From Tree to Table

I like growing and processing my own food on site. I can’t do it as much as I’d like to, and I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be, but there’s still something really satisfying about a salad that grew in your own weedy yard, or an omelet from your own sassy birds. I’m limited on what I can do here, both by the climate and by neighborhood covenants and by my own black thumb, but I do what I can and I love it.

One of the recent additions to my wanna-be homesteading repertoire (along with the beekeeping I talked about a couple weeks ago) is syrup making. Our climate is too cold for maple trees to survive, but if you’re stubborn and not afraid to steam the paint off your walls, you can boil down birch sap and make syrup.

The process of making birch syrup is the same as that for making maple syrup, but a bit… tricksier, let’s say. Birch sap has a lower sugar concentration, so it takes twice as much sap to make the same amount of syrup. Birch sap is also very perishable and must be processed or frozen quickly. Unfortunately, the sugars in the sap also scorch more easily than maple sugars do.

But the trees make up for their lame sap by giving you tons of it. Birch syrup making therefore takes a lot of boiling. We had only three trees tapped and we couldn’t even fit all the sap in our gigantic canner. We were getting sap faster than we could boil it down, the stove was on constantly, and our poor ceiling started dripping like it was raining in the kitchen. We gathered hundreds of liters of sap, and all of it boiled down to a just couple pints of sap. (Yes, I used liters and pints in the same sentence. I’m bilingual!)

Truth be told, syrup making and story writing are both total pains. They take up a ton of time and energy with little to show for it at the end. And honestly, I might not think it was worth it if I was only concerned with the results. A tiny bottle of syrup might not be enough to entice me through the whole process. But fortunately, the process itself is part of the fun. Let’s take a look!

Sap Flow I can’t really lay a lot of claim to this part of the process. Sap flow happens, whether I collect it or not. Likewise, story inspiration is out there, whether I’m paying attention to it or not. But if I know it’s happening, I can take steps to collect and process the flow. When I set the taps in the tree, that’s like starting to pay attention to all these amazing story ideas all around me.

Sap Collecting A single birch tree during peak flow can give as much as three gallons of sap from a single tap. For this part, simply drill a hole, set a tap, and let it dribble into a bucket. Then all you have to do is fetch a bucket of birch water once a day, easy peasy. For me, nothing about the writing process is easier than the giddy headlong rush through a first draft. When I’m in Go Mode, I can crank out up to 80k words in a month. Granted, I’m not usually moving that fast, but when the story’s fun, it just flows.

Hard Boiling Birch sap is about 99% water, so you can really boil the heck out of it when you first start processing it. It is insane how much boiling sap takes and it is insane how much editing an all-over-the-place garbage fest of a first draft needs. Especially when it’s my first draft. This is the longest part of the process and can sometimes take days for sap—or years for books.

Final Boiling Nine times out of ten, when you’re making syrup, this is the point at which things go irreversibly and horribly wrong. If you’re not watching that pot like a hawk to pull it at the right time, you can end up with syrup that is watery and not concentrated enough (and will inevitably spoil), or too concentrated and the consistency of wood-flavored taffy, or scorched, or any of a dozen other problems. Fortunately, your final draft is only mildly like this stage in syrup-making. If you take out too much, you can simply put it back in. If you don’t cut enough, you can go back and pull more. And the nasty burnt bits can be swapped out for something sweeter. All is not lost. (At least, so long as the end does eventually roll around. Endless editing is its own kind of story death.)

Bottling The final step is to bottle your beautiful dark syrup in a hot water bath and pop it in the pantry. It almost feels anticlimactic. Likewise, it can feel a little strange to finally be done with a story after working on it for so long. But syrup, like stories, is sweetest when shared with others. Opening up your work for the scrutiny of others can be a bit scary, but it is very rewarding to have something you poured so much work into bring a smile to someone else’s face.

I’ve mentioned my Star Daughter series here a few times. It’s a good example of this process. That story has gone through over twelve drafts (at which point I stopped counting) and over a million words, every single one haphazardly added, cut, rewritten, revised, rearranged, culled, and fleshed out. It took me yeeeeears to boil all those ideas down to the heart of the story I wanted to tell. Of course, this process doesn’t have to take years. (It probably shouldn’t, really.) But it’s a process that needs to happen for every story we write.

