With less than three days until the Colorado Gold Conference presented by RMFW, I wanted to drag out and dust off the conference rules. Mind you, these are not ‘rules’ as in those that will land you in the conference clink, but ‘rules’ like those of writing itself--Good guidelines to follow, but every once in a while shattering them can lead to a fun adventure and/or ruining your budding career.
Rule 1 - Have fun.
Sounds easy enough, right? Except for some of us of the shy/introverted variety. We would prefer to hide in our hotel room, and if we don’t have a hotel room, the bathroom will do. Fun can be hard, especially if you’re adding pressure to yourself to perform, which brings me to rule 2.
Rule 2 – Manage your expectations.
When I first started going to conferences I would spend hours memorizing my pitch for that 10 minutes I might spend with an agent/editor. Don’t get me wrong, that 10 minutes can change a small bit of your life, but it isn’t going to change everything. Go in understanding that a conference doesn’t make or break (unless you throw up on the agent/editor) a career. Spend your time more wisely.
Rule 3 – Make friends, after all sharing is caring.
No, I don’t teach grade school on the side. But I know this better than anyone does. It is all about who you know.
But not in that gross way. Who you know means making those connections with people in similar boats. These are the people who will read your manuscript for the 10th time, or come to your third signing when no one else will. These are the people who understand when you talk about how to get blood out of shag carpet.
Meet your peers is the best advice I can give.
Amazingly, even though this is my 8th RMFW conference, I meet new people each time. And even more, I am NOT sick of those I see every year. Which again brings me to my next point.
Rule 3 – Shower. Please. (You know who you are).
Rule 4 – Don’t annoy others.
Please don’t pitch during workshops. I’ve seen it a million times at the agent and editor panels, people summarizing their book during the Q&A. If you have a question about your book specifically, ask in a private moment or better yet make it a general question. For example, if you want to know about where your book ‘fits’, which I know as a newbie I spent way too much time and energy trying to figure it out (and the publisher changed it twice since), ask a general question about the category and keep it under 140 words. We want to know the status of the industry, not about your book. Save it for dinner conversation.
Rule 5 – Learn as much as your brain can take.
Three days is a crazy amount of learning. Remember to pace yourself. If you need a break, you need a break.
Go hide in that bathroom.
I’ll be in the next stall.
Do you have any rule you'd like to share? Also, roll call. Who will be at the RMFW Conference?
And my last bit of advice is, say hi to me. I love to hear about books. I want to hear about yours. Let's be friends, so I can ask you the best way to dispose of a body.
Finding an agent isn't just about finding "someone" to represent your work. The author-agent relationship works best when author and his or her agent match well on a personal and professional level.
Some people prefer to work via email; others like to talk by phone. Some authors want to know about every submission and every editor's comments, while others would rather hear only positive news.
Although, to a certain extent, authors must "wait" for an agent to offer representation, we can increase the odds of getting that offer by making smart--and informed decisions--about which agents to query in the first place.
Agents often advise authors to "do your homework before you query" but many authors struggle with understanding that assignment.
Three weeks from now, at Colorado Gold, I'll be presenting a joint workshop with my fantastic agent, Sandra Bond, on exactly what it means to "do your homework" and how to pick--and work with--the agent that's right for you.
In the meantime (or for those who might not make the conference) here are some tips to start you in the right direction.
1. Query only agents who represent works in the genre where your manuscript belongs--and your subsection (if any) within that genre.
Note: this requires knowing what genre you're writing.
Every book needs to be shelved (or "shelve-able") in a bookstore. Figure out where your book would be shelved BEFORE you query. Even if you're writing a speculative-historical-mystery-YA/MG-romance...one (2 at most) of those are primary. Know your genre.
Narrow your query list from "all agents in the known universe" to "agents who want to represent MY genre."No matter how well you write, you won't convert a romance specialist into a mystery lover--or vice versa. Do not try. The easiest way to rejection is querying agents who don't represent the type of book you're offering.
2. Check the agent's bio, website, or wish list (if any), and see whether the agent likes the type of book you've written.
Finding the right agent requires more than just a genre match. Huge diversity exists within genres. You need to find an agent who likes the type of book you've written (e.g., cozy mystery) rather than something on the other end of the genre spectrum.
Many agents also use the "Manuscript Wish List" (#MSWL) hashtag on Twitter to let people know what they're looking for. Check this too.
3. If you can't tell what the agent is actively looking for at the moment, look at the his or her client list and see if your work fits into the "group."
An agent whose client list consists primarily of cozy mysteries and middle grade novels might not be the best candidate for your gritty, erotic police procedural. It's tempting to just send queries out to every agent in your genre, but don't. It wastes a lot of time and effort on both sides.
Determining whether your work fits into an agent's client or wish list requires honest self-reflection about yourself & your work. The question is not "do I want Agent A to love me?" but "do I genuinely believe Agent A will love this book I wrote?" These are not the same thing.
4. Google the agents you want to query; read their articles and interviews.
Before I pitched Sandra, I read an interview in which she mentioned liking character-driven mystery. That's what I write, so the interview helped me decide to pitch her (at the 2012 Colorado Gold Conference).
Researching agents individually does take more time than simply carpet bombing the Writers' Digest listings, but it also gives great insight into whether an agent would be a good fit for you as well as your work. The query process isn't just about sending a thousand missiles into the night and hoping one of them hits a target. "Aim" comes before "fire" (or "send") in queries as well as warfare.
