Pub Rants

Category: Agents/Agenting

(Just a note, this article was featured in our September 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I’ve been preparing for a conference where I’ll be presenting on plot structure and voice, among other things, and, in getting ready, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an author a cut above the rest. What is that special X-factor? The je ne sais quoi that can elevate someone with good technical skills to an expert writer?

We all know writing is a difficult craft to master and that publishing is a hard business to break into. We all know how impossible it can seem to write something totally fresh and new when stories have existed from the beginning and have been told and retold and retold again. And yet. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a story that surprises and delights you. Despite the fact that it seems every story has been told, new novels are published every year that prove otherwise. (Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? That book is a work of art!)

I’m a big Brené Brown fan. In fact, I have a copy of Daring Greatly sitting right here on my desk as I write this piece. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do! It’s a great guide for how to approach your own life, but beyond that, I’ve found that Brown’s work on vulnerability is also the key to the X-factor of writing. The thing that makes you special, that makes you different from every other writer, is the fact that you are, well, you. Remember that as you embark on your writing journey.

Here are some things you can do or think about to ensure you’re writing in your unique way:

Write what you know (i.e. Know Thyself). I think this is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice out there. To me, write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write your own life again and again and again. Not by a long shot! Write what you know means that you should connect with the many depths and shades of your emotional truths and put them on the page. It doesn’t matter if the truth appears in a galaxy far, far away or in a contemporary setting—it is the internal conflict a character is forced to grapple with and the growth they experience that keep readers coming back for more. If the emotional core of a novel feels visceral and real, readers will connect with it.

The universal is in the specific. As humans, we are all connected by common experiences, feelings, challenges. That’s what makes empathy and compassion possible. When a novel is truly engrossing, readers actually physically experience what the characters are experiencing—this happens on a neurological level. Trust that, no matter your character’s background, religion, sexuality, race, etc., readers have the capacity to connect. Then, rather than trying to write a story that will please everyone, focus on writing a story that will please you. Let your characters have flaws, quirks, strange interests, etc. What makes you unique is the eyes you see the world through. Let that come out in your narrative. The more you hone in on emotional details, the deeper you dive, the more specific you get, the more your characters and story will feel real, and the more readers will connect.

Write what brings you joy. One fundamental truth in life and in publishing is that things are always changing. What was trending two years ago isn’t trending now. The world moves along, and we are forced to move with it. Because of that, it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the book world and to be aware of where the successes in your genre are, but it is equally important not to write to a trend because, chances are, by the time you’ve finished writing your trendy book, the next trend will already have come along. Because of that, the most important thing is that you write a novel that you want to spend time with, that gives you creative pride, and that feels meaningful to you. When an author loves their story, it shines through in the work, and readers connect with that.

So go forth and enjoy the process of writing, of putting your own unique stamp on the world through your words. Because you are the only person in the history of the world who can be yourself.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kurtis Garbutt

(Just a note, this article was featured in our September 2020 Newsletter. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

Hello to all the PubRants readers sheltering at home. Hope this article finds you healthy, safe, and sane. Glad you are still with us and reading our monthly missive. It’s been a year in the making, but I’m very excited to share with you our brand-spanking new website that just launched this past week. Although September’s newsletter follows the old format, you can expect a newly redesigned newsletter to follow in a couple months, so stay tuned. 

For eight months, I was closed to queries to cover two back-to-back maternity leaves for the NLA family. Congratulations, Samantha and Maria! At long last, I’m back in the query game, so it seemed apropos to talk about trends I’m seeing in my QueryManager inbox

As always, don’t put too much weight on the trends I spotlight here. It doesn’t mean your project is dead in the water. It just means you need to be more creative in your query letter to make your story stand out. One interesting thing to note is that we’re fielding a lot of queries from authors who’ve had prior agent representation and are looking for a new partnership. Because of Covid, agents, like everyone else, are juggling a lot, and I wonder if some are paring down their client rosters. 

Good luck out there! Persevere. 

