Vikram: Hi, everyone, thanks for joining us today.
[00:00:07] It's my great pleasure to welcome Laura Mazer, our friend, and just to give you a very short introduction: she's currently an agent at Wendy Sherman Associates. And before that, she was the executive editor of SEAL Press, which is a boutique imprint of the Hachette Book Group, where she edited adult nonfiction. And under that imprint, she had many New York Times best sellers. She also was the managing editor of Counterpoint and executive editor of its imprint Soft Skull Press. And then before that, if that wasn't enough, she was the managing editor of Creators Syndicate, which was a global news agency that represented people like Hillary Clinton, Arianna Huffington and Molly Ivins.
[00:00:58] So before we begin: towards the right hand side of your screen, you should see a panel where you can enter questions and also upload questions. Please put in questions and then Laura is going to take some time towards the end to answer. OK, so Laura, I'm going to switch off my camera and get out of the way.
Laura: Thank you for having me today. So nice to be here. I am literally sitting in the Vikram’s backyard where the connection is better than my own house. I wish you could do this in person! I'm going to talk today about your first book deal. As promised, we're going to go through the scaffolding of the system. How does it work? How do you start, what happens next and comes after that?
[00:01:57] And I'll take you all the way through the process from first having an idea - to getting a book deal and having your book out in the world. But just a few clarifications before I get into this. I want to make sure that there all different ways to get there: there are big publishing companies, or small publishing companies. There are nonprofit publishers. There are niche boutique publishers that are independent and have their own group - they do their own thing. The kind of publishing I'm talking about today is the most mainstream of all. I'm talking about publishing with a run of the mill, New York Big House, Random House, Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins. I'm not talking about anything that's indie, or edgy or academic, nothing that's got its own way and has its own systems. This is the run-of-the-mill: typical process for getting a book deal here in the United States.
Vikram: Laura, can you hear me? Your voice is a bit low, I'm being told, so you have to pull the laptop or get closer.
Laura: OK, so we're talking about a run of the mill book deals.
[00:03:22] Well, great book deals, but with run-of-the-mill publishing companies. There is a system that we all adhere to, and I am here to teach you the system. So that's number one. And number two, the other little piece of housekeeping is - I'm going to talk for about 30 or 40 minutes and then I'm going to turn it over to you for questions. I think we can have a lively conversation with your questions and I'll answer them as best I can.
[00:03:45] Let's start. OK, you want a book deal? Let's get a book deal for you. The first thing that you need to know is are you writing fiction or nonfiction. This seems like a pretty easy question. Sometimes people aren't sure, but sometimes people say, well, you know, it's fiction, but it's nonfiction or it's nonfiction, but it's fiction and I can't quite decide which one it should be. You have to decide because novels and fiction are treated in the marketplace very differently than nonfiction books that are reported true stories. OK, so the novelists, if you have a novel, if you're writing a book length work of fiction, you have to have the entire book written before you take any next steps before you can even think about getting published. The book has to be done from word one to word eighty thousand or however many words are in your book and it should be somewhere between, say, sixty thousand and ninety thousand. That is ideal for a novel. Your everyday novel is probably about eighty thousand words.
[00:04:56] So once your novel is complete, it's beautiful, you finessed all the words, every chapter's lovely and you're good, then you're going to be ready to move ahead on the next step. For the nonfiction writers - you don't have to write the whole thing. You're a little bit off the hook about having to write the whole eighty thousand words or however many words your book project is. Instead, you're going to do something different. You're going to write something called a book proposal. A book proposal is something that is submitted to publishers to consider non-fiction books.
And it's very easy to write - I'm not going to spend too much time about what goes into a book proposal, because it's very easy to Google and find a model somewhere on the Internet. But let's do just a quick run through of what's going to be in that document. It is essentially your business plan for your book. It is a multiple page document that tells agents and editors and publishers exactly what the book is about, why it's important, why you're the one to write it. There are a couple of core sections that you want to make sure to address. One is called the overview section. This is kind of like the introduction to what your book is about, why it's great and essential, why it has to be published right now. It's the first thing that editors and agents are going to read about your book. It's that first page of your proposal and it introduces them to the concept of your book, talking about why it's essential, why today, why now? Why you. After that there are a couple other proposal sections that go something like this. Number one, we need to have your bio. We need to know who you are and what your credentials are for nonfiction. Having some level of expertise in your topic is essential. Nonfiction is steered by the people who should be teaching those lessons of the nonfiction world, even if they're not overt lessons. What I mean by that is - you're conveying information that you are holding to be true because it is shelved in nonfiction. Ergo, it is a true story. We need to know for sure that you're the one who can assess the information that you're writing about and then convey it in your book in a way that is accurate. Why are you the one to tell the story? If you're going to be writing a book about fantastic recipes of the Middle East, maybe you should be a chef. If you are writing about how to get ahead in the business world, you probably should have done it a couple of times, that kind of thing. We want to know that you know how you know what you know. OK, we’ve got the overview. We've got your bio. We need a section here about marketing and publicity.
