Category Archives: looking for editors

8 Query Letter Don’ts

Succinct, clear advice for the OTHER awful task once the book is finished. I’m in the process, so this came right on time. Thanks, @KMAllan_writer. (And Chris the Story Reading Ape, for sharing this).

K.M. Allan

Perhaps the most feared thing after a synopsis for writers is the query letter.

Mostly because it has so much riding on it. It’s your chance to make a good impression on an agent or publisher, and you only have a few paragraphs to do it.

You want your query to lead to a request for your manuscript; it needs to be strong, interesting, and not feature any of these don’ts.

Query Letter Don’ts

1. Don’t talk about yourselfmore than the project you’re pitching. The agent/publisher needs to know about your book first. You, second.

2. Don’t skimp on story hooks. A hook is called such for a reason; it hooks the reader and makes them want to read more. If your query doesn’t mention at least one hook, rewrite it so it does.

3. Don’t give away too much. Yes, this contradicts the last point, but even though…

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That $%*!!?# Novel Synopsis—Again!

Synopsis writing for authors

Down the Synopsis Wormhole

I’ve been caught up in revisions, queries, pitches, and yes, my WIP synopsis for the past month. At least @BillFerris over at @WriterUnboxed gives me a reason to laugh at my wandering efforts to tell a 99,000-word story in 1000 words! Maybe he’ll help you over the hump of writing your synopsis. Enjoy.

I swear I'll catch up my SEO!

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Once More into the Dreaded Synopsis!

Frustrated man at typewriter

Via Chris the Story Reading Ape, this post by M. L. Davis at Uninspired Writers provides another template for tackling that hateful beast, the synopsis. We can never have enough weapons in this struggle, IMHO. Let me know if you try this!

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Myths and Truths about Traditional Publishing—What It Was Like for Me.

Old Open Bible

I came across this post via Chris the Story Reading Ape (a crucial source for publishing tips and news). Steven Spatz, president of BookBaby.com, a book packager for independent publishers, lays out “Six Myths (and a Few Facts) about Traditional Publishing.

Just to be clear, “traditional publishing” means having your book produced by an established, for-profit publishing company that will pay you an advance, provide you with an editor and a publicity department, physically manufacture your book—including the cover and format—and, ideally, get it to sell.

In contrast, independent or self-publishing means writing a book and getting it edited, producing a formatted copy with a cover, uploading it as an ebook to an ebook vendor like Amazon or Smashwords or as a “real” book like a paperback or hardcover to a company that “packages” it for you and that may supply some editing, cover production, and marketing, depending on what you pay for.

Whew.

When I contemplated this post, I didn’t know those definitions could be so hard.

Bottom line: A traditional publisher PAYS YOU and does it all (or much of it) for you. As an indie publisher, you either do it all yourself, possibly for free, or pay for certain services you don’t feel you can do well.

grunge paper texture, vintage background

With that out of the way, the very first comment on Mr. Spatz’s article pointed out that BookBaby specialized in packaging books for “indie publishing,” and is therefore biased against traditional publishing.

Okay, Spatz may be biased. But as I read, I found myself saying, yeah, yeah, that’s exactly what I found out during my all-too-brief existence as a traditionally published author. Spatz’s observations, in my view, offer a useful “wait-a-minute!” that prospective authors need before they decide how they want to enter the publishing melee.

Note that the experiences I cite here are grounded in my own career: I was traditionally published by three MAJOR houses, St. Martin’s, Bantam/Doubleday, and New American Library. Today’s traditional publishing field is surely more competitive, not less, than in those glory days.

So, with eternal gratitude to Victoria Strauss, read these thoughts as a version of Writer Beware.

Spatz’s Myth 4: Publishing with a Traditional Publisher means your book will show up on bookstore shelves.

This was my first devastating revelation. And my mother’s. We’d walk into a bookstore and she’d gesture at the extravagant front-door displays and demand, “Why don’t they put your books out here?”

Because, I learned, shelf space is a precious, much fought-over commodity. In order to be provided so much as a sliver of space the width of a spine, my books had to have a mega advertising budget behind them. Mega. I had to be Paris Hilton. Or Michelle Obama. Or . . . you know who I mean.

