elements behind you.

You can get away with it under the following conditions:

Your idea is strong and different (not original - there's no such thing, really). The idea you sent me was interesting but not that different.

Your writing needs to be great. Thus whatever is on the blog can't be your rough first draft - it has to be the draft as that's what you'll be asking a publisher/agent to look at. And it needs to be so great that the agent/publisher would be prepared to overlook the fact that your story isn't finished and may, in fact, never be finished. There's a risk that you won't complete your mission, you see. Not a big risk, but a risk. You could lose interest. Or die. (That's NOT morbid - the mortality rate is still 100% so it's a viable risk, and it's a risk that's written into publishing contracts.)

The radio interviews are nice but they're not useful yet unless they can promise you coverage at the time of publication. Also, there may be harm in sussing out the market too early - you can really only submit with that kind of thing once, unless an agent loves the idea enough to say 'come back and see me when you have more'.

So if your idea is great or your writing is great (I'm not presuming you'll have both - you don't necessarily need both) then go ahead and give it a try. But don't be surprised if an agent says, 'Come back and see me when you're finished'. And, really, why can't you wait until then? This probably sounds tough but it's less tough than having your heart broken by querying people at the wrong time. You're likely to think it means that your project has no merit and it will probably just be the case that is was the wrong time.

Also just to clarify a little point: agents aren't here to steer unless you're already our client or we think you're a genius who just needs a little reining in. Quite often I'm sent submissions by people which consist of them saying they have an idea and what they really need is for me to tell them what to do in order to write up the idea and get it published. Regrettably, I don't have the time. The good news is, though, that writers' centres can help you with this and there are links to them there somewhere -------------->

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

One woman's treasure is another woman's ...

I am the lucky gold star recipient for the QL you analysed in your 17th January blog (QL #11, "A Heat Of The Moment Thing"). I was absolutely thrilled that it had passed muster, but have just received feedback from RWAmerica's Great Expectations contest that pretty much slammed the identical QL! This is what was said:

'Query is nicely written but I am not seeing a hint of a story, goal, motivation, major conflict, hurdles. This seems more like a description of two or so chapters. What does Becky want to achieve? What’s her goal? How is it impeded? What are some of the psychological reasons Becky doesn’t do relationships, or even a hint of one, e.g., "burned by boys in high school, young..."'

Now, I understand that judges are generally not agents or editors! And I understand that one person's idea of a great QL isn't necessarily another's. But I thought I'd hinted at enough to whet an agent/editor's appetite. Now I'm left wondering if this is something I should be trying to address in a more specific way - or whether it's a US vs Downunder thing - or whether it's just one of those best-ignored quirky judges' comments.

Any thoughts you have on this would be greatly appreciated.

This a perfect example of why it's so hard for authors to be able to guess what's right for the agent, publisher or competition they're submitting to: everyone's different, and you can't please all of the people all of the time. All any of us 'industry professionals' can do is try to provide some general guidelines, but in the end it all comes down to the expectations and taste of the person who's reading your query.

For me, your query letter was pretty much perfect. I loved your tone; the amount of detail you gave was great, and the hook was great too. I don't know what the RWAmerica guidelines were but it seems as though these judges had certain expectations that weren't met. The amount of detail requested by the judges - the detail they're saying you didn't provide - is probably more detail than agents/publishers would want. I don't need you to tell me about the character's psychological background in the query letter - I expect to find that out when I read the manuscript.

So perhaps this is just a matter of different submission guidelines and different expectations, and romance is quite specific about what's expected (I'm not an expert in it). Perhaps the lesson out of it is: read the submission guidelines carefully.

However, I thought you wrote a great query letter. So why not test it 'in the wild' - send it out, see what happens? If you're concerned, only send it to a couple of agents and see what the response is. If you're getting rejected, then look at tweaking it and maybe consult with some members of the romance writing community - it's very vibrant and, from what I've seen, collegial.