Pub Rants

Category: Agents/Agenting

For over a decade NLA has compiled our yearly stats. This year is no exception and there is one positive note in the number of manuscripts requested that also received offers of representation. This is good news for writers! Find out what else was positive for writers in 2021 (hint: across the pond). 

13,932 : Queries read and responded to. Up 371 queries from 2020 [which had a total of 13,561]. This looks like a close match…but it’s not. The agents of NLA, collectively, were closed to queries about 47% of 2021, as opposed to in 2020, when we were collectively closed to queries for only 27% of the year. So our average number of queries received per month actually increased 29% in 2021 over 2020.

353 : Number of full manuscripts requested and read (down from 430 in 2020): 95 requests for Kristin, 161 requests for Joanna, and although no longer with the agency, 97 requests for the other agents. 

111 : Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation, either from us or from other agents/agencies (up from 106 in 2020). This is good news for writers in the query trenches. 

22 : Number of referred manuscripts KN read and considered during the times she was closed to general submissions but open to referrals only. The total for number of referrals read is 34 when including the other agents. 

3 : Number of new clients who signed with NLA (0 for Kristin—which is first in her career; 3 for Joanna)

37 : Books released in 2021 (down slightly from 41 in 2020).

2 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Joanna. Extra congrats to her client Kate Baer!

51 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Kristin (up from 48 in 2020). Marie Lu hit the list again this year, while Stacey Lee and Richard Chizmar made it for the first time.

5 : TV and major motion picture deals (almost on par with the 6 from previous year)

1 : TV show in production (Wool Saga coming on Apple+ in 2023) 

126 : Foreign-rights deals done (up from 70 in 2020). Wowza. This is great news for writers, as foreign markets are another great source of income. 

0 : Physical conferences attended. Thanks again, Covid. 

2 : Virtual conferences attended by Kristin (Story Brook Children’s Lit Fellows, Virtual Stoker Con). 

103 : Physical holiday cards sent (up one from 102 in 2020—we still only sent to clients during this Covid year).

736 : Electronic holiday cards sent (down from 837 in 2020 as a lot of editors left and we did a much needed cleanup of the list).

0 : Eggnog-chai lattes consumed during December because Starbucks didn’t offer. Huge sad face.

Lots : Of wonderful days reading and appreciating creators. 

Photo by Black ice from Pexels

Last month, I was lamenting not having a crystal ball that would allow me to predict future market trends. However, if there is one publishing prediction I can make with absolute certainty, it’s this:

  1. Change is certain.

For nineteen Decembers, I’ve soldiered on through the crush of wrapping up everything by year’s end with a Starbucks eggnog chai in hand like a battle sword. This year, The Buck didn’t offer my favorite beverage. I’m still bitter about it, but change is inevitable. That’s the one prediction I can make with certainty. 

But just for fun, here are a eleven more other predictions: 

  1. I predict that the Big Five will become the Big Four. It’s my guess that despite the objections of the Department of Justice, for better or worse, Penguin Random House will successfully acquire Simon & Schuster.
  2. I predict that for aspiring writers, 2022 will be a little easier. Agents are acclimated now to the new normal Covid introduced us all to, and I think they’ll respond to queries and full manuscripts in a more timely fashion.
  3. I predict that some agents, probably more than usual, will leave the industry, switch agencies, or even start their own. Covid had a way of making folks re-evaluate their futures and what they want out of life. 
  4. I predict the same will be true for editors.
  5. I predict that editors will get excited to acquire again now that we are past the Covid transition year and are seeing some stabilization across both fiction and nonfiction markets.
  6. I predict that print and ebook sales will stay robust. However…
  7. I predict that big-picture economic issues that have impacted print publishing, like the global paper shortage and supply-chain slow-downs, will be slow to resolve. Pub dates, print runs, and marketing plans that include the printing of ARCs will continue to be affected, but nothing is forever. Hopefully these issues will begin to be ironed out in 2022, but they will most likely linger a bit longer.
  8. I predict that the big streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and Apple TV+ will continue to actively scout for great books to adapt for the small screen.
  9. I predict that, in fiction, variety will reign. With few clearly discernible trends in what editors are buying right now, any good story that’s well written has a great chance to get acquired in 2022. Dark humor, cerebral alternate history, heartwarming friendship stories…whatever you want to write about, go for it!
  10. I predict that as writing conferences return to in-person events in 2022, organizers will continue to offer hybrid programming. In fact, now that Covid forced us all to become proficient at Zoom, I predict that virtual and hybrid programming is here to stay.
  11. I predict that Starbucks will bring back the eggnog chai and it will have nothing to do with the thousands of letters I sent to encourage them to do just that.

Photo by Sindre Strøm from Pexels

The verdict is in. With headlines such as HarperCollins Sales Near $2 Billion and Publishing Sales Jumped 18.1% and First Half Profits Soared at Penguin Random House, it’s clear that at least in term of earnings, Covid is not having a negative impact on publishing. I should be thrilled. My industry is sound. This is good for authors. Time to celebrate. Right? Yet, I’m grumpy. Here’s why. 