So what part of this process am I in right now? Ugh, good question. I’ve been hopping around between projects a bit, which is a thing I personally should never ever do. But I decided this morning that I want to pop out a couple shorts before the end of the month, new ideas from start to finish. So I’ll be getting going on that in the morning. I’ve been feeling a bit blah on writing lately (and about a lot of things), so I’m hoping that this gets the story sap flowing a bit more.

I’ll let you know how it’s going next week. Until then, happy writing!

Writer v. Author: Minding Your Business with Eddie Gamarra and Kat Shepherd

Last fall’s AWG/SCBWI conference closed with a final talk featuring Eddie Gamarra and Kat Shepherd. Eddie Gamarra is a literary manager and producer with the Gotham Group, with a focus on children’s and family entertainment. Kat Shepherd is the author of the Babysitting Nightmares and Gemini Mysteries middle grade series. They are both bold, empowering, and a delight to listen to.

Working in the publishing world can be daunting. So much of it feels completely out of your control—and a lot of it is. You can’t control who’s going to buy your stories or what they’ll think of it. You can’t control the internet. You can’t control market trends. So what can you control?

In their talk, Shepherd and Gamarra took us step by step through the parts of the writing world that a person can grapple with to make the industry work for them. And as I mentioned with Laurie Halse Anderson’s talk, this information is way better straight from the Oracle. If you ever get a chance to attend a conference where Gamarra and/or Shepherd are presenting, take it. That said, let’s get to it!

The first thing to consider when stepping into the publishing world is audience. Who is your audience, and which house will get you to that audience? Shepherd and Gamarra listed four houses to consider: big house, small house, no house, and your house.

Big house These are the Big Five publishers. They’ll be publishing a thousand books at any given time, making it easy to get lost in the shuffle. But the resources at their disposal are unparalleled, meaning you can expect a larger advance and maaaaaybe (if you’re lucky) more marketing heft. (Don’t count on it, though. Usually, it’s only a couple books getting all the hype and the rest are left to their own devices.)

Small house These are all the smaller publishing houses: university presses, boutique, specialty houses, etc. Since these houses are smaller, they have fewer resources for marketing, producing, and distributing your books. However, since their lists are so much smaller, you can expect more focus on your work and more support from the house. (Although again, plan on doing most of your own marketing.)

No house Self-publishing has exploded over the last few decades. And if you’re going to have to do all the marketing legwork yourself anyway, why not? However, if you go this route, it’s all on you: editing, cover design, interior layout, advertising, courting bookshops, and all the things. This path isn’t for the faint of heart. Just because you don’t have gatekeepers telling you no doesn’t mean it’s an easy highway to success.

Your house Your house is more of an attitude than a publishing house. Your house is spinning the typical power dynamics on their head. Looking for an agent willing to take you on? No, you’re hiring an agent; they work for you. Trying to find a bookstore willing to take your books? No, you’re letting someone make money on your literary genius in exchange for distributing books for you. By flipping the script, you don’t come begging for favors. You’re the one giving them out.

In your house, you are the CEO of your company, an active boss instead of a passive peon, and you’ve got bills to pay. While we all love our art, you are not a bad person for expecting to be paid for your work. Treat your writing as your livelihood and put in the work to see it thrive.

Part of that work is positive and consistent communication. Know what you expect from your agent and your editor, and make sure that they know that too. Listen to what they need from you and honor that. Know the name of your publicist and thank them by name. Whenever possible, teleconference with your publicist, editor, and agent, and ask them what you can do to support them. Remember, you are the boss. Good bosses help their team do their job well.

Know what you’re willing to invest for your writing career, because there will be sacrifices, whether that’s time, money, energy, or more. There are a million things you could be doing to push your books, but you do not have to do them all. Consider the return on investment and only do what’s worth the investment. And if you’re not sure what the ROI is on a given tactic, ask others who have tried it out before.

