So, I’ve been making vague remarks about big changes in my writing career life. More than I thought, because a number of people have asked me about it! But there were Reasons I couldn’t say until today.
I’m moving to a new agent and agency!
As of today I’ll be represented by Sarah Younger of the Nancy Yost Literary Agency. I’m super excited about this move. Sarah just celebrated her 80th deal (which just happened to be a fabulous one for my wonderful friend, Grace Draven). She’s also just a lovely person all around – and not just because she loves my books! Here’s us at the Harlequin Ball in San Diego last summer (2016), at the RWA annual conference, long before either of us had an inkling we might work together.
What’s funny is – and you longtime readers will particularly appreciate this – Sarah read and loved PETALS & THORNS way back when I published it under my Jennifer Paris pseudonym. Let me tell you, finding an agent who’s read your books for pleasure is a fantastic feeling. She really groks what I write and I think we’re going to make an amazing team.
So, as of today I’m bidding a fond farewell to Fuse Literary. I notified them and my previous agent, Connor Goldsmith, back at the end of February that I’d be making this change. My agency agreement with Fuse (like many), required a 30-day notice to wind up business with them. I will always appreciate what Fuse and Connor have done for me. Agency partner Laurie McLean really worked hard to find a place for me in the agency after my first agent (Pam Howell) left. (For those who don’t know, an author signs with a literary agency, not an individual agent, so if an agent leaves the agency, the author has the option of following them to the new agency or staying put and working with a new agent.) In the end, I approached Sarah about moving my work in a new direction. I liked what she had to say and was hugely gratified that she offered to represent me when I asked.
Big changes like this never seem to be easy, even for the person who initiates them. The last month of conversations and logistics have been surprisingly emotional for me. It’s kind of like filing for divorce and planning a wedding to someone new, all in the space of 30 days.
Plus there was that whole RITA finalist thing in the middle.
All good things, but – WOW! – I’ll be happy to settle into a steady, quiet routine again. ~fans self with hankie~
So, stay tuned for news. Exciting days ahead!
I’m not usually the one to give self-publishing advice. That’s because, while I’ve done a bit of it – a couple of backlist books (Petals and Thorns and Negotiation) – I’ve put a lot more focus on the traditional path. There are a lot of reasons for that, which aren’t really pertinent to today’s point, though I’m happy to talk about it if anyone wants to know.) That said, I will be doing more of self-publishing in the future, including a fab anthology project and an exciting secret something with Grace Draven.
Still, I feel like I should say something to up-and-coming writers who decide to self-publish.
Apparently there’s a lot of bad advice out there, because this particular question keeps coming up on my author loops. A gal going to RWA Annual Conference asked for advice on pitching to agents and editors. Which is great that she’s asking! I pitched for many years and it’s not easy. However, she said that she self-published the first book in her series and it’s not doing well, but the second book is almost ready. She wondered if she should pitch the first book or the second.
The answer? NEITHER.
And I should caveat this by saying that she is FAR from the only person to do this.
So here’s the deal. We all read the stories about the self-pubbed book that gets picked up by a major publisher because it did so astonishingly well. This makes for great news in part because it’s SO RARE. It doesn’t seem like it, because the stories are so high profile, but statistically this is hugely unlikely to happen. This is one of the very worst reasons to self-publish, especially the first book in a planned series. Seriously. Here’s why.
If the self-published book does not do astronomically well – and that means tens of thousands of copies – then a traditional publisher will not want it. That’s just the facts of the industry. The book has been market-tested and will hold no appeal for a traditional publisher. Which means that an agent will not want to represent it, because they know they can’t sell it to a publisher. Simple logic.
Also, pretty much no publisher will pick up the second book in a series. There are some exceptions to this. Occasionally a traditional publisher will drop a series after two books and another will pick up the third. But again, this happens when the original series did decently and I’ve only heard of it working when a bigger traditional publishing house drops it and a smaller, usually digital-first, publisher picks it up. I don’t know of any cases where they’ve picked up more than one book. It’s really a gamble that lovers of the series will buy that final book to round out a trilogy. With a series, most traditional publishers want to control the packaging and marketing from the beginning.
So the upshot of this is: 99.9% of the time, once an author self-publishes the first book in her series, she has to commit to self-publishing the entire series. If she wants to try for a traditional publishing deal, too, then she needs to pitch an entirely new series to agents and editors.
