Category Archives: agents

3

Countdown to Publication

 

Like Miriam, I am an inveterate NPR listener (read: geek), and nothing makes me happier when two of my favorite things come together—my clients and my radio habit.

Tomorrow my client Judy Melinek, co-author of the memoir WORKING STIFF: Two Years, Two Hundred and Sixty Two Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, will be on NPR’s Science Friday. To kick it off, there’s a medical mystery to solve The Pink Eye of Death (is the cause of death natural or otherwise? You decide) up on the website.

Publication is always thrilling, particularly for first-time authors, and it’s especially exciting when good things are afoot. Reviews for the book have been glowing, there’s a TV option in place, interviews and features are in the works, and I’m counting the hours ‘til 2pm tomorrow. The book officially publishes on August 12th, but this is an excellent lead-in.

Scribner, the publisher, has been terrific.  Editors Shannon Welch and John Glynn worked on numerous drafts of the book—again, disproving the canard that editors “don’t edit.” The design team created an arresting cover, going so far as to correct their initial draft, which featured a blue gloved hand holding a scalpel as a surgeon might.  According to Judy, who is a forensic pathologist, both glove (too thin) and grasp (too delicate) were incorrect, and Scribner actually photographed Judy’s hand to get it right.

The book is also a labor of love; Judy wrote it with her husband TJ, a Hollywood screenwriter turned stay-at-home dad whose literary gifts nicely balance Judy’s scientific mind.  This was my first time representing a husband and wife writing team, and it seems that collaborating on a book, like never going to bed angry, makes for a happy marriage.  In any case, I’m thrilled for both of them.

As agents, we play many roles: we may be midwives, advisers, advocates, editors, but we are also, at heart, fans.  Undergirded as it is by genuine admiration, ours is a job that rarely grows old.  It is also significantly less hair-raising than forensic pathology.  Which–since I can live vicariously through my clients– is just fine by me.

Time’s winged chariot

About two weekends ago, I found myself—as I usually do on a Sunday—ensconced in my favorite chair reading manuscripts and proposals.   I was engrossed in a novel which, despite its numerous structural problems, showed a lot of promise.  As I might have mentioned on this blog once, or a hundred times, I’m not a speed reader, so if the fiction manuscript I’m reading is any good I can kiss a big chunk of my day goodbye.

After Jane and I discussed the pros and cons of this particular novel, we offered the author representation if she was willing to do some significant revising.  (We’d had the book for about a week at this point.)  The author promptly responded that she loved feedback and was not at all averse to reworking the manuscript but she had just accepted another agent’s offer.  Fair enough, of course, and yet….

It bugged me that having plowed through the review process in near record time we never had a chance.  It doubly bugged me because I could have spent a chunk of my Sunday hanging out with my husband and son, running errands, taking that nap I’ve been needing since 2005, going for a walk outside on one of the few decent weather days in what’s been an epically bad winter…you know, what normal people do on Sundays.

I love my job and I enjoy the “development” (reading, editing, brainstorming) part of it tremendously so I don’t generally feel sorry for my lack of Sundays.  But, I also don’t like to waste my time.

This is the longwinded way of responding to those of you who ask about multiple submissions and the etiquette involved therein.  Basically, I say common sense rules, folks.    You should let agents know when you query them that the manuscript is out with others.  And, if an offer comes in, you should give everyone who has your material the chance to finish their review.  If the offer of representation is just too good to hold off on, then you should immediately contact the competing agents and tell them that the project is no longer available so that they can move on to the next thing in their piles.

In these days of electronic submissions, no one will get mad because you’ve gone to multiple agents (unless you do one of those mass e-mail things where everyone is listed; then all bets are off).  But it would be doing us a kindness if you were to keep us in the loop as to the submission’s progress.

Does this sound right to you or do you guys hold the Darwinian view that it’s survival of the fittest out there and tough noogies if you aren’t fast enough?  And, is there something you wish we’d do differently during the review process (and why)?

0

Writerly advice from the trenches

My enterprising client Kristi Belcamino, whose first book comes out in June, has been busy getting ready for her road to publication. One of her recent stops included a piece she did for Writer’s Digest, which I’d love to share with you all.

There is much to take away from Kristi’s article, including advice on the query process that she compares to a road trip with many twists and turns along the way. Her suggestion to not be prepared to stop until you’ve queried at least 100 agents might sound extreme, but she’s got a point about not giving up.

In a clever and entertaining way, she goes on to offer important pieces of insider advice that are widely applicable to anyone looking to develop a writing career. These include 4 key things you’ll need to “pack for your journey”: Perseverance, Work, Teflon-Mentality and Patience. Come to think of it, these 4 points not only apply to writing, but to anything you want to excel at!