Whatever route you decide to take, a big ego will do you no favors. Know what puts your books in the hands of readers and do whatever that is, whether that means working with a prestigious big press or a small press most people have never heard of. Do your research and do your networking. Ask for help when you need it. Develop a media plan—whether you have big house heft or are going it alone—and put in the hustle to build the hype.

Gamarra and Shepherd’s talk was a rallying cry (which is why you need to attend their talks in person). So often, we writers come to the negotiating table as supplicants. Shepherd and Gamarra encourage writers to stand a little taller, to accept and exercise more agency in the fate of our own stories. They encourage us to be the protagonists.

So don’t give in to the whims of fate! Authors aren’t as helpless as they often feel. When we educate ourselves on what can be done, and have the stamina to do it, we can step into an industry where so much feels beyond our grasp and take the reins with confidence.

Until next week, happy writing!

Reblog: 10 Lessons Learned Behind the Scenes

Hey! I totally forgot to warn everyone last week, but it’s another month of Camp NaNoWriMo! *cheers* And that means that I get to basically ignore the blog for the month!*cheers*

But fear not, O darling readers.  While I’m busy turning Irene Adler into a shape-shifting single mom, we’ll still be having a fun month here of reblogs, silly comics, and who knows what else. To kick things off, have some Writer’s Digest wisdom from Jessica Stawser!

A few short months ago, I wrote about my path to getting an agent and a publisher, and promised to share my experiences leading up to the publication of my debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU, due out in 2017 from St. Martin’s Press.

You might think that as the editor of Writer’s Digest magazine—and given my earlier years spent editing nonfiction books—I would know more or less what to expect from the process. But I discovered that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes on the author’s side—emotions to navigate, new steps to take—that I haven’t seen discussed much elsewhere (perhaps even more so with a “Big 5” publisher).

So let’s take a look at what I’ve learned in my early months as a debut novelist-in-progress—and how it might help you know what to expect and how to position yourself for success. I’ve outlined 10 lessons overall, and will be delivering them in two installments—5 today, and 5 more on Monday. Let’s start at the beginning.

1. Once you’re offered a book contract, it takes awhile to get the, well, contract.

It was right around eight weeks for me, which my agent indicated was typical. I wasn’t really bothered by this, but my husband, who works in finance and insurance where nobody touches anything until signatures are in place, was a bit white-knuckled. He could not believe that my editor, agent and I were all already working on various things for and with each other with nothing signed.

What if it falls through in the negotiating stages? Think of having an offer accepted on a house. You do inspections, loan approvals, packing, storing and more in good faith that the closing will go through. All the while, your real estate agent (there’s that word again!) is doing even more work behind the scenes on your behalf, and you have to trust him or her. Are there a few horror stories out there about things falling apart? Sure. But most of the time you walk away with the keys.

So, if you’re cut from the same cloth as my husband (and what a handsome cloth it is), know that this is more or less the norm. As long as you have a reputable agent and publisher, try to trust that things will work out.

Ready to read the rest?  Head on over to Writer’s Digest to read the full article: 10 Lessons Learned Behind the Scenes of a Book Deal.

Don’t Give Up

Winston-Churchill

Never never never

So I’ve been in an awful writing slump lately. Really, it’s kind of a creativity slump in general. Writing and sketching, which I’m usually so desperate to make more time for, have both ticked a few notches down on the totem pole. (On the plus side, my house has been a lot cleaner than usual and I’ve rearranged most of the furniture. So yay?)

I can get into the details later (or maybe not), but the short of it is that my confidence as a writer is perhaps not quite shattered, but pretty darned cracked. And it’s hard to write like that. So I’ve found it more difficult than usual lately to affix butt to chair and get some work done. Luckily, the world keeps spinning even when I’m mired in the vast wastes of the Pity Bogs (sad trombone).

