Advice for Writers from Agent & Publishers at DBW

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We spent our time at DBW soaking up as much wisdom from industry insiders as we could, including insights and advice for writers from the best in biz. Here are some of our favorites.


On the role of the agent and editor….

You want to have a pure relationship with the author. you don’t want to talk about money or anything that can sully it,”—Deb Futter, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Hardcovers, Grand Central Publishing

“The publisher should be the number one biggest fan.”  — Amy Einhorn, Senior Vice President and Publisher, Flatiron Books

“It’s in the author’s best interest to have a literary agent. They play a very important role,”  — Amy Einhorn

 

On what makes a great platform…

“Writers who have an ongoing conversation with readers. “ — Laura Nolan, Aevitas Creative Management

This was something we heard echoed in many sessions and different contexts. You don’t have to have an enormous, nationwide platform if you have a consistent, rich conversation with readers. Many writers do so through Twitter, WattPad, and Facebook. This also means tweeting more than just about YOUR book, but interacting directly with your readers and their conversations, too. 

On writing to fit in a trend…

Don’t do it. 

The overwhelming comment on this was that trends, in an editorial sense, are often conflated with fads. So, just because a lot of vampire novels are coming out right now doesn’t mean the way you will get published is if you write a vampire novel. As Amy Einhorn pointed out, in each success there is nuance.  You get published because your story spoke to something in the publisher or agent, usually a combination of the impact of the story and your marketability, which brings us to advice….

On what makes a great story…

Narratives with conflict, characters and settings filled with specific, concrete details and experiences. 

Collectively the panel of literary agents agreed on these criteria because within specifics lie universal truths and experiences that readers can relate to on a visceral level. 

“All of us are exactly like the consumer–we’re readers. And we want the best product we can give them.” – Deb Futter, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Hardcovers, Grand Central Publishing.

 

On query letters….

“If the love doesn’t come through on the page, it’s a no go,” said Deb Werksman, Publisher of Sourcebooks.

Workman and others echoed phrases like “if you could meet the author, I know you’d love the book” in query letters, but that’s unfortunately not a productive metric. In other words, YOU might be lovely but you need to get that to convey on the page. The consumer doesn’t have the benefit of meeting you and falling in love with you, so the publisher has to act of the same accord. 

Most editors want to see midlist titles for comps, not the book that blew everything out of the water.

Maybe your book is as good or better, but there are too many mitigating factors to say that it is actually a comp title without doing a thorough analysis of the book, audience, and author platform. 

 

On the children’s market…

“Within the children’s market, we want a writer who has at least two out of the following three: compelling writing, a compelling hook, and a compelling platform.” — Ginger Clark, Curtis Brown Literary Agency

On market entry…

“Sometimes it’s not about starting with the book,” commented Regina Brooks, President and Lead Agent of Serendipity Literary Agency  “It starts with the right medium, and then moves to the other lucrative property options.”

Brooks doesn’t always begin with the sale of her client’s book, but instead movie rights, audiobook, merchandising, etc. 

On rights sales and contracts….

“Every division in your publisher isn’t going to have the same enthusiasm for a title,” commented Ginger Clark, agent at Curtis Brown. “You can’t force passion.”

This one requires a bit of context. Part of the benefit of an agent is that they have your back at every juncture of the negotiations process, including the sale or protection of foreign rights to publication. Clark pointed out that the concern over those rights–be they foreign or format-specific–is not simply about money for the agent and writer, but consistently working to find the right home for the book in each market and across each medium.

Amazing Women and their Amazing Books

Congratulations to our YA! 2015 winners. What an honor to get to know these terrific women. Their stories are such perfect examples of how everyday people manage to create great stories in the middle of real life.

Jessica Kelley – 1st Place – The Mercy Killers
Jessica Kelley, lives in Virginia. I feel so lucky to have gotten to know her a bit. She’s a tax accountant, mother to two boys, and a military wife. Any one of these jobs are enough, but she managed to carve out some time during the last year and a half to complete her first novel, The Mercy Killers. For six months of that time, she actually put the book on pause while her husband was home to focus on family. She spent that time exploring hobbies, such as shooting her crossbow and learning about throwing knives, which is reflected in her characters.

