SFWC 2018: Meet the Fiction Agents

I wasn’t pitching this year, but I was still curious to hear what the agents might have to say. The participating agents were: Lisa Abellera, Amy Cloughley, Taylor Martindale Kean, Laurie McLean, Mary C. Moore, Patricia Nelson, Monica Odom, Nicki Richesin, Ken Sherman, Gordon Warnock, and Carlisle Webber. I’m not too proud to point out many of these have already passed on Hamlette. Also, many are from the same literary agencies, which I felt limited the scope of the discussion. [Abellera, Cloughley and Moore are with Kimberley Cameron; McLean, Warnock and Webber are from FUSE Literary.]

After introductions, it went straight to questions.

Q: What do you look for in a writer?

Nicki Richesin: Professionalism, no ego, an understanding that a project may not sell. I want a long-term writer, not someone with just one book.

Monica Odom: Someone with business savvy and connections they can leverage. A platform.

Patricia Nelson: Willingness to revise.

Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes writers make in pitching?

Carlisle Webber: They pitch or query too soon, before the book is ready.

Gordon Warnock: A good book is worth waiting for, so take the extra time to make it right.

Laurie McLean: Querying every agent they can find instead of doing their research to see if the agent even reps their genre. Stalk agents on social media to get a feel for them. Look at AgentQuery.com or join PublishersMarketplace.com for information. And don’t send to 100 agents at once. Do batches of about 10 at a time.

Q: Can you clarify some of the genre definitions, like “literary” versus “commercial” or “upmarket”?

Patricia Nelson: Literary tends to be about a character’s journey. Commercial is more plot focused. Upmarket is a blend of the two.

[I’ll step in here and say that upmarket usually has elevated language but a genre plot. My novel The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller was billed as “upmarket espionage.”]

Q: An author asked that, since she’d produced a book trailer and had a Facebook following, was it worthwhile to pursue traditional publishing?

Laurie McLean: I used to think people had to pick a path. If they self-published, then that was it, that was all they could do from then on. I’ve since changed my mind. Publishing is a ladder; there are many rungs. Each book is a new choice. I’d suggest setting a goal: “I’m going to query X number of agents, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll self-publish,” or, “I’ll query for X months, and if that doesn’t work I’ll self-publish.” That said, each agent feels differently. Not all will want to consider a self-published author.

Patricia Nelson: Self-publishing is like a sailboat. You have a small crew, or maybe you’re even sailing alone. You can’t go as far, but you can move faster and turn on a dime. Everything is up to you. Traditional publishing is like being on an ocean liner. Lots of people to help you, and you can go farther, but it’s much slower and hard to turn around. You don’t have much say in where it’s headed.

Q: If I’ve published with a small publisher, what are my chances of getting an agent and a traditional deal?

Amy Cloughley: You’ll need a brand new project if you want to change houses, but at least you have some experience in publishing now.

Q: I’m not sure if my book is fiction or creative nonfiction.

Monica Odom: Whenever I hear “creative nonfiction” I can’t help but think, “So you’re lying…?”

Nicki Richesin: You need to be reading more if you don’t know where in the bookstore your book belongs.

Gordon Warnock: And we want authors who can write more than one book [in one genre]. So ask yourself where you want to “live” in the bookstore.

[Guilty as charged. I’ve written several books now, but as I hop genres, I know I’m difficult to market.]

Q: Since several of you are from the same agencies, is it okay to pitch more than one of you?

Nicki Richesin: If only to practice your pitch, sure.

Taylor Martindale Kean: You can pitch and decide who to submit to. And you can check guidelines; some agencies allow you to pitch another agent if the first one passes, but some don’t.

Q: What if I want to pitch myself to an agent rather than just a book? Like, I want an agent to help with my overall career.

Carlisle Webber: I wouldn’t talk to you if you didn’t have a fresh project. You need to have a product to sell, not just yourself.

Taylor Martindale Kean: Maybe in nonfiction? You’d just need a proposal and you’d be pitching your experience.

