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My SFWA Bulletin Column

Movin’ On Up: Snagging That Better Agent

from The SFWA Bulletin #179, October-November 2008


Snagging an Agent When You’re Not a Non-Debut Author

    Janet Reid is a literary agent at FinePrint Literary Management in New York City. In the June 2008 InSynC, she wrote that she gets many queries from writers wanting to “step up to the big houses.” And most of those get instant rejections. Here’s her analysis of why this happens:

      1. Publishers prefer the unknown risk of debut authors to the known risk of established authors who’ve never sold more than 50,000 copies. That’s an ugly fact but it’s a fact. Authors on The New York Times Bestseller List can move houses pretty easily. Everyone else can’t.

      2. Most publishers aren’t interested in taking on a series that started elsewhere, particularly if the rights to those books are still with another publisher.

      3. Publishers might be interested in a new series from an established writer (a non-debut author) ONLY if they think the new book is a big breakout book. That means radically new, better and different from the last one (that’s really rare of course).

      4. If a publisher is interested in a nondebut author, they want to see increasing sales with every book, not flat and certainly not decreasing, sales figures. Publishers have access to sales reported to BookScan (a company that tracks ISBN sales). The first thing an editor does is look up sales figures on BookScan. In fact, I hear them tapping the keyboard while I’m talking to them on the phone.

    She wrote that much of the problem is that few writers send in adequate query letters that truly sell their work. Agents read query letters first and if they are flat and ordinary, the agents will not give the work more than a cursory read.

      The one thing to remember is you must spell out in a compelling way “why should I read this book.” And that doesn’t mean you write “you should read this book because…” It means that in a few sentences you entice me into wondering “how does that work?” or “what happens next?” This is an ideal place to let your distinctive voice shine.

RWA Joins Center for the Book

    In the Winter 2005 Bulletin, #164, I noted that the Mystery Writers of America had become the first genre writers organization to become one of the 80-plus partners in the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book (www.loc.gov/cfbook).

    Sharon Sobel wrote in the August 2008 RWR that the Romance Writers of America had become the second.

      Established over 30 years ago by the historian Daniel J. Boorstin, this affiliation of governmental and private agencies has one ambitious and wide reaching goal: to develop a nation of readers. Under its broad umbrella are literacy foundations, educational agencies, booksellers, publishers, bookstores. Local civic groups, national organizations, but only a few associations of writers. Through this new network, we have many valuable opportunities to both engage and support a very diverse audience of new readers.

    Each state has its own Center for the Book and national programs like the “Big Read” and “One Book” programs are among a number of programs that the Center originates.

    Nor are genre organizations looked down upon by the more mainstream groups. Sobel wrote:

      [M]y colleagues from the Mystery Writers of America and I were very popular at this meeting and each of us went home with a collection of business cards and brochures. Many groups would like to work with us, and we now have the pleasure of exploring some of these partnerships.

To Blurb or Not to Blurb

    Whether your writing is truly a unique mix of Olaf Stapledon and H. P. Lovecraft, a page-turning treat that draws the reader deeply into every sentence, or a hyperfuturistic blend of the best parts of the Decameron and Dr. Seuss, you can certainly find someone who is willing to say so in a blurb. (I will. Write me.) Does such hypertrophied prose persuade readers to buy the book? This question generated discussion on sff.net recently. That made me take a second look at another genre’s perspective on the subject.

    W. C. Jameson’s article, “The ‘Honesty’ of Blurbs,” in the April 2008 Roundup Magazine, was more a troubled meditation on authors who write their own blurbs or rewrite those by others, blurbers who don’t read the work in question, or authors who are in denial about the frequency of their blurbs, than an examination of the effectiveness of blurbs. He didn’t neglect that aspect, however, quoting other western authors for their takes.

      [Russ Hall] observes that a lot of readers depend on blurbs, the opinions of others, in lieu of having an opinion of their own.

      Johnny D. Boggs makes an important point when he says that as a marketing tool blurbs make good sense. Asking other writers published by the same house to blurb a book amounts to free advertising for both the writer and blurber.

    Jameson admitted to having himself bought a book solely because of its blurb. But his worries about integrity led him to conclude that blurbs should be eliminated. “A few publishing companies refuse to use blurbs,” although he didn’t name any.

    Jameson’s article led to a letter of response printed in the August 2008 Roundup. The perspective was an unusual one, from Larry Yoder, a publisher’s rep.

      In all my years of selling books to bookstores I have only ever had one buyer who one time was swayed to buy based on a blurb. Booksellers have for years told me blurbs so not motivate customers to look at a book, or to buy. What motivates a buyer and customer is a good cover related to the inside of the book and a good synopsis that gives a true picture of the text but has no specifics.

    Yoder acknowledged that blurbs weren’t going to disappear soon as the marketing people believe they’re still the best way to sell a book. Of course, they also think that readers know every name that appears at the bottom of a blurb. Since there must be blurbs, he offered the following, somewhat cynical, advice:

      [O]ne can be specific in writing a blurb, demonstrating the complete book was read, one can only speak to the title being blurbed or one can help the fellowship he/she has among fellow writers and say those good things that will get you a steak from the writer and also have your publisher think you are a good guy. These last two reasons to write a blurb are worth considering because they have real meaning within the world writers live.