My mass-market paperbacks (these still do exist) did get rack space in drugstores. For about a month.

I can now get my books into independent bookstores by carrying them there and asking for shelf space while presenting a reason why I deserve it. This was as true before indie publishing as it is now. Only it never occurred to me. I didn’t know that was part of my job.book word in letterpress wood type

Myth 3: A traditional publisher will market your book.

This hope meant almost zilch thirty-five years ago. I can’t imagine it means more now.

No one told me that I really needed to get out there and market. They told me, write the next book. At least now they’re honest about this.

Marketing is the hardest thing asked of authors who really would rather be writing the next book (well, hardest after writing the synopsis). Only some of us have marketing in our blood. I found that my houses had standard “marketing” practices that gave the books a chance to take off but didn’t do anything out of the way to grow them wings. A smart author (I was not) would have noticed all the other things that could have been done, and would have done them.

I did do something. For King of the Roses, they asked me for a list of horse-racing celebrities who would endorse the book. I compiled such a list. They wanted to know who on that list I knew whom I could personally ask. Um, no one.

I said, since this book is about the Kentucky Derby, why not run an ad in the Daily Racing Form on Derby Day? Not cost-effective, they said. So I paid for it. Myself. They may have been right. In those days, you couldn’t track clicks to see who responded to what ad.

What a traditional house can do is send your book out to reviewers. They have lists of people who will possibly read your book and write it up in a highly visible place. Much more effective than begging for reader reviews. If the right reviewer—say, at the New York Times—takes a shine to your cover or back-of-book copy, you might really end up on Oprah! (No way of knowing what my brief mention in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly meant to my sales.)

Magic book

Myth 5: Getting picked up by a major house means your writing career is set.

No.

Your career with a traditional publisher will last only as long as you write a) what the publisher thinks will sell; or b) what actually does sell. You want a career in a traditional house, YOU better make sure what you write sells. See Myth 3.

And if what you wrote the first time around doesn’t sell well above average, second chances are hard to come by. More than once agents I’ve approached want sales figures from my previous books. At the very least, they want my platform. How many famous people do I know who will endorse my book?

It takes only one “disappointing” book to end this kind of career. I know.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways back into the fold. But they are at least as hard as that first foray, when you stood a chance of being a “discovery” that sent the sales team into raptures. I was there. I know.

Some “truths” from Spatz I can endorse:

**It will take at least a year and probably longer for your traditionally published book to make it into print.

**You have to fight for control over your metadata and cover. If you don’t like cover or the back-cover copy or the book description, you have to assert yourself. I was able to protest the inner jacket flap copy for one of my books and rewrite it. But it was when I saw the back-cover copy of that book that I knew the book was doomed. No blurbs quoting the excellent reviews for my first two books, both in paperback from Bantam. Instead, just an excerpt from the book.

Decent writing, I guess, albeit arguably overwritten. Of course, in Bantam’s defense, in those days, no one could order a mass-market paperback once it was out of print.

**And if your traditionally published book does make it onto bookstore shelves, it will run out its welcome fast. Once it’s last month’s sensation, it’s gone. Maybe you’ll get a paperback deal that may hang onto shelf space in row 6 a little longer. But it if doesn’t sell, bookstores will pull it for this month’s New Thing. People will buy your book from Half-Priced Books or from third-party sellers on Amazon, and you won’t make a cent.

Image of earth planet on hand

A truth of my own: Working with a top editor at a major house doesn’t mean your book will get better.

My editor at St. Martin’s was superb, my editor at Bantam horrible, and my editor at NAL nice but not inspirational. (They are all long gone, so don’t ask.) I learned that, in the end, I alone was responsible for the words that got published under my name.

I regularly depressed people at writing conferences by sharing these experiences.

If I’ve depressed you, at least you are forewarned.

If this sounds as if I am biased in favor of self-publishing, well, to a certain extent yes. I would like to be traditionally published again because a “published” book, however doomed in the market, would give me credentials for speaking and guest-posting. I would also like reviews. And my feeble, newbie marketing efforts are unlikely to earn me what I would make from even the most anemic advance.

