Category Archives: literary agent

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 2015 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)

Looking for a writers’ conference in the Carolinas?

I’ll be participating in two writers’ conferences next month: one in Columbia, South Carolina, and one in Charlotte, North Carolina. Sponsored by the organizer of the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop (SCWW) and the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop, the day-long events in the Carolinas will provide an overview of your book publishing options today, with an emphasis on traditional publishing.

Also scheduled to meet with authors on April 17 and 18 during the 2015 Carolina Writing Workshops:

Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary Agency

Diana Flegal, Hartline Literary

Kristy Huddle, Comfort Publishing (only in Charlotte)

Melissa Jeglinski, The Knight Agency

Sam Morgan, Jabberwocky Literary Agency

Chuck Sambuchino

Chuck Sambuchino

The star of the show will be workshop instructor, editor, author, and playwright Chuck Sambuchino, the man who knows how to bring out the best in aspiring authors who are learning to present their ideas to agents and publishers. For years, Chuck has been keeping writers informed with his Guide to Literary Agents Blog and directory.

My favorite part of the upcoming workshops is the Chapter One Critique-Fest, which actually will be a first-page critique of anonymously submitted writing. I’m always pleasantly surprised by agents’ and editors’ concurrence of opinions during these sessions. The manuscript samples that are read aloud can give writers a valuable sense of the competition they face even at beginning levels.

I’m looking forward to meeting you in Columbia or Charlotte. Come prepared to talk about yourself and your writing. I’ll be more than happy to answer your questions about my work as a literary agent, too. See you next month!

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

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