[00:07:50] That doesn't mean you have to come up with an entire marketing publicity plan, although it's helpful, and if you feel you have those skills in your pocket to be able to cook up a little plan for how it's going to be marketed and publicized. What they're really looking for here is an insight into who are the readers of your book, who's going to read your book and how do we reach them. So. if you're writing that cookbook about Middle Eastern cooking, then you're probably going to include in your marketing and publicity section a whole lot of media outlets that cover food and foodies and recipes and maybe even regional topics. If you're writing a book about how to get ahead in business, then you're probably going to want to include a whole lot of media outlets that might want to write a review of your book to a target audience of those who are trying to get ahead in their offices. So that might be financial magazines, business publications, mainstream publications, etc. Again, you can find a lot more about this online. It's a really easy thing to find by doing an easy Google search. And also, if you're looking for a book that can guide you through each one of these stages, I really like a book that’s called The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It . . . Successfully. I’ll tell you the author names. They are Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry.
[00:09:23] The book gives you a lot more granular information than we can do today in one hour, it's a great reference. All right. We've got your overview. We've got your bio. We've got your marketing publicity section. The other sections in this proposal is Comparative Titles, which tells the reader what other books in the marketplace are similar to yours. This is also a really good thing for you to know. You have to know what other books in the marketplace have similar elements to offer readers as yours. What a lot of people do is they make a mistake of thinking that this comparative title section of their proposal is really “competitive titles.” We call it comp titles for short. The assumption by many people, the false assumption is, that competitive titles, those are the books I'm competing against. The reason why I call attention to this is just because it gets your head oriented around in the wrong way. Your goal is not to say “There are these books in the marketplace and mine is better. I can and I'm going to beat it in the marketplace”! That's not the goal. What you want to do is say look at these great books in the marketplace. They did well. It substantiates an interest in this topic. My book will do well for you. You want those comparative titles to do well. You want them to show that they had audiences that were excited, that they had reviews, that they had interesting people coming to read the book. So find some really good, strong titles that represent yours. Maybe they have a similar topic. Maybe they have a similar voice to the writing style. If you're writing a novel, it's easy to find those. If you're writing a historical novel about France in the eighteenth century, you're probably going to want to find some other 18th century France storylines to use as a comparison. The last piece of the proposal last but most important, is the content of the book. We need an outline of your book and we need sample chapters. All the novelists are really jealous right now, right, that I have to write the whole thing. Well, but you don't have to do a proposal so everyone gets their comeuppance at some point. My point here is you have to do this document to go out to publishers and editors and agents. So, make it great, spend a little time making it finnessed.
[00:11:51] And once you have your full proposal. or if you're a novelist, your full novel, you are ready for the next step. And here's what it is. If you want to be published here in a mainstream big house publishing company - a Random House, Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Shed, you can't go directly to the publisher and pitch your book. It's just not done. It is, I think, personally – a flaw of our system. I think it's a broken model of being able to take people's ideas and words and convey them to a marketplace. But it is the system we have. So I'm going to tell you how to work it: instead of going directly to the publishers and saying, please publish me, you need to have a literary agent. I know it's not very democratic, is it? But it's the system we have. So here we go. You need an agent and the agent is going to represent you to the publishers. If you try to go directly to the publishers, it's a really fast track to get ignored. You might get ignored entirely. You might get a note saying “We don't accept what they call unsolicited submissions,” which is a fancy way of saying “We didn't ask you to send this to us and you don't have an agent, so please go away.”
[00:13:07] In any case, your ticket to getting a book deal is to go through an agent. You need to partner with an agent. The agents can represent you and go to the publishers and pitch your book for you. So your first step is to take your work and offer it to agents and say, will you please represent me? OK, how do you do that? It is similar for fiction and nonfiction so we're all in the same boat here. When you are writing to agents called querying agents, that's the term “to query an agent”. You need to send them either your novel or your book proposal, with a cover note called your query letter, telling them quickly what the book is about, who you are and why you want them to represent you. It is literally a short email saying: “Dear Laura, thank you so much for considering my work. I have a non-fiction book that I am eager to have you represent. Here's what it's about. Here's the way I'm the one to write the book. Thank you for considering it” and you're out. It is not fancy and you attach a proposal. Now, some agencies will have their own preferences about how you reach out to them, but the agencies generally have submission guidelines on their websites. When you're ready to start pitching agents, go to their websites, and see what they're looking for. Do they want an email with your proposal or your manuscript? Do they want just the pitch first and then if they're interested, they'll write to you and ask you to send it later.
[00:14:40] Just follow along with whatever their prompts are. But you really can't get it too wrong - even if it's not exactly in the same way they requested it on their website, they're still going to look at it. It's just their preference. Now, let's take one more step back and consider how do you decide which agents to pitch? This is important because if you are a novelist for adults and you're pitching to someone who does nonfiction for kids, you're not going to get anywhere really fast. So how do you find the right agents for you? I'm going to give you a couple of tips. Write these down. These are really the best, fastest, easiest ways to get to where you need to be, which is in the inbox of agents who are the right kind of agent for your kind of book. Lots of agents are generalists and they represent a lot of different things, but many of them kind of focus what we call their “list.” My list is more non-fiction than fiction, or my list is more historical fiction than poetry, whatever it might be. People specialize. They tend to have things that they enjoy promoting and things that they have less of a wheelhouse doing. So here we are. We want to find the right agents for you. Idea number one, if you have twenty five bucks to spend, you can subscribe to Publishers Marketplace, which is our online publishing industry database portal, the go-to spot for everything that's happening in the industry.
[00:16:13] There's news, there's a little page for every agent and editor showing what they have represented in the past or published in the past, which authors they work with one of their many, many assets on this portal called Publishers Marketplace. But the thing that you're going to be looking for is the deal reports. There's a place where you can go to the deal reports and subscribe - for twenty four/ twenty five dollars a month. But once you're in, you get access to this channel where you can search for books like yours, books in your area of expertise, agents who have represented authors that you like. There's a whole database with a search you can do by keywords. So, if you have that novel from 18th century France, you can look up historical fiction France and see the agents who are representing that kind of content. If you're doing a “how to get ahead in the workplace,” you can search non-fiction, business careers and see who's coming up and which agents have represented deals in that sector. It's a very easy way to look quickly and see which agents are representing what content by doing searches with your keywords. So that's a great way to go. If you aren't keen to spend the twenty five dollars or you want to go about it another way for whatever reason. Here's another way you can do it.
[00:17:41] When authors write books, often in the back of the book, there's an acknowledgment section, and most authors thank their agents, not all, but a lot, do. And if you want to know who "agented" a particular book that is on maybe your top title list or something you admire, or an agent that you would love to be a part of because they published or they represented a book that you is meaningful to you. Go to the acknowledgements section in the back of the book. If we were all out and about in the world right now, I'd say run down the street to your biggest bookstore in your neighborhood and just sit in front of the shelf where books like yours would be stored and go through them one by one by one. Open each book to the back of the book, to the acknowledgements section and see who the agent was. Jot down a list. That's your query. Since you can't go there in person at the moment, I'm sorry. There are sometimes ways that you can search the interior of the book through Amazon. It doesn't work as reliably, but you can go to the private peek inside and then you can search for keywords. You can type in agent or acknowledgments. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Regardless, now you know where to find that information.
[00:18:54] Another way you can go about this is to trust your search skills, to open up an everyday web browser and type in “great literary agents for” and then fill in whatever your genre is, whatever your topic is, and trust yourself that as you're poking through and clicking on links and pulling up agency websites, if tha agency website does not seem like a good fit for your book, it's not a good fit for your book, and neither is the agent. So, for example, if I have a business book and I click through to an agency's homepage and I see a lot of covers or like mysteries or sci fi or children's books, I might think this is not a good fit for me. But if I click through it, I see some other mainstream nonfiction, maybe business books, but maybe history or biography or general nonfiction. I might think I'm in the right place here. So trust yourself to be able to assess a literary agency, or an agent is in the right tone that you're looking for, is in the right realm of expertise, is making deals for the kinds of books that you want to be able to publish and trust your gut on that. It often works just fine that way. OK, so you make yourself a list of agents that you really want to query - what comes next? You write them your query letter, you send your proposal, you send your manuscript. It goes off to all these agents. And here's what's going to happen. You're either going to get no response at all from an agent. A lot of times they write you an immediate auto-reply that says if we don't respond to you in six weeks, please assume that we are not a client, that we are not going to offer you representation, that your book is not a good fit for us. Sometimes you'll get a rejection letter that could either be a form letter. Thank you, but it's not for us or it could be a little bit more nuanced. Like, thank you so much for sending this to us, but here are the reasons why I think it's not quite working.
[00:20:57] It is not to be expected that you will get granular, thorough feedback from agents. If you DO get feedback, take it to heart. Consider what they're saying. Is your novel falling apart in the middle? Are the characters not compelling enough? If it's nonfiction, do you they think concept is either too niche or maybe too specific or it's been done before. If you get feedback, consider what the feedback is. Sometimes that can be helpful to you and you can reshape your material. Sometimes you'll say “I don't think this is right. You're just one person and there are hundreds and hundreds of agents in your particular opinion is not resonating with me is true, so I'm going to keep going. Every time you get feedback, take a beat. Consider whether that feedback is valuable to you and if you want to act upon it and then move ahead. You just have to keep querying, I had a friend who wrote a novel, it was a good novel - I read it, it was very good. She queried three agents, three, they said no, and she put the book on the shelf. And that's it. It's still living there. That was about 10 years ago. I think this is a shame. I said to her, why don't you query 30 agents? Why don’t you query 60 agents? It's entirely possible that 60th agent is going to have the spark. And that 60th agent is going to say, “You know what, this is so close. Let's work together and make this everything it needs to be. And then I'll represent you and we'll make you a book deal.” So stick with it is my point. If it's not quite getting there with the first handful of queries, give it a look, maybe brush it up a little bit, give it a twist. Something new would change the title, send it out again to another batch. Hopefully, you will be offered representation from an agent by the time you're done with this querying process either your novel or your nonfiction book will catch the excitement of a literary agent who wants to “sign you.” That's what it's called. They're going to “sign you” as a client and they will represent you to the marketplace. That means that your agent will speak for you to publishers and editors. You will still have a voice, not just a voice, but power over making decisions if you get a book deal and your agent comes to you and says yes or no, you still get to decide. Your agent does not make decisions for you, but your agent does represent you and hopefully guide you in a really informed, thorough, intelligent way to make good choices about which publishers and editors to go to when seeking a book deal. Your agent is going to send you an agency agreement, this is usually one to two page contract, very short, and it typically goes like this. It says, we're going to work together, I'm going to represent you, I'm going to represent all of your writing projects during the duration of our agreement and whatever I sell for you, whatever money you make from your writing during the period that we're working together, I'm going to get 15 percent (15 percent is a standard for agents). If someone's asking for you to do a different kind of a split, maybe an agent is saying, oh, I take 20 percent. That doesn't ring right to me. Something there seems wrong. I would proceed with caution. I only know agents that take 15 percent. It can be a little bit different for film and television. It can be a little bit different for merchandising or for other ancillary rights.
