Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Job Market and My Boss

Dear Rejecter:
Is your publishing house aware that you are selling your services outside of work?
While I'm sure what you're offering is high-quality, my gentle suggestion is that you check with your senior editor first, before you find a conflict of interest shadowing your career.

U.S. Writer

Well, yeah, of course she does. She knows about the blog and she knows that I'm looking for other work, even work that would replace the job I have. We've talked about it from time to time.

What I have is a pretty bottom-level job within a two person company, and one of the people is me. It would only get lower if I was an unpaid intern. It's not expected that I'm going to stay working at the literary agency forever. In fact, most people only stay at my position for a year or two, and then the agent (or agents, as many people have multiple jobs and multiple agencies because they need the hours to pay the bills) helps them find a job at a publishing house. It's in the agent's best interest that a former assistant become, hopefully, an editor at a major house, because the agent is thinking that down the line, in 10 years or so, their former assistant may be the person they're pitching a novel to.

I've stayed with the job so long because (1) I was in school full-time until January, (2) I genuinely like my boss and I enjoy my work, (3) until recently I've been too ill for full-time work, (4) I'm a working writer with one book coming out in the fall that's the first in a series and another we're about to try to sell to another company, (5) the job market is completely dead right now.

It may seem a little weird to people who have more traditional jobs that involve getting a job at a company and hoping to get a raise or a promotion that I talk to my employer about job prospects, but people move around a lot in publishing, and it's in everyone's best interest to keep a network of people they know in other agencies/companies. I think when it gets to the corporate level (VP or above) they get extremely secretive about job offers elsewhere, because there actual living wage is involved, but that's at a very high level that most people don't achieve or don't want to achieve.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Queries Go Into Repeats

Normally I wouldn't post about a specific query, but I honestly think this guy does not own a computer. If he did, maybe the query wouldn't be made on a typewriter.

About every 3 months or so - sometimes more, sometimes less - we get the same query from this crazy ex-army guy. After the "Dear ____" line, he launches into a 3 page, single-spaced, type-written discussion of his theory about how every single president since Roosevelt has been a Communist. All of their policies are "pro-Red," some of them gave information to the KGB, and basically we're totally screwed and we've been screwed for a while because our government is run by a shadow government in Moscow. He ends with a photocopy of his honorary discharge papers, for reasons that remain unexplained.

The second time we got it, we wrote a note saying it was the second time and we still weren't interested. Today, I wrote a little PS saying that it was the third time and we still weren't interested.

There are a class of people who buy a Writer's Digest, make a lot of photocopies, and just mail a query out blindly to every agency on the list. Then when they get rejected, they wait a little bit and send it out again. If the query hasn't changed at all we notice it. If the query is distinctive (like this guy's) we make it a point to, you know, tell him we aren't interested. The fact that he's a conspiracy nut makes it all the better, or at least more interesting.

If you work at a literary agency, have you gotten a letter from this guy?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Just have to ask: do you write, send in submissions, and get rejected, too?
Just curious about what you want to be/do besides be "the rejecter."
In 5 years, what would you like to be? A published fiction writer? A screenwriter? In PR? A venture capitalist? Living in Alaska?

I did the whole submission/rejection business for years, finally got an offer on the third novel I tried to submit last summer. It's coming out in September. I've got two more in the pipeline that we're (me and my agent, not related to my boss) hoping to sell for actual money, instead of the tiny advance for the first one.

In five years I'd like to have all 10 of my historical fiction novels (9 written) bought, along with possibly some of my other work, and be living off my writing. That's my dream.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Impromptu Translation Market Discussion

I found this funny.

Novelist Strike Fails to Affect Nation Whatsover


I'm an aspiring writer from Europe. Although it's not my first language, I do all my fiction writing in English. When submitting queries to agents, I was wondering how relevant my job is: I translate non-fiction texts to English, specifically websites and flyers for relatively small companies. It's not fiction, and it's not my own writing, but I do get paid for something that relates to my knowledge of the English language and ability to string sentences together in a vaguely coherent fashion (which is always a plus in writing). Since I have no other writing credentials, this was all I could think of that *might* be relevant in a query letter. What do you think/recommend? Would you see it as positive, neutral, or as grasping at straws?

And while we're on that subject, do you recommend mentioning that I'm a foreign author in the query letter, or to not bring it up until later (on the off chance that the agent is interested in my work)?

To answer your questions in random order:

(1) If your first language is English or you are very, very good at it and primarily write in it (as you seem to), there is no harm in saying you are a foreign writer. Some agents actually find it exotic, and there is an increasing interest in foreign markets (especially with the strength of the euro), so so ahead. Some people who do not know enough English to write in English do query us, but it's always very obvious from their query that they cannot write in English and would require a translator to help them.

(2) By all means, mention any translation work in or out of English, as that is a serious writing credit. Translation, as you know, is very difficult, and if you've done it professionally, it shows how you understand the importance of selecting words and phrases to convey meaning.

To discuss the topic at large, and not your questions specifically, there is a translation market in the US that is always seeking translators, small though it may be. The US market is notoriously xenophobic, and we export far more literature (translated and untranslated) than we import, so generally people who do work in translating foreign works into English are very proud and occasionally a little self-righteous about it.

The English language market is the biggest market for the written word in the world except perhaps for China (in Mandarin). There are a number of historical, political, and economic reasons for this. Thanks to British and American colonialism, English is spoken at least as a second language in - I want to say a majority of countries, but I can't back it up. America and Britain also have strong economies that can support massive book production and have high literacy rates, meaning we are an atmosphere to produce more readers and more people who have enough of a separate income to become writers. While China is approaching us on this, China also has massive state suppression of the press, which includes Chinese novels and the importation and translation of foreign novelists. My convocation speaker at Brown was some Chinese exile poet we'd never heard of.

The biggest translation market in the US, in both directions, is Spanish. English works are constantly translated into Spanish for Spanish-speaking Americans, while Spanish works are particularly hot items on the literary fiction market (especially if the writers are from South America). When I took a translation course for my MFA program to pass my second language competency requirement, almost everyone in the room did Spanish except for a few people who did French because they took it in high school, and three others. I did ancient Hebrew, one woman did Yiddish, and one girl was from Taiwan and did Chinese.

I'm forgetting a lot of growing markets, and leaving out religious markets (which aside from the Christian ones, are almost entirely separate from mainstream publishing) because this is off the top of my head. For all of the Arabic speakers in the world, I've seen very few translations of text that aren't the Qur'an (for which, I recommend Ahmed Ali's translation). Some famous Russian literature of course comes to mind, though most of it dates to pre-Communist or early Communist Russia. And then there's French literature, a lot of dating from when French was a second language to everyone who spoke English (i.e. the 1200s to the 1900s). So excuse me for leaving out major contributions here, but I think you get the gist of what I'm saying.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Successful Queries

Dear Rejector,

What I always wished I could see would be query letter examples of books that 'made it' - you know, show me Stephen King's query letter for 'Carrie,' show me Alcott's query letter for 'Little Women,' show me a query letter for any of Oprah's books (which may or may not have deserved to make it, but that's neither here nor there). It's instructive because of what the authors leave out, much more than what they put in, you know? For all I know there's a website that does this, or a book of published ones, but I've never heard of any. If you have, would love to see it! Thanks!


Dear Rejecter,

I like your blog--thanks for sharing your insights. Here's my question: you say you put aside 5% in the "maybe" stack. There's so much info out there to warn the clueless, but very little for those people who are almost there, but not quite. I'm thinking of the ones getting full requests, getting comments back, yet ultimately end up with a pass. Could you explain a little about the line between YES! and We-e-e-ll, not quite?


I get a lot of emails asking me to present a query that worked, and I've never done it. A couple of reasons:

(1) We generally do not keep them around.
(2) That would be a violation of copyright, as the author of the letter has a copyright on the letter.
(3) It's not very polite to do to the author.
(4) It wouldn't help you.

Once again, the basic query format is 2-3 paragraphs telling us what your book is about in a way that makes it sound awesome, and the last paragraph contains some technical information about the book and any writing credentials you may have. It isn't any more complicated than that.

I put a query in the maybe pile because it does just that: It makes the book idea seem interesting, or at least, would seem interesting to my boss (she has different tastes than I do, but for the purposes of my job, only her tastes are relevant). Me posting a query that got her attention because the author had a good idea would not help you very much because it doesn't help you with your idea, which I presume is different. Only you have the power to write a great book and then summarize it so well it sounds like we have to read it, and no amount of reading other people's book ideas is going to help you do that.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Reviewers as Writers

Amazon Affiliates thing is up. I do solemnly promise to only post links to books I have read and enjoyed and/or think are valuable. This will severely narrow down the list of things in the store, but what can you do?

Dear Rejecter,

I'm a writer who MAY be ready to send things to agents soon- after three drafts, it's with members of the writing group I belong to. I'm writing- and trashing draft after draft of- a query letter. I'm trying to figure out if the book reviews I'm doing count as a writing credit- I'm not getting paid and I only got the job because my cousin works there. But none of that is what's bothering me.

I keep getting the feeling I've missed something. So I was wondering if you could tell me the mistakes most people querying make- not necessarily the ones the nitwits would make, but the mistakes or stylistic errors people who clearly put time and effort into something tend to miss. Care to enlighten me before I start my rejection pile?

I don't really think it counts as a "writing" credit, but it's a publishing credit (provided it's a legitimate review group) and therefore worth mentioning.

As for the second question, I have to say I get this a lot, and I answered it pretty early in the blog: Two paragraphs describing your novel, one paragraph listing word count, title, genre, and any credits, and don't do anything gimmicky or stupid. It's not harder than that, though that is pretty hard.

Sadly, mistakes generally fall into two categories: querying an agency that doesn't handle that genre (which would account for about half of my rejection pile), and not having a good novel in the first place, which admittedly is pretty hard to tell if you're the writer.

I Am Speechless (Metaphorically)

So apparently writing "Websites by Scam Agents and Fake Contests" was not obvious enough for some people, who have emailed me under the impression that I either (a) endorse the agencies Google Adsense chooses to put in my ad space or (b) work for them. I honestly don't know how much more obvious I could be, short of writing a paragraph saying HI GOOGLE SELECTS ADS BASED ON PAGE CONTENT AND THE ADS ARE FOR SCAM AGENCIES DO NOT USE THOSE AGENCIES AND IF YOU CANNOT READ THESE WORDS YOU PROBABLY CAN'T READ AND SO WHY HAVE YOU BOTHERED TO WRITE A NOVEL IF YOU'RE NOT LITERATE?

Seriously people. As far as I can tell, I cannot ask Google to eliminate certain sites as much as I can specify which ones I want to use (thereby eliminating everything else) but I can't think of anything I want to use, much less dozens of sites that are advertising. So I'm torn between the money (which has been $40 so far) and worrying about sheer idiocy.

I could try an affiliate program with Amazon, but honestly I would only endorse books I've both read and liked, so that narrows it down a lot.