Category Archives: questions

5

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.

1

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!

0

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.

 

18

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.

0

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!

8

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.

4

Television and Novels: A Love Story

I came across this fascinating article in The Chronicle of Higher Education and simply had to share it. It  accounts for the evolution of arc television (ex. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones) and highlights the similarities between these types of shows and other creative media. I have to admit, the title, “Storied TV: Cable Is the New Novel,” threw me for a loop at first. I thought this piece was going to propose that these wildly popular and critically acclaimed series are on the road to replacing novels, but after reading it, I don’t think this is what the author intends to suggest (even if some of the people who commented disagree). In fact, it seems that the author is comparing the television vs. motion picture dispute (until now, films have undoubtedly beat television in terms of status, merit, and praise) to that of the new journalism vs. novel debate from the 70s.

In fact, the author of the piece, Thomas Doherty (a writer, among other things) points out what makes these television shows as enthralling as a great novel: “Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty.” In the comments, someone even points out that several of these shows were actually based on novels. This brings me to my question for you, the readers: Think about your favorite novel. Would you rather see it as a television show following the format described above or as a big screen debut?

7

Keep your day job

In light of the recent Labor Day holiday, the Huffington Post posted this article about the day jobs famous authors had—and kept even after they made it big. It’s fascinating to me that people have the passion and hunger to both write and work full-time even after they become successful. I know there are tons of people out there who are finishing their first novel on nights and weekends, especially in this economy when very few people can afford to not work full-time, but it’s a whole other thing to continue to push yourself when you already have the respect, recognition, and money that comes with being a successful author. I would love to hear from you about this—do you split your time between writing and another job? Would you give up your day job if you made it big as an author?

6

Just read the @&$%#*! book

I represent a lot of children’s and young adult authors, which puts me into contact with more children and young adults than I have in my real life. I don’t know much about children. I understand that they start out as cute, sweet-smelling bundles of joy that never let you sleep, morph into walking, talking time bombs, then get cute again for a few years, then get an influx of hormones and only communicate via text message. Correct me if I’m wrong.

I set Google alerts for my clients so that I can keep up with what the internet is saying about them, which is like a great, free news clipping service (if anyone remembers those). But the internet doesn’t just have news, and I get a lot of junk links, too. But my favorite links are the ones that pop up at least weekly on Yahoo! Answers, that go about like this: “What is the theme of X novel? Who are the main characters and what are their motivations in Y? I need to write a book report; what happens at the end of Z?” This is Cliff’s Notes for the 21st Century. Sadly, it gets worse. Sometimes these same poor souls email the authors directly, begging for help on a paper. They really can’t figure out the central conflict of the book, but you can surely help, author! Amazingly, I have even gotten such emails from students, imploring me for help getting the answer from my author. I’ll give this to teenagers: they’re ballsy!

So, I was tickled today to find this link (via PW Daily) about author D.C. Pierson’s answer to a similar question about his book. I’ve been dying to find the appropriate response (please see title for what I’m tempted to say) for students who ask me such questions, and now I have an answer I can point them to. It won’t be the one they’re looking for, but it just might be the one they need.

What do you think was the theme of this post? Can you identify the central conflict? Let me know if the comments, or just find out on Yahoo! Answers.

23

Everything you ever wanted to know about middle grade…and were willing to ask

As promised, editor Molly O’Neill and I are going to have a dialogue about middle grade. After a lot of thought, we decided to have a conversation via email that we’d transcribe (minus our distracting tangents). Your questions as we go will help shape the discussion, just as your questions are getting us started, so let us know what you think!

MB: It seems only natural to start with this question (plus, you told me to): What is middle grade? It seems a much simpler question at first glance. If we’re looking at bookstore sections, it’s the 9 – 12 part of B&N. These aren’t chapter books or early readers, which are usually quite short, often in series, usually contain education content, and are aimed at a slightly younger audience, 6 – 8 year olds. But they’re also not teen novels, which are usually categorized as 12 and up (though can be 14 and up when there’s more “content”). YA novels often deal with more “controversial” subject matter, and often involve romantic story lines. But that brings us back to the question, what is middle grade? We can define it by age group, but I’d argue that classifying by content is more difficult.

MO: As you know, I have a marketing background, which means that whether or not I intend it, one of the first things my brain starts thinking about for a book is its readership: who is a book FOR? What kind of reader is it going to reach, and how? Maybe instead of asking “What is middle grade?” it’s easier to think about “Who is the middle grade reader, and what is he/she looking for in a book?”

I think that a middle grade reader is often (and note, I’m speaking BROADLY, here) reading for one of two reasons: to understand, or to escape. Middle grade readers who read to understand look for stories that help them piece together the truths that seem to be opening up all around them, about the world and their place in it, and the connections between themselves and their family, their community, their friends, etc. Or they’re reading to understand about a different time/ place and what it was/would be like to be a kid then. Or they’re reading to just understand how stuff works, period—from the everyday mundane stuff to big concepts like justice and honesty and friendship and happiness and love.

