Writers who take the initiative gain an advantage

It’s difficult for new writers to comprehend that having a literary agent doesn’t mean the end of all rejections. When I’m able to persuade an acquiring editor to read a manuscript, the writer continues to face considerable competition. At the major U.S. publishing houses, each acquiring editor opts to read perhaps fifty or more manuscripts per year and selects from them maybe five or fewer that are published.

Lately, when manuscripts of equal quality are being evaluated, one factor that tends to tip the scales in favor of an acquisition is the author’s ability to help promote the title before and after it’s published. Publishers aren’t impressed with earnest promises; before investing, they look at what an author already has done to become familiar and interesting to readers.

Six years ago, when I started my agency, consideration of an author’s platform wasn’t as prevalent among publishers, but aspiring authors were learning how to use social media to their advantage. Now that a good percentage of creative writers are entrepreneurial, many editors view the absence of a platform (or the lack of an established readership, or name recognition, or whatever you choose to call it) as an additional reason to disqualify a manuscript and move on to those that have more potential to be profitable.

Some writers simply aren’t good at self-promotion, and it’s not something anyone can do for them. On the other hand, when a publicist at a publishing house and an author are able to collaborate easily—when they’re on the same page, so to speak, and the publicist doesn’t need to do much explaining—a successful book marketing campaign is far more likely.

Some writers excel at self-promotion, but their manuscripts aren’t superlative. What then? Is it easier and more cost-effective to fix an imperfect manuscript or to teach a writer how to make connections with readers? The jury’s still out on that question. I suspect that by the time I’m reading a query from an aspiring author, the individual already has reached his or her peak performance in both arenas and won’t be able to show much improvement. In other words, earnest promises don’t impress me. Evidence of self-initiative does.

Walt Whitman

(Detail of the entrance to the Detroit Public Library)

Why blog, when you can shoot yourself in the foot?

laptop and cell phone

(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Velasquez)

A writer friend who’s been blogging for as long as I have—almost eight years—wonders about recent claims that blogs are old hat. In view of the popularity of Pinterest, Tumblr, and sites like Facebook that facilitate simple sharing, is creating new content actually necessary?

It depends on the user. Is the user a writer?

Our blogs and websites are becoming our professional portfolios. They’re our marketing collateral. We can make them into whatever works for our particular professions. For example, a photographer could post thousands of words and still never convey to her prospective clients what one sample portrait or piece of photojournalism on her website could demonstrate about her talent. Likewise a fashion designer. Or a dog groomer. Creative writers, on the other hand, need to show that they can write. Words. Not shared videos or Instagram snapshots.

The person who holds a factory job on an assembly line or drives a truck or teaches school doesn’t need to use a blog or another form of social media to attract business or establish professional credibility. A bartender isn’t required to know how to take a great photo or write a poignant essay or design a kickass steampunk wedding gown. Most people need social media only to connect and communicate with other people socially. Sharing a 140-word tweet or a bad selfie or a book review written by a critic is more than sufficient to make those human connections and stimulate the type of small talk that would happen in real life.

A creative writer’s objectives include attracting readers, something a blog is designed to enable. Beyond blogging, in order to be seen as a professional in what amounts to the entertainment industry, a creative writer needs to reach the largest possible audience and should communicate in a variety of the media his or her audience uses. Every ambitious online literary journal now links to the journal’s blog, Facebook page, Twitter stream, Instagram, Tumblr, and sometimes a Pinterest board or other social media. Book publishers aren’t far behind. Each professional writer these days has the ability to do the same amount of outreach that publishers are doing.

Competitors are using the best available resources to make themselves discoverable. A creative writer who chooses not to is at a completely voluntary disadvantage. Would anyone who’s been blogging for eight years care to listen to someone complain about shortcomings… that are self-imposed? Please, don’t get me started.

Must self-interest and distrust make us inhumane?

