Category Archives: literary agent

The demands of commercial authorhood today

daydreamer

  Photo courtesy of Alexander Solodukhin

Daydreaming fosters creativity. Industriousness, on the other hand, is beneficial for commerce. Rarely is a creative writer equally productive in both modes.

Everyone’s favorite writers’ conferences and how-to-get-published guides gently encourage and inspire. They wouldn’t be as popular if they presented a fully realistic picture of what it takes for an author to succeed commercially—that is, by selling lots of books. As an unfortunate, unintended result, many aspiring book authors are led too soon to believe they’re ready to compete with their idols in the publishing world. I’m conflicted about how to bring this matter up with prospective clients.

The telltale promise that exposes naïve writers every time is, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes for my book to succeed.” They feel compelled to say it, because they haven’t begun to envision and haven’t yet started whatever it takes. Technically, it’s a failure of their imagination. It shouldn’t happen.

My job is to screen out the dilettantes and hobbyists and to coach the thoughtful, devoted, solid professionals who have chosen writing as a career path. Following are some of the questions I try to remember to ask prospective clients when we’re deciding whether we’ll be able to work together.

Takeaway: If you don’t have good answers to these questions, then there’s no need to pitch your manuscript to me. You’re not ready.

How much time can you invest in building your writing career, knowing you’ll simultaneously need to spend significant time earning income? Holding down a day job is not an issue if you have enough passive income or savings to support yourself for more than a few years. Will any of your commitments over the next several years prohibit you from being in the public eye and from devoting a lot of unpaid time to your author platform and your writing? *

Have you already proven you’ll be able to market yourself as an author? Have you developed a following or any sort of name recognition among a sufficiently large group of people who are likely to buy your book? Consider that selling books primarily to the writers in your social circle isn’t an ideal marketing strategy, unless your book happens to be a writers’ manual.

Can you show me articles, essays, or stories you’ve written that were published in journals and magazines or on websites with some traffic? While unremunerative, collecting publication credits can be a quick-start learning experience. By the way, I tell new writers that it’s likely to take sixty submissions to get a first short story or essay published in a selective journal or magazine, including the digital ones.

Do you write a column or blog for a print or online publication? Landing that sort of (typically low-paying) gig demonstrates your ability to network and collaborate with an editor.

Do you have a professional-looking website and an active, engaging presence on significant social media sites? Which authors’ websites are your benchmarks? Don’t think of emulating but learn from the living authors you most admire.

If you’ve made no initial progress on your author platform before contacting me, then I’ll be forced to assume you never will. It takes a great deal of time to acquire the technical and social skills and then to execute a long-term publicity strategy for a career. Many, in fact most, writers aren’t terribly teachable or motivated to work on their techniques for self-promotion, without which their chances of succeeding as a commercial author are just too remote. I’m obligated to choose clients who are prepared to knock it out of the park, not those who have never shown up for batting practice.

I do my utmost to prepare a new client to collaborate successfully with a publisher and with the people who will offer opportunities for good publicity that might increase book sales. The actual work is up to the writer. Some might prefer to find and hire freelancers to help with some of their responsibilities. I don’t recommend delegating tasks, because no one will care more about the success of a book than its author. Usually it’s obvious when there’s no practical possibility that a potential client will follow through on vague promises to hire someone to do the work they don’t want, or don’t know how, to do.

Once a book is under contract, a publisher’s timeline is unyielding. Authors sometimes are asked, for example, to turn around revisions or proofs in as little as two weeks. No one will worry whether those two weeks happen to fall during the author’s annual vacation in the Florida Keys. Grace under pressure is an enormously valuable trait.

I emphasize to new clients the benefit of rolling up their sleeves. If a publishing team begins to sense that their new author isn’t working as hard as they are to launch the author’s book successfully, then the publisher’s staff will shift their focus to another book by another author. Conversely, if an author is going above and beyond anyone’s expectations to generate amazingly creative publicity for a book, then the publishing team will be enthusiastic and motivated, at least to care, even if they don’t have a spare moment to act. The caring part matters. It ripples out. The word spreads. You’ve got to read this one!

