Agent Interview: Jennifer Johnson-Blalock

I recently had the chance to interview agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of the Liza Dawson about recent trends in Women’s Fiction. She’s such a thoughtful, professional presence in the publishing world, and I truly appreciate the time she took to answer my questions. (To the Shelves questions are bold and italicized)

TTS: The buzz is that agents are looking for slightly more serious WF that tackles big issues — is this correct? Which issues seem to be the ones garnering the most interest?

Yes and no. I’m certainly looking for slightly more serious WF at the moment, but that’s primarily because my list is skewed towards the more fun/commercial. I think it’s still a mix, as it’s always been. There are people who are looking for weighty matters, and there are those who are looking for more fun escapism. Many, including myself, are open to both, and I’ve had different editors recently tell me they’re looking for one or the other, so there are certainly places to submit both.

Whether serious or light, I think there are many agents looking for diversity, in the broadest sense of the word. There’s been almost a mandate for it in YA, and there are an increasing number of agents and editors who would like more diverse WF offerings as well.

TTS: How much influence has our current political situation had on what agents/editors are looking for?

That’s a tough question. It’s certainly influencing us, but I don’t think it’s doing so in one universal way–this ties into my answer above. In the last couple weeks, one editor told me she’s really only looking for books that are politically engaged in some way. But another editor told me she thinks really lighthearted, fun, commercial books will experience an upswing because of what’s happening politically. And it’s difficult to be too on the nose in publishing since books are typically scheduled 18 months out. So my best advice is to write what you need to right now, and there will probably be an agent looking for it–though it might not be the same agent who was looking for it in October.

TTS: What are the big picture trends in publishing WF , and what are  WF editors looking for?

I’ve heard an increasing number of editors looking for WF (particularly in a debut) that’s high concept or has a really strong hook–something with a premise that will get people excited and allow the editor to break it out in hardcover on a crowded list. (THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY by Leigh Himes is an example of high concept WF.) Diversity, as I mentioned above. Several editors have asked recently for historical upmarket WF (think Paula McClain). I still know editors who are looking for suspenseful WF, but I think that trend is waning.

TTS: How long does it typically take WF editors to make an offer?

I’d say a few months is probably average, but it varies. (This is probably the second toughest common question for an agent, after “how big will my advance be?”.) I got an offer in two weeks at the end of 2016–that was unusual, but it happens. And then you hear the stories of a book selling after six months, or even a year.

TTS: How much of a market is there for romance/WF crossovers?

I don’t think there are many true crossovers. I have a couple clients whose books started as contemporary romance, and by the time I saw them, they were edging into WF, and one of the things I did editorially was to push them more definitively in the WF direction, namely by developing the non-romance portions of the plot. I think of it as a continuum, with contemporary romance on one end of the spectrum and literary at the other end. The line between commercial and upmarket WF is pretty blurry. But for publishers, there’s a more clear demarcation between romance and WF–it’s oftentimes different editors, digital only vs. trade paperback deals, different contractual elements. There is certainly commercial WF with a strong romance at its center, but that typically doesn’t follow the usual conventions (alternating third-person POV, for instance) of contemporary romance. Generally, the easier it is for publishers to categorize your book, the easier it will be to sell.

TTS: What WF writers do you like?

My perennial favorites are Emily Giffin, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Marisa de los Santos. Recent WF I read and loved includes THE HATING GAME (which is probably the best example of a successful romance/WF crossover), COME AWAY WITH ME, and THE REGULARS.

TTS: Finally, is there anything I didn’t ask but you think would be interesting for WF writers to know?

I mentioned the word “diversity” a few times here, so I want to expand on that briefly. There was recently an Open Call for Muslim Writers that many agents participated in, and I know of at least one agent-client match that came from that. When I say I’m looking for diverse books, I mean that in the broadest way possible–diversity of race, religion, culture, sexuality, socioeconomic status… But with WF in particular, I’m also on the hunt for a diversity of female experiences. For instance, the dating landscape has changed so much in the last decade. And I know a significant number of women just in my own life who are choosing not to have children. I’m always on the hunt for books about women making different choices or leading atypical lives.

Thanks again so much for your time! 

ABOUT JENNIFER:

Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent’s assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate.

If you’re interested in querying Ms. Johnson-Blalock, please check her agency’s website for up to date submission directions: www.lizadawsonassociates.com

Publishing Mythbusters: Nope, You DON’T Need To “Know Someone” To Get Published

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I’ve been writing for most of my life, so I can’t count the number of times I’ve had somebody tell me in a lofty voice that I would never be able to make it in publishing because the only way to break into publishing is to “know” somebody. It’s a myth that, like many of us I’m sure, I’ve run into again and again—this idea that publishing is a massive conspiracy of well-connected people who close ranks against any newbies and allow only people they deem worthy to be published.

(As a Mormon, my favorite iteration of the one that blew up the internet many years ago, in which some people posited that there was a “Mormon YA Mafia”—composed of people like Shannon Hale and Stephenie Meyer—controlling who was successful at publishing YA. Yeah, guys, I’m 100% sure that’s not true.)

