Category Archives: transparency

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

Beware of (not) being yourself

Children quickly discover that the most effective technique for survival involves conforming to their parents’ or caregiver’s values, regardless of whether the adults’ values are healthy or appropriate. Rarely does anyone intervene in a relationship between a parent and a child simply because a child is learning maladaptive behavior. Eventually, without being fully aware of it, most children adopt versions of their parents’ values.

If asked why they’ve embraced certain beliefs, most adults don’t claim to have reasoned things out. Instead, they cite authorities recognized by their social group or, startled, they insist the validity of a particular value system is obvious or ordained. Real awareness of the origins of their beliefs is unusual. Internal conflicts and self-doubt are easily attributed to the harmful influence of unseen spirits or the sordid side of human nature.

No matter how often we’re told that individuality is something to appreciate and that we’re all endowed with the right to be who we really are, conformity is the rule. Ostracism is the penalty for believing a little too eagerly that we can be true to ourselves. Some people can’t handle ostracism. It takes enormous strength and at least a little support from others—affiliation for which a person must qualify with some degree of compliance.

And yet, denying who we really are and what we truly believe is a form of hopelessness. It’s a serpent whose bite is painful and obvious.

We don’t choose either individuality or conformity. We constantly struggle to find a good place between the two. The effort is lifelong, and it never, never gets easier.

Authors and humility

mask

  Photo courtesy of Marc Garrido i Puig

There’s nothing inherently wrong with fashioning your public image the way you want to be perceived as an author, but onlookers are discerning. They know instinctively, often without being able to explain why they know, when someone’s posturing. Americans, especially, are incredibly alert for any hints of pretentiousness and sometimes go overboard by openly demanding self-effacement, which we equate with graciousness. One result is the defensive tactic so well known to authors: the humblebrag.

The only way to avoid jumping straight into harm’s way is to learn how to get outside yourself and view your own public image through the eyes of readers, followers, colleagues, and friends. Silently noticing what other authors do wrong and right can help. Friends and family aren’t likely to give you honest criticism, because they all love you and fear ruining their relationships with you.

We’re living in a moment when genuineness, transparency, and humility are valued more than poise and sophistication, but cultural preferences eventually will change. They always do.

Fear of exposure

I can’t count the times I’ve seen some great writing online but haven’t been able to reach the author, because the person’s email address wasn’t listed anywhere. A writer who wants to turn professional needs to provide some very straightforward biographical and contact information on his or her primary website. The writer’s most effective business card is the site used as a hub for the person’s online identity and writing-related activities.

For the sake of being taken seriously, a writer’s professional email address should use the writer’s professional name or business name. It’s possible to set up multiple email addresses for different purposes and direct all the email for those addresses to a single email inbox. Instructions for accomplishing this will vary depending on the email application being used.

It’s silly for a new author to make it difficult for a book reviewer, reporter, or event organizer to get in touch, yet many writers seem purposefully aloof online. They haven’t make the transition into the public sphere, where their potential readers might be found. Ridiculously, some of them are the same writers who, cloaked with anonymity, blame everyone but themselves for their failures at getting published, soliciting reviews, selling their books, and generating income. (Of course, being publicly obnoxious will have the same self-defeating results. Have they already realized something about themselves that’s better left hidden?)

Concerns about privacy are no small thing, but the ability of an author to attract publicity has a direct affect on the discoverability and sales of the author’s book. A book publisher can’t compensate for an author’s inability to connect to readers, or for the author’s inaccessibility to reporters, book critics, bloggers, librarians, producers, and event organizers who would help make those connections. Privacy has always been a tradeoff for fame.

peeking

  Photo courtesy of Ned Horton, Horton Web Design, Nashville, TN

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

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.

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 Zuckerbrot 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.

Doing business in the public eye

business in the public eye

  Image courtesy of Mompes

Most of a literary agency’s business is conducted quietly, behind the scenes. Attempting to bring any of it to light is difficult, because significant context often is missing. Every profession shares this quandary. Looking in from the outside, observers are forced to oversimplify and stereotype other occupations and businesses, because it’s impossible to experience all of them firsthand.

My work as an agent is neither routine nor boring, which makes it fun. After five years, I no longer feel like a novice, but that doesn’t mean I can ever stop learning. Most knowledge workers recognize that continually educating ourselves and monitoring industry intelligence are necessary aspects of our jobs; otherwise, we’d consign ourselves rapidly to obsolescence.

Many of us have been watching and commenting on the latest machinations of big corporations. Because of their size and reach, the largest companies involved in publishing and bookselling must contend with heightened public scrutiny. That’s good, because we need to be reminded that these big corporations establish de facto standards for balancing competition and cooperation, which other businesses in the industry then will emulate. If the biggest companies succeed by dodging taxes, being aggressively adversarial, poaching talent, emphasizing volume over quality, crowdsourcing free content, eschewing customer service, and exploiting their employees, then every other businessperson within the book publishing industry’s entrepreneurial ecosystem will begin to see value in those strategies. Ruthless tactics can appear much less unethical when they’re necessary for survival.

The outrage and dissent, even when inarticulately expressed in debates riddled with inaccuracies, help to reassure me that we haven’t completely lost our ethical sensibilities. And by the way, in the grand scheme, I really enjoy being in a position to advocate for the artist.

Exactly when did kindness and courtesy became unbusinesslike and unsexy? Certain old-fashioned business practices are worth reinstating.