In what was very poignant to me, AUTHORS.me was lucky enough to receive her submission just before the New Year’s Eve deadline. Her husband was deployed, so she found herself at home missing him, but making the best of the New Year by submitting her work to our contest. “If I hadn’t been alone that night, I wouldn’t have entered.”

When I asked what she does to get in the right frame of mind to write, she replied, “If I get stuck, I turn on music, clean the house, daydream a bit and then get back to work.” The easiest part of writing for her was letting the characters come alive individually. The hardest part? I’m sure most of us can relate to her biggest challenge: cutting and editing!

I can’t wait to hear what happens next for Jessica and her first novel. I predict great things.

Lara Dunning – 2nd Place – Aleutian Pearl
I was amazed to learn that Lara wrote Aleutian Pearl twice—once from the perspective of another character, then rewriting it to this current version. I was super-impressed and thought about how our best stuff usually comes in the rewrites. This led me onto a million other questions about how she created this book. Similar to Jessica, Lara spent about a year and a half crafting her book. She spent a good three months just envisioning, outlining, and following the Hero’s Journey as a method. She wrote for another six to nine months then spent the rest of the time working on structure.

Her family has roots in Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia and she spent six months backpacking through the land of the leprechauns. She also lived in Alaska for 10 years, three of which were on a very remote Aleutian Island. These experiences combined to connect her with the landscape and selkie mythology, leading her to create her wonderful book.

One of the judges was so impressed with the vivid action and terrific storytelling in Aleutian Pearl, that they envisioned this as a surefire movie success!

Catherine Hogarth – 3rd Place – Dora Finching
Our third winner is a bit of a mystery. She appears to have used Catherine Hogarth as her pen name, which coincidentally is the name of Charles Dickens’ wife. (this explains the Catherine Hogarth picture we used to represent her) Her novel, Dora Finching, is set in 19th century London and has a cameo appearance by Dickens himself. Catherine has no photo and hasn’t responded to our emails. Could it be that JK Rowling has done it again?! Could it be that Jessica or Lara wrote two books?? Is she off hiding with Waldo or Carmen Sandiego? I think this one might belong in our next contest, Operation: Thriller. Give us a call Catherine; inquiring minds want to know. We’ll update when she does!

Improved Communication Between Writer, Agent, and Publisher

When I was a boy I had two pen pals. One in Australia and one in New Zealand. We communicated by airmail with little self-contained envelopes/letters. Obviously, this was before the Internet and email. Nothing thrilled me more than when an airmail letter came to my house. Even though weeks or months had passed between sending and receiving, the thrill of getting that red, white and blue envelope was immeasurable.

Later in life I began submitting query letters to agents and publishers via snail mail, and similarly, the wait for a response was months at a time. Yet the thrill of receiving that response was equal in measure to my pen pals’ letters – even though I was getting rejection letters. Completing the cycle was important to me.

It’s a different world today. Everything is instant. I text with my two daughters overseas in a blink of an eye. I deliver mail with mind-numbing speed. So I asked myself, could there be better communication between writer, agent and publisher? Can the communication be moved closer to today’s real-time expectations?

Yes. It is how we built AUTHORS.me to be.

AUTHORS uses an activity notification system that lets the writer know what is happening to their query as it happens. Was my profile or project viewed? Did the agent see my manuscript? No more waiting by the mailbox. Even though querying an agent can be a lengthy process, the transfer of information no longer has to be that way.

An agent or publisher will want to know instantly if a writer updated their manuscript or information. Is there a new writer out there that matches my needs? What is the rest of my team of acquisitions editors doing? All these communiqués are real-time now.