(Also, if she really wants to go the agent route, then it’s best to pitch to them first, and let THEM pitch to editors, but that’s a whole other post.)
I want to add that committing to self-publishing a series can be a terrific plan. I have several writer friends doing very well that way. One, Elizabeth Hunter – whose book THE SCRIBE (book 1 in the Irin Chronicles) I’m just *loving* – told me that she saw no significant audience for her books until she published book 3. Other people have said book 4 or even 5.
Sure, self-publish a series! But commit to that path for it and don’t look at self-publishing the first book as a stepping stone to getting it traditionally published. It *can* open the doors to having another series traditionally published. But once that first book is out there, it’s out. If you harbor hope of taking that series down the traditional path, think very carefully before you pull the trigger and click that “Publish” button.
Recently I had occasion to research my agent’s Twitter feed, looking for a link he’d posted. Along the way I found a number of writers commenting on him not responding to their queries fast enough. Some of their tweets had a fairly terse and impatient tone. One was downright antagonistic.
It truly gave me pause.
First of all – I totally get the frustration. I queried agents (and editors) for years. Some I never heard any kind of response from. Others took approximately forever to reply. One in particular sent me a rejection a year after I’d signed with my first agent. On one level, we hear what they tell us – that client work comes first, that queries come at the far end of a long list of priorities – and intellectually we understand that. But emotionally we also understand what they’re too polite to say: that we are not that important to them at that stage.
Now, before any agents jump in and argue that, OF COURSE queriers are important, that this is where they get new clients and they’re always looking for something exciting in the slush pile – which is all absolutely true – let me clarify. A potential client is exactly that: a possibility. This person and their book lie in the intangible realm. Whereas the agent has very tangible clients and books to deal with. No matter how much as authors we believe in the vast potential of the book we’re querying, no one else has that same emotional charge as we do. And it’s painful.
It made me cranky, too.
But here’s the thing. The crankiness never goes away. Publishing is a strange business. Things can move at a glacially slow pace. There’s rarely ever a direct relationship between any two things. Hard work does not necessarily equal success. Brilliant writing does not necessarily equal great sales. Awards and rave reviews don’t mean the book will succeed. People you thought supported you turn out not to. Exciting things happen out of the blue and expected things evaporate. Yes, it’s exciting and creative and I wouldn’t trade it for any other career, but my point is this: it’s a cranky-making business. Everybody gets cranky at some point: authors, editors, agents, publishers, marketers, etc.
So, here’s my point. Agents know this. They know that there will be times in working with their authors that things will get stressful. There will be annoying contract negotiations, offers will fall through, books will fail to live up to expectations, editors will change their minds, difficult conversations will be had. This is part of the business. In point of fact, I mentioned in a blog post last week how I was cranky and snarky to my agent about advice he gave me. He probably didn’t love me for it, but he also gave me some latitude on it. (At least, I *think* he still loves me…) And I’m taking the advice, I decided once my cranky subsided. But part of why I get a bye (the one I hope I got) is that’s as cranky as I get. (And we have a pretty easy relationship at this point, where we get each other.)
To him. Or in public. I absolutely get crankier than that in private. That’s what DMs, IMs, text messages and tearful, ranty phone calls are for. Otherwise, I try to keep my professional relationships relatively cranky-free.
Imagine then, if an author is hostile and impatient with an agent they don’t know, have never talked to and have no relationship with. This is like the standard dating advice: he or she is not going to get BETTER after you marry them. Nobody turns out to be sweeter, better behaved and with more diligent hygiene AFTER the vows are said. No, when we’re dating and courting is when we are wearing our best selves. An author who’s impatient about queries, and is cranky about it, is not likely to be pleasant to deal with when the chips are down and a deal is going badly. If you think agents don’t know this and consider it, think again.
Most agents are in the business out of love and passion, much as authors are. There are easier ways to make money. But there’s also a reason we’re not stockbrokers. Agents want to love authors, want to love the books they write and help bring them into the world. If they make a bunch of money doing that, even better. But no book is brilliant enough to make an agent want to work with you if they think it will be a miserable experience.
Because life is too short.