My local chapter of the Alaska Writer’s Guild, being awesome like it is, had rounded up another local author to present at one of our monthly chapter meetings. I opened the email, chin in hand, and there was a picture of the author, Paul Greci (you can find his MG survival adventure here). And I knew the guy. I saw him just about every day when I picked my kid up from school.Greci

I like supporting local authors, and I like supporting teachers, and I already planned to buy the book for my son, so I basically had to go. UGHHHHH. Hubby was happy to kick me out the door (because this is another aspect of my creativity slump- the doldrums often go hand-in-hand with a deep and abiding resentment of anything that forces me to leave the house, no matter how soul-crushingly bored I am), and off I went for a little me time, titled “Paul’s Twisted Path to Publication”.

You know how you go without someone for a really long time and it’s fine, but then you see them again and have this sudden upswelling of throat-clenching emotion? How you don’t realize how much you’ve missed them until you don’t have to anymore? I got this same emotion listening to Mr. Greci’s presentation. It was exactly what I needed to hear, without my realizing what I needed to hear. I just needed someone to tell me, “Rejections suck. But keep going.”

And tell me he did. Paul Greci has been meandering his way through the sticky underbelly of the writing world for a decade. He went through five books, 200 rejections, and two agents before finally publishing his first novel. His clarion call was persistence.

I get moody after every rejection, no matter how pie-in-the-sky the query was. 200 rejections and still plugging along is just staggering. I listened with budding awe as he spoke of disappointments, dead ends, and door after door closed in his face. When asked about how he kept going, he told us about asking himself the very same question I was then asking myself: “Why not me?”

Why not me? What kept me from pushing forward through not even a quarter of the rejections this guy went through? What barred me from writing more, improving my craft, and just letting go of the books that simply weren’t working? What held me back?

Me. I was the only thing holding me back. I crave approval. I want to be liked. I want to charm and delight. A rejection feels like disapproval, dislike, disdain. In my fear of those things, am I willing to surrender my dream?

As I listened, the answer became more and more clear. No. No, I wasn’t ready to give up.

Pierce Brown wrote seven books and was rejected nearly 200 times before successfully publishing Red Rising. Jack London’s pile of rejections eventually reached four feet in height. Stephen King stacked up so many on his wall that the nail wouldn’t support their weight any longer; he drove a spike in the wall and kept going.  I think they would all tell me the same thing that Mr. Greci did.  “Don’t give up.”  He delivered it with a modest shrug, the last line of his presentation, but it struck me like a cricket bat to the ribs.  “Don’t give up.”

So. Pep rallies are grand and all, but what’s the take-away? What’s a girl to do when she comes home pumped and ready to spring into action? If that girl is me, she makes a deadline calendar! Because nothing says action like a calendar! In my experience, the best way to stamp out self-pity is a hearty dose of hard work. So I scrounged up some hard work. All the little artsy tasks I’d been putting off went on the calendar, no flex. The AWG bimonthly contest went on too, and a writing grant application deadline, and some self-imposed deadlines for other projects, both written and drawn. By the time I was done, I had a chore or two for nearly every day for the next five weeks.

It’s an ambitious calendar and I don’t fully expect myself to complete everything. But I do expect myself to keep working to the best of my abilities; the calendar should help with that. And written in bold letters along the top is Mr. Greci’s parting advice:

“Don’t give up.”

What is Your Author Brand?

Tolkien

Megajealous of this super cool logo…

I love check lists. I use them about every day of my life to get through all my little to-do’s. Most mornings, I wake up, get the boy to school, and start building my list for the day. But I also have a longer-term list hanging like an accusation above my desk. The stuff I’ll get around to eventually list. The chores I know I ought to do but they aren’t super important right now list. Also known as the Later List.

Every now and then I’ll suffer a bout of productivity and mark one off. (Clean out dusty heap under the bed. Move water bottles to high shelf and move baking dishes down.) But some have been on there for years. (Build better compost bin. Donate yarn you haven’t touched since the birth of your first child.) The Later List has become like one of those old classmates from high school that you see in Walmart but you don’t want to talk to, so you hide in a rack of little girls’ t-shirts until they pass by. I sit at my desk and am very careful not to make eye contact with the Later List, but I can still feel it staring down at me.

