Thursday, October 12, 2006

In Defense of Agents and "Bad" Literature

I don't know, rejecter, the problem with so many agents and publishers is that you're interested in selling self-consuming artifacts (you went to Brown, you'll recognize that _expression) with a brief shelf-life. You equate sales with success. Stephen King had good commercial success with his early novels -- does anyone read them now? Buy them now? How about John Grisham? How about Wallerstein and Bridges Over Madison County (god what an awful book).

I read an interview that Andrew Wylie gave with La Monde where he described his method as trying to bring literature to the fore. He said that he pretty much despised Dan Brown and didn't care that 70% of the publishing world wanted more Dan Browns. There's an agent I'd give my left nut to have represent me, someone actually interested in literature and the contribution it can make to the culture, not only now but years from now.

First of all, Stephen King has had a lot of commercial success recently with both his fantasy Dark Tower series and his new horror/sci-fi novel Cell. He also writes regular columns for Entertainment Weekly. John Grisham's book The Innocent Man is currently #2 on the website in bestselling books. I can't remember off the top of my head if Wallerstein has written anything recently, but every writer has dry years and bad books. Some writers only have a certain number of books in them and either start producing crap or just stop writing pretty much altogether (J. D. Salinger, America's favorite non-writing writer)

In terms of equating sales with success, that's true and not true. The publishing industry is so tough that if you want to be a multiple-book writer, you have to have a significant early success, because you will be judged on the sale of your earlier material. If your first book is a flop, or doesn't do well enough to recoup publishing costs, your career with that publishing company is probably dead and the agent will have to take your future books to other companies, who will know that. For people who just wanted to write one great novel and get it published, that's not really an issue, but an agency can't have a giant list of one-book authors. It needs a stable of authors who regularly produce publishable material.

Most agencies have a varied book list. While the agent loves every book on that list, the public might not, and the agent is aware on this. A good agency (financially) will have a stable (and we do use this term) of authors who, like I said, regularly produce books (about every 1-3 years) that sell for significant advances (over $20,000). The stable will probably be relatively small, depending on how successful those authors are. One author can carry an entire agency for years. Then there's the others on the list, who aren't commercially successful, or are first-book authors who got a first-book advance (around $5000-7000), of which the agency got 15%. They get to stay on the list because the agency is floated by the stable authors, and the agent can afford to take on a new author who might have terrific material that just won't reach a huge audience.

For all of the criticism of agents representing what some people consider bad literature, nobody has bothered to inquire what other books Dan Brown's agent (if he has one) is representing.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sub Rights

My first novel is in print and will remain in print with a small publisher who uses print-on-demand through Booksurge. Distribution has been limited to Amazon and my publisher’s website. My publisher retains first rights and has not pursued the sale of subsidiary rights but has encouraged me to contact agencies to see if I can find an agent who’d sell subsidiary rights. The agents I’ve contacted so far have stated simply that they don’t represent books already in print with a publisher. I’ve been advised to try to sell first rights to a larger publisher, but they’re not mine to sell. Any suggestions? My novel explores a timely topic (interracial families) with which I have personal experience. It’s received good reviews, including one from Girl on Demand at POD-dy Mouth. Thanks for any insights you can offer.

This isn't my area of expertise, but the response you've gotten from agents isn't surprising. Nobody wants to pay a POD publisher rights to a book they're bothering to represent/republish. The big publishing companies won't bite, so there won't be decent money involved.

Look carefully at your contract with the POD publisher and see when their hold on first rights expires. It may be as short as a year. For suggestions on how to get out of a contract with a POD publisher, I would talk to Miss Snark.

My Anti-MFA Rant

Your MFA class anecdote was very interesting - and also tends to weaken your contention to some extent, as I'm guessing some of these MFA students will end up in the publishing side of the business.
So I'm in my second year as an MFA student and people ask me all the time, "What do you guys do with your degree when you graduate?" Well, I'm halfway through the program and I haven't figured that out. Some go on to be college professors of creative writing, which is what the degree qualifies you for. Some had their fun and go on with their normal lives. Some actually write.

