How to Know ForSureForSureForSure You’re Ready for an Agent

coffee-1128140_960_720

Do you have that first novel completed? Have you been staying up late and getting up early to study and write about a topic you’re passionate about telling the world?

Then it might be time to query a few agents to see if you have what it takes to get their attention. But keep your expectations realistic. New authors are harder to break out than they’ve ever been. And please, don’t blame the agent. We’re just the messenger of what publishers keep telling us.

You’ll need some criteria to go by to determine if you’re ready. Here are a few dozen hints.

First: Know who you truly are…

  1. Someone who has always wanted to write
  2. Someone with a message you feel God is asking you to put to paper
  3. Someone with a message that others have said needs to be put to paper
  4. Someone who can’t wait to get to your computer to create the stories in your head
  5. Someone who reads a lot, both within the genre they write as well as others.

Second: Understand what the book publishing industry is looking for…

  1. The 80/20 principle is alive and well in publishing. Publishers must have the big sellers to stay in business. So 80% of their advance and marketing money will always go to 20% of the authors and books. And if you’re a new author, unless you’re a pastor of a mega-church or you can write like Hemmingway (or better), you’re likely not going to be amongst the 20%.
  2. Because of the loss of browsing retail, publishers can’t find readers, so they expect authors to find them. They want authors with built-in audiences ready to buy. That’s why they are less willing to take risks on unknown/debut authors, preferring known quantities instead of new voices. If I had 200 new authors to speak to, there would be perhaps 5% who will ever get published traditionally. Not because they can’t write. Not because they don’t have a compelling message. It’s because they still have an information gap about what it takes to get published and be successful at it.
  3. Great writing. They want authors who are sold out to getting honest critique. They want a book with a clear vision/message, and an obvious audience (felt need). They hope authors are willing to study the craft of writing, attend conferences, willing to join and participate in critique groups or have a critique partner. Most of all, they want authors who have “come to play.” They’re working on building audiences; they’re invested in their own marketing and they have a plan to grow. Publishers and agents want more than one book. They want to grow with you and your career.

Third, what motivates you…

  1. Money. Okay, that’s not terrible. Would C.S. Lewis have written The Chronicles of Narnia for free? Provision—whether it’s today’s manna or retirement’s manna–motivates us, and it’s not evil. However, if this is your ONLY motivation, you have to ponder whether God will bless it. You also have to recognize that it’s harder than ever to make a living as a writer today, and that the days of six and seven-figure advances (with a few exceptions) are largely gone.
  2. Legacy. Publishers don’t care about this unless you’re already famous. Legacy projects get self-published, and that is perfectly fine.
  3. This does not include “ax to grind” books. Please, self-publish those. We can’t sell them.
  4. “I can’t help myself.” Obsession is a good place to be, but not if you’re sacrificing your health, family, bank account and soul to do it. Your obsession should pass the “sniff test” by those who know you best. Just because you feel “God has told me” to do this, doesn’t make that statement true. Obsessions MUST be confirmed by several people in your life before you give them wings in a big way.

So, with all of this in mind, here’s how to know “forsure-forsure-forsure” you’re ready for an agent.

For sure…

  • You have something inside of you that must get out. A novel, a message, a memoir, a brand. When I started FaithHappenings.com two years ago, I was like a dog with a bone. My excitement did border on obsession.
  • You’ve put at least half of the book on paper–the whole book if you’re a novelist. (With novels, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.)
  • You understand that traditional publishing is a business and you won’t question their motives if they reject your work. People DO know more than you.
  • You feel God’s pleasure in your efforts to communicate what you want to share.
  • You can’t wait to get to your computer.

For sure, for sure…

  • You know your motivation. It doesn’t have to be pristine, you just have to know what it is.
  • You know your book will get published no matter what. You are going to do this! Start traditionally if that is a goal, but not let that stop you from doing what’s needed to publish independently, if you have to.
  • Someone has said that your message, life story or writing is above the curve. But even so, remember this: Perhaps one person per state ever makes it to the major leagues in each year. The pyramid is very small at the top in any professional endeavor.
  • You are patient with the process and want to trust an industry professional to help guide your book/career. Once you think you know more than they do, turn off the tap on traditional publishing. And this is fine. Some are wired to be control freaks. Go with it. Don’t drive yourself and an agent/publisher crazy if you want to control every step in the process.