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This has always bothered me because it just seemed so patently false, and it’s bothered me even more this year as I and so many of my Pitch Wars friends have signed with agents—agents, I might add, whom few or none of us knew before we signed with them.

To see if my theory (there is no secret cabal of publishing gatekeepers; you are not less likely to be published because you’re not well-connected in publishing) held true, I decided to take a poll of writers who are or have previously been agented or published. It was a short and sweet poll, with only a small handful of questions designed to tease out whether or not the majority of writers who took it did, in fact, manage to get their agent/editor through means nepotistic.

The answer, unsurprisingly, is a resounding NO.

Of the people who responded to my poll, 48 (67%)—by far the vast majority of responders—found their agent/editor the old-fashioned way: through the slushpile (i.e., sending lots and lots of queries). The next biggest category was people who found their agent/editor through a contest, with 15 (20%)—though a lot of my network of writers were met through online contests, so it’s entirely possible that number is a little higher than in the population at large. Of all the writers who took my survey, only 6 (7%) met their agent through a client or other referral, and only 2 (3%) knew their agent before they signed with him/her.

Likewise, most writers didn’t consider themselves well-connected in publishing before they started trying to get published—only 8 (11%) had previous publishing connections.

And the kicker: Of the 72 who responded to my survey, fully 62 (86%) of writers said that they did not connect with their agent/editor through any previous publishing connections. Yep—the vast majority of us began our careers as absolute nobodys.

(And on a mostly-unrelated but further encouraging note, the majority of responders in my survey—23%—didn’t sign with their agent until after 2 or more years of querying.)

This has been mostly true in my experience, as well. While, ironically enough, I’m pretty sure I did get an offer from the agent I signed with because she also reps a friend of mine—only because my agent was so swamped with queries that I’m pretty sure she would never have seen my offer nudge if my friend hadn’t prompted her to search for my nudge e-mail in her inbox!—I also had offers from nine other agents on that manuscript, none of which came through nepotistic means. About half of those offers were from the #DVPit contest on Twitter, and the other half were through regular old-fashioned querying. In fact, the two agents with probably the biggest name recognition both offered just based on a query they’d pulled out of the slush pile.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule. And obviously, people who already have big-name notoriety—like Hollywood celebs—tend to get much, much larger advances than us ordinary human beings. (But not even always—there are plenty of stories of debut authors nobody had ever heard of before who were given seven-figure advances.) But if you’ve always dreamed of being traditionally published and been intimidated by the idea that you know nobody, take heart: You stand a great chance! In fact, I’d say that probably the BEST thing you could do for your chances at publication are find a few really solid critique partners to help your writing grow to the point it needs to be at for publication.

So go forth and query… and don’t worry too much about that mythical YA Mafia.

Preparing For The Call: How To Ace Your Agent Interviews

Near the end of April, I got the e-mail that every querying writer dreams of—an e-mail from an agent saying that she had finished and loved my novel and wanted to set up a phone call to discuss it. By the time our scheduled call rolled around I’m pretty sure I looked like this:

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But the call—which turned out to indeed be an offer—went great, and I busily sent out my nudge e-mails that afternoon. What followed was the most insane ten days of my life, as offer after offer rolled in. I ended up with ten offers, nine of which included standard agent interview phone calls (the tenth rolled in just past my deadline when I was completely out of time and brainpower). By the end of the whole thing, not only had I signed with an absolutely incredible agent, but I also had become something of an expert in how to handle The Call.

Before I go further, let me just say that when I was querying (and it was a long and difficult road), I steered well clear of blog posts like this. Reading too much about how to handle The Call felt like tempting fate, like if I let myself imagine how I’d comport myself while interviewing an agent I’d never actually achieve that milestone. So if that’s you, I hear ya, friend. Feel free to mark this post for later and cruise on by.

But for those who have an agent call looming—or just those who like to be nicely prepared—I thought I’d share a few of the things I learned during my ten days filled with agent calls, as well as sharing the list of agent questions I worked off during each of my interviews, all of which were very helpful.

What I Learned Doing Nine Agent Calls

1. Try to take the call in a setting that makes you feel confident.

The night before my first call, when I was about ready to throw up with nerves, my husband—who had recently interviewed for and been hired for his dream job—told me that I should dress up in an outfit that made me feel confident. It felt a little silly to be putting on my favorite dress and sparkly silver flats to hang around my own house on a Saturday, but I did it! I also made sure that I had anything I might need so I didn’t have to feel panicked during the call—for me that was my computer, some paper and a pen to take notes, and a water bottle. All of those things helped me a surprising amount once the call started, and I was able to feel relaxed and much more confident than I’d expected I could.

2. Every agent has her own style when it comes to making the offer.

Some of the agents who offered on my novel offered outright in the e-mail, often at the end of a long e-mail detailing things they liked. Others kept it brief. Some only said they wanted to set up a phone call to “talk about the book,” which left me in a cold sweat, convinced the call would be the dreaded R&R. Once we were on the phone, some agents offered right within the first few minutes, while others wanted to chitchat a little longer; one also made it clear that her offer was contingent on me agreeing to do revisions (which I was cool with).

