Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Power of Names

Status: Kristin has read and responded to all email queries through Feb. 6, 2006. If you haven’t received a response, it’s not because one wasn’t sent.

Reminder: I don’t resend if it bounces back to me. I don’t keep track of changes in email addresses if you have changed yours, and I don’t play with spam blocking programs that ask me to log in and verify that the email I just sent isn’t spam. And that goes for requested pages as well.

You can always resend the query if you’re living in doubt.

My reader comes in on Mondays so I’ve always got a lot to say on Tuesday morning.

I’m noticing some interesting trends in character names that I thought I would share.

In the world of the Paranormal, there have been a lot of RHIANNONs lately. I can’t help but think of Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing just a very contemporary association.

If your character is a witch, it’s okay to get a little creative with your names. Get me interested in the story by virtue of a really cool name. If I get another Rhiannon witch, I think I’ll have to pass on principle.

Contemporary stories. There have been a lot of KATEs and KATIEs as of late. Once again, nothing wrong with that name but it might be a little harder for your heroine to stand out when I’m reading my pile.

Historical/Regency romances. Time to avoid any derivative of Devil for your rakish hero. I’ve seen it all. Devlin etc.

I’m sure other names will come up and I’ll keep you posted.

Now, creating interesting, varied, or cool character names won’t necessarily open the door. Only good writing will do that. It’s just another facet of the whole package that you need to keep in mind because trust me, it’s on our mind if Angie and I have done 50 partials during the day and have had at least 5 or 6 manuscripts with the name Kate or Katie as the heroine and at least one Rhiannon (and that’s the third one this week).

You want your story to stand out. Character names can help.

Flip side of the coin. Don’t go too bizarre. I see that in SF and Fantasy partials occasionally. Names should be pronounceable at least.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Following Directions

This rant came on yesterday.

It clearly states on my website (and in every listing imaginable where my agency might be featured) that I only take queries by email.

I just don’t want to open up a letter and deal with the recycling. Not to mention the cost of printing out my standard rejection letter in terms of paper and ink. And then envelopes have to be stuffed and mailed.

Gee, I’m getting cranky just writing this.

Invariably, there are quite a few people who can’t seem to follow this simple direction. Queries by email only.

Once every couple of months, when the stack gets too high, I sit down and open them all up and give them a cursory glance. For the most part, if you can’t follow directions, I’m really not all that interested in signing you as a possible client so it will have to be an AMAZING query letter for me to not to send the reject letter. Doesn’t happen often.

But I’m so dang nice, I can’t quite bring myself to just pitch them. I usually have my assistant handle them (and I don’t even look at them) but she’s been busy reading the partials inbox.

So last night I tackled them.

It was also my turn to host book club. If you’re curious, the book we discussed was THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson. Our next book will be THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones.

The gals came over about 5 p.m. but arrived early. There I am, sprawled on the floor of my living room with paper queries all around me.

Immediately they sprang into action (gosh I love these gals). One friend opened the letters, one folded the response letters, and the last friend stuffed the envelopes and got them ready to mail.

What did I do? Well, I read the query letters aloud so I could share it with them.

And then it hit me why I should share this story with you guys on my blog. Have you run your query letter through the read aloud test?

Let me tell you. It was quite revealing. Some of the queries had my book club members in tears laughing—and it wasn’t because it was a query for a humor project or a comic novel.

Some of the letters were just that poorly written or they had really outrageous storylines that became extremely apparent when read aloud.

My book club was so entertained (and probably not in the way you, as writers, would prefer); they offered to come over one night in the future just to do the queries with me.

Moral of the story?

If you follow directions and just query by email, guess who reads them? Me. And I may chortle at a few of them but I rarely read them aloud to others for their listening pleasure.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Ain’t That Tough Enough?

I was chatting by email with one of my clients last week. She mentioned that one of her friends had said that she would never choose me as an agent because I was too nice to be an effective contract negotiator.

I started laughing. I’m sure such an announcement would have been a big surprise to any editor who has sat across from me at the negotiating table.

Then I realized her friend was serious—that she actually thought that being nice and being a tough negotiator were mutually exclusive.

Obviously my client’s friend had never heard the adage, “you can catch more flies with honey.”

But seriously, being nice or being nasty isn’t what creates an effective negotiation. In fact, check out any of the popular books on the bookshelves regarding this topic and you’ll see what those titles espouse.

What’s effective is not necessarily one’s demeanor. Although one could argue that being nasty or overly tough is a detriment. After all, if someone is being nasty, I don’t know about you but that just makes me want to dig in my stubborn heels and not budge (I'm a Taurus after all). Same goes for the editors.

