Conference Lessons: Rookie Submission Mistakes

facepalmDuring last fall’s writers conference with the Alaska Writers Guild, one of our illustrious presenters was literary agent Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.  One of her presentations was the very informative Eight Rookie Submission Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, and I’m happy to share the gist of it with you.

So here they all, all of writers’ favorite ways to ruin their own submission packets!

#1- Wrong Age Category

Know your age category!  If you’re not sure, there are lots of resources on the internet to figure it out, including my handy dandy chart from the post a couple months ago, Conference Lessons: Age Categories, but the two age groupings that Ms. Nelson highlighted in particular were YA and adult, which apparently get blurred a lot.

#2- Wrong Genre

Think about where your project would shelve in a bookstore.  What titles would it sit between?  If you’re not sure, think about another author writes like you (your comp titles, anyone?) and look up how they classify their books.  It’s not enough to say that your manuscript defies categorization; odds are it doesn’t.  (Still not sure? If you write speculative fiction, Ms. Nelson suggests Connor Goldsmith’s sci-fi/fantasy breakdown on Fuse Literary’s website as a good place to start.)

#3- Wrong Agent

Do your research and only query the agents that are a good fit for the project.  A few (free!) resources for finding the right agent include: agent websites; AgentQuery; QueryTracker; and Literary Rambles (but always be sure to double check aggregated information against the agents’ websites, since it can sometimes be dated).

#4- Wrong Comp Titles

Don’t pick books that are too old, too famous, or in a different genre.  When looking for comp titles, try to find similar (to prove demand) but different (to show there’s still market space) titles that were published in the last 3-5 years, and did well, but not made-into-a-movie well.  Ms. Nelson goes so far as to say that it’s better to leave out comp titles altogether than to use the wrong ones.

#5- Query Not about Book

The story should take up the bulk of the query, with only a small portion devoted to the bio.  (The bio is more important for nonfiction, but even then, unless you’re Oprah, focus on what the book is about.)  Bio only matters so long as it pertains to this book (so don’t put in your day job, your hobbies, your fifteen cats, etc., unless it’s applicable), and if you want some kind of agent personalization (I’m querying you because…), keep it to just one non-creepy sentence.

#6- First Page Clichés

Dream scene, character waking up, character being chased, a long time ago moment: none of that.  If it’s been done a thousand times, find a new way, or at least a new tweak on the cliché.

#7- First Chapter Info Dump

This is a similar issue to the above.  When agents see clichés, they stop caring.  When agents see background information, they stop caring.  The moment the agent no longer cares is the moment they stop reading, so make sure that your first pages are endlessly engaging.  Ms. Nelson recommends highlighting every moment of backstory and asking yourself, ‘Is this necessary?’

#8- Unprofessional Communication

Think of your query as a cover letter for a job application.  In communicating with literary professionals, and being one yourself, keep these things in mind:

  • Be friendly! Agents are humans too.
  • Be prompt with responses.
  • Be patient, and be polite when checking in.
  • Don’t complain about querying.
  • Notify all agents immediately if you get an offer.

 

A final piece of submission advice? Ms. Nelson suggests sending queries out in batches to fifteen agents at a time.  After two months with no takers, tweak your submission materials and send out another fifteen. She suggests one hundred to one hundred fifty rejections before moving on to a new project.  So if you’re anything like me, you’ve got a long way to go.  Don’t give up too early!

Happy writing!

Think you might like to query Ms. Nelson? She’s currently looking for adult, YA and MG.  Look on her agent page for details and good luck!

Conference Lessons: Age Categories

readingIt’s pretty easy to tell what your age category is.  So imagine my embarrassment when, at this year’s AWG Writers Conference, I was mid-pitch and the lady stopped me to ask, “Wait- what did you say your age category is?”

“Young Adult.”

“But… how old is your main character?”

“Twenty-two.”

Her brow furrowed in concern.  “Hm.”

Twenty-two-year-olds aren’t young adults?  Apparently not!  My pitch quickly turned into a brief run-down of the upper age categories in the hunt for mine.  Then the pitch continued, and she was very gracious and asked for a partial, even though I’m clearly an idiot.

