Indie-publish with an agent: success with sub-rights

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As it turns out, the money is not just in selling your ebooks on Amazon and Kobo. It’s getting your popular books’ sub-rights sold—by an open-minded agent.

Laurie McLean answered a Q&A for the Writers’ League of Texas and noted that self-published titles are part of her client list. Authors publish their own novels (McLean represents genre books, too) and then she gets the chance to sell sub-rights: movie tie-ins, audiobooks, foreign rights and more.

I’ve got half a dozen indie authors who have no interest in traditional deals because they’re making mid-six figure income from their self-published genre fiction. And I love selling their subrights. Heck, I just negotiated a six-figure advance for books 7 and 8 in Brian D. Anderson’s epic fantasy series The Godling Chronicles with Audible. Six figures for audiobook rights? It’s a wild, wild time to be an agent!

So mid-six figures is $500,000 for a self-published genre book. That ebook success makes those sub-rights a swifter sale for McLean. Neither she or the author have to prove the book’s success. The titles are already selling on ebook outlets by the time a movie rights deal gets negotiated. These authors work very hard at selling their ebooks. That kind of success is more likely, most of the time, than getting an agent to pick up a debut author for representation and then winning a deal for that writer.

This is not a suitable path for the author who simply wants to write, revise, and answer a few blog Q&As for publicity. The world is brimming with self-published books with little means of being discovered or sold. McLean wants to do business, a desire that authors also want, to establish a career.

Six years ago I heard McLean speak at the San Francisco Writers Conference. Self-published books were a novelty in those days. Well, not exactly true: the successful self-published book, making $50,000 or more, was rare. But even in 2011 McLean saw a genuine career path for the indie-published writer. She’d talk to somebody who desired a self-pub route, she said on a panel. Now she runs Fuse Literary, where the collective of agents oversees dozens of author careers. A career is what an author desires and what McLean works to establish for debut writers. Her specific services list that shimmers versus the public offerings of so many other agents:

As soon as they sign the agency agreement to work with me, we begin with an author branding session on the phone, Skype or Slack where we determine how to describe that author in order to attract the kinds of readers (and editors) who’ll love what they will write. We also do a career planning session as well as a social media audit. Armed with that kind of information, we progress to the work in progress. I do an edit, which might be light or heavy depending on the state of the manuscript, create a pitch list of editors/publishers and a pitch email, then I go to work.

Everybody works in a healthy author-agent relationship. Doing the heavy lifting of the writing is just the start. Getting your book noticed and read is the everlasting good work. Waiting for an agent to win you a debut deal can be a long journey.

Making the Most of an Editor’s Time

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Max PerkinsThe Writer’s League of Texas has a superior Agents & Editors Conference each year here in Austin. I’ve attended, volunteered, been on faculty, pitched, and exhibited there over the last 10 years. Some writers attend to meet with agents in consulting appointments of 10 minutes. Others submit manuscript samples and synopses in an annual contest. Others just come to learn how the publishing business works and understand their genres better.

But there are probably fewer than 100 writers each year who come to meet with publishers’ editors. This year only three editors are taking consulting meetings, but does a limited number of writers make sense? Wouldn’t you rather talk to an editor, instead of an agent, about your book? You’d think a 10-minute meeting with someone who buys books, instead of an agent who represents and sells them to publishers, would be the smart way to go. There are good reasons why it’s not so simple. The WLT explains them well.

Why would I want to meet with an editor? Aren’t agents the ones who make the deals?”

Our answer: Editors can and do acquire books — but it’s very rarely that they acquire a book (or request materials) from a writer directly; an agent is almost certainly involved in this process.  Regardless, editors can offer valuable insight into agents who represent your type of work, should you need suggestions. What’s more, editors can offer valuable information on how to shape your story for not only agents and publishers, but for readers. They are also often experts on specific genres or categories and can share great advice that’s specific to what you’re writing.  For all of these reasons, and more, we invite editors to the conference and we make one-on-one consultations with them available.

BUT (very important) you should not select a meeting with an editor if your sole goal is having someone request materials or tell you they’d like to consider your work for publication. This is not a realistic goal for a meeting with an editor and you will likely be disappointed. We’re cautioning you here so that you don’t regret it later.