I’ve also heard interesting stories from editors who hate doing negotiations with certain agents who have the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde split going on. Nice as pie at regular times and nasty as over-spiked punch during negotiation. They’ll still deal with them but they hate every minute of it and are often disgruntled at the end.

Now, as an author, is that the environment you want to walk into right after your book has been sold? Editors aren’t going to take it out on the writers, they are bigger than that, but it hardly creates a lovely space to begin the relationship.

Once could also argue that being nice, as in a wet door mat nice, is also a big detriment. Such a demeanor isn’t very effective in protecting the client’s interest either.

The happy medium is where agents want to be. Nice but tough. Politely aggressive so I get what I need but the editor doesn’t feel like she has been ridden roughshod over.

So, what makes a good negotiator? Here are just a few thoughts:

1. Knowing what the project is really worth and holding firm on that.

A good agent will know what an editor/house will probably offer for a project. Every auction I’ve held didn’t surprise me. I knew the project was hot and would get a lot of attention.

Now, what often does surprise me is when a great project (at least in my mind) doesn’t sell. That’s always a surprise because of course everything I take on is worth publishing and those silly editors, they are just confused at the moment.

2. Knowing that both parties need to walk away from the table feeling like they got what was most important to them.

A good agent knows early on in the negotiation what the editor can budge on and what is impossible.

3. Knowing what is most important in the deal going down.

Good agents know the true deal-breakers—and oddly enough, it’s not always the advance offered as most writers assume. Of course I will always negotiate for the highest amount of money that is possible up front but that’s not always the most important deal point. It’s rarely a deal breaker.

Now, joint accounting, a stupid option clause, low-balling on the royalty structure, these can be points that would make it worthwhile to walk away from a deal on the table.

And just to point out, good agents don’t always win everything that we want in a negotiation. Depends on how much leverage is present. Don’t immediately assume that if, for some reason, you have joint accounting in a current contract, your agent is a bad agent.

Some publishing houses are sticklers for it. Good agents know which houses have that as a big issue. It’s why you pay us.

And one last rant. Look around. There are plenty of “nice” agents who, like me, get six-figure deals. (Jenny Bent, Roberta Brown, Deidre Knight & Co., Cathy Fowler, Randi Murray, Lucienne Diver, Jennifer Jackson, Jeff Kleinman, Helen Breitwieser, and the list goes on and on.) I know a lot of “nice” agents who are quite successful. I wish I could list them all here, but I only have so much time in a day.

Although nice, you can’t tell me that we aren’t tough enough.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Ever The Optimist

As I mentioned in my last blog, I really do look at the glass and see it half-full. There have been many a fabulous story told of an author who self-published and then later had the book picked up by a traditional house. (I think Laurie Notaro and Christopher Paolini come to mind.)

Remember, those stories are amazing because they don’t actually happen often.

Still, I’m an optimist, which is why I’m one of the 18 agents who signed up to receive the information concerning the Needle awards by POD-DY MOUTH.

I do want you to know that I have yet to take on an author via this medium. I didn’t keep exact stats but over the course of 4 years (my agency opened in 2002), I’ve probably considered about 50 or 60 self-published books. Peanuts really.

My Stats:

2 books came close as I read more of them than I normally would. Ultimately I passed because even though I liked the writing, both stories were outside the realm of what I do.

5 books had average writing

For the rest, the writing was terrible. In fact, I contemplated writing each author a nice note suggesting they engage the skills of an English Teacher for any future writing they might consider.

All had bad covers.

Still, I’m optimistic.

The ground rules still apply. Please don’t send me your self-published book without querying me first. (I’ve received at least 5 books in the mail that didn’t even have a cover letter attached to the book. Those got pitched.)

If you do send it, it’s the only thing I request that you include an SASE with so the book can be returned in the event I can’t get past the first page. You paid for these books. Please let me, at the very least, return them to you.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Peek Inside the Agent Mind

I’m in the happy position of having sold all my recently submitted projects. Love when that happens. It also means I’ve got nothing in the pipeline to send out.

I’m doing a lot of reading in the next couple of weeks to see if anything wonderful comes my way. I’ve also recently hired an outside reader that I trust to help with the requested pages inbox. Angie was at the Publishing Institute with me back in 2002. We have similar tastes and the same good eye. She’s not interested in being an agent but she loves reading the sample pages and she’s never wrong. She always forwards exactly what I want to read and makes the right judgment on passes. She’s worth her weight in gold!

We devoted all of last Monday to reading the inbox. I imagine we went through at least 50 or 60 submissions and didn’t request a single full manuscript. Sometimes it happens that way. Other times, I see two or maybe even three things I want to read more of.

