Category Archives: questions

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Query FAQs

 

Recently I’ve done a bunch of query critiques for conferences and also did an interview on using Twitter in the query process, so I have queries on the brain! And I figured this was the perfect time to see what kinds of questions aspiring authors on Twitter are dying to have answered. I’m glad I did, as the questions I got back are smart and interesting, and a couple are even new to me! So thanks to all those who sent questions.

 

If you query a new literary agent at a reputable agency but find little about her online, any query tips to personalize your letter?

I suggest phrasing it in a way that reflects your research on the agency and your understanding of the benefits of working with a newer agent—new agents are eager to find great talent for their lists and often have more time for debuts than more experienced agents with deep lists. “I read you’re newly building your list at Tony the Tiger Literary Agency and hope that your agency’s expertise in cookbooks alongside your enthusiasm for debuts will be the perfect combination for my 68,000 book club novel, A FROSTED FLAKE LOVE STORY.

Should you start the query letter by explaining who you are or what your story is about?

My preference is for your personal details/bio to come after the story pitch. I like the query to open with the reason you’re querying me and the key info about your project: word count, category, title, comps. Then the story pitch, followed by your writing credits, associations, conferences, and any life or career experience that informed this book.

 If an agent wants trigger warnings, what’s the best way to incorporate into the query?

A good query rule-of-thumb is to keep things short and simple, so I suggest including the trigger warning in your opening, alongside your personalization to the agent and your word count, category, and comps. Perhaps something like:

“My 78,000-word psychological thriller THE GREEN LIGHT will appeal to fans of Amy Gentry and Rena Olsen. Please be aware, my manuscript includes a graphic depiction of child abuse.”

 Where do you usually stop reading in a manuscript? If you make it 75% would you finish?

It varies from manuscript to manuscript how far I get before I realize it’s not going to work for me. If I request your full after reading your query and 25 pages, that means I’m hooked on your concept and drawn in by your writing, so as I’m reading I’m hoping that that potential holds up all the way through! If the story starts to fall apart in a way that I don’t have a vision to fix, if I can’t buy in to the character’s choices, if I find my attention wandering or realize I’m just not enjoying the read, I’ll feel sad, but I’ll probably move on to the next MS. Sometimes that’s page 40, sometimes it’s page 125; once I know it’s a No, I’m not going to waste both of our time just for the sake of finishing. On the other hand, if I’m reading and editors are coming to mind who would like it, or I find myself wanting to keep reading when I get off the subway, or I get excited about how to fix plot issues, then I read looking for reasons to say Yes and position the book for success!

If you have a burning question about querying, pipe up in the comments and perhaps I’ll do another FAQ soon! And for more query advice, check out my Writer’s Bone interview here, and keep an eye on the #querytip hashtag on Twitter.

 

 

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What’s missing in fiction?

I admit that sometimes I grow frustrated with the seemingly endless homogeneity of submissions. Then I ask myself what it is that I want to see. The easy answer is that I want to see something that hasn’t been done a million and one times before. But are there any underrepresented subjects in fiction?

Well, this was actually the topic of a recent NYTBR “Bookends” piece, and it’s one I’ve been considering for a while because, honestly, not that many come to mind. Sure, it would be nice if fiction had a smidge more joy, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s underrepresented. Novels need conflict after all. Deb’s desire to see fiction about finding a place to live gave me some interesting ideas though.

Where are the novels about the exorbitant cost of high education in America, and the average college student’s struggle to pay off student loan debts while working a low-paying job for which they’re overqualified? Or the ones about aging baby boomers sequestered in nursing homes, forced to adapt to a new way of living? Those novels likely exist already, but not in the same abundance as those about dysfunctional families.

Can our readers come up with some more underrepresented subjects? What would you like to see more of in contemporary fiction?

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Book publishing’s handy cheat sheet

I was doing some online research as I was vetting a recent contract and came upon a vintage blog post (originally posted in 2009, and updated in 2014) from Nathan Bransford, an interesting publishing figure who has worked in several areas of the publishing business. It gives a long list of brief digestible definitions of basic publishing terms. Many are likely familiar even to a lay person, like “hardcover” or “debut novel” or “editor”, but many are more inside baseball like “first pass pages” or “reserves against returns” or “co-op”.

Whatever your interest in publishing, how nice it is to have a free easily accessible reference page to help with your research. It’s an easy list to navigate, entries listed in alphabetical order, and some entries offer brief examples for clarification, like “Imprint” which refers to “The entity within a publisher whose name is printed on the spine of a book and which theoretically has a certain publishing “flavor.” An imprint may be a division within a publishing house (Knopf, HarperCollins, etc.), it may be based around a certain genre (Harlequin Silhouette, Harlequin Blaze, etc.) or it may be a “boutique” imprint named after editor(s) (Nan A. Talese, Spiegel & Grau, etc.). Keeping imprints straight and remembering who reports to whom takes years of familiarity with the publishing industry and gigantic spreadsheets.” While many entries just skims the surface as far as what each of these terms mean, often without using real-world examples, it’s a highly useful tool to have at your disposable.

