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I wanted to clarify this tweet a bit. So, as you might know, I'm an enthusiast. Sometimes when I'm super excited about a new novel that crosses my desk, I might get second reads or talk to agency colleagues about it before I even sign it. If I know it is up some editor's alley, I might tease them with it -- "I'm about to offer on an aweeeesome super-secret new space opera with dragons... you want to be on the list when I go out with it?" Or "ooooh have you seen this website, what do you think?"*
There's a difference between being a fan of something, having enthusiasm and seeing if other people share that enthusiasm, and actually submitting a person's intellectual property for publication and acting on their behalf when they haven't given you permission to do so.
If you query an agent with your novel** and they tell you they're going to "shop your manuscript around to editors"... and that IF they get an offer, THEN they'll sign you up*** (but they won't otherwise?):
HUGE RED FLAG. THIS IS PROBLEMATIC.
* If they shop your manuscript, and you aren't their actual client, how do you know what they are doing, who they are talking to, what they are saying on your behalf?
* If they shop your manuscript and end up with an offer... it will probably not be the best offer. Why? Because this type of schmagent is unlikely to have primo publishing connections. There are times that going with a small press or an e-book only press or a no-advance press or a start-up press might be a fine idea... but do you really want that to be your ONLY option?
* If they shop your manuscript, and end up never getting an offer and never signing you (which is quite likely, since they will have no particular pressing interest in trying hard, since you aren't a client) -- then let's say you get another agent? A real one? ALL THOSE BRIDGES ARE BURNED. Your new agent won't be able to send your manuscript to any of the editors that already declined it. Assuming you can even find out who those editors were.
An agent isn't just a person who likes books and puts a website up. They SHOULD have a ton of contacts in the publishing industry... and when they talk to those contacts, they REPRESENT YOU. That means they are meant to be acting on your behalf and speaking for you. (Not to mention they have access to your finances and potentially your financial future and career!) -- you definitely don't want somebody you don't trust in that position. Do your homework.
This isn't a game, or a joke. Don't treat it that way. And don't let anyone else treat it that way, either.
-- * Mind you, this wouldn't affect MY feelings about it. If somebody was like "ew dragons are dumb" -- I'd think "Oh, they are stupid", not "Oh, I am wrong."
** ETA: I'm talking specifically about NOVELS here, and note that my expertise is in kids and YA. Pop culture nonfiction or other works you sell on proposal might be different, I have no idea. And as some point out... publishers themselves may do some "pre-shopping" to their retail clients when deciding what to acquire. Sadly, there's nothing much you can do about that.
*** ETA ETA: I'm also not talking about people who are legit agents you've agreed will represent you on a "handshake" basis but who don't have a formal written agency agreement, or who only make a formal written agency agreement when money is going to change hands. While this isn't how my agency works, I know some legit agencies that don't have a formal "agreement" per se -- but they will ASK YOU before they start REPPING YOU! Display CommentsAdd a Comment
WE GO TOGETHER! (A Curious Selection of Affectionate Verse) is a perfectly charming collection of whimsical and wonderful love and friendship poems from NYT bestselling author-illustrator, Calef Brown.
It's the perfect Valentine's present to share with a friend or loved one of ANY age. It's a cute small size and under $10, so it makes a great gift. And while kids will certainly delight at the fun words and bright illustrations, the poems are even a little bit extra-charming for grownups.
Need a Valentine for your daughter, son, bestie, westie, sister, brother, "Significant Other", BF, GF, BFF, or super secret crush? Look no further!
Seriously, buy several, they're small. ;-)
Review Quotes: "In a collection that celebrates loving friendship, Brown artfully captures the comforting, sometimes odd moments of true affection." --Kirkus
"The cheerful, rhythmic rhymes help make this book perfect for reading aloud, and it would be an ideal choice for two friends to share." --School Library Journal
"Brown... pairs a heaping spoonful of nonsense with unexpected yet genuine observations about the joy of companionship." --Publishers Weekly STARRED review
Publisher Description: In Calef Brown's poem "We Go Together," he jubilantly decrees: "We go together / like fingers and thumbs. / Basses and drums. / Pastries and crumbs." In "You Are Two (Kiwis)," he muses, "I am quite frequently, / reminded by thee / of a kiwi. / Either kind." Yes, silliness and sentimentality have free rein in this "curious selection" of childlike poems about love and friendship, each accompanied by an equally absurd, stylized acrylic painting. Like Sandol Stoddard's I Like You, WE GO TOGETHER! makes an offbeat Valentine's gift for anyone with a good sense of humor and a penchant for wordplay.
I don't buy it when people say online friendships are not "real." I haveplenty of online friendships that have developed into real life friendships; there is a lot of fluidity and crossover. I love to meet "twitter peeps" when I'm traveling to conferences and the like. In fact, some of the people I like most in the world are ones that I met online first.
I talk to the people inside the twitterbox more than, well, anyone else besides the dog. And probably because I'm chatty, I do tend to feel like I KNOW these people. Like, personally know them. Even the ones I don't know personally at all. Maybe I just have a clingy personality or something - or maybe it is natural that humans like to make connections. I don't know. Who am I, Oliver Sacks? (No.)
So my confession is: A few times I've noticed that people I follow and admire on twitter (and in some cases, even have met or know IRL) don't follow me, or worse, have unfollowed me. And it causes me a sharp pain not unlike grief. Micro-grief, if you will.
THIS IS RIDICULOUS.
If you've ever felt this twinge of micro-grief when you realize somebody isn't following you... SNAP OUT OF IT. If you've ever gotten upset that somebody didn't retweet you or respond to you... GET OVER IT. If you expect "auto-follows" or that somebody should follow or always converse with you or RT you or whatever just because you follow them... GTFO.
Everyone uses twitter in different ways. MOST people are not on there 15 hours a day like I am (because it is in the corner of my screen while I am working, which is almost always). Some people only want to follow a very small number of folks, or people they know IRL, or nobody they know IRL, or whatever. Some people have strict limits with themselves about how often they can check in, and so limit their "follow list" to ones they can keep up with easily. Some people unfollow people who tweet too much, or who curse, or post pet pictures, or don't post pet pictures, or who only talk about books, or who never talk about books, or who the hell knows.