But we both felt the same way about some of the stuff we did see last week, and I thought I would share.

I wrote an article that touched on some of these points for Backspace: The Writer’s Place. Feel free to read the full article if this catches your interest.

What gets a request for a full manuscript?

1. Great writing, great voice, with a great original story line.
2. As I’m reading the partial, I’m excited and can already think of four or five editors who would love what I’m reading.

(Hint: How can you as a writer get the same feel for the market? Read the deals posted on Deal Lunch at Publishers Marketplace. You do that for several months and I promise you, you’ll have a good sense of the general market and what is selling.)

What’s going to get a pass?

1. Fresh storyline but the writing isn’t strong enough.

This is so heartbreaking. Often I’ll see partials where I’ll think, “this is a terrific concept,” but then the writing just isn’t strong enough to carry the story. Time is too scarce to work with an author to see if he or she can get it there. There are too many other possibilities out in the world.

2. Sharp writing with a tired storyline.

This is heartbreaking too. I can tell the author is talented but the story has been done (and done, and done again…) I just passed on representing an author for a YA work because it had a reality TV storyline. I loved the characters, her voice, and thought the story was very fun. I just think that plot device has been done one too many times, so even though she has great talent, I passed.

3. Average writing with an average storyline.

This is true of a lot of Chick Lit sample pages I’ve read recently. The writing isn’t bad—it’s just not blow-me-away great. The storyline won’t excite editors who will only buy in this field if the novel is unlike anything that has hit shelves before now.

4. A beautifully written but boring work.

I hate when this happens. The author is clearly talented but has a story that I just wouldn’t buy if I were in the bookstore. Clearly, I’m not the right agent for this novel. Even if you are writing literary fiction, I do think there needs to be some kind of commercial hook to propel the story. Even GILEAD (a novel I blogged about so you know I love), had the hook of an elderly father writing a letter to his seven year old son so that his son wouldn’t remember him solely as that doddering old man. That’s a great hook—and her writing was so gorgeous…).

5. Poorly written material regardless of story.

Here’s another secret I shouldn’t be revealing. Sometimes these partials are highly entertaining. Angie and I were in tears over a science fiction partial (that was not requested by the way) that was so “good” we read aloud passages to each other. I’m a nice person but this partial was almost like a parody of writing. Even nice people get snarky when pushed!

6. Stories that clearly don’t fit in the market.

I’ll get a cover letter that will say something like this: “my story is a blend of science fiction and romantic comedy with elements of suspense. It can be called Chick Lit.” Huh? It is only the extraordinary writer who can outrageously defy genre boundaries and become a phenomenal success. It just doesn’t happen often. You need to know where your novel fits in the market.

7. Partials with demanding or unprofessional cover letters.

I pass just on principle. If an author seems difficult in tone, and trust me, this is apparent in cover letters we have received, I’ll pass because I just don’t want to deal with that personality. Life is too short to deal with negative and demanding people. Assertive and pro-active authors, now that is a different story.

And before I sign off, Angie has a request. Please, no using the word “resplendent” in your opening chapters. It’s an automatic NO based on principle alone and since she’s reading in front of me, you might want to take that to heart.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Query Madness (Cont.)

As you guys know, I have A LOT of email queries in my inbox. How can I not rant about this?

So, some things that I’m noticing that turn me off. Maybe another agent would dig it but I doubt it.

1. Starting your query with a complaint. I don’t know about you but that certainly gets me in a jovial mood. I love complaints (and yes, I’m being nicely sarcastic here).

Why in the world would you start any letter by complaining—but especially a query letter? The complaints usually revolve around how hard this business is (if it were easy, everyone would do it). Or writers complain about their bad self-publishing experience.

Not a way to win an agent.

I don’t mind queries for self-published or POD books. I’m an optimist. You never know what might show up (although the odds are against you). Go check out POD-DY Mouth. She listed some great statistics (very revealing). In order to find 50 books worth reading, she read over 1300 last year. You can see why agents aren’t super excited about adding those to our slush pile.

2. Starting your query letter with the odd sentences. I think this one is my favorite: “I recently finished reading my first novel. Having read one, I decided to write one.”

Go get ‘em tiger. This is not a ringing endorsement for you.

3. Having another person (like someone you have hired, your secretary, or business manager) write your query letter on your behalf.

Maybe I’m being too picky but if you want me to represent you, shouldn’t you write to me yourself?

Call me silly but…

Monday, February 20, 2006

What's in a NO? Nothing.

Today was a holiday at the publishing houses in New York so not much going on in that arena.

