Sunday, January 30, 2011

One arrow to shoot at the target?

Q: If you are only supposed to submit/query one MS at a time, how will an agent know whether you have the ability to write more books and build a brilliant career. Especially since it is in an agent's interest to find clients for the long haul.

It feels like authors have one arrow (the MS you're submitting) to shoot at the target. What advice can you offer?
To be clear before I start: I AM NOT COMPLAINING ABOUT READING. I like to read, and I like that so many people want to submit material to me. Just the thing is, as I mentioned in my last post, agents can get overwhelmed fairly easily when dealing with submissions from people that we have no knowledge of or stake in. See, if a client writes to me a million times or asks follow up questions or gives me a bunch of stuff to read at once, well... I'd tell them to knock it off, probably, but I'd mean it with love, and they'd know that.  If a stranger does it, the much more likely response is automatic shutdown of my brain systems.

So my suggestion is, to query with what you think is your VERY STRONGEST piece of work, and only that. You may choose to mention (in one brief sentence, at the very end of your query) that you have other picture books, or another MG work in progress, or whatever, but this is not a must and don't hit it too hard. 

When the agent falls in love with that piece of work and has an email or phone call with you, you can talk about some of the other projects you have cooking, and they will likely ask to read some, particularly if they are picture books.  At this point they already like you and are paying attention, so they are going to go into reading the material with a positive attitude.

Now, while you are querying, you should be polishing up some of that other work, so that you have more material with which to dazzle. If your quest doesn't work out the first time around, you will have another VERY STRONGEST thing to offer, and you can begin again. 

WARNING! WARNING!  WEEEEWAAAA WEEEWAAAA (that was a siren noise). The following scenario happens all the time. WEEEWAAA WEEEWAAAA WARNING! WARNING!

Moxie wouldn't stand for this, unfortunately 
DO NOT. I REPEAT. DO NOT respond to the rejection of the first book by saying "that's OK, I've revised it, here's a newer version!" or "that's ok, what about this one?" and attaching another manuscript(s).  Even if we've said we'd be happy to consider something else in the future.  Not only is this exhausting (didn't we JUST get done thinking about this and saying no? Seriously?) - but if you are responding to the rejection, you are likely to just end up getting thrown away because we won't know it is a new thing.  And if you are going to query a revision, make sure it is really completely different now - that is not something that I will believe can be done overnight.

Give it some time. Allow our feeble brains the opportunity to recuperate from thinking. Then, after a month or two (or six, or twelve), take another shiny arrow out of your quiver, and aim again.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nancy Drew and The Case of the Guilty Silence

Q: I queried an agent back in June, and she requested a full MS of my YA novel. I sent it along. When I hadn't heard from her four months later, I emailed and gave her a polite nudge. She wrote right back and said she was still interested in reading it but hadn't gotten there yet, and she asked me to nudge her again in a month if she hadn't contacted me. A month later, I nudged her again, and she didn't respond. She still hasn't gotten back to me, and she's had the MS for seven months now. Should I give up on her and consider myself rejected, or should I keep emailing? At what point does it stop being reasonable and start being annoying? (I have, of course, been submitting elsewhere in the mean time.)

This is a tough one. On the one hand, maybe she has lost your manuscript in the shuffle, maybe you should give her the benefit of the doubt. On the other, if she isn't responding to your emails, maybe she isn't worth your time worrying about. And I hate to even say this, but...

...I totally have manuscripts that I've had since over the summer. 

Am I proud of this? NO! It is, in fact, a constant source of worry and stress for me. Seriously. But reading non-client manuscripts isn't my job. It is not even in my job description. My job is to take care of my existing clients - searching for new ones is cool, but it is the last thing on my plate, and it will get shoved off the plate entirely if there are client issues taking up all the room. 

The amount that I have to read varies a lot from week to week, but what doesn't vary is, I only really have time to read during non-work hours. As of right now I've read about 1,000 pages this week. At the moment I have about 4,000 more pages of manuscripts that I absolutely MUST read before I tackle anything else. That is several client manuscripts, that I have to not only read, but think about, and give detailed feedback on. Also a couple of non-client manuscripts where I know the author in some capacity so I can't keep them waiting too long. A couple of non-client who have revised for me. And something where I know the author has other offers, so I am going to read as quickly as I can.

That is not counting the 30 or so regular fulls that I have waiting for me, all of which I do read a great deal of, if not all of, and most of which I also give notes on (so hopefully it is worth the long wait.) These fulls have to come after everything else. That doesn't mean I am not interested in them - obviously I saw something there if I requested the full. It just means, you know, I'm busy.  I try to read these fulls in order. Though again, if I am really fascinated by the premise, or you have another offer, or I know you, you'll get bumped up in line. It's triage.

When you status query me, I'll say something like "Still haven't gotten to it, sorry" -- but honestly, if I had gotten to it, wouldn't you know? Now maybe I read it and just am still thinking about it, or whatever, but if I'd made a decision about it, you'd be the first to know.  If you keep status querying me... I am probably going to stop answering, because there is only so many times I can say "still haven't gotten to it, sorry" without feeling like a jerk. It won't make me move any faster, it will just pour salt in the wound of how jerky I feel.

Does that mean you should assume that I passed?  Well... kinda. 

Other agents may disagree, but here's what I'd suggest. If it has been more than three or four months, DO send a polite and friendly status query. After all, things do get lost. Then by all means nudge every 4-6 weeks.  But if you aren't getting any response, DO treat it like a rejection. DO sub elsewhere. DO work on the next stuff. DO move on with your life.* Then when the agent writes to you, because they've finally gotten around to reading your book and they love it, they will have to grovel.

*That said, even if you are "treating it as a rejection", please do let the agent know if you get another offer in the meantime, or if you've decided to withdraw the manuscript for whatever reason. That way they can either read quickly, or take the manuscript out of the pile.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

LIZARD MUSIC by Daniel Pinkwater

It's official: LIZARD MUSIC by Daniel Pinkwater is once again available in bookstores, in a gorgeous hardcover edition from New York Review Books Childen's Classics collection. I am extremely proud of this book.  (It was a childhood favorite of mine, and now I am the agent for it. Crazy!)  This really is a true classic, and I am over the moon that NYRB did such a phenomenal job bringing it back.

Make me happy and feed your brain something weird and special and magic. GO BUY IT.

Lizard Music is. . . funny, properly paranoid, shot through with bad puns and sweet absurdities, and all about a baffled kid intent on tracking reality (as slippery as lizards) in a media-spooked milieu.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Wildly imaginative. . . . This is a natural high.” —Booklist (starred review)

“A writer for smart kids. . . . Pinkwater writes for, and about, people who are not ashamed to look at life a little differently.” —Kathy Ceceri,

“I do believe that Daniel Pinkwater is my favorite writer, living or dead.” —Cory Doctorow

“Pinkwater is the uniquest. And so are his books. Each uniquer than the last . . . A delight in oddness. A magic that's not like anyone else's.” —Neil Gaiman

Buy the book at Oblong Books.

Buy the book at Powells.

Buy the book at B&N.

Buy the books directly from NYRB.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Query Query, with Vocab Lesson

Q: I've seen some submission guidelines that seem to be using "synopsis" interchangeably with "blurb", as in, sometimes when an agent requests a query letter and synopsis, it sound like they might actually mean a query letter that includes a brief (1- or 2-paragraph) description of what the book is about.

My question is, would agents ever use these words interchangeably? Or does the term "synopsis" always, always mean a step-by-step description of the entire plot, ending included (2 to 5 pages, etc.).

An example is an agent who said: "Please send me a query letter and brief synopsis. One page only, please."

I'd say the agent probably means exactly what they said: A query letter, and also a one-page synopsis. Part of your confusion might stem from mixing up terms.  I hear people calling jacket copy or pitches "blurb" all the time. I know that it might seem silly or pedantic of me to point all this out. But the fact is, you're a professional writer, talking to publishing professionals. You aren't some random person off the street. THEY can call flap copy a blurb - YOU oughtn't. So it is definition time: 

Synopsis: A straightforward "what is this book about", from beginning to end. You might be asked for  a short synopsis, no more than a page, or a long version, 3-5 pages. Yes, synopses can be a bit of a chore to write. I don't ask for them personally, but I understand why people do, and it is probably a good idea to have one prepared just in case.

Query Letter:  A letter written to an agent (or editor) asking if they want to read your material. Query letter generally has three portions. The intro, where you very briefly explain why you chose to query me (if you like) and what it is that I'm about to be looking at.  The pitch, where you talk about the book and entice me to read it. Your bio, in which you tell me any previous publication history and similar. It may vary a bit, depending on the project, but those are the basic building blocks of a standard query letter.