In general, high level and mid-level MFA programs, not lesser ones from an online school,
promote a type of writing known as "literary fiction." In the publishing world, this is known as "unsellable." Most of my professors have written books I've never heard of and went out of print years ago on whatever small press they were printed on. You've got the occasional Pulitzer Prize winner, but chances are you've only got a few of those in the entire history of the program and yet these programs are churning out more and more writers each year, most of whom will not go on to any real commercial success.

There is a significant difference from what most people read and what is supposedly "great literature." Most of the fiction that has been successful in the last 30 years falls rather neatly into a genre. There is high-end fiction available on the front shelves at Barnes and Noble - Lovely Bones and The Color of Water and the like - but there's also a lot of Dan Brown. This isn't because people are stupid. This is because people want to enjoy the books they read and for the most part, people don't want to read heavily-worded 400 page rants about how miserable the author's life is.

When I was an undergrad at Brown taking creative writing workshops, I was usually one of two people who wasn't writing about a college student who was gay and smoked and described their house a lot. There'd usually be one other person in the class who would try something different, but that was about it. The main comments I got were, "Well, I actually enjoyed reading this, but it's not, like, really good stuff." I don't know. If you enjoyed it, I think I succeeded as a writer.

Once, just to piss off a professor, I wrote a story about gay vampires who smoked and had a torrid love affair beyond the other vampires' backs. I wrote this thing as a joke, but the professor got really into it, and so did the class. I couldn't figure it out, but it was really funny. Oh man, I'm still laughing about that.

What I'm getting at after rambling for a while is that the "literary world" - populated by unpublished MFA students and professors who were published once in the 1970's - is a different world from the publishing one. When the two meet and you get something that's high end and you want to read, you get a Pulitzer Prize winner. They like that sort of thing. One of my MFA professors is on the Pulitzer board. But the two do not meet very often.

(I'm a little temperamental about this because my professors often yell at me for writing stuff that's "too commercial" or "too genre-y" and then I have to take time away from my actual manuscript to write a rambling story about myself. Unfortunately I don't smoke nor am I gay or even having regular sex, so it's really hard)

Science-based Fiction and What's Publishable

On the fiction side of things, is the goal of writing "publishable" fiction to produce something that will please agents and editors, or something that the public will find worthwhile? I'm not entirely convinced these are always the same thing.

An agent's job is to sell the manuscript to a publisher who is enthusiastic about it and will put time and money into promoting it as much as possible. The editor's job is to make sure it's something the public will want. (Often this involves editing) The publishing company then has the job of marketing the book correctly to get it in bookstores and publicize it so the public knows it exists and buys it. The job of every person in the publishing industry is to make sure books sell. We do it because we care about the books. (We certainly don't do it for the money. It's a particularly low-paying industry) We want to put books out that are good and people will enjoy.

There have been a couple scattered cases where a book was great but not publishable. Someone along the line will probably recognize this and kill the project (usually the head of editorial department, who has the most to lose by having a book fail). In these rare cases, it's usually because that particular market isn't doing well. After Katrina, we were pretty much rejecting everything related to New Orleans, hurricanes, or Katrina. The timing wasn't right. But it's hard to say to an author, "Look, this is just the right novel at the wrong time." At the end of the day, publishing houses have to make money to pay the salaries of their employees - and pay you, the author. They can't do that if they go under because none of their books sold more than the cost of overhead for putting out the book.

Then there's the cases of books that we just miss the boat on. There's that famous story of how John Grisham got rejected everywhere and self-published his first novel or something and it became a huge hit, so some company picked it up. Stephen King tells young authors that he still has a giant stack of rejections sitting in a drawer in his office. But, usually, these authors succeed eventually (as the case with John Grisham and Stephen King).

You don't survive in the publishing industry unless you know what you're doing. For the most part our judgment of whether a book is good or bad is probably right.