I had the most amazing weekend at the Landmark Forum. Maybe I’ll talk about it some time but right now I’m still digesting. The best part is that I’m having conversations with all my family members that I never dreamed I could have. Talk about feeling really vital and alive today.

But I bring this up because when I was at the forum getting inspired, I sat next to a man who looked like he was in his 40s or early 50s. As conversation often does, it turned to what we do for a living.

He had just retired and one of the break-throughs that he had this weekend was that he always wanted to write a novel and for the past twenty years, always found an excuse not to.

This weekend, he made a commitment to do it (and boy he was kicking himself that the novel wasn't finished considering the synchronicity of me sitting next to him).

Sheesh. So what? Right?

But it reminded me that it takes a lot of courage to sit down and do that first page. That we can be inspired, write it, and do everything in our power to publish it and the dream still might not happen.

A lot of you have shopped manuscripts (either with agents or the houses) that are now gathering dust in a closet or on your computer.

You had the courage to do it, to be rejected, and to continue because of the sheer joy creating that possibility has given you. That’s what makes life extraordinary.

And it’s easy to forget. But remember, if an agent or an editor rejects your work. It’s not personal. Don’t assign a meaning to it (like “I’m a failure” or “I have no talent” or “this is how my life always is” or “I'm unworthy").

A NO is simply a NO—nothing more.

Quit whining about it. Quit being attached to your story about why you haven’t published yet. You’re expending too much energy in that arena. Move on. If one novel didn’t sell, get on to that next one. You already know you are courageous. What more do you need?

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Pampered Agent

I’m off doing some personal growth today (translation: pedicure followed by a scrumptious massage and then a Bombay Sapphire happy hour with Miss Snark).

Ha! Caught you. Miss Snark is in Brooklyn; Agent Kristin is in Denver. You do the geography. Only a Blogosphere happy hour can happen here.

But seriously, back on Monday with some new rants.

And for all of you awaiting a response from my seriously overloaded query email inbox, I’m not reading this weekend. You’ll have to practice patience until next week.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Importance of Leverage

This is definitely a rant-worthy topic.

Publishing houses have implemented new corporate policies to pay advances in thirds—a portion of which must now be on publication.

The Penguin Group implemented this last year and a recent Random House negotiation showed me that it’s new policy over there as well. It’s lousy news for the authors and, as much as we would like, agents can’t just wave a magic wand and make such an unfair payment structure disappear.

I’ve talked to a number of agent friends—from independents to those at the bigger outfits—and the general consensus is that we get stuck with it unless we’ve got some leverage—leverage such as multi-interest, a pre-empt, or an auction situation going down.

Then we can eliminate that pesky condition.

Drives me nuts. It’s taking the “advance” out of the advance if you know what I mean. In a 2-book deal, the author might have to wait up to two years to see that final payment. It’s royally unfair.

But we aren’t miracle workers. Sometimes the best that can be done is to weight the majority of the advance to the earlier payments and get something minimal on publication because it’s pretty darn rare for an author to say NO to a deal on the table from the only publishing house that has offered.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

One Night of Queries

I read 150 email queries last night so I’m a little cross-eyed today.

I did take some notes. Out of those 150 queries, about 30 of them were for young adult projects. About every other YA query featured a portal into another world. I kid you not.

I said “no” to all the portal projects. Sorry.

In fact, last night was a tough go with the old queries. Out of the 150 I read, I actually only asked for sample pages for five projects.

That’s a little low—even for me. The number is usually more around 25 requests out of 150 queries.

My agency information must be posted somewhere inappropriate because a lot of queries last night (an unusually high number) were for projects I don’t represent—thrillers, self-help nonfiction, etc.

It’s too bad because it eats up my time. There are a lot of writers who did their research, have a project that fits my list, and queried me appropriately. If I could somehow magically delete all the inappropriate ones, boy, that would knock the numbers down.

I wish. I’m responding to queries from two weeks ago and there are about 700 queries in that inbox right now. Not a happy or pretty sight.

Good thing the Olympics are on and I want to stay home in front of the Telly.

(Yep, you guessed it. I read queries while watching sports all the time. My fav combo is football and doing queries. I always get behind in my responses when the Broncos season ends.)

Here’s another helpful hint. Don’t change your email address during the query process. It’s awfully nice that you send me an update that says your email has changed, but do you think I’m really going to search out your original query and make a note to use the new email address instead when I respond?

Nope. I’m just going to hit reply to the query, send off my response, and be done. If it bounces back, well, it will just get deleted.

If catastrophe happens and your email has to change during the query process, simply resend your email query.

That way you’ll get a response.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Sucked Into The Portal

Last night I was watching the Olympics and reading sample pages.