Patricia Nelson: An agent only gets paid when he or she sells something, so you need something to sell.

Laurie McLean: That said, some agents will sell just the sub-rights to a project. Meaning, if the book is already published, the agent might just sell the audio or film rights.

Q: How many clients do you have and how did you find them?

Gordon Warnock: We work with as many as we can. If you want to increase your odds, aim for newer agents at established houses.

Amy Cloughley: Not all our clients have works coming out at the same time, there’s an ebb and flow, so we can sometimes add new clients when we’re not too busy.

Lisa Abellera: I have only 8 clients. Two of them I found in the slush pile as an intern and chased them down again once I was an agent.

Wow. Wouldn’t it be nice to be chased by an agent? That was effectively the end of the session. I hope some of these questions and answers provided insight into what agents look for and how they work. (And if noticing Ken Sherman didn’t answer any questions, you’re right!)

SFWC 2018: Some Insight

The great thing—well, one of the great things—about this conference was the number of opportunities to talk to industry professionals and gain some insight. In particular, I was trying to figure out what to do with my YA novel Hamlette. I’ve sent it out to some agents, and there have been nibbles, but so far (barring one incident I’d rather not rehash) no real feedback that I could use. Here’s the little bit I have received:

  • One agent was “afraid to fall in love with it” because it was too close to something else on his wish list, and so if he took mine on he wouldn’t be able to take on that dream manuscript if it were to ever cross his desk.
  • One agent said she didn’t have time to read this manuscript but was intrigued by my description of planned follow-up manuscripts and said she’d like to read those if I didn’t find representation.
  • One said she thought it was “a crazy fun concept” but the way the narrator directly addresses the reader didn’t work for her.

That last one gave me pause, of course. She didn’t say, “If you change it, I’d love to see it again,” so I guess it wasn’t a revise and resubmit.

Okay, so I while at the conference I met with Rusty Shelton and asked him whether I should just scrap this blog and my existing author identity and start over. He said no. (I was honestly surprised by this!) He said, “You have a half-built house. Why start over and have to lay a whole new foundation?” When you put it that way . . . He and I brainstormed some ideas that I look forward to putting into practice soon.

Then I met with independent editor Amelia Beamer and poured out my story of woe. She was so kind to listen, and so sympathetic. I told her I just didn’t know whether to keep trying to find an agent for my manuscript, or if I should self-publish it, or maybe just trunk it entirely. I told her about the agent that didn’t like the one aspect of the manuscript. “I’ve received a number of rejections,” I told her, “but none have specified why. Maybe they all hate the direct address and just didn’t bother to tell me?” Amelia pointed out that that could be true. Or not. I could try to change the manuscript for this one agent, but as she didn’t ask for revisions, I should be sure I’d be changing it because I honestly thought it was good advice. (I’m still not sure about that.) Then she told me, “The publishing industry will take your little piglet that you’ve nurtured and turn it into sausage. So be sure you’re okay with that. Else, write something you’d be okay with seeing turned into sausage.” Which I thought was a very good and vivid metaphor.

Next I had a chance to speak with an agent who shall remain nameless. Sufficient to say she’s an agent who only handles children’s and YA. I laid out my dilemma, told her the feedback I’d had from other agents. I wasn’t trying to pitch her so much as understand what wasn’t being said, or what the market might be for my book. She pulled up her email and showed me that she had 11 queries in her inbox referencing Hamlet. In short, Hamlet is overdone. I mentioned that one of the agents (the one with the wish list) had suggested Merry Wives of Windsor, which I have in fact outlined as a potential project. This agent told me that might be a good way to go because it’s a much fresher, lesser-known play. “Sit on the one you have, and maybe it can be published later.” I asked if it would hurt my chances if I self-published this one. She said no, since the books I’m considering writing—these Shakespeare updates—aren’t really a series with the same characters throughout.

So now I’m really trying to decide what to do here. But I least I have a clearer view of my options.