I keep encountering agent and editor blogs and interviews where they state they personally have to fall in love with a book to pursue publishing it. There's only a few hundred people in these positions and I suspect they generally share the same educational and cultural backgrounds and interests.

It is true that an agent feels like they have to love the book to take it on. Honestly, you don't want an agent who doesn't love your material. They won't care. They'll shelve it. They won't sit down with the big editors for 3-hour lunches to pitch it, they won't try to get a bidding war going between publishers for it (which is good for you in terms of $), and they won't worry about how the publishing company is promoting it. You want to be the agent's numero uno priority.

It is NOT true that agents share the same educational and cultural backgrounds and interests. You can't be an agent unless you're fairly widely read in just about every genre, because you have to know books and markets. Agents are male or female, black and/or white. Some own dogs and some own cats and some own poodles that pee all over the shared carpet. (Not Miss Snark, if that's what you're thinking) Agents follow their interests based on the paragraph above, because they do have to love the manuscript, but they know all about the market and what's going on in just about every market. YA is very hot right now. Everyone predicts that Westerns will come back but they never do. Everyone's chilling off on thrillers related to the Vatican. Things like that are things agents pay close attention to.

But in the end, it just comes down to the agent loving your manuscript and wanting to see you in print.

More discussion and examples, if you wish:
One example is the integration of science within fiction (not SF). There's very little of it. (Basically, just Michael Crichton). This is despite the fact that a lot of key issues right now (global warming, genetics, pollution, etc.) are steeped in science - and fiction is a wonderful way to gain understanding and perspective. I'm curious if the strong literary background one is likely to have in fiction publishing (which makes sense) might also mean that science and techology isn't much of an interest for the agent and/or editor. And does this in turn mean that a query for fiction incorporating science is less likely to pass muster, even if on an important topic?

Michael Crichton is an interesting case. He actually went for a master's in English, and dropped out, saying his class was "filled with aspiring English teachers." He wanted to write, which was different, and MFA programs did not proliferate at the time, so he went to school to learn about what he wanted to write about, which was medicine. So he went to medical school. That was a very unconventional thing for him to do, but he was always essentially a writer. He was just doing research. Not all of his books are science-based -
Rising Sun is a good example of that. It's a book about Japanese culture in America during a time when the Japanese had a very successful economy and were buying up companies in the States. It has almost nothing to do with science at all. Or The Great Train Robbery, which is about a train robbery. Science is not really involved beyond what's necessary for robbing a train.

He's a writer, pure and simple. A really terrific writer - and you can debate for yourself whether he is or isn't one - can write about anything. It just might require research.

Science is a tough topic to fictionalize because it's not something non-scientists encounter on a regular basis after leaving high school. Chances are they'll have to deal with accountants, lawyers, truck drivers, whoever - but chances are, your average Joe does not encounter very hard science a lot except when there's a hot issue connected to it (like the environment, which is why Al Gore's book An Inconvenient Truth is a bestseller. It's also a good book) And there are very few scientists who are writers. The scientific field does not train you to be a fiction writer. It's something you have to learn on your own. If you have a degree in a scientific field, you've written some papers and maybe defended a thesis, but that doesn't mean it was a page-turner.

Most scientists or people who know a lot about science go into science fiction because science is essentially about discovering things, and new possiblities are what fiction is all about, so people like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson go nuts describing all of the crazy cybornetic possibilities of the future. It may or may not happen, but it's an interesting read.

As for math, the only interesting math book I've ever read was Flatland, which was a truly bizarre experiment in fiction that worked.

Here's a question for illustration: If presented with two roughly equal query letters about a thriller - one dealing with a stolen rare book and taking place in an upscale NY suburb, and a second dealing with water rights and taking place near Phoenix, Arizona - is one query more likely than the other to pass through the gate?

