Thursday, December 29, 2011

Birth of a Book, Part 7: Agents

This is the seventh part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

In my last entry I mentioned that many commercial publishers nowadays will not accept manuscripts directly from authors. Instead they require manuscript submissions to come through literary agents. As a rule, there are more publishers of non-fiction books that do not require representation, while publishers of fiction almost always do.

Agents, like publishers, generally have specialties and preferences. Therefore, an author should very carefully research literary agents and approach only those with an interest in representing the kind of fiction they write. The best way to select potential agents is to consult one of the many reference books about the publishing industry such as the annual “Writer’s Market: Where and How to Sell What You Write” or Jeff Herman’s “Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agens” which is also updated regularly.

However, keep in mind that it is almost as difficult to get an agent as a publisher. Maybe harder. The most recent statistic I heard is that literary agents receive between 70 and 80 manuscripts per week. That makes for roughly 3,750 manuscripts a year. No agent reads all submissions. In fact, as a rule agents read parts of maybe one tenth of the manuscripts they receive. Most submitssion are rejected based on the letter of inquiry alone. "Thanks very much but we are not taking any new clients at this time...." Or "thank you for your submission but we see no market for a book of this kind...." etc. etc.

Even if you get past the first cut (which may be made by an intern or very junior employee), agents still rarely read an entire manuscript. They will read a couple of chapters at most and rapidly make a decision about whether they like the book enough to want to represent it or not. On average, a literary agent will sign on 1-2 new customers per year. Many refuse to take new customers at all, feeling they have enough work with the clients they already have. In short, you’re probably going to have to write to a lot of agents before you find representation. Once you have an agent, they – at least in theory – should be able to open doors to publishers, but they make no guarantees.

My own experience with agents is not very good. Let me explain. After I did my research in the above references and carefully selected only those agents who specifically stated an interest in the subject and genre of my book and indicated they were still accepting clients, I approached 18 different agents. I carefully followed the individual guidelines about whether I should submit electronically or in hard copy, whether to send a synopsis or first chapter etc. etc., and followed instructions about a short introductory letter meticulously. Yet all eighteen agents rejected the manuscript (unseen) because there was “no market” for the book. Since I’d already written book, however, and this was a piece of non-fiction, I decided to approach publishers directly. I found six publishers that specialized in the genre (aviation history) and wrote letters of inquiry to them. Three (50%!) showed interest, and I rapidly signed a contract with one of them. What is more, I have since sold the TV rights to this book.  In short, there was a comparably hot market for the very book that all 18 literary agents specializing in the genre claimed there was no market for. This suggested to me that not one of them knew the very market they purported to be experts about very well.

After this experience, I felt there was very little point wasting time, effort and emotion on intermediaries who appeared to be more a hindrance to success than agents of it. I have never written to a literary agent since, but that is a personal choice and many of you may find agents receptive and helpful. Certainly, as stated above, they are the “door keepers” to the larger, commercial publishers. As I outlined earlier, there are advantages to publishing with “the majors," so if they are your target an agent may be an necessary evil. However, the other option is self-publishing, a topic I will discuss in a later blog entry.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Birth of a Book 6: Commercial Publishers

This is the sixth part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

I have published four of my books with commercial or trade publishers and the rest have been self-published. Both forms of publication have their advantages and disadvantages. This week I will address the advantages and disadvantages of commercial publishers.

The first thing aspiring novelists should know about major publishers is that on average they accept only 1% of all books submitted to them in any one year.

Second, the major publishers don’t really want “niche” books. Just like the big pharmaceutical firms, they want every book they publish to be a “block buster.” After all, they have large staffs and fancy, expensive New York or London offices to finance. In fact, the overheads are so high that despite being very picky about which books the publish (see above), they still lose money on 9 out of 10 books. In short, books have to have the potential make a lot of money before a major publisher can afford to invest in them. Books most likely to make "big bucks" are books by celebrities – or already successful authors. I recently heard that publishers won’t even look at a book from an author who doesn’t have 2,000 twitter followers. It’s not easy to have that number of followers, if you aren’t already famous.

Last but not least, because the majors want books with “universal” appeal, very, very few accept “unsolicited” manuscripts. This means that in most cases you will need an agent in order to even approach a commercial publisher with a manuscript. (Next week I will discuss agents.)

The greatest advantages commercial publishers offer are well established and extensive distribution networks, marketing expertise and large marketing budgets. If a commercial publisher decides to invest in a book, they can - and do - spend hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars doing so. They can buy bookstore window space, space in airport bookstores, ads in important publications, TV-spots, radio-spots, etc. etc. etc. They have the relationships to editors and talk-show hosts that will increase the probability that your book will be prominently reviewed, that you will get invited to appear on TV or give radio interviews – all those things you see successful writers doing.

But every aspiring author should understand that publishers can’t afford to do that for every book they publish. Big as the marketing budgets appear to be, they are nevertheless finite and far too small to market all titles equally. Publishers need to allocate resources carefully. What this means is that they invest the bulk of their marketing resources in only a tiny percentage of their titles. Furthermore, they tend to invest where they expect the greatest return on investment. In plain language: the more famous you are, the more marketing support you can expect. If you are already a celebrity (rock star, national politician, popular athlete), your book will be given the lion’s share of the marketing budget. If you are the new kid on the block, the first-time author, you are going to get the scraps. These can be so meager you may hardly notice anything.

Despite the comparative success of my four non-fiction books, I have found self-publishing more satisfying for my novels. I’ll discuss why in future entries.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Results of Last Week's Survey

Dear Followers,

Thanks for participating in last weeks' survey on a new title for Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy. Participation and feedback was high, and I especially appreciated hearing from some of you directly with your own suggestions.  In fact, one suggestion was so good that after consulting with my publisher, cover designer, editor and other professionals, I have selected it.  Everyone's input was important, however, because the results showed a clear preference for a sleek title.

The results were as follows:
  • 56% voted for Leonidas: A Spartan King
  • Equal numbers (18%) voted for Leonidas of Sparta: An Extraordinary King or Leonidas: Sparta's Quintessential King.
  • Only 8 % chose Leonidas: Sparta's Indomitable King
The selected title reflects the majority preference for a direct -- well, Laconic -- title. Clear text. The third book in the trilogy will be titled:

Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King.

The first draft cover has also been designed, so all is still on track with this book.  I'll resume the series on "Birth of a Book" next week with a post about commercial publishers.