Want to know more? I hope you'll join Sandra and me for the "Finding the Perfect Agent" workshop at Colorado Gold!
Susan Spann is a California publishing attorney and the author of the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, released on July 14, 2015. Susan is honored to be the 2015 RMFW Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.
In a few short days, August 18th to be precise, my tenth book, THE LADY IN PINK, will be released. Yes. 10 whole, big books. I can’t hardly believe it.
Don’t stop read!
I am not bragging nor am I trying to subliminally mind control you into buying it
*buy my book, buy my book, buy my book* Okay, maybe that time I was. Can’t blame an author for trying…
Anyway, my post has a much more important and relevant to you, I hope, point.
Though I’ve had 10 books published since 2010 when I sold my first series to Kensington at the CO Gold Conference, which, in case you missed it, is ONE MONTH AWAY as of today, I still feel that twisty, sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach at the thought of pitching to an editor.
Which I will be doing at this conference.
For the first time in over 3 years.
If anyone says it’s like riding a bike, they are LIARS.
Or maybe they aren’t. I was never any good at not falling off a bike either.
The very thought of having to tell someone about my book in 30 words of less or at all gives me the willies. Why can’t they just read it, love it, and pay me millions?
I plan (if she’s not full already) to pitch to Chelsey Emmelhainz, Associate Editor at HarperCollins. Now the question is, what to pitch? And how to do it? I need to stand out, to make her love me in the first 3 seconds (no pressure). Bribery is nice. Maybe she’d like a cookie? Or $5?
Maybe I shouldn’t pitch.
Maybe I shouldn’t even be a writer.
Yep, you are witnessing my nervous breakdown in blog post form.
I hope I don’t throw up on her.
I should bring a vomit bag just in case.
If you didn’t get my point in all my neurotic rambling, it is this, no matter how many times or how many books someone has, they are writers at heart. Meaning they are half desperate, crazy and unsure with equal parts terrified of failure. Can’t forget sweaty. We are a sweaty people.
Oh, that’s just me, huh? Sure it is….
The key to surviving the next month as terror sets in at having to pitch, is to remember, Chelsey Emmelhainz probably won’t stab me in the eye with her pen. I think HarperColllins frowns on that. But maybe not.
So if you see me at the conference wearing an eye patch, well, you know what occurred at my pitch session. Same if you see her walking around with cookie crumbs on her shirt and me with a huge smile on my face. If I see you, please tell me all about how yours went. I love to hear practice pitches too. Sharing is caring after all.
Or share your pitch in the comments.
See you all in a month.
And remember--buy my book, buy my book, buy my book—to smile, shake the editor/agents hand, and give them all you’ve got.
Sue Brower loves finding and developing authors and connecting them with the reader. Book publishing has changed dramatically over the past several years and it’s no secret that the novels that create buzz through their unique writing or concepts are the ones that become bestsellers. Over the past 25 years in publishing, Sue has done marketing, editing, story development and acquisitions for Zondervan, a division of Harper Collins Publishers. Most recently, she was Executive Editor and had the privilege of working with New York Times bestselling authors Karen Kingsbury, Tim LaHaye, Stephen Carter, and Terri Blackstock and was named ACFW’s Editor of the Year in 2010. And now she is fortunate to partner with Natasha Kern at the Natasha Kern Literary Agency. Sue’s been an avid fiction fan since childhood and loves the way stories are able to change lives, heal hearts, and bring joy to readers. Today, she wants to read and acquire women’s contemporary fiction, any kind of romance, suspense, mystery and historical novels. She would love to discover the next breakaway author in any of these genres.
Kerry: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Sue. I'm looking forward to meeting you in Colorado! But first things first. Your bio tells us that you are interested in acquiring women's contemporary fiction, and also romance, suspense, mystery, and historical novels. Could you tell us a little bit more about what gets you excited?
Sue: I like stories with strong characterization and a well-paced plot. One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: “…fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.” I want to be so engrossed in the story that I am disoriented when I close the book. I do not acquire based solely on genre because publisher and consumer trends change so quickly. But give me a well written book and I think I can pitch it anywhere, anytime.
Kerry: What was the last book you read for pleasure and what did you love (or not) about it?
Sue: I have been on an odyssey the last six months or so to read beyond my normal favorites. Unfortunately, that left a lot of books unfinished. Probably the most memorable book I’ve read recently is Reconstructing Amelia. It was a little dark and had some themes that put me off, but it was compelling and I still remember many of the characters. The best book I’ve read that feeds my love of romantic fiction was Julianne Donaldson’s Blackmoore. I loved that it drew me into an era that I read a lot about, yet this felt new and refreshing.
Kerry: Now that I have a couple of new books to add to my towering To Be Read pile, could you talk a bit about how you view the author/agent relationship? This seems to be a hot topic for writers these days.
Sue: I view the author/agent relationship as a partnership. As a former editor and marketer, I tend to be very opinionated, so the writer needs to be open to input on their writing, where they should be spending their time, and how they should brand themselves. Notice I said “input.” I want to be available to help an author to succeed at building a writing career.
Kerry: I think that input is one of the things that makes an agent so important to a writer. Things have changed a lot in publishing over the last few years, and it gets overwhelming trying to figure out where to spend your time. Another question writers often have involves what you see as your role in publishing, and how do you help your clients navigate the slippery territory spawned by Amazon and self publishing?