Hope you enjoy Kristi’s article, and please share with us if you have other suggestions for the sometimes long, winding road to publication.

1

What you need to know about querying agents

I came across this piece from thewritelife.com by the always interesting and entertaining Chuck Sambuchino from Writer’s Digest.

I think all of the advice is meaningful and generally right on, but I must say my favorite is number 1. Can you query multiple agents at the same agency? As he suggests, and speaking at least for our agency, the answer is no. Just today I got a query referred by a colleague that was submitted to me as well. This is something that can be extremely frustrating for us when we request something that another agent in-house has requested as well. He’s absolutely right that within our agency we have a great sense of each other’s interests, and if there is something that we feel isn’t right for our list, but might be a better fit for someone else, we will share it.

The other point that jumps out at me is number 6. When should you query? When is your project ready? He goes on to talk about beta-readers and making sure you have your work read and re-read before you start the submission process. It should be clean and edited and ready to go.

Number 9 about simultaneous submissions is also helpful. We always assume it’s simultaneous unless you tell us otherwise. And that’s ok, just as long as it’s not simultaneous within our own agency J.

I have a question I’d add to this list. Should you personalize your query? The answer to this is yes. The more research you do on agents and their lists, the more likely you are to get the response you are looking for. If you can cite a book that is similar to yours that the agent you’re querying represented, that’s a small personal touch that can really make a difference.

Let us know if you have any other pieces of advice not covered in this list. There is no right or wrong answer, but there are many things you can do to make your query stand out from the others.

1

A tale of two cultures working together

Last week, I journeyed to LA to meet a group of TV/film people, find out what they are looking for in the way of new projects and tell them about many of the books we are representing which we hoped they would be interested in reading and ultimately optioning.  Often we work through a community of co-agents to get to these producers, but I always feel that meeting in person, when possible, cements a relationship.  Putting a face to a name is a good thing.

I hadn’t done this kind of trip in many years–film people come through our offices all the time–and I really enjoyed meeting all of these new folks.  The differences between our two cultures (book publishing and Hollywood) really struck me, though.

First and foremost is the fact that the people in the LA movie business are totally dependent on their cars–they need to drive everywhere as public transportation is very limited.

Another difference is that we in publishing submit our projects almost exclusively online.  Theirs, on the other hand, is a world of in-person pitches.  Co-agents meet with producers, directors and sometimes writers to pitch them projects.  We do almost all of this electronically. Here is a photo of a pool we sat beside to pitch a producer some of our books (not a bad way to do it, actually, except hard to accomplish in New York City).

Finally, the Hollywood folk spend a lot of time on the phone.  This is something we in publishing really try to avoid.  Of course, sometimes phone calls are necessary to describe a project we are really passionate about, and/or to begin or complete a negotiation, but most of the time we find it more efficient and, frankly, legally sound to keep our communications written.

The “publishing lunch,” though, is something the folks in the film business enjoy equally.  The difference between us is that we journey to our destination on foot, by cab, or subway, while they drive.  Here is a photo outside the CAA Headquarters where you can see a large number of valets who are on staff to park and bring up cars for those entering and leaving.

Bottom line, though?  I think this was a very productive trip in every way and now I am looking forward to digging in and sending out the numerous projects that the people we met with want to consider.

5

“We are in the business of communication!”

The title of this post is a phrase I find myself using all the time.  We “communicate” all day long by texting, by emailing, on Twitter, on Facebook, etc., but I wonder if we are really communicating. Even phone conversations seem to be a dying art.

The other day when I opened my e-mail in the morning, I found a very concerned message from an editor suggesting that one of my clients’ manuscript was deeply flawed and he suggested that he was going to have to reject it.  I reminded him, again by e-mail, of the clause in the client’s contract requiring the publisher to provide a list of the problems and to give the writer a chance to rectify the situation.  Over e-mail the issue certainly sounded dire and unfixable.  But then he and I talked and he suggested that we call the writer together.  He said he was going to tell her that one of her options was to put the current manuscript aside and begin a new one.  This was a person whom he had only e-mailed with and whom I had also mostly communicated with by e-mail, so we had no idea how she would react.

First, the editor e-mailed my client to make a date to talk.  This naturally freaked her out and she e-mailed me and asked what was going on.  I told her a bit about the problem (again by e-mail) and said we would cover the rest in our talk.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure she would participate in the conference call at all.  She did, though, and when she was told on the phone that one of her options was to put the current novel aside and begin again, she was hugely relieved.  She and I had a subsequent lovely and constructive conversation and we all “walked away” feeling good about what had seemed like an unfixable problem at the beginning of the day.  We all felt much more positive and moving forward.