Agents and publishers require a good bit of time to review and analyze what submissions will work for them. No one is trying to rush this part, nor is any application going to change the timing. Agents and publishers still follow their own rhythm. Some review incoming submissions and take a look at Discovery twice a week. Others save them up and review them all once a month. What AUTHORS does do is keep an open line between the two parties. The platform lets each other know when something is happening while still maintaining the professional separation agents and publishers require.

I realize the anticipation of an airmail letter is lost on people today. We think and communicate differently now. As a writer, I want to know how my baby is doing. AUTHORS is working to make this a modern-day experience with all the advantages technology gives us. Even if it means the rejection letter comes faster, that’s okay.

How Long Will It Take to Get Published?

How long does it usually take to get published by a traditional publisher? The answer is two years – on average. Let me qualify that. This is not two years from when you begin your book. This is two years from when you have secured an agent and publisher. In the age of instant coffee and Instagram, one might ask, “Why does it take so long?”

Well, when you add up the time it takes to negotiate a deal, edit the book, work with the author, prepare a marketing plan, schedule promotions, place the book into production, and deliver it to distribution, your congressman is running for re-election; your eighth grader is now in high school; the summer Olympics have turned to winter; your car has had eight oil changes; and you are two years older still waiting to see your book in print. It’s just the reality of book publishing.

This may be the biggest reason why so many writers choose to self-publish. It was the reason I chose to do so. Self-publishing my book took one day to format (my manuscript) and just minutes to put it up on Amazon KDP. One day. Hmmmm, two years or one day? Hold on. Is the time to put a book into print a fair comparison for choosing a type of publishing?

Before we answer that, let’s compare the quick version of getting self-published and the two-year process of traditional publishing with other equally challenging endeavors.

Run a marathon.

I can run a marathon today if I wanted; after all, my daughter runs marathons throughout Europe. I happen to live in the country, fourteen miles from the nearest town. I’ll just lace up the sneaks and jog there and back. Maybe pick up some groceries along the way. Right? Wrong. Without the proper training – a process that normally takes two arduous years – I would die.

Be a Nurse.

My neighbor had his tractor hit a ditch and roll over top of him. Ouch. I could have attended to his injuries and recommended proper medical treatments, maybe even tried to reset his dislocated ankle and shoulder. Easy, right? Wrong. Without an associate’s degree in nursing and lots of training, another two-year venture, my would-be patient might have died. Okay, my patient would have died.

Play the piano with two hands.

I can sit at the piano and bang on the keys in an attempt to play Clare de Lune, but unless I train for around two years, the resulting sounds would, well, you get the picture. I would probably die with your hands around my throat.

A lot of dying going on in these examples, but I think you get my point.

When you consider what a self-publishing writer looking for a shortcut to publishing has to do after they put their book up on Amazon KDP to create sales, it is a scary, frustrating, sleepless-nights and lonely days, super expensive ordeal. The faint of heart need not apply. At least self-publishing won’t kill you. Will it?

In terms of generating income, the same outcome happens to nearly ever book that is self-published. They die on the vine because most writers, myself included, do not have the expertise, the clout, the network of connections, and the machine to have their book succeed in the marketplace. Quick fact: There are over 250,000 titles published by traditional publishers each year and 750,000 titles self-published. When the dollars are counted, 98% of the revenues generated go to the traditionally published titles. In other words, not much money in the DIY, quick, self-publishing route.

This is not said in order to dissuade someone from self-publishing. On the contrary, I champion their cause. But since 76% of writers polled would prefer to publish traditionally, I think the reality of the process needs to be understood from the onset.

Publishing a book to be profitable is a long shot at best. This is why publishers take their time preparing the book and the author. They may publish 100 titles a year with less than ten of them selling more than 30,000 copies. Publishers have to get it right to stay in business.

So when you do find an agent and publisher to move forward with your manuscript, be patient. Follow the expert’s lead. Do the work they ask. You may be able to trim a month or two off, but in reality, expect it to take the whole two years. During that time you may want to read all of Shakespeare’s works; get a pilot’s license; build your own house; or walk across America and back. Or better yet, write a couple more books. They each may take two years of your time just like getting published.