The middle grade reader who reads to escape is the kid who is commonly BORED—like middle-of-summer-vacation-bored!—with his/her ordinary life, yet has no means for alleviating that boredom, or even escaping his/her house or classroom. Or maybe he/she is craving excitement or adventure or entertainment or a sense of power and autonomy that family and school simply don’t offer. So that reader dives into an epic story, or something quirky or witty or fantastical or humorous, in order to escape and live in someone else’s world for a while.

The trick is, most middle grade readers are BOTH of those readers at various points, one who wants to understand AND to escape (I certainly was, anyway). So there’s not just one kind of story that appeals to them, which means that middle grade books can be ABOUT anything. So maybe the line between middle grade and YA maybe has more to do with perspective than content?

MB: As publishing professionals, we’re always asking ourselves the question Molly posed above (paraphrasing): Who is the reader for this book? On the one hand, I sometimes wish writers wouldn’t ask themselves that question, at least not at the outset. Too many times, I get a submission and it’s clear that the writer is writing to a specific market or reader. A symptom of this problem that I see very often in middle grade submissions is “writing down” to the reader. This is can take the form of trying-too-hard dialogue (“Zoinks, bud! We need to skedaddle out of here before our ‘rents come biz-ack.”), narrator-as-character (think Lemony Snicket done badly), or message-driven novels (books written only to teach a lesson). On the other hand, it’s important to think about your reader, especially during revision. I always encourage my clients to be as creative and rule-breaking as they want when conceiving of ideas or writing initial drafts, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t then rein things in based on market expectations. For instance, one of the mistakes I see all too often is a mismatch between the age of the protagonist and the intended reader. A 12 year old doesn’t want to read about a protagonist who’s 8 or 80–they want to read about someone in the same general age group.

How to figure out what the audience wants? Do what I always recommend: read. Go to the bookstore and buy some of the recently-published* middle grade. This will give you a good idea of what the audience is looking for, and just how broad the category is.

*Please, please, please: don’t reference books published decades ago as comparisons for your books. What worked years ago probably doesn’t work now–trends and tastes change. “But The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe still sells!” you say. Classic books sell because they are classics, and I would argue that many of them would not find an audience today.

MO: Oh, I heartily second the need to read recently-published books, even if you’re a great appreciator of the classics! Unless you have a time-travel machine to go back to a different era in publishing to sell your book, it’s today’s market and audience a new book you’re trying to sell it to. Someone asked in the comments about whether there’s a middle grade canon and I think there’s a canon in every genre of literature, even if its an informal one—that’s why it’s so important to read widely, to have a sense of where your book fits and be able to articulate the things that both make it a natural fit within the genre AND a stand-out addition to the genre.

Speaking of problems you often see, I think one of the most common ones I run across in middle grade is “low stakes.” I think this can happen as a result of writers wanting to make a story feel familiar, but when I was a kid, other people’s lives always felt more interesting than my own, so why would I want to read about everyday, average things like homework and piano lessons and third-period math class all over again? I guess I’m trying to say that there can be a fine line between stories that feel familiar and those that feel, well, dull. This is a big reason I often encourage my authors to push past their initial ideas and explore the unknown creative wilds beyond the very first idea/solution/problem/mystery/story point/etc that they think of – because often the really fresh ideas live deep in writer’s minds, not at the very forefront. Like you said, Michael, you can always rein an idea in later, but too much of the middle grade that crosses my desk in submission feels like it never got a chance to be as creative as it maybe could have been.

Of course, sometimes it’s not always the idea that is the magical part of the story—an incredible voice or character can make even the most average story-moments feel vivid and memorable. But that’s just it—memorable is important. I think about middle grade being the time when a lot of readers discover “that book”—the one that turns them into a lifelong reader, or explodes their world open with new ideas, or shares exactly the right truth at exactly the right moment in a way they’ll never forget. You know, any time I tell people at a social event like a wedding or a party what I do for a living, there’s an odd compulsion—people simply HAVE to tell me what their favorite book was as a kid. And as an editor, those are the kind of books I want to publish—the ones that a reader of today will recall decades from now as being “that book.”

MB: I think it’s great that you bring up the issue of stakes, which can be an issue in any sort of novel. What’s on the line for the protagonist? What makes this story important enough to tell? To be clear, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be writing wonderful, contemporary, realistic middle grade. One question we got (perhaps from a client of mine) was, is there room for a “quiet” middle grade novel? I’d argue that the best books, even when they’re not deal with the end of the world or magic, aren’t really “quiet.” They may be a smaller story, with very real, relatable stakes. But if the story is constructed well, and the voice is strong, the writer can make us care very much what happens in these more everyday struggles. While not contemporary, The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt comes to mind.

As an agent, I too have spent my my career looking for those kinds of books. Books that have a lasting impact on readers, that stick with them long after they’ve turned the final page. It’s why I keep hunting for great middle grade.

MO: And as a matter of fact, I think it’s why we’re doing this blog conversation. And it’s getting good! But now we have to get back to work. Check back late next week for a second installment, on Molly’s blog.