I’m glad that the future picture of publishing is rosy. I just wish there was movement in the industry to share that financial rosy picture with the content creators who make it possible. The opposite is happening. Royalty share to authors has contracted in the last five to seven years. 

A few examples:

For YA and children’s deals, when I first started in this biz, it was common to negotiate royalties for a project starting at 8% with an escalation to 10%. Now that royalty structure has gone the way of the dinosaur. Publishers hold the line at 7.5% (excepting grandfathered-in authors with higher royalty structures). All this despite the children’s segment being a huge revenue-growth sector for publishing for the last decade. As publishers earned more, authors received a smaller piece of the earning pie with this reduction in royalty. 

In the mid-2000s, Random House used to pay an ebook royalty of 25% of retail price until advance earn-out, and then it switched it to 25% of net receipts (which roughly equals about 17% of retail price). And there were deals where publishers offered 30% or even 40%. That went the way of the dinosaur, too (except for the highest echelon of established authors). And to be clear, I’m talking about traditional publishing here. Plenty of smaller, indie, electronic-only houses probably still offer those kinds of rates. 

The death of the mass-market format. This used to be a whole other royalty revenue channel for the author. It’s mostly just gone now (and ebook sales do not make up the difference). Despite the trade-paperback format becoming king and increasing earnings for publishers, there is no movement from the 7.5% flat royalty rate in over two decades. Two decades. Probably longer. 

And then there is audio. Earnings from this format have skyrocketed in the last five years. Yet here we are at 25% of net receipts for digital download and publishers “insisting” they must control audio rights when agents used to partner with audio-only publishers and would still prefer that. 

So yep. I’m grumpy. 

To add insult to injury, lemon juice to the wound, or insert another catchy phrase here, agents often heard several variations of the following this past year:

  • Because of Covid, we have an abundance of caution and that is reflected in the advance we are offering.
  • Because of Covid, sadly we’ll not be able to pick up this author’s latest option material.
  • Because of Covid, we are not supporting (translation: spending any money on) in-person events.

The litany is that publishing profit margins are “slim,” costs of printing are higher now, etc., etc., etc. Yet these recent headlines paint a different picture. And although Publishers Marketplace recently reported that at long last, advance levels are on the rise for the last quarter of 2021, the advance is only one part of the publishing-earnings pie. A book doesn’t exist without the content creator. The author. I’d love to see a headline that proclaims a publisher is offering authors a bigger slice of that earnings pie. Now that would make me smile.

Photo by Cats Coming from Pexels

On August 25, 2021, Richard Chizmar’s debut novel Chasing the Boogeyman hit the New York Times Bestseller list at #10. It was a huge milestone in my agenting career, an achievement I never imagined when I opened NLA in August 2002. It was my 50th New York Times bestselling client title. Amazing indeed, but self-congratulating isn’t much of an article. A good article is divulging just how a book might hit the NYT bestseller List. And sharing now what I wish baby Agent Kristin had known then. 

First, a caveat. Talking about the NYT list is kind of like talking about unicorn sightings. The real science behind why a title hits the list is not transparent to publishers, agents, or authors. The NYT algorithm and tracking methods are proprietary information, so to be clear, I actually don’t know why or how any given title lands on the bestseller list. This article is simply a compilation of my observations after having 50 client titles hit that list. 

Velocity, Volume, Interval

If memory serves, my very first title to hit the NYT bestseller list was Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You in 2006—just four years after I opened the agency. For baby Agent Kristin, that NYT appearance was a complete surprise. I had no clue it was even a possibility, which just makes me laugh at my own naiveté. As an agent now, I have a very good sense of whether or not a title has the potential to hit the list. Certain factors have to be in play for even the possibility of a hit, and it all relies on velocity, volume, and the interval. 

In other words, in order for a book to hit the NYT list, that title needs to quickly sell (velocity) a high number of copies (volume) during a one-week time span (interval). If a book does those three things, it has a very good chance of hitting the list. 

The Indicators

As an agent, what gives me an inkling that one of my client titles may be positioned to make an appearance on the list? Four factors:

  • Print run. A title needs a high number of physical copies going out into the world so that physical sales can happen. And yes, I know folks reading this article would love exact numbers (just how big does the print run need to be?), but honestly, this varies a lot. I’ve seen titles hit with a 100,000 print run (the bigger the number, the better), but I’ve also seen titles hit with only a 30,000 print run. There is no magic number here as other factors come into play.
  • Reprint before publication. If a publisher has to reprint a title before it’s even published in order to fill early demand, this indicates that excitement and interest for a title is building.
  • Pre-orders. The higher the number of pre-orders a title has, the better the chance. The pre-order number varies greatly depending on whether a title is set up to the hit the adult-hardcover list, the adult-paperback list, or the children’s list. With King, Patterson, Moriarty, Childs, and Steele all taking up regular space on the adult NYT list, and with those authors’ titles selling 20,000+ copies a week (according to Bookscan), you can start to get a sense of just how many copies of a book need to move in the first week to land on that adult-hardcover list.
  • Marketing spend. Awareness of a title has to happen for momentum. In publishing, marketing is where the publisher spends money to create awareness for a book. Publicity is exposure that is free. The bigger the marketing budget is for a book out of the gate, the better the chance. However, this isn’t always true…