Yep. I like to multi-task. And to be honest, I shouldn’t be telling you this. What horrible agent has one eye on the Telly and the other on some sample pages she has requested?

Happens more than you think. So just imagine how good those pages have to be if I’m going to rip my eyes away from young women catching big air on the half-pipe in Torino.

Well, I read a lot of young adult sample pages yesterday (and some even with the Telly off!) and I could just feel a rant coming on.

What’s with portals sucking young adult characters from the modern world into the world of fantasy? Why can’t the characters just exist in the alternate world you want to create?

I can kind of see the stratagem. Maybe you want these characters to have modern issues that will only be solved in the unreality of the adventure in the other world? I’m assuming that’s it, but for the most part, it’s not working.

I’m not alone in this. I was talking to an editor over at Hyperion Books for Children and let me tell you, her rant on this topic was… well, I thought I would just let you down easily. I think her main sentiment was to stop. Please, no more portals sucking unsuspecting young adult characters into an alternate reality.

I’m sure she, as an editor, is not alone in this sentiment. Every fifth query I receive seems to have this set up and even when I think it won’t and I ask for the sample pages, boom, there it shows up.

So perhaps a gentle hint for young adult writers, you might want to rethink this. Obviously, if done amazingly well, it will work and change our minds. For the most part, I’m thinking why not rewrite and simply have your characters exist in the fantasy world where you really want the story to unfold? Perhaps nothing will be lost in that translation and you just might open a closed door.

Monday, February 13, 2006

An Author Looks at Publicists

As you folks are probably gathering, I'm not one for answering questions. I just like to rant on random topics as they strike me. If you've got questions, why don't you sidle on over to Miss Snark because she's a hell of a gal for answering them.

However, one of my authors posted some sage advice on a discussion board. A lot of writers were pretty darn happy with the detail she gave so I asked her if she would like to guest on my blog.

Sounded like fun--so here's my author Ally Carter to talk about Publicisits. Take it away Ally.

Soon after Cheating at Solitaire sold, I set aside a portion of my advance to hire an independent publicist. Since then, and (perhaps) as a result, Cheating at Solitaire has been featured in Writers Digest, For Me Magazine, and I had a profile in Romantic Times in addition to a review that I think everyone gets. Now, the million dollar questions:

1. would these things have happened without an independent publicist and 2. will these things sell books?

The short answer: I don't know.

I will tell you this, in-house publicists (at least in my case) are very nice and good but incredibly busy. Many may welcome outside help. Many may not. I've heard very strong reactions to this question on both sides, so I'd say to talk it over with your editor first before you hire someone, and then talk to your publisher's PR staff to see who they recommend.

In hindsight, I'm very glad I got help pitching Solitaire, simply because I don't have the contacts or the time to do it myself. I would do a few things differently, though, and all from the communication side of things.

1. I'd put together my own "mini" press package to send to the publicist--hard and electronic copies--with things like contact info for my agent, editor, and in-house publicist.

2...I'd have a serious talk about exactly who was going to get approached, and I wouldn't settle for "we're going to have a very aggressive national campaign focusing on all major outlets." Next time I’m going to ask for specifics.

3...If three or four magazines or newspapers meant more to me, I'd communicate that plainly with the publicist up-front.

4...I'd be very specific about which book the publicist was supposed to be spending her time promoting, because I got a lot of "we'd really rather do something in the spring when her YA book comes out" responses—which is nice—except I wasn’t worried about press for my YA. I was worried about press for Cheating at Solitaire.

5...I'd discuss up-front how open the publicists are going to be to suggestions. I want a publicist who is going to listen to my ideas without feeling threatened.

6...If I don’t want to pitch my hometown newspaper and morning show I’d ask the publicist up-front if she’d be willing to do that, even though it might not be a part of a national campaign.

7...I'd insist, up-front, on weekly updates. Even if the update is just "people got their packets this week, and we're going to start making calls on Monday." I'm going to be more aggressive next time about knowing where things stand.

8...Watch out for hidden costs. “Press kit assembly" and “Press Release Writing” fees add up. Some publicists won’t charge extra for these things, but some will. Read the fine print.

9...If a publicist promises you a lot, run...don't walk...away. The good ones know what they can get you and don't give you a hard sell--they're busy enough as it is.

10...It should be a TEAM EFFORT!!! It's not the independent vs. the in-house. The publicist should make for less work for you--not more--but the only way this will happen is if the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.In my case, hiring an independent publicist was money very well spent. Plus, I learned a lot about the craziness that comes from this process and how to better manage it the next time around. And there will be a next time.
--Ally Carter

Friday, February 10, 2006

A New Clause in Town

Last week I was negotiating a contract with an editor over there at the Random House group.