Sue: I see my role as coach, career counselor, advocate, listening post, and biggest fan. Editors today do not have time to acquire projects that just have potential. The editorial staff has more and more to do and there are fewer of them doing it. It’s my job to make sure that what I send out truly represents the writer's best abilities. With regards to the various ways that a writer can be published, I think we, as agents, should be aware of the pitfalls of self-publishing and coach the writer to make the best choices for their career goals.
Kerry: I see that your agency is closed to unsolicited manuscripts—do you have any advice as to how a querying author could still get your attention?
Sue: There are a number of ways that a writer can get their manuscript in front of me. The best ways are through referrals from current client authors and through conferences. I would also say that if you respond to a blog or online class that I am a part of, I would be open to talking with you about your manuscript.
Kerry: Could you tell us a little about what happens when writers pitch to you at a conference?
Sue: When a writer pitches to me at a conference, they need to have a completed manuscript ready to be reviewed. I want the writer to tell me what their story is about and anything about their research or background that supports why their book is fresh or unique. I will look at a one-page, but I want to hear the writer to engage in conversation with me. If I am interested, I will ask for a proposal, synopsis, and three sample chapters to be emailed to me. If that looks good, I will ask for a full manuscript. Writing conferences are a great way to reach your preferred agent or editor since most will not accept unsolicited manuscripts. I would absolutely ask for anything that interests me.
Kerry: If you are considering a project that doesn't immediately shout "pick me pick me" – what tips the balance toward acceptance?
Sue: I don’t usually consider projects that don’t shout “pick me up.” I have too much to read and too many queries to follow up on. The things that tip the balance for me are usually in the writing. If I am intrigued by a project, but the writing isn’t quite there, I will look for possibilities. Are they willing to revise? How much work will it take to get it ready for the publisher? If I am interested in an author, I usually want to have a phone chat before making an offer. If I see that they are not open to constructive criticism, or are reluctant to do the work, I will pass on the project. Also, if there is just too much work that needs to be done, I will have to put it aside. I usually make a few recommendations including finding a critique group or editor and I offer to look at it one more time.
Kerry: Are you open to authors pitching their books to you if they see you out and about in the hallways or the bar?
Sue: No. The worse pitch I ever received happened when I was leaving a dinner on the last day of a conference and I was obviously worn out and sick with a cold, but the writer wouldn’t let me politely decline a conversation. It’s never good to approach an agent when they are heading to a meeting or relaxing with colleagues after a long day. It’s absolutely forbidden to approach them in a restroom!
Kerry: I've heard horror stories. Personally, I can't imagine the desperation that would drive a writer to the bathroom pitch, but I know it happens. Would you prefer writers keep to the boundaries of scheduled pitch sessions entirely?
Sue: I think that depends on who the agent is. If I am sitting in a common area (lobby, for instance) and not already talking to someone, I am open to a writer starting a conversation.
Kerry: Last and most importantly, what is your beverage of choice? Just in case we do find you hanging out in the bar and would like to show our appreciation for spending time with us at Colorado Gold.
Sue: My favorite drink is Diet Coke. I am particularly open to this approach when the venue is Pepsi only!
Kerry: Excellent. I'm a Coke fan myself, so if the venue happens to be misguided I will try to snag you a drink from somewhere. Thank you again for taking the time to answer my many questions.
Terri Bischoff (@TerriBischoff), is not only my editor and close friend, but a perennial favorite at our annual Colorado Gold Conference. She joined Midnight Ink as an Acquiring Editor in October 2009. She leads all editorial directions and creates the seasonal lists. She has dramatically increased the number of titles per season, publishing 36-38 titles per year, as well as expanded the type of crime fiction Midnight Ink now publishes. Before signing on at Midnight Ink, she worked at Kramer Books in Washington, DC, and owned Booked For Murder Mystery Bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin. Several other Colorado authors have books coming out by Midnight Ink, including Mark Stevens, Shannon Baker Maggie Sefton, and Laura DiSilverio. Terri is looking forward to hearing pitches from potential new voices this September.
Welcome to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog, Terri. Thank you for agreeing to this interview.
1. Midnight Ink is known for publishing cozies, but I’ve noticed the list is diversifying with some really interesting upcoming titles. What else are you looking for these days and how many books per year are you acquiring in each sub-genre?
I am looking for a good story that I fall in love with. The one where I have to stay late or take home over the weekend because I need to finish the manuscript. I tend toward books that have strong characters. I am currently pubbing books ranging from traditional cozy to serial killer dark.
2. As an acquiring editor, what plot and/or character do you never want to see again? What would you love to see in the next manuscript you read?
I don’t ever need to see another baby kidnapping/smuggling ring. What would I love to see? Hmmm… There are some holes in my line, for example, I don’t have a historical series or a police procedural. A female assassin would be cool. It really doesn’t matter, as long as I fall in love with the book.
3. What’s the best advice you can give to writers submitting their first novels?
To go through a critique or professional edit before submitting. I no longer have time to work on manuscripts. In the past I have done up to three rounds of revisions with an author before I put the book into production. I can’t do that now. The book needs to be solid from page one.
4. So you recommend that authors pay to have their manuscripts professionally edited before submitting?
I don’t think it’s mandatory, but the advice of a solid critique group or that of a professional editor can give you an advantage over other submissions, especially if you do not have an agent. At Midnight Ink, after I have acquired a manuscript, both the production editor and I make a list of revision requests. This is generally for content, but occasionally we will point out some copy edit issues. After the revisions are sent back in to me, I put the book into production, where the production editor will do line edits with the author. At other publishing houses, the acquiring editor does both the content and copy edit – but they also don’t acquire as many books as I do. But as I mentioned above, a polished ms will put you ahead in the submission process.