The League’s staff invites the curious author to call and learn more. Good show. Indeed, these editors don’t arrive to buy books. Everyone needs to see a book proposal these days, it seems. Even fiction authors get deals more easily with one. But an editor does a service to a conference attendee who meets with them. They tell them what they think of the book and the idea. It’s pretty much what an agent does at the conference. You pitch. They listen. They tell you what they think. In some cases the agent asks for a sample of the book.

Editor’s requests for a sample are not unheard of at the conference, though. One Workshop writer from my memoirs/nonfiction group said he got a request from a Big Five imprint for his full book after a meeting. Dave’s a worker and following through, but the important thing is that editors want unique, good books as badly as the agents who represent the authors writing those books. Time with an editor is almost always time well spent if you learn something and the book evolves.

A 10-Cent Tour of Today’s Publishing

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Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 8.23.11 AMPeople with talent and a tremendous sense for story and character can succeed at fiction. (They gotta rewrite like demons, too.) So many are trying, all at once. So there’s so much competition there. It’s like making it to the NBA after being a college basketball star. Short of landing a career in the NBA, great players can land in the CBA, the D-League, China, Eurobasket, and more. Those are the indie presses. Hitting on the NBA is Big 5 money. Big 5 publishing houses own dozens of “imprints.” Avon is an imprint. Scribner, St. Martins Press, Tor. The Dogs of Babel, for example, is a book about a linguist solving his wife’s murder by trying to teach his dog—the only witness— to talk. It’s published by Little, Brown and Company. Little Brown is owned by Hatchette, one of the Five.

(If you’re keeping score, the four others are Penguin-Random House, Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins and Macmillan.)

There are other nice-sized presses out there, too. My friend Donna Johnson got her memoir sold to Gotham, a Big 5 imprint. Penguin used to own Gotham. Penguin closed Gotham a year ago and transferred all the books and author contracts to another imprint. There’s tremendous consolidation going on among the NBA-caliber publishers.

A blockbuster novel will still earn more than nearly all memoirs. There are few blockbusters. But writing a memoir can be a unique story, and it has that Real Events element to it. Nobody else will tell your exact story in their memoir, so you have a one-off product. A great novel’s premise, well, it might be a lot like another great novel’s. Novel sales are driven by the reputation of the author. Not so for memoir. Meanwhile, nonfiction and memoir outsells fiction 70-30. Look at the book sections in Barnes & Noble. Go count the aisles devoted to fiction. It won’t take long.

Bookstore sales, or the sales force for a Big 5 imprint — these are things any traditionally published author needs to ponder. That’s why you get an agent.

You can get paid for what you love. It’s happening now for me. Some days I create fiction and memoir. Other days I edit and coach writers. How much you can get paid is another question. If it’s enough, you keep doing it for the pay. If not, then you do it for the love of creating. You never work a day, I suppose—but when you’re rewriting a book you thought was already finished, it might feel like work. A good work practice is essential to getting a book published, though. More

Cold typesetting, warm and cozy sci-fi: self-publishing treasures

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type-settingCarrie Bailey is a science fiction writer who’s gotten her first book published. The nature of that publishing is a concern for some in our writing business. Carrie’s novels are self-published. She maps out the options for a writer of today: a traditional deal, a hybrid one, the small presses, or your own publishing. She calls down an image of her grandfather typesetting his book, letter by letter. It’s captivating, and the world would not have the writing of Virginia Woolfe if not for self-publishing.

Ipso facto, self-publishing is good for writers, right? Not so fast. There’s a column on Writer Unboxed by Dave King, editor for hire, warning the WU readers that self-publishing has its risks: a writer will believe their work is ready to publish when it is not. I assume that working with an editor for hire will help them better prepare their work. I sure hope so, because I am one of those editors. But I don’t blow smoke at my clients by telling them their only goal is to win that agent and that contract with a press. That confuses the creativity with the commerce of writing.

Bailey makes a better point. When considering the prospect of becoming an agented writer, seeking publishing deals, she becomes less motivated to write. Me too. The allegory I use these days is the film business. Lots of indie movies out there, crafted with love on a low budget. Many do not get more than a weekend at a local theatre, if any showings at all. Straight to Netflix. These are still movies, and some are worthy of your two hours. If everybody who made a film had to take a film degree (get and MFA!) or get picked up at Sundance (win an agent!) we wouldn’t have some movies to watch that we truly love.

Bailey says the dream she’s living is to write warm, comfortable, escapist sci-fi novels. That’s why we take our risks in writing — and then like in the movie biz, find collaborators (editors!) — to polish our books. Comfy escapism: what a treasure.