The Surprises

Publishing is full of wild-card moments. That’s what makes this industry so much fun, impossible to predict, and full of joyful surprises. One of my bestselling YA titles of my career is Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry. This title had a modest beginning with a small print run and a minimal marketing budget. But that original cover and fan love propelled this series to selling over a million copies. I also think a lot of fans think Perfect Chemistry is a New York Times bestselling title, but the reality is that it was book two, Rules of Attraction, that hit the NYT list for the first time in 2010. When Chain Reaction released a year later, that put the trilogy on the series NYT bestseller list. Technically, the first book never actually hit the list. 

Twenty-six editors turned down Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. That book went on to spend 130 consecutive weeks on the NYT bestseller list. That’s 2.5 solid years on the list. I still can’t wrap my head around that. 

The Naiveté 

When I was a baby agent just starting out in the biz, I thought a New York Times bestseller meant the title was selling King, Winfrey, or Rowling levels. I also assumed that hitting the list would ensure riches for both author and agent. 

Wow, was I clueless. An NYT hit is fabulous, and often it does mean that the client will earn out the initial advance. It is not, however, a guarantee that earn-out will happen. And although for some clients hitting the list has led to financial stability in writing as a career, it does not automatically equal life-changing riches.

The Movie Effect

With the “New York Times Bestseller” moniker, instead of happening at once, sometimes it happens at last. Bird Box by Josh Malerman is that one client title that I felt in my bones should have hit the list out of the gate in 2014. I was just flat out wrong. It would take four years, Netflix, and Sandra Bullock to make that title into the NYT bestseller that I always knew it to be. 

Publishing. A giant mystery. Thank you for letting me celebrate 50 with you. I have a sneaking suspicion that number 51 might be just around the corner.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Carol VanHook

Lurking on Twitter, I stumbled on a thread of agents contemplating whether they should stay the course in this career. Some of the chatter echoed a conversation I had just weeks prior, where I said, “Agenting today is way harder than when I started agenting twenty years ago.” Just like that I sent out a request for input from agent peeps asking if they thought this was true. An earful hit my inbox. The consensus? Yes, agenting as a career is significantly harder than it was when we were baby agents. Here are fourteen reasons why.

Before I dive in, the requisite disclaimer: The information contained in this article is purely anecdotal and does not claim to represent an appropriate dataset for completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or even timeliness. I emailed a bunch of agents I knew, asked a question, and folks responded. That’s the level of “research” I did. This article is definitely not intended to be advice or a substitute for advice from, you know, a real expert or professional on the topic nor should any reader make a career decision or follow a particular career strategy based on content here. For further guidance, feel free to shake a Magic 8-Ball. 

More Agents Agenting

Although the Writers Market phone book was huge back in the day, the number of agents actively agenting and doing regular books deals is higher today—especially in children’s and young adult—than it was twenty years ago. I recall only about thirty of us repping in the field in the early 2000s. I don’t know the number today, but it’s probably 100 or more. Also, many editors have made the move to agenting in the last five years. With more agents in the field, more submissions are hitting editor inboxes. (Conversely, there are also more agents leaving the industry. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive a query that begins, “My agent has recently left the industry so I’m looking for new representation.”) Still, the bottom line is that more agents are agenting in 2021. 

Agents Acting More Like Editors

A project has to be close to perfect for a buy, so an agent today is doing far more editorial work pre-submission than back in the day. In the early 2000s, many an editor would take on a super promising manuscript and do the editorial work after acquisition. Today, it’s more common for an editor to request what is called a revise and re-submit—which places the onus back on the agent and author to gussy up the manuscript in hopes of an actual acquisition. 

This is a large time investment that may or may not result in a buy—and the subsequent earned commission, which is the only way an agent gets paid. 

Crowded Social Media Means Lower Agent Visibility

In 2006, I launched the blog Pub Rants. There were only two other literary agents blogging then. (Remember the amazing Miss Snark and her George Clooney crush? Such fond memories!) As one of the first agents to really spend hours educating aspiring writers and providing insider information for free on my blog, I was happy to see Pub Rants grow in popularity. At one point it was listed as the top 100 most influential blogs in the U.S. Glory days indeed. Blog Pub Rants = Visibility. These days, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are crowded with social-media savvy agents and editors. That makes it much harder for agents to create visibility for their brands or stand out and land the hot projects.

The Marketing/Publicity Agent Hat

In today’s publishing landscape, agents have to do so much more marketing/publicity management to optimize client success. This limits the number of clients an agent can take on and work with successfully. Since agenting is commission-based, fewer clients means fewer sales, and that can impact an agent’s earning potential. 