5. What is the easiest and hardest part about your job as an editor?
That is a hard question. The hardest is breaking up with an author. I don’t think there is a part of my job that is consistently easy. But the best part of my job is getting to know my authors.
6. How have changes in the world of publishing impacted your job in the last year?
To me it feels like the last year has been holding the status quo. Ebook sales have leveled out. The loss of Borders has been absorbed. Specific to my job, I do feel like I am getting a higher caliber of submissions. I have picked up a few more authors who have published with the big five (new series or stand alones.) But I am still committed to finding debut authors to balance out our line.
7. You’ve been to the RMFW conference a number of times. What keeps you coming back? (Besides your adoring authors, of course.)
The sense of community is amazing – it doesn’t matter if you have published 25 books or if you just started writing last week. The conference itself is very well run and informative.
8. What advice would you give authors who plan to pitch their novel to you at Colorado Gold?
Keep your presentation short, but include all the important info – if the ms is complete, word count, sub-genre, comparable authors. And give me the first five pages of your ms. That will tell me more than your presentation.
9. Conferences can be expensive and daunting, while querying agents and editors these days is really only a matter of sending off an email from the safety of your own home. How much of an advantage do you think there is for writers to attend conferences and meet and/or pitch you personally?
I am only taking unagented manuscripts from people who have pitched to me at a conference. Otherwise the only way for me to see it is if the author has an agent. Beyond that, I am more likely to take on a borderline project if I have met the author and feel good about the working relationship. And if I reject a manuscript, I may give the author feedback rather than a form rejection.
10. Are you coming into town early to allow extra time for some shopping and a mani-pedi with me while you’re here?
Maybe shopping, but no mani-pedi. I think I am still a bit traumatized from my first pedicure with you, thank you very much.
Linda Joffe Hull is the author of The Big Bang (Tyrus Books) and Eternally 21 (Midnight Ink) the first title in the Mrs. Frugalicious mystery series. Linda is a longtime member and former board member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and currently serves on the national board of Mystery Writers of America. She is the 2013 RMFW Writer of the Year. Her next mystery, Black Thursday, will be released in October 2014. To watch a recent interview with Linda please go to Off the Page on You Tube or visit her website. You can also find her on Twitter.
I first met Peter Senftleben at the Colorado Gold Conference in 2010. After reading his bio, I joined the critique workshop where he and other writers gave feedback on 20 or so pages of my manuscript. The couple of hours I spent in that workshop changed my life.
Peter ended up buying that manuscript, which became CURSES! A F***ed Up Fairy Tale, in a two-book deal less than a month later.
Surprisingly Peter still speaks to me, even after editing my last book.
Peter's awesomeness as a editor is but one reason to love him. A few of the others include his taste in TV shows, romance novels, and humorous twitter feed (follow him at @gr8thepeter and find his full bio at the RMFW website).
And without further ado, here an interview with Peter the Great, Associate Editor at Kensington Books:
What genres are you actively looking for? Are there genres you would prefer not to read?
I’m looking for all types of fiction, but mostly every subgenre of romance (of all heat levels), cozy mysteries, thrillers, psychological suspense, upmarket horror, reading group-type fiction, Southern novels, and LGBT fiction. I’m not actively seeking urban fantasy at the moment (the market was flooded), and I don’t acquire westerns for Kensington. We also don’t publish science fiction or fantasy (with one exception), so I’m not really looking for those either. I also don’t have much interest in non-fiction or straight historical fiction (as opposed to historical romance or mystery).
What plot and/or character do you never want to see again? What would you love to see in the next manuscript you read?
I can’t say there’s anything I categorically don’t want to see because even the most tired plot or clichéd character could be fresh with the right voice or twist. That being said, I tend to say no to terrorist plots, simply because I find them trite and often writers use an organization as a faceless villain. I prefer my bad guys to be human, with realistic motivations, and something specific for the protagonist to target. Often this can be extended to drug lords and human trafficking as well. But, again, they’re all possible if the writer does it well and creates a three-dimensional, dynamic antagonist.
Whenever I start a new submission, I always look for one thing: the desire to keep reading. I recently read something while I was on vacation that I kept going back to as my “fun read” even though it was for work. That’s what I need in everything I read, because that’s what the readers will want to feel as well.
What’s the best advice you can give to writers submitting their first novels?
There are a few things, and if they follow me or other editors and agents on Twitter, they’ll probably learn them (as they will if they attend conferences like Colorado Gold). Above all else: follow submission guidelines; nothing will get your query deleted faster than not sending it the right way. Also, make sure your manuscript is complete and as polished as possible—some of us will overlook a few typos, but some won’t, and sloppiness is just too much work to correct when you’re up to your eyeballs in manuscripts. Third, be patient; your submission is one of hundreds, or even thousands for some agents.
As a returning Colorado Gold editor/faculty member, besides seeing me of course, what are you looking forward to the most about attending the upcoming conference?
Besides seeing you? Are there other activities? There is the hospitality suite… Actually, seriously, my favorite part of Colorado Gold is the critique workshop. It’s great to get a taste of writers’ work and to be able to give them concrete feedback. (For me, at least; they might not like what I say!)
And finally, what is your all-time favorite books/movies/tv shows?
I’ll start with the easiest, TV: Profiler (except the last season), The Facts of Life, Arrested Development (except the last season), The Mole (when Anderson Cooper hosted), The Comeback (the only season), Scooby-Doo (the originals), Designing Women, Golden Girls, The Twilight Zone, Parks and Recreation (except the first season), Scrubs (except the last season), and the sublime Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies. I’m probably forgetting something, so maybe that wasn’t the easiest.
Movies: Clue! Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion! The Goonies. Memento. FEDS starring Mary Gross and Rebecca DeMornay. I love actually-scary horror movies and stupid comedies, but not usually together.
Books: Too many to list, but everything I’ve worked on, of course. Also The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and Dreamboy by Jim Grimsley.
J.A. (Julie) Kazimer lives in Denver, CO. Novels include CURSES! A F***ed-Up Fairy Tale, Holy Socks & Dirtier Demons, Dope Sick: A Love Story, FROGGY STYLE and The Assassin’s Heart, as well as the forthcoming mystery series, Deadly Ever After from Kensington Books. J.A. spent years spilling drinks as a bartender and then stalked people while working as a private investigator.
I recently had the good fortune of chatting with literary agent Margaret Bail (@MKDB) of Inklings Literary. She'll be one of the agents attending the 2014 Colorado Gold Conference.
KD: How and when did you become a literary agent?
MB: I’ve been an agent for a couple of years, now. I started out by doing an internship with an agency and when that was over, I signed on with another agency as a junior agent and started the learning process. I ended up at Inklings because I’d met Michelle and Jamie during my internship (they were interns too), and when they opened Inklings and Michelle invited me to join them, I jumped at the chance.
KD: What fiction genres are you looking for this year? Is there anything special you’d love to see?
MB: I’m always looking for romance in all subgenres except Christian/inspirational. I also like science fiction, fantasy (though I’m really picky about this genre), historical fiction, western, mystery, thriller.
I’d like to see a fresh take on cozy mystery; a time travel romance; a good epic fantasy that doesn’t include a dozen (or even half dozen) points of view, or names I can’t pronounce, or every mythical creature ever imagined, or magic (think Dark Tower, which admittedly has a few of those elements but is so awesome it doesn’t matter).
KD: Is it harder these days to place authors/novels with the larger publishers? How does the increase in smaller and/or regional publishers, especially those who also take unagented submissions, impact your job?
MB: I don’t know if it’s harder per se to place with larger publishers, but the increase in mid-sized and small publishers, especially digital-only presses, means that advances from larger publishers are lower, and often publishers will acquire to their digital imprint before or rather than print imprints because there’s less cost and risk involved. They can offer even lower advances, and in many cases no advance at all, for digital-only or digital-first acquisitions.
As far as my job is concerned, this means often I’ll receive offers for digital-only with no advance when what we really wanted was print. However, were it not for their digital imprint, the publisher may have rejected outright, so at least the digital imprint gets an author’s foot in the door and gets them a publishing credit.
I don’t think that publishers who take unagented submissions affect my job at all. Generally, those publishers have laxer guidelines (than the larger publishers) as far as the quality of the work they accept and publish, so often they end up taking work I would have rejected, so it saves me the time of going through those queries. I know that sounds insensitive, maybe even brutal, but that’s the truth of it for most agents.
KD: Has the increase in self-published books had an effect on your agency? If so, what?
MB: With regard to self-published books, publishing companies are wary about taking those on unless they’ve had phenomenal sales. Once something is published – even self-published – it’s ALREADY BEEN PUBLISHED, so a publisher doesn’t want it unless they can make oodles of cash off something that’s really taken off.
This affects our agency because authors don’t understand that publishing requires infinite patience. If you self-publish and your sales are bleak, or not what you expected, and then you go back to querying agents in hope of still going the traditional publishing route, you’re crippled yourself with the self-publishing. Most agents won’t touch a self-published book unless it’s had outstanding sales, which doesn’t happen often. I get many, many, many queries from authors who have self-published, but are still querying agents. I can’t sell those books, so I have to reject.
KD: What gets you excited in a query letter? What makes you hit the delete button?
MB: Excited: Concise, well organized, outstanding voice, great story and characters.
Delete: If you don’t follow submission guidelines; if you attach information instead of pasting it into the email; if the query letter is long, rambling, incoherent; if you’re querying a genre I don’t represent; if you spend paragraphs tooting your own horn and then the writing is atrocious; an incomplete manuscript; work that isn’t fully edited and polished.
KD: Writers are often advised to have a web presence before even selling their first manuscript. Of the following web and social media opportunities, which do you consider most important for the debut author: a website, a blog, Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads? Are there any others you recommend to your authors?
MB: “Platform” is more important for non-fiction than fiction, but a “presence” is always valuable. However, I don’t think that having an active web presence is absolutely necessary for fiction authors. I’ve sold authors who barely have any presence at all. In my opinion that whole presence thing is over-hyped for fiction. But that’s just my opinion. Other agents will likely tell you otherwise.
KD: How closely do you work with the authors you represent? Are you editorially involved, or do you prefer only to handle the business side of things?
MB: I work very closely with my authors. I tend to be laid back and casual, and end up developing great working relationships with my clients. Communication is very important to me.