The point is, how other people choose to use it or not use it is not a judgement about us, and is also not our beezwax.
If you're only following somebody because you have the expectation they'll follow you back, you're doing yourself a disservice. Yes, twitter is a lot about conversations and connections... but you can't control what other people do. And vice-versa. So hey, feel free to keep following people you enjoy and have the bandwidth for... and stop following if you don't want to anymore. No need to make a big to-do about it. No need to announce it to anyone. It's not an insult to not follow somebody or to stop following somebody, it's just you choosing how to spend your own time and energy.
I get asked this question many times a week via twitter, in emails, at conferences, at the bookstore... Here's how it goes:
[scene: a podium in a random hotel conference room in Anytown USA]
Stranger [raises hand]: OK, SO, PEOPLE SAY I SHOULD LOOK FOR AN AGENT. BUT MY QUESTION IS, DO I NEED AN AGENT?
Me: Probably. Depends what you want from your career. I'd get one, personally... but of course, I'm an agent, naturally I'd say that.
Stranger [impatiently]: NO. I MEAN DO I REALLY NEED AN AGENT?
Me: Oh man. Since you asked with that inflection... wow. I guess I have to give it to you straight. You got me. There's a little something that everyone else knows except you. Every time somebody suggests you "query agents" they are really trying to TRICK you. Because they don't want you to know the secret! *Muwhahaha!* <!------>
Oh. You can tell I'm poking fun, and you don't like it. Sorry. I'm going to be totally serious now. When you ask that question, it sounds to me like "but I don't want to read the manual, instructions are for suckers, I'm gonna find the shortcut and do this the fast and dirty way!"
And I get that. I'm impatient too. The fact is, much like putting together the elaborate entertainment center from Ikea, getting an agent is usually difficult, or at least inconvenient on some level. There are almost always some bruised egos and frustrations along the way. It can take a long time. It can be a lot of work. And even when you have it figured out, that is only the beginning. Ugh what a pain in the ass.
So look. It DOES depend on what you want from your career.
* If you want to go the self-publishing route and would never consider traditional publishing... you may not need an agent. (You'll find that it is a lot of work to be successful at this game, but hey -- it happens. Elbow grease, baby!)
* If you have a very "niche" type of work -- highly technical, educational, religious, or specialty-type content... novellas, chapbooks, and other things that are not usually found in regular bookstores... you may not need an agent.
* If you want to be traditionally published and are a super-type A personality, know a ton about the vagaries of publishing, have lots of insider publishing connections, know contracts well, understand the market for your work specifically, enjoy talking about money and don't mind things like asking for a raise, know how to sell subrights and foreign rights, want to spend time pounding the pavement on your own behalf... you may be not need an agent.*
Otherwise? An agent is going to be hugely helpful to you.
In fact, here's the secret. As big a pain as it is? GETTING AN AGENT IS THE SHORTCUT.
Recognize this? It's called an allen wrench, or a hex key.
You can put the Ikea entertainment center without it, but dear god, it's a hell of a lot easier with it.
Consider an agent your hex key.
* (Though I do know people like this, and after a certain number of books... guess what, they got an agent. Because it is a huge time-suck to do all these things for yourself, the time-suck gets exponentially worse the more books you have out, and that is time you could be spending writing. Or, you know, lounging in a hammock drinking mocktails. Whatever.)
So you know, I've already done the wordy thing. This year I did a bit of number-crunching instead. Depending on your POV, this'll be either deadly boring or geekily interesting - if the former, forgive me, please do skip it. Here's 2012 by the numbers:
In 2012, I got approximately 4200 queries (an average of 80 per week). I didn't actually count this part, butI'm gonna take an educated guess and say about half were not even in genres I represent, were not addressed to me, were barely in English, had attachments or otherwise didn't follow submission guidelines, and thus were automatic deletes. (In other words: if you are following guidelines and subbing the correct material, you're already in the top 50%!)
So let's call it about 2000 viable queries. Of those, I took on seven new clients (aka, .35%).Of those, two were total slush-puppies and debuts (one of which I signed right away, one after a revise-and-resubmit). Two were referrals (one previously published, one not). One I knew in real life from SCBWI (previously published). One I met on twitter, then in real life, before she queried me (previously published). One, another debut, I knew in real life from my old bookstore job! Of the seven new clients, four are debuts, six have have deals done or in progress, and one I haven't yet sent out.
In 2012, I sold 14 YA, 9 MG, 6 PB.
Of these, seven were debuts: Three YA and two each MG and PB.
This also marked the year I sold my 100th* title. I'm at 103 now (46 of which have been released), and the breakdown is:
Total: 44 YA, 32 MG, 27 PB
WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS MEAN?
I guess that I work with totally awesome authors and illustrators, that books are still selling, that good stories are still finding readers, and that it was a very busy and very productive 2012. So let's do it again in 2013!
Wishing you time to read, inspiration to write, and much happiness in the coming year. :-)
*I'm not counting foreign sales, subrights sales or sales where I rep both the author and illustrator - that would get way too complicated. Each book only counts once.Display CommentsAdd a Comment
The hottest non-book item in the bookstore this holiday season was probably Spikeletz. They are awesome and weird bracelets made of this spiky-looking (but actually ultra-soft) plastic, in all kinds of wild color combos. Kinda like having a neon caterpillar around your wrist.
Most people like the Spikeletz. Some adults are sort of weirded out by them, because their texture is so unexpected compared to how they look. Girls and boys seem to appreciate them fairly equally. But one parent was overheard to say to a son, "Bracelets are for girls."
I wish I had been there. Because I would have said ok first of all WHAT and second of all NO and also CALL THEM WRISTBANDS THEN and by the way YOUR KID LIKES SOMETHING WHY ARE YOU GONNA RUIN IT and also SPIKELETZ ARE FOR AWESOME PEOPLE! Actually I probably would have said none of that, but I might have slipped the kid a wink and a sticker or something at least. Ugh.
So then today I was reading my twitter feed (as one does) and I came across this innocuous tweet from @HarperChildrens (a publisher I greatly admire), about the darling new book FOXY:
I have to admit, I was irritated by that tweet. I mean - why say it is a GIRL book? Because the human child in is a girl? But Foxy himself is a boy fox. And MAGICAL FOXES seem to be totally rad regardless of gender. If I was a boy, I'd sure as hell like a book about a cool MAGICAL FOX. Why not?