Color me pink when she mentioned that RH was adding a new clause to the contract that was going to be standard from here on out. RH would now like U.S.-only Spanish Language rights to go with those yummy North American only or World English or World rights.

Glad she mentioned it upfront. What a nasty surprise to have when the contract arrived and as an agent, I don’t like nasty contract surprises. It gets my contracts manager all in a tizzy about why I didn’t clarify this when doing the deal points.

Immediately I started emailing around, seeing if my agent friends had seen this new development. Lucky me, I was the first to experience it—at least from my posse.

What does it mean? Not much really. Just that RH would like one more subsidiary right that they potentially don’t want to pay extra for.

Most agents will probably now discuss it upfront in the deal points—another avenue to get more money out of the publisher in advance or to say “nope, we reserve” when no more money is forthcoming.

It does have some interesting implications for foreign rights though. A quick chat with my very lovely foreign rights manager indicated that it might be something she’ll now have to discuss upfront with the Spanish publishers because when they buy Spanish rights, the house usually wants World (and that would mean a Spanish version in the U.S. as well).

Right now I have her looking into whether it would impact the selling of said Spanish foreign language rights. I’m sure those houses will be thrilled to hear that U.S. Publishers are now actively pursuing our rather substantial Spanish-speaking population.

Times are a-changing.

And I just found out that one of my posse members is actively blogging. Looks like Jennifer has been doing it for a while and I’m just the slowpoke in discovering it. Sheesh. One slap with a wet noodle.

She’s talking more about publicity and has some good points to make. I agree with her whole-heartedly on the importance of a professional website. Go visit her.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Hardest Job in Publishing

There is no doubt in my mind that this dubious title goes to the in-house publicists at the publishing houses. They have an intense daily job (book mailing for reviews, pitching the mags, setting up book tours, coming up with catchy promos or giveaways etc.), tight deadlines and when one book launch is over, the next is right behind it without any time to breathe.

They are young, usually underpaid, and the burn-out rate is high. Many an author has had to say good-bye to their publicist before or during a book launch.

That is why I encourage new authors to think about the care and feeding of their internal publicist but also why they should seriously consider hiring some outside help to supplement the effort of this overworked person.

The internal publicist is almost always grateful and the author gets the benefit of having some control over what happens to the book.

Besides, authors never believe that their publishing houses do enough publicity or marketing for them. That is the biggest complaint I hear (and a justified one in a lot of cases). Part of the problem is that the majority of money publishers spend on marketing is done in the less sexy and not so visible venues—such as bought co-op placement in bookstores. It’s harder for the authors to see the marketing dollars in action so to speak—unlike, let’s say, a billboard in Times Square or an ad in People Magazine.

And for the record, I do think authors should invest part of their advance toward promotion—why not give your book the best shot you can? But how much is really a personal question. All the money in the world spent on publicity won’t necessarily make the book a success.

(I can’t help thinking about a huge promotion that was done last year—at least out here in Colorado—by a self-published author for his book called Wild Animus. There were full page ads in Publishers Weekly. Books were distributed at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, and it was also a promotional gift in the goody-bag of the half-marathon I ran last year. It started becoming a joke because everyone had this book. When I talked to one of the promoters handing them out, they said 500k was being used on the campaign. I wonder if that’s true. I wonder how this translated into book sales. I don’t hear much about the book now—six months later.)

Some authors do all the publicity in the world and for whatever reason, the book doesn’t sell like it should. Some authors do hardly any promotion and boom, the book takes off and sells like hotcakes on a frosty Sunday morning.

It’s a weird business and if publishing houses could tap and bottle the power behind word-of-mouth, they would.

Wouldn’t we all!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

All writers wait for the day they get that big fat advance/royalty check so they can take this job and shove it.

It’s the dream after all. But when is that day exactly? How much money is enough to quit the day job?

Most writers, truly, will not have to worry about answering this question. The good majority of authors out there will never earn enough from fiction writing alone to quit the day job. That’s a basic fact.

But what if?

The big “what if” happened last year for one my authors. Beyond her wildest expectations, she got a “significant deal” advance. A week later, her novel was optioned by Disney. Serious money on the table. Her head was spinning because all the writer dreams were coming true.

First thing out of my mouth when I called to announce the news, “don’t quit your day job.”

Why?

Call me fiscally conservative but I think the answer to the above question is only when your back-end royalties make in a year what you need to live on and to live well. Until that day, I wouldn’t be so reckless as to quit the day job and I caution my authors to do the math as well. (Now if her movie option is actually purchased and the work goes into production… well, then we can revisit the whole “quit the job” notion.)