As far as editing, I try to take on work that requires as little editing as possible because I just don’t have oodles of time to be an editor. It’s the author’s job to do all that before they query. That being said, I do a thorough developmental and copyedit for everything I take on. I probably do more than I should, actually, but the English professor in me just can’t help it. And I have taken on a couple of projects that needed significant work, but were so outstanding I couldn’t turn them away. I try to stay away from those, though, because they’re so time consuming.
KD: If a manuscript piques your interest, what's your next step? How often do you request revisions on a manuscript you want to represent? Do you offer representation before or after revisions are made?
MB: If something piques my interest and it needs very little editing, I’ll just offer representation. If it’s something I like but needs some work, I’ll ask for revisions. I don’t do that often, and if I do I wait to read the revisions before (and if) I offer representation. Just because an agent asks for a revision, doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get an offer to represent, though.
KD: When reading the beginning pages of a manuscript, what's an immediate turn off? Consequently, what gets you excited about those first few pages?
MB: Immediate turn offs to me are:
1. Badly copyedited writing – word clutter, passive or incomplete sentences, grammar/spelling/punctuation issues.
2. Cliché openings like characters waking up, descriptions of weather, long exposition, back story, flashbacks, etc.
3. I really don’t like prologues and I don’t even read them. In pre-published work I’ve found that 99% of prologues are unnecessary.
Immediate turns offs don’t mean I stop reading immediately, but often they end up meaning rejections.
What gets me excited in first few pages:
1. Strong voice which is, admittedly, difficult to define.
2. Action with necessary exposition/back story woven in sparsely.
3. Clean, concise writing.
4. Clear setup of the story and characters.
KD: What are your thoughts on the current market for fantasy romance and paranormal romance? What areas of this genre do you think editors consider over done?
MB: Unfortunately both urban fantasy and paranormal romance are really glutted markets right now, and editors at big houses aren't buying those genres as furiously as they were not so long ago. Stories in these genres now need to be very unique and stand out against everything else in the genre. Frankly, I'm sick to death of vampires and werewolves. I don't know that anything new can be said about them anymore.
I think there's still room in the market for both genres, but there's got to be really unique angles and/or twists on it.
KD: What are your thoughts on New Adult? It's very hot right now. Do you think it's a fading trend like chick-lit was?
MB: I think NA is definitely hot and on the upswing. It started out as what Michelle (my co-agent at Inklings) calls "college f**k fiction" meaning that it was just stories about college girls getting laid. But it's developing into a genre similar to YA in that it's all about people in this age group finding themselves, learning how to live in an adult world, and dealing with adult issues, and it's spreading into all genres. Personally, I don't like the college student stories, but I would like to see NA stories in any genre that deal with people that age. I don't think it's fading at all, and I don't think it will.
In fact, I just talked to an editor not too long ago at St. Martins who said that although paranormal is kind of dying now, she sees NA paranormal as a growing market, which kind of ties both your questions together!
KD: How often do you communicate with your clients?
MB: Like I said earlier, I’m very laid back and often end up chatting with clients frequently either by email or social media.
KD: What do you do for fun when you’re not working? Any unusual hobbies?
MB: Not working? There are people who actually do that????
KD: What advice would you like to give authors who plan to pitch their novel to you at Colorado Gold?
Make sure the novel is complete and polished – then polish it some more. Get help if you need it, but not from your mom/brother/uncle/cousin/BFF.
Be sure it’s a genre I represent!
Relax some more – I’m a person just like you, and I write, too, so I know how you feel.
I hate the term “elevator pitch” but be able to describe the essence of your story in a few short sentences.
Karen Duvall is an award-winning author with 4 published novels and 2 novellas. Harlequin Luna published her Knight's Curse series in 2011 and 2012, and her post apocalyptic novella, Sun Storm, was released in Luna's 'Til The World Ends anthology in January 2013. She released a romantic suspense novel, Desert Guardian, that she published herself in June of 2013.
To play along, you'll need a list with your novel’s protagonist, active antagonist, stakes, and high concept. (Remember: high concept might or might not make it into your pitch, but you need to keep it in mind throughout the process.)
It's easier to see a pitch in motion when you're actually seeing it thrown, so I’ll use my novel, Claws of the Cat, as our pitch example today. I'm using it mostly because the pitch worked as intended–it found me an agent, piqued an editor’s interest, and (in a slightly expanded form) ended up on the dust jacket of the completed novel. In other words: I know this one works, and when you need an example it's nice to have a functional one at hand.
The original pitch:
When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, a master ninja has just three days to find the killer in order to save the life of the Jesuit priest that the ninja has pledged his own life to protect.
(Note: Yes, this is rough. I'm sharing my original pitch to show you this can be done fairly quickly and doesn't have to be absolutely perfect to do its job.)
Can you spot the four critical elements?
1. Protagonist: Here, a master ninja. Always lead with your protagonist, and use an archetype instead of the character's name. Archetypes are more descriptive and harder to forget. Also, they give information about the novel that names alone cannot convey. Would you rather hear that "Sam" has to go find "Charlotte" or that "an undead barber" must locate "the kitten he left behind"?
Good pitches put the protagonist front and center. The listener must have no doubt who your book is about.
2. (Active) Antagonist:The pitch must tell us who or what the protagonist is fighting. (And It’s OK to imply the antagonist, as long as the stakes are high enough.)
Ask yourself: what’s the easiest way to describe what my hero is fighting? That’s your active antagonist, and you have to either state it outright or strongly imply it in your pitch.