The Taskmaster That Is Email

The sheer number of emails an agent fields in a day is impressive. For me, three hours minimum just reading, responding, handling everyday agenting tasks. Then I take a deep breath and dive into the actual to-do list. Three hundred emails is a light day. Dedicating so many hours to this necessary business task impacts how many hours are available for other aspects of agenting. When I started my career, email was certainly around, but it was used secondary to a phone call, and when it was used, editors would often email once a week with a summary round up. The pace of business is simply faster now with immediate responses often necessary. Not to mention editors of the current generation who are comfortable with the immediacy of email communication. There is no going backward, but email volume does make agenting harder in terms of a daily workload. 

Going Indie

Authors might start in the traditional publishing realm and then move indie—which eliminates a source of income for the agent. As most folks know, I’m hugely supportive of authors and indie publishing, but the loss of talent to the indie sphere does impact an agency’s bottom line and makes an agenting career more difficult to sustain. 

Publisher Payment Mandate

In the early 2000s, every contract I negotiated specified advance payments in halves: half on signing and half on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. An agent earns the commission at the same time a client is paid. Publishers are now citing “corporate mandates” that payments must be structured in four or five installments—and some of those payments aren’t coming in until after publication…which makes it no longer an “advance,” but that’s a topic for another day. Not only does this structure impact an author’s financial well-being, it impacts an agent’s ability to earn a living. Imagine negotiating a contract today and knowing that a portion of your commission won’t be paid for two years. Yep. A get-rich-quick path agenting is not. 

The Great Contract Slow Down

Publishing houses need to double their contracts departments. Most of them have two or maybe three people total for the hundreds of contracts they do in a year. Back in the day, I’d wrap a contract in eight weeks tops. Today, if the first draft arrives within four months, it’s a win. And then the agent still needs to review and negotiate it, all before the author signs. Six months is the new norm to fully executed. So add that into the agent’s earning timeline along with payment structures in fourths and fifths. The real question is, just how is an agent earning a living?

The Great Publishing Contraction

Just this week, news hit that Hachette is buying Workman. Yet another independent publishing house bites the dust. Consolidation of pub houses = limited submission options. Limited submission options = titles less likely to be acquired. Titles less likely to be acquired = less revenue for the author and the agent. This alone makes agenting a harder career. 

The Great Submission Influx

Spend a little time on Twitter. Just a quick lurk will reveal that editors are drowning in the number of submissions they are receiving since more agents are submitting material. When I started agenting, I’d receive almost all editor responses within four weeks. Today, months is not unusual, and the number of no-editor-responses has risen significantly. Slow or no editor response = manuscript less likely to be acquired. Manuscript less likely to be acquired = reduced number of agent deals. Reduced number of agent deals = lower commission earning. Lower commission earning = harder to attain agent career success.

The Death of Editor Autonomy

Back in the day, individual editors had more autonomy to acquire a work/author. They connected with their boss, and that one person said yay or nay. In today’s world, a project submitted to a publishing house has to go to second reads, then editorial board, and then it has to run the gauntlet with sales and marketing for the final verdict. It actually feels like a little miracle any time a book sells. 

Blockbuster Mentality

In the early 2000s, it was understood that any newly launched author might need space and time to grow. Historically, authors weren’t expected to conjure bestsellers straight out of the gate, but to build their writing skills and audience over time as they developed their craft. Now, if a debut doesn’t do well, it is extremely hard to get the author a second chance. This is compounded ten-fold if the initial deal had a high advance. That means the agent must work extra hard to relaunch that client and will again face a low return on the hours they invest.

The Death of The Mass-Market Format

Back in the day, so many agents got their start representing authors in romance, mystery, and urban fantasy—all genres traditionally launched in the mass-market format. Fantastic glory days were when I would sell in a debut romance author for six figures. Today, with the death of the mass-market format, a whole swath of a viable market and its associated earnings disappeared for agents. The replacement ebook edition has not enjoyed the same robust earnings impact.

The Change That Hasn’t Happened

Publishers, despite emphasis on social change in the last couple of years, have not expanded their readership outreach or marketing to reflect the current cultural landscape. This continues to mean fewer opportunities for agents and authors of Color. This should be the one area where it’s better for the agents of today, and it’s not. 

So Magic 8-Ball, is agenting harder today than it was twenty years ago?

Answer: Without a doubt. 

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Ten Tips for Virtual or In-Person Pitching

The writing world is transitioning back to in-person conferences, and we couldn’t be more excited! But the unexpected benefits of virtual events means they’re probably here to stay. Whether you’ll soon be pitching in-person or over Zoom, here are ten tips to help you present as professional, knowledgeable, and ready to take on the publishing industry.

1. Practice.

Run through your pitch a few times in front of the mirror (if you’ll be pitching in person) or in front of your computer with your camera on (if you’ll be pitching virtually). You can even record yourself and play back your practice pitches until you feel like you’re nailing it. If you’re super nervous, start by pitching to a sweet-faced stuffie or your least judgy-looking pet. Work up to your friends and family. But know that you’re going to get the best feedback from other writers. They can give you tips on the pitch itself as well as on your delivery, so when you’re ready, ask your critique group if you can practice on them. (See #6 below for another practice tip.)