What I do like about self-publishing is that my prospects are limited only by my energy and creativity. There is no shelf-life for my books. I can try new marketing techniques indefinitely without knowing that next week, or the week after, my books will show up on that pile labeled “remaindered.” I can even revise and republish. I can be a completely new author, in a completely new genre, as fast as I can write.

When lightning strikes an author!

My final words of “wait-a-minute”:

If you want to submit traditionally, haul out all those grammar books and all those tomes on how to structure a story. Editors and agents do gatekeep based on how much work you’re going to mean for them versus how much you can earn for them. A badly edited, unstructured book means more work for them. A great idea can die because it looks as if it will take too much time to slap into shape. Make their job as easy as you can.

If you want to self-publish, do your due diligence. Book packagers (that includes Kindle Direct Print and Ingram as well as BookBaby, Lulu, etc.) vary widely in quality and cost. Make sure you understand how the self-publishing universe works (it’s all out there online) and don’t pay for anything you can do yourself. You can publish your ebook in an hour at Smashwords or Amazon for free. Your paperback may take a little longer, but you can do it. Don’t pay for anything you can do yourself.

Ask me anything you want about my days as a “published author.” I’ll tell you everything but the names.

 

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Is It Worth Your Time to Pitch Your Book?

Book in dramatic sunset landscapeOver at Indies Unlimited not too long ago, I ran across this comment from multi-award-winning author @MJBowersock:

[A]nyone who has not already been published, who is not a name that people recognize and that will draw sales, will not win a publishing contract with a traditional publisher. It’s like winning the lottery. It could happen, but the chances are, it won’t.

That’s not quite the kiss of death to our dreams of one day breaking into the publishing big time (the big houses call themselves “legacy” publishers now, Bowersock says). But it’s close.

Books as stairs to publishing success

So my question is, what about all those conferences that bring in rafts of agents and editors who claim to be starving for new talent (like you and me)? Are they scamming us? Do they consider a day at a conference listening to pitches some sort of paid vacation?

If Bowersock is right, I guess so. And our chances of coming away from a conference with real hopes for a contract are nil. Conferences aren’t cheap. Pitching is scary. Why go through such an ordeal?

Here’s one answer: because there are benefits from pitching to actual editors and agents that you can’t get any other way.

I’m not suggesting that any writer invest thousands of dollars in conferences. But I am arguing that a judicious choice of conference at the right moment in your process can be worth at least as much as what you’re paying for that cover or that expert to format your text—

—Because pitching gives you several kinds of feedback you won’t get from any other source.

Publishing success is like a sunny day

You know what you get from query letters: “Sorry, we’re not the right agency for this book.”

What about your writing group? I consider writing groups essential. But the members of your writing group read as friends and colleagues. They don’t read as business people, charged with making money out of your book.

And therein lies all the difference. They hope to make money off of you!

I’m not plugging for any conference, but I’ve been to quite a few, and I’m sharing my experience. I’ve learned things from pitch sessions that no one else ever told me. I’ll do it again.

If you do decide to pitch, be sure to make your investment count:

  • Be ready. Don’t rush to a pitch session with an unspellchecked draft while you’re still trying to figure out whether your main character’s hair is black or red. Exhaust your writing groups and beta readers first.
  • Review the faculty to make sure you can pitch to people who work with your genre. Make sure they work for good agencies and aren’t just somebody’s Facebook friend.
  • Get one-on-one critiques as well as pitches. If at all possible, pay extra to have the right person at the conference read a query letter or a first page and meet with you so you can ask follow-up questions. Pay for “pitch practice” if you possibly can.

Your words fall into your book!

Here are the kinds of questions you can get answered even if there’s scant hope of a contract. They’re the questions you would pay an editor to answer, and Lord knows good editors aren’t cheap.

Do I know what my book is about?

You can muse all day with your writers’ group about your story question, your main character’s goals, why she can’t achieve them, how her journey ends, and so on.