Note: The active antagonist is NOT the various bells and whistles, twists and turns, hot dogs and lack of doughnuts that plague your antagonist along the way. Those are window dressing (even if they seem important) and don't belong in the pitch. Big hero, big villain, big stakes get the job done here.
3. The Stakes: In Claws, the stakes are a ticking clock and the imminent execution of an innocent man, both of which appear in the pitch. Secondary stakes appear there too: the ninja has pledged his life to protect the priest – so if the ninja fails, he's going to share the Jesuit's fate.
Your pitch MUST explain what’s at stake in your novel. Fail at that, and the listener will not care. Stories require tension; tension requires stakes. In many ways, the stakes are the most important part of your pitch, because only the stakes make the listener need to hear the rest of the story.
4. High Concept: In my case? “Ninja detective.” However, you’ll notice my pitch never says those words. The pitch as a whole makes the concept clear.
The little details of your pitch convey high concept. “Master ninja,” and “find the killer” give a ninja detective vibe. “Kyoto teahouse” sets the novel in Japan, and suggests there’s a geisha or two in the mix.
Find the unique details in your novel. Wedge them into the spaces between your protagonist, your antagonist, and your stakes.
Every word in your pitch must add something to the whole. You don’t have room for filler words that do not “earn their keep.”
Try to use no more than one adjective per noun. Try not to use adverbs – they break the flow.
From your elements, build one sentence that describes your story in one breath's worth of words.
If you can’t say your pitch in a single breath, cut it until you can. Then–and only then–revise until that sentence rolls off your tongue as easily as your name.
Don’t over-rehearse, but make sure the pitch is smooth and easy to say, because it’s easy enough to trip over simple phrases when you’re stressed, to say nothing of overcomplicated prose.
A single sentence is easier to remember, flows off the tongue, and inspires the listener to start asking questions–exactly what a good pitch ought to do.
Pull the four elements from your work and build your pitch. Build it strong and polish it to a shine–and then get out there and pitch with confidence!
Thank you for joining me here this week - I look forward to seeing many of you at Colorado Gold!
Bio: Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on business and publishing law. Her debut Shinobi mystery, Claws of the Cat (Minotaur Books) released on July 16, 2013. You can find Susan online at http://www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann, where she created the #PubLaw hashtag to provide business and legal information for authors.
Since the Colorado Gold Conference is coming up, pitching and querying seem to be on people's minds. So I thought I'd interview my agent, Pam van Hylckama Vlieg.
You’ve been an agent now for about two years, right? First with Larsen-Pomada and now with the new agency you helped form, Foreword Lit.
I was at Larsen Pomada for a year when Laurie McLean and I left with Elizabeth and Michael's blessing to for Foreword Literary. We wanted to dig into the tech and new fields of publishing and forge some industry standards for agents while still maintaining ethics. We're super excited to have gotten Gordon Warnock on board early on and are very excited about the new agency.
In a relatively short amount of time, you’ve sold a lot of books. Would you share your stats – how many books have you sold, to which publishers, in which genres? And how many clients do you have now?
Some of the sales are secret ;). But I've sold 38 books (soon to be 40 probably by the time this interview posts) to Penguin, Simon and Schuster, Entangled, and other large and small publishers. Most of my sales are romance or adult, with YA and MG following closely behind. I have twenty-two amazing clients!
Who is your favorite client?
Jeffe, of course. Don't tell Vivi.
What made you decide to become a literary agent?
I was offered an internship a few years ago at Kimberly Cameron as a reader. I fell in love with the entire process of making a book and when Laurie offered for me to be her assistant agent I took it! After I learned from her and sold a book on my own she let me go and I've been running forward every since.
Do you like it?
It is literally the best job ever. To know that you are in some small way influencing what people read and making author dreams come true is a heady experience. It makes all the bad stuff (rejections, clients who didn't work out) tolerable.
What did you do before you became an agent?
I left college to manage boy bands from Scandinavia. Then I met Marco and worked at Yahoo for a while before deciding to stay at home with my young son who I later sent to daycare because he is of Satan. Ok, maybe not Satan but he because a toddler.
While I was home with him I created a book blog that did pretty well on the interwebz. Bookalicious is still going strong with tons of reviewers and good books being recommended.
One of the things that I think gives you a different – and useful – perspective of the world of books is the time you spent being a book blogger. How do you think that informs your career as an agent?
I think book bloggers are some of the most publishing informed people in the world. We know the market, we know what's coming out and what has already came out, and we know the publishing staff (if the blog is big enough to have worked with publishing staff). Transitioning for me may have been easier than it is for some new agents. I didn't have to introduce myself, I only had to introduce my authors.
In which genres are you most actively acquiring right now?
Middle Grade, contemporary romance, and genre fiction (except mystery and thriller and horror).
What’s your philosophy about digital-first publishing vs. “traditional” publishing vs. self-publishing?
I love them all for different reasons and different books. I think digital/digital-first is a great way to prove your work has merit and to finagle into a print deal if that is what the author wants to do. Traditional publishing is still going strong no matter what naysayers say and has the distribution and marketing that authors desperately need in this ever-shifting marketplace. Self-publishing has brought on a new reading level (NA) and made erotic romance a household item. These ladies are making tons of money and getting big traditional deals. They have the best of both worlds.
What’s the most common misstep writers make when querying you?
Not following my very easy submissions guidelines.
What do you think is the worst advice out there for writers querying agents?