In Truth, It’s National Novel Re-Writing Month

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Interesting WriterIt’s November, the month when countless writers toil at their new and unfinished novels in a communal effort at slinging out 50,000 words in one month. People have published novels who’ve logged NaNoWriMo time. Do not be confused about NaNo’s role, through. Nobody creates a novel in 30 days that can be published. But a hefty draft, one that can be re-written and expanded and cut back, can start from a healthy work habit you establish during this month. One of the success stories logged by Mental Floss claims the novel The Night Circus came together over two NaNo’s. That, plus weeks of editing, to be sure.

Agent Kristen Nelson has offered three pieces of advice to her prospective writers about this month-long bash-fest. Bashers are the writers who plow through their stories, throwing caution, grammar, and precision to the winds. They want to see what the last page looks like, knowing they’ll be doubling back to make their writing look like a novel. Nelson’s advice is to understand that 50,000 words in 30 days is only a start. In short, write badly, because it frees you to write because “Sometimes there is a gem of an idea that will turn into “the one” and jumpstart your career.”

Also good advice for NaNo writers:

1. Write book jacket copy first. Summarize your story’s concept with the language you see on a book’s back cover — or if it’s a real high-rent title, a dust cover. Nelson’s got a superior take on why you’re doing this.

So many writers focus on stories that don’t have a concept big enough to merit a novel. Knowing how your jacket copy could read before you jump in and write an entire novel forces you to boil your story down to its essence to see if your idea is solid. Then share your jacket copy with other writers. Ask, “Would you read this novel?” So much of success in this business depends on luck and timing. You have to have the right story at the right time for the market.

Indie-published writers shouldn’t worry about this so much, she adds. I’d beg to differ. Knowing your story well enough to tell it in a few sentences will save you months of wandering among words. It will also save the time of readers who try to enjoy your book.

2. Hitting 50,000 words in 30 days is not the measure of success. Finishing the manuscript, then revising it, is success. One of the seminal books of the NaNo phenomenon is “No Plot, No Problem.” Well, it’s not a problem while bashing the words, but making a book requires plotting. Revision creates plots.

3. You don’t have to share everything you write, so you can write crap. Here Nelson says something delicious: “Every author writes crap sometimes. Repeat after me: Even bestselling authors write crap sometimes. It’s a fact of the writing life.”

Have fun, dream big — and set aside time in December and January to make that novel worth reading.

Self-publishing sources to skip

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Skipping girlNew writers, or anyone who hasn’t got a publisher yet, look into self-publishing service houses. These are the companies like Hay House, Author House, Xlibris… you probably recognize them because they’re peppering your inbox. For so many of these, they’re a way to invest in your book. But you want to do some work in advance of your spending, like with any investment.

I suggest you skip Xlibris. It’s one of the oldest companies that serve the self-publishers. These are called author services companies by now. They do the “system integration” of editing, printing, and distribution. Xlibris has some dissatisfied customers out there, and some have been unable to retrieve their products from the Xlibris catalog.  You can also skip Author House, Hay House, Lulu… the list goes on.

How do these companies do business? Most of the time, they sell to the less-experienced writer. A traditional publisher will invest money in your book, take a higher share of the royalties, and use their existing catalog to try to leverage interest and sales of your new book. Self-publishing author services companies do none of these things. Bookbaby can be useful. They recommend 7 editing companies, and offer a complete publicity service. You can purchase a review, or use the service that’s included with a book production package. Editing services at these author houses can be tricky.

A friend has discovered that editors from the Philippines are serving Xlibris customers. The Philippines can be a fine place to contract for English-speaking customer support. The English is adequate for phone conversations about typical transactions and situations. But you can see how a country without a native English culture could produce ersatz English services. These kinds of author services companies — and even firms like Web.com, for author websites — undersell and bid rock bottom by going offshore for their contractors. Offshore services coming from England, of course, are not offshore in that same sense.

Marketing is the realm where the author must take the lead. A nonfiction book, thank goodness, is far easier to market than a novel. (Every book is easier to market than a novel, except perhaps poetry.) The Writer’s Guild has released a survey of its members that points at the evaporation of publicity and marketing from traditional publisher services. More

Roots of emulation essential to grow a story

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green tomatoesThe tomatoes in my back yard didn’t need to see other tomatoes to grow. They started from seed, after all. What good does it do to find something to emulate, while growing? The tomatoes are now small and ripening. Success is at hand. But just like a book, they arrived because of something that came before them. In the case of the tomatoes, it’s the tomatoes before them. For book writers, you arrive because of the writers who came before you.