3. Every agent handles the call differently.

Some agents gushed at length about my book, others didn’t. Some wanted to know what other things I was working on, others didn’t. Some wanted to know relatively unrelated things about me, like my favorite authors or how I came up with the inspiration for my novel, while others kept to strictly business. Some sold themselves and their agencies hard, while others left the ball more in my court. My rapport with each agent was different, too—I came out of that ten days feeling like some of those agents I could’ve easily gone to lunch with and claimed as my new BFF, while others I was made downright nervous by.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

In fact, agents want you to ask questions! 75% of all of my calls was me asking my list of questions. I even worked up the courage to ask some questions I was really nervous to pose—for instance, in my lineup were a few agents who had already rejected a previous manuscript of mine, and I wanted to know why they’d passed on it and if they would consider representing it later on down the road after I’d revised it. All the agents I asked answered graciously, and being able to make my choice with confidence that my agent would have my back was really reassuring.

5. From this point on, YOU’VE got the power.

During that first full-of-nerves call, I was so stunned when we finished talking about why she loved my book, where I came by the book’s inspiration, and how the offering agent would propose editing the book—and then she said, “Okay, now I’m going to tell you a little bit about why I think I and my agency are the perfect fit for your book.” And then she launched right into a sales pitch! I distinctly remember sitting in my chair thinking Lady, trust me, I would kind of sell a kidney just to have you rep my book, you don’t need to sell ME on it! But it’s worth remembering that from this point on, the author/agent power dynamic has shifted. You and your agent will be partners, which means that it’s okay to contact them, it’s okay to ask questions, and it’s even okay to disagree with things they say! It feels really strange after being in the query trenches, but it’s important to make sure that your agent-author relationship feels like a professional business relationship that is on equal footing. Hopefully the two of you will be doing great things together—and that means standing up for yourself and your rights as the book’s creator!

Want to know what questions you should be asking during your agent interviews? Here’s the list of questions that I honed down to the ones that were most helpful for me during my series of agent calls!

You’ll definitely want to take some time before your call is scheduled to gather a list of questions and figure out what things are important for YOU to ask. Here’s the ones I used for a jumping-off point!

1. What’s your vision for my story? (Also here ask about any changes they think are needed)

2. May I see a sample contract?

3. May I contact any of your clients? (I found it most helpful when I could talk both the clients who had already had sales, and clients who had had none.)

4. How communicative are you?

6. What’s your preferred form of communication?

7. Will I be talking more with your or with an assistant or colleague?

8. How often/quickly could I expect to hear from you? How often/when do you want to hear from me?

9. Will you only check in when you have news, or should I expect monthly status updates or whatnot?

10. How do you handle submissions?

11. How many editors do you generally go out to at a time?

12. How many rounds will you consider before you think it’s time to shelve a project?

13. Do you let your authors know ahead of time which editors you’re submitting to?

14. Do you forward rejections on to your authors? If so, how often?

15. Do you only work on one book at a time, or would you want to look at other books I was working on while we were on sub?

16. What publishers do you think would be a match?

17. What happens if this book doesn’t sell? In the past, how have you handled clients with books that didn’t sell?

18. Are you an editorial agent?

19. What’s your turnaround on a manuscript, while you read & compile an edit letter?

20. How do things work for future books (some agents consider themselves career agents, while others take it one book at a time)?

21. Are you involved in marketing?

22. What sort of publishing schedule do you usually expect of clients? If a client isn’t under contract, do you still expect them to put out a book a year?

23. How do you handle foreign rights? Do you try to retain foreign rights? Who handles rights for your agency?

24. If for some reason we need to part ways, how would this be handled? What happens if you leave the agency or quit agenting?

25. I also found it helpful at the end of my calls to discuss some of the kinds of projects that I saw myself working on in the future—for instance I’m a poet and would like to write novels in verse, which isn’t something all agents will take on. I also got offers from several agents who had rejected a previous manuscript of mine, and wanted to know how they’d handle it if I were to revise that book and want to bring it out on sub. If you have questions about future projects, now is the time to float them!

And most of all: GOOD LUCK, and congratulations for embarking on the next stage of your career!

Traversing the Agent-Author Relationship (Like a Pro)

So, you finally have an agent.

You’ve spent years, wrote multiple stories, worked your butt off, and the long awaited day has finally arrived.

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But now what? Some authors find that figuring out the agent author relationship is a little trickier than they’d anticipated. It’s hard to go from idolizing someone for so long to working with them as partners. But you’re a professional now, dang it! It’s time to act like it.

So here’s some Do’s and Don’ts.

Do tell your agent about other publishing contracts that come up, even if they don’t have to do with what you were signed for. This is something that comes up often with freelancers or when a past publishing contract needs to revised or anything like that. Before you sign it, send it to your agent, just in case. You don’t want there to be any clauses that might get in the way of future publishing contracts. This sort of thing is what your agent is for. Use them!

Do ask your agent about the process from here and expectations. Every agent will be a little different, and so you can’t always compare how your agent does something with how your friend’s agent does something. But if you have established clear cut expectations and you know what to expect, you can feel more at ease and worry less.

Do talk to your agent about your next book ideas. Some agents will want you to work on whatever you feel drawn to. Others will want you to really try to hone your brand and focus on a certain genre. They might also be able to give you some insight into the marketability of an idea.

Do ask for details about where your manuscript is being submitted if you want to know that. This is your book. It’s your career. It may not be the way your agent usually does things, but if you really want to know your sub history, you have a right to that information.

Don’t bombard your agent constantly with emails. By all means, ask important questions and get the information you need. But remember that your agent has other clients, other responsibilities, queries to sift through, etc, etc.

Do ask for an estimated turn around time when you hand in revisions or a new manuscript to your agent. This is helpful to both you and your agent. It makes it so you can relax a bit. There’s so much waiting in this industry, you don’t want to be anxiously awaiting feedback if your agent isn’t going to get around to it for another two weeks. It’s nice to know that. This will also save your agent frantic emails from you when you convince yourself they must hate it, you, everything. 🙂

Do be flexible. Things come up in your agent’s life. They might have to delay reading your manuscript for a few days, or even a week or two. Be understanding. Don’t freak out. If you continue to be delayed and delayed and delayed, though, you may need to have a talk with your agent.

Don’t send your work with a bunch of apologies or caveats to your agent. Send it with confidence.

Don’t allow yourself to be treated poorly. Your agent is your partner. If they continually make you feel stupid, lower than, ignored, condescended to, or like you’re ungrateful and whining for asking normal questions, it maybe time to find a new agent. Your agent is your partner. Remember that.

Do let your agent know you appreciate them. Send them a card or a gift. Appreciation is never wrong.

Good luck on the next leg of your journey!

Self-Care for the Overextended Writer

A writer’s life is about more than just writing. It’s life, and life comes with non-writing-related joys, stressors, and time-suckers like work and family obligations, chores, errands, and the need for downtime. Balancing the writing life with work, family, and everyday adulting can sometimes feel like you’re walking a thin, precarious tightrope without a safety net—especially when your schedule is stretched to the breaking point. So I’ve put together a list of a few of my favorite basic self-care tips for the overextended writer as a mini road map for how to survive when you’re facing down a never-ending list of to-dos.

Make a Routine That Works for You (And Stick to it!) 

Some of life’s recurring tasks (laundry, filling up the gas tank, trips to the grocery store) work best if you put them on auto pilot. If Thursday night is laundry night, you run less risk of drowning in a heap of dirty clothes that’s been building for three weeks while searching for something—anything!—clean to wear. If you make it a habit to fill up your tank every Friday on your way home from work, chances are you won’t find yourself stranded on the side of the road, miles from the nearest gas station, with no fuel on a Tuesday during rush hour. And a scheduled weekly stock-up trip to the supermarket insures against food emergencies that leave you ordering pizza again because you kept putting off making that grocery run. Once you’ve set a routine that works for you and put life’s recurring errands and chores on auto pilot, you free up brain power to focus on less mundane tasks (like writing!)

Know Yourself (And be Honest About it!)

I’m an introvert. To recharge, I need lots of quiet time by myself. So if a last-minute social invitation comes up and I’m not feeling it, I’m not afraid to make my excuses and bow out. My extroverted friends might not understand how spending the evening alone with Netflix could be more fun than a night on the town, but that’s okay. I know I need that time alone to be my best self, and it doesn’t do anyone any good for me to pretend otherwise.

Prioritize (And Put Yourself First!)

Chances are you aren’t getting anything on your to-do list checked off if you’re too sick, exhausted, or emotionally drained to even start. So when you’re setting your priorities and goals—for the short term and the long term—don’t be afraid to put your physical and mental health at the top of the list. Different people have different needs, but for me, this is all about getting enough sleep. I will give up television, time with friends, even writing time to make sure I get at least eight hours of sleep every night, because when I’m not getting a full night’s rest, I’m not operating at my best. Similarly, I will never work through my lunch hour without stopping to eat (even if that means eating at my desk.) These may seem like basic things (and they are), but in today’s hectic world, people often half-brag, half-complain about skimping (or missing out entirely) on what seems like basic self-care. I refuse to wear this brand of sacrifice as a badge of honor. This goes back to knowing myself and how I function best. I can’t function well, even in the short term, without regular meals and a good night’s sleep, so those essentials are non-negotiable, no matter how crazy busy life gets.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up 

I’ve always been a bit of an anxious overachiever, ever since I was a child. When I started stressing about a looming test or school project deadline, my mom always repeated the same mantra: “Do the best you can, and don’t worry about it.” Doing the best I could came naturally to me, but the not worrying part . . . not so much.

As an adult, I’ve discovered being a thin-skinned overachiever isn’t necessarily the best attribute for someone hoping to break into an industry where strangers judge the work of your heart and rejection is par for the course. Everyone has different tips on how to deal with the disappointment and rejection that inevitably come with the writing life, but for me, the bottom line is this: Don’t beat yourself up. As a writer, my job is to put my best effort out there and not worry about what I can’t control. Easier said than done, I know, but I’ve found it helps to surround myself with other writers (both in person and online) who can relate to what I’m going through and help me see whatever it is I’m beating myself up over from a different perspective. Which leads me to my last point . . .