What do you think of the list? Are there any terms you have questions about that either aren’t referenced here and/or require further explanation? Are there other resources you go to when you have questions about book publishing? I’m happy to answer any and all questions Mr. Bransford or others might not have covered.

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What does a literary agent do?

It is no secret that few people outside of publishing know what a literary agent is, much less what we do.

Holidays, along with the requisite tree-trimming, gift-giving, sweet-eating and bubbly-swilling also involve some job explaining.  At every social gathering I attend, sooner or later someone asks what, exactly, it is that I do. Unlike astronaut, teacher, vet, major league baseball player or artist,  “literary agent” seldom makes the list of things kids wish to be when they grow up.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you have a pretty firm grasp on the role the agent plays in selling your work, or at least the fact that you:  1) may need one of us  or 2) are presently working with one of us in order to get published.  Still, whenever I sign a new client, I spend a good deal of time explaining the path forward.  And since my “What is a Literary Agent” speech is burnished from recent use, I would be happy to address your specific questions about what we do, the way we work, or, as my son’s friend once asked me, if “our missions are dangerous.”

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The Successful Query Letter: Exhibit A

Last week, Sharon cleverly used her post to invite reader feedback—the responses she received contained some good  suggestions and valuable constructive criticism.  Among other points, Lynn (who, it should be noted, has a fine editorial eye) suggested that instead of serving up generic advice about query letters, we post a letter that “blew us away… Write about it, post it as an example so we can see what a great query is!”

 I am more than happy to oblige.  I’ll  begin with nonfiction and follow up with a fiction example next week.

First, a brief disclaimer: I know that writers spend a lot of time working on and occasionally obsessing over query letters, but there is no single magic formula for how to put one together.  I generally suggest that writers craft a pitch that reads roughly like (good) back cover copy, gives a sense of the story arc, the characters and the voice in which the book is written, but leaves something to the imagination.  I’m not a fan of the exhaustive synopsis—too much detail can get unwieldy. Close with a few lines about who you are, where your book fits into the market and its actual or (for nonfiction) proposed length and that’s it, you’re done.  But enough with the general. Here is an example of a project that I ended up signing and selling, which came to me via a beautifully crafted query letter.  I’ve pasted the query here, and below I discuss why it so impressed me.

Dear Jessica,

 I appreciate your hands-on-approach and your interest in “history with a thesis.”  I am an academic with a background in character-driven narrative writing, and I’ve just finished a book about an extraordinary group of farmers who have given me hope for the future of American food. 

 Lentil Underground introduces readers of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Fast Food Nation” to a little-known movement in central Montana.  My book is the first to chronicle farmers who are changing our food system in the belly of the beast: the American grain belt.  If we’re going to overhaul the way our food gets to our plate, we’ll have to do it here in the heartland, and people like these colorful lentil enthusiasts will need to lead the way.

I am a Montana native and have been working with this group of farmers for five years, initially as an agricultural policy staffer for United States Senator Jon Tester and more recently as an academic.  I first ran into the story when I was touring full time as a country singer, and try as I might to corral it into three-and-a-half minutes …I ended up with a book.

 Per the instructions on the Dystel and Goderich website, I am pasting a brief synopsis below and attaching my first chapter. 

 I would be very happy to send you my full proposal and/or the full manuscript – but only if you give me permission.  I know you have a lot to read, and I appreciate your attention.

 Thanks,

Liz Carlisle

This query is brief, to the point and totally successful. I am not an agent who demands short pitch letters—I don’t stop reading after 250 words. But writing with this kind of clarity and economy of language is harder than it looks.  So what did Liz do right?

First, she showed that she’d read enough about me to know the kinds of projects I represent.  She then told me that she has academic credentials but also the ability to tell a story (two things that do not always go hand in hand) and she closed her first paragraph with an intriguing line.

Like you, I am familiar with the many critiques of the American food system—well deserved and bleak as they are—but here is a book that promises something hopeful, in the “belly of the beast” no less.   Carlisle also identified her audience via the books they read. I cannot overemphasize the degree to which it is crucial that nonfiction writers are able to accurately place their books in the context of the existing market. She showed me she has a handle on the competition and then—three cheers— promised something new. Acquisitions editors are forever in search of the new and fresh, so my ears perked up yet again. “Colorful lentil enthusiasts” is also not a phrase you hear every day. Her three lines of author bio, in which I learned she was a country western singer turned congressional staffer turned academic were so deftly and succinctly written—plus  fascinating—that I knew I’d request the proposal and the full mss.

Her book, The Lentil Underground, will be published by Gotham in 2015.

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Behind the numbers

Looking at a royalty statement for the first time can be a little confusing. While the math is never hard, certain terms like “reserve against returns” and “subsidiary rights” can cause headaches where there needn’t be. The layout of a royalty statement is important too—an unorganized format can make reading a royalty statement ten times harder. Since there is no standard format though, I’ll just touch upon some basics.

