A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry
The short answer is nothing. There actually isn’t much you can do.
Rarely discussed in publishing is the fact that certain countries don’t recognize or honor copyright law. Persian countries (including Iran and Iraq) are an excellent example of territories that don’t. Persian publishers will often translate popular novels and publish them in their countries without a license, and the author does not receive a dime as an advance or royalties.
Kind of shocking, isn’t it?
This situation has happened a number of times for my authors. We usually find out about unlicensed editions when an author receives fan mail or a lovely note from the translator. Even though the Persian publishers don’t feel much obligation to the author, we have found over the years that the translators actually do. And often they will reach out to the author and ask permission to do the translation—even though they know (and are quite apologetic) that the publisher has no plans to compensate the author in any way.
I have a special place in my heart for these morally centered translators.
So what can an author do when it becomes apparent that his or her books are being translated and published in countries that don’t honor copyright protection?
My answer is this. The author should offer to write a special foreword for the edition in exchange for a nominal fee. It’s my attempt to get the author at least some compensation. Yet so far no Iranian publisher has taken me up on this offer.
But I’m hopeful. Someday…
Photo Credit: Peta de Aztlan
Congratulations to Stacey Lee whose debut novel Under A Painted Sky is a finalist for the 2016 Pen Center USA literary Award.
A big thank you to the judges Daniel José Older, Isabel Quintero, and Margaret Stohl.
All aspiring writers want their magic number to be one.
The first novel a writer ever wrote is perfect from conception.
The first novel lands a literary agent.
The first novel is so awesome, it immediately sells at auction.
The first novel is published to great fanfare and much commercial success.
The dream-come-true of overnight success. Well, I’d like to tell you something about that. Overnight success is a fabrication created by media outlets because it makes for a good story.
Ninety-nine-percent of the time, overnight-success stories are fiction. Most of these stories don’t divulge that the author ghostwrote ten novels for other people, or wrote three of their own novels that are tucked away because the author was working on craft.
In real life, what is the magic number—the number of novels written before a writer gets picked up by an agent, sold, and published?
I’ll tell you right now, it’s not one. If you poll a large number of authors and ask them how many novels they wrote before their first one sold, and then if you average the numbers they give you, my sense is that you will land right around four.
One of the truths I highlight at writers conferences is that for more than half of my clients, I passed on the first project they sent me. It wasn’t until they sent me a later, more mature work that our agent-author love match bloomed.
Why do I tell you all this? If you’ve just completed your first novel, awesome. Celebrate this huge achievement. But it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, or if you independently publish it and it doesn’t get much traction.
Keep on writing. Your magic number might be two or six or ten. My guess is that if you are passionately writing with ten novels under your belt, success is just around the corner.
Photo Credit: Andy Maguire
Emily Easton at Crown Books for Young Readers has won, at auction, Scott Reintgen’s debut science fiction young adult trilogy beginning with THE BLACK HOLE OF BROKEN THINGS. In the novel, a Detroit teen accepts an interstellar space contract only to realize the promised millions must be won in a brutal competition where winners face the ultimate choice—take the money and become pawns in the corporation’s sinister plans or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise their humanity. Publication is scheduled for 2017. Kristin Nelson at Nelson Literary Agency brokered the mid-six figure deal for North American rights.
To celebrate Scott’s awesome news, I’m delighted to share with my blog readers Scott’s original query letter that landed me as his agent and resulted in an auction for a mid-6 figure young adult book deal.
Date: July 1, 2015 at 1:58:01 AM MDT
I have the highest respect for you and how you represent your clients. After looking through your submission guidelines, I felt that my novel might be a good fit for your list. Thank you for your time and consideration.
THE BABEL FILES [title was changed for the actual submission to editors] is a completed, YA science fiction book of 83,000 words. Readers familiar with Pierce Brown’s Red Rising or Fonda Lee’s Zeroboxer will find similar elements in my work. I do feel one of the most important features of this novel is the focus it has on a main character who is a PoC. Having worked in urban schools my entire career, I so often find my students have little to no representation in these types of books. I was hoping to give them an opportunity to see themselves, vibrant and on the page and victorious. To this end, I followed advice I received from author Mary Anne Mohanraj at the World Fantasy Convention. She suggested I seek readers of a diverse background in the beta process. I did just that and was incredibly pleased at the response to Emmett’s authenticity and relevance.
Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why Babel recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family, forever.
As he and nine other teenagers wormhole their way through space, Emmett discovers the promised millions aren’t a guarantee. Each recruit must earn the right to travel down to Eden. There, Babel will use them to mine a substance that’s quietly become the most valuable in the world. Emmett’s year-long flight will act as a competition. Every training session is measured, every point matters, and Emmett will do anything to win. But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. Secrets about the volatile substance they’re hoping to mine, about the reclusive humanoids already living on Eden, and about their true intentions for the kids that don’t win their competition. As Emmett uncovers the truth, he realizes he’s not fighting for wealth or glory, he’s fighting for his life.