This morning I went to a session about children’s book marketing and was flattered when Penny Warner remembered me. (She’s delightful btw.) She asked me what I was working on and I told her, then also told her what the agent had said about there being too many Hamlets. Naheed Senzai was sitting next to Penny and said, “Find another agent.” Penny pointed out that everyone in the room could write a version of Hamlet and they’d all be different. “Figure out what sets yours apart.” But I don’t know what sets mine apart since I don’t know what those other 11 manuscripts look like! Still, the encouragement was much appreciated.

Other takeaways included the idea that my paperback books should be made by IngramSpark while my ebooks should probably be Kindle exclusive. Many thanks to Penny Sansevieri for that.

I realize much of this relates specifically to me and my project, but it goes to show how key these conferences can be, how important. Here is information I would otherwise not have had. Here is fresh support. Here is new perspective. I still have many decisions to make, but it’s so nice to learn and connect and get a bigger picture. If you are an author and have an opportunity to attend a conference, I highly recommend you do so.

SFWC 2018: Making Your Work Rejection Proof

Well, the short answer is: you can’t.

This panel consisted of a number of independent editors: Amelia Beamer, Mary E. Knippel, C.S. Lakin, David Landau, Heather Lazare, Mary Rakow, Suzanne Sherman, Meghan Stevenson, Annie Tucker, Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, Monica Wesolowska, and Hannah Wood.

When asked what advice they’d give authors, Wendy said, “To go to conferences like this one and learn. And to embrace rewriting.”

Monica added, “Be able to deal with rejection. Sometimes it opens you to new perspectives and ways to improve.”

Annie said, “Rejection is less about talent and more about marketing yourself as an author. You need to know your goal going in. What do you want from this? You also need to go all in on a good editor, copy editor, and designer.”

According to Mary Rakow, “You should work with a great critique group and have high standards for your work. If the revisions aren’t making you feel better about the work, you’re making the wrong revisions.”

David Landau: “Writing is now a performing art. Authors are also public speakers. In order to be effective, you must (1) develop a passion for your subject matter, and (2) extend an unspoken invitation to the audience to share that passion.”

C.S. Lakin: “This is about maximizing your chances. What separates a good author from a great one is an attitude of professionalism. Invest time and money in your work. Commit to it.”

Otherwise, your writing is really just a hobby. You’ve got to look at it like a career.

Amelia: “You can’t just put up a site and be a writer. A real writer has self-doubt and continues learning, even after being successful.”

Suzanne: “Be resilient. A rejection of your manuscript is not a rejection of you.”

(Though sometimes it can feel that way. Most times, actually.)

Meghan: “Get a mug that says ‘author’ on it to make you feel validated. And always remember that your readers are your customers.”

Heather: “Invest in Publisher’s Marketplace. Stalk agents on Twitter.”

Question from the audience: “How do I determine my genre?”

Meghan: “Look at the bookstore or on Amazon for books like yours.”

Q: How long does editing take?

Annie: “It’s subjective, depending on the condition of the manuscript, whether it’s a deep edit. Many editors book in advance, so plan for that.”

Q: What are some good questions to ask potential editors?

Heather: “Ask for sample pages. Most editors will offer a free sample.”

Meghan: “It’s like a relationship, like dating—you need to find a good fit.”

San Francisco Writers Conference 2018: Self-Publishing Summit

So, as promised, I will now begin blogging about the various sessions I attend while at SFWC. The first one I went to was the self-publishing summit. (This was yesterday; sorry for delays in posting, but things move fast a furious during these conferences, and getting away is not always easy.)

This “summit” was a large panel that consisted of: Mark Coker of Smashwords; Robin Cutler of IngramSpark; Helen Sedwick; Andrew Burelson of BetaBooks; Brooke Warner of She Writes Press; Karla Olson of Book Studio; and Angela Bole of IBPA.

Karla Olson pointed out relatively early in the session that she dislikes the term “self-publishing.” She said, “We don’t call it ‘self-rock’ or ‘self-film,’ so why don’t we use ‘indie’ for writing, too?”