In the Adult realm:

  • Historicals set in the time periods of the 1960s through the 1990s. Might writers be reminiscing on their pasts so as to escape our present crises?
  • International thrillers with main characters that work at the CIA, FBI, etc. This is a specific thriller genre (espionage thrillers) and not something Joanna or I are looking for, but we still get a lot of inquiries.
  • Lots of stories that use BIG LITTLE LIES as a comp.
  • Jane Austen retellings are trending again. Humorous. Gender-swapped. From a different character’s perspective. That kind of thing.
  • Old-school speculative fiction in the vein of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson—which isn’t quite where the SF&F market is right now.
  • Angsty fiction in which the characters must “find themselves,” but that lacks a clear hook or concept to drive the story. This tends to be perennial.
  • Short books—queries for novellas and novels under 70,000 words. For some reason this is popular, but 70K is pretty short for a full novel.

In the YA and Children’s realm:

  • Steampunk submissions have really wound down over the last year.
  • Pirates, pirates, pirates! Not sure what in the Zeitgeist is driving the trend, but it’s big in YA and MG (middle grade).
  • Fantasy built around elemental powers or magic.
  • Fantasy built around the guardians trope: characters who must protect a chosen one, a secret, a portal, a wall, a source of magic, etc.
  • Fantasy built around court intrigue. Heads up: this market is saturated for editors. Some sales still occur, but they are far fewer than two years ago.
  • Cool dragons with inventive premises are trending for both the YA and adult-fantasy realm.
  • Middle-grade portal/time travel stories—probably because we need to escape our current world. 

Online Writing Events: What’s Working? What’s Not?

This week, the New York Times started publishing a series of articles under the heading “Six Months In,” looking at what we know now (and are still waiting to learn) after half a year of confronting COVID-19. That got me thinking about my friends in the writing world. We’re six months in, and our favorite writing conferences and conventions have been canceled, postponed, or made virtual. Writing is a lonely endeavor anyway, and it seems it has become even lonelier.

Or has it?

All of us at NLA have participated in myriad online events in the last six months, from one-hour Q&As to multi-day virtual events complete with pitch appointments, critique roundtables, social rooms, and dozens of workshops keyed to various learning tracks. We’ve witnessed event organizers innovate in some pretty commendable ways. The occasional tech glitch and Zoom learning curve aside, it’s actually been pretty great.

But I want to hear from you—all of you writers out there who have participated in online writing events and communities in the past six months. In our new virtual world…

• Are you more involved with writing communities, less involved, or the same?

• Is pitching to an agent or editor online more stressful or less stressful than it is in person? Why?

• Are you connecting with the same folks you were connecting with in person, or have you branched out and networked with new folks?

• How has your critique group adapted in the age of COVID?

• What types of online events have attracted you to participate, and how did they catch your eye?

• What could online-event organizers do to improve writers’ experiences, or what types of things do you wish would be offered?

• Have you attended virtual author readings or book-launch events? If so, what’s worked? What hasn’t?

I want to hear from you! Leave a comment with your thoughts down below. Next month, I’ll report back on the virtual writing world through your eyes…six months in.

(Unfortunately, our newsletter redacted the email we included to receive your responses. Please use the comment section to share your thoughts with us!)

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Ralf Steinberger

A referral to an agent is like the holy grail of introductions for a writer. It lets you skip ahead to the front of the line. It’s a get-out-of-query-jail free card. What writer wouldn’t want that? As an agent, I do give priority to referrals, but I think there might be some confusion among writers concerning what actually constitutes a referral. So let’s break it down:

What is a referral?

Basically, a referral is when one of my current clients or an established publishing-industry professional whom I know personally reaches out to me directly and asks if they can send an author my way. The referral comes in directly from that client or industry professional—not from the author. Occasionally, one of my clients will give me a heads-up that a certain writer they know and feel is ready for agent representation will be reaching out to me with a query. That is, they will be submitting a query to me through our regular query process. When that happens, I alert my team to watch for it and forward it to me when it comes in. That’s it.

But I think referrals are worth talking about a little more because some writers (hopefully unwittingly) use the term “referral” a little too freely, or in a broader context that might not be recognized by agents and editors. In QueryManager, our online query-submission tool, there’s a field where writers can submit the name of someone who referred them. If you don’t have an official referral, it’s OK to leave that field blank.