So to spare you similar mortification, let’s talk age categories!  This is a really important aspect of your book and your pitch.  In fact, pitches often start with this information right up front.  (I’m querying a MG urban fantasy about… Ochre Skies is a YA historical romance about… etc. You get the idea.)   So let’s take a look at some of the common features in each of the main age categories.

Target Audience Age Main Character Age Typical Content Word Count (varies by genre)
Board Books 0-3 Varies Simple, familiar kinds of stories of everyday life, or concept books (colors, numbers, vocabulary, etc). 0-300
Picture Books 3-8 Varies Revolving around a single character that embodies a child’s viewpoint. Can be mirrors of child’s world, or windows into how others live. 0-1000
Early Reader 5-8 6-10 Simple sentences and words. Story mainly told through action and dialog, with setting left mostly to pictures. 200-2000
Chapter Books 6-10 9-12 More complex stories and structures, and typically run in a series.  Pictures are not relied on to tell any part of the story. 10k-12k
Middle Grade 8-12 10-13 Focus on friends, family, and immediate world. Little introspection and not super dark.  Little to no pictures. 20k-55k
Young Adult 12 and up 14-18 Focus on finding place in world beyond family and friends. Profanity, violence and sexuality acceptable for older target audience. 55k-75k
Adult 18 and up 25+ Varies by genre. Profanity, violence, and sexuality acceptable. 75k-110k

As you can see from these age divisions, children tend to “read up” by about two or three years; a twelve year old tends to read about middle teens, a seven-year-old would likely read a book with a plucky pubescent protagonist, etc.  Another defining feature is the content- is there swearing? sex? violence?  Any of these features can bump a book up in category.

You may notice that I didn’t put New Adult on the chart.  This is because we were told at the conference in no uncertain terms multiple times by literary agents that this is no longer a thing, that it was a blip on the screen that quickly turned into subcategory smutty romance, and we can move on now.  Which is a little disappointing for me, because I feel like, age- and point-of-life-wise, that NA would have been perfect for my books.  (I ranted about this before years ago in Writing an Utterly Unsexy New Adult.)

As far as overarching adult themes go, there’s very little written about it, at least that I could find.  (It’s actually really hard to find anything about the adult age category  right now because it’s so drowned in all the bazillion articles about young adult or even new adult. *whines*)  But it seems to largely come down to the genre.  Each genre will have its own specific themes and goals that are expected within that classification.  If I handed you a mystery, you could probably guess what it’s about.  Likewise for a rom-com or a thriller or a western.  Speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, alt history, etc) can vary quite a bit thematically, though.  (Seriously, though trying to research this age category was like expecting to see a forest and instead finding yourself on the lip of the Grand Canyon.  This might merit a more specific tons-o’-research blog post later.)  So, while other age categories seem to have broad themes found throughout genres, adult literature seems to be more of a mixed bag.  (For reals- I’m gonna research this more, this is driving me crazy.)

There are, of course, exceptions to the generalities presented in my pretty, pretty chart.  For example, Neil Gaiman’s fabulous The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which has a seven-year-old boy as the main character, but is definitely not a children’s book.  If you think you might be one of these exceptions, remember that content and target audience usually trump character ages, and then check, and double check, and ask around for second (and third and fourth) opinions before you start flaunting your exceptionality.

So!  I’m sure you all know exactly what age category you’re writing in now so you can present a pitch that doesn’t make someone interrupt you to tell you gently that you’re an ignoramus.  In case you’re not totally sure (because this is a super basic chart about broad generalities), there are a few links at the bottom of this post with more details.  Good luck, and happy writing!

More resources:

Categories by audience age http://www.dummies.com/education/language-arts/getting-published/age-levels-for-childrens-books/

Categories by ages, pages, and content http://www.right-writing.com/genres.html

Standard wordcounts by genre and age category http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post

Reblog: How to Land a Literary Agent

Hi!  I’m sitting in a graphic design shop typing away for the one hour of internet that I’ve had in the last week and have I got a lot of ground to cover.  With that brief excuse, please enjoy this short video by The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, while I register my second child for kindergarten.  *sobs*

The Call

Today’s cool cool blog post is a throwback to the writer’s conference I attended all those months ago. But I still have more information to share! Next week should be the last of the conference posts, but please let me know if you have anything else in particular you’d like to hear about. Until then, have some more brain-conglomeration from Laurie McLean, Andy Kifer, and Danielle Smith. They’re fantastic!