The thing is, in the kids section, so many picture books scream BOY BOOK or GIRL BOOK from a hundred yards. FANCY NANCY is a "Girl Book" - it's covered in glitter and is bright pink. I STINK is a "Boy Book" - it's got a giant trash truck on it. It is very simple for adults to choose "the one that fits" without even having to read the text. It makes life easy in some ways. But it's also so, soooo irritating.
I mean, OK. If a boy loves trucks, am I gonna say "No, you can only read about Princess Barbies"? Heck no. I'll give him a truck book, and we have plenty of them. But if a boy wants to read about Barbie, I am never going to say he's wrong. And the same goes vice-versa. I'm in the business of getting kids to read and love reading, I'd not want any kid to feel shamed for what they enjoy.
Goodness knows, pink glittery books don't need my help to sell! Nor would I want them to. I know that the masses of money a publisher makes from something like PINKALICIOUS may well go to buy some less obvious texts... maybe even one of mine. And heck, I loved pink and purple and glitter* when I was little, and I know I would have adored stuff like Lego Friends: Treasure Hunt in Heartlake City even though I may find it gagworthy now. (For the record, I loved firetrucks too!)
I can't stop publishers from producing and marketing books the way they do. Hey, they are companies, they are doing what makes the most money for them, and I get it.
But what I CAN do on a day-to-day level is, make even more of a point to seek out less-discovered gems, books that reflect all kinds of experiences, and try to push THOSE as much as possible. And I can stop using language like "Boy Book" and "Girl Book", and try to get others to stop using it too. It's shorthand, and it's lazy, and if it makes any kid feel bad or NOT want to read something, then it's a terrible shame.
Sometimes I'm asked why agents talk about Picture Books but almost never about Board Books. Maybe I can shed some light.
BOARD BOOKS, aka Baby Books, are those chunky little books generally made of thick cardboard, for about ages 0-2. They're what kids get before they have the manual dexterity to turn the thin pages of picture books, when they would still rather drool on, chew, or tear up paper than delicately peruse it.
Board books are almost always small and made of cardboard. Their covers can be flat or puffy or shaped like something. They can be stories (basically small versions of regular picture books) but they are also often concept books or novelty books. Subspecies:
CONCEPTBOOKS are board books that teach about things like ABC, 123, Up/Down, Colors, Animals, etc. in an extremely simple way.
NOVELTYBOOKS have some sort of special interactive element like lift-the-flap, textured touch-and-feel, sliding panels, a spinning wheel, etc.
Because they are brightly colored, printed on thick cardboard, and often have special elements to them, board books are very expensive to produce compared to their retail price. This means there is a very small profit margin. Which means publishers really need to both keep costs down and sell a lot for these books to be successful. They are unlikely to take big risks in acquisitions for this market. For these reasons, you will typically find books that are either:
Written in-house with an artist hired on a work-for-hire basis (so they only have to pay one person, and that, usually for much less than for regular picture books), or better yet, written AND designed in-house, AND/OR
There are a few artists who produce simple and bright board book originals, like Sandra Boynton and Leslie Patricelli. There are fewer still who are masters of the novelty board book. Salina Yoon and Matthew van Fleet come to mind. But it's much less likely that you'd find a non-artist author of these types of books. In fact, I can't think of ANY text-onlys bought specifically to be board books*. I'm totally willing to be corrected about this, but every board book I can think of off the top of my head was either written by the artist or editor, or is a spin-off or shrunken version of an existing picture book property.
If you are a terrific artist/designer, and you have an awesome idea for a fun baby book or set of novelty books, there is a (slim) possibility you might break in this way. As an author who is NOT an artist, though, I'd think it would be VERY DIFFICULT INDEED to sell your text as a board book.
Not impossible, I suppose. Almost nothing is impossible, and there may be exceptions to every rule. But as the dear departed Editorial Anonymous said in her post on the subject (which explains what I just explained but in an even clearer way): "Take my advice and don't present a manuscript as a board book just because you think it'd be cuter that way. Starting a book off as a hardcover picture book is always more profitable for the publisher, which means the acquisition pulls more weight for the editor, the book gets more attention, and it's more profitable for you."
* ETA: I stand corrected! I couldn't think of any board book originals, but the lovely Emily Jenkins reminds me that she wrote an original board book series, "Bea and Haha", illustrated by Tomek Bogacki - sadly out of print, though. And Laurel Snyder wrote one "Nosh Schlep Schluff" - but there were special circumstances. And Lawrence Schimel has a series called "Little Pirate" from Innovative Kids. But I still say these are highly unusual in the board book realm.Display CommentsAdd a Comment
Every year at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, we "adopt" several classrooms of kids who don't get books as presents, and we make sure that they DO. Each star on the tree represents one local child and is labeled with their age, reading level and interests.
Last year went smashingly thanks to our neighborhood shoppers... and also thanks, in no small part, to friends from the Twitterverse and blog readers who also chipped in to make the holidays a bit more special for some kids in need.
This year we challenged ourselves to the biggest Book Angel project yet. We just about doubled the number of kids we're helping, and we've added a batch of high schoolers - which means the Book Angel project now officially spans 100 local Hudson Valley kids of all ages, K-12. ALL these 100 kids will get great new books this year!
*** UPDATE:WE REACHED OUR GOAL!!! As of last night, we'd taken care of about half the kids on the list... but there were still so many stars left! So at 7pm eastern time, I threw the challenge down on this blog and on twitter. I'm so proud and excited to tell you that thanks to YOU we reached our goal in ONE HOUR. Each of the 100 kids on our list will receive at least TWO* brand-new, hand-chosen (and if I may say so, superb) books. That is four classrooms of kids who may have never had a new book of their very own before. I am beyond delighted. You are all amazing. Suzanna at Oblong Books and I stayed until 10pm running around the store like mad selecting all the titles. This part is both the most thrilling, especially when one of the children seems like a kindred spirit so you can gift a personal favorite and know they will LOVE it... and the most challenging, when you have to find the PERFECT books for the kid whose star says something like "1st Grade: Dirt bikes and wrestling!" Anyway, it was fun and exhausting and I loved it, and I might have cried a little from happiness, and today we have a lot of presents to wrap. :-) If you still want to be a Book Angel, consider a donation to FirstBook -- they do this all year long: http://www.firstbook.org/
* "At least two" because in the case of early readers which are so short and slim we chose 3, or a pb/early reader combo. YA and MG novels got 2 each, a mixture of hardcover and paperback. Our goal is to give books that are both appropriate and that they'll adore based on the interests and level they shared with us.