It might seem obvious, but no writer of fiction can produce good fruit, even as small as a cherry tomato, without reading fiction. Or a memoirist succeed at telling their own story in creative nonfiction without reading memoirs. For the writer who doesn’t have learning-work of making stories, reading is the only apprenticeship they have.

You’re going to want to find some fiction to read. It’s essential to writing effective stories.

Novelists have to read novels. Emulating somebody is a good thing. You then have a model to study for voice, for structure, for characterization. New writers so often want to leap to the business of the writing, which we like to call publishing. You can follow this simplistic trail in your life as a writer — show me the money — and still see it lead to reading. What am I telling, a writer must ask, that people have connected with before? I tell writing clients who I coach to find a published book that feels like their own. At the back, read the acknowledgements, and query the agent who’s mentioned.

It’s a trick, really. To find that book just like theirs, they read work in their own field. Like a painter emulates other, more famous artists, trying to master techniques of creating dazzling visuals.

Many of us dream of writing a bestseller, lauded on the New York Times list. But here’s my truth about that list. Books rise up there which the Times doesn’t think much of. Its literary reviews were not good for some of those books. Some were not even Notable Books. Bestseller lists are about business, and some of that business grew up from the roots of good craft. The craft is the success that’s sure to be within our grasp. An apprentice learns craft. Bestsellers mean almost nothing during the pursuit of writing a good book. Wonderful, long-lasting novels never see the light of that list.

This is what we care about: writing the best book we can, and growing our craft while we do. We need to read whatever is out there as if it were seeds, the seeds of what we want to write.

Genres are a way in to getting paid

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MashupCoverI was at a Writer’s League of Texas meeting this summer, the annual Agents & Editors Conference. An agent on the panel said, “Don’t think of writing in a genre as a way to settle. Think of it as a way in to getting your story read.”

I had a client once who said he was worried that his book didn’t seem to fit in any of the publishing categories like science fiction, or romance, or thriller. The book had all of those elements. Sell it as a combination, I suggested. Blade Runner meets The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Now Amazon is showing us that genre is the fastest way to a career as a writer. A new program, exclusively for writers of science fiction, romance, and mystery, is going online in a few weeks. “Authors whose books are selected get a $1,500 advance and 50 percent royalties on net ebook revenue.” Not bad. The Net 50 part of that deal is pretty common for small presses. Some of the small press deals won’t even print a book at first — you get an ebook produced instead. The paperback comes later on.

At Amazon, you’ll submit your genre book as a Word file, and you have to dream up a cover. Then your completed story of more than 50,000 words gets crowd-sourced to see if it’s popular. How the mechanics of the latter will work remains to be seen.

But only genre stories are eligible. They’re usually closest to being ready for a publisher to sell. Still to come: genre crowdsourcing for historical fiction, horror-paranormal, fantasy and erotica. Length will be an issue with those last two. Fantasy probably cannot be done in under 120,000 words today. Erotica will struggle to get 50,000 words completed. Maybe there’s an erotica-fantasy combination that can be sold.

The Things You Buy to Write

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Well here’s a surprise: My first email from a literary agency selling a webinar on how to get published. Really not very costly at $299. It’s only 2.5 hours. Previously named “Think Like an Agent,” it’s now Creating the Road Map for Your Novel.

It’s true, a lit agency knows a lot about building a great novel. Selling you an evaluation on how to do it might have crossed a line back in the olden days. It’s a new age. There’s more money to be made serving writers in all necessary aspects of publishing than in publishing books. These are the Things You Buy to Write, or more accurately, to Be a Published Writer.

Hey, wouldn’t you like to learn about (from the offer)

Market viability – Agents see good writing all the time in projects we can’t sell. Editor or Agent-speak translated: what does “too quiet” or “not commercial enough” mean and does it apply to your project? What are all the other catch phrases that are often used when agents/editors give writers feedback? Do you have a novel idea (pun intended) or should you shelve it instead?

How To Realistically Evaluate Your Own Work – Tips and strategies on how to create the distance needed to read your own writing dispassionately. Creating the road map for your novel. Elements of good critique groups or partners that can be invaluable to your success.