Pitch: Can be in writing, as in the example above, as part of a query letter. OR can be in-person, as described in the blog entry from yesterday. I try and make my written pitches about the tone and length of jacket copy - definitely no longer. Again, you are trying to get people to read on - you're telling them 'the hook', who the main characters are, what their conflicts are, but not every detail of the plot. This is not a synopsis or a blurb.

Flap (or Jacket) Copy: This is the paragraph or so of description on the inside jacket or back of a finished book that gets people to want to pay money for it (hopefully!). This is not a synopsis or a blurb.

Blurb:  Blurbs are accolades heaped on your book by other writers, usually to be printed on your book jacket or website.  "Susan Quartermaster is a master of pitch-perfect dialogue and crackling wit; Chickens in the Peapatch is a book that will stay with you long after you've turned the last page." -- Stephen King.  That's a blurb.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Conference Tips, part 2

Lots of you are getting ready for SCBWI-NY, so this seems like as good a time as any to follow up on Conference Tips Part 1.

First of all, "pitching" should not be the goal. I personally hate it when people creep up to me and say "I wanna pitch my book to you!" - What happened to "hello"? How about you just talk to me like a person, and let me ask you about your work?

now this is a pitch

But let's say that you have a one-on-one pitch session scheduled. Or you have chatted me up at a cocktail party and I've ended up asking you the question: What is your book about?

This shouldn't be a summary of your book. I don't need to know the main character's childhood nickname or favorite food or where they went to middle school. In your real voice, in real words, NOT in a canned speech, just briefly tell me what this thing is, and why I should care. That's the taste of the story that will make me want the whole thing… something that will make me say WOW, sounds fun, I want to read that. 

You aren't giving a speech, you are having a conversation with a real person. So keep the "pitching" part brief, pay attention to social cues just like you would in any conversation. I might want to ask you for more information. Be ready to answer follow up questions about yourself or your story.  That means, BE LISTENING.

This is a chance for you to talk about something that you are very passionate about, and know more about than anything in the world.  You are the world’s foremost expert on this book. Literally nobody on the planet knows more about this topic than you do. Have fun! 

A superb brief tutorial on The Pitch can be found on Janet Reid's blog.

Heck no. Though conferences can be great fun and useful to get a glimpse at parts of the publishing biz beyond your own desk, or just make new friends who are in the same boat as you, they are hardly required.  You can get an agent and get published without ever setting foot in a conference. (Ask half my clients!) It's just hard to tell, because the writers who are usually the most "out there" on the internet are often the type of personalities who LIKE to go to conferences, so that can make a newbie feel like everyone is doing it, because everyone they see is.

If you want to dabble, but not commit to a big time conference where you have to travel, consider attending a short SCBWI event or two in your region. These are usually a few hours to a day long, and priced reasonably. Also, take a look at WriteOnCon, which is all online. 

You should go if you can afford to (this means both in time and money), and if you honestly want to.  But if you can't get time off the day job, or it is just too much of a stretch financially, or you feel reluctant, or you don't like to be in groups, or whatever, don't listen to folks who insist that you MUST attend. That is hogwash.

The important thing is, do what you need to do to fuel your writing.

Friday, January 21, 2011

When to Keep Your Trap Shut? Almost Always.

An editor friend (who wishes to remain anonymous, but um, you would totally know who it is, and no I am not going to tell you) writes:
I admit that when I’m considering a project, I google the writer (sometimes I don’t have to because the agent volunteers blogs and such).  A couple times recently, I’ve watched writers lament over how long it’s taking their agent to sell something (making me wonder if the agent knows their client is whining about them on the blog) but most often, they just talk about how close they’ve come and, in reading the posts, I realize the project’s been out on submission for some time. And then I go: Hmmm. I wonder if the agent wants that known. Especially when the pitch I just got says, “Hey, I’m just going out with this great new project….”  Nothing wrong with that. I know it’s part of the game.  Still, I’m just curious if an agent has ever said, “Listen, I know you’re anxious about this but let’s not talk about this too much on the blog until it’s sold….”
Obviously I can't speak for every agent. But personally, it makes me cringe when I see writers publicly discussing where they've been rejected, how many times, how long a project has been on submission, and the like. (AFTER the book is sold, if you want to share war stories, that is a different matter - I am talking about while a book is actually on submission). Worse, I've seen blogfuls of complaints, real rejection letters posted, rants about how long the wait times are and how idiotic editors are and how useless agents are and how publishing is going to hell. Yikes!