2. Avoid reading off a piece of paper.

Have you ever attended a lecture or keynote where the speaker read word-for-word off their PowerPoint slides or note cards? Of course you have. Everyone has. It’s a little monotonous, right? The speaker’s lack of interaction with the audience is awkward and yawn inducing. The same can be true of a pitch appointment. Reading the agent your query letter or synopsis isn’t your best move, and there are several reasons why. First, imagine what the agent or editor will be looking at while you read: the top of your head. Second, it can be difficult to hear you if you’re aiming your voice at the paper in front of you, especially in a crowded pitch room. If you’re pitching on Zoom and reading off your screen, speaking right into your mic, that’s not as bad, but your reading-aloud voice might still be a little flat. Which leads me to the third and most important thing: a verbal pitch should be an engaging conversation starter. As such, it should be shorter than your query letter’s pitch paragraphs. Therefore…

3. Avoid talking the whole time.

Pitch appointments average eight to ten minutes, and those minutes go by fast. The best pitch appointments for both the writer and the agent are those that turn into personable dialogues about the book, comparable titles, and the writer’s inspiration, journey, and career goals. Yet my colleagues and I have taken tons of pitch appointments over the years that end with the writer still talking—either because they haven’t practiced their pitch and are kind of wandering through a vague recounting of their story’s events, or because they’re still explaining their backstory, world building, or themes. There’s just not time during the average pitch appointment for that kind of elucidation. Therefore…

4. Encapsulate your premise or concept.

Lead with your story’s title, genre, word count, and character- or concept-based “person with a problem” proposition. You can expand a little, but not as much as your query letter does. Then give the agent an opportunity to ask you questions…or better yet, to just go ahead and request your manuscript.

5. Make eye contact.

Whether in person or on screen, eye contact conveys confidence and commands the attention of the listener. Without it, it’s easier for the listener to zone out.

6. Avoid memorizing your written pitch.

Maybe you’re making stellar eye contact and not reading off a piece of paper. That’s good! But the word-for-word recitation of a memorized pitch also risks being humdrum—especially when the writer forgets to breathe. And let me tell you, pitch memorizers are the most likely to forget to breathe! You’re much better off knowing what you want to say and then letting it come out naturally and personably in the moment. How do you practice that? Here’s something a writer friend of mine did: Write “tell me about your book” on a dozen notecards or stickies and have a friend post them around your world (on your toothpaste, washing machine, fridge, rearview mirror, TV remote). Whenever you come across one, pretend it’s an agent or editor at a conference, and right then and there, deliver your pitch impromptu style.

7. Have paper and pen ready.

Unless your project is too far afield from what the agent is currently looking to represent, the agent is probably going to ask you for sample pages. That’s the only way they can assess whether the idea you pitched is executed well and ready for representation. So be ready to write down (a) what they want you to send (pages, chapters, full manuscript) and (b) how they want you to send it. This is especially important during virtual pitches. In person, an agent can hand you their business card. But over Zoom, you’ll need to be sure to write down their email address or the link to their submissions portal or online query form. When I’m taking virtual pitches, I post these things to the private chat window, so besides paper and pen, also have a document already open on your computer where you can copy-paste. What often happens is that the writer is so flustered by the request that they end up scrambling for something to write with and on…and then later, they can’t remember what they’re supposed to do. So they contact the event organizers, who then have to get in touch with the agent, who then has to reiterate the request, which then has to be re-communicated to the writer. Best practice? Expect a request, stay calm and collected when it comes, and have pen and paper (or an open document) ready.

8. Respect agents’ social-media boundaries.

In our more virtual world, it seems professional boundaries have become a bit more blurred. Resist the urge to slide into an agent’s direct messages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., whether to pitch them, send links to your content, or follow up on a pitch or other submitted materials. It’s simply not professional, and frankly, it feels a bit off. I don’t know a single agent who has ever been impressed by a writer who doesn’t follow the submission guidelines outlined on their websites. So unless an agent explicitly invites professional interactions via their personal media, it’s best not to go there.

9. Remember in-person hygiene.

This one’s a little uncomfortable to talk about, and you might be wondering if we need to talk about it at all. But every agent who’s ever taken in-person pitches has stories. Hey, I’m sure writers have stories about agents’ hygiene, too. No one wants that to be the thing they’re remembered for. So as we all return to in-person life, some grudgingly trading yoga pants and slippers for tailored slacks and hard-soled shoes, here are some tips. First, forego perfume or cologne the day of your pitch. A few years ago, Agent Kristin ended up sneezing and mopping her eyes all the way through a pitch appointment because she had an allergic reaction to whatever scent the writer was wearing. Second, slip some mints or hard candies into your conference bag. These aren’t just for your breath—they also help remedy anxious dry mouth in the moments before your appointment. To that point, have a bottle of water in your bag as well. Finally, I know several conference regulars who carry a little travel-sized deodorant or antiperspirant in their conference bags. Great to have on hand for pre-pitch anxiety, sure, but also for surviving long breakout sessions when the hotel air-conditioning is on the fritz. (Why is the hotel air-conditioning always on the fritz?) Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

10. Don’t be nervous.

Ha! Like it’s that easy, right? Of course there are nerves involved in pitching. The only way to combat the anxiety is to be practiced and prepared, and to keep signing up for pitch appointments every time you have the chance, both in person and online. Once you know what to expect, there will be fewer surprises, and you’ll be a pitching pro in no time.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

From Query Letter to Six-Figure Deal

When writers hear about a debut author who got a six-figure deal, their curiosity gets piqued. How did that author do it? Did they have industry connections? Get a referral? Did they pitch to their agent at a conference? Did their query letter get picked out of the slush pile?