Am I overly sensitive to people’s selfishness? Or is a greedy attitude overtaking Americans this year because we feel our lifestyles (or our aspirations) have been threatened for far too long by a poor economy? Can pushing aside the concerns of entire groups of people because of their ethnicity or perceived status actually help us feel powerful and righteous?

Part of our animal nature makes us pigs at a trough—each squealing and rooting to get to the slop, heedless of the weaker ones, and oblivious to our ugliness.

However, as human beings, we are not completely ruthless in our determination to thrive. It’s wrong to believe that our natural state of mind is to lack empathy for people of other cultures, races, and economic strata. Our minds and hearts are much more complicated than that.

True, it’s not as easy for us to feel empathy for people who are different, because our overriding initial response to them is fear. From an evolutionary perspective, our fear is useful. It makes sense. Yet, if we have even a little time to get to know someone who is different, the fear often dissipates, and then we can feel empathy naturally.

What we cannot do, unless we’re psychopaths, is handle the cognitive dissonance that results from harming another human being when we really don’t need to—in an immediate, literal sense. If we’re put into the situation of doing harm to someone, we quickly rationalize in order to eliminate the cognitive dissonance and feel good about ourselves. In other words, we make up a story the way a toddler would. To onlookers whom we haven’t recruited to our self-righteous worldview, our story is about as convincing as a child’s.

Balancing our opposing natures is not easy. It’s a challenging, often frustrating, lifelong endeavor to know ourselves. The importance of making the attempt is why one of the criteria I use for selecting new clients is a writer’s skill at presenting ideas that bring people together and help them understand each other.

If you share an interest in recognizing our common humanity, I invite you to attend the first U.S. screening of Riccardo Valsecchi‘s documentary film Schwarzkopf BRD at the Bat Haus in Bushwick, Brooklyn, on February 10, 2015, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are free. Watch for it on the Bat Haus Film Club‘s Facebook page. There’s also an Indiegogo campaign underway.

More on this topic

I can’t link you directly to Philosophy Talk Podcast 361: Humanity Violated (featuring David Livingstone Smith), which you can buy from iTunes. Smith makes the argument that dehumanization soothes people’s guilty consciences.

In the podcast, host Ken Taylor asks Smith about the process of dehumanization:

If I could just get….an evildoer to see, “Oh, that’s a human being you’re doing that to! That’s a fellow human being you’re doing that to”—and they could see it—do you think all this would stop? I’m not convinced that if I could just see that the “other” was a human being like me it would make all this stuff go away. What do you think?

Smith answers:

It would not make all this stuff go away. People would find other ways to solve the problem—the problem being overcoming inhibitions against harming others.

This, I believe, is one of the many tendencies we need to understand about ourselves.

Robin Mizell Ltd: 2014 agency statistics

It’s both satisfying and disturbing to perform a statistical review of all the queries I received during the past year. The raw numbers and the percentages remain surprisingly similar. I always sign as clients less than one percent of the writers who contact me, and some years none at all.

Last year was fun, because I began working with three new clients, all under the age of forty. Writers often ask whether their age can be a drawback. Age doesn’t matter to me, but I can’t say the same is true for all acquiring editors. Some weigh the publisher’s investment against a new author’s potential for a lengthy career, among other things.

A more important factor is a writer’s work ethic. I think the willingness to work hard is a fairly consistent and reliable trait over a person’s life span. Honesty is a big deal, too. It’s just more pleasant to work with clients who share my values.

Statistically in 2014

  • 393 writers asked me to consider their work
  • 23 of them were invited to send me their full manuscripts, but only 22 did
  • 3 then became my clients

2014 agency statistics

Compassion…

The Little Prince and the fox

Literary agencies located in Russia

Why are there so few literary agencies in Russia? Following are those of which I’m aware. Please let me know if you’re familiar with any others, and I’ll add them to the list.