Let's be honest: We all want to work with people we personally enjoy. I'm not saying you need to be BFFs with your co-workers, but if given the choice, we'd all want colleagues who are not only good at their jobs, but are also kind and pleasant to communicate with.
Luckily for us as agents and authors: We often ARE given the choice.
I have an amazing group of authors who I love hearing from and talking to... and I got to choose them (and they, me). There are certainly people I haven't offered representation because, based on my communication with them and/or their online presence, I felt like they might be a thorn in my side. I don't WANT a thorn in my side, thanks.
To that point: Yes, your professional and courteous communication matters. And yes, even if your blog or twitter gets very little traffic, if it exists as a public thing, it isn't invisible. Agents and editors will look you up and see what you say online. If you come off as an negative jerk who can't stop complaining about life or how dumb agents are or how unfair the publishing industry is (for example)... well, it's just not very inspiring. It doesn't make me think "oh wow that person would be a pleasure to work with."
Everyone has a bad day, I get it. And I do believe that there is value in "telling it like it is" and not being a freakin' Pollyanna every minute if that is not your style. But come on. If EVERY SINGLE TWEET OR POST is horribly grim/depressing/ranty/unkind... what will the personal conversations be like?
(This cuts the other way, as well -- If authors don't like the advice an agent gives on their blog, or the way an agent treats people on social media, or whatever, they should certainly avoid querying that agent!)
I don't want this to seem like a conspiracy theory. Agents aren't lurking around SPYING on you or anything. But if I'm interested in possibly repping somebody, I sure as heck look them up online. If I see an interesting, generally upbeat, sane, smart and fun-seeming individual, I'm more likely to want to take the conversation to the next level than if I see an awful crabby complainer (or drunken Nazi, or similar).
Even if somebody is a good writer, I'd never want to take them on if I thought I'd dread getting emails from them, that'd be a nightmare. There is enough drama and heartache in the world (and in this business) without purposely inviting emotional vampires in.
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This conference is truly amazing. First of all, the location is just stunning - in a redwood forest, on cliffs above the Pacific, surrounded by nature... It's a retreat from the distractions of everyday life that allows writers to really focus on getting deep into their manuscripts and doing that hard work that will take them to the next level. It is a combo of small critique groups led by stellar faculty (editors, agents, award-winning writers), plus time to actually REVISE based on the feedback. And the high faculty-to-writer ratio plus casual and family-like atmosphere means you'll get plenty of time to hang out with editors and agents and writers without feeling "on the spot" or nervous.
It sounds cliche but it is true: I've seen miracles at this conference. The difference in work from the first workshop on Friday to the last on Sunday can be truly astonishing. I just can't say enough good things about it. If you can join us this time around, you SHOULD! Here's the registration page.
If you can't, do keep it on your radar, as we do this twice a year. March is in Monterey, December is in Big Sur. Hope to see you there!
PRETTIESTDOLL is three weeks in the life of Liv Tatum, who is 13 years old and already a veteran of the beauty-pageant circuit. Though she's as pretty and successful as can be on the outside, on the inside Liv is struggling to cope with the death of her father, the demands of her mother, her pageant coach's insistent criticism, and her own ambivalence about her looks.
When she up and runs away with 15 year old Danny Jacobson, a troubled Texan on his way to Chicago, she'll have to rely on her own resourcefulness and courage, rather than on her fake eyelashes and singing, to make it back in one piece.
PRETTIEST DOLL is somehow simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, zeitgeisty and timeless.Gina Willer-Pardo is a master at writing realistic stories with a pitch-perfect middle school voice. I love this book!
"Willner-Pardo deftly captures the complexity of adolescence as these resilient teens endeavor to define their identities and establish control over their lives."--Kirkus "Willner-Pardo gives Olivia a realistically conflicted narrative voice . . . [Olivia's] growth is organic and genuine."--Publishers Weekly
You'll probably be hearing about this a lot from me in the coming days, and my... well, not apologies... just warning.
As we all know by now, Hurricane Sandy has had a devastating effect on many of our friends and neighbors in NYC and beyond. My author Kate Messner has come up with a very awesome fundraiser which will allow you to help those who REALLY need it right now, and at the same time, GET STUFF.
I'm so excited to tell you that Jill Pinkwater's classic CLOUD HORSE, out of print for years, is now back in shiny e-book form! Huzzah! It is the story of two girls, one a Viking maiden, the other a modern American -- separated by a thousand years, but brought together by their love of horses.
"Wait a minute, is this a CHILDREN'S BOOK???" -- Nah. Well, OK, kinda. But I think it is suitable for all ages. There's a little romance, a little magic, a witch, a pinch of time travel, plenty of wild ponies... what's not to like? "Is this a trick? What's the gag? Why are you giving the book away? Grrr!" -- Relax! Consider it a gift. Or... well, I would love to request a favor. If you feel like it, press "like" on the book page. This doesn't go to Facebook or anything, it just makes things rise higher in Amazon's own search algorithm. And if you enjoy the read and are so moved, please do write a review of the book on the Amazon site.
No pressure! Just these simple things help enormously when it comes to helping other readers discover books. All the pony magic in the world does not help as much as a great review. :-)
"But I don't have an e-reader!" -- Welp, the good news is, you can download and read the book "in the cloud" online, straight off the Amazon website. Or download a free Kindle app to your phone, iPad or other device.
"But I hate shopping on A**zon!" -- Hey, I feel you, friend. The book will be available in other formats soon. Meanwhile, this is your chance to download it for FREE, which is almost the same as STEALING from them. Stick it to the man! "Will there be OTHER Pinkwater books in e-book format?" -- We're working on it. We'll be rolling out a few more Jill P. books in the next few months. And after that, who knows. If you have particular hard-to-find favorites, let me know. :-)
I've seen a lot of people online opine recently that agents who say they are looking for something they "love" are basically idiots. Agents shouldn't be looking for something they LOVE - what are they, giggling teenagers? This is a BUSINESS! Etc.