In a pitch session, you have five minutes to lay it out. Five minutes with a steely eyed editor daring you to make him buy it. Get tongue-tied with that agent smiling ever-so-sweetly at you?

Then you haven’t figured it out.

Seeing that stare glaze over or that smile turn to a frown tells you that it’s time to take a good look at your structure so next time you’ll know what your book is about.

What’s derailing my book?

When was the last time you got a response from a query that said, “Sorry, here’s why we don’t want your book.” [Interject sound of strangled laughter from author]

In contrast, you’re three minutes into your pitch, and Steely Eyes says, “I don’t understand why anyone would do that.” Sweet Smile says, “That sounds like a really unpleasant character.” They both say, “I’m lost.” (Often followed by a specific hint as to where and how the road signs got turned around.)

Yeah, I know, if they’d just read the darn book, they’d get it. But the fact is, you’ve just recited part of the back cover blurb that will make readers buy the darn book, and now you know a few things that can turn readers off.

And you have specific issues beyond just-not-good-enough to consider before your next submission: motivation, characterization, style.

Is my idea the high-concept, totally original, million-dollar gem I think it is?

Agents and editors see hundreds of ideas in your genre. You may well be asked, “How is this different from all the other books I’ve seen recently about crazed werewolves in New Jersey?” That five minutes will tell you whether you know the answer to that.

How does my work stack up with someone who is not my friend?

Really, it all comes down to this one: An agent or editor at a conference does not need to make you feel good.

They don’t need you to be in the mood to give them friendly, constructive advice at the next writing group meeting. They don’t need to keep you happy so you’ll hire them again the next time you need an editor.

They’ll give you your five minutes, but after that, they’ve got twenty other people lined up, one of whom might have THE BOOK they came to the conference to acquire.

So the instant they know your pitch isn’t clicking, they won’t string you along.

Pitching at a conference isn’t the way to learn how to make your structure work or how to make your concept a stand-out. But it’s one sure method of finding out fast how close you are to those goals. The day the frown is accompanied by a business card and a willingness to take a look, you’ll know you’ve finally managed to answer the questions that will sell your book.

Book publishing success

Do you have advice for making the most of pitch sessions? Share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing a Synopsis? Jane Friedman to the Rescue

Is there ever a time when Jane Friedman’s writing advice is not worth reading? Just today, checking out her newsletter, I’ve discovered more wonderful posts than I can feasibly share.

Torn up draftsI decided to link to this Jane Friedman piece on writing synopses because recently members of one of my writing groups have been plagued by their struggles with that demon of demons. Oh, how we all hate that one task!

But listening to the synopsis drafts, I found myself wondering if the writers had searched the lovely Internet for the many helpful examples, guidelines, and templates that excellent writers have shared. The first thing you learn when you do is “Do not try to create a blow-by-blow of every single thing that happens in your book!” Yet over and over, that’s what drafts of synopses seem to do.

Getting from the blow-by-blow to the contained, focused, emotionally revealing creature (in one page, no less) that agents and editors say they want is HARD. I’m not for one second denigrating the incredible effort it takes. But I’m sharing these resources just on the outside chance that some readers haven’t encountered them. Friedman lists no fewer than six sites that prove both instructive and inspirational, including one that critiques more than 100 drafts.

I’m not at the synopsis stage right now, but I will be again soon, and I will mine every one of these sources. I hope they prove helpful to you.

Do you have a favorite tip site for writing synopses? Share!

 

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The Kind of Writers’ Conference I’ll Pay For!

What’s not to like about writers’ conferences? They offer terrific opportunities to learn about the craft of writing and the business of publishing from people who know what they’re talking about (as opposed to the neighbor who figures your book can’t be any good since Barnes and Noble didn’t display it on that table right inside the front door).

Of course, there’s the expense. A conference means registration, travel expenses, motels, and sometimes meals (and in my case, board for a rather large dog).

For some, the workshops and lectures and a chance to get autographs on mint copies of presenters’ books may justify those costs.