Alexander Korzhenevski Agency (AK Agency) – Moscow

Andrew Nurnberg Associates – Moscow

Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency – Malmö, Moscow, St. Petersburg

Cinemotion Group – Moscow

Demian Literary Agency – St. Petersburg

ELKOST International Literary Agency – Barcelona, Milan, Moscow

FTM Agency, Ltd. – Moscow

Frontiers Literary Agency, +7 4991595524 – Moscow

Libright LLC: Publishing Solutions Agency – Moscow

Limbus Press Literary Agency – St. Petersburg

Mediana Russian Literary Agency – St. Petersburg

Nibbe & Wiedling – Seefeld, Germany, & Moscow

Nova Littera, Ltd. – Moscow

Synopsis – Moscow

Neva River

(Photograph courtesy of Witek Burkiewicz)

The value of memoir

Favorit typewriter

(Photograph courtesy of Florian Klauer)

Sherrey Meyer gets extra credit for calling it what it is: “Healing life’s hurts through writing.” Her genre is memoir, and her website is a wonderful resource for writers who are working on their life stories.

Celebrity memoirs will find publishers. And a truly talented writer can entertain readers by recounting even an ordinary existence. But to be perfectly honest, when memoir writers contact me about representation because they believe publishers might be interested in their manuscripts, usually they haven’t dealt with three major areas of concern:

  1. Their author platforms
  2. Commercial appeal—that is, having written something of significant interest to a large number of readers
  3. Legal liabilities, including libel, copyright infringement, privacy rights violations, and breach of another’s right of publicity

Sometimes writers can be too emotionally invested in the creative process to recognize that the value of putting their thoughts on paper has been mostly therapeutic. Sherrey Meyer is showing them that memoir writing is worthwhile when shared with just a handful of readers. Turning the finished work into a commercial product is by no means necessary.

Others with generous advice for memoirists

Two sharp criticisms of contemporary memoir

Hyper-motivated, sales-obsessed, brand-conscious novelists are nothing new

Shrewdly self-promoting authors may seem like a new phenomenon, but only because we now have instant access to the details of many of our favorite authors’ lives and work habits, even their thoughts.

In past centuries, famous authors’ working and private lives wouldn’t have been exposed, dissected, and discussed in such excruciatingly minute, factual detail until and unless their biographies or letters were published, perhaps posthumously. Today, we can read online not only the daily diaries of bestselling celebrity novelists but the blow-by-blow accounts of many, if not most, aspiring authors—an exponentially larger group. It’s not exactly like watching a biopic. It’s more like observing the making of a documentary about the making of a reality television series. Hmmm…

These days, it’s easy for new writers to get a fairly accurate perspective of the challenging business of earning a living as a book author.

Back in 2007, when transparency was still just a buzzword, Eric Konigsberg profiled crime novelist Harlan Coben for the Atlantic, describing him as someone who “approaches being a novelist the way a businessman or a lawyer—or for that matter an athlete—approaches his craft: as a series of finite and solvable problems.” Konigsberg noticed:

The roots of Coben’s work ethic seem to lie not in perfectionism, or in a relationship with an inner muse, but in his determination to rise to the top of the heap. “When I was just starting out, I hated signing in local malls, because no one was there,” he says. “It made me write so hard. I didn’t want to be there anymore. The same thing at Bouchercon”—a convention for crime novelists, their publishers, and their fans. “All the writers there were so bitter. I didn’t like being in that boat. I would just go home and write”—he curled his fists and appeared to press down, almost as though he had an imaginary jackhammer in front of him—“so much harder and harder.”

Writing for pay can turn a creative hobby or therapeutic outlet into an endeavor that bears no resemblance to a cherished daydream involving nothing more than a quiet woodland cabin furnished with desk, reading lamp, sheaves of paper, and a quill pen (or a Remington, depending on your genre). Old fantasies die painfully, but think about it. What profession doesn’t seem ridiculously alluring and glamorous when fictionalized? We can thank all those successful novelists and screenwriters for our misconceptions about real jobs that entail demanding, often dreadfully tedious work.

Konigsburg’s article is candid, revealing, and worth reading. If you’re unfamiliar with Coben, this video offers a glimpse. He’s represented, if you’re even more curious, by Lisa Erbach Vance of the Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency.