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.

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.

Self-publication route smooths with editorial support

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On the website Writer Unboxed, an article proposes that the movement to self-publish will break down barriers enough to entice writers with traditional deals. It already has; a best-seller like Steven Pressfield (Legend of Bagger Vance, the War of Art) has founded Black Irish Press for his latest book. The net result? Books get into the markets and onto readers’ devices, books that the traditional houses won’t invest in with a traditional deal.

But these self-published books still need support from editors and marketers to wear down the prejudice against this route.

They succeed for one main reason–the ability to price, package and reach your own audience without gatekeepers who need to publish blockbusters. It’s a tremendous amount of creative freedom that has already created some new sub-genres because there was no editor or marketing panel to say, “We don’t think stories about post-high school will sell.”

There is also the money. The average return for a writer on a trade paperback book is about a dollar. On hardcover, maybe you get a bit higher. On mass market, it’s a bit lower. Still. You have to sell a heap of books to make a decent living, and the truth is, shelf space has shrunk insanely over the past five years. In digital publishing, the return on even a $2.99 book is around 2 dollars. At higher price points, it goes higher. Do the math.

And oh, it comes in monthly. Monthly! For a great many established authors, this is mind-boggling.

It’s true there is less respect for self-publishing, for all the reasons that have always existed. But I predict that the support systems of editorial and design will continue to improve and writers will be able to hire the teams they require. Many of us are already doing it.

This dispatch came from the latest Romance Writers of America conference. Just this morning I was talking about Jodi Thomas, a writer of bestselling romances who taught me at the Writer’s League of Texas Writing Academy. Jodi stays busy with a couple of books per year. But she was glad to admit she needed help from editors.

At one point in her career, she was frustrated with the revision letters she was getting from her editor about punctuation. She joked, “I just typed up a page of commas and sent them to her and said, ‘You put them where they belong.’ ”

Jodi’s a best-seller because she’s an ace with characters, draws vivid settings (her latest is the Harmony series, set in the made-up Harmony, Texas) and knows story structure cold. We all need another set of eyes for something in our work. Outside editors are essential. If you don’t get a deal from a small press, you can still get an editor. Your compensation comes in $2 increments off that ebook. Every month — not by the quarter like a traditional deal.

Most editors let us pay by the month for services, too. Look into it if you’re getting a book up on its feet and need coaching or editing.

One conference qualifier: how many writers will pitch, attend and contend?

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Up on the mailing list for the Writer’s League of Texas, a debate broke out over the price for the WLT Agents Conference here in Austin. One member and former director said WLT wasn’t priced to meet the economy’s downturn. Another former director disputed the additional message — that a $79 two-day conference in Denton, Texas next month was a better value and more affordable.

The WLT Agents conference was as inexpensive as $319 — so long as you paid for it seven months in advance (Nov. ’11) and you’re a member. One thing that would help: earlier commitments from attending agents, so you might see if there’s someone you want to pitch to before you register so early. (I know, people in hell want sno-cones, too.)

If you’re being thrifty, yes, the WLT Agents meeting is not $79. But that Denton conference looks like a different kind of meeting than the Agents conference, so I don’t believe these are really in competition. I’m not sure how a $79 conference could be the same kind of investment as $319 worth of speakers and agents. You could do both, really.

Budgeting for conferences can be tricky. There are good price points outside of the Agents conference. After attending WLT’s Agents meet one year, and then volunteering at another, I went to the San Francisco Writers Conference last February. Fine meeting, but priced right at the Agents. (Agent Laurie McLean was at both.) SFWC has a very deep list of speakers to go along with the agents attending. It’s a real publishing town there, a step beyond a writer’s hotbed. Here’s what I can testify: the organizers (Michael Larsen, Elizabeth Pomada) really reached out to make sure that out-of-town writers like me were welcomed. Even in a meeting that had more than 300 attendees.

See, that’s the other thing to consider while deciding about a conference, something even more important than price, at least to me. Consider the number of attendees the conference accepts.