Debut authors get one chance to establish their commercial viability. It doesn’t matter whether their first books are self-published or traditionally published. The sales data are inescapable. To the largest trade book publishers, an author was a financial risk who cautiously was given an opportunity to become a profitable investment. If readers didn’t show their approval by purchasing thousands of copies of the author’s book, the record of poor sales becomes all but impossible to overcome. When a book flops, according to the trade book publishing industry’s definition of failure at the time, then commercial publishers won’t invest in the author’s future works. It doesn’t matter how gifted the author is or how much I believe in and like the person. A first-time author is viewed as a more strategic risk than one whose published book hasn’t sold well.

I’ve been through this fantasy-wrecking process with writers who thought they could either a) embark on degree programs, internships, alternate career development, or other major new endeavors while simultaneously building a career as a book author, or b) immediately discard all of their practical plans in favor of a career as a book author, without realizing how slim the chance that writing ever will generate an income sufficient to live on. The illusion of overnight success is the de facto gate beyond which most aspiring authors can’t progress.

These demands might seem unbearable or unfair, but as long as a few good writers are finding imaginative ways to put in whatever effort is required to succeed commercially, they will be the ones setting the bar so high.

How do you plan to manage all of the work ahead of you?

* In case you haven’t noticed, these expectations have an unfair and disparate impact on writers who are not wealthy but desire careers in the arts requiring many hours of labor with little likelihood of financial gain. I already do a lot of pro bono work as an agent, as I’m sure most authors’ representatives do, because we believe in trying to mitigate the existing disadvantages. At least one nonprofit literary agency exists in the U.S. Check it out. Individual publishing houses and arts funding agencies contribute much more to solving this persistent problem.

Literary agencies located across the African continent

postage stamps

  Photo courtesy of Graham Soult


Writers looking for literary agencies in African countries will not find an overabundance of them. To maximize the chances of impressing one of these few agents with your talent, prepare your strategy carefully. Read my 25 steps to finding and working with a literary agent.

Learn how to get your book published successfully by reading Jane Friedman’s advice to authors. If you write short stories or poems, take a look at Ayelet Tsabari’s free guide to publishing in literary magazines.

I welcome information about any other literary agencies located in African countries.


Egypt

Sphinx Agency – Ahmed Ibrahim
Tanany Book Services – Mostafa Tanany


Nigeria

The Lumina Literary Agency


South Africa

The Lennon-Ritchie Agency – Aoife Lennon-Ritchie
Talk To Me Literary Agency – Monica Seeber
Van Aggelen African Literary Agency – Bieke Van Aggelen


Zimbabwe

Chirikure Chirikure


Why be honest?

Authors must be asking themselves whether it’s really wise to be honest in their professional dealings these days. The flamboyant examples set by too many untrustworthy public figures send the message that honesty is outmoded, or simply of no competitive advantage. And yet, I continue to judge prospective, as well as current, clients unfavorably if they lie.

I’m a harsh critic when someone fails to live up to promises or when a person implies something that isn’t true in order to secure a benefit of some sort. These days, fraud detection starts on receipt of a prospective client’s query. I commonly hear from writers who already have self-published the books they want me to represent, although they don’t bother to reveal the information in their queries. Presuming their failed do-it-yourself publishing projects might disqualify them, they omit the information and come off looking like liars. The extra few seconds it takes me to discover the book’s publication details aren’t the source of annoyance. It’s the lack of honesty that bugs me.

Posted on my agency’s website is a link to the answer I give authors who ask if I can interest traditional publishers in their self-published books. It’s no secret.

I can’t be the only one who believes honesty is a virtue and its lack a primary indicator of someone with whom I’d rather never be associated. In practice, though, my own honesty when communicating with prospective clients doesn’t always work in my favor.

More than a few authors have complained privately to me that their literary agents set them up with false promises or unwarranted enthusiasm and then failed to find publishers for their books. From the moment I launched my business, I took pains to avoid being perceived as that kind of agent. I’ve been brutally honest about the amount of work involved in getting a book published, but it shouldn’t be surprising that truth isn’t what a lot of writers care to hear. Many prefer the fairy tale, and when given the choice, they’re bewitched by the flattery and bravado of someone less scrupulous.

In the long run, I hope valuing honesty pays off. Whether it does or doesn’t, I’ll choose to align myself with people who are not only talented but whose strong moral character and intrinsic honesty is as apparent in their professional dealings as it is in their writing.

roosting birds

What if an aspiring author’s missing quality is drive?

