Part two of a two-part blog. See the first part here.
The second half of this blog will focus more on the specifics of finding an agent and the publishing process.
- Commercial vs Literary vs Upmarket vs New Adult vs Young Adult vs Contemporary
Ahh! What’s the difference? I did a ton of research on this before the conference and I still got confused, referred to my notes, found myself saying one thing when I meant another. To those of us on the verge of being in the business, these terms seem overwhelming and confusing and nebulous. But they are very, very important to people inside of the industry.
The good news here is that there are TONS of blogs about this on your friendly internet. Google it until it’s clear to you. (It took me about three different blogs). Know this before you pitch. If your dream agent only takes Literary Fiction and you wrote Commercial Fiction, then they’re not your dream agent because they probably won’t even read past the first line of your query.
- Put your character at the center of your pitch or query letter
This has been a hard one for me since my own work involves some world building and magical elements. Where do I start?
At the characters.
It’s not that these other elements aren’t important, but they’re meaningless without a character that people can care about. Lift up your character and their core conflict first, and everything else can follow (if there’s room in your short query letter).
- Agents/Editors want to be curious, not confused
This advice harkens back to the query letter. I thought this idea from one of the agents summed it all up nicely.
- Comp titles
Or “comparative titles”. Many agents at the conference empathized with how difficult this part of the process is, particularly because they have to do it themselves when they’re trying to sell any book – maybe even your book, one day – to a publishing house. But the idea behind it is simple: what other moderately successful book would share the shelf with your book?
Note that I say “moderately successful.” This is because we were advised against using huge worldwide phenomenons in our list of comp titles because series like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games have seen such an incredible amount of success across such a wide audience, that it’s nearly impossible to replicate and realistically picture how your book will fit in amongst the other mere-mortal books.
I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, like I did, “But my book isn’t like any other book. That’s why I wrote it.” Well, that’s a good step, but Barnes and Noble isn’t going to create a new section just for you. It’s got to sit somewhere. So, where’s that going to be? If someone searches for your book on Amazon, what other books is the site going to suggest for that person?
It’s okay to say something like, “The plotline is laid out similarly to XXX with the romance twist of YYY.” As a personal example, I’m using, “My novel is like American Gods by Neil Gaiman, but with a lighter, bubblier tone.” We’ll see how far that gets me.
- Google Yourself
Because they’re going to Google you.
And what are they going to find?
Okay, who’s ‘they’?
Well, first it’s going to be that agent that you adore. They want to know more about you. Who are you? What are you like? Are you a normal, well-adjusted person? Do you understand the industry? Do you read? Do you participate in the literary world? Are you a crazy ax-murdering stalker? These are all things that agents need to figure out before they offer to work with you for the next few years; before they stake their very livelihood on your success.
That’s right. Their livelihood. Many of us write because it’s our love and our passion and then we change out of our jammies, take a shower, and go to our full-time job. If an agent chooses your work, your work becomes their source of income. That’s serious business. You’ve now left the world of ‘fun hobby’. So they might check to see if you have a backlog of hateful tweets before making a bet on you.
Not into social media? That’s usually okay (pending agents’ opinion and genre), but you should have a website. What to include? Name, email and a little about you. A blog is nice too. Book reviews or some form or reflecting your love for the literary arts a plus.
Once the agent and publishing house are locked down, ‘they’ could turn into your fan base. The big takeaway here is that you should create a social presence for yourself, or someone else will. And it’s better if it comes from you. If you’re on your way to being published, create pages on behalf of the ‘author’ you. Separate it from your personal accounts. And then use it and use it well. Don’t know how? Use part of the nice little advance you received from the sale of your book to hire your niece to show you the ropes.
- Set 10% of your advance aside to reinvest in your own writing career
Gone are the days of fully-sponsored nation-wide book tours and elaborate marketing budgets for us debut, unknown authors. You’re going to have to work at selling your own book and, while agents will do what they can to spare authors the expense of promoting their own book, I thought some sage advice came from one of the original founders of The Loft. She advised to set 10% of your advance aside to go out of town do a book signing at a bookstore you love or to send yourself to that writers conference on the other side of the country. This advice resonated with me not as a writer, but as a business person. I appreciate when my employer sends me to the occasional conference to keep my skills sharp and to network with people in the business. If you become a published author, you are now also owning your own small business. Same mentality applies.
A final, common theme throughout the conference was the emphasis on resilience. The path to professional publishing can be very hard. You gotta want it. You gotta try over and over and over and over. Andy maybe it still won’t happen for you.
Or maybe it will.
Thank you to the Arrowhead Arts Regional Council for their support, and to The Loft for organizing and hosting the Wordsmith Conference.
J. Mackenzie is a passionate reader, scribbler of words, hiker, pet parent and Duluthian. She is also on the board of Lake Superior Writers, where she plans programs to connect the local writing community. She is currently seeking representation for the first time for The Platya, her third manuscript and has recently started a project, documenting the writing process from the spark of an idea through publishing. She’s currently in the early idea phase. Follow her journey at jmackenziewrites.wordpress.com.