Find People Who Can Relate

The writing life has a unique set of joys and stressors it’s almost impossible for a non-writer to fully understand. To keep your sanity on this crazy ride (and have more fun along the way!), find people who can relate to your goals and your journey. Brenda Drake’s #PitchWars is fabulous writing community and a great way to start connecting with other writers online. There are also wonderful organizations for writers of different genres, such as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA), Romance Writers of America (RWA), and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I also found some fantastic in-person writing buddies by attending a writer’s conference in my hometown. Not only do our monthly writing get-togethers help me prioritize writing time on my calendar, the in-person comradery with people who understand what I’m going through helps me keep things in perspective.

Question:

What are some of your coping strategies for dealing with the demands of work / writing / family / adulting?

Writer Envy, Imposter Syndrome, and the Dreaded Day Job

We all know writer envy and impostor syndrome are bad. Everyone’s journey is different, there will always be someone doing better and worse than you, writing is not a competition, etc. So true . . . And yet so easy to forget, especially when you’re in the clutches of the green-eyed monster. All the more so when you’re staring enviously across the divide separating writers with a day job and full-time writers.

It can happen in an instant. One minute you’re working productively at your desk, entering data into a spreadsheet for your supervisor, perhaps; the next minute you find yourself surreptitiously checking Twitter, and there it is: an ecstatic tweet from a fellow writer that sends you plummeting into a dark pit of envy and / or self-doubt. It could be something as simple as a full-time writer happily announcing at ten a.m. that they’ve met their daily word count goal and plan to spend the rest of the day curled up with a good book. You, meanwhile, have at least a good six hours of office drudgery left before you can drag your tired self home and try to squeeze out a few words before collapsing from pure exhaustion.

This particular brand of writer envy has bit me square on the behind more than once. But if I’m honest, it’s more than wishing myself in the shoes of the writer who is free to devote all day to her words. I envy her, yes, but the darker truth is that behind the envy, I fear that this full-time writer is the “real” writer, whereas I am merely a wannabe—someone who sometimes manages to squeeze in a bit of writing during her “free” time away from her “real” job.

The thinking goes something like this: real writers spend all day in cozy studies surrounded by books, their loyal dogs at their feet, as they type away on their masterpieces-in-progress. When they aren’t writing, they are happily reading books for pleasure. In short, the real writer’s world is a literary world, free from the demands of time cards, traffic jams, and unreasonable bosses. The real writer is above the rest of us, living an ideal life in a perfect world that I could never hope to access.

Don’t laugh, but this is what I truly believed the writing life was like until a few years ago, when I decided to try NaNoWriMo on a whim and discovered that I could actually draft a novel in thirty days without quitting my day job. Sure, that first draft of my first NaNo novel was total crap, but so what? I wrote it! Just as importantly, I did it as part of a community of people who, like me, made time for writing in spite of jobs and families and innumerable other commitments that come with being an adult in the real world. Over the couple of years, I revised that first novel, drafted a new one, and started revising my second novel, all while becoming more involved with an awesome community of writers through online groups (shout out to my #PitchWars and WFWA peeps!) and a local writer’s conference.

And you know what I found? Far from being literary gods and goddesses who lived perpetually at the altar of words, almost all of the writers I met (including the published ones) either had full-time jobs, were full-time students, or were the primary caretakers of small children. In short, these “real” writers have more going on in their lives than reading and writing. They were real people. People with goals and setbacks and problems and creativity and intelligence and incredible grit.

And that’s a good thing.

Because the truth is, no matter what your deepest, darkest writer envy or impostor syndrome may lead you to believe, the words that you force yourself to write at ten p.m., after a grueling 12+ hour workday, are no less legitimate than the words someone else pens from their cozy home office at ten a.m. It doesn’t matter what time of day you get the words down, or what other real-world commitments you’re juggling in between. It’s all writing. We’re all writers.

Day job or no day job.

Your Day Job: Friend or Foe?

If you clicked on this post, chances are you’re a writer with a day job. Maybe you unequivocally love your day job, and you’re able to effortlessly maintain a perfect balance between your non-writing career and your creative pursuits. If so, this post is not for you. (Also, I’m incredibly jealous.) But if you’re anything like me, you’re sometimes tempted to view your full-time job as the enemy that’s holding you back from achieving your writerly dreams. If only you didn’t have to grade those papers / sit in those meetings / finish that report / deal with your annoying boss, you would actually have time to write. You daydream of spending endless hours at home in your pajamas, happily typing away on your work-in-progress, instead of wasting your time mindlessly entering data into yet another spreadsheet. You peek at social media during your lunch break, only to find that your writer friends who are unburdened by the demands of a non-writing job have already met their writing goals for the day—whereas you haven’t written a word. In moments like these, the message couldn’t be clearer: your day job is not your friend. It is a burden to be escaped as soon as possible. In fact, if you didn’t have to worry about pesky little things like rent and the electricity bill, you’d have quit already.