[00:24:23] But to sell a book - I would like my novel published, I would like my business guide published - 15 percent is what your agent will take. And the other thing your agreement will most likely say is either one of us can terminate this agreement at any time. But if I have sold your book, I will represent that book in perpetuity. That means if I sell a book for you and you decide you don't want to work with me anymore, I mean crazy. Why would you want to do that? But let's say you want to go somewhere else. You can leave my agency and you don't have to be represented by me. But if I sold your book into the marketplace, I'm still getting my 15 percent in perpetuity. So there you go. Alright. You have written your novel. Or your book proposal, you have queried agents, you have chatted with a couple of agents who seem like they might be a good fit for you and you've chosen one, they've offered you representation, you have accepted, and now you have an agent. A lot of authors say at this point that they think that they have made it. This is the exciting big break they've been waiting for. And I don't want to splash cold water on that because it is exciting and it is a really big deal. The very first big gatekeeper to your being published is the agent and you have made it through that gate. The gatekeeper said welcome in and so lovely - now you have an agent. This is great. But we still have a whole secondary process to get you the book deal. Remember how you had your book idea and a query letter and a manuscript or a proposal to send to your agent? Your agent is going to do the exact same thing to editors in the marketplace.
[00:25:56] Your agent is going to take that material, whether it's your novel or your book proposal, hand select a very careful selection of editors at different publishing houses and write to them in the same manner to your editor “ I think you're really going to love seeing this novel. I think you'll be very impressed by this writer's thought leadership, by their expertise. This is a great, exciting new book. Now is the exact right time for it” - whatever that looks like for your particular book, and it's going out to all these editors, maybe one at Random House, maybe three at Simon and Schuster, maybe a couple editors at Harper Collins. After that first batch of queries goes out to editors they're going to consider it. It's the same thing for agents and editors as it was for you and your agents. Some will write back and say, no, thank you, not for me. Others will write back and ask for more information. Hopefully you'll get a couple of editors who will say “This is really intriguing. I'm enjoying this. Why don't we have a conversation with the author?” That is the first really good sign that there's a green light looming in the distance that might be right for you to get a book deal with this person. An editor calls your agent and says “I like this. Why don't we talk to the author there? A couple of things that I have concerns about. A few places I might like to change the project. Let's have a conversation and see if everyone's on the same page.” And so the agent will arrange a phone call and on that phone call will be, at the very least, you, your agent, this editor, and maybe somebody from the editor's team, someone from marketing, someone from publicity, the publisher. Every once in a while someone else will join the conversation and you all come together to have a talk and get to know each other. A lot of this is really just like we call it a “woo call” - can I woo you into my project? And the reason why we call that is because when you work with the editor, the author-editor relationship is a very long standing one. If I'm an editor and I sign up a new book today, I'm going to be involved in that author's life and the life of that book for at least another two years. We're getting in bed together. We really have to like each other. So likability is a big deal. On that call, also a big deal is are you open to changes or are you feeling precious about your exact book. So if you're a novelist and you get on a call with an editor and the editor says, you know, that second act is a little bit slow, I'd like to see us pick up the pace by adding some new plot points in there.
[00:28:27] Maybe we can inject a little bit of a personality crisis in the middle, something to give it more of a page-turning momentum in the middle. And you balk at this and you say “I don't want to.” That's going to send a message to the editor that you may not be so easy to work with. That doesn't mean you have to agree with everything they say. It just means that when you're talking with them, be open to their ideas and say “Oh, I think we really could do something. Why don't we talk through our other options instead of doing it this way? How about this one?” You can put forth your own ideas for how to correct the problem they're proposing. Regardless, try to be as open-minded as you can. Let your agent prep you about anything you need to know about this particular editor and enjoy the conversation and use that time to ask questions as well. So if you're on a call with an editor who's representing a publishing company, what kinds of questions can you ask? You can ask all kinds of questions. What would your marketing publicity plan be like? What other books have you published that are similar to mine that you might look to to inform how you're going to edit this one? What did you like about my book? That's a good one. If you're going to be getting in the trenches with an editor, you want to know not just what they're concerned about, but also what they love.
[00:29:42] What is it about your project that drew them to it and made them want to take a step forward and say, let's work together? These editors that you are talking to on these phone calls we call in the industry “an acquisitions editor,” meaning they acquire books. They are often the same person who's going to develop your book too and give you your developmental edits. That's the big picture. Edit more of this. Let's add that it's sagging in the middle. Let's lift it up. These are not copy editors. These are not proofreaders. They really are idea people who are going to help position you in the marketplace to succeed and you have to trust this person. Otherwise, they're going to take your book in one direction. Your head's going to go in another and you're always going to feel that disconnect. That's not comfortable when you're writing a book. You really want to know that the people in-house have your back, that you're aligned about what the future of your book could be and what that content should take shape. OK, you've gone to your agent, gotten that agent. The agent is going out to editors, acquisition editors, trying to get you a book deal, you finally get an offer.