From there the session mainly opened to questions. One author who had published with Author House asked why he’d heard they were such a bad company, especially since he was very happy with the results? Helen Sedwick, with her legal savvy, pointed out that the contracts from Author House and Author Solutions and their subsidiaries are simply not very author friendly. Authors have difficulty getting their rights back and don’t own their ISBNs. Mark Coker said the Author House and its ilk overcharge for services and pressure authors to buy more and more expensive marketing packages.

So then the question naturally became: What sets a hybrid publisher apart from a vanity publisher?

Angela Bole noted that IBPA is working to standardize a criteria for hybrid publishers, but the key difference is that a hybrid publisher will still have a submission process and standards for what it published. Vanity presses accept any and all content regardless of how good it is. So long as the author is willing to pay, they’ll print it.

Moderator Carla King pointed out that authors should always own their own ISBNs. Buy them from Bowker, or IngramSpark will also sell you an ISBN that you will own. DON’T take the free ISBN from Amazon/CreateSpace.

If a vendor refuses to use your ISBN, that’s a red flag. Always look at the vendor and its motivations.

Mark Coker said, “Anyone can publish a book, but do they help you sell it?” In other words, their money should come from selling books, not selling services to authors.

The next question that cropped up: What is hybrid publishing?

As co-founder of hybrid press She Writes Press, Brooke Warner responded that hybrid presses usually have a mission of some kind, that they vet the content (that is, there is a submission process), and they offer distribution of some kind that sells to the market.

Not to be confused with the term “hybrid author,” which is an author who has published some books traditionally and some independently. (I’m a hybrid author.)

An author asked which path was best for those who want to control their content.

Mark Coker replied, “The most successful authors on Smashwords are control freaks.”

In truth, if you want control over your work, you probably want to self-publish. But remember that having control means also having full responsibility for marketing and every other aspect of publishing. The wonderful thing about being an author in this day and age is that you can write a book and 100% be sure that it can be published. Maybe not by the publisher you’re hoping for, but there is a path to publishing no matter what—if you want to take that path.

There came a question about BetaBooks. This is a new site that allows authors to see the progress their beta readers are making on their manuscripts, which can help pinpoint engagement. It also helps the authors compile the feedback and act on it. This ultimately allows authors to find fans and build “street teams” for their books.

How to find a publisher or know whether the publisher is any good?

Helen Sedwick said to:

  • look at the books themselves
  • ask authors that have worked with the publisher
  • look at Amazon rankings
  • do your homework and research

Then it was time to address the elephant in the room: What about Amazon?

Mark Coker noted that Amazon is the largest retailer in the world, and authors do need to be on there. However, authors shouldn’t be dependent on Amazon; it shouldn’t be their only revenue stream.

Brook Warner said not to use CreateSpace for your print books because then many bookstores won’t stock your book. (I can second this since I’ve run into this problem myself.)

“Know your endgame,” said Karla Olson. “Know what your goal is and plan accordingly. If all you want is a book on Amazon, that’s fine. But if you want your book in stores, then you have to plan differently.”

Is there still a stigma attached to self- (or indie) publishing?

Brook Warner admitted to how infuriating those notions can be. Though the overall feeling toward indie and hybrid publishing is changing, there are still many associations that will bar self-published authors from membership, many prizes that only consider traditionally published books. Karla Olson said, “Books should be evaluated on their content, not their production method.”

How does an author find readers?

Angela Bole pointed out that marketing is publishing. You can’t just make content available and hope for the best. (Well, you can, but don’t expect to sell any books that way.)

A good publisher will create a plan with you. Distribution is also something you want to look for in a publisher. With 1.5 million books being published every year, discoverability is incredibly difficult.

So there it is, you’re first correspondence course in this year’s writing conference. Questions? Comments? Let’s hear ’em!

Why I Cheered for the Eagles

I lived in Boston for six years, then in the suburbs for another six, and I used to love the Patriots. (Still love Bill Belichick; man knows the proper way to make PB&J. I don’t love raisin bread or crunchy peanut butter, but he’s 100% right about making a pocket of peanut butter for the jelly.) So why was I hoping for the Panthers to win, and when that didn’t happen, for the Eagles to best the Pats?