I am a 10th grade English and Creative Writing teacher who has spent years sharing my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels with my students, and I’ve started writing stories with them in mind. THE BABEL FILES is my third completed novel, and the first in a science fiction trilogy. I have included sample pages below for your consideration. I look forward to your response.
The following would have been impossible even seven years ago:
This week I sold the film/tv rights for a memoir that a major publisher took out-of-print in 2013. But because of the indie-publishing revolution, the author had made her memoir available in the digital realm. Because of that, it was discoverable by a major Oscar-winning director and producer who not only took an interest, but also optioned the rights for television.
Sounds like fiction, doesn’t it? Back in 2005, I met Kim Reid at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs. Kim had made a pitch appointment, but she pitched me a novel that didn’t sound right for my list. However, in the course of our conversation, I learned about her extraordinary childhood as the daughter of one of the lead detectives who helped solve the Atlanta child murders, committed by Wayne Williams in the seventies and eighties.
I immediately told her, “You need to write that. I could definitely sell it!” So she did, and I signed her as a client. It took sixteen months of dogged determination, and Kim surviving a slew of rejections, but I finally sold No Place Safe in June 2006.
Kensington Publishing did a lovely job with it. Good packaging. Wonderful editing. And then the book was published, and bookstores shelved it, oddly, in African American Studies rather than in biography, where it truly belonged. I can honestly say that the shelving diminished the book’s discoverability, as well as its ability to sell.
Heartbreaking. By 2013, the work was out-of-print, and the rights reverted to Kim.
Luckily, the digital revolution happened. So Kim, in partnership with NLA Digital LLC, indie published the memoir to give it a second chance at life. Director/producer John Ridley found it. Bought a copy. Read and loved it so much that he convinced ABC Studios to buy it for him.
Suddenly, a memoir that would have dropped completely from sight was saved by publishing’s digital transformation. This title now has a ton of exciting new possibilities unfolding.
This is why I love agenting in the digital age. Authors have so many more options available now. And this particular terrific story happened to a very worthy book!
Photo Credit: Alyssa L. Miller
After listening to an amazing series of keynote presentations at the 2015 National conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), during which authors wear their hearts on their sleeves, I feel the need to pass on the inspiration!
From the Success Stories Panel:
Writers, keep writing! Keep the faith, and as Kwame Alexander reminded us in his SCBWI 2015 closing keynote speech (“Six Basketball Rules of Publishing”), “You’ll miss 100-percent of the time if you never take the shot.”
Creative Commons Photo Credit: @wewon31 #365
Just as the title suggests, because agents are also human beings, they are going to embody both good and bad traits found in human nature. No one is perfect. And as some authors have discovered, some agents are more imperfect than others!
Your job as an author is to objectively recognize those human attributes or failings in your agent and decide whether they impact your career. Hopefully they don’t.
To this end, Karen Dionne of Backspace and I have put together a whole list of topics to tackle for “Because Agents Are Human Too.”
Topic 1: Because they are human, good agents keep their client lists small and manageable.
The trick is to define what is considered small and manageable. This question is asked at conferences all the time, and the truth is that the answer is going to vary widely depending on the agent and the agent’s situation.
Some things to keep in mind:
*Is the agent part of a larger organization/agency that supplies a lot of support staff in terms of auditing royalty statements, reviewing contracts, accounting, etc.? Or, if he or she is with a smaller, less corporate agency, how many non-agent personnel does the agency employ?
Many agencies employ a lot of agents but very few support staff. It’s typical in this industry that agents are one-man bands. They handle all the business elements listed above, and even if they’re associated with a larger agency, they still operate as the sole proprietors of their client lists. To be blunt, doing agenting well requires far more work than one person can handle in an eight- or ten-hour day—which means a lot of agents aren’t doing things like auditing royalty statements and thoroughly negotiating contracts.
More support staff = more clients an individual agent can manage successfully.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If your agent has a lot of support in place, a larger client roster is not really a concern. If they don’t, then know that a larger client list is pretty difficult to manage, and more than likely, some business aspects are going to fall through the cracks.
Some possible red flags:
*Some agents operate on what we call the “shotgun” approach. They take on a bunch of clients, throw a lot of stuff out on submission, and see what sticks. These agents will have a lot of clients on their rosters.
*A high number of small- or no-advance deals could indicate that an agent is operating on the shotgun approach.
*Agents who are already established (five+ years as an agent) should have developed strong financial security with their current client roster. Be on the lookout for agents who suddenly take on a lot of clients all at once or during a short period of time. It could mean their current client list isn’t supporting their business.