[00:30:49] That offer is going to look something like this: “Dear agent and author, we think that your book is wonderful. We would like to publish it. We would like to put it on our list for whatever pub date will be maybe in a year or two in the future.” And the offer is going to include a number that's called “an advance against future royalties.” That is a dollar amount that you will be paid in advance of writing your book that you can then keep in perpetuity, even if the book never earns back that advance. Let me go over that again. Part of the deal that you'll be offered by a mainstream publisher includes an advance. That's a money that you get paid in advance against future royalties. So if you get paid a fifty thousand dollar advance, your book will eventually have to sell the equivalent of your percentage of sales to equate fifty thousand dollars of book sales before you start making royalties. If have a paperback book coming out, your royalty is going to be about 7.5% of all book sales. So, when enough books have sold and 7.5% of the total revenue equals fifty thousand dollars, you've earned back your advance and you can start making royalties. Until then, all the money you're going to see is that advance. So take it very seriously, because even if the book never earns back its investment, you still keep that fifty thousand dollars. So at very least you're going to have a paycheck, which is great. Keep the fifty thousand dollars, then work to earn it out and make more money. But that's yours to keep.
[00:32:38] If you get offers from more than one publisher, which would be lovely, then they can compete with each other. And sometimes your agent will do something called “go to auction.” We take you to an auction and we let every editor who's interested in the book put in their best offer. How much do you want to spend? Tell me what you think you can do with the marketing and publicity campaign. How big are you going to go with it? What kind of ideas do you have for promoting the book into the worlds that we know that readers are going to come to it? Consider all of the editors’ offers, all of their visions. Who did you like best? Take it all into account and then make a good choice. And now you have a book deal. You do a handshake deal first. Yes, I accept your offer and I accept your advance; I accept your plans for marketing and publicity; I accept the idea that I'm going to be partnered with you and you are going to represent my book into the marketplace; and my agent isn't going to represent me to you. And we all have a team. Yeah, very exciting. And that is another grand milestone of having a book come out in the world is that moment where you get a book deal from an author and you sign a contract with the publisher.
[00:33:45] Now you have a book deal, an agent, an editor and a whole team of people who are invested in seeing your book do well, which is fantastic. Let me take it one step beyond that. I'm going to give you a little bit more information about what to do after you have the book deal to make sure that that book deals everything it should be. And then we're like at forty minutes after the hour. So I'm going to wrap this up and then we're going to turn it over to you guys for questions. Once you have that book deal, here's what I want you to know. Publishing companies and the bigger they are, the more true this is, offer very little contractual control to authors. There are certain things you can weigh in on, there's certain things you can't, but there's very little you have full control over here. A couple of the things that authors typically do not have control over. Once they have a book deal, have them in mind and see if you can push during your contract states to ask for more control than they're willing to offer. Do you have a voice in your cover design? Authors really hate it when their cover design comes back from a publisher and they don't like it. Have your agent negotiate some kind of, even if you don't have approval over the cover, you should at least be consulted. The same thing is true with titles and subtitles, interior design. If you are expecting it to have some sort of a design component on the inside and you don't have any control over what that's going to look like? You're going to feel a little insecure about that. See if you can get consultation rights to your cover, your inside, your title, your subtitle, all of those elements that were eventually become the purview of marketing and publicity. What else? Sometimes your contract will not give you the authority to review your page proofs. I think that's something you can ask for. Can I please review page proofs? At that point when you're looking at page proofs, the errors you're looking for are so granular and small that they're not considered essential and the author doesn't really have to weigh in. We can just send it out to a professional proofreader and let the professional proofreader handle it.
[00:35:57] But sometimes there are errors or glitches that a proofreader couldn't catch. I think it's a good idea for an author to look at pages before they actually go off to the printer and the printer hit send. That's just my two cents. So all that adds up to the general idea that when you have a contract come your way, ask your agent to look for every possible opportunity to give you as much voice or control in the outcome of your book as possible. Otherwise, what's going to happen is you're going to go into that relationship where you're going to turn in your manuscript and then you have very little say about anything else. You're not going to the meetings in-house that discuss your cover. You're not going to the meetings to discuss the interior design. You're not going to the meeting to discuss your sales distribution channels. Your editor is going to all of that. And you need your editor to be able to communicate with you about what decisions are being made in-house. And you also want an editor who's going to hear you and your preferences. So make sure that you and your agent are putting those ideas in front of the editor from the very start.
[00:37:00] And now you have a first great book deal! And I think what we'll do is do a very quick recap and turn it over to your questions. Good, OK.
At the very beginning, are you fiction and non-fiction. For fiction you write the whole book, nonfiction - you do a book proposal, you take that material, you send it off to agents with a query letter saying “please represent me.” The agents either respond or don't. The ones that do you engage with them, have a phone call, exchanged some emails, talk through what it is you envision for your book. Eventually you get an offer of representation from your agent and you sign an agreement to be represented by the agency. Your agent will then go out to the publishers on your behalf with the manuscript or the book proposal. And eventually we are hoping that editors will come forward and say, I like this and they want to publish it. You have conversations with any editors who were interested, and when you were offered a book deal or more than one book deal, you make your selection and now you have a book deal and it's very exciting. So lots more to talk about every one of those little steps and stages. But in the time we have today, I think that pretty much covers it in a comprehensive way. So I'm going to take this first question. It's from Kyle.