Reserve against returns. Yes, most publishers don’t pay authors all the royalties they earn in the one period covered by a statement. The reserve against returns shows the amount withheld by the publisher for a limited period of time against the expectation of returns. This reserve is then released on later statements (assuming the book continues to sell).

Subsidiary rights. This is the section of the royalty statement that lists the revenue accumulated from rights that the publisher has sold to third parties. For example, this could include any earnings accrued by foreign editions of a book.

Unearned balance. An advance is simply that ladies and gentlemen. An advance. In order for a book to start earning royalties, it must first earn out the advance payment. Only then will an author see a positive balance. Negative balances are usually portrayed in parentheses.

Royalties earned. This amount depends on both the net units sold, as well as the terms stipulated in the author’s contract. Royalty rates range, but earnings are generally calculated based on the net or retail price of the book.

So those are some basics. Have more questions about royalty statements? Bring ’em!

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Comic Con!

For the second time in three years, I’m on my way to Comic-Con in San Diego. Thirteen-year-old me is very excited. Comic books? Movies? TV shows? Amazing! Thirty-something-year-old me is slightly more circumspect. Crowds? Crappy convention food? No comic books? That said, it’s pretty exciting that books are taking a center stage at the show. All of the major publishers have presences, and many of the movies being featured are based on books, as well. Even better, they’re based on YA books (including our own James Dashner’s MAZE RUNNER), so it’s all quite relevant to my list.

But the real reason I’m heading down is to appear on the Ask an Agent! panel on Friday with several other great agents: Brandy Rivers (a book-to-film agent), Barry Goldblatt, Sara Megibow, Jane Putch, Kate Schafer Testerman and Pam van Hylckama Vlieg. We’re literally just taking questions, so please do come and interrogate us, otherwise we’re going to be pretty bored. (Though knowing all of us, we could probably entertain ourselves for a lot more than an hour.) It really is your chance to ask whatever you want, and we’re a very direct group. What are publishers looking for? How do agents work? Why does it take so damn long for a book to come out? Whatever you want to know, come ask! Really hoping to see you there.

 

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Boot Camp for our readers

Miriam, Jim, Jessica and I recently participated in a Writer’s Digest boot camp. Each of us spent 3 solid hours online answering questions from the students who had registered for the class. The questions arrived  in threads and once I got the hang of how to answer, it was an interesting exercise filled with many curious writers looking for information from a publishing professional. I was happy to oblige.

The questions ranged in content and complexity and some questions prompted others. I’ll share a couple of examples to give you the idea. One question posted was: “How critical is a synopsis?”  To which I replied  that different agents probably see it differently but I don’t weigh too heavily on the synopsis if the query letter is good and I personally prefer a synopsis that’s brief and just gives a story overview. More like flap copy from a book.

Another question that came up was: “Do agents really research the writer (presumably when they receive a submission from them)?” This prompted a follow-up question about a writer who has a blog and if that’s something an agent will consider when reviewing a query.  My response:  “Yes, absolutely. An author who has an online presence and is active in social media can be very positive. For nonfiction it’s critical, less so for fiction, but the more public a figure you are in this market (and world) the easier the chances to sell your work.”

It got me to thinking that I’d be happy to offer here on our blog a similar service. While I can’t promise to answer questions for 3 hours straight, I’ll do my best to answer any questions you might have about, well, anything that relates to writing.

I promise I will get back to you before too long but please be patient since I’m away in Austin, Texas at a writer’s conference this weekend where I’ll be answering a lot more questions.

So, ask away!  Thanks, and look forward to hearing from you.

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Statements and Payments and Questions, Oh My!

As I’m gearing up for a very busy month handling royalties, I’m doing everything I can to prepare. And in doing so, I had a discussion recently with an intern about the basics of royalty processing. It occurred to me that because I’ve been “in the trenches” for what seems like forever, I’ve almost forgotten how intimidated and inexpert I was when I first started. Lucky for me, the gifted Jim McCarthy was just a hop, skip, and crazy-steep staircase away to answer my most inane questions with an encouraging smile.

So, now, I turn it over to you, the loyal readers, for your own questions. Curious what a reserve against returns is? Wondering what the difference between net and retail pricing is? Let me know!

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Happy 2013!

So, the Mayans were just yanking our collective chain and we’re still here in frigid, overcast New York City.  Since DGLMers have been out carousing and overindulging for the past week or so and must now dig out from under the candy wrappers and champagne corks to find manuscripts and proposals, not to mention queries, that need responding to, I thought I’d turn this one over to you.

Any questions, suggestions, random commentary you have for us as we look forward to a new year?  What’s on your mind?  What industry issues do you find incomprehensible and need some insight into?  What are you going to be reading this year?  What are you going to be writing?

Let me know and I will answer if I can or make appropriately noncommittal noises if I can’t.