A big fat advance check will only last so long. What does your day job make in a year? 20k, 40k, 100k? More? Less? Even if the advance is large, it will only last a couple of years (minus agent commission and tax payments). What about health insurance and that yearly cost? Retirement plan?

What if the book never earns out the advance and is a big dud? Ugh. What a nightmare but it’s still a reality that should be contemplated. It’s really hard to get another book deal if the first one doesn’t match expectations. Not impossible. But hard and the money certainly won’t be the same second time around.

That day job is looking better and better!

My author was cautious. She hasn’t quit her day job (although she has been asked by a number of people about when she plans to). In fact, she wrote and mailed the estimated Federal tax check to the IRS practically on the same day she received the money (smart girl—the last thing you want to do is get into tax debt with the IRS—although some very successful authors have horror stories of not being as fiscally wise in their heady younger days).

So, unless your royalties are second income, or you are used to living off peanuts, or don’t care about retirement, I wouldn’t quit your day job.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Please, not THAT with my morning Starbucks

I’ve been reading a lot of sample pages lately—trying to get caught up and also because I’m actively looking for something new.

Lately I’ve had to avoid eating breakfast or lunch while reviewing sample pages.

Please, I beg you. No more people peeing, defecating, or otherwise involved with a bodily function in the opening chapter.

Gross!

Besides, it’s ruining my morning Danish.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Does Size Matter?

What a silly question. Of course it does. The real question is how do you define “size”?

Is size defined simply by how many books an agency or agent sells in year? Is size defined by the number of agents on board and the size of the support staff? Or is size defined by the number of zeros behind the deals an agent makes?

Which is the size that matters?

This is why researching possible agents and learning more about the industry is so important.

For example, it’s not a question of whether an agency is a boutique agency or a big house like ICM; the real question is how powerful are they?

There are small boutique "agencies” that are very ineffective and a quick look at the sales record (foreign rights included) or lack thereof will make it clear. Then there are “small” agencies that carry very big sticks. Most of my agent friends own their own show and all of them easily sell over 50 books a year and get, in Deal Lunch terms, very nice, good, significant, and major deals. They are powerhouses.

Besides, the only real difference between an ICM and a boutique agency is the location of the staff. ICM is all internal while a boutique agency partners with the players externally.

Same support staff on board—contracts manager, accountant, publishing lawyer for the issues, foreign rights manager, assistants, etc.--only the staff location differs.

Or that’s how it should be for effective boutique agencies. Avoid the ones who don’t have a support staff in place. And if a small agency is interested in you and your work and you don’t know whether they have the needed connections, ask.

So, does this size matter? Doesn’t seem like it but I’m biased because I can be considered a boutique agency. What about the number of books sold in a year?

What would you prefer? An agency who sells a 100 books but all in nice deals (under 50k) or an agent who sells 10 or 20 books a year but does very nice, good, significant, and major deals?

I guess if you can find that agent who does a 100 books a year and all for major deals, grab him or her—if they’ll have you. That many books a year means the client list is pretty full. You want to make sure you have an agent who has time for you. Many authors can tell you horror stories of being lost in the crowd. There is such a thing as an agent who has a client list that’s too large in size and the less successful authors on the list slip through the cracks.

So size does matter. Just make sure you know which definition of “size” matters the most to you.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Hollywood Rant (Part Two)

Rant is late today. Too much wheelin’ and dealin’ going on at the agency to have time to Blog. Now New York is closed for the day so here I am.

And just so folks know, I don’t do weekends.

Back to Hollywood and that fifty-page contract from a major studio. Writers would definitely be in less of a hurry to sign on that dotted line if they’d actually seen some of the clauses that are contained in these contracts. It ain’t pretty. So let me do a little education.

The ugly reality of a movie deal is this. Unless you have an extreme amount of clout (and I mean JK Rowling level—okay that’s extreme but think high level of clout), an author will have very little say in the script or how a movie will be made. The studio can simply take the idea from the book, say it’s “based on the book” and pretty much tell whatever story the studio wants to.

This applies to sequels as well because guess what, if you want a movie deal with a major studio, they will insist on owning your characters in film. Forever. You get to own the characters in print.

The author gets to grin and bear it. Unless you don’t sell the film rights.

Feel like running right out there and signing on the dotted line now? Wait. There’s more.

Most authors will not see a dime beyond the option and the purchase price because most movies, depending on how much they cost to produce, the A-List salaries involved, and all other production expenses, would have to earn out a 100 million or more for an author to see any “contingent net proceeds” as contained in the contract.

Good heavens, you’re thinking. Why would anyone do a movie deal? This is awful.

