Thursday, June 19, 2014

Writer to Agent: Question and Answer

Back in January 2014 I joined a Writer’s Digest Boot Camp called Agent One-on-One where the wonderful, informative agents from Kimberley Cameron and Associates critiqued our queries, synopses, and first few pages. It was an invaluable experience and I highly recommend the Boot Camps to all writers looking for help in their writing journeys. Here are *some* of the Q & As that were asked by various writers and answered by the agents during Boot Camp. Many questions were about the writer’s personal works and were not written down. Hopefully this helps some writers out there!

Questions on the Query

Starting with a Hook: 

QI've heard many times that agents like the query to start with a "hook" that draws them into the story immediately then mention the other details near the end of the query. How critical is the placement of information around the Query letter?

Agent Mary C. Moore (MM): Although all agents have their particular preferences as to how a query letter is drafted, as long as it is clean and concise it will not be slushed based on your placement of paragraphs. In the personal case of KC&A, the reason we like to see the information up front is, because we also accept the first 50 pages of your MS with your initial query. If the title/word count/genre is of particular interest to the agent, they probably will skip the rest of the query and get right to reading.

Querying a Series:

I am currently querying for my debut novel and it is the beginning of a trilogy. I don’t want to beat around the bush – I definitely want my agent to know that I’m querying a trilogy right off the bat, however I don’t want to scare anyone away either. I only have the first book written, is this something I should mention? Is that a problem? Should I focus solely on describing the summary of the first book or should I reveal at least a little of the overall trilogy arc?

MM: When querying a trilogy it is important to remember that if the first book doesn't sell, the publisher will not pick up the next two. Therefore your first book must be okay as a stand alone. It cannot leave us hanging on the major plot points, although it can leave some questions unanswered. When querying your first book, do mention in the last line of the letter that there is potential for more in the series AND that you've started working on them. DO NOT attempt to draw the agent/editor's interest by telling the overall trilogy. If the agent is interested, (usually, as I can't speak for every agent out there :) they will read your first book, and then ask about the plot points of the next.

The First Book of a Series Didn't Do Well:

Q: Hypothetically if a first book (intended as a trilogy) didn't sell well would the agent/author combo then prefer to move on to another story/book? And could the Author, at that point, choose to shop for a different publisher or self-publish the other two novels?

MM: In the changing publishing landscape, anything is possible! Traditionally, the agent will first attempt to get you a two-three book deal, which means that even if the first doesn't do well, the publisher is still tied in for the second. That will be the agent's choice/responsibility. On average most publishers are willing to at least take a chance on the second, because trilogies sell better and sometimes the first book doesn't do well until the last book is out. However, this being said, in the case of a newbie author and a first book that does so horribly it was a loss for the publisher, than the subsequent sequels will not be picked up. Usually another publisher will not pick up the sequels either, because they are going off of the same stats as the first publisher. Then your agent may choose to publish the book for you in their publishing arm, or guide you through self-publishing.

Overall, you should just worry about making the first novel the best it can be and get it signed with an agent. Once that happens, they will guide you through the rest.

Researching your Comparatives 

Q: What are the best ways to research comparative/competitive books?

Agent Kimberley Cameron (KC): For non-fiction, find through Amazon or a bookstore what titles are similar to yours. Your agent can help you find tune this by finding the sell through numbers on Bookscan, if they have access. For fiction, Goodreads is a great source of information for comparible titles, and if you are talking about a query letter, any book the agent has sold that might be similar in genre is always a good idea!

What do I look for in Comparative Titles?

Q: What do you look for in comparable books?

Agent Elizabeth Kracht (EK): Find books in the same genre that you can compare to in voice, setting, narrative style... Comps can be similar to some aspect of your writing. Are there authors who are similar to you in pacing, voice, writing style, setting...? You can approach comps from different perspectives. But you should be able to find at least two. You may be able to get an agent without listing comps, but your agent will eventually want to know who you compare your work to and why for the pitch they craft to editors.

What should Comparative Titles be based on?

Q: With regards to the query introduction your colleagues discussed including "comparitive titles." Should these titles be based on tone, plot, story, theme, sub-genre, etc?