What isn’t a referral?

• If a writer meets an agent at a conference, and that agent has requested the material, there’s no need to call it a referral. In the industry, we call it a solicited or requested submission.

• If a writer hears the agent speak at a conference, and the agent says to the audience at large that they are free to query the agency, that is not a referral, nor is your query a solicited or requested submission.

• If a writer follows the client of a particular agent on Twitter or some other social-media platform, and the writer mentions they plan to query that client’s agent, and the client wishes the writer luck, that is not a referral. It only becomes a referral when the client reaches out directly to the agent on the the writer’s behalf before the submission happens.

• If a writer knows other industry professionals, but that professional does not know the agent personally, that is not a referral. It’s always a bit disconcerting to see that reference in a query letter. It leaves me scratching my head because the name being used as the referral is not familiar to me at all.

• If a speaker or panelist at a convention or writers’ conference mentions an agent’s name during their talk, that is not a referral. That is simply a recommendation, but not one given to you directly. It’s just a broad mention to a wide audience. We actually receive a lot of query letters that cite this situation as a referral, and it’s not.

• If a writer works with an established author or a professional editor, and that person simply recommends querying me, that is not a referral. It only becomes a referral if that editor or established author is reaching out to me directly to request my review.

• If a writer finds the agent’s name in the acknowledgments of a current client’s published work and then references it in the query letter, this is not a referral—although this does show you are savvy and you’ve done your legwork!

• This one might cause a chuckle, but finding me, or any other agent, on Google is also not a referral.

When in doubt, if you have to fill out that field in QueryManager (or some other submission tool), just leave it blank. Feel free to mention names in the context of your query letter—such as in your bio or why you choose that particular agent for your submission. And if you do know someone willing to give you a legitimate referral, definitely thank them and use that referral to your advantage!

Creative Commons Credit: amenclinicsphotos ac

As we head into August, we are officially settled into a new, semi-permanent state of Covid. What does that mean for publishing in 2020, and what does it mean for authors?

For publishing:

  • Editors will not be going into their main office spaces for the rest of 2020.
  • Agents are getting quite good at Zoom coffee chats as a way to connect with or meet new editors.
  • I’ve seen a lot of editors’ and publishers’ living rooms, and they’ve seen mine.
  • Marketing meetings are full-on eight- to ten-person Zoom gatherings, which is kind of fun.
  • Editors are still acquiring. All agents at NLA have closed deals since March, one of which was a pre-empt for a debut author. That particular project was submitted on a Friday, and the editor pre-empted the following Monday.
  • Marketing directors and publicists are getting remarkably good at leveraging virtual spaces—although the verdict is still out on how their efforts are translating to book sales. (Although one agent here at NLA had her debut author land on the New York Times bestseller list!)
  • Publishers are taking the time to re-evaluate leadership and hiring practices, and they’re rethinking publishing’s lack of diversity and representation.
  • August is not going to be the dead month. Traditionally, that’s when most editors and decision makers go on vacation, so agents usually avoid submitting until after Labor Day. Not this year. We are in it full speed.
  • There will be no travel to New York. Oh, I miss my Manhattan neighborhood walks and excellent pastries! And no international travel to book fairs for the foreseeable future, mainly because America is not getting a handle on the coronavirus, so there are travel bans or mandatory 14-day quarantines. 

For authors:

  • Known and established authors are seeing a rise in sales as readers gravitate to the tried and true.
  • Debut authors are having a rougher time. More creative strategies are needed to make debuts stand out. Hard to say whether more debuts would have broken out in the past six months if COVID hadn’t happened. I have no statistics, but I would say, yes, we probably would have seen higher numbers for newly published authors had the pandemic not been a factor.
  • Mid-list authors, as always, will be the most at risk. Editors, driven by decision makers with the final say, are scrutinizing option material, only looking for the “bigger” books and often passing on subsequent books by authors who haven’t broken out. That leads to a need for more career strategizing between author and agent.
  • Big books are going for big money. But the definition of a big book might be narrower now.
  • Film/TV deals that would be great for animation are hot properties. That is one field of Hollywood that is pandemic-proof, so all studios are aggressively looking. 