In a lot of ways you’re right. But you’re also forgetting that having a book made into a film is a minor miracle. Very few movies are made in a year (and fewer book-to-film) and if yours is one of them…

And it’s magical to see your novel on the big screen—especially if it’s done right. And even it if it’s not, a movie will drive print sales like nobody’s business.

So many writers dream of writing full time and with a movie behind a book, that dream is likely to be a reality. If you didn’t hit the New York Times list before, you might now. Let’s say you pass on the movie deal. Your book may not become a hit and if it doesn’t, it’s unlikely a movie will ever be made of it period and that opportunity is lost.

Risks. This is why authors without clout often take the chance.

Now, as an agent, I do everything in my power to give my authors the opportunity to turn down a movie deal by getting one for them in the first place.

But the decision to sign on the dotted line ultimately has to be their own. I never push because it’s a lot to ask.

Robert Crais has not sold the film rights to his Elvis Cole series. I imagine he’s waiting to build enough clout needed to control the destiny of his character on the big screen. Or maybe he’ll never sell them. Maybe he’s smart. But his career is building to a level where those film rights are getting more and more attractive (and hence he has more and more clout in the negotiation).

But what if it didn’t? The truth is that most authors will never achieve that level of clout or that level of a writing career. For some folks, it doesn’t matter and they would never give up ownership of their characters or control of the material for film. They’ll turn down the movie offer no matter where they are in their career. I respect that.

So don’t be in a rush to sell your soul to Hollywood. It’s a high price and you need to know whether you’re willing to pay it.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hollywood Rant (Part One)

I often pop my head in over at http://writers.net or http://www.bksp.org and answer questions.

Last week a writer posted that he was just about to send out his query and wanted to know the “good” agents who were aggressive in film rights because his novel “would make an excellent movie.”

I just shook my head.

He’s only in the query stage. Who knows if he’ll get requests for sample pages or requests for his full manuscript—I hope he does but who knows. Then he would need to be offered representation and finally, once represented his book needs to actually sell to a publisher.

And he’s worried about film rights for a book that, for all practical purposes, isn’t even in existence in published form yet.

Obviously he’s never seen one of the fifty page movie option/purchase contracts from any of the big studios. Otherwise he might be not so fired up to sell his soul to the devil—oops, I mean Hollywood (more on that later).

Not to mention, it’s hard enough to cut a book-to-film deal for a published work. An unpublished work is almost an impossibility—almost because anything can happen.

But the truth is this: his concern for film rights is more than just premature; it’s the wrong goal or focus for any writer.

Why? Because Hollywood wants to look at everything but the reality is that they option very little and even fewer titles actually go into production to be seen in a movie theater near you.

As a writer, your focus should be on your writing and the selling of the print rights (including translation rights). All else is such a long shot, it’s a moot point.

So (and can you tell I’ve been leading up to this) starting your query letter with “and this would make an excellent movie,” just doesn’t impress me much.

Every writer believes his/her book would make a wildly successful movie. Hollywood rarely agrees.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

State of the Chick Lit Nation

About a week or so ago, I was on the phone with an editor. We got talking about the market as we are wont to do.

She said, “The chick lit market is in the toilet.”

Perhaps melodramatic but in a lot of ways I have to agree.

Red Dress Ink is significantly cutting back on the number of titles they plan to publish in a year. Dorchester’s chick lit line (Making It) is only going to publish one book this spring and it happens to be from one of my authors (COUPON GIRL by Becky Motew). I chatted with another editor at Simon & Schuster and she said it pretty much had to be extraordinary for them to take on something new.

I’ve been shopping a chick lit work now for several months—something that two years ago probably would have sold in a couple of weeks.

So I have to agree. Maybe the market is in the toilet. A year ago, I was scheduled to do a Chick Lit workshop at an upcoming conference (they always schedule a year in advance and boy what can change in that time frame). It’s entitled The Hottest New Genre etc. I’m thinking of renaming that poor seminar. How about The Hottest New Genre that’s in the Toilet?

If you are new and want to break in, you pretty much have to reinvent the genre to impress the editors. I’ve been reading some chick lit sample chapters recently. The ones I’ve seen are well done and cute but that’s not going to cut it anymore.

So what happened?

Basically, the market got overcrowded and a lot of chick lit was published that was only average rather than outstanding. Readers got jaded, bored, I don’t know. You tell me. You folks out there, if you enjoyed the genre, ought to know. Why aren’t you buying new releases?

Is the chick lit trend now dead?

I’m not rushing out to perform CPR because it’s not really dying. Chick lit, as a genre, is probably here to stay, but it’s suffering much needed growing pains.