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About Writing Right: The Blog


I stumbled across a forum question online the other day, and it went something like this: Before an author reaches out to publishers and agents, what should they do? Well, of course, I couldn't resist. Here's how I responded:

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Wow. You and your solo respondent (so far) share the same impediment. Before an author reaches out to publishers and agents, they need to improve their grammar. Get it? If not, read it again, because both of you failed a basic literacy test called English Grammar 101. Here's why that matters.


No matter what else you provide along with your approach to publishers and agents, a misuse of the English language will land you in the trash can before you can even ask, "Did you receive my query on …" Remember: Nothing turns off a publisher, editor, literary agent, or anyone else in the field of publishing faster than poor grammar.


Now, assuming you went scurrying to your latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk, discovered your mistake, and corrected it, you'll still need to do a couple other things prior to contact. Here they are: Read More 

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An author asked my opinion the other day about how long he should wait for his agent to sell his book before pulling it away from her and publishing it himself. Here's what I replied.

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This one is easy:


I'm semi-serious about this. If you've been fortunate enough (more like "blessed") to land a legitimate, hard-working literary agent who took on the work of a first-time author (whom you seem to be), you'd be crazy to dump that agent simply because you can get your book into print sooner yourself. If that's all you wanted, I doubt you would have taken the time and effort to find a literary agent willing to take on an untested author in the first place. Besides, self-publishing is not only a quick way to publish your book but also a sure-fire way to get you branded a "loser" within the publishing industry.

Also, self-publishing is a great way to spin your wheels and end up with very little to show for your time and effort. Most self-published books earn their authors less than $100 in their lifetimes. Far less!


Now, if you have a questionable agent—one you're not sure is actually working at selling your book at all—my question to you is why? Why didn't you check out the agent before signing on the dotted line? Asked for a list of some of her clients for you to contact? See what books she's sold for those clients? To what publishing houses? Every agent worth her salt should be willing to provide answers to questions such as those. If yours can't, it's safe to say you don't have a legitimate agent, and you need to get free of her ASAP. Read More 

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A "new writer" asked online if it's better to hire a literary agent or work directly with publishers. Not an unreasonable question. This is what I said.

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Hmm. Methinks you don't understand the workings of the publishing industry, and you certainly don't understand the mechanics of literary agents. Here's the real low-down.


For starters, far more authors, writers, and wannabes exist than literary agents--possibly fiftty times more or greater. In real estate jargon, that puts literary agents in a seller's market. They hold all the keys and the power, and they know it. You can't walk into an agent's office (or email inbox) and announce that you'd like to hire him or her. Uh-uh. Just don't happen. Read More 

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A writer new to the world of book publishing asked me the other day if an agent does anything beyond finding a publisher for an author-client's book. Even I was surprisecd when I stopped to think about my answser. Here's what I said.

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You mean as if that weren't enough? Actually, a literary agent does quite a bit beyond matching her clients with appropriate publishers. An agent will advise her clients against accepting offers from publishers who are "suspect." That means publishers with a bad reputation or who have created bad experiences for at least some of the authors they sign on. You don't need those types of publishers in your corner. Believe me!


Also, an agent will negotiate with reputable, conventional publishers for various contractual rights and percentages. If a publisher initially offers a standard contract at a 12% royalty rate with a $3,000 advance and 25% of all subsidiary rights, a savvy agent may come back and get that boosted to 15% royalties with a $5,000 advance (or more) and 50% of all subsidiary rights. We're talking here about seasoned, ethical, professional agents, not those who shoot from the hip just to make a quick buck. A reputable agent has done her homework, seen what the publisher has offered to other writers, and knows the bargaining power she has. She also knows when and how to use it.

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When someone inquired online as to where to find a low-cost or free reputable literary agent, I had just the right response. Here's what I said.

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Let me set the record straight here. No reputable, honest, and effective literary agent represents an author for free, and no one does it at a "low cost." All legitimate agents charge a flat 15% fee taken from the sale of a book to a publisher made during that agent's contractual lifetime with his or her client/author. The fee is deducted from the advance (if any) and the royalties (also if any) paid by the publisher for as long as the book remains in print. The agent takes 15% for all income generated by the book. That's one of the reasons literary agents are hard to find and even harder to land. Writers don't hire them; they sign writers, albeit an extremely limited number of them. If a writer's work fails to generate sales, the agent can go hungry or terminate that writer's contract with the agent and find another writer whose work is more marketable. In that respect, being an agent is somewhat of a crap shoot. And not at all as easy or capricious as many writers seem to think.


A legitimate agent is like a salesman in that he earns his keep from selling. No sale, no commission. To procure a sale for an author, the represented work must appeal to a publisher. And, of course, the agent must do all the legwork—from the final formatting of the manuscript to getting it into presentable condition, matching the work to the appropriate publisher, negotiating contractual details, securing an advance, reviewing and evaluating the finalized contract, and keeping the lines of communication open between the publisher, the agent, and the author. The agent is also responsible for receiving all payments from the publisher, deducting the fifteen percent agency fee, and forwarding a check for the balance to the author. Read More 

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So, you've written a book that's a bit offbeat, let's say a fantasy based upon Celtic and Irish folklore. That means it just about but not quite fits into a specific genre, and now you wonder how to find an agent willing to 1.) read it, and 2.) represent it. Is that your problem, Bunky? If so, it's not necessarily as large a problem as you may think.