This month, with the author’s blessing, we offer you a look at the query letter we received from Shelby Van Pelt for her debut, REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES, which Agent Kristin sold recently to Ecco (Harpercollins), in a major, high-six-figure deal after a multi-house auction. NLA’s Literary Associate, Maria, pulled this one out of the slush pile and brought it to Agent Kristin’s attention, and Kristin, immediately sensing a hit, acted fast. We can’t wait for this one to come out next spring!

So here it is…Shelby’s query letter, followed by a little commentary about why this is a query letter that works.

Dear Ms. Nelson,

REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES is upmarket fiction with a dash of whimsy complete at 88,000 words. Told alternately from the perspective of an elderly widow, a fatherless young man, and a giant Pacific octopus, this quirky story will appeal to book club readers who enjoyed Fredrik Backman’s Britt-Marie Was Here and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here.

Curmudgeonly Marcellus, a “prisoner” at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, wouldn’t lift one of his eight tentacles for his human captors, until he forms an unlikely friendship with the night cleaning lady.

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died two years ago, she talked her way into a job mopping floors at the Aquarium. She doesn’t need the paycheck, but keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since 1987, when her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound.

Cameron Catalinich recently turned thirty, but he has some growing up to do. He arrives in Sowell Bay on a mission to find the father he’s never known, and he lands a gig helping clean at the Aquarium after Tova breaks her foot. Marcellus, keenly observant, deduces that Cameron is a missing key to what happened that fateful night. As Tova’s injury lingers, with no family to care for her, she makes plans to sell the house her father built and move to a faraway retirement community. Marcellus must use every trick his invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for Tova before it’s too late.

I have received full manuscript requests for REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES from acquiring editors at [redacted] and [redacted]. My short fiction has won honors in international competitions and has been featured, most recently, by f(r)iction, Flora Fiction, and Funny Pearls. I currently live in the Chicago suburbs, but I was born and raised in the Seattle area near the fictional town where this story is set. It was inspired by my favorite childhood aquarium.

Thank you for your consideration,

Shelby Van Pelt

Why This Query Worked

First, take a look at that opening sentence. Title + Genre + Word Count. Boom. No awkward small talk. No messing around. Those are the first three things an agent wants to know about your project, and the less searching you make an agent do, the better. Also, 88,000 words is well within the appropriate word-count range for a work of adult upmarket fiction, so we’re definitely going to keep reading.

In the next sentence, we get a brief mention of the three POV characters, which include…an OCTOPUS??? Talk about a hook! At this point, Maria was thinking, “This is either brilliant or bananas.” But with the recent success of the Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, which since took home the Academy Award for best documentary (one of those uber-fortunate market-timing things no writer can plan for or predict), Maria kept reading.

This second introduction sentence, by the way, also includes two well-chosen comps—comparable titles and authors—that identify an existing readership likely to enjoy this book. This demonstrates the author’s market awareness, and market awareness is vital to any writer’s potential for commercial success.

Overall, that brief opening paragraph packs a succinct punch, including light-touch but vibrant buzzwords like “whimsy,” “quirky,” and “book club,” while avoiding lengthy explanations describing what the book is. Agents are far more interested in what the book is about. So nail that brief intro paragraph and move on to the pitch, like Shelby did.

Shelby’s three-paragraph pitch is structured in a way that mirrors how the book is structured. Each paragraph introduces one of the major characters. In truth, this is an approach I often warn querying writers not to use, because more often than not, we see it done poorly. It’s definitely not done poorly here! What’s the difference? There are three: (a) conflict, (b) connection, and (c) a ticking clock. Here’s what I mean.

What not to do: “Sally is this type of person. Jane is this type of person. Barbara is this type of person. Over the course of the novel, these three women will confront adversity, face hardship, find love, and discover the true meaning of friendship.” Or, in the case of middle-grade or YA lit, here’s another common iteration: “Billy is a nerd who is constantly bullied. Sam is the quarterback of the football team. Jamie is a fairy from the magical land of Eggwaffle. Together, this unlikely trio will have the adventure of a lifetime.”

This formula—“list and give backgrounds on the characters and then make a vague statement or two promising that meaningful or exciting stuff will happen to them”—is one we most often see in query letters for multi-POV novels. The problem is, there’s no room in this formula for a burning story question. A burning story question is the thing that lets know you actually have a story (as opposed to just “characters doing stuff and learning lessons,” which is often not story).