Agent Pooja Menon (PM): It could be all of those or some of those. Usually you could give one comparison title based on the tone and pair it up with another comparison title that deals with the theme. What a Comp title needs to tell agents or editors is that the book isn't exactly like the books you've compared it with, but the audiences who enjoyed so and so book will enjoy your book as well because it explores similar themes, etc.

Writing that you're Self-Published in the Query:

Do I write that I’ve self-published something in my query?

It can show that you've finished a book and feel your work is strong enough to put out there. 

Agent Amy Cloughley (AC): unless the sales are very large over a short period of time, it isn't something I typically take into consideration.

Mentioning Marketing Plans in Query:

Q: In the Query, should we mention, briefly, if we have any marketing plans? For example, a Visual Effects team at the ready to create a book trailer?

MM: In the case of fiction, leave it out of the intial query letter. If the agent asks for the full manuscript, you can then give them that information. Consider it this way, an agent's reading time is very valuable. The less they have to read to get hooked into your story the more likely they will get hooked. This means the query letter should be as to the point as possible, and the point is: YOU WANT TO READ MY BOOK. :) Nonficiton: The marketing plans go in the Proposal – which is sent like a Query.

Reason for Querying a Specific Agent:

Q: Why do you like to see why we decided to query you?

KC: I really like to know how or why a writer found me, and decided to query me. 

Example: " I was intrigued by your website and bio, and would love to interest you in my novel." (whatever the genre).

Or, "I've seen your deals in Publisher's Marketplace and would like to submit my non-fiction proposal."

Any little nugget that lets us know why you are querying us always makes it more personal.

Querying Different Agents in the Same Agency:

Q: What is the etiquette for querying different agents in the same agency about the same project once one agent rejects it? Is there a certain amount of time to wait or is it not recommended at all?

MM: Usually the website of the agency will tell you if it is or is not okay to submit to another agent within the agency once the first rejects it. IF the website is not specific, then it is okay to requery the other agent. Just keep in mind, if the agency is a smaller one office type agency like ours, then if your project was felt to be a better fit for someone else in the agency, we usually just ask the other agent if they would like to read it BEFORE rejecting the author. 

As for requerying, if you have significantly revised everything AND a reasonable amount of time has passed (six months to a year), you can feel fairly safe requerying. Odds are the agent won't remember the orginial query anyway.

HOWEVER, I have had a case where an author persistantly requeried me, (once every few weeks) and I was nice enough to send him a response the first three times, before I finally had to warn him to stop or we would mark his email as spam. Trust me, you do not want to be remembered for that.

Querying a Publisher Directly:

Q: Is it ever a good idea to query the publisher directly or is it basically novel-suicide to go in without representation from an Agent?

MM: o   It's fine to query publishers directly. Odds are, if your book is good enough to be picked up by a publisher, it's good enough to land an agent. An agent will help you negotiate better terms, thus even though they are taking %15 percent, you are still making more than you would if you went through the publisher directly. The big paying publishers won't even accept cold submissions so you have to have agent to get a contract from them.

HOWEVER, if you are struggling to land an agent, and you manage to place your novel with a small publisher or indie-press, that is great! Get your book out there, write the second, and then you have a strong author profile to catch agent's interest on your second novel. Again, the goal is to get your work out there, build an audience and fanbase. If you have that into place, most agents will be eager to read your next book.

The First Ten Pages:

Rounding when Querying: 

Q: If an agent asks for ten pages, is it normally a good practice to submit a complete chapter if that chapter is only 11 or 12 pages long (thus allowing the potential agents to see the end of the chapter)?

MM: It's best to round if it's not too far off. 

The Manuscript Overall:

Using brand names:

Q: What is the rule on using name brands in your manuscript? Is there some sort of permission you have to get to publish a name brand? For example, if I wanted to reference Harry Potter or mention a Pepsi on the table.

MM: In general you should not use brand names in your work. Instead of using "Pepsi" use "cola" instead of using "iPhone" use "smartphone." 