I also got an email response to a rejection today that basically said the same thing (though much more nicely) and, while it was not meant in a bad way, it was surprising to me. Very nice writer, nothing against them, but the fact is, I take on so few projects, out of thousands of submissions. Damn straight I have to love them.
As a writer, you write things that you love and are fascinated by, no? Isn't that one of the glorious things about being a writer? You might have unsteady income, you might not know if the next thing will sell, you might win the lotto with one project and strike out with the next... but you still get to write the stories you are passionate about. Sure you might make some concessions for "the market" - or sometimes you might be a 'pen for hire' and need to suit the company you're writing for - but you can still decide NOT to write something that makes you miserable, if you want.
You wouldn't spend a year or more writing and revising some project you don't believe in or enjoy (especially with no guarantee you'd get paid for it!) unless you were a masochist. I'm not a masochist. I'm in the business I'm in specifically because I love books, and I love the freedom to choose the projects I work on and rep the stuff I love. If I wanted to work hard on something I don't enjoy, I could get paid more for it in another line of work.
Anyway, would you really want an agent who DOESN'T love your writing? Really? Come on. If I don't believe in a project or an author, I can't be an effective advocate for it. Full stop.
Thing is, of course, the things I love and the things I think I can sell tend to be one and the same. And in my career (knock wood) my intuition about the sort of projects I should take on has been very right. FOR ME. That is no reflection about what the greater world will think, or what any other editor or agent will think. I absolutely would have turned down TWILIGHT or 50 SHADES or DA VINCI CODE, with no regrets... because it would have been a misery for me to work on them. I'm glad they exist, I'm not jealous of their success... they just aren't for me.
For me, rejections and acceptances are entirely down to my personal weird quirky taste, and the fact that I only take on three or so new things a year. Very occasionally there is some concrete point I can give the author, and I try to do so when it is easy to see. But I advise against replying to a rejection with a plaintive "Whyyy??", because you probably won't like the answer: "I didn't like it enough."
Which totally sounds mean, right? But think about it this way: I also don't like the color yellow. Or the flavor of clove. Or Irish Wolfhounds. Or the way birds legs look like dinosaur legs. Or messy food. Or summertime. So what? Are any of those things bad? No! They just aren't for me.
So there. While I do agree it's a business, and I want to find the things that I think will do well... I also really do think that any publishing endeavor is much more likely to be successful if everyone involved is invested in the project. What do you think? Could you work on something you don't care for? Would you? Ugh.
Picture books are often rejected for being "overly didactic." This is a word that gets thrown around a lot by agent-and-editor types, and I know if you aren't familiar, it might sound sort of harsh and insulting (particularly since, as I said, it is normally coupled with a rejection) -- so just what does it mean when an editor or an agent says Didactic?
It isn't meant as an insult. Didactic just means "intending to teach a lesson." (The word is also kin with "moralistic" - which is of course "intending to teach a MORAL lesson.") These words can have a negative connotation (like if I were to say "my neighbor came over and hollered at me for playing rock music instead of hymns - what a moralistic jerk")... but neither of them is inherently a negative word.
They are just negative words to an agent or editor because they are so very rarely are used in the same breath as "HOT!" "HILARIOUS!" "WOW!" or "AWESOME!"
Many stories are meant to be didactic or moralistic. Fables are meant to teach a lesson (and in fact that lesson or moral is very clearly spelled out at the end!) Some nursery stories, rhymes and famous old tales are meant to teach a specific lesson. Some sorts of modern "issue books" (like HANDS ARE NOT FOR HITTING or HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES or DOG HEAVEN or MIND YOUR MANNERS, BB WOLF or even EVERYBODY POOPS) are meant to leave the audience with a specific message at the end. Some of these books are so successful at their job that they are at this point classics and will be found in nearly every bookstore or library, and stay in print for ages.
These stories definitely have their place.
That "place" is usually one shelf in the bookstore or library. Probably labeled "special issues."
While the demand for them might be consistent, it is also comparatively rather small, which means they can be tough to sell unless they are REALLY well done, and the advances may be on the low side. The exception might be for a book by a well-established author or illustrator, or something featuring an already popular character, or on a "hot topic" possibly that can break it out of niche-ville... but I digress. The point is, because the market for them is limited, I believe very few (if any) agents would ever say that they are ACTIVELY SEEKING didactic picture book texts.
So if agents aren't looking for "teachy" -- what ARE they looking for?
Stories that are intended to entertain and delight first and foremost. Punchy, funny, warm-hearted texts, preferably featuring a great, kid-friendly main character. If funny isn't your thing, hopefully you've mastered beautifully spare and elegant writing. (Even straight-up nonfiction should be a joy and a pleasure to read!)
Hey, if the character has some entertaining experience and happens to learn a lesson or two organically along the way, fine, but the book should be about the EXPERIENCE -- if the resulting lessons overpower the story, that's a problem.
And if your query SAYS the book "is meant to teach a lesson about ______", that's a huge red flag that signals amateur.
HEY! YOU THERE! PAY ATTENTION, THERE'S A NEW PINKWATER BOOK OUT:
Bushman Lives! tells the tale of Harold Knishke, an ordinary Chicago kid with a special place in his heart for Bushman, the famed departed gorilla of the Lincoln Park Zoo (who now lives in the Field Museum in Chicago).
After a chance encounter at the art museum, Harold decides to change his life. He's not going to be some schlub schoolkid - he's going to be a Great Artist. Also, he's going to figure out why and how he became the object of a famous folk song. Along the way he'll run into magic and mystery and some very weird people.
Another title for this book could have been "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape." In his very nice BoingBoing review, Cory Doctorow wrote: "Bushman Lives is, more than anything, a book about art, and a very good one. I'd read Pinkwater all day long even if his absurdist fairy tales were nothing more than odd little stories, but as Bushman Lives proves, Pinkwater's absurdism is a delivery system for profound and important insight that stay with you for years and decades"
Here's the thing about Daniel Pinkwater's books. You have no idea what will be in them. You may know how normal stories unfold, and often while reading you can predict what will happen next and even how the whole thing will come out. I promise you THAT IS NOT THE CASE HERE.