How to Engage a Prospective Agent


Alan Rinzler is a veteran editor of the traditional publishing industry. He’s also a keynoter chosen by the Writer’s League of Texas for this June’s Agents Conference. This is a meeting that used to be called the Agents and Editor’s Conference by the WLT, but that’s all gone now. Agents are the new editors, but somehow Rinzler is still in the mix. Last year he sat at a banquet table 8-top at the San Francisco Writers Conference while we talked to him about our prospective books.

Rinzler has a website which includes links to a weekly column he writes. This week there’s an interview up there he did with four agents out of this business that he’s known since the 1960s. It won’t surprise you to learn these agents still have a lot of faith in big-house book deals. After all, the alternative for most of them is littler-house deals (rare is the advance there, so the agent’s payday on those deals is far away.) One agent said her agency is supporting self-published writers now. This is what I mean when I say that agents are today’s editors. I don’t know how many self-published writers are being supported by that agency. As many as the agency needs to stay in business, I’m sure. Some agencies have a stable of editors on call, freelancers. And book designers. And marketing and distribution experts.

(What’s that, you don’t know any of these? You will if you self-publish. Yes, I edit books. You always need an outside editor, which is why I hired one for my novel Viral Times.)

Rinzler took comments on his article and like a good blogger, commented on those posted. One commenter said you want to be careful who you engage as an agent once you get turned down by the biggest names. Rinzler has good advice on how to proceed in these middling waters — a backwater, by the way, where you can still get a full year older while your book remains agented, but unsold.

I agree that a recommendation from another writer or the agent’s track record are the best ways to evaluate an agent’s legitimacy and potential for success. And whereas I haven’t come across very many charlatans or freaks, there are, as you say, less experienced agents. They may be just starting out or entering the profession as former editors, publicists, marketers, refugees from the music or film business or even lawyers with experience handling intellectual property. These individuals may actually have more time to spend, may be hungrier and eager to sell.

Ways to judge whether or not to take a chance with them: See if they’re easily accessible, and respond to email or phone calls. Meet in person or via Skype or on the phone, and give them a clear schedule of your expectations. Structure a deal that requires documentation that your book has been sent to acquisitions editors within 30 days. If you haven’t received any offers to publish within six months, part company and seek elsewhere.

The part of his advice I like the best is his guideline of six months to get an offer. (You have to add this to the 3-6 months it might take you to get read by an agent, then read in full with your complete book.) Hungry agents will be okay with “after six months you lose my book” terms. The big-house ones, who have established writers to continue to represent, won’t.


Another Workshop Finalist

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We received word this week that Gordon Rives Carmichael has landed in the finalist pool in the Writer’s League of Texas Manuscript Contest. Gordon’s work has come past our manuscript table here for more than a year, with lots of evidence of polishing and extending his skills.

Gordon, we congratulate you. Best of luck in the finals selection; the conference is June 26. Even being nominated, as the Oscar winners say, is an honor.

This sort of milestone can only happen if you get your writing out there, in front of readers. Offer something up soon.

When smaller is a bigger start

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Out on the Writer’s Digest blog, a novelist writes a story about his friendship with an agent. Before long it becomes a career prospect. She finally asks when she can read his work.

He decides to give her an exclusive look as his first attempt to land an agent. Problem? She is new at agenting, in the middle level of a small agency. Crazy, says his friend. Get all the money you can. Good business.

Good advice if your writing is a business at its core. Nothing wrong with building a retirement and healthcare nest egg. But at the start of your career — and it’s obvious from the blog that our writing hero is just starting, “defending my MFA” in the spring — smaller can be better. More attention, the start of a beautiful friendship.

A writer friend of mine went to the Writer’s League of Texas Agents Conference last month. She pitched in a formal 10-minute session, but her most significant pitch came at breakfast. Casual, while she told the story of her story.

“Is is finished?” asked the agent.

“Finished enough, for now.” My friend wants to enter her novel in a few contests first. (Very smart, to stand out in the query letters.)

“Send it to me.”

Those magic words, delivered over a personal meeting. If your (fiction) book is done don’t wait. Send, if you hear those words. And keep an eye on the potential for a relationship when you send. This is like hiring a doctor or a therapist or an accountant. Someone who can make a difference in the quality of your life, business and writing, too.