For sure, for sure, for sure…

  • You have 5,000 to 10,000 “followers” (blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) Further, you are convinced—and you hereby solemnly swear to not complain—that you must help any publisher you go with—traditional or your own efforts—FIND READERS.
  • Twenty people who don’t know you well have seen your book/writing and they’re not adding much more to it. You hear the term “great writer” from several different people.
  • You know your genre, your audience, your message—you have FOCUS!!!
  • You have a great proposal that answers the publisher/agent questions. If you don’t, get the agent’s proposal template. We all have one. Work hard on it. Don’t have typos, and follow directions! There are too many other people vying for an agent or editor’s attention for them to waste time on a proposal that doesn’t meet the basic requirements listed.
  • Read three book marketing books. And then in your proposal, give the agent five pages of marketing ideas you KNOW you can do.
  • You have counted the cost:
    • Family/Time
    • Money
    • Inevitable rejection and bad reviews, perhaps even the “ten mean church ladies” who write scathing letters and reviews on nearly every book they see.
  • You know you have “come to play.”
  • You know what five agents/agencies you want to be with. Get to know what they have represented. (You aren’t sending your proposal out en masse to every agent whose email address you can find.) Of these five, take the first one who says yes. Realize that you may not get the top guy, but the reputation of the agency is what you’re after.

If you can check off nearly all of these criteria, you’re forsure, forsure, forsure ready.

Advertisements

Takeaways fom the Writer’s Digest Convention West 2013

I just attended my first writers convention, which turned out to be among the most interesting and informative experiences of my life. Never before have I received so many insights into the craft of writing. The Writer’s Digest Conference West in Los Angeles took place at the end of September. During that time, I was able to meet people I never would have otherwise, such as journalists who have been working in the writing field for ages. There was so much great information it was hard to capture it all, but here are a few points that that definitely resonated:

1) Writing, editing and marketing are totally different competencies, so bucket them, don’t batch them. In a discussion led by Ivory Madison, CEO of redroom.com writers community, writers were advised to keep those activities separate, as they engage different parts of the brain. I’ve been trying out the Red Room Method and can see a positive difference in my writing. It staves off the frustration of trying to do everything at once, and only producing one paragraph an hour. She suggested not to combine the three buckets of writing, editing and marketing. In this way, you end up not only being nice to yourself, but also more efficient as well. Writing is about your relationship with yourself. Marketing is an expression of everybody else. Take one book, make it as great as you can, and then worry about marketing. Don’t wear multiple hats at the same time.

WDCW132) Read your work aloud. You will find a great deal of errors that you might not have otherwise by reading aloud. When you do write, be authentic. Your readers want to be able to get to know you and trust you. Find great people to make your book as good as it can be. Don’t jump the gun just because you want to get it out there. Make your book easy to find and as accessible as possible.

3) Growing scope of the literary agents. Gordon Warnock, Founding Partner of Foreward Literary, has a vision of literary agents taking on a similar role as the agents of actors and songwriters. The future literary agents, he thinks, will manage the author’s entire career. The job scope would become more like an umbrella for their representation overall. This would include creative directing over the author’s website, branding, image, et al.

And above all else – write an outstanding book.

Half Baked: A Publishing Recipe

Is most of your writing only half-baked? It’s easy to get distracted with all the wonderful topics to write about, and many of us have manuscripts that are still rising on shelves in the garage. That being said, it’s sometimes nice to go through the steps of what happens when a book does in fact make it all the way to publication. Here is a basic recipe detailing the steps that are required in creating a fully baked book:

For a first time author, a book usually starts with a completed, edited manuscript for fiction, or a proposal and sample content for non-fiction. Published authors can sometimes sell novels on proposal, but not usually. Best practices suggest that unpublished authors should try and find a literary agent, once their manuscript is ready for submission. Few publishers accept work directly from authors sans representation, and a good agent can greatly aid a manuscript’s success rate.

After a literary agent has taken on a manuscript, they then send it to editors at different publishing houses. The literary agent targets the submissions to the publishing houses that they feel are most appropriate for the book. The editors take a look at the project, and if it’s something they are interested in they will share it with their colleagues to determine the level of interest. If the editor receives word that they can move forward with the manuscript, they will send an offer to the literary agent.

The submission process can take anywhere from weeks to months (or even years), depending on how long it takes to find an interested editor. An offer may include advances and / or royalties. Sometimes the offer may even be a contract for several books. If more than one editor is interested, there may even be a bidding war situation to determine which publisher can create the best offer. When the terms have been agreed upon and the author accepts an offer, the publisher will send a contract to the literary agent. The literary agency may have a contracts expert review the fine print and negotiation points. Once the contract has been signed, it’s time for the author to get writing (if the book was only sold on a proposal).
Little Chefs

Once the manuscript is completed (non-fiction), or after the contract is signed (fiction), the editor will usually send a letter recommending changes to the manuscript. These changes are more or less negotiable, but authors usually follow the recommendations of editors. After all of the recommended changes have been made and the manuscript is deemed ready to go, it is copy edited. Spelling and grammatical errors are corrected. The pages are laid out to show what the book will look like. The author reviews the different versions of the completed manuscripts. The publisher works on the design of the book (including cover, trim size, font, paper type, and other details).