This all goes to prove that picking up the phone and talking can be far more effective and satisfying than e-mailing as this article in Forbes suggests.

It’s true that phone conversations take longer than e-mailing but often they get more accomplished.  I don’t know about you, but I am going to try to talk more and e-mail less from now on and see what happens.  I would be curious to hear what you think about all of this.

4

The Synopsis Snare

 

 

A friend at Random House sent me a galley of the forthcoming Margaret Atwood novel (happy Mother’s Day to me). It is the third in her Maddadam trilogy that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which most humans have succumbed to a plague. Those who remain are not having such a good time of it.

I loved the first two novels; the second more than the first. I read them out of order because when the first book, Oryx and Crake, was published (despite my admiration for the Atwood oeuvre, and despite my adoration of The Handmaid’s Tale) I did not think that a dystopian novel would be my cup of tea. As a grown-up, it seems that I’m more inclined toward bleak cautionary tales with real-world settings. Of course I was wrong, as I often am, about my teacup. The Year of the Flood won me over and sent me to the library the next day in search of the previously passed-over Oryx and Crake, and I’ve been waiting for book three ever since.

Even so, I nearly did not make it past the second page of Maddadam. Upon opening the book, I found a detailed, multi-page synopsis of the first two books—ostensibly provided as a service to get first time readers up to speed. I dutifully started on my refresher course and found it such hard-going that I began to doubt that I’d ever liked volumes 1 and 2 in the first place. Eventually I gave up and just started the novel—which had me spellbound in no time. But even the august and somewhat offbeat Margaret Atwood is not especially good at crafting a compelling plot summary.

I relate this as a cautionary tale of the non-apocalyptic variety. Authors, do not attempt a comprehensive summary of your project in your query letters, especially if your book involves genetically modified beasts like wolvogs or pigoons or fantastical names/kingdoms of any stripe. Instead, think about hooking your agent, hooking your editor—and then include a terrific first chapter. I guess there are agents out there who don’t want a sample chapters along with the query, but rest assured that I (and my DGLM colleagues) do.

 


Go with the flow

I’ve been mired in contracts lately which means countless iterations of the same conversation:

Me: “We want X, Y, Z.”

Contracts director: “No.  We can’t agree to that.”

Me: “If you don’t give it to us, we’ll walk.”

Contracts director: “Fine, we’ll give you X and Y, but you’ll have to pry Z out of our cold dead hands.”

Me: “What was Z again?”

Multiply this by three or four contracts a week, reams of e-mails, and some name calling, and you’ve got my life in a nutshell.  At this point, the process is so predictable, I could create a flowchart that pretty much tells you the probable outcome of any negotiation.  Which is what tickles me about this delightful infographic that Galleycat reposted yesterday.

As fast as the publishing industry is changing, some things remain wonderfully constant: Authors’ hopes and dreams either coming true or being crushed into oblivion; insiders trying to game the system; agents, editors and publishers working hard and failing roughly as much as professional baseball players; heavy drinking regardless.

You’d think we’d get bored.  But really, it’s such a thrill when all the stars align and the editorial and development work, the tedious nitpicking of contract terms, and the snarky, despairing, bombastic communications result in a book you’re proud of (and which is sometimes profitable), that you end up just feeling grateful to be part of the process.

What’s your favorite part of the flowchart?

 

 

 

36

When Agents Attack

About a year ago, I noticed a shift in the general tone of writers’ conferences. For the ten years I’ve been attending them, there was a tendency for agents at these events to lord it over the room, being very strict about what they were looking for, how they like to be approached, how not to approach them, and how to talk to them. The power balance was one-sided, needlessly (and sometimes insultingly) so.

Then agents started getting nervous. And defensive. Instead of, “This is how to get us,” the line became, “This is why you need us.” And things started to get a lot more interesting.

A week and a half ago, I had the opportunity to go to the Novelists, Inc. 23rd Annual Conference. And on one of the panels I sat on, all the growing tension and dissatisfaction came to a head.

In her article about the roundtable for the NINC newsletter, author Lori Devoti noted, “If you have heard any chatter about the NINCThink roundtables, it was probably about this roundtable. Things here were lively and at times heated, to put it politely.” Let me say that Lori put it VERY politely. I’ll quote myself here. When the anger had subsided, here’s what I tweeted: “I tend to be super low key, but a panel I was on today nearly turned me rabid. My anger, twas righteous.”

So: what the hell happened?