I’m well aware of the ridiculous odds against creative writers making a living from their art. Therefore, I judge prospective clients on their ability to contend with relentless pressure. As an agent, I hope I can help ease the stress, but I can’t compensate for an aspiring author who isn’t driven beyond logic to succeed. By driven, I mean insatiably curious about how to be a better writer, how to connect with readers, how to market written work. I mean highly motivated to learn, create, and compete. I don’t mean inspired by a sense of superiority.

It’s easy to confuse desire with drive, because they can evoke the same emotions in people. The difference is that desire can flourish as pure fantasy, while drive pursues measurable progress.

Aspiring book authors might be surprised to learn how obvious their lack of drive is to those working in the publishing industry. We all tend to see these symptoms as evidence that drive—drive that leads to action—is missing:

  • Expectations of effortless entitlement or instant gratification
  • Perpetual complaining
  • Dishonesty, and its offspring:
    • Obsequiousness
    • Blaming others for one’s own failure to make progress (not to be confused with taking a stand against unfair, systemic discrimination)
  • Lack of technical skills required for editing, messaging, and online networking

Most of us give novice writers the benefit of the doubt, once, because inexperience can look a lot like the absence of drive instead of a simple lack of knowledge. However, when it’s necessary to point out a writer’s professional shortcomings, then we expect a person who is sufficiently driven to follow up by remedying the problems, by taking action.

The funny thing (which creates an opportunity for aspiring authors who are driven) is that almost no writers make effective use of the advice they’re given. In other words, by far the majority of aspiring authors drop out of the running when faced with work they don’t want to do. That’s good news for writers who are on a mission, because it eliminates most of their competition. It’s also bad news for writers who are on a mission, because rivals who put in even more effort and time can gain an advantage over them.

Maybe you have a better word for it. What does an absence of drive look like to you?

shark

  Image courtesy of Jason VanDorsten

What are your burning questions about becoming a book author?

Why are so many aspiring authors reluctant to ask questions about what they want to know? It would be comical—like a hopelessly lost motorist refusing to ask for directions—if it weren’t actually sad. Generous, knowledgeable people are offering assistance online. Almost nothing about the process of creative writing and book publishing hasn’t been revealed somewhere by someone. The information is there for the taking. For free.

I’ve posted just about every piece of advice I could think of on this blog over the years. Much of it addressed questions that were posed to me offline. I enjoy gathering the information so I can share it, but the longer I do this, the fewer unanswered questions remain.

Today, I’ll simply offer an observation for your consideration. I communicate with hundreds of aspiring authors each year, and by far the majority seem to have no clue how many personal qualities they must possess and how many professional skills they need to master in order to become successful enough to make their living as creative writers.

Granted, the necessary skills take lots of time and effort to ace, but the sooner you begin learning, the sooner you’ll acquire the expertise. I shouldn’t feel sorry for those who are going around in circles in order to avoid whatever it is they don’t want to do.

Where to start

In these fairly comprehensive lists, identify the unfamiliar concepts or the skills and strategies that you know you haven’t picked up. Then get busy learning in 2016. No excuses.

Do You Struggle with the Learning Curve? by author Jami Gold

All the Things that Are Wrong with Your Screenplay in One Handy Infographic (handy for novelists as well)

Grammar Girl

The Key Book Publishing Paths in 2016 by Jane Friedman

25 Steps to Getting and Working with a Literary Agent

Over in the blogroll… More Resources for Writers

If you still can’t pinpoint your manuscript’s weaknesses, then you can obtain a professional evaluation. The capacity and willingness to learn are two of the personal qualities you’re going to need to succeed.
learning

When a writer’s best isn’t good enough

For the past several decades we’ve been teaching children that doing their best is all we expect of them. What happens when a child who has received and internalized this message grows up with the dream of being a book author and confronts the reality that his or her best isn’t the stuff of a career, or even a brief moment of notoriety?

Well, for one thing, a throng of entrepreneurs pitching services and wares to creative writers are happy to assume the voice of nurturing parents by insisting that persistence and inspiration will make anyone into a successful writer. By defining success as trying one’s best, I suppose they’re equivocally correct.