Once Upon a Time... communication one hundred years ago. An early telephoneThis will happen some day. I will be sitting in my kitchen baking something unnecessarily complicated. My mysteriously sticky flip phone will ring and I’ll wipe my hands on my apron and answer.

It will be a literary agent. A literary agent ready to talk representation.

My heart will implode in my chest, all the blood will drain from my skull, my knees will wobble, and my youngest child will start screaming. By the time I hang up, my baking adventure will be hopelessly ruined.

But all will not be lost, for I have prepared myself for that very moment. In between the screaming child and the destroyed foodstuff, I will run to my desk for this very thing: my list of questions to ask an agent during The Call. (I kid you not. The following exactly sits on my desktop.)

Take a breath. Chit chat. Be yo’ cool self. And then…

Definitely ask:

What was it about my book that made you want to work with me?

Are there any areas in the story that you think need to be reworked? How extensive do you think edits will be?

Are you interested in working with me on only this project, or on all future projects? How long does agency representation last? Is there an agency agreement, and may I read it beforehand?

How frequently do you communicate with clients? What’s your preferred style? (Phone? Email? Smoke signals?)

Maybe ask:

What do you charge for what? (15% of any deals? Subsidiary rights licenses? Out of pocket expenses?)

What happens if you leave the agency (death, disability, retirement, moves on to different agency, etc.)?

As an agent, what do you consider your strong suit? (Pitching, editing, negotiating, etc)

(Okay, not a question) Here are some ideas I have on promotional/marketing plans for this particular project.

What happens if we don’t sell this book?

Don’t ask:

Can you tell me about your list? (Anything about their list of sales and their other clients is probably online. In fact, you should probably have already looked at it when you were doing your research. Asking this will make it look like you didn’t do your homework at all.)

How big is your agency? (Again, this is online and you should already know this before you even sent your query.)

How long have you been in business? (Seriously. Homework. You did it, right?)

Now before you get the call, it’s important to have some idea of what your ideal answers would be. (I didn’t include mine in this list because I didn’t think that would be super helpful to you.) For example, when I ask an agent what her strong suit is, I should have an idea of what kind of agent I’m looking for. A hand holder? A negotiation shark? An editing agent? A business agent who can pitch, pitch, pitch? If I don’t already have a sense of what I’m hoping for, any one of those answers will sound just as good as any other, and I’m not any closer to finding my ideal agent.

Also keep in mind that you don’t have to go over all of these questions. (It’s a hefty list. You probably shouldn’t.) See where the conversation takes you! Have fun, be your charming self. By the end of the conversation, both of you should be happy and confident. And feel free to ask for a week or two to consider the offer, especially if you have other agents you’ve queried that deserve a heads up that an offer’s been made. (Don’t ask for more than three or four weeks, though. Be courteous.)

Still not sure what sorts of things you want to ask agents? Victoria Strauss pulled together an amazing resource on her website called Questions to Ask Your Prospective Literary Agent. She has links to bunches of posts on the subject from authors, agents, and literary companies. If you’d like to give the topic a bit more research, go give it a gander!

Reblog: The Evolving Literary Agent

Hello, hello, hello!  The hand is healing up nicely and I’ve caught up and then some in my NaNoWriMo daily writing goals.  Huzzah!  But I’m still busy tapping away to catch up to my personal goal of finishing 50k by Thanksgiving and hitting 60k by the end of the month.  So to free me up for that, I present you with another fantastic reblog, this time from Jane Friedman via Writer’s Digest.  Enjoy!

jane-friedman-writer-media-featured

Jane Friedman

Progressive literary agencies are redefining the traditional role of the agent—and finding new ways to support authors in the digital era. Here’s what savvy writers—beginning and experienced alike—should know.