Why an Elevator

Often times we are told to condense a business proposal, a company service, a new product idea, and yes, your new novel into a short ‘elevator pitch’ and nothing more. Even marriage proposals should be elevator pitches. In the literary world, we know this abbreviated proposal as The Hook of your story.

Well, let’s look at the elevator pitch a little deeper than, or should that be higher?

I’ll begin with a fun factoid: The fastest elevator in the world is in the Guangzhou CTF Finance Centre skyscraper in Guangzhou, China. It climbs about 95 floors (1,443 feet) in 43 seconds at a speed of 45 miles per hour. It would take a person (in decent shape) 30 minutes to climb that height in steps. Unless you suffer from elevataphobia (my word for a mix of claustrophobia and agoraphobia), you would certainly prefer a 43 second ride to the dulcet sounds of Kenny G than a heart pounding 30-minute stairwell climb.

Let’s dial it back to the average elevator. Elevators today travel at around 10 miles per hour or 14 feet per second. A 20-story climb takes about 22 seconds. That is your typical time frame for the elevator pitch. Step into the elevator with me. “Okay, kid, you have twenty stories to tell me your idea.”

Let’s translate that into a literary Hook. 22 seconds is about 50 words. Yes, 50 words to convince someone you have a promising manuscript. Wait, my book is 410 pages. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Maybe I can help.

Unlike a business, product or service that needs to be sold, a literary Hook is not the time to ‘sell’ your idea. It is the time you are given to inspire, move and even seduce the listener/reader with your idea, your passion, and your enthusiasm. Convince them that you see the world in a most fabulous and different way that they need to know about. And you need to do this with beautifully written and captivating words. Well, that sounds easy. No, it sounds harder than climbing the Guangzhou CTF Finance Centre stairwell. If you want to learn anything from this blog, read this paragraph about six more times.

I’ve written television shows, cartoon strips, screenplays, novels and stage plays and every one of those projects required a short, very short synopsis, i.e., Hook, to convince the producer or publisher is was worthy. Here’s how I approach it.

I said that 410-page novel (about 102,000 words) needs to go down into 50 words? I say start by bringing it down to one word. Yes, one. Finish this phrase with just one word: My book is about __________________. Revenge. Lust. Quest. Pain. Companionship. War. Conquest. Protection. Redemption. Recovery. Let the essence of your manuscript birth the word. Then add to the one word the character(s) who execute that word and why. Next, add the counterparts to whom or for whom the character(s) are executing the word. Finish by adding the why and how (and the where if necessary) the word is executed. As you build this one word into 4, 8, 20 words and so forth, you’ll find yourself doing an act of addition or building instead of one of subtraction and attrition of your 410 pages. I find it to be a much easier process.

I wrote and produced a musical stage production (for puppets) called 7, 8, 9 and 10. It is a story about a child who cared only about how many presents he was getting for Christmas. When he discovers his parents had hidden away ten presents for his brother, but only 6 for himself, he embarks on an adventure to procure the ‘missing’ four presents. Here’s how I would build the hook.

My one word: Greed.

My character: Selfish 8-year old Petey Blankenship wants more.

Counterparts: Parents who mistakenly shortchanged their son of presents

Why the Greed: It’s only right that Petey should get his fair share.

How: Petey will beg, borrow and steal to make things right, risking soul and sanity.

The Hook: Petulant Petey Blankenship turns Christmas upside-down when he discovers his parents’ hideaway of pending presents with his name on four less gifts than his brother. The eight-year-old embarks on a madcap mission of mischief to right the imbalance, only to discover he didn’t know what the season is about.

50 words.

What was a two-hour musical production has been boiled down into 50 words. I probably only need 18 of those 20 floors to get this one out. Try it with your manuscript. Find the word. Read the aforementioned paragraph another few times and make it a quick trip to greater heights for your listener/reader.