Working out an author brand is one of those things lurking somewhere on the Later List. After all, I haven’t published much and nobody knows who the heck I am- why bother? So maybe I’ll trim back the roses and fix the hen house window first. But, hey, it’s winter, so I can’t. Short on excuses and flush with the excitement of a new year, it was at least worth reading about.

It turns out that agents and editors care more and more about an author’s brand (and platform and all that jazz) even before they’re published. And authors that are already well positioned in terms of branding and audience are more empowered- both in traditional and indie publishing- than those who are not. (Joanna Penn mentioned this phenomenon, as well as many other 2016 publishing trends, in her interview with Jane Friedman, which can be found here.) So if they care- agents, editors, publishers, etc- maybe I should too. (Plus, I told the internet I would, so accountability.) After all, it’s one of those mysterious buzz words floating around the industry (like ‘high concept’ and ‘metadata and SEO’- uhhh…?), so it’s gotta be important.

But branding is well outside my write-in-my-PJs comfort zone and it took considerable research to even figure out what it really is. (Previously, branding always made me think of cattle having a very very bad day.) And here, my lucky readers, are the cliff notes of what I found. (Since I’m so fond of you all, I’ll even post a detailed worksheet packet on Wednesday. If enough interest crops up, I also plan to host an informal online workshop- more details with Wednesday’s bonus update. UPDATE- go here for the worksheets!)

For simplicity’s sake, I broke branding down into three categories, with a loose fourth category to lasso them all together. Give each of these categories a week or a day or a month, however much time you need to really nail them down.

THE BOOK (This and the next category can swap in order. Pick one and go.)  You’ve probably already worked out a title, a book blurb or a pitch, a logline, but you’ll need to dig just a little deeper. Consider your target audience, your book’s themes, your keywords, the look and feel of your book.  All these aspects go into the branding of your book, and should at least roughly match the expectations and conventions of your readers and genre. (The appearance and physical structure of your book is especially important for the DIY crowd- traditionally published authors usually have little say in the cover design or paper weight, for example, but an indie author is often solely responsible for cover design, interior formatting, materials selections, etc. If you plan to publish the book yourself, you have a lot more to consider, but that’s another post.)

THE AUTHOR You! A lot of this stuff is going to be relatively easy because you likely already know it. What name will you be writing under? What genre/theme/etc crops up across most or all your writing? What have you already published? But some of it will take a little more brainstorming. What is your author logline? (What? That’s a thing?) Your branding keywords? (Huh?) Your headshot, your business card, your bio, your logo? (Oy.) For me, this part is (and is yet to be) the most painful.  But once it’s over, you’ll have not only an author brand, but the decent beginnings of a press packet. Not too shabby! (More info on press kits here.)

THE WEBSITE Do you really need a website? The answer is (groan) yes. This is something I fought for years, but once I got into the groove of it, it’s really not bad. In fact, I got to the point where I was kind of proud of my dorky little wordpress blog, even going so far as to show it to an agent I found myself chatting with. She nodded politely and then kindly, cheerfully, told me everything I was doing wrong. (This was one of the events that convinced me I need to figure this stuff out.) My blog had good information and I updated it regularly, but there’s nothing on the home page that a person would glance at and immediately think, ‘This is a fantasy author,’ which is really the takeaway that I should be cultivating. So when working on your website, make sure that its design incorporates your author and book keywords (from the previous sections) as much as possible, in posts, articles, loglines, images- any way you can work it in.

INTEGRATION This is where you make sure the previous categories all match, reusing the same images, colors, themes, keywords, phrases, etc, as much as possible. Hopefully, you don’t have spend any extra time on this section because you’ve been working forward one category at a time, in a conscious and concerted effort, and it probably didn’t take much to simply make sure everything worked together nicely as you moved along. But if your branding happened in piecemeal fashion over the years as you hacked blindly forward through the literary jungles *coughs*… you might have a bit of work ahead of you.

The end of all this, the point of it all, is to make yourself easily and instantly recognizable. With a little elbow grease and some spit shine, you can look totally pro, and that makes you memorable. So whether you’re shopping yourself around to agents or editors, or directly to the customers themselves, put in the effort to look as polished and professional as possible- people will pay attention!