Instead, here’s what Shelby did. For each character, she gave us only what information is relevant to her central, burning story question: What really happened to Erik? She does that by hinting at how these characters are connected to each other even though they don’t know they are connected to each other—and we are compelled to read the manuscript because we want to find out how they find out they are connected to each other. That in itself is a second, “meta” burning story question that’s communicated through the pitch’s subtext, and it lets us know the novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. Finally, Shelby also sets a ticking clock: Marcellus has to communicate with Tova before she moves away and it’s too late. Ticking clocks are great ways to give stories tension, urgency, and stakes.

A well-crafted pitch is built on meaningful subtext. Don’t waste space in your query letter telling us you have a burning story question, and don’t tell us what it is. It should be made clear within the pitch itself. Don’t waste space telling us your novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. That, too, should be conveyed by the pitch’s subtext. Don’t tell us your characters are connected in ways they will understand only at the end of the novel (yep—use subtext instead). None of those things tell us what the story is about. Keep the pitch focused on how your character(s) is(are) connected to a burning story question, and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Finally, Shelby’s bio in the query letter’s final paragraph is brief and relevant. It lets us know she’s had editorial interest, which is important. (You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many writers I’ve had in my query workshops over the years who omit this type of thing—or other boosts or accolades—from their query letters because they’re worried it’s bragging. It’s not bragging! Step up to the mic! Give us the goods!) She lists a few prior publications, and then sums up with a personal note.

That’s about as close to perfect as you can get.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

With so many stories emerging of agents behaving badly, if only there was a quick and easy way for aspiring writers to verify a literary agent’s legitimacy. What a boon for new writers navigating a complicated publishing landscape. In good news, there is. 

The job of a literary agent is an unusual one. This isn’t a profession that one learns by going to college (although almost all agents have college degrees and many might have attended a Publishing Institute program). This isn’t a profession where accreditation is required, such as passing the bar for attorneys (although many agents are also lawyers). Any person can literally hang out a shingle and claim they are a literary agent. Because of that, many Schmagents have lured in unsuspecting writers. However, there is an organization that does govern this profession: the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA). 

Initially founded in 1991 under the name Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), this governing body was implemented to form bylaws and a canon of ethics that member agents are required to follow—thus creating a standard of working in the profession. Membership is by application only. An agent must fulfill the professional qualifications and submit letters of recommendation for entry. 

In 2020, AAR began the process of rebranding to the AALA (as there is a sister organization in the UK)—hence, both websites are currently active as the transition unfolds. This rebranding is reinvigorating the organization, which is now much more focused on agent education (via monthly programming), mentorship, and promoting diversity in our ranks. All very much needed and delightful to see. As a new-to-the-biz agent in 2002, one of my first goals was to fulfill the qualifications criteria so I could become a member. After all, I was a mostly unknown agent operating out of Denver. For me, AAR membership was a stamp of legitimacy to ease the minds of writers considering me when I offered representation. 

Currently, the AALA member directory is a tool that writers can use when doing agent research to verify an agent’s legitimacy. If an agent is a member, they do have to adhere to the AALA’s bylaws and canon of ethics or they will be asked to relinquish membership. 

Now, having said that, here are several things to keep in mind:

  • Not all legitimate agents are members of the AALA. Membership is by choice and not required.
  • Just because an agent is a member does not mean they are an agent with good negotiation skills or that they fulfill other criteria that I outline in my What Makes A Good Agent article series (see right side bar). There are many agents who qualify to be members but might fall under the heading of Hobbyist or turn out to be a Blindsider.
  • An agent who is a member might be a good agent but not a good agent for you. 

The existence of this organization, and searching through the membership profiles, is just one piece of the agent-search puzzle. It does not take the place of all the other research you should be doing on the agents you plan to query, which should include their sales record and current client list. Writers, good luck on your representation quest. 

New Year, New #MSWL

Oh, what a year. In the spirit of taking a (small) step forward, I’m not going to summarize the ways in which we’ve all been impacted by everything that happened in 2020, but as we approach the anniversary of, what I’ll kindly call, the big shut down, I’ve been re-thinking what types of projects I’d like to see in my inbox and what types of books I think editors will be looking to acquire in 2021. While thrillers will continue to be in demand, I do think both agents and editors will be on the lookout for diverse stories that build and fuel community as well as those that really dissect identity, family, and our place in the world.

The Dark Side of Homecoming. And the secrets it reveals.  I’m not talking about a big city corporate lawyer who inherits her great aunt’s estate and finds love along the way (although I have a soft spot for those stories, too). I’m interested in the tension that arises from being forced to confront your decisions to leave the place you were born and the desperate acts that come from being forced to return. I’m fascinated by the dark side and tension of identity building. What does it look like when you have to come back to a place to lay something to rest – especially if that place has a hold over you? What about when you have to confront the darker side of your cultural identity – be it myths or legends that turn out, somehow, to be real or the xenophobia you were raised with that you now have to confront?

Epic Sister/Friendship Stories.  I devoured Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and have been hiding from my family binging Firefly Lane.  There’s something about the bond of friendship and sisterhood that continues to fascinate me.  Friends have been a lifeline during these quarantine months and since I don’t have a sister, I’m always intrigued by what that would be like.  I am drawn to the extremes of these relationships – the dark corners that break our hearts and the love that mends them. Female friendships are one of the most important and often overlooked relationships out there, so I’m particularly interested in what happens when they end. The loss of a dear friend is a kind of orphaning and it is an area that again drives people to interesting extremes.  I’d love to find a Reconstructing Amelia among friends or sisters.