[00:38:24] It says, Kyle is a novelist with six self published novels. You queried one hundred agents for a recent novel, got feedback from only one that's about right. And followed that advice by making the novel shorter. And then you sent query letters to these agents. How do you figure the problem is the query letter, or with the novel itself? Oh, this is so hard. I really feel for you. OK, let's take this in a couple different steps and stages. One of them is you didn't get a lot of feedback from agents, I'll tell you why this is it's not because agents don't care about writers. Agents care about writers. Believe me, we care about writers a lot. The problem is in volume, the number of queries we get. If we were to give feedback to even 50 percent of those queries, we would spend all day, every day just giving feedback to people we can't represent. And we have to actually do our jobs. We have to actually represent the people who are already signed with our agency. We have books that we have to be developing. It's not possible. It is truly, fundamentally, systemically impossible for us to respond with anything more than a quick line to I would say like ninety five percent of the people are submitting to us. Otherwise you spend all day in that inbox of submissions. It's just not doable. So that's number one. Don't take it personally. If you don't get specific feedback regarding your particular project. If you do, you'll be thrilled. But if you don't - brush it off, it's not personal. Trust me. If you get feedback, something like word count, that's actually a really great tip. Most novels have to live within a certain window of word count. They can be a little longer for certain genres or a little shorter for others. But generally speaking, it is rare for a novel less than sixty five thousand words to be published. And once you get over ninety thousand words, it's a pretty hefty book and you might have an editor asking you to trim it back. Science fiction can run a little longer, up to the hundred thousand mark, as well as a couple of other genres, but for the most part, eighty thousand is that target center of the bull's eye. So if you have a book that's one hundred and fifty thousand words, it stands to reason that agents are going to say, I can't represent this, I can't sell it. And they just say, no, you don't know why. OK, so maybe it's a word count thing. Maybe it's a query thing, maybe that cover letter that tells the editors and agents what your book is about isn't captivating them enough. Maybe it isn't enticing them enough. How do you know? I wish I had a straightforward, you know, system for vetting, which for sussing out this problem - what is the thing that's not landing with the agents I'm pitching? It's so hard to know all I can do. It was suggested that you get a lot of good beta readers, that you trust your gut, that you look to other examples online and make sure that you're lined up with it. There's nothing glaringly offbeat about what you're trying to do and then just keep going. I don't I wish I had a more clarifying answer for you other than when we're in a space of creativity and it's all very subjective, it is very hard to pinpoint exactly what isn't connecting with your readers. So try new people, bring new friends and family and other writers, you know, to the table and ask them to maybe look at your materials and see what's not landing with them, tell them to be truthful and see how that goes. OK, is it hard for not moving on to another question here. I hope that was helpful answer.
Is it hard for non-American authors to get represented by US agencies? It is. That's just the truth. If you're not here in the United States physically living here and being a part of our culture and our daily everyday life, it is harder here the things you can do to make the most of your chances. One, if you're here at all, let's say you spend a month here every year, include that in your proposal or in your cover letter, if you have ties to the United States, your family here, you have a job that's related, that has a company presence here, anything that ties to the United States to make you almost like an honorary American, go ahead and mention that that's a really helpful tool. We just want to know that you have a presence among readers here in the States. And this is especially true for nonfiction. For fiction, it's less essential for nonfiction it is key because, again, we're publishing people that we like to put in the category of thought leaders or experts. And we need to know that you’re a thought leader, an expert for this particular community of readers. Being here and being accessible to promote the book online in events wherever we're going to be promoting books in the years to come. Actually, that's a really interesting thing, as I think that I wonder - we're going to have to watch this and see that as time goes by. Will it be less and less important to have an author who's physically here as we get more and more accustomed to writers not hitting the road on a book tour? Right. But right now, it is advisable that if you are not here in the United States, that you at least establish some sort of a connection so that we know why we're representing you here as opposed to having an agent elsewhere.
OK, how does the query process differ for children's books? I don't represent children's books and the system is very different, so I don't know a whole lot about kids books.
[00:43:54] And so I'm sorry for that. But I will share with you what I know, which is the system is similar in that you do need an agent to represent you if you want a mainstream book deal. And here's the other little tidbit I have. Unless you are the artist illustrator, don't send it in with art. The publishers like to choose the artists and illustrators themselves, unless you are doing both. So let's say I'm an artist illustrator and I write a children's book in the whole thing comes together as one piece. The art and the words are integrated and I created all great. Go ahead and send in with our if I want to write a children's book and I'm not an illustrator artist, I should not go and find a friend or a pal or somebody I find online to do the illustrations for me. Just send in the words and let them assess the words for what they can do if they're eventually paired with art, and let your editor or publisher choose that artist. That's all I've got for you, children's writers. I'm very sorry, but I think for the most part it's a similar system. And the key is to make sure you're pitching agents that do represent children's books because a lot of people don't.
[00:45:03] Ok, how much does the publisher get involved with marketing? Every big house in print, an imprint is a division of a publisher, so there's a big umbrella company and there are lots of different publishing teams. These publishing teams are imprint's. Every one of them has publicity and marketing staff, every one of them. They are absolutely going to get involved to some extent with the publicity and marketing of your book. How much is, excuse me for saying so, a little bit of a crapshoot. We just don't know how much they're going to bang the drum on your behalf. So there are a couple of things you can do. First, get your agent to advocate for you at every turn to make sure you're getting a great publicist, a great marketer, people who are going to think aggressively on your behalf. Authors who don't ask the questions “What do you do in the publicity? What is your marketing plan?” They can sometimes be pushed to the side and not consulted. And then the that that plan gets a little tepid. The more you show interest in what that plan is going to look like, the more they're going to hopefully include you. And then you have first real insight into what the plans are. And you can maybe have a seat at that table. Being included in the marketing and publicity plans for your publisher is like at there courtesy. You don't have contractual rights to be included. So the nicer you are and the more gung-ho and the more willing you are to help, the more likely you'll be included in those conversations. And you can advocate for a good, solid campaign. Now, whatever, no matter how good that campaign is, it is very likely that a lot of this work will fall to you ultimately because you are the point person, you are the face of your book.
[00:46:53] So when your book goes out in the world, I would expect that those first three months, you should at least be available and on hand for any kind of interviews, appearances, consultations with publicity and marketing that you can possibly do if they want to load you up with as many opportunities to talk about the book in public, whatever that may look like. A lot of authors ask me, do I need to hire my own publicist? The answer is you do not have to. If you're publishing with a big five house, you should get a publicist assigned to you. And those publicists are pretty good. If you feel that you are not going to be satisfied by the plan in-house for your book, and you have a little bit of money on the side, it's not a bad way to go to hire somebody, to augment your campaign. To augment it, not overlap it! Generally, a true situation for almost all publishers is they don't do your social media: they might give you graphics or, they might make suggestions for it. They might give you some great tips and tools for how to leverage your social media to reach readers. But they're not going to actually push those buttons on your behalf. So if you don't like to do social media and you have a little budget set aside, yeah, you can hire somebody to do social media for you.
Let's see, what other questions do we have here? As an editor considering representing an unpublished writer, when you look at their online platform what do you look for? I look for writers who take themselves seriously, especially if it's a non-fiction book. What is your expertise and how have you cultivated it with real intention? What skills do you have? How polished are you in the way you present yourself? I am looking for authors that I might just really like - your topics of interest are probably mine too. Are we aligned? I am going to see if you have engaged with readers in another manner before this one.
[00:49:05] Here's a tip. Take this in. Every channel of media, radio, television and big magazines, newspapers, whatever that media format is, those gatekeepers and producers and editors who are deciding what to publish or promote and what to take a pass on, all of them are looking to the other forms of media as what we might call like the trial ground. Somebody in a newspaper when deciding if they're going to publish an op-ed, is probably going to look and see “Well, have you written a book?”
And the people in the book publishing are going to say, well, have you been on radio, and the radio people are going to say, have you written for a magazine and the magazine people are going to say, do you have a blog? Everyone's looking to see what other areas you've already made inroads because that does two things. One, it shows that what you're writing has found an audience - it is like a test in the marketplace of your words and your ideas. You've tested your words and you're going to a radio or newspaper or magazine or blog or podcast. Then it's going to give me a more confidence that your message is going to land for the readers. And the other thing it does is it sets such a groundwork for a core set of readers who really know who you are. And we want readers to know who you are before we publish your book - we want more people to have awareness of your thinking, your ideologies, your style, writing style. And the more people who have awareness of who and what you have to offer, the better it is for book sales in the long run. So, yes, I would check all of that out and probably twice or three times.
Are there guidelines on how many agencies one can query at one time? No, there are no guidelines. You can query as many as you want at one time. What I recommend is to do like maybe 10 at a time so that if you do get feedback, you can consider how to apply that feedback before the next step. Then you do another 10 to get feedback and they have good feedback for you - “Ah, you know what you are right. I probably should have made it more interesting that there was a conflict in the first act. OK, I will go change that” and then you can send to another 10. But there are no rules: you can send out to as many as you like and don't quit till you get a yes.
OK, what is the etiquette for follow ups. It's so hard…. But follow up once and if you don't hear, let it go. Just give up,
OK. Is there space in publishing for hybrid books of poetry and prose?
[00:51:52] I. I assume you have a hybrid book of poetry and prose and that you're hoping I'm going to say yes here, and I so want to say yes, I want to say absolutely what a beautiful combination of two elements that can come together and create something special. And I agree with all the words I just said. But the truth is there is very little market for that. Poetry is not a thriving market here. If you have poetry that you would like to include in your book I would keep it small and let most of the book be the prose, because that's what we're accustomed to seeing, or maybe write it as prose and keep your poetry for something that is shared in literary magazines or online. I'm not sure -poetry is a little bit of like, I don't want to say a red flag for publishing, but maybe a yellow flag of concern.
How do I find beta readers? I want to say friends and family, and you can go to friends and family, but I highly recommend going to people who aren't friends and family. They're going to take in your content in a slightly different way than somebody who knows you already. Go to writing groups online. Ask them if they would like to do some trade in exchange for being a beta reader. They are social media and oftentimes little groups like on Facebook.
[00:53:29] OK, how transparent is the process of taking the manuscript to publishers? The agent for my nonfiction book said only one publisher showed interest. I was forced to take that advance even if I really wanted to wait. Your agent should tell you absolutely everything. Whatever your agent is doing that is still comes up. You should have access to all information. You should be able to know what that query looked like, who your agent went to and what those different offers looked like. If you only got one offer. And first of all, Bloomsbury is a great house and maybe that advance wasn't good, but maybe it was on par and maybe it was the only advance you got that's entirely common for only one house to come forward with an offer. But the question here is transparency. One hundred percent transparency from your agent, a little less transparency from the publishing houses themselves.
What else do we have here that we can answer for you? How do publishers feel about working with an author on a second book when sales of the first or either medium report? Really good question. It's not ideal, but it's not a deal breaker either. You just have to have a good answer for why that first book didn't sell as well. And a good answer for why this new book will do better in the marketplace than the first one. It went into the marketplace and it was too niche, too small of an audience that you were trying to connect with. Was there no publicist assigned to your book because you, a publicist, quit the day before your pub date? Maybe reason was there a global pandemic and your book was about travel? I don't know. There are a lot of reasons why it doesn't work and it's not a deal breaker. I think if you were to have three books that didn't sell well, your fourth one is going to be really hard. We are going to look at the sales numbers, no doubt. But if your new book idea is strong, smart, capable, just be ready to offer an answer as to why this one is going to be positioned better in the marketplace to succeed. OK, I'm looking at some other questions here.
I have heard conflicting advice, (this is from Emily) conflicting advice on whether to mention my social media following in a query letter as proof of potential audience base. I do have insight into this. If you have phenomenal social media numbers, mention it. If you do not have phenomenal social media numbers, don't. And that's what it comes down to. If you are in the six figures, if you have a grand, substantial, connected, engaged, following in any social media channel, I don't care which one it is, absolutely highlight it. If your numbers are like, ten thousand or twelve thousand or six thousand, it's good to have it. But it's not it's not going to be the thing that either makes or breaks your deal.
OK, how essential is it to build a digital self, an online social media presence before you sell or publish? Good question. The answer is specific to your project. If it is a novel, if it's fiction, creative writing – it is less essential, less of a big deal to have a web presence. If you're a historian, a biographer, somebody who's an academic coming to your topic, less of a big deal. If you were writing non-fiction in some sort of arena where you are an expert - it does help to have a solid online presence, and if you are writing into a certain category that tends to be driven by an online audience like self-help, careers is often something that writers will go online to discuss with their online followers. Those are the places where it's better to put a little bit of an investment in making sure that your social presence is polished. I don't recommend starting from a zero ground base of the social media following, like let's say you've got nothing or very little, and then trying to jack it up for publishers to be impressed. The idea that you're going to go from almost nothing to a number that's significant enough within the window of time that you're querying. is not likely because the numbers that really impress us are the ones that take more of a significant effort to build and establish. It means a lot of posting and a lot of engagement. And if you want to spend your life tweeting and Instagram posting and Facebook chatting, then don't do it. It means that you're going to have to find other ways to say to publishers and agents and editors “I can reach an audience.” It doesn't have to be through social media. I don't want you tweeting if you don't want to tweet, but you do have to find some sort of legitimacy for saying an audience will come to me and here's how I know. Alright.
[00:58:10] Is this advice only applicable in the US? it is certainly mostly applicable to the US. I think it's probably the same is true to Canada and the U.K., once we get into other countries, I think it gets a little bit more easy to get a book deal without an agent. I think you do get a little bit more visibility into the machinations of the publishing companies. But here in the states, Canada, the U.K., it really is a big deal to have the agent and the agent represent you well into the marketplace and all the other broad strokes ideas here that I'm sharing. OK, last question.
Last question - how much is the advance usually for a first time author? Is the royalty of 50 percent book sold or less. So first of all, your royalty on books that are sold is going to be somewhere between like 7 and 15 percent. It depends on if it's hardcover or paperback. It depends on the publisher. It depends on whether or not there's color on the inside and it's an expensive book to produce. But generally speaking, you're going to get somewhere between 7.5% and 15 percent royalties on sales and the first year advance for a first time author can be anything. It can be five thousand. It could be five hundred thousand. It all depends on the content and how valuable the editor believes your book will be to the publishing company. Their goal is to acquire books that will sell a lot and make them a profit. And if they feel they have to compete with other houses and pay you a lot of money to make a lot of money, then they're going to put a big advance in front of you. If they feel that your book does not require a big advance, meaning that they think they can publish it well and make a profit, but either it's a little bit risky or it's a smaller category, then they're going to offer you a smaller advance at the outset. So in the last three years I have offered advances as low as ten thousand and as high as three hundred thousand. I think that for a first time author, if you really want me to put some sort of like reasonable bookmarks around it, I would expect somewhere between 10 and 50.
[01:00:32] I think that's probably where the majority of book deals live, between ten thousand dollars and fifty thousand. But again, it really depends on the book. And the author and the publishing house. What do you think, Vikram? We good?
Vikram: That was amazing, Laura. I've been in publishing for decades and that was educational for me, and I learned a lot.
Thank you so much for taking the time. And thank you to all our guests for being here, as always. E-mail us or go to our website and use the contact form there to get in touch with us. If you want to say thanks to Laura some more, you can get in touch with her there. I won't promise you that she'll answer any more questions offline, as it were, like you said, agents are very busy people. We'll see you next time. Bye.
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