Remember to check back Wednesday for the worksheet packet accompanying this post, as well as information on our probable workshop. Or you can sign up to follow the blog and get it right in your inbox the minute it posts!  Happy writing!

UPDATE- Or you can follow this link here to get to the worksheets! Whee!

The Other Side.

Hi. Jill’s husband here.  Jill asked that I do a post for her on her birthday!  So I’ve sent her to bed and am writing this in her stead. I think this will be useful but first you have to step into my world for just a second.

I love games. In particular, I voraciously play a certain card game that involves two players, each with a deck of cards. Many people become attached to their deck, and see it as an extension of their persona. It has been carefully crafted.  It is their tool for defeating opponents. It contains rare cards that they own. In short, people want to play with their deck. So it came as a surprise to my opponent at a tournament yesterday when I asked if we could switch decks (during a non tournament game).

The reason I do this is to lean how my deck operates from the opponent’s perspective. Some cards may not seem powerful, but when played against you are quite brutal and visa versa. This made me realize that I was a good person to talk about living with a writer and focus on the other side.

Time

actually i just needed an embaressing picture

Being stranded on a park bench in a flooded lake may hinder writing time…

Living with a writer is an interesting study in the use of time. There is never enough to go around. I take way more time in our relationship, and with more immediate specter of income, we both agree that my career time constraints have priority over Jill’s. I thought that her time writing could be truly flexible, but it has come to my attention that she is more productive at certain times of the day or has a routine that she prefers to work within. I don’t always realize when I’ve disrupted that routine.

Alpha/Beta Reading

Usually I have the role of reading material as it is generated. Or at the very least ideas are reviewed off me. In many instances I am just awed at what Jill can produce. I am not a writer nor do I enjoy the process, but I have read quite a bit. To quote that one guy: “I may not know much about [writing], but I know what I like.” My comments are often like that. I may have a minor complain about a character or how the story is laid out, or I may just express my love of how similar situations were treated in my favorite books. Jill is the one who has to mold that whimsical desire into her storyline in a literarily appropriate manner. In a similar vein, some of my proudest moments come from giving ideas to her stories that actually come to fruition.

Moral Support

yep, they're cute alright!

Moral support is about all they can do to help…

The biggest influence I think I have on Jill as a writer is as moral support. Full disclosure here: sometimes I think that all this writing stuff is useless unless its getting a paycheck. But then I realize that my schooling and unpaid internships are generating just as much money. And I truly believe in the skills my wife possesses and the material she produces. I think it is amazing and people should pay to read her work. Besides, even if her current novel fails to every publish it is still not a “failure”. It’s a piece of good writing, of value for her, and to all who do read it.  Is a painting useless is if no one buys it? No. Writing is clearly an art, and there is something beautiful and inspiring about the creating of art. There is not a way to really put a price on that.

Other Other Side

I just want to end my note here by reiterating my example of the card game. In the game, there is always a single clear opponent. From what I gather of the writing business there are a number of people who have an important opinion of what a writer does. The spouse is at the bottom of that list in many ways. I think this blog has many examples of how to gain the perspective of the agents, readers, publishers, editors, and reviewers.

I hope we can all get a little more understanding of each other by “switching decks” as often as possible.

Thank you Jill for being so wonderful, and happy birthday!
Hubby

Nuts and Bolts

Last week, I posted information gleaned from a Q&A with Elisabeth B. Dabney, literary agent extraordinaire, but only one little sliver of the total information discussed. As promised, here are the bits and pieces I failed to mention last week in an effort at concision and cohesion. Each paragraph represents its own topic, so enjoy a unity-free reading experience.

Agents pitch manuscripts to publishers, handle contract negotiations (with which they have experience and will be able to pick out problems or room for improvements), and act as sounding boards on author platform, marketing ideas, the saleability of future projects, etc. They pretty much handle the business end of things, freeing up their authors to focus on the creative side. But there is no stone tablet carved without hand that says authors need agents. Outside of the Big Five in New York, authors can usually pitch their own works to publishers, or even self publish, and generally take care of business themselves. Agents just smooth the trail. (And if you choose to go it alone, it is still highly recommended, by pretty much everyone reputable ever, that manuscripts be professionally edited before publication. If you’re not working with someone who provides editing as part of the contract, shell out for it yourself.)