Food as a road to identity and community.  2020 had me thinking about food a lot. As I tried to control my reality by preparing heartening food for my family, I was also conscious that many didn’t have that same privilege. So much about food is tied to one’s sense of identity, feeling of home and sense of community. I would love to find a story about a community brought together by a local chef or restaurant – be it the community at large or the community a place like that creates for its patrons and staff. I’m also interested in stories about how food creates a home for someone. Whether it’s someone coming back to their roots, learning traditional recipes to reconnect to or learn about their history, or a kitchen of women who find solace and escape in the food they prepare and the restaurant they run, I’m interested in how people come to connect to food and how food connects us to who we are.

Thrillers. I am still in search of twisty stories where secrets are revealed and relationships are tested.  If it happens to be set on a creepy island or in a closed community a la The Guest List, all the better.  Stories where all things buried finally bubble over are deeply engrossing – especially when they involve giving a big middle finger to systems of oppression along the way. I’m thinking of The Other Black Girl or The Other Me as examples.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dan Zen

Whenever a new story breaks about an established literary agent behaving badly, I cringe. Although I’m not personally responsible, it’s another black-mark moment for this profession that I love. So what responsibility do agents have to protect writers, and what can writers new to the publishing world do to protect themselves?

The answer is surprisingly simple: be armed with knowledge. Agents with integrity should provide information in a public sphere whenever possible, and many do via Twitter, blogs, and newsletters. Writers should gather all they can but also know that things change. Be kind to yourself, as it might not be possible to have “known better” if an agent partnership does not go as planned. 

As an agent who has spent the last fifteen years putting information out there for writers (since I started Pub Rants in 2006), I hope to arm you with info about agent types you might want to avoid. By the way, I highly recommend that writers looking for an agent have a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, where you can do your research. A lot of heartache might be avoided with a little time spent there.

The Schmagent

This type of agent is easy to define. This scammer pretends to be an agent, charges fees for everything a normal agent just does as part of the job (i.e., reading fees, submission fees, marketing fees, etc.). The red-flag word here is “fees.” When writers spot that, it’s an instant tell that the agent isn’t legit.  In 2013, Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware and I were expert witnesses for a lawsuit to take down a scammer masquerading as a literary agent. This person fleeced unsuspecting writers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (It’s lucrative, which is why there are so many schmagents out there.) It’s a bit like whack-a-mole, but we put this one out of biz. By the way, Victoria is a tireless advocate for writers, and she doesn’t get enough props for everything she has done and is currently doing. Send her a note, or better yet, buy one of her books. It’s thankless, time-consuming work, and she is an amazing human being. In the internet age, this type of agent might be easy to spot, but scammers still snare unsuspecting writers all the time. If this describes your experience, don’t spend time berating yourself. Scammers are pros at what they do. 

The Hobbyist

This type of agent might mean well, but they pursue this profession for the “celebrity” of the job. This might not make them a bad agent per se, but it also means they probably aren’t a great agent either. How do you spot one? Well, this can be tough. The Hobbyist might have a great presence on social media, but if you dig in to the research (thank you, Pub Marketplace), the Hobbyist will not have a strong track record of sales or will only do deals with small presses or for digital rights only. And so I’m clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing deals with small and digital publishers. I’ve done many in my career, but they should be balanced with regular/bigger deals to Big Five publishers and the well-established indie publishers. 

The Greenie

Some agents might have integrity but are simply too green (and don’t have access to mentorship) to be able to advocate for a client.

Back in 2008, there was an agent who racked up many six-figure deals under her own shingle. She came on the scene quickly, and after two years, exited quickly and without warning. She looked hot on paper with all those deals, but her clients were signing boilerplate publishing contracts with no negotiated changes. This agent had no prior experience at another agency, and it was a nightmare for those clients later in their careers. 

For the Greenie, the key is to look at the agency itself. How long has that agency been in business? What is the agency’s track record as a whole? This will help you determine whether this newer agent is in a place where they will receive guidance from a more seasoned agent. 

The Blindsider

This is the agent that all the research in the world can’t predict. This agent might have a terrific beginning to a career, and then that career publicly derails. You will never be able to spot this one coming. Writers, go into an agent partnership expecting the best. But if the worst happens, try and let go of any self-blame. You did the best you could with the information available when forming the partnership. 

Also keep in mind that some agents are acting with integrity but might simply be a bad fit for certain authors. Communication styles or personalities don’t mesh. My client Courtney Milan tackled this convo recently on Twitter, so give it a look in case you find it helpful. 

As an agent, I’ve put many an article out there trying to assist writers in arming themselves with knowledge. I did a whole series of articles on what makes a good agent well as an article on 5 Questions Authors Don’t Ask but Should when considering an offer of representation.

One final comment. As an agent, I wish for no more black marks on my beloved profession, but I’m also practical. Another news article will probably be just around the corner. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic