I recently had the chance to ask Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Magazine a few questions about two of his most recent publications, the Writer’s Digest 2016 Guide to Literary Agents and a humorous book called When Clowns Attack. This popular author, public speaker and columnist had a lot to share, and I’m thrilled to post his thoughts here . . .
About the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents
- Chuck, why do you think authors should seek agent representation?
There are a bunch of reasons, but I'll just explain one: The biggest/bigger publishing houses and publishing imprints out there usually do not take unagented submissions. We're talking about dozens of imprints that will be off limits to you without an agent. And these medium-sized and large imprints are the places that can afford to pay you a decent advance, that can try and sell your rights overseas and to Hollywood, that can distribute your work all over for sale. Agents open all doors, and can get your work considered anywhere. Ruling out these many large, powerful imprints is not a good idea.
- What new material will this guide offer compared to previous editions?
I've always called the GLA "a yellow pages of literary agents." So, like a phone book, it updates its info every year. Previous buyers will just be buying a more up-to-date resource that includes new/newer agencies that we added. Each edition also spotlights different new agents who are seeking clients right now. Every new addition adds new/newer agents that just joined an agency. This is key because it's those new/newer agents at established agencies who are building their client lists and look for writers just like you.
- When should a writer seek a new agent, or ask hard questions of the one he or she is already working with? Some of our people have had agents for years without nibbles from the publishers.
You want an agent to be communicating with you, and submitting your projects, and passionate about your work. Those are all important steps. And you want them to be selling books. If these publishers haven't nibbled, it's hard to say if that is the agent's fault or perhaps the fault of the writing. There was a period of time in my writing life where my agent & I pitched 7 nonfiction books in a row and none sold. But the whole time, she believed in me, and was submitting, and liked what I pitched. Plus, she had other clients that were selling books. That last point is key. If your books aren't selling, make sure that the agent is selling the books of others. That proves that your agent has skill; she just hasn't found a publisher match for you yet.
- If you sell to midlist publishers or smaller presses, the advances and royalties are quite small. Is that worth investing an agent fee in?
Typically, agents do not aim for these small markets. They're not financially worthwhile. For example, if you were only getting a $2,000 advance, their cut is only $300. It isn't worth weeks of time for $300. So they don't aim for the smaller markets.
About When Clowns Attack
- When Clowns Attack. Hmm. Guessing this is for readers with a funny bone waiting to be banged.
That sounds dirty. I like it.
- Okay, Chuck, are you secretly a wannabe clown or do you just like to pick on creatures most of us love (first gnomes and now clowns)?
I know plenty of people like garden gnomes (though I have no idea why), but the truth is I have heard very, very few people in life say "I love clowns!!" Clowns are the creepiest, and I am now keeping my distance from you, Liesa, for saying those words. I am not a wannabe clown, and the fact that you called these people "creatures" says, I think, everything one needs to know. Clowns will hit you in the head with cotton candy; they will spray seltzer in your spouse's face; they will kidnap your toddler when you're not looking. They're roaming the world, unchecked and untraceable, and they must be contained.
- Who will be your next target, dinosaurs?
No no no. Don't be silly. (*Writes down "next book idea: dinosaurs" on pad*)
- When do you think the next major clown attack will occur, and will it be covered by CNN?
Clowns pop up out of the woodwork around Halloween each year with haunted houses and pranks and weirdos standing on street corners. That's the reason we wanted to release this prior to Halloween. This is peak season for clown weirdos harassing and attacking people. And as far as CNN goes, I hope so, but the mainstream media has yet to realize the true danger of these red-nosed bozos. Sadly, it will take a few more legit clown assaults before people walk up to the danger of jokers with big shoes.
On the Writing Business
- WD has been in the business of encouraging aspiring authors and copywriters since 1920. With all that history, is there really hope for successful writing careers “out there?” (Stats here would be great, if you have them. Most of us live in the world of bad news, little to no profit from our efforts, and a changing publishing world that makes our prospects of traditional publishing dim more all the time)
This is hard to answer, but let me address a few key things. One, to say the word "career" makes it sound like you want all your money to come from writing. That is a fine goal, but not necessarily one many will achieve. I always say that writers need to diversify themselves and make money any way they can (ransom notes work the best). When you're writing novels, short stories and poetry, you need to take money out of the equation. You have to do this for love, because you never know when you will create something great that someone will pay you for. Plenty of debuts still come out every year. You have to enjoy writing and enjoy the process. Let's look at Jessica Strawser, editor of Writer's Digest magazine. She wrote a women's fiction novel a while back. She got an agent, but they failed to sell the novel. Her and her agent amicably parted ways. A month ago, she got a new agent (Barbara Poelle of Irene Goodman Literary) and this week she got a two-book deal from St. Martin's. That is a big, big deal. She is a debut with no other books under her belt. She is a grand success story, and if she would have bought into the point of view of "There is no hope; The publishing world is dim," then she wouldn't have this amazing news this week. Yeah, most novels don't sell. But some do. So keep writing.
- Your Author Platform book was focused for the main part on non-fiction writers. In it, you said an author platform for novelists and fiction writers isn’t so important. Why do you believe that?
If you’re writing fiction, the top priority is excellent writing. That is what makes books sell through word of mouth, and that is what gets them into book clubs. Platform is great because it helps you sell more copies and make money. I’m not saying platform is unimportant for novelists. I’m saying that for nonfiction writers (like myself), it is a massive priority and absolutely necessary. I cannot query an agent or publisher for a book without platform on my side. A novelist can. So while you want platform (money, control, sales), you do not need it to query.
- You seem to be on the road a lot. Is this a requisite for becoming a successful author, or is it simply something you enjoy?
It's all for platform. You meet a lot of people on the road and sell plenty of books. The more I'm on the road, the more money I can make and more books I can sell. And in terms of enjoying it, I would say that I used to enjoy it more when the trips were relaxed. But then I had a daughter, so the last three years have been filled with faster trips, and that makes them more hectic. After a conference, while everyone is meeting up at the bar for drinks, I'm hightailing it in a rental car to the airport to catch an evening flight home. I don't enjoy the rush, but I cherish the smile of my toddler when I get home. So it all works out.
Chuck Sambuchino (@chucksambuchino) of Writer's Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. His latest humor book, WHEN CLOWNS ATTACK: A SURVIVAL GUIDE (Sept. 29 2015), will protect people everywhere from malicious bozos and jokers who haunt our lives. His books have been mentioned in Reader’s Digest, USA Today, the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Variety, New York Magazine, and more.