Okay, I assume you've researched literary agents and what they're looking for in submissions until your eyes turned to glass and fell out of your skull. Lo and behold, not one of them appears to be searching for your exact book. Well, that's actually the good news. Agents (and publishers, by the way) are always looking for good genre fiction that appeals to their existing readers or marketplace and yet that has an exciting new wrinkle to get them salivating. A detective book about the search for a serial killer is pretty generic (spelled "ho-hum"). A detective book about the search for a serial killer who just happens to be the detective, himself, is a stunner. See my point? Both are genre detective stories. Because one is more offbeat than the other isn't a bad thing; it's just the opposite.


So, how do you go about finding just the right agent? Here's how I suggest you proceed. Read More 

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The other day, I stumbled across a forum writer who wanted to know how to tell when his book is good enough to submit to an agent or a publisher. Despite some solid, thoughtful responses, he received a lot of misinformation. Here's how I handled the situation.

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You have received some pretty good responses here, except for the nonsense the Queen of Wrong sent you. The truth is you can revise the heck out of your book, have it edited and critiqued, and revise it some more. That still doesn't mean it's as "ready as it's ever going to be" for publication. No. Sometimes waiting a few days, weeks, or months between editing sessions can help you approach your work with a fresh set of eyes and turn it from a turn-down into an acceptance.


Also, if you hire an editor or critic and happen to hire the wrong ones (much easier to do than finding the right ones, sadly), they'll be absolutely no help to you at all and may actually harm you in your quest for publication. Surprise, surprise.


And, sending out queries is not the only way to find out if your book is ready for the "Show." In fact, it's the poorest and least reliable way. Editors and agents often turn down books that are, in fact, fully "ready" but simply not to their liking or not something the recipients believe is marketable. They may also feel the book is too short or too long or written in a genre or even a point-of-view that the publishers/agents aren't looking to acquire. If you submit your book for publication, assuming the proof is in the pudding, you're likely to be discouraged for all the wrong reasons. Read More 

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That's not exactly a unique feeling in the literary world today, particularly when it comes to newbie authors. One such writer wrote me recently, saying he'd sent his book out to tons of agents without any positive results. Here's what our exchange looked like.

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Okay, here's what I think. First, if you sent your manuscript to 500 agents as you say, you sent to roughly half of all literary agents currently working in the United States and not three-quarters, as someone misinformed you. Still, that's a lot. That means you shot-gunned them. Instead of looking at each agent's requirements for genres, submissions procedures, and the like, you mass-mailed them. That's going to get you a lot of rejections from the start because agents can smell a mass-mailing from a mile away.


Second, if even ten percent of those agents didn't mind or didn't catch on to your mass-mailing technique and still turned you down, your product isn't any good. By that, I mean your book isn't marketable. At least, it's not to those agents.


Third, you say your "beta readers" love your book. But, in the real world, beta readers amount to zilch when it comes to an objective and realistic appraisal of a property's worth in a publisher's eyes. Most beta readers I've seen are in it for the free reads or the thrill of having a title. (You know, Beta Reader First Class.) While there may be a few exceptions, you're not likely to find worthwhile voluntary readers for your project, and even if you did, no beta reader is familiar with all literary agents' "wish lists" and requirements. In the end, that means you may find someone who knows what he likes, but you're unlikely to find anyone who knows what the marketplace will like or what changes you need to make to the book to make it marketable (i.e., publishable). Read More 

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If you've tried everything you can think of to land a literary agent to represent your work to publishers, you've probably failed. Through no fault, necessarily, of your own.


Welcome to the Real World of book publishing. You know, the one where landing a publishing contract is only the second most challenging thing for a writer to do; landing an agency contract is number one. Far and away.


The reason is simple mathematics. Sure, for every book published, probably a few hundred or more go unpublished. But for every agent landed, thousands of authors get turned down. The reason is that there are only so many agents to go around, and they're in huge demand. That's because good agents can offer fledgling writers invaluable advice, so they act as sounding boards and dispensers of knowledge. As a result, book publishers increasingly turn to agents to "screen" the work submitted to them in order to save their editors time. Agents weed out the junk (or the vast majority of it) and pass along only the best of the works they receive from their represented writers. Read More 

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Someone the other day asked how to approach a second agent to represent his novel after his existing agent turned it down. It sounds pretty convoluted, but it's really not. My answer, though, may surprise you.

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The answer to that question is pretty simple, despite the convoluted, incomplete, and mostly erroneous response to your question you received from one other person. Begin by checking the "out clause" that your contract with your existing agent contains. It tells you how to sever your contractual obligations should things come to that. Your contract also has a clause allowing your agent to turn down representation of any client's work that he or she deems to be unmarketable. Keep your agent's letter to that effect in your files, and start looking for an agent who disagrees with your present agent and is willing to take your second novel on.


Be aware, though, that landing one agent in a lifetime is tough enough. Getting a second one is twice as difficult, particularly since your current agent has turned the book down. That looks suspicious at best and bad at worst. Read More 

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Literary Agents: When To Submit

When is the best time to submit a proposal to a literary agent? Or is there a best time? I had been wondering for a while when I came across something from the agents of Bookends Literary Agency, who were recently asked which months they would consider good- versus bad-submission months.

Jessica Faust: I tend not to read any submissions in the month of August. This is the time of year when I take my break to recharge and read only published books. While you can certainly submit in August, it will likely sit in August and sit through the month of September when I’m focused on my clients and getting back in the swing. It’s October when I am likely to really sit down and get my reading in. The tough part about this question is when a good or bad time is depends not on the calendar, but on what is happening in my business. Lately, for example, I haven’t been reading as many submissions since I’ve been busy with my clients. I took on a few new people earlier in the year and have been focused on getting them into the hands of publishers. Next year, I could spend September and October desperately seeking new clients. So for me, submit whenever you want to submit and I appreciate your patience as you wait on my clients and other work.

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