Markets Outside the Box

    Updates to paranormal romance publisher wants, from The Market Update in the August and September 2008 issues of the RWR.

    Silhouette Romance Suspense has removed paranormal from their list of popular themes.

    Sourcebooks, Inc., is currently seeking paranormal.

    Parker Publishing is looking for multi-ethnic YA books for its new imprint, Moxie.

      The books should feature strong resourceful young heroines in a variety of genres from contemporary to sci-fi and fantasy. We would like to see books with heroines from all walks of life with social issues relevant to teens today. No Gossip Girl type stories.

    MIRA, a British arm of Harlequin, is making a move on the YA market with a target launch date of late 2009, according to a Business Brief in the August 2008 NINK. “Currently their areas of interest are listed as paranormal, fantasy/sci-fi, relationship/romance, and social issues. Only agented submissions are requested.”

Publishers Moving to E-Catalogs

    A Business Brief in the September 2008 NINK reported:

      HarperCollins announced in May it would go to an online catalog and have it ready by summer 2009. Hachette Book Group USA should have its online catalog ready by the end of 2008. While Simon & Schuster currently provides both print and online catalogs, the publisher hasn’t made any plans to go exclusively electronic. Random House says an e-catalog is an “ecopriority” soon, but nothing definite. A telling comment comes from Public Affairs; when a rep visits an account it isn’t about two terminals, but two people having a conversation with the catalog for referral. (Apparently they can’t read it on the screen at this point, but must have a print copy.) Yet Candlewick Press says they have a dynamic relationship with teachers and librarians with their online catalog. The online efforts also allowed them to develop additional guides and downloaded activities for clients. Booksellers, however, are reported as reluctant to adapt to an electronic format. It will be interesting to see a report on online publishers’ catalogs two or three years from now.

Industry Numbers

    I’m merging complementary numbers from a survey conducted by the Book Industry Study Group and reported by Cindi Myers in the September 2008 NINK and the annual ROMStat Report, published in the September 2008 RWR.

    R. R. Bowker figures put the number of publishers in 2007 at 210,006, an 8.4% increase over 2006. U.S. title output increased just slightly over that time, from 274,416 to 276,649 new titles, but then you have to add in 134,773 “on demand” and short-run books for a total of 411,422. The number of small publishers, defined as those with less than $50,000 in annual sales, grew by 16%, so the average number of books put out by each publisher is falling. Wisely, small publishers are not relying solely on books for profits. Non-book revenues (T-shirts, calendars, etc.), are now 56% of total revenues. Book revenue is three parts paperback and one part hardback.

    The total adult book market produces about $6.5 billion in sales. Electronic books are barely 1% of this total.

    Publishers released about 8090 romance books in 2007, an astounding 25.9% increase over 2006. Paranormal books represented 11.8% of this total or about 950. When will paranormal romance overtake f&sf titles? In the not too distant future, according to these trend lines.

    And they like you, they really like you. A Zogby International survey revealed that:

      The single biggest factor in selecting a book to purchase was the “idea of making a special effort to look for other books by an author you have enjoyed, with 89 percent confirming this behavior.”

Too Good Not to Be Shared

    Start kicking yourself now because you didn’t think of it first. Think of what? This headline from the online edition of the Telegraph says it all: “Penniless author sells shares in next novel.”

    Tao Lin, a Brooklyn poet and author of one short novel, EEEEE EEE EEEE, posted this notice on his Reader-of-Depressing-Books blog on July 31:

      I am selling 6 shares (of 10% of the U.S. royalties of my second novel) for $2000 per share.

      For each share you own you will receive 10% of the U.S. royalties of my second novel.

      This includes all U.S. serial, reprint, textbook, and film (and other performance) royalties.

      Shareholders will receive checks (and copies of the royalty statement from my publisher) in the mail every 6 months after the book's publication (probably Fall, 2009 or Spring 2010). Shares can be resold at any price at any time, I will facilitate trading and promote it on my blog if that is what a shareholder wants. I accept Paypal.

      Based on sales of my first novel I project sales of my second novel to be ~13000 after 24 months (if there isn't more mainstream attention than with my first novel). If there is more mainstream attention, and I think there is a 80-90% chance there will be, sales will be "considerably higher" I think. Regardless of the amount of mainstream attention that happens I believe that in the long term sales will remain steady and that my second novel will remain in print.

    Before you could say publicity stunt, Lin had received international attention, from the highest of brows (The New Yorker, The Guardian) to the lowest (Gawker.com). The six shares quickly sold.

    You can follow the continuing saga of the new novel (a “page turner” though also “rereadable”) at reader-of-depressing-books.blogspot.com/.


Organization, Publication, Address, Web Address

Novelists, Inc., NINK, P. O. Box 2037, Manhattan KS, 66505, www.ninc.com

Romance Writers of America, Romance Writers’ Report (RWR), 14615 Benfer Rd., Houston, TX 77069 [new address], 77379, www.rwanational.com

Sisters in Crime, InSinC, P.O. Box 442124, Lawrence, KS 66044-8933, www.sistersincrime.org/

Western Writers of America, Roundup Magazine, MSCO6, 1 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque NM, 87131, www.westernwriters.org

Copyright 2008 by Steve Carper

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