The reason for this, is that it dates your work. You want your work to be as timeless as possible. Something like Frankenstein, which is 200 years old, is still relatable today, but if she had used brands that were common then, they would make no sense to the modern reader. Already a lot of pulp fiction from the fifties falls flat with the modern reader because we can't understand the heavy lingo/brand names.

Editing your MS (Manuscript) First:

Q: Does your MS have to be in pristine edited condition? Editing is still expected to happen, right?

MM: A great question. Most agents, especially less-experienced agents, expect to do some polishing on an MS. My most recent client we had 4 rounds of edits before I signed her, and now I'm doing an intense copy-edit on her manuscript before shopping it. However, it is a good idea to work with a free-lance editor at least through one round of edits to get your book polished enough to catch the interest of an agent. 

The truth of the matter is, that if an agent absolutely loves the concept of a proposed book, they will be more willing to risk their editorial time than on a book that did not capture their heart. However, those non-hearted books, if extremely well-written and polished can still capture their interest and stand a much better chance of eventually capturing their heart.

I guess to sum it up, when your book is on the fence in terms of interest, it has a much better chance of falling on the right side if it has been professionally edited.

Finding a Fiction Editor:

Q: What is the best way to find a great fiction editor?

KC: Again, great question. Yes - editors that have been in the publishing world are professional and know their business. There are lots of editorial services with experienced editors that have been at the major houses, such as:


Commercial vs. Literary vs. Mainstream

Q: What is meant by commercial fiction as opposed to literary fiction versus mainstream fiction?

AC: In commercial/mainstream, you typically find a faster pace and the stories tend to be more plot driven. With literary fiction, you have more leeway with deeper character development, crafted prose, and developed themes.


Social Media: When Agents Google You:

Q: I understand social media is very important. What are agents looking for when looking up perspective clients? Is a low amount of followers going to be a red flag?

EK: Some contracts now are specifying expectations for author social media use.  Yes, 23 followers is a red flag, especially if writing nonfiction.  You really need to think of branding yourself as an author.  This shows that you believe in yourself and your work, and that you are serious about your partnership with a publisher. I won't take on clients now who are not willing to develop their platform (both fiction and nonfiction). I tell all of my clients to "friend" my client Joe Clifford, which I suggest all of my Bootcamp people do. Joe is amazing at social media and promoting his work. He has created a great social media community that is completely supportive of him. 

So, yes, keep developing this.

Another reason why, if you suddently get a digital book deal, your book could be up in less than a month (as happened with four of my authors). Luckily, I had them working on their websites...before I shopped them. Everything happened so quick that some of them were a little behind. You want to be sure the lights are on and the room is warm before an editor has your work in their hands.  They will Google you, and if you are nowhere to be found, it will influence them.

Google can help here.  Google simple terms like "How to build a Twitter following."  We also have some info on our agency blog, written by our social media intern, Kenny. But if you Google simple "how to" terms, you will find a lot of reference material.

At the very least, you need: website, facebook, twitter, goodreads, linkedin, wattpad

Fellow Writer's Answer: 

  1. Think of Twitter as The Water Cooler, Facebook as The Barbecue and LinkedIn as The Boardroom
  2. One of the best ways of growing a Twitter following is to write great blog posts, especially posts that recognize the 10-50 of the top authors in your genre (with their Twitter handles) and then share with them that you put them on a special list as a blog post. They will appreciate your thoughtfulness and you can start to build out a strong following from there.

Do you check Author's Websites if you're interested in their work?

Q: Do you go to an author's website as part of your review if you're interested after reading the query letter? What are the three most important elements you look for?

PM: Not the query letter, but if I decide to sign up a writer or I really like her ms, I go to the website to find out more about her/him. Three most elements on the website would be:
  • How tastefully is it done and how easy is it to view.
  • How regularly does the author use her website/blog, what the traffic is like.
  • Has she/he published short stories, books, etc before. What are the other projects she's currently on.
Just to give me an idea of the person I'm going to sign. I have to add, though, that a platform is much more important for a non-fiction author to have. When it comes to fiction, this is something that I like my authors to have but I can help the author build it up even while we're prepping her book for submission. However, when it's non-fiction, we need an established platform in place before I can even think of taking it to editors, and this could take anywhere between 6 months to a year if the author doesn't have one.

