Category Archives: literary agent

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

( 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

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)

Should authors seek agents for their book-length collections of short stories?

I’ll bet you thought there could be a yes or no answer to this question. Reality is much more complicated and ever changing.

It’s possible, but rare, for a creative writer to be so talented that, even though his or her first book is a collection of short stories, an agent would find it logical and worthwhile to begin working with the person in anticipation of future, more commercially viable, creative output. By “commercially viable,” I mean desired by big trade book publishers. In almost six years of agenting, I’ve encountered only one such writer, and I asked the person to get back in touch with me when a novel-in-progress is completed. However, there are quite a few literary agents in the U.S. who happily take bigger risks than I do. Every agency is different, as a look at each of our websites will reveal.

Almost every time I receive a query from a short-story writer looking for an agent, the letter I’ve copied and pasted below is the basic form of my response. Of course, my form reply doesn’t cover everything I’m looking for in a client, which is what the guidelines on my website are intended to convey to writers.

My form response is designed to encourage novice writers of short stories to begin learning about the business aspects of a professional writer’s career. Some eventually will decide that they don’t want their writing to be more than a hobby, because turning it into work isn’t pleasurable for them. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, except when hobbyists are unfortunately misguided into believing they’re entitled to demand that literary agents invest time and money to assist them as a courtesy, pro bono. Most writers are smart enough to catch on to business realities very quickly. There are many terrific publishing options for hobbyists.

My agency’s form reply to queries from short-story writers

It’s nice of you to contact me about representation. Please note that detailed query guidelines are posted on my website.

For an author of short fiction, accumulated writing credits are an important part of a query. Major book publishers in the U.S. typically prefer to acquire book-length collections of short stories only if the authors already have had a considerable number of the stories published in reputable literary magazines or anthologies. If you’re not sure which literary journals are the most prestigious, then you can find out where some prizewinning short stories first appeared by taking a look at these books, which should be available at your local library:

Pushcart Prize

Best American Short Stories & Best American Nonrequired Reading

The O. Henry Prize Stories

More of these types of anthologies are listed at:

Treated & Released

You can learn about submitting your work to literary journals and magazines by reading:

Poets & Writers

The Writer‘s Guide to Publishing in Literary Magazines and Entering Contests
by Ayelet Tsabari

The Review Review

I wish you the best of luck with your writing career.

isolated pen

© Geotrac | Dreamstime Stock Photos

For writers who have succeeded at having short stories published individually, a few agencies actively call for submissions of book-length collections of short stories. As of October 2014, two of them are the Renée Zuckerbot Literary Agency and the Waverly Place Literary Agency. An agent’s submission guidelines are subject to change at any time, so please alert me if I fail to notice when the current information about these agencies becomes obsolete. If I see it’s no longer true, I’ll cross it out.

There is hope that ebook publishing will permit a short-story renaissance. In all honesty, it’s more likely that the ease of self-publishing ebooks and POD books, coupled with the increased numbers of free online literary journals, will make many more short stories available to readers at little or no cost, and then the supply will outpace the demand from readers. At the same time, it’s interesting to note that more online literary journals are paying their contributors a modest amount, perhaps to attract better stories to publish, because they have lots of competition for submissions these days.

Dynamic, isn’t it?

Please feel free to share in the comments section the links to or names of any literary agents asking to see short-story collections. I hope this information is helpful.