No. We
don't care where it takes place. We care that it's an interesting book. If it uses the place setting to its advantage, great. Otherwise, it doesn't show up on our radar. A lot of fiction seems to take place in New York because a lot of writers live in New York, and because New York is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in America and a lot happens here to write about. But to be perfectly honest, we're all a little sick of New York-based fiction. Or at least I am, because I'm in an MFA program where everyone writes about living in New York. I once wrote a short story that took place in Victorian England and people just didn't get it. It was like a foreign concept to them. It was one of my more frustrating fiction-workshop moments.

Write about whatever you want to write about. Put your heart and soul into it, and make it shine. If you succeed, we'll love it. Otherwise, we won't, and that's the bottom line.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

My Favorite Things #1

I'd like to start with my favorite of all: people who use "lesbian" as an adjective.

Let's be clear about this. I have no problem with gay-themed fiction or non-fiction. In fact, I read a lot of it in the fan fiction world. What I am referring to the case where the protagonist is something else, and the male author (because the author is always, always male in this case) feels the need to add that she is lesbian. There is the lesbian militant. The lesbian detective. The lesbian vampire. The lesbian psychic. The lesbian psychic detective. (I've seen it) Man, those lesbians are out there, doin' things, probably having sex at least once in the book I'm guessing, as we never request this kind of material. I'm sure there's a shower scene that wasn't totally necessary to the plot. Thanks, male author!

The greatest query letter ever would be about a militant lesbian psychic vampire who solves crimes. And by "greatest" I mean "worst."

Monday, October 09, 2006

Surprise! We make mistakes.

(This) happened to me several months ago, when an assistant and I traded emails at a NY literary agency. They loved the query; "send us your first chapter." They loved the first chapter or so I was told; "send us your full." The next day, I received an email, "Sorry, but we found the writing confusing, best wishes, etc." I was printing the last section of the full manuscript at that moment. Really can't describe the haze of the next five minutes, but I remember some use of colorful language was involved.

This is one of the few cases where I would actually recommend contacting the agency to ask what happened, because this sounds like a case of miscommunication.

For the most part, assistants do not request partials. Agents do. I can only remember one or two instances where I nudged an agent into requesting a partial when he/she didn't want to, and it ended ultimately in rejection for that person.

My guess here - and this is a real guess - is that the second email was a mistake email. We try not to do it, but it happens. Envelopes get stuffed with rejection letters when they shouldn't, SASEs get lost, the agent hits the auto-reject reply button on her mail program to the wrong email. I always double-check that the name on the query matches the name on the envelope of the person I'm rejecting, but I'm human. In our office there's a stack of mysterious SASEs that don't seem to have matched any query letter we had. Everyone screws up at their job once in a while, including agents and their assistants.

If you queried multiple agents with a good letter, you should get more than one positive reply, so it shouldn't be a huge worry. If you tell me you queried 100 agents and this was the only positive, I would say something's wrong with your material. So one screw up at one agency is not going to mean that you will never get published. And if you have reason to believe there was a mistake made because something just doesn't make sense, feel free to email the agency. We're incredibly apologetic about these sorts of things because we feel bad about them.

What are your chances, really?

I have a question about standard business practice at agencies. Is it common for someone in your position to put something in the "maybe" pile and then have the agent reject it outright? Have you read any great submissions that your boss then rejected?

Actually, most of the maybe pile is fairly immediately rejected. I would say about 95% of the letters are initially rejected by me. The other five percent are passed on to my boss, who then rejects most of them immediately, leaving about 1% that she actually makes requests for partials from. Of those partials, most are rejected.

A good agency will only take on a couple new clients a year. If you read Jeff Herman's Guide to Literary Agents, his listings indicate that most agencies say they accept 1% of their submissions. Actually the number much lower, but it's rather hard to calculate because it varies widely year-to-year.

Even the best agencies have good years and then dry spells. A good year is when at least one person on the client list has hit the NY Times bestseller list and/or gotten a large advance, large enough to pay out for the agent, who only gets 15%. A dry year is when the agent's "stable" of clients are not turning in new material that's publishable or going for big money. It's usually during a dry year that the agent freaks out and takes on a bunch of new clients in hopes that at least one them will take off.