There's this new thing where authors query in their character's voice. That is so weird. SO WEIRD. I'm going to work with the author not the character.
What about the best advice?
Keep it short and simple!
Any final words?
Thank you for having me.
Pam van Hylckama Vlieg started her literary career as assistant to Laurie McLean in early 2012. By April Pam was promoted to Associate Agent at Larsen Pomada. In January of 2013 after selling twenty-one books in her first year of agenting Pam was promoted to agent. When Laurie McLean mentioned creating Foreword, Pam jumped at the chance to follow her mentor and create a new agency together.
Pam grew up on a sleepy little Podunk town in Virginia. She’s lived in the UK, several US states, and now resides in the Bay Area of California. She has two kids, two dogs, two guinea pigs, but only one husband. You can find her mostly on Twitter where she wastes copious amounts of time.
High concept young adult in any genre. Some of Pam’s favorite recent YA books are: The Masque of the Red Death, Cinder, Shadow and Bone, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Small Damages, and Insignia.
Middle grade in these genres: fantasy. Pam’s recent favorite MG books are: The Peculiar, The Emerald Atlas, Storybound, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, and Icefall.
Romance in these categories: historical, fantasy, contemporary, and erotica. Pam’s favorite romance titles released recently are: Loving Lady Marcia, Be My Prince, Rogue’s Pawn, and The Siren.
New Adult in all categories will be considered. Pam has enjoyed Suddenly Royal, and Leopard Moon in this genre.
Speculative fiction in these genres: urban fantasy, paranormal, and epic/high fantasy.
Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author with a writing career that spans decades. Her fantasy BDSM romance, Petals and Thorns, originally published under the pen name Jennifer Paris, has won several reader awards. Sapphire, the first book in Facets of Passion has placed first in multiple romance contests and the follow-up, Platinum, is climbing the charts. Her most recent works include three fiction series: the fantasy romance novels of A Covenant of Thorns, the contemporary BDSM novellas of the Facets of Passion, and the post-apocalyptic vampire erotica of the Blood Currency.
Jeffe lives in Santa Fe, with two Maine coon cats, a border collie, plentiful free-range lizards and a Doctor of Oriental Medicine. Jeffe can be found online at her website: JeffeKennedy.com or every Sunday at the popular Word Whores blog.
Since I'm doctoring pitches one-on-one at the Colorado Gold Conference in September, it seemed natural to start my posting here on the RMFW blog by looking at pitch construction.
I've got two guest posts between now and Colorado Gold, so here's Part 1 of a 2-part series on "How to Build a Winning Pitch Pitch"
Now, there are many ways to construct a pitch, and I don't claim my way is the only one. It is, however, the one I used when pitching my debut Shinobi mystery, CLAWS OF THE CAT, and the one I use when helping other people pitch.
Winning pitches do one thing: they make a listener want to read your book.
Always keep that goal in mind. If your pitch does not intrigue, it fails, regardless of its contents. You start constructing a pitch by culling four elements from your work. We'll look at those elements today and then, on September 19, we'll put them together (just in time for the RMFW Conference!).
1. Who is the protagonist?Describe him (or her) with 1-2 adjectives.
For example: a ninja detective.
2. Who is your active antagonist?
The active antagonist is the person, place, or thing the hero is fighting against for most of the novel – the thing that creates “the stakes.” This might or might not be the same as the antagonist the hero ultimately defeats or reveals, especially in a mystery novel, because unlike a synopsis, the elevator pitch does not reveal the ending of the story.
3. Stakes! (Preferably, through the protagonist’s heart).
Note that I haven’t asked about where the hero started the journey, how many quirky talking teapots (s)he meets along the way, or why there’s a pregnant emu at the turn from Act 2 to Act 3. For purposes of your pitch, none of that is important.
Having trouble with stakes? Try to answer the question: What does your protagonist have to accomplish before “the end,” and why will the world fall apart if he or she fails?
Answer it in one sentence or less. If you can't, you might need to revisit your plot.
In my novel, the stakes are clear: a ninja detective must find a killer in three days time, or the ninja, his Jesuit friend, and a lovely young geisha will die. In addition, the death of the priest will plunge Japan into war with Portugal.
Those are stakes.
Stakes can be personal (death, financial ruin, homelessness, exile) or large-scale (war, natural disaster, the end of the world). Many novels feature both. A novel without stakes is boring, and a pitch which doesn't reveal the stakes won't pique a listener's interest.
Which brings us to the fourth and final element of the pitch:
4. High Concept.
High concept is premise. It’s what makes your story unique. In a nutshell, "high concept" is a concept with mass appeal that you can sum up in one sentence or less.
The high concept for my mystery series is ninja detective. The high Concept for the movie JAWS is "killer shark."
Your high concept might not appear in your pitch, but creating the pitch with high concept in mind will always result in a stronger pitch than one which ignores high concept.
Struggling with high concept? Try the “What if” method: summarize your story in no more than 15 words, the first two of which must be “What if?”
Between now and my next guest post on September 19, your homework is to pull these four elements out of YOUR work and get ready to pitch like a pro! Then, tune in for our second installment, in which we discuss transforming your elements into a winning pitch.
Do you have an elevator pitch for your work in progress? Does it utilize all four of these critical elements?
Bio: Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on business and publishing law. Her debut Shinobi mystery, Claws of the Cat (Minotaur Books) released on July 16, 2013. You can find Susan online at http://www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann, where she created the #PubLaw hashtag to provide business and legal information for authors.