Copies Sold = Success:

Q: How many copies (sold) is enough for a debut novelist to be considered a success by a publisher? I realize this is a function of the advance, but speaking in generalities?

KC: Another good question - no hard and fast rules, but if the author sells out their print run (the number of books printed), they are definitely successful!!!!! It changes and is different for every book and publisher - some print runs are as low as 1500 to 2000.

Where do I go to find out # of books sold?

Q: Where do go to find out how many copies of a book has been sold?

PM: To be honest, this is a bit of a round about process. You can find out from Publisher's Weekly (Wilson's Periodicals Room), by contacting bookstores, checking bestseller lists, by visiting author websites, Neilsen Book Scan (although this is expensive), contacting book publishers...many ways to do this really.

Recommended Conferences

Q: We, as writers, should be attending as many conferences as possible (assuming our wallets aren’t feeling particularly huffy) because it’s a very successful way to meet agents. Are there any conferences you would recommend?

MM: Off the top of my head: PNWA, SFWC, SDSUWC. There's a list on Wikipedia.
If you're going with the intent to meet agents, pick the ones that have the most agents going. :)

EK: I suggest going to the biggests writers conferences, where you have an opportunity to sit in front of many editors/agents.  PNWA is a big one (lots of agents/editors). SDSU, which I'm going to next week, has a huge list of agents/editors attending.  San Francisco Writer's Conference is also a big one.  I do the Algonkian conference as well, but it's smaller. I recommend the big ones, where you can sit in front of a lot of different people.  Making a personal connection with an agent can make all the difference.

PM: In addition to the above, the Atlanta Writers Conference. And about East Coast Conferences – Check out this website!

Writing a Conference Pitch:

Q: I'm at a writing conference and I'm ready to pitch my book to an agent. What does an agent want to hear in the first few minutes? What actions should I avoid? Any suggestions would be helpful.

PM:The agent wants to hear your pitch, short and snappy, like a movie logline- think of it, most pitches at conferences give you maybe 1 minute to 5 minutes to pitch your book. So the less roundabout it is, the more straightforward, the better. So it would be a good idea to time your pitches at home before you go in and create one that would fit a minute or two minutes or three depending on the conference you're going to and their pitch time. To add to this, no matter the stated time limit keep your pitch a full 90 seconds less than the time allowed so that the agent, if interested, has time to ask questions

Hiring a Publicist:

Q: It seems that no matter who publishes my book, I will have to promote the book anyway. What are your thoughts on hiring a Publist early on in the game for a new author?

EK: I think anything to maximize your book's success is a good thing if you can afford to do so. You want your books to sell so it will be easier to sell your next book. It might be nice to make some money, too. You just want to make sure the publicist doesn't step on toes with the publisher. Also, seems to me that after about six months, things slow down, so you may want to use a publicist as things begin to slow (though a publicist may tell you different). It's worth consulting one.

What is the impact Self-Publishing has had on you as an agent?

Q: General question about what you think the impact of self-publishing has had on you as an agent.

PM: Not much really. This is a good question. To be honest, I get a lot of queries from self-published authors who'd like to take their book via the traditional route, or who'd like someone to help them navigate the technical business side of the job. Unfortunately, unless their self published books have done really well, the chances of an agent signing them up is rare, solely because then it becomes hard for the agent to sell that project. It's already out there, read by people, and if it didn't do well, then chances are editors aren't going to be interested. However, if a book has been out there for say a month and about 10,000-30,000 copies have been sold (solid sales numbers), then that's a healthy number for me to take to editors.

Usually my advice to someone who's going down the self pub route is that they need to be prepared to not just put the book out there but to be aggressive about marketing and promoting it. I know there are authors who make it big and millions of copies get sold, however, such a situation is rare and there are far more people who struggle to sell that those that sell millions of copies. Think of this as a business and think of ways to make your business flourish. However, if you're not ready for that, then self-pub is not the way to go. And once you do go down that route, then you need to stick to it and see it through until the end.

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