*Be aware of agents who have high rate of client turnover, or who do a lot of one-time deals for authors but few subsequent deals.
For me, a small client list means fewer than 50 clients. My list is currently at 32.
Other agents may easily have a comfort level at 60 or 70 clients.
The real question here is, as an author, what is your comfort level regarding how many other clients your agent represents?
To celebrate just having spent the day in York with Rhiannon, here is her original query for A WICKED THING that landed me as her agent.
Dear Kristin Nelson:
One hundred years after falling asleep, Aurora wakes up to the kiss of a handsome prince and a broken kingdom that has been dreaming of her return. All the books say that she, and the kingdom, should be living happily ever after.
But her family are long dead. Her “true love” is a stranger. And her whole life has been planned out by strangers while she slept. Aurora wants space to make her own choices, but she cannot risk losing the favor of the prince or the people and ending up penniless, homeless and, worst of all, alone. With rebellion stirring in the backstreets of the city and everyone expecting Aurora’s promised goodness to save them, she must marry the prince and play the sweet, smiling savior that everyone expects, or the kingdom will tear itself — and Aurora — apart.
When Aurora befriends a young rebel, she begins to doubt that the kingdom deserves saving. As the rebellion begins in force, and her wedding day hurtles ever closer, Aurora must decide whether she is willing to sacrifice her freedom to save this new world from burning, or whether she should be the one to light the flame.
AFTER is a young adult fantasy that will appeal to fans of Malinda Lo and Gail Carson Levine. It is complete at 70,000 words.
I graduated from Princeton University with a degree in English Literature in 2011 and work as a freelance writer and academic editor. AFTER is my first novel.
I am submitting this novel for your consideration because I read that you love fantasy YA and are a fan of Malinda Lo’s Ash, which is also one of my all-time favorite books.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
What did I like about her query pitch? First off, it’s very well written. Even the pitch has a narrative voice to it. But a couple more things:
* I love the turning-on-its-head opening premise of the first sentence. She should be living happily ever after means she probably won’t be. I want to find out why.
* I’ve never seen a Sleeping Beauty retelling where the princess wakes up 100 years later. Wow. She might as well be on another planet. Everything she knows is dead and long gone. I can’t imagine what that would be like. This story is going to be intriguing on that aspect alone.
* The pitch is wonderfully written and the conflict is clear. Should she marry the prince? Is that truly her destiny or what is best for her people?
* The author comparisons used are apt for this work.
It’s a shoo-in for me to ask for sample pages.
Happy Release Day Stacey Lee! UNDER A PAINTED SKY is now in bookstores.
Since I’ve been doing nothing but blogging about queries for the last week, what better way to celebrate the release of her debut novel than to share Stacey’s original query letter (with permission of course!)
Dear Ms. Nelson,
I am seeking representation for my 77K-word YA historical romance novel, GOLDEN BOYS. Arthur Levine selected GOLDEN BOYS for the 2012 Golden Gate Award at the recently held SCBWI Asilomar Conference. GOLDEN BOYS is also a finalist in the Chicago North Romance Writers of America Fire and Ice Contest, results to be announced in April.
When fifteen-year-old orphan Samantha Young kills the richest man in Missouri in self-defense, she disguises herself as a boy and flees to the unknown frontier. She knows the law in 1849 will not side with the daughter of a Chinaman. Along with a runaway slave, also disguised as a boy, “Sammy” joins a band of young cowboys headed for the California gold rush.
The trail poses far more hazards than the demure violinist imagined, not just from pursuing lawmen, but from Sammy’s own heart when she falls in love with one of the cowboys, West Pepper, who doesn’t know she’s a girl. Sammy can’t reveal her true identity for fear of losing the cowboys’ protection. But when West’s confusion over his feelings threatens to tear them apart, Sammy has to choose between her love for West and her own survival.
I wrote GOLDEN BOYS because I often wondered how a Chinese girl born in the U.S. during its expansion west would have fared. My great great grandfather was one of the first Chinese to come to California at the time of the gold rush.
Thank you so much for your consideration,
Stacey H. Lee
So what inspired me to request sample pages? The terrific writing and the sheer originality of the premise. A Chinese girl violinist on the run via the Oregon Trail? I’m in. To me, it was a story that needed to be told and when I fell in love with the manuscript, I offered representation.
It certainly wasn’t because cross-dressing young adult historical westerns were all the rage in 2013. Talk about swimming against the current trends then….
The novel, after several revisions, transformed away from the historical romance to an enduring story of Sammy and Andy’s deepening friendship. And that is the story of UNDER A PAINTED SKY that readers get to enjoy starting today.