It also might be argued that boosting a writer’s self-esteem, giving the person hope, or telling the eternal optimists only what they want to hear indeed are valuable services. What writer wants to pay to be told that he or she still has a lot to learn? Or to put it another way, an unscrupulous company will find it much easier to sell an illusion. Evidence that aspiring authors are being misled comes to me in the form of query letters from writers who describe the same unimproved manuscripts year after year.

Over on Jane Friedman’s blog, freelance editor Rebecca Faith Heyman reports honestly that “difficult-to-agent books often have significant problems.” The completed manuscripts may be the results of writers’ best efforts, but that alone doesn’t make them good enough. Fortunately, educational resources, very often free of charge, are available to writers who are capable of recognizing their own shortcomings and willing to work to improve their chances of success. The public library loans excellent reference books, and my blogroll is another place to begin the search.

writer working

How will readers ever find your book?

It may well be that you don’t have enough time for a career as a book author, and writing is really just a hobby, a side gig, or a form of therapy for you. No problem. In that case, you don’t need a literary agent, or more correctly, the literary agent doesn’t need you. If you want to make money as an author, on the other hand, then your books must be discoverable. Readers won’t come to you. You’ll need to find ways to get on their radar. You’ll need to become an author whose books are recommended by one reader to another. That’s how books and their authors become bestsellers.

Let’s say your book was published in 2013. More than 300,000 new titles were traditionally published in the U.S. in 2013. In the same year in the U.S., more than 1,000,000 new titles were non-traditionally published, a figure that includes self-published books. How many of those books did you read? How many can you name? How many of the authors can you name? How would a stranger have ever found your book among the 1,300,000?

browsing books

  FreeImages.com/Nick Manning


When you’re browsing in a bookstore, how many books do you leaf through before selecting one to buy? What attracts you? What makes you put a book down and choose another? Do you typically search for new titles from authors who are known to you? Do you like to read what your friends are reading? Your book is evaluated in the same ways.

If your book’s page on Amazon lacks a compelling description and any customer reviews, and the Amazon customer who happens to come across it has never heard of you, and you have no online presence to give the prospective buyer any information, then why would you expect the person to pay for your book instead of the latest from Clive Cussler or one of the titles longlisted for the Man Booker or the novel everyone at the hair salon is discussing?

If you know anything about online booksellers and social media, then you know it requires effort to capitalize on the exposure they can offer books and authors. It takes time and technical ability to maintain multiple online profiles and learn to write compelling sales copy. Working at it every day for three years might get you up to speed, provided you already possess some basic social skills. There are no shortcuts. Thousands of writers are there ahead of you.

Don’t know where to start with self-promotion? You can join the crowd of writers who remained clueless. You’ll know them. They’re the ones you’ve never heard of.

Everything you want and need to know about book marketing and self-promotion has been debated at length online, where you can find vast amounts of information on author platforms. Start with Jane Friedman’s excellent blog. I’ve gathered links to “Publicity tips for book authors.” Good advice comes from Joel Friedlander, Joanna Penn, and Penny Sansevieri. Self-published authors are generous with recommendations. Don’t assume that marketing strategies for traditionally published authors should differ from strategies for self-published authors. The main addition is the need to coordinate marketing and publicity efforts with a publisher or publicist, if there is one.

Learning about the business of selling books is doable if you want a career as an author and are willing to work hard for it. No one will mind if you prefer to remain a hobbyist. Just don’t make the mistake of asking me or a book publisher to donate time and money to support your hobby.

There’s no magic. Succeeding as a book author is hard work.

My work isn’t easy. The work my clients do isn’t easy. I’ve had clients who didn’t want being a successful book author to be challenging work. They aren’t my clients anymore.

For some writers who are consumed with the idea of getting a literary agent and having a book published, their obsession feels an awful lot like work. The dream occupies their time and exhausts their patience, yet it doesn’t result in progress. It’s especially easy for them to find and commiserate with other writers who don’t make particularly good role models. It’s harder to find a way out of the rut.

The level of difficulty and the amount of work involved are the reasons there are relatively few successful authors. Not many writers possess the necessary creative talent along with a willingness to develop crucial skills and the time to devote to the job of collaborating, improving, and adapting.

There’s no magic, no secret, no shortcut. It’s purely hard work.

don't just stand there

  Photo courtesy of Jeff Sheldon