My lovely agent, the vivacious and Bookalicious Pam, keeps a Tumblr where she generously answers publishing questions. I amuse myself by reading through it. Not long ago, an aspiring writer asked her a question about whether Pam wanted to see a book from a particular genre. The writer said:
Should I send it your way (you are my top pick from Foreward), or to one of the other Foreward agents? Thanks.
*minor note that the agency name is Foreword
This triggered a memory from college. One evening our apartment phone rang and I answered. Now, this was in Ye Olden Days and we had a landline phone with a verrry long cord. Six of us shared an apartment suite with six bedrooms off a super long hallway. We’d drag the phone into our rooms to talk. But we all shared this one phone. I just happened to answer this particular time.
A guy on the other end invited me to a fraternity dance. I only vaguely knew who he was, but I was flattered to be asked. Sadly, I had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t go. When I told him as much, he said “Oh, well how about one of your sorority sisters?”
I mean, not only was I more or less interchangeable with my sorority sisters to him, but he didn’t even specify which of them he might be interested in spending the evening with. Because, well, it ultimately didn’t matter to him, right? He needed a date for the dance and any girl would do.
I think my analogy here is obvious.
You know – I get this. I really do. I felt this way back when I was first seeking an agent. They all seemed pretty much the same to me. One big sorority of faceless people who could bestow the boon of their efforts upon me or not. I wanted to go to the Publishing Ball and I really didn’t care who escorted me.
I just wanted to BE THERE.
One of the things you learn over time, however, is that it really does matter how you get to the Publishing Ball. You can buy your own ticket and go. Maybe you’ll be invited as a special guest. But I can tell you this – if you go with the wrong escort, that can suck way worse than staying home alone. At best you might be miserable. At worst you might get date-raped in the parking lot.
Seriously. I don’t think I’m taking this analogy too far.
So, that’s one piece of it. Pick your agent carefully. It may seem that any one will do, but that’s just not so. And I’m saying this as someone who does not believe in the “Dream Agent” concept. Nor do I believe in True Love. Just as I believe any of us could find any of a number of people to make delightful life partners, I think any number of agents would work out great for a given author.
But don’t treat them that way, okay? I mean, that guy who called me up so long ago clearly didn’t care a whit for actually dating me. He never asked me out again or made any effort to get to know me. So far as I know, he planned to ask out whoever answered the phone in our six-sorority girl apartment. Now, WE all know that he missed out BIG TIME, but he wasn’t looking for a life partner. If he was, he went about it in absolutely the wrong way.
What if I might have been the girl for him? Maybe True Love did await us and we would have hit it off, found a delicious mutual accord and gone on to marry right out of college and have brilliant careers, a scintillating social life and a passel of over-educated kids.
(Hey – I write fiction, run with me here.)
The way he treated asking me out, that one incidental time, ruined that possibility forever. I couldn’t go that night – just as an agent might pass on your book because it’s simply bad timing – and by treating me like I was unimportant as a person and interchangeable with any of my random sorority sisters, he not only blew it with me, he blew it with everyone in my sorority. Because OF COURSE I told them about it. It became a running joke that this guy said this to me.
Agents gossip, too. Especially when someone treats them carelessly, as less than an important individual in their own right.
Something to contemplate.
Have a great weekend everyone!
The last week was so warm, everything is leafing out and the lilacs are budding. Today we’re wrestling with a storm that slid down from Alaska (gee, thanks, Alaska) and we’re to get a hard freeze tonight. Yeah, I’ll be out there this afternoon, making free with the blankets.
I feel like lately I’ve been seeing lots of pet peeves in social media. Editors and agents like to tweet their peeves, often with the hashtag #pubtip. Sometimes a literary agency will start a conversation on the topic – “Hey readers, what are your literary pet peeves?” Bloggers will make lists of cliches to avoid.
All of these are great conversation starters on social media. After all, people love to air their gripes with each other, especially in a humorous context. It’s even better if those gripes derive from your work – the things you deal with all day, every day, week after week. They make for great riffs and people one-up each other and add gifs. It can be terrific entertainment.
I’ve even heard it said that you should follow agents and editors you’d like to work with, so you know what their peeves are.
No, no, no.
Seriously. Don’t do it. Don’t pay attention to these gripes and lists.
Why? Because they’re not really real.