Before you start drafting that letter of resignation, though, hear me out: your day job may actually be good for your writing. Aside from the obvious benefits of being able to pay the bills, your non-writing work can actually be a source of inspiration and freedom.

Yes, you heard me right: freedom. It may be difficult to view your job as liberating when you find yourself chained to your desk, but hear me out. Many full-time jobs offer paid time off—a luxury you wouldn’t have if writing were your only source of income. If you’re lucky enough to have paid time off, maximize it: take every vacation and personal day you’re entitled to! Use those days for writing time, travel, or much-needed downtime. Few things in life are more restorative then a paid vacation . . . And knowing your personal finances won’t collapse if you take a break from the daily grind is a freedom that many full-time writers would envy.

Speaking of finances, there’s something liberating about having a reliable paycheck that’s independent of your writing. In Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert describes the freedom that comes from uncoupling creativity from your economic needs and argues that relying on creativity as your sole means of financial support may place an untenable burden of stress on you and your art. When you’re supporting yourself financially, you have the option to write whatever you want, without stressing about publishing trends or the ever-changing market—which can potentially afford you more creative freedom than writers who must, like it or not, always have one eye on the bottom line.

And a non-writing job’s potentially positive impact on your writing goes beyond the financial. In her blog post “Why You Can’t Quit Your Day Job. Yet,” literary agent Carly Watters points out that working outside of the home often offers writers opportunities for social interaction and inspiration they wouldn’t necessarily find if they were at home working in their PJs. I know this is true for me. I could’ve never conceived—let alone executed—the idea for my novel, THE LOVE TEST, if not for my years of experience advising international college students on immigration issues. My non-writing job informed and enriched my plot, my characters, and my themes. And while I may not look forward to another early morning at the water cooler after a late night of revising, who knows? That water cooler conversation may spark the idea for my next project.

And if it does, then my day job may actually be more friend than foe.

 

References:

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Penguin Random

House, 2015.

Watters, Carly. “Why You Can’t Quit Your Day Job. Yet.”

http://carlywatters.com/2015/05/25/why-you-cant-quit-your-day-job-yet/

Book Marketing: A Brief Overview

So you sold your book. You signed the contract, and maybe even began your edits. Publication day looms in the far-away-and-yet-still-too-soon future.

Now what?

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In most cases, your book has already made it beyond the hands of your agent and your editor. Designers, production teams, publicists, marketers—there’s a whole army of people working to make your book launch a success.

So let’s talk about marketing, that crucial piece that many authors begin considering even before they send their first query letter. Endless information and advice is available online about how YOU can market your book—blogging, social media utilization, etc—but what about your publisher? Where do they fit in?

Assisting me in this post will be Katrina Kruse, senior marketing manager at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Katrina has worked in publishing for 20 years (closer to 30 if you include her bookselling days) and marketed a myriad of works, from fiction to reference material to cookbooks.

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To help illustrate this process as plainly as possibly (keeping in mind that things may vary from house to house), we’ll be discussing the marketing that goes into a hypothetical fictional work: SLUSH, a gripping mystery about an intern who notices troubling parallels between a manuscript she finds in a publishing house slush pile and a rash of disturbing crimes.

Thanks for the help, Katrina! So: SLUSH. How do you find out that this book has been added to the upcoming list, and what are some of the initial steps you’d take when it comes to marketing it?

K: I’d first find out about SLUSH a few days before our launch meetings, where editors share information about books for an upcoming season. I’ll read a synopsis of the book, a sample chapter or two, and an in-depth author interview before listening to the editor pitch the book and make us all excited.

For SLUSH, we would start with deciding how many ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) to print. These are used by sales, publicity, and marketing, and are one of the key ways of getting the word out early.

Another preliminary item I take care of is translating the publication information sheets into sales speak, so that our sales reps can be prepared to sell the book.

 

How do you decide what kind of marketing goes into a certain book?

K: After launch, I find out what sort of budget I have to work with, and start researching ideas for how to promote the book. We also have a meeting with the whole marketing team, because other people sometimes have great ideas too. Additionally, I’d talk to the author, so that we can all be on the same page when it comes to messaging.

Personally, I also like to read the manuscript to see if it will spark some creative ideas. For example, since SLUSH takes place in a publishing house, we might produce pens or tote bags as promotional items.

 

What kind of limitations do you run into?

K: Probably the biggest limitation for any book is budget.

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How is a book’s marketing budget determined? And what are some examples of what that budget gets spent on?

K: A book’s marketing budget is determined by the advanced first printing projection, and will often be adjusted throughout the publishing process (if, for example, the book really starts taking off).

Big budget marketing ideas might be ad campaigns or author tours. An ad in a major print publication can start at $10,000 and easily go over $100,000. For tours, we’d need to budget for flights, hotels, transportation on the ground, and food. (And let’s not forget that many people in this industry can imbibe a fair amount!)

Lower budget ideas include postcards, pins, mounted blow-ups of the book jacket, and small giveaways.