But if you’re interested in becoming traditionally published, it’s worth stretching your budget for a good conference. A well-chosen conference can give most of us developing writers what no cold query can:

  • A chance to sell ourselves and our work face-to-face, where we can slip a memorable impression into a busy agent’s or editor’s mind.
  • A block of time all our own, instead of the few seconds a hurried intern can spare for that laboriously written letter.
  • A hard-nosed reaction from a publishing professional unfettered by the need to make the writer feel good.

If, like me, those perks are the ones you want from a conference, here are the top five things I look for before I send in my registration form.

1) Location

I don’t want this to come first, but for many of us, it has to. The good news is, you probably don’t have to travel a thousand miles to find a good conference. In the past two years, I’ve attended two within a two-hour drive of my home. Search online, read writing blogs, and network with writers’ groups in your area to get on email lists. Conferences within your range and budget will turn up.

Of course, if you DO travel a thousand miles, make sure it’s someplace fun, since you can deduct the expenses from your taxes if you can show you’re really writing to sell.

2) Pitch sessions*

The right kind of conference for this stage in your writing must offer a chance to meet face-to-face with agents and editors. Most conferences charge a moderate fee for these sessions, but that ten minutes will garner a lot more attention to your work than the dozens of hours you spent honing a query letter that may never get read.

Many conferences offer “pitch practice,” usually also for a fee. Some will allow you to send in a written version of your pitch to be critiqued. Take advantage of these opportunities if possible. With luck, you’ll get voluminous and often painfully honest comments that will propel you into feverish revision the night or morning before your pitch. But that’s the point, isn’t it—to move you to a new level? You’ll get there faster with a push.

3) A chance to submit actual pages for critique

You really have one immediate goal as a writer seeking publication: to be read. Maybe once in a while your query letter elicits a request for pages, but the ultimate response, more often than not, will be “We’re not the right agency for this book.” No reasons. No chance to ask for reasons. (Okay, maybe it will be different for you.)

But at a good conference, you can submit part of your work and then meet with your critiquer to follow up on what worked and what didn’t. Good conferences will assign real agents and editors, empowered to ask for more, to this task.

Yes, you’ll pay extra. And no, your readers might not agree in their assessments, leaving you confused and frustrated, just like your critique group at home. But you’ll hear truths that no warm-hearted “supportive” writers’ group friend will ever tell you! Put on your thickest skin and sign up for as many of these critiques as you can.

4) A range of agents and editors

Conferences will publish the credentials of their faculties beforehand. Follow up on agents’ and editors’ web pages. Go to Amazon and read the first pages of books they have handled. Be sure that at least two or more of the people you can pitch or submit to like the kind of thing you write.

5) Opportunities to socialize with the conference faculty

Some of us are really good at button-holing people we hope to impress. I’m terrible at it. Still, I’d like the chance! A good conference will require its faculty to show up for receptions and banquets. Show up yourself, this time in your bravest skin. You may find that the agent who sorta-kinda-seemed-to-like your pages is also a fan of that obscure Korean horror director you adore. When you send your follow-up query letter, he’ll remember that long chat you shared over wine.

You can’t always tell ahead of time whether this criterion will be met. If it isn’t, make a note for the future, and by all means, include your disappointment on your evaluation form.

It Worked for Me!

I met the agents who sold my first books through the conference process, and since my return to writing after a hiatus, I’ve received far more requests for partials from conference pitches than from written queries. And I’m not even very good at the conference process! But conferences provide me with the best chance to see how people who actually make buying decisions react to what I’m doing.

So once you and your writers’ groups have tweaked your manuscript as much as humanly possible and once you think you’ve done what all those books you’ve read say you should, pick a good conference to see what you’ve achieved.

*A “pitch session” doesn’t call for a synopsis or an elevator pitch. It’s a five-to-ten minute talk (usually breathless on my part) whose sole purpose is to tell the agent or editor what your book is about. The conference will specify how long you have. Maybe you’ll have time to throw in the extras from your full query; maybe not. The hook is what counts. Before you plan yours, search online—advice and examples abound. And if pre-conference pitch critiques or on-site practice is offered, sign up.

What about your experience with conferences! Share!

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