This story will come at you from all angles like some sort of literary starburst. You'll find yourself thinking about it long after it is over. You'll realize after the fact that some of the things you found most absurd in the book are, in fact, totally true. You'll begin to see coincidences and strange occurrences everywhere around you. It may even change the way your mind works forever.
I've hosted a LOT of bookstore events over the years, and while most authors do fine, there is still a lot of angst about the reading portion of the event. Authors can be shy-boots or nervous-nellies who are amazing at strutting their stuff on the page, but are afraid to read aloud in front of people.
Deep breathing helps, as does finding friendly faces in the audience and trying to talk to them, as does practicing at home. But there is also something technical you can do beforehand to make sure you are totally prepared and ready to bring the awesome.
One of the biggest problems when reading aloud is that when people are nervous and confused, they rush. If you are rushing, mumbling or fumbling, you will lose your audience. This EXCELLENT advice on slowing down was given to me by the very sensible Bella Stander, founder of Book Promotion 101. (For the record, Bella herself got this advice from her son's bar mitzvah coach. So it is not only useful, but approved by G-d!)
* Decide the section(s) you want to read ahead of time. 90% of authors seem to be seeing their books for the first time when they are asked to read. Confusion reigns - what should I read? Where should I start? What who where wha???! Remember, your goal here is to get people to buy the book, not just read it aloud to them - short and sweet is better than long and disjointed, and it's GREAT to end the section with a cliffhanger "and then what happens?" moment. * Type this selection (or cut and paste) into a clean document. This will also give you the opportunity to edit anything you don't want to include - like if there are references to something that the audience won't understand at this point, or story spoilers. You don't want to have to interrupt your own reading to explain what so-and-so meant by such-and-such, and the audience won't know or care that you skipped a bit.
* Make the font BIG - 18 point type or so, and give each paragraph its own page. The big font and space means you'll be able to see very clearly, you'll be able to look at the audience more and keep your notes further from your face, and you'll be forced to slow down to at least go to a new page between paragraphs. * Now take these pages and put them in plastic sleeves in a loose-leaf binder, and read from THAT. The binder and plastic sleeves mean the notes won't get mixed up and you won't have to fumble for the section you want, and it will be ready for you at a moment's notice... and use anti-glare plastic in case there's a spotlight on you at a podium.
Personally, I love it when people read a few SHORT selections, as I tend to drift off/get bored after a few minutes of straight reading. Luckily, your nifty new Reading Binder can include a variety of selections from the book. Also, if there are fans who know your work well in the audience, you might consider not just reading from the new book, but also giving a sneak peek at whatever you are working on next -- no spoilers of course, but teases can be great fun.
Now go make that binder - don't forget to breathe - and happy eventing!
I just did a stirring round of 10 Queries in 10 Tweets (this meme shamelessly stolen from the brilliant Sara Megibow) where I go through the slush pile and tweet my reaction - what the category is, if I am passing or requesting, and why.
I don't do this in "real time" exactly, so it is pointless to try and figure out if I'm talking about you specifically. (I'm not.) I sometimes conflate multiple queries and I do NOT quote directly from query letters, and if there is a point to be made that would require a quote, I invent one to prove the point. I'm not interested in shaming any writers or being snarky or making people feel personally "dissed" -- the point of the exercise is to see the general tenor of the slush pile, the ratio of requests to passes (and the amount of it that's nothing I rep, etc.) I try to be helpful. And it is just MY perspective, I cannot say what any other agents' reactions would be to the exact same query. All that said, here are my takeaways:
* I knew this already, but now it is confirmed: At least half my slush pile is stuff I don't represent or it doesn't follow query guidelines. This is a waste of my time and your own.
* It's been said before, but seriously, if you don't follow query guidelines, or you write a messy letter, you're only hurting yourself. I don't ask for much... what's the problem? Pick one agent at the agency. Put Query in the subject line. Query and first 10 pages in the body of the email. Still, many people don't paste pages in, even though we specifically ask for them. A lot of that is forgetfulness, I reckon, and I realize everyone makes mistakes. Same goes for typos - one, OK sure. More than that? Come on. This is possibly one of the more important emails you can write. Double check spelling, grammar, agent name, and that you've followed guidelines before pressing send!
* Every day I have at least one querier who makes a point of mentioning that they will not share their work unless I reach out and contact them. I guess it's like the writers version of Stranger Danger? They are afraid random agents are going to ... steal their ideas? Or something? This is my best guess. But I don't have the time or inclination to chase after you. And if you're that unclear about how publishing works, I'm afraid we probably won't be a great fit for each other anyway. I can't assess your work if you don't show it to me.
* Of the viable queries that are left, 90% are YA. The thing is, I already represent lots of amazing YA books. This means I am not "hungry" for YA and I am VERY picky. I tend to go through these teen queries very quickly and am less inclined to give a second read or request a full unless it is very much up my alley or something extremely fresh that I've not seen before. It's just chemistry, baby, you know it when you read it. (But to start: GREAT VOICE and AWESOME PREMISE, along with some combo of smarts, wit, tension, high stakes, emotion, terrific writing? Likely to get my attention.) There's a glut, which means YA queries have to really spark, or they aren't going to be requested. Seriously. In fact, I don't just want a spark, I want FIREWORKS.
* Conversely, because I get relatively few Middle Grade queries (and because I really WANT MG) - I tend to consider each MG extra-favorably. These queries very often end up in my "think about" file for a closer and more thoughtful read, and are more likely to end up as full requests. (That doesn't mean I'm taking them all on - just that I'm looking a bit harder at them and giving them an extra chance.)
Is this helpful? I don't know. What would make it more helpful?
ASHES by Ilsa J. Bick is out in paperback today, with a brand-new look. This is a completely addictive apocalyptic thriller that will leave you breathless... and sleepless. Buy it and read it so you can be ready for the sequel SHADOWS next month!
Gripped me from beginning to end – dark, creepy and suspenseful. -- James Dashner, New York Times Best-Selling author of The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials
A haunting and epic story of survival in a shattered world, ASHES is a must read. -- Michael Grant, New York Times Best-Selling author of Gone
HUNGER GAMES, Schmunger Games! -- me
When an electromagnetic pulse sweeps through the sky it zaps every electronic device we rely on and kills the vast majority of adults. Those who haven't had their brains fried have certainly had them scrambled and pretty much everyone who is left has changed considerably. (Change can be for good, as in "now has super-human-spidey-sense"... or bad, as in "now has taste for human flesh".)
A few teenagers and children are spared. Among them are Alex, a resourceful teen who was running from her own demons, and now is running for her life; Tom, who left the war in Afghanistan only to find something much worse at home, and Ellie, the angry eight-year-old girl that the two have to rescue. This improvised family will have to use every ounce of courage they have just to survive.
IF YOU ALREADY READ ASHES BUT NEED A REFRESHER BEFORE SHADOWS COMES OUT, CLICK HERE. WARNING: MASSIVE, MASSIVE, MASSIVE SPOILERS.
This one is arriving on shelves tomorrow from our friends at Feiwel and Friends. So keep your eyes peeled, mateys!
Are you brave enough— and bold enough— for the adventure of your life?
The award-winning author and illustrator team of Eric A. Kimmel and Andrew Glass introduce a new generation of readers to a magnificent and memorable retelling of Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick.
A lonely 423-pound boy everyone calls “Butter” is about to make history. This New Year's Eve, he’s going to eat himself to death live on the Internet – and everyone will watch.
When he makes this announcement online, he expects pity, insults, or possibly sheer indifference. Instead, his classmates become morbid cheerleaders for his deadly plan. When that encouragement tips the scales into popularity, Butter has a reason to live. But if he doesn’t go through with his plan, he’ll lose everything.
BUTTER has the relentless immediacy of THIRTEEN REASONS WHY (talk about a ticking clock!), but the keen observations and dark humor of the main character keep the book from becoming grim. I think that the thing that freaked me out most about BUTTER was that I could identify so well with both the bullied... and the bullies. And though I was disturbed by some of the content, I found myself thinking about the book long after I'd turned the last page.
"A gripping debut about J.P. (aka "Butter") who, tired of being the fat kid at school, decides to binge-eat himself to death live on his website, butterslastmeal.com, on New Year's Eve. When Butter is suddenly swept into the 'cool' crowd, he must decide if popularity is worth dying for." --Brandi Stewart, Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, AZ
“When does an Internet dare go too far? Erin Jade Lange tackles a timely topic with a hefty dose of in-your-face intensity, tempered by the droll sense of humor from an unexpectedly fierce narrator. Butter’s voice is loud, funny and unapologetic. I cared deeply for him and found myself rooting for him to find a way out of the mess he’d made.” - Daisy Whitney, author of THE MOCKINGBIRDS
“A clever, tender and emotional page-turner! Butter’s sharp and witty narrative had me laughing out loud on one page and broke my heart just as easily on the next. Debut author Erin Jade Lange proves she knows how to tell a story and this is one I won’t be forgetting any time soon.” - Courtney Summers, author of SOME GIRLS ARE and THIS IS NOT A TEST
On Roanoke Island, the legend of the 114 people who mysteriously vanished from the Lost Colony hundreds of years ago is just an outdoor drama for the tourists, a story people tell. But when the island faces the sudden disappearance of 114 people now, an unlikely pair of 17-year-olds may be the only hope of bringing them back.
Miranda, a misfit girl from the island's most infamous family, and Phillips, an exiled teen criminal who hears the voices of the dead, must dodge everyone from federal agents to long-dead alchemists as they work to uncover the secrets of the new Lost Colony. The one thing they can't dodge is each other.
BLACKWOOD is a dark, witty coming of age story that combines America’s oldest mystery with a thoroughly contemporary romance.
"With whip-smart, instantly likable characters and a gothic small-town setting, Bond weaves a dark and gorgeous tapestry from America's oldest mystery." - Scott Westerfeld, New York Times bestselling author of the Leviathan series
"This haunting, romantic mystery intrigues, chills, and captivates." - Cynthia Leitich Smith, New York Times bestselling author of the Tantalize series
"Miranda Blackwood's battle against her own history is utterly modern—and utterly marvelous. She's truly a heroine all readers can rally behind." - Micol Ostow, author of family and So Punk Rock
"A deft and clever debut! Bond takes some reliably great elements—a family curse, the mark of Cain, the old and endlessly fascinating mystery of the Roanoke Colony—and makes them into something delightfully, surprisingly new. How does she do that? I suspect witchcraft." - Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club
A couple of years ago I wrote The Big Ol' Genre Glossary. This blog post was intended to be "the last word" on the subject of genre identification, etc. Ha ha, is all I have to say to that.
As you might know if you ever go on internet writing fora, there are some genres and sub-genres that are just fuzzy, and there is a lot of overlap. Five different people might have five very different ideas about what constitutes "paranormal" versus "supernatural" versus "urban fantasy" versus WHATEVER. People can get very anxious about how to categorize their own work. I've had writers say to me, in tones of deadly seriousness, that they know agents will look for any reason to reject, and if they get the sub-genre of their own work "wrong," they will never be taken seriously and agents will hate them. That getting this bit of information "wrong" will be cause for an auto-reject.
Yes! Those terrible, dragon-like AGENTS. Always keen for any small reason to run writers through with a pike and roast them alive, the better for the feasting! Oh you didn't know we get younger every time a writer screams? Yes! Your agony is our elixir! Our blood is thrumming with your pain!
Oh, the guild tells me I was not supposed to say that last part aloud. Please strike it from the record. Also disregard the cackling. Now. In all seriousness.
For the most part... Agents are just people. People who love books, and who want to help facilitate the making of books. People whose job it is to advocate for authors. (That FOR is quite important!). We work with a lot of authors. We LOVE authors. We recognize that authors can sometimes be neurotic. We are not trying to drive authors crazy (or crazier, anyway).
This drama that the internet has cooked up about agents declining you because there was a typo in your query, or because you formatted an email query letter as a business letter complete with home address (or failed to do so), or double-spaced when you meant to single-space... or because you said "dark fantasy" when you meant "urban fantasy" or "paranormal" when you meant "supernatural"? Is just not true.
* First of all, as I mentioned, there is a lot of overlap, and different people have different definitions. If an agent was to decline your work based on that alone? They are not somebody you'd want to work with.
* Tying yourself in knots because of this kind of minutia may be keeping you from looking at the bigger picture, and at things that actually WILL cause agents to accept or decline your work. Things like having a killer pitch and tight, great, polished writing in the actual ms. This is truly what the agent cares about most.
* Some of the most interesting books defy easy categorization. If you have a book that is gorgeously written but also highly commercial, that is a GOOD THING. If as a genre it is something that lies on the crossroads between mystery, romance and fantasy (or whatever) -- that too is probably a GOOD thing, not a bad thing.
* If you have a magical story and you just call it "fantasy" I won't even blink an eye. The default "big category" of Fiction, SF/F, Mystery or YA is actually sufficient information. If you want to get more specific, that's fine. But if you go nuts with it and decide to make up a genre like "high-urban-splatter-steam-rotica"...well if it seems like you're joking, I'll chuckle. If it seems like you are being serious, I'll rollmy eyes. But if the book sounds interesting, even that bit of silliness wouldn't stop me from continuing.
* IN fact I'll go further and contend that "overcategorizing" is self-limiting. If you've written what you consider to be "high-urban-splatter-steam-rotica"... you'll never find an agent who reps that, no matter how much research you do. If you consider your work a "Steampunk inspired paranormal-mystery" you might find a couple of agents who rep all of those categories. But if you just call it FANTASY, wow, suddenly you have a ton of potential people to query, and you can pick and choose who seems like might be the best fit from this larger pool. * So sure, absolutely, give categorizing your best shot. But if you find yourself freaking out over which sub- or sub-sub-genre your work falls into, understand that this is of little concern to agents at the query stage. They care that the story sounds cool and the writing is excellent. And that is where you should be putting your energy.
The interwebs have been abuzz this morning with talk of the attack on agent Pam van Hylckama, allegedly by a writer whose work she'd rejected. (Pam is an agent-pal and I have no reason to doubt her story, btw, but I say "allegedly" because obviously we don't know all the facts in the case and presumably the investigation etc is ongoing and nobody has been found guilty, so. ANYWAY....)
Scary stuff, for sure. My initial reaction is, thank god Pam is ok, and seems to have no more severe injuries than a bruise (and some shattered nerves!) -- and her little dog deserves a huge reward. Hugs to Pam and family.
My second reaction is more selfish. How could this have been avoided? How, indeed, can I personally avoid a situation like this?
It's true that agents do get a lot of crap. I've had authors show up outside my house, authors drop off notes in my home mailbox or at the bookstore (with no postmark - in other words, delivered by hand) authors come talk to me while I am at an event or show up while I am working at the bookstore to ask for advice, authors follow me way too closely in conference hotels, and authors call me on my cell phone. All of which very much freaked me out, but always ended up just being genuinely nice but clueless people who I could explain "look, this is inappropriate" and they get it, or if they don't get it, they at least go away.
I've also certainly gotten my share of thoroughly weird queries and responses to rejections. The query for a thriller about a dude who kills literary agents comes to mind. (eep!) I do not respond to such queries, and I save them in a "In Case I'm Murdered" file. Yanno, to be on the safe side. I've had people snap back and accuse me of being racist or hating men, etc, when I reject them. But I myself have never gotten actual threats, thank god. And 99% of the many, many authors I interact with on a daily basis are delightful and non-freaky.
Let's be clear: The dude who attacked Pam is not a "disgruntled author." He's a CRIMINAL. I'm trying to avoid the obvious word, because I hate when people just say "he's crazy" - (is that a diagnoses, Doctor Internet?)... but the behavior is certainly crazy, whether or not the person is. If the allegations are true, he didn't attack Pam "because she rejected him" -- he attacked her BECAUSE HE HAS SOMETHING WRONG WITH HIM. And, though I don't know him personally and I am not trying to diagnose what that "something wrong" is, it's safe to assume he has emotional and/or psychological disturbances of some kind. This isn't really a case of "authors behaving badly" as it is "unbalanced individuals behaving erratically."
So what to do? Like most people, I try to keep my personal address and phone number off the internet (though strangers still find them with disconcerting regularity). I don't have phone or address on my business cards or website. I don't use 4Square or Facebook "check-in" apps. But still, like many people, I live my life online. I tweet or facebook about places I visit and things I do. And as a semi-public figure, where I work is common knowledge. Because I work all the time, it is easy to figure out where I am, pretty much all the time. Even if I unplugged completely, I still live in a small village, and if you know the name of the village (which is no big secret), you can find me - because I am usually visibly standing somewhere near the center of it! (Of course it is also no big secret that I have a dog who craves the taste of human flesh and would love to bite a stranger on my behalf, and honestly I pity anyone who breaks into my house, so I have little fear on that front.)
I guess the point is -- writers, agents, anyone who lives part of their life in public (which is an ever increasing number of people) -- ALL OF US need to be vigilant. ALL OF US need to watch how much info goes online, and use a certain amount of discretion.
Also, ALL OF US need to be considerate about personal space bubbles -- just as you wouldn't ask a stranger to examine you in line at the supermarket if you found out he was a gynecologist, don't creep around a literary agents house and wait for her to go outside to water the plants so you can ask her questions about your work. There's a time and a place. Don't be a creep.
But you can't really predict or protect against a stranger snapping on you. And you can't live your life in fear. I guess the most we can do is just be as nice as we can to each other?
“Bick’s follow-up to Ashes is another heart-pounding, frantic, action-packed adventure for those who can’t get enough of the zombie apocalypse. As protagonist Alex fights to survive in a world gone seriously haywire, she begins to piece together just how dangerous her situation is. These are not the walking dead we know from television and film; they are cognizant beings, fueled as much by shrewd instinct as by animalistic blood lust. Bick keeps her complicated plot moving with plenty of twists and turns, creating a cringe-inducing, fascinating, and utterly entertaining read.” —Megan Graves, Hooray for Books!, Alexandria, VA You can get SHADOWS in tree-book or electronic format at Oblong Books, Powells, Anderson's, Amazon, BandN, Book Depository, or a fine bookstore near you. In the UK, release date is 9/27.