Finding an agent is easier and easier these days. For those of us who don’t live in big cities, finding agents through word of mouth isn’t a likely option. For those of us who live in abject poverty (or who have due dates that fall right on conference weekend- sob sob sob), writing conferences, wonderful and recommended as they are, aren’t always an option either. But the internet! The internet can help you hunt out agents while streaming live radio and timing your boiling farfalle. (Unless it’s my internet. Then you’re lucky if you can check your email.) You can use specific services, such as Publisher’s Marketplace, trawl around social media that tend to attract those of the writing ilk, such as Twitter, or just run a million increasingly specific Google searches.

There is no special training required to become an agent. As such, there are many different paths to agentdom. Many agents seem to bud off from publishing houses, often starting out as editors or marketers. Others begin as interns in literary agencies and work their way through the ranks there. There is also an increasing popularity of college certification processes, achieved much like any degree. And, of course, there’s nothing stopping people from simply declaring themselves an agent and getting down to business. (This is part of what makes it so important to do your homework before querying and especially before signing with an agent. It’s always good to have some idea of an agent’s background and, more importantly, his or her track record in sales.)

15% of net royalties is the standard commission awarded to agents. (About 7.5-15% of gross earnings on a book can be expected in royalties.) Be very wary of signing anything that takes more than 15% in the agent’s commission. Also be very wary of any agent that requests reading fees, editing fees, etc. up front or anything, really, that comes out of your pocket. (On a side note, some agencies also have a separate editing arm independent of the representative arm. Editing services can justly be paid up front regardless of promises or lack of promises of representation.) The publishing contract will spell out royalties, from which agents take their cuts and the rest are sent on to the authors. Never pay the agent up front.

Children’s book authors do not have to come to the table with illustrations (or illustrator) in hand. Illustrators are often contracted separately by the publisher.

If you’re already self-published and looking to contract an agent in the hopes of snagging a traditional publisher, you’ll need some pretty impressive numbers. If you’re already under contract with a publishing house, though, agents can’t help you, at least not with that project.

Copyrighting in advance of querying is not necessary. The work is your intellectual property from the moment it spills out of your brains. Copyright registration usually happens when the book is being published. (So self-publishers do have to worry about this step, but not until publishing.) If working with a publishing house, whether the author or the publisher maintains the copyright is negotiated in the contract.

It’s fine to query multiple agents at the same time. In fact, it’s pretty standard, considering the wait times that are often involved. In queries, it makes agents happy, and shows you did your homework, if you mention some of the authors on their list whose work you’ve enjoyed. But never attach your manuscript, or any part of it, unless the agent asks for it.

If two agents are fighting over you (woo-hoo!), the two main things to consider are: which agency can do the most for you (connections, sales records, benefits in contract); and which agent you get along with the best. Agents and authors will have a relationship over the lifetime of that work, and possibly over their entire careers. It’s important to work well together.

Some things to ask an agent before signing an agency agreement:

How much author publicity will the agency provide?
What are the kinds of publishing connections the agent has? (NYC? University presses? Boutiques?)
Does the agent have experience negotiating movie rights, or would these be handled by the publishing house?
Does the agent come from an editing background or from a business background (or some other process)?
Is the agency agreement exclusive to the manuscript or to the author? (Most will agents will want to sign with the author, but some provide representation on a work-by-work basis.)
What is the agent’s communication style? (Daily phone calls? Monthly emails? Twitter bombardment? No news unless something’s gone horribly wrong?)

Also, don’t feel like you have to sign anything right away. Show it around to others who might have a better feel for contracts. Don’t sign until you know what you’re getting into. And sleep comfortably at night knowing that agency agreements have clauses for breaking contract which are way easier than getting out of a publishing agreement. Sweet dreams!