REALLY low budget ideas (in terms of money, not time—something important to keep in mind) could include arc giveaways on Goodreads or email campaigns to targeted mailing lists.

(I’m jumping in to comment on this: many authors would be surprised to find out how much design and production time a seemingly “small” or “cheap” marketing item can take (for example, a digital-only download for their website). Not to say don’t share a creative idea or ask for something, but two questions I’d encourage any author requesting a marketing piece to consider is “How long will this REALLY take to produce?” and “Will this realistically lead to spreading the word about or selling more of my books?”)

 

So, what’s a typical marketing cycle?

K: In a typical cycle, I would hear about SLUSH about a year before it hits the shelves. I would get a budget and create a marketing plan about 10 months out. At this time I would have at least read part of the book.

Next, we hone the message to create TI (title information) sheets, as well as presentations for our sales reps (so they can become as excited about SLUSH as we are).

We also work on perfecting back copy for Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) of the book. (ARCs are printed approximately five or six months out to give adequate time for reviews.) When ARCs are in hand, we do mailings to bookstores and the media.

Marketing kicks into high gear two to three months leading up publication—booking and designing ads, mailing ARCs, crafting social media ideas, and trying to generate consumer pre-orders.

 

Once the ball is rolling, what kind of speed bumps can a book’s marketing run into?

K: When we make our budgets we are still a ways out from publication and, as the fiscal year moves along, budgets tend to get cut. Or, a retailer may want to place a large order, but only if a certain set of conditions are met (like a specific advertising program).

Finally, there’s the unexpected. An interview, segment, or article can always be bumped in lieu of a more interesting story or major world event.

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Oh my goodness, SLUSH won a major award in its genre! How does that affect it’s marketing?

K: We go back and make sure all accounts know about the award and blanket social media with the information. Often times, we also run more ads for the book.

 

Is there anything an author can do to assist their marketing manager?

K: Good communication is a great first step. Spend the time before your novel publishes building up your social media accounts. Share any marketing ideas you might have. Don’t be bashful; let your friends know that you have a book coming out. Email your acquaintances, too. And while you may want to give everyone you know a copy, remember that the goal is to sell books.

 

What’s the weirdest marketing material you’ve ever produced for a book?

K: Not my creation, but when I was a sales rep for a computer book publisher, they created branded flannel boxer shorts. They were insanely popular!

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Thanks, Katrina! That’s a great overview, and I hope it has been informative for the readers. For reference, we’ve also included a sample TI sheet for SLUSH: SLUSH_Sample_TIsheet

Of course, many authors decide to do some of their own marketing and giveaways. In the coming months, Katrina and I will be compiling lists of marketing pieces (and sources) for authors’ personal use, including ideas for all budgets!

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Choosing from Multiple Agent Offers When You area People Pleaser

I realize that getting multiple offers of rep from agents is sort of like the “First World Problems” of the publishing journey. But until you are there, I think everyone really underestimates the stress of it. And if you are like me and have issues with being a people pleaser, it can be even more stressful.

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When you suffer from being a people pleaser, you tend to have problems worrying about what other people think of you, trying to make everyone happy, and fretting over upsetting someone. I’m such a people pleaser, that I occasionally still think about my sixth grade teacher, who never seemed to love me the way my other teachers did, and I find myself thinking, “Gosh, why did she hate me so much?” This is just a touch unreasonable for a grown woman to still spend brain power on. Of course, the one nice thing she said about me was that I had a very strong writing voice. And now I’m a writer…and hmm…this really doesn’t sound healthy. 😉

But back to the issue at hand. As a people pleaser, getting your first offer of representation will be amazing!

Look! Somebody loves your work! They want you! It’s the best thing ever!

Then other offers roll in. And they’re all amazing too. Because the only thing better for a people pleaser than having one person love you, is having several people love you.

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But then you have to make a choice. And this is where your people-pleasing becomes a real problem. Having been in this situation, I want to give you a few questions to ask yourself as you are considering who to choose to be your agent, to make sure you are making the best decision for you and not for someone else.

  1. Do I feel like I owe this agent something?

This tends to be a problem with the very first offering agent. After all, they pulled you out of the slush, they found you first. All those other offers are because of the first agent. Shouldn’t there be some extra points for that? I remember reading a stat somewhere that writers overwhelmingly go with their original agent offer, and I think a lot of it has to do with this bond that is felt from being discovered. And there is definitely something to be said for that. However, it is important to remember that you are looking for a business partner. Someone to work with as equals. You shouldn’t make your decision based on a feeling of indebtedness.

 

2.  Am I worried about hurting this agent’s feelings?

giphy (5)   I think this is probably a worry everyone has when they have to turn down an offer, but it is felt especially by people pleasers. I just had a friend in this situation recently talk to me about it. How can I turn this person down? They were so nice. What if they hate me now?  I will tell you the same two things I told her. First, all agents understand that this is a business. Any agent who loves your book enough to offer is going to expect that other people will feel the same way. None of this is a surprise to them. They know you will be nudging everyone else, they know you might get another offer. And they know you might decide to go with that offer. You won’t be the first or the last to turn them down. Second, they will not hate you. They will definitely be disappointed. But they will handle it with grace and be very nice about it. I promise. And if they don’t, you don’t want to be represented by them anyway.