The editor manages the process of having marketing experts write copy for the publisher’s catalog, come up with the cover details, create buzz, and launch marketing plans. Several months before the book’s publication, sales specialists will coordinate with their bookstore partners and take book orders. This part of the process helps determine how many copies of the book will be printed. The agent might oversee this process to verify everything is on track. It usually takes a year or more for the publication process to go from finished manuscript to book for purchase. It can be fast tracked if it is an especially hot project, but the process usually requires quite a bit of lead time. When the publication date arrives, the book goes on sale. The book is now available to customers, and the customers often take it from there. Positive feedback, great reviews, and word of mouth are still some of the best forms of marketing. After that, the author is launched into instant literary stardom (or not). The author then writes a second book and the process repeats.

Hopefully this recipe for completing a half-baked book has been helpful – and now, I’d better get back in the kitchen.

Be Your Agent’s Dream Client

One thing authors wonder about is how to “behave” once they have a working relationship with a literary agent. Especially if it’s your first agent, you want to be the kind of author an agent wants to keep as a client. Agents understand that—and we want to be the kind of agent you want to work with, too! In fact, I tell my authors that the best partnerships are when the agent and author are president of each other’s fan clubs. That takes time, of course, but it shouldn’t take years if you are intentional about making the relationship great.

The secret to a good agent-author relationship isn’t a mystery. It’s like any other relationship: kindness counts; communication is key; and sometimes it takes a little work to keep things running smoothly. If you follow this commonsense advice, you’ll be well on your way to a positive long-term association with your agent.

We’ll start with the negative: The single most difficult thing that agents deal with is authors’ unrealistic expectations. These expectations fall into lots of categories—everything from the size of your advance (usually compared to others you know) to the amount of marketing the publisher will pay for, to the speed of the process (or lack thereof). It’s important that you develop realistic expectations in all of these areas. How do you do that? By talking with your agent, networking with other authors, attending conferences, and keeping up with happenings in the publishing industry (through key blogs and other news sources). If your expectations are impractical, your publishing journey will be unfulfilling. You’ll be disappointed and likely end up resentful.

I’ve had authors wonder why their advance for their sixth book is smaller than the advance for someone else’s first book. They don’t realize that one or two bad showings in sales hurts a publisher’s enthusiasm. A sales guy makes a call to a retailer, the numbers are brought up on the screen for their last book, and if they’re small they get a tepid response. It doesn’t matter about the quality of the book, it matters what the computer says their last book sold. Sad, but true (and all too common).  A new author, however, doesn’t have one bad book to muddy the waters. The value of their idea and platform can be leveraged into higher advances.

That’s why it’s essential to always keep those expectations in check!

In addition to managing expectations, it’s extremely helpful to agents when you communicate well. There is a balance to good communication—we don’t want you to be afraid to call or e-mail if there’s an issue, but daily phone calls and emails can actually slow the process, stealing time from the things an agent does behind the scenes to get clients’ work to publishers. As a general guideline, check in once a week with questions and updates, if you have them. Most important, when bigger issues do arise (and they will), go directly to your agent rather than to the publisher, your critique group, your Facebook page or your blog. Keep the lines of communication open and talk things out. If you’re not happy with your agent, this may be hard to address directly, but it’s the best way. Always.

Trust is the essence of any relationship, and agents need their authors to trust them. Agents handle the business details so you can focus on your writing and marketing, and we appreciate when you allow us to do this without second-guessing every move. If you’re confused about something, always ask, but unless it’s proven otherwise, trust that your agent has your best interest at heart in all actions, negotiations and decisions.

Today, authors have to be marketers and promoters of their work, and agents are ecstatic when their clients understand this. Many agents offer advice and can steer a writer toward good ideas for platform building, but what we really want is for our clients to have a commitment to the self-promotion mindset, and a desire to learn more about it and get better at it as time goes on. An agent rarely has the time to handhold you through every step of your marketing process, but your agent can be an enthusiastic partner and savvy advisor along the way.

Agents appreciate clients who care about the craft of writing and are always striving to learn and improve. Attend conferences and writing workshops, and work hard to learn from the editorial process. Your value to the industry increases as you improve as a writer. And this probably goes without saying, but we really like it when clients meet their publishers’ deadlines!

Don’t forget the basics: be kind, cordial and professional. And when it’s warranted, feel free to express gratefulness for a job well done.  And Starbucks cards are always appreciated.