By Megan Close Zavala, Literary Agent
Literary agents often get a reputation for being cruel and heartless. It is true that not a one of us has escaped sending out many, many rejection letters. I am sure that there are a few slightly sadistic agents out there, but for the most part, authors, please know that we take no pleasure in saying no to you and your project!
It is true! We WANT you to be our clients. We WANT to sell your book and make you and us both a trillion dollars (okay, at least a million dollars). Everyone at my agency has received angry, resentful and oftentimes threatening responses to our rejection letters. While we can understand being disappointed by a rejection letter, if we have sent one to an author it is for good reason – the book project is missing something (or things) that we need in order to effectively sell the book to publishers.
I was recently asked to speak at two conferences in southern California about “mistakes” that authors make that are holding them back from success. There are some obvious ones made by bad writers (typos, copycat books, no platform, etc.), but I am more interested in helping GOOD writers identify their hurdles and move their way past them. I consulted with colleagues and peers and put together a long list of dos and don’ts for writers at any stage in the writing process, and now I would like to share them with you now. Without further adieu, here are three examples of what even great writers do badly (and how to change!).
#1: They Don’t Think Like Marketers
I often start any presentations I do by asking audience members to raise their hands if they are authors. Inevitably, almost everyone raises their hands. Then I ask them to raise their hand if they consider themselves a marketer. There are a few brave souls who raise their hand, but just a few. Words like “marketing” and “platform” are dirty words to many authors nowadays. Having to build awareness surrounding you and your project sounds scary and overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be! Yes it requires time, yes it requires legwork, but it is 100% necessary in the industry today. Know exactly what your book is about and what you are bringing to the table. Nail your logline (one sentence summary) and elevator pitch (a 3-5 sentence summary of your book’s content and unique features, as well as your credibility and expertise). Know which audience you are writing your book for. Think of your book as a product that you need to convince people to sell and to buy.
#2: They Don’t Understand How the Publishing Industry Works
Writing is a solitary business to be in. Because your main job is to get the right words put together the best way possible, there is often little time to think about anyone else’s role in the publishing process. This can lead to unrealistic expectations on the part of the author. The best way to combat this? Learn how things really work!
For example, let’s just look at a literary agency. Agents spend a lot of time trying to find the best projects possible. This may involve sifting through the zillions of queries that come through every day, or it may mean attending networking events, meeting with referrals, etc. Hopefully, they find a client they are excited about and sign them on. At that point, the agent helps the author get their project as perfect as possible before sending it out (working on the book proposal, providing editorial feedback to the manuscript, etc). They put together a list of editors to pitch your book to based on relationships they have and research that they have done. They email/call/sky write folks about your book until it (hopefully!) sells. Up until the first check comes in, all of the work that the agent does is done for FREE. Once the book sells, they make just 15% in commission. Because they can’t guarantee that they will eventually get paid (and because they like to eat), agents can only take on projects that they think they can sell. This is why even if we like you or your book, we may not sign you based on a weak platform, manuscript in its early stages, etc.
#3: They Don’t Know Who to Pitch Their Book To
Before you start sending out your query letters, you need to do some research. While you may have an amazing project on your hands, you need to make sure the agents that you are pitching to represent projects in genres similar to yours. For instance, at my agency we do not represent anything that falls under the science fiction, fantasy, young adult, or children’s umbrellas. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have great respect for those writing, editing or publishing in those genres, we just aren’t interested in taking those projects on. So whom should you be pitching to? There are numerous directories of literary agents out there – try the writing reference section in Barnes & Noble, PublishersMarketplace.com, or even a straight Google search. Look at the agency’s website and see what type of authors they work with. If it seems like you could be a match, go for it (make sure you follow their submission guidelines!). If not, move on and don’t waste your time – there are plenty of other agent fish in the sea.