If you are an aspiring writer, you need to stay the course. The world could shift once again if a vaccine becomes a reality. And no matter what, publishers still need books to publish to stay afloat. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Miki Yoshihito

(Just a note, this article was featured in our November 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

It seems like yesterday that I launched my agency, but it has actually been seventeen years. I could write a whole article about how much has changed in the last two decades (the rise of ebooks, anyone?). But there has been another tectonic shift in an unexpected arena in the last two years—one that has been consuming an incredible amount of agent hours in the day. Still, authors should be rejoicing. This is THE time to be a content creator, and I’ll explain why.

I used to be pretty dang proud of the fact that in my first fifteen years of agenting, I did more than thirty film/TV deals. It was hard to land an option, and I was averaging two a year. Stellar numbers! Now I laugh as I write this article.

Why? Because with the advent of streaming (Netflix, Disney+, Apple, Amazon Prime, and the list goes on), all these platforms want content, content, content. The result? Film/TV options coming from every which way.

In the last two years, I’ve done fifteen film/TV deals, and I have another two coming down the pike in just a few weeks. That is a stunning number of option deals. So yay for clients! But as an agent, working through film/TV deals right (terms are getting onerous, and Hollywood is trying to make a grab for a lot of rights), any negotiation can take five to eight months to complete—with numerous rounds on potentially deal-killing issues. My fave? When a producer or studio insists on “novelization rights” when they are buying an existing novel on which to base their movie. Yep, you read that correctly. Needless to say, any insistence on that point will kill the option deal outright.

In good news, we almost always manage to find common ground so the deal can happen. But it can take a lot of phone conferences, emails, and conversations to make it so.

A lot of agenting hours in the day dedicated to something other than selling an actual book to a publisher.

Creative Commons Credit: Tri Nguyen

Back in 2004, NLA was one of the first agencies to go entirely electronic by accepting query letters solely by email. I remember chatting with some agent friends about it, and you would have thought the sky was falling. They were passionately certain they would never go that route because sending an email was way too easy. Agents would be inundated. Only aspiring writers who took the time to compose a letter, print it out, put in in an envelope, address it, affix postage, and then walk or drive it to a post office could be considered serious enough about the biz.

Well, my agent friends weren’t wrong. Email definitely allowed far more query letters—many less than professional—to make it to my desk. But my reasoning at the time was that email was faster and easier, and it would allow me as an agent to get a jump on hot projects. As a new, unknown agent, any edge I could create was worth the risk.

As an agency, we accepted email queries for 13 years, and in January 2019, we decided to shift to a rather amazing service called QueryManager.

If the number of emails we’ve received from outraged writers is any indication, then once again, you’d think the sky was falling. How dare we create even more hoops for a writer to jump through?

For the record, I understand the frustration. The query process is not easy, and sending emails is a lot simpler than filling out and submitting an online form. The good news is, QueryTracker exists! Developed by the same folks who gave us QueryManager, QueryTracker can be used by writers to greatly simplify their submissions process, so give it a look.

For us at NLA, it came down to this: QueryManager is not meant to be a hoop for writers to jump through; it’s meant to be a simplification, for agents and for writers. We are an agency that responds to each and every query letter we receive. That is the kind of agent I want to be because responding is respectful, and I will never post on our site that “no response means we’re not interested,” which feels cold. But with four agents at the agency, it quickly became clear that we needed a better system for handling the sheer volume of queries we were receiving. Not to mention, we were getting a lot of emails from writers saying they never received a response from us, even though a response had been sent, and a lot of phone calls from writers whose queries had bounced back to them. It was taking our office staff a lot of time to troubleshoot with these authors.

Enter QueryManager—a robust tool that has hugely simplified the lives of our office staff and agents. Sorting and filtering queries—by genre, by word count, by several other parameters—is a breeze. Responding promptly is a snap. Our screeners are more efficient. In the end, that means our turn-around time is pretty darn good—something writers greatly appreciate. I personally like logging in and checking my response stats. This actually encourages me to stay on top of my query inbox and feels like personal goals achieved, and who doesn’t like a visual representation of a job well done?