Claire Cook is living the dream. She wrote her first novel at 45, and five years later, she walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of the adaptation of her second novel, Must Love Dogs. She’s the USA Today bestselling author of 11 novels, and her books have been translated into 14 languages.

And she no longer has an agent.

Cook recently broke with her long-standing agency when they reached an impasse over how to handle her indie work. She says that while she loved the support of being agented, she didn’t want to be pressured to sell her new work to traditional publishers, and would prefer an agent willing to allow her the freedom to pursue alternatives. As she considers her next steps, she says, “I decided to write the book I’d wanted to write for years that nobody on my former publishing team felt fit my novelist brand.”

Cook’s story illustrates a larger shift in the industry, where authors’ needs and long-term career trajectories are no longer automatically defined by selling their next book to a big publisher. Self-publishing and digital publishing now can serve as important (and lucrative) building blocks for growing a readership, and more authors are choosing a hybrid model of publishing, where they decide how and where to publish on a project-by-project basis.

Click here to read more! –>

Reblog: Comp Titles

Hello!  I’m running hot out the gate on a new month of NaNo and, if you’ve followed this blog for any length of time at all, you know what that means.  For those who don’t, it means I’m scaling back on the attention I give the blog so that I can churn out a mega-ugly little first draft by the end of the month.  But I’ve got some fun comics planned, and some very enlightening reblogs from people who are smarter than me.  Our first up is courtesy of Andrea Backofen via Penguin Random House, who will tell us all about comp titles- why we need ’em, how to find ’em, and so forth.  Enjoy!

Comp Titles—An Elevator Pitch for Your Book

shelvesEvery author’s work is unique. And yet, early in the publishing process, authors are often asked by agents or publishers to provide comparison (“comp”) titles. We asked Penguin Random House editorial, sales, and analytics teams why comp titles are important, what makes for a meaningful comp, and how to find them if you are asked.

What Are Comp Titles and Why Are They Useful?

Comparison (“comp”) titles are books that are similar to yours in one of two ways: Either the content is comparable or the sales trends are expected to be similar. For your publishing team, comp titles are extremely important. The comps help editors making acquisition decisions to figure out who and how big the audience might be for a specific title. Editors also look at the sales trajectories of comp titles: Will Book X be the type of book to backlist forever, like Book Y, or go strong out of the gate and then fade fast when the publicity dies down, like Book Z? Marketing teams also find comps useful when putting together marketing plans for individual titles.

Additionally, comp titles are essential for the sales group: They give the sales reps a good shorthand when selling in to retailers. Reps have only thirty seconds to pitch each book with some accounts.  Being able to say “It’s like x and y” can be one of the most effective ways to get attention from the buyer and to set expectations about audience and ballpark sales potential.

While our publishing teams often add additional comp titles during the publishing process, it is immensely valuable for them to understand what comp titles you suggest, so you can align your expectations about framing and positioning early in the process.

What Makes a Good Comp Title?

Here are a few things to ask yourself when determining if your selection is a good one…

Read More! –>

The Five Phases of Querying

QueryingAhhhh, querying… What else can throw a writer into such a frenzy of excitement and terror? For those of us on the hunt for a literary agent, a solid query packet can make or break our plans for publication. So imagine how excited I was at the conference to attend not one, but three breakout sessions on snagging the attention of that most coveted of business partners.

After cramping my hand with hours of feverish note taking, I give you the combined wisdom of these literary sages- and my plan of attack on getting the attention of an agent. (For those of you not after an agent but still looking to traditionally publish, just replace the word ‘agent’ with ‘editor’ and proceed.)

Phase One- Edit your manuscript.

As much of a pain as editing can be, it is absolutely crucial to selling your manuscript. Although some agents are willing to work with authors on heavy editing, getting a book submission ready is completely and solely the author’s responsibility. Don’t count on an agent being willing to spend a ton of time editing your work- after all, agents only get paid when you do. Expecting them to put in a ton of free work just because you can’t figure out how to clean house on your own isn’t fair.

Your first page will be your most vital, but the agents all agreed that your first three chapters (about fifty pages) should be pitch perfect before querying. Eliminate anything that slows the reader down. Remember that agents are busy, busy people. If you lose their interest for even a moment, you seriously risk losing it forever. Make that manuscript sing.