Homicide helps your humanities

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At the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, students can attend a public lecture called The Elevenses, each day at 11. I filed notes today from the 2003 lineup of the Elevenses. The first talk in the first week of July was “Move Along Folks, Nothing to See Here. The Fiction Writer as Darling Killer.”

The advice comes from Marcos McPeek Villatoro, who cut a wide swath with his white Panama hat and panache throughout the week I was there. He’s transparent about his personal life, too, as evidenced by his compelling radio essays on NPR. Villatoro is a novelist who advised us all to find those things we love the most about our writing, our darlings, and do them in.

He admits it’s not novel advice. “Flannery O’Connor said it long ago: Kill your darlings.” He goes on to describe the homicide that he believes improves the caliber of his work in the humanities:

Believe me, friends, I have taken whole chunks of my writings out back and after careful consideration, rumination, discussion with myself and others, I’ve taken a blade across those little darlings’ necks and oh, how the blood flows! Chop chop. Here’s one tale: the agent told me, “Wonderful book, I love it, you’re brilliant… and you’ve got to cut 50-100 pages.” So. Out to the woodshed, where I macheted 82 pages from the manuscript. That’s the book that will be out this fall.”

Murder must have been on Marcos’ mind at the time. The book was Minos, about “Nashville cop Romilia Chacon, who has been searching for six years for “the Whisperer,” the serial killer who murdered her older sister, Catalina,” according to Publisher’s Weekly, which added in a starred review, “Scintillating, densely plotted.”

Murder can make for good reading, and good writing. Have a look at what survived the axe in this excerpt (about halfway down the page) up on Amazon.

In Austin, Associating Writing with Programs

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Today was the first day of the 2006 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP, in a curious editing of an acronym.) It’s being held in Austin, my home town, quite a break for the near-broke writers in this town who couldn’t afford to jet to Vancouver last year. (That would be me, lacking travel funds in 2005.)

This year, the mountain of paper that is part of AWP came to Mohammed, lined up in many tidy rows inside the Austin Convention center. In contrast to the daunting exhibits being assembled next door for the SXSW jamboree, few AWP bookfair spaces stood taller than a simple, six-foot long tabletop. Across the South Expo Hall, stacks of printed literary journals, short-run books and a blizzard of leaflets and flyers lay waiting to be claimed. One thick journal, published once a year, had a hand-lettered sign in front of its stack:

$2. C’mon…

It was a glorious collection of dead trees, ink of many colors, and hope for an audience. Across the hall folks like me prowled, looking for deals and discounts, then hawking our new services. One fellow was running a book review and journal link service. $95 per year for a small press logo on his Web site, plus a review staff to look over the press’s books and review them. “But we don’t do POD (Print on Demand) or self-published books,” he added. “We tried, but most of them were just so bad…” And here he looked at me, to see if the comment applied to what I was proposing.

It was a distinction also drawn by the Author’s Guild, which didn’t want your membership if your book’s publication involved any of your own money, or if your journalism was not distributed from a newsstand. Mind you, the stories of published authors hiring their own publicists are legion in this business, along with tales of books printed rather than published (which would include sales effort and after-marketing.) But to be published, whatever that means, entitles the winners of that lottery some extra regard. There’s always some gatekeeping to be done in the world of writing, it seems. Meanwhile, a self-published book like Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife sells ten times as many copies, self-published, than a gaggle of university press titles or literary journals out on that floor — selling for, c’mon, $2. Or not selling.

The Writer’s Workshop shared a table with the Texas Poetry Journal at the conference, right up near the front of the hall. I gave away flyers, self-published off a color laser copiers just yesterday. I took entries for the first book giveaway, a copy of the seminal Writing Alone and With Others.

I also learned a few things in a handful of sessions. The talks were scheduled nearly back to back, mostly in the Hilton across the street, with no break in the action to give the bookfair exhibitors their shot at attendees. One bit of wisdom:

Showy writing comes from a lack of faith in the story being told. It’s a lack of why in the story, which needs a closer examination of plot, character, theme and motivation.

And to get to better characters? You simply write anything you can think about one in your story. When you return to the character within the story, your work on this background will seep through in dialogue, motivation, even description.