By switching, I truly believe we are providing better service to writers. If a writer’s project doesn’t fit what we’re currently accepting, then there’s no need to send the query. Just diminishing the volume of non-fits has simplified the query influx for us as well.

(Now, if I can just get queriers to stop trying to circumvent the system by selecting a genre that their work clearly doesn’t fit but that is on the list of what we accept, then system would be perfect!)

Good luck out there! Feel free to check out our guidelines and read more about what we’re looking for. Even if NLA ends up passing on your query, hopefully we sent that response in a timely fashion and you are moving on to other great agent possibilities.

Creative Commons Credit: Christoph Scholz

Many of you are probably querying or preparing to query. Maybe you’re between agents. Whatever the case, I wanted to give a bit of an overview of the things you should keep in mind as your writing career progresses. Much like any relationship, finding the right agent, editor, publisher, etc., can be hit or miss. Everyone has the best intentions and hopes things will work out, but no one can predict the future. We enter into what we hope will be longterm partnerships after a phone call and a series of questions, questions that can never address every possible scenario. Sometimes, the partnership just doesn’t work, which is fairly common in publishing. Regardless, here are some things to consider.

Editorial vs. Non-Editorial Agent. At this point most, if not all, agents are editorial. It has become a significant requirement that agents polish clients’ manuscripts before taking them out on submission. Still, there are a variety of editorial styles. Some agents just edit the first 50 to 100 pages and then include big-picture notes. Some do extensive line and developmental editing and also include an edit letter. Some may only do an edit letter. You can ask an agent what their editing style is, but their answer won’t really matter until you know what style works best for you. Try to get a variety of peer edits in various styles. If one works better for you than another, you know exactly what you’re looking for. If they all work, excellent!

Brainstorming/Concept Collaboration. How involved in the creative process would you like your agent to be? When we go out on sub, I have my clients send me five ideas for their next project. I then give them feedback and tell them which idea(s) make the most sense to pursue based on the market and what editors have told me they’re looking for. My help in walking through a concept is one of the reasons my clients chose me as their agent. Is this something you would need as well? Would you also want feedback as you draft—say, on the first 50 pages so you know you are headed in the right direction? If so, then ask potential agents if this is one of their strengths.

Career Management. In addition to helping with concept building and brainstorming, some agents also give career-management advice. This is helpful if you want to switch gears, perhaps moving from adult to YA or vice versa. An agent can guide you through that career transition, which might include rebranding you as an author or launching you under a new pen name.

Negotiations. How does your agent/agency negotiate? You don’t want to work with someone who is too soft and may push back only lightly. But you also might be turned off by someone who is too aggressive. It is fair to ask an agent what kinds of deal and contract terms they might fight for on your behalf and why. You might not care as long as they can get you a solid book deal, but negotiation is a huge part of what an agent does, so it never hurts to be aware of how your potential agent handles it.

Personality. Lastly, is personality important to you? What kind of personality are you looking for in an agent? Do you want someone friendly? Personable? Is it okay if they only contact you when necessary? Do you want someone patient who will answer all your questions no matter how many you have or how often you ask? Do you want a hand-holder? A shark? That’s a fair thing to want to discern. And agents might not know themselves where they fall. Reach out to their clients. Even if you are just querying and don’t have an offer or rep, you might be able to piece together some clues based on what clients say about their agents online or in the acknowledgments of their books.

Now that you know some agent-seeking basics, you can research confidently. There is still no guarantee that you’ll find the perfect fit for your entire career, but this will certainly help you figure out what you really want at this early stage.

Good luck!

Creative Commons Credit: Apichart Meesri

(Just a note, this article was a feature in our newsletter from a few months ago. If you would like to receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

Tis the season for eggnog chai and holiday shopping. As I considered what to write about for my last article of 2019, I felt compelled to end on a positive, optimistic note for writers in the trenches. I’m going to guess that authors trying to get that first foot in the door have heard a lot of rejection language over the last twelve months. These aspiring writers might be looking at established authors wistfully, perhaps assuming that writing must be effortless for them. Words of gold just automatically drop off the pen onto the page. Every word is a treasure. 

And rainbows and unicorns always follow too.