Well, it seemed to me that with every win, Tom Brady [and many of the team’s fans] became increasingly arrogant and smug and insufferable. And that felt like bad sportsmanship.

This isn’t sour grapes. I liked the team. But the more they won, the less likable they became.

We moved to California, and I quit watching football as much. I think I would have watched more if I could have formed a connection with a team here, or if the team I’d left behind hadn’t left a bitter taste in my mouth.

That said, if the Pats—and Brady—could show a little humility, and if their fans could stop with the “they hate us cuz they ain’t us,” that would go a long way to winning me back. (Not that they care whether I like them or not.)

As for Bill, I’d cheer for any team he coached. Except, at the moment, this one.

A Memory

Almost twenty years ago, I made my first trip to London. My hotel was in Russell Square, and desperate to stay upright and not give in to jet lag, I walked myself over to the British Museum. Then I promptly got lost inside.

I had gone with the intent of seeing the Egyptian artifacts, which I did. But one room led to another and another—the Museum is very different now than it was then—and I couldn’t find my way out!

Then a gentleman—I want to say he was older, but at that time in my life, everyone was older—noticed my distress and asked if I needed help.

And—I kid you not—he was wearing a Derby. (Or, if you prefer, a bowler.)

I remember thinking: They really do exist!

Seriously, it was like seeing a unicorn. This British gentleman in his hat and suit. Or maybe that’s how guardian angels dress in London.

I laughed and blushed and said that I was lost, and this man put his hand on the small of my back (it seems forward now but felt reassuring at the time) and guided me to the exit.

Of course then I had to walk around and try to remember which direction my hotel was but, to paraphrase Dr. Grant, at least I was out of the museum. I spent some time in Russell Square . . . bought a soda from a stand there, as I recall . . . And eventually found my way back to my hotel and collapsed.

Not sure what made me think of that today.

Groovy!

click here for video

I started my online life as Yukitouya. By which I mean, that was one of my first ever email addresses back in the late 90s. The name is a combination of Yukito + Touya (often also Romanized at Toya, but I used the “u”). Yukito and Touya are characters in Cardcaptor Sakura by CLAMP and probably remain one of my favorite all-time couples. In fact, it only just now occurred to me that their love triangle may have subconsciously influenced the Cee/Marcus/Diodoric triangle in Changers.

I don’t still have the Yukitouya email address; the site it was on folded ages ago. And honestly, I hadn’t thought about Yukito and Touya in years either. But when Cardcaptor Sakura recently returned, well, I began to fall in love all over again. I’ve been showing the first series to my kids and eagerly watching Clear Card each week on Crunchyroll. And now I’ve had “Groovy” (as heard in the video above) stuck in my head for days. But it IS a catchy little number, and one can’t help but be a little buoyed by it, so I won’t complain.

Old Person Rant

I am—and I’ve learned to embrace this—a get-off-my-lawn type. More than that, I’m a get-off-my-street type. There is simply no basic sense of community or common courtesy any more that I can find. The kids down the street from us have loud motorbikes of the kind that are made for dirt. But do they go where there is dirt? (And our town has plenty of places that fit the bill.) No, they’d rather ride them loudly up and down our street and annoy everyone. And their parents don’t stop them, I assume because the parents would rather that the kids be the community’s problem than theirs.

Whatever. I’m clearly not a people person and not fit for society. There are days when I wish whatever cosmic power exists (and I do think there must be something, though whether it cares or is paying attention . . . but that’s another conversation) would just wipe us out and get it over with, give the world back to the plants and animals, because we suck. People suck, yes, even me. Though I at least have enough sense not to irritate my neighbors by riding loud bikes in front of their houses, or blasting music that can be heard two blocks away, or popping off firecrackers when the fields are really dry and could go up like tinder.

Bottom line: I should live out somewhere far from the rest of the general population.