Phase Two- Research your market.

Once you have your belle all ready for the ball, figure out where it has to go. We all think our manuscripts are lovely, unique creatures, but odds are pretty darned low that they are so unique as to be uncategorizable (which is most definitely a word, no need to look it up, shhhh). This category is your specific genre.

Think about where your book would rest on a shelf. The chances are pretty slim of Barnes and Nobles putting up a new set of shelves and placing just your book there. So where would they put it? And make note of the same books in that section- these are your comp titles. (But when searching for comp titles, don’t find big names that don’t really compare, and don’t use books that just generally similar. Find books similar in a very specific way- whether that’s style, theme, audience, whatever. And keep notes on all this for your query packet later.)

Think also about all the kinds of people who would be buying your book. Maybe you’d rest on the YA fantasy shelf, but if your book also prominently features mammoths in prehistoric Alaska, also consider mammoth fans or paleontologists or Alaskans or anything else. Go deeper than just a genre. Know your exact audience and pinpoint precisely what would make them shell out fifteen bucks for your book. Not only will you need to know this for future marketing adventures (wheeee!), but it will also help you find the most perfect agent on the planet for this specific book.

Phase Three- Research the proper agent.

For pity’s sake, do not blast the same query packet to every human who comes up on a Google search for ‘literary agent’. Since you already researched your perfect market back in Phase Two, take the time to find out your perfect agent as well. Laurie McLean’s rule of thumb is ten percent- spend ten percent of the time you spent on a novel researching agents.

The nice thing about this day and age is that all the information we need to figure out our best agent is online. Check out agency websites, querytracker.net, agentquery.com, Publisher’s Marketplace. Look at an agent’s client list, what kind of books they’ve sold, who they sell to.  Follow them on Twitter, read their blogs.

(But seriously, don’t stalk agents, digitally or otherwise. They want to only be queried with those projects best suited to them, so that sort of info is probably pretty available.  You’re not going to find the secret chink in their armor by hacking into their private Facebook page and looking at pictures of their daughter’s third birthday. Just don’t.)

And if you find you have the time and money to do so, definitely try online events, webinars, classes, conferences. Anything that gets you interacting with agents (in a good way!) will help you sort out whom to query with what, and how to best do it.

Phase Four- Assemble- and check!- your packet.

Once you have your dream team of potential agents post-it noted over your writing desk, carefully ready their submission requirements. Not all agents ask for the same stuff! A query packet can include many things. The most common is a query letter, but the packet might also include a proposal, a synopsis, sample pages, a marketing plan- basically whatever the agent finds necessary to assessing your viability as a client. The most important thing here is to know exactly what the agent wants to see, and give them exactly that.

In the words of Andy Kifer, “Put together a packet designed to intrigue.” Make the query letter personal and interesting- butter up the agents about their list, about their talks, tout all the research you’ve by telling them how perfect they are for this manuscript. Sell your book, and sell yourself. Don’t make a synopsis that sounds like a fifth grade book report- inject the voice of the narrative, keep statements brief and powerful, prove that you can write an absorbing story from start to finish. Be very clear on what you have, and what you’re looking for. In each facet of the packet, make every sentence fascinate.

And then go back through it with a magnifying glass. Read it out loud. Get your friends to read it and give feedback. Edit. Reread. Make sure you spelled the agent’s name right. Eliminate all mistakes. And then send it through another round of beta readers. Do this as many times as necessary to get it just right.

Phase Five- Click send and get to work on the next project.

After all that work in phases one through four, Phase Five should be a cinch. You’ve done the legwork- now give that packet a kiss for luck and send it off.

But don’t just wait idle in the time it takes to receive a reply. Agents don’t want to work with a one trick pony- they want an author who can provide top notch work time and again. So get to work on your next masterpiece! If nothing else, it will keep your mind off the agony of waiting, and it just might produce your next best seller.

Best of luck in your querying adventures!

As mentioned throughout, this sagacity came from literary agents Danielle Smith, Laurie McLean, and Andy Kifer, all of whom are fun and nice and not at all terrifying demigods! Who’d have thought?