I love my clients. They are an incredible and talented bunch. But “every word is a treasure” is not a reality of the writing life. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of clunky writing from my clients. Rejoice, writers. Clunkers happen to everyone. There are no exceptions. 

When my clients are at their writing clunkiest, here are the four things that seem to hold true:

  • They haven’t quite nailed the story that actually needs to be told.
  • The story’s POV (point-of-view) needs to shift to a different character, or from first person to third person or vice versa.
  • They are writing to the novel pitch/summary rather than actually focusing on writing the scene that needs to happen for the novel as a whole.
  • The character doesn’t have a strong enough backstory, so their development is lacking on the page.

Beginning writers and established authors are all equal when they’re facing that blank page and starting something new. If I took a poll at a writing conference, I’m positive 90% of new writers there wouldn’t think that to be true. They would believe that once an author’s first book is published, their writing becomes smooth sailing. That’s definitely a misconception. Here’s another piece of maybe-good news. When starting a brand-new novel, every author, even those who are established, is in the same boat. Every single story to be told is unique. Even if you have written one novel, starting a new one is basically learning all over again how to write a novel because the tools used to craft the debut might not work for book two. 

But every novel written is one more step on the path toward mastery of the arts of dialogue, scene tension, world-building, and so on. Which is why I always tell writers, never stop creating new stories. And if an agent or editor says no to one novel, jump right in there and get another novel going. 

Just today I spotted a Deal Lunch announcement for an author who sold a debut novel. I saw a different project from that author back in 2016. So huge kudos to that writer. If your first submit doesn’t sell, so what? You have other stories to tell. If that writer had quit, they wouldn’t be popping champagne to celebrate the sale that just happened in 2019.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Rennett Stowe

Money, so they say, is a taboo subject, so don’t expect fellow writers to spill financial details.

Until now. Hats off to Heather Demetrios for pulling back the curtain and being brave enough to share her mistakes in the article “How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying.” It’s considered gauche to talk about money in this industry, yet it’s probably one of the most important topics authors should be discussing.

Agents are often in a weird position when it comes to talking to our clients about money management. On one hand, we are the author’s business partner; on the other hand, we aren’t their parent. We don’t want to make assumptions about an author’s financial responsibility (or irresponsibility).

Over the years, when I have a debut author who has landed a big advance, I have asked for permission to put on my mom hat and give counsel. If the author says yes, I offer these four pieces of advice:

  1. When the advance comes in, don’t wait. Cut a check for 25% of the total that has come in and mail that check to the IRS right then and there. I’ve heard too many horror stories of authors finding themselves in real trouble when April 15 rolled around and the money was already spent.
  2. Ever heard of the adage “pay yourself first”? Most people don’t know exactly what that means. Well, in investing terms, it means immediately placing the maximum percentage allowed by the IRS for that particular tax year into a retirement account (i.e., a Roth IRA, IRA, Vanguard S&P 500 fund, or similar).
  3. If you have a mortgage your advance can pay down (or, better yet, pay off), that is worth considering. Owning your home outright can create a lot of financial freedom. If you have student loans or other debts, consider eliminating them.
  4. Connect with a financial advisor who only charges by the hour rather than taking a percentage of your investments. This is a way to gain expert advice on reasonable terms—especially for authors who feel lost in the weeds about this whole investing and saving-for-retirement thing. Garrett Planning Network is a good resource that can hook you up with a fee-only certified financial planner.

In the end, the best way to think about your advance is to take that amount and divide it by, say, three years. What would the author’s annual salary then be? For example, if an author is lucky enough to get a $150,000 as an advance (sounds fab, right?), that’s $150,000 minus 25% in taxes, which equals only $37,500 a year for three years. If that’s your sole income for those three years, that might be a bit sobering.

My client Courtney Milan once told me that a blog article I wrote a lifetime ago on authors and retirement really made a difference in how she managed her money. I wish I could find that original blog post, but chances are good the info would be outdated anyway. For more up-to-date info, here are my recommendations for retirement planning:

So thank you, Heather, for getting the ball rolling for authors to talk about money. Mentorship tends to be a key factor for success in publishing. So let’s not be shy about discussing this topic.

 

Creative Commons Credit: Ben Taylor