None of this affects you in a way you can predict. The best thing to do is write a good novel and cast a wide net. If your material is publishable, you will get some bites.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Basics, Continued

It sounds like you immediately toss the query if it doesn't follow the described format.

I don't, actually. If you wrote a complete novel, took the time to write up a query letter to a professional literary agency, and paid for the postage, I feel soundly that the whole letter should be read. (Plus, it doesn't take me a long time to read a 1 page letter)

If you have a sound manuscript and are capable of conveying that somewhere in the letter, I'm willing to forgive a few spelling, grammatical, or formatting errors. Nobody's perfect, or maybe the author didn't really do much research on how to write a query letter and spent more time focusing on perfecting their novel - a better idea in the long run. Or, there's the occasional abomindable query letter with excellent credentials that just goes into the maybe pile immediately. ("I won the Booker Prize for Short Fiction, had my previous book turned into a movie, and my previous agent was at William Morris but died recently and I need a new one.")

My job is to sniff out quality material. Sometimes the query letter isn't perfect but the concept is interesting enough for me to pass it on and my boss to request it. However, it's best to give yourself every possible advantage by polishing your query letter, because many agencies will NOT give you the time of day if you even call your manuscript a "fiction novel." Many assistants and agents are looking for a reason to reject and will take any. In short, try not to screw up, but if you have a great book, you will probably get some offers even if there's a spelling mistake somewhere.

If the format is followed, what part of the letter convices you to put it in the maybe pile?

Jon Piper

I get this question a lot, and the answer is always, "It sounds like a really good book." Since there's no one right way to write a great book, I can't really tell you that way. I can only tell you the wrong way to present it. Sorry.

The Basics

Dear Rejecter,
What do you look for in a query letter? What causes you to request an ms?
Jon Piper

Let's go over the basics once and for all.

The query letter is actually a fairly simple letter of introduction that is so stylized that you only have to worry about the first 1-2 paragraphs. It's when people vary from the norm that gets them in trouble, though having a bad novel idea helps too. The letter should look like this:

Dear [Mr./Ms.][Agent's Last Name],

[1-3 Paragraphs introducing your manuscript. It's not so much a summary as an enticement to read the material. Imagine that you are writing a book jacket that is meant to entice potential readers to spend up to $20 on your book. It should hit key plot points, but should not be a summary of what happens. This section of the query should be the best material you've ever written in your life, because it is basically what we judge your work by. Fortunately, if you are a terrific writer with a terrific novel, it shouldn't be hard. The problem is that most people aren't terrific writers. Oh, and don't make it more than 3 paragraphs, quote the text, or list characters unnecessarily]

[1 paragraph containing these these VERY important items:

  1. Title of manuscript (Having only a working title or no title is the sign that you haven't thought out your manuscript)
  2. Word count (page numbers mean nothing to us)
  3. Genre (Don't lie. Your sci-fi novel is not contemporary fiction. And don't include multiple genres to try to make it seem like it will be a crossover hit. I've done that in my own queries and it looks stupid)
  4. Significant Writing Credentials (And writing a column in your town's newspaper about the annual street fair doesn't count, even if it is technically published. If you don't have any, just ignore #4 and move on)
  5. Referral Info (If you're querying because you were told to by the agent themself or a client of the agent, you could mention it here or on the first line of your query, your choice)
  6. Biographical Information Immediately Pertaining to Your Manuscript (Important ONLY for non-fiction. Includes: professional research done for material or things in your personal life that led you to write it. Let me repeat: This is only important for non-fiction.)
  7. Some last line about "thanks for reading" and that your completed manuscript is ready for submission. ]
[Signature, with full contact information, including email if you have it]

...And there you have it. Don't make it longer than one page and/or four paragraphs. We bore easily.

For more on query formatting, check out AgentQuery's site, or numerous others on the internet. Don't spend money on a book just on query letters. I have a couple, and they're all pretty bad and expensive.