Is Your Manuscript Ready? Each participant is required to submit the first 30 pages of his/her novel. All attendees are required to read each other’s work for comment and discussion. We’ll decide if your writing is market ready and if it’s not, discuss why so you can take the next step to make it so.

MS-pagesIt’s that last one that’s a shot across the bow. (I do have to wonder who the “we” is: the agent, or the other participants.) You might think it amounts to a reading fee for your 30 page excerpt. What the agents call a “partial.” On the way to a full submission. For sure, this agency will read your 30 pages, if you sign up soon enough. You also get to watch and listen to the 2.5 hours for six months online.

Why didn’t I think of this before? Oh, wait, I might have. I believe I call it a writing workshop. It lasts nine months of 2.5-hour meetings, not one afternoon of 2.5 hours, and you turn in up to 180 pages of your novel over that time. You only have to read five other writers’ work, but you get comments in writing from everyone in addition to the talk. (The lit agency likes to call this a critique group. You get a partner if you sign on as a book coach client.) And for now, that workshop’s only $90 more than the 2.5 hours of web time.

I’m not an agent. I probably haven’t read as many novel excerpts as some of these literary pros. I don’t know for sure. But like them, for the moment my writing workshop (I call it a Manuscript Brunch) is almost full-up. You do get breakfasts, being here in Austin. Maybe that’s not important to getting a book ready. It does help a writer build trust in your evaluators. We don’t decide if your book is ready on the basis of 30 pages.

But my surprise is that agencies — which used to just kick back unsuitable queries and pursue the strong ones — are now showing a few authors in why your manuscript isn’t ready, so you might take the next step. At least one agency. I’m waiting for an upcoming webinar on drafting a query letter and writing a synopsis.

So to review: The agency charges $300 for the benefit of having seven other people read your excerpt, along with the agent. Then everybody talks. Eight people, of six; can’t be much more than 15-20 minutes of talk about your writing. You get the assignment to read 210 pages of other novels. Advice on “why your manuscript [may not be ready] so you can do the next step” of work. Authors do buy this kind of advice. From agents, in our modern era. It must have great value, because publishing pros are offering it.

Would you be interested in knowing more about how to query, and sum up your book? I can offer that. Getting the brunch served over the webinar’s phone-line — that’s the real challenge.

 

Am I ready to agent it up?

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Perfect PitchOne of my writers from our Manuscript Brunch workshop has a sparkling, vast fantasy novel. He’s workshopping it with us, 20 pages a month. It’s complete, in the sense that he has a version of it that’s been revised and it has a cogent ending.

But now, with the upcoming WLT Agents Conference less than two weeks away, this novelist wants to know if he should invest the $390 in attending the Friday-Sunday meeting. This is a good conference, especially if your budget is limited and you live in Austin, like we do.

Are you ready? One thing you’ll gather from the Writer’s League of Texas Agents Conference is knowledge of how publishing works. I don’t know how much time they’ll give to self-publishing. SelfPub is so mainstream now that major bestseller lists now include SelfPub titles. And major publishers have imprints dedicated to it.

Knowing about the process of publishing — that’s something you might be about to learn in a thorough writing group. Here’s the basics on how to handle an agent opportunity. You must have finished your book, truly, if it’s fiction.

  • You polish your book.
  • You write a meaty summary (synopsis).
  • You condense that into the back-cover copy three paragraphs, which becomes the most serious part of your query letter.
  • Finally, you pitch — to an agent in person, if you’ve paid your $400 to attend.

If you’re not quite prepared to pitch, it will be worthwhile to find someplace to practice. In our Workshop group, we can pitch to one another. This is a rehearsal kind of thing. No matter how much you dislike giving the sizzle of the story in a conversation, it’s crucial to getting an agent. They need to have the sizzle to get a publishing house to read your book.

There’s a “how to pitch” pre-conference meeting that always sells out at the Agents show. It’s often full of people who have not pitched before. In my opinion, it takes a special kind of writer-performer to make changes to improve their pitch, just 24 hours before they need to start making it.

And you begin to pitch your book as soon as you register and walk into the conference hotel. “What’s your book about?” is the icebreaker question. Or even better, “tell me about your book.” Always lead with a character if you can when you answer. As humans, we care the most about people.

We create art to make meaning from our lives. The meaning comes from experiencing what people in your story go through, in person, in scene. Lead with people in trouble in your pitch, meeting a crisis that will change their lives every day going forward.

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