Let me give you an example. A few weeks back I saw an agent tweet something along these lines:
“Pet peeve: books that open on dialogue. Voices shouldn’t come before we know who the bodies are. #pubtip”
This struck me because I’ve done this with published works. More than once. I bet we can all think of books that have done this and done it really well. This agent is right to call it a pet peeve – it’s nothing more than something that personally irritates her. So, should you change your book opening to please her?
Let’s consider that. Maybe you’re saying, sure Jeffe, if I’m querying her, I want my best odds, so for her I’ll open on description instead. Okay, fine, but she’s one of hundreds of agents you might query, with no guarantee that, just because you avoided that particular gripe of hers, she’ll want to represent you. So do you change your opening for every agent you query? Do you scour the internet and make a spreadsheet of every complaint every agent or editor makes, maybe categorized by type – openings, endings, characters, plot devices – and then check them off to groom them for that person?
Please tell me you wouldn’t do this.
There’s a fable for this, which everyone should recall, about the man who tried to please everyone. This is kind of a cutesy version, but the message remains – when you try to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody. Least of all yourself.
The thing to keep in mind is when these fine people – and I’ve seen my agent and editors, who I like and admire, do this – give advice, they’re seeing the world from their perspective. I know that seems self-evident, but stick with me. I think of this like the teacher with 30 students. They learn her name immediately. It takes her much longer to learn 30 names. An editor wants a manuscript that’s tailored to him. He’s not seeing the writer’s perspective of trying to assimilate the likes and dislikes of 30 editors. And really, it’s not his problem.
So, what’s the solution?
Three things: Be true to yourself, learn your craft and protect yourself from negativity.
Being true to yourself
See, even if you change your opening so cranky agent who doesn’t like disembodied dialogue openings will keep reading, she might also hate your second line. Or the fact that your main character is gay. Or that she isn’t gay. Reading is subjective. Either the agent will resonate with your work or she won’t. It’s tempting to try to control this, but you can’t. The sooner you accept that, the happier you’ll be. And I’ll let you in on a little secret – even if she hates that you started on dialogue, if she loves the rest of the story, she’ll still take it. She might call, gush about your wonderful story, offer representation and then say “oh, but I think you should open with this line.”
The one thing that will surely kill a story, however, is if it’s been worked to death to please everyone but yourself. It’s like the old saw that no one will love you until you love yourself first. If you don’t love your story, how do you expect someone else will?
Do what’s right for the story, first and foremost.
Learn your craft
Most of the cranky lists – things like “cliches writers should avoid” or “10 signs of bad writing” – are responses to poor craft. I saw one yesterday, that both my agent and one of my editors were all over with glee, that listed cliches. They each listed which ones they particularly hate. The thing is, I figured I’d probably done all of those things. For example, one was don’t have your character describe themselves in a mirror. I use mirror a lot. I’m really interested in the idea of self-perception and that the mirror is an archetype of being able to see your true self. I know perfectly well if I pointed this out to my editor or agent, where in my books I’ve done this, they’d say “oh, but you avoided the cliche – you handled it differently.”
Thus, the answer is not truly to avoid cliches. That’s the simplistic approach. After all, cliches become cliches for a reason (also a cliche, right there). They get overused. The point is to use those memes or archetypes well enough that they transcend cliche instead of being a crutch.
Protect yourself from negativity
To me, this is the hugest part. When I saw my agent and editor climb all over that list of cliches, my brain started churning and obsessing. How many of those have I done? Oh my god, isn’t that one in the story I just sent her? I started thinking about the story I’m writing now and wondering if I need to rework this or that. I worried. I felt like a Bad Writer. Even that one about not opening with disembodied dialogue niggled at me, even though the story I know I did it in has been used in workshops with that opening as a good example. That’s a lot of emotional impact on me, for something she likely Tweeted in a moment of irritation and promptly forgot.
See, when people post this stuff, they’re thinking about engagement. They’re enjoying sharing gripes with fellow professionals. They’re not thinking about the creator of the art who might be derailed by what is essentially, to them, cocktail party conversation. It’s not that its bad advice, necessarily, but they’re not thinking about how they’re saying it.
All of this is why I think writers shouldn’t pay attention to this kind of thing. I’m not saying don’t follow agents and editors you’re interested in. I absolutely think you should. But don’t treat everything they say as gospel. Who knows? By the next day they may have forgotten they even said it.
Now go write.
I’m over at the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal blog today, talking about being a cross-genre write – and why my agent said my books aren’t anything.