 

3.  Am I only choosing this agent to impress other people?

giphy (6)    This might sound like an odd question to ask yourself. But the flip side of being a people pleaser is that you probably also really want to impress people. And so if you get multiple offers and one of them is from a really big name in the industry, you will feel immediately affirmed and want everyone to know it! It’s impressive! However, just because that agent is a big name, doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best fit for you. And so, when you find yourself making a decision and thinking, “Wow, everyone will think it’s so awesome that I’m repped by HER!” or something along those lines, make sure to take a step back and analyze why you would choose her if nobody ever knew who she was. Try your best to really be objective about it. Write out your reasons for working with this particular agent over the others, and make sure that there is more than just, “She sells a lot of books.” Not that that isn’t important, it most definitely is, but there are also other things to consider in the agent/client relationship.

 

4.  Am I excited to work with this agent, or will I feel like I’m settling?

Your agent wants you to be as excited to work with them as they are with you. If you feel like you are settling, or like you’ll always have this thought in the back of your mind of, “I could have gone with so and so…” don’t accept that offer. It’s not fair to you, but more importantly, it’s not fair to the offering agent. Both parties should be absolutely enthusiastic.

 

I hope this helps someone in that insanely stressful and wonderful situation. And if I could finish off this post with one last word of advice, it would be this.

Schedule your “Offer rejection” emails to go out a few hours later, so you don’t have to actually press send. And then send your offer acceptance email so that you have a few hours of just celebration with your new agent before you have to feel bad about turning down those other offers. Trust me, when you get the celebratory email back or talk on the phone and hear how happy and excited they are, it makes handling that feeling of letting the others down so much easier!

Happy decision making!

Crafting Your Book Pitch

Crafting Your Book Pitch

So you’re a writer with a polished manuscript, you keep hearing about these pitch contests on Twitter, and you want to try your hand at one. Or maybe, when someone asks you that dreaded question, “What’s your book about?” you want to be able to respond simply and succinctly instead of stammering through some half-baked answer that goes on forever and ends up totally confusing and/or boring the question asker. (I’ve totally been there. It’s not fun.)

Good news though! I’m here to show you how to craft a simple, hook-y book pitch in less than 140 characters. One that’s easy to memorize and have ready to rattle off when someone asks you The Question.

Let’s get to it…

There are only two rules for constructing a compelling book pitch:

1. It must contain three components: character + conflict + stakes.

2. It must be as specific as possible.

Got it? Great.

Using those two rules, I’ve constructed a formula:

Compelling Book Pitch

=

[character]

+

[conflict]

+

[stakes]

Or, to be more specific:

Compelling Book Pitch

=

[character description and/or motivations]

+

[character’s specific goal]

+

[the horrible thing that will happen if she doesn’t achieve her goal]

Your pitch doesn’t have to follow this formula exactly. You can move all these things around if you want. I’ve even seen some excellent book pitches that only have two of the three

components, but they’ve managed to get their unique voice across, or something cool about the setting or magic system. That’s totally fine. Feel free to break the rules if it makes the pitch stronger.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. How do you boil your entire novel down to just these three things? I’ve come up with an easy way to do just that. Go ahead and answer the following questions (the more succinct your answers, the better):

Who is your main character, what does she want, and why?

What is your inciting incident/what kicks off the action?

What’s your character’s goal and what will happen if they fail to achieve it?

I’m going to use my own book to answer these questions and show you how I arrived at the pitch I used for Pitch Wars last fall:

Who is your main character, what does she want, and why?

Asha is the king’s prized dragon hunter. She kills dragons because a particularly deadly one burned her as a child and brought destruction and death down on her home.

What is your inciting incident?

My inciting incident is when the dragon who burned Asha as a child reemerges for the first time in 8 years and her father makes her a deal: bring him its head and he’ll cancel the marriage he arranged for her.

What is her goal and what will happen if she fails to achieve it?

Her goal is to kill the dragon. If she fails, she’ll be forced to marry someone she doesn’t want to marry.

Now that we have our answers, let’s break them down into each category

CHARACTER

-burned by a dragon as a child, Asha is now the king’s prized dragon hunter

CONFLICT

she must hunt a deadly dragon

STAKES

if she fails to kill it she’ll be forced into an unwanted marriage

And now let’s put those all together….

MY PITCH:

Asha, the king’s prized dragon hunter, must hunt a deadly dragon and bring her father its head or be forced into a political marriage. #NAMEOFPITCHCONTEST

That’s it! Easy peasy, right? 😉

If you have questions, ask them in the comments and I’ll answer there.

If you want to read more about pitch construction, here are some extra resources:

http://tracichee.com/post/117084312047/query-tips-8-pitch-structure

http://www.rachellegardner.com/pitching-your-novel/

http://www.scriptologist.com/Magazine/Tips/Logline/logline.html

http://www.raindance.org/10-tips-for-writing-loglines/ (Take #2 with a grain of salt, since some agents say they want character names in a pitch.)