Here’s my take. The role of agents in the marketplace is changing dramatically. At DGLM, we’ve always prided ourselves on being a full-service agency. In the past few years, we’ve been aware that what “full-service” means is changing. As authors have more access to self-publishing and more success in doing that, agents need to be able not only to guide their clients through that process, but to be aware of the pitfalls, potential gold mines, and ways to strategize that are best for an individual project but also an author’s entire career. That said, here’s where things started to go off the rails: there are a lot of things authors can do without an agent, and there are more in-roads that authors can make independently than ever before. Does everyone need an agent? No. Does having a middling or less than wholly effective agent do you more good than not having one at all? At this stage, I would say absolutely not. That, I should note, is not a popular point with other agents.

Let’s break this down a little: one of my co-panelists went after someone on the panel for “denigrating” agents and said he wouldn’t stand for it. So I grabbed the mic and offered, as an agent, to denigrate agents for them. I believe very strongly that good agents are incredible partners and can bring authors more success (I’ll get back to this). But more importantly at that exact moment, I was just suuuuuuper pissed. It was disgusting to watch another industry professional demean an author simply because they seemed to be chiseling away at his pedestal.

Let me go back to Lori Devoti’s article for a moment. I’m “another industry guest.”

“Another industry guest…said that ideally agents are partners working with authors to serve them better, and that e-books were a revolution. ‘This year alone we have seen dozens of authors sell millions of books on their own with no support. Now you don’t necessarily need an agent and you definitely don’t need an agent who isn’t good. You need to be aware of what you are bringing to the table. And be aware of services that agent can offer. Be pushy and ask questions.’ This…industry guest frequently seemed to be alone in his opinions.”

My point was never to say that agents, particularly good agents, don’t offer value. If I believed that, I would have left my job ages ago. I love working with authors editorially. I love considering what comes next in line, and what the right next moves are. And I love being able to tell clients when they’ve received offers on their books or foreign rights or when we’ve optioned their film rights. There is a real thrill in that. And when agent and client work together effectively, everyone benefits. But in a marketplace that is showing so many rapid shifts in distribution, sales patterns, and access, it’s obscene to believe there is one right answer to any question or that just because your agent is experienced, they should be followed blindly.

What we’re seeing is a balancing of power. Authors have more control of their careers and can be more demanding. Does that make my job easier? No. Does it make it more exciting? Yes. Because it’s one thing to bandy the word “partner” around and make yourself sound friendly, which seems to be happening a lot. It’s another thing to actually act like a partner.

Authors have long been frustrated by the publishing process, and rightly so. It has been an antiquated machine that never treated the people who actually drive it with the respect they deserve. But that is less true now than it has been at any point since I became an agent.

I love my job, and I believe in it, but I also understand (as do the other agents at DGLM), that it’s not safe or effective to rule from a perch, nor to rule at all. To be an author’s advocate, you have to understand where authors come from. Here’s one last quote from Lori. This one is totally self-aggrandizing, but hey, why not?

“This guest…seemed to see and understand the issues through the eyes of the authors more so than most of the other guests.”

I hope that’s true. I really do. That’s the agent I want to be. Not the one who won’t listen to criticism of agents. Not the one who belittles authors who aren’t already hugely successful. And not the one ever on the defensive.

4

What in the world was he thinking?

Last Friday, I ran across this story on Galleycat and I was really amazed and troubled by it. I sincerely hope this is an isolated, freak incident, but it made me think about our process and how it is perceived by the authors who approach us.

We agents work very hard to encourage new writers and to help them find a home.  Often our business depends on unsolicited queries (I know mine does).  Finding something wonderful in the “slush” pile gives everyone a sense of real satisfaction and during the last twenty-five years I have had my share of new clients come from there.

This, though, is not the norm.  Even though we pride ourselves in reviewing everything that is sent to us, we pass on most unsolicited queries .  In fact, we would be helping nobody by signing an author who isn’t ready and submitting his or her work only to be turned down by publishers.  More than anything else, the author would suffer – his or her ego would be hurt by the mass rejection and he or she would have to wait a good long time before submitting again to the same editors who had just turned down the material.

When we do turn a writer down, whether they are solicited or unsolicited, we try to do so thoughtfully.  There is absolutely no point in being rude or discouraging.  That said, with the volume of queries we receive, there’s no avoiding the dreaded form rejection letter.  We know authors hate these and we’re not thrilled to use them, but we simply don’t have the manpower to write individual notes to everyone.

So my message to authors who are just starting is to have your material be as ready as possible before you query agents and if you get turned down, think about why, continue to work on your project and try again when it is in a more polished place.

Persistence is one of the things I live by; giving up is simply unacceptable.  But so is lashing out against people who work hard and are genuinely trying to help.