See here's the thing: Part of what I am selling when I sell your book is the promise of something special. I try to target editors pretty darn specifically. They are one of the chosen few that is reading this book. When they choose to buy it, it will be a coup, because it is something fresh and new that hardly anyone else got the chance to see, that they discovered.  I am also assuring them that you are a pleasant person, easy to work with, with a good attitude. Please don't undermine that.
(ETA 1/22: I also want to point out a bit of basic psychology: If editors know that there is little competition and the book has been rejected by a thousand other people... why should they pay good money for it?)
For me, the same goes for putting sample chapters of unsold material up on your blog or website.  I'd rather see nothing, or at most, a one-paragraph description of the work, rather than sample chapters. My concern, again, is that when I am sending stuff out to editors, if they google you and see that this chapter has been up on your blog for the past two years, it makes you look wedded to an old, tatty, unedited story. Sorry, but it does. Yes, I know that there are some people who have gotten editor and agent interest that way. There are also some models who were 'discovered' at age 13 by scouts at the mall... but that isn't MOST models by any stretch.
(ETA #2 1/22: Some people seem to be confused by the preceding paragraph. I am in no way suggesting that you never put teasers up, or little descriptions of your work, or other fiction, stories, or the like. Certainly you can whet people's appetite with a snippet of the work, or put up stories like the Merry Sisters of Fate do, etc.  Before you get an agent, writing samples may well get you interest. And once the book is sold and edited, your publisher may want you to put up a sample chapter.  I am only suggesting that while you are on submission to editors, you consider limiting the amount of the actual project that you share.)
I understand that you have the best of intentions here, and no, I'm not the blog police. I do ask my own clients to be circumspect about what they post while we are on submission. And that might be something for you to consider, too.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Conference Tips, part 1

I get questions about conferences quite often, ranging from "which conference should I attend?" to "what do I do once I get there?" Since I attend as a speaker, not as an attendee, my perspective might be a bit skewed, fair warning.


You need to figure out a few things, like, what are your budget, time and travel constraints? Some conferences are one-day affairs, some last a couple of days or even a week. There might be one in your hometown, or you might prefer to spend some time away from home. Do you want a small, craft-oriented workshop type environment where you really get to work on your manuscript? OR do you want to attend large seminars where editors or agents give talks the whole time? 

Personally, I adore the craft-oriented small workshops like the Big Sur Children's Writer's Workshop that my agency puts on twice a year, or the Oregon Coast Children's Book Writer's Workshop. At these conferences, there is a low ratio of faculty (agents, editors or well-published writers) to attendees. That means everyone has a chance to get to know everyone else, if not in the workshops, then over meals. Faculty meets with authors in small groups or one-on-one and give feedback, and there is lots of quiet alone-time in a gorgeous location for the authors to actually write without the distractions of internet and TV. All this can really help writers figure out how to focus their stories and where to go with revisions. It seems like a short time, but I have to tell you, the changes that I've seen authors make to their work in just a few days can at times be quite shocking, and magical!

That said, larger regional SCBWI conferences like NE-SCBWI or SCBWI National can be great fun, particularly if you have lots of friends in the region. Going to conferences like this, where there are big rooms full of writers listening to expert presentations and panels (and lots of fun times going on in the lobby after hours!) can be like one big invigorating party for writers and an opportunity to learn more about the business. And often, for a small fee, attendees can meet one-on-one with editors or agents as well. I feel like these conferences might be better for people that are good at schmoozing and "putting themselves out there" - if you aren't quite there yet, you might consider starting with a smaller one-day SCBWI event in your area.


First of all, RELAX. You don't NEED to do anything, or prove anything to anyone. Conferences should be fun, and you should learn something, and you should meet lots of great people, but everyone is nice. They aren't going to judge you or torture you. There shouldn't be anything scary about this experience. Especially at all-children's writers conferences... we all love children's books, after all!

Read the conference materials. Look up the editors and agents online, just to get an idea of where they work and what they are interested in. Send in material if you are supposed to send it in, and/or bring materials with you if you are asked to. (For example, if there will be workshops). Bring a copy of your query letter - why not? Somebody might ask. But DO NOT, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, expect to hand your query or manuscript to an agent or editor at the conference. We don't want them there. We'll give you submission guidelines if we are interested in getting material, and you can email or send it after the show.

I suggest you go in with your ears open. Bring a notebook. Bring some business cards with your web address and email address to share with other writers (again, if you hand material to faculty it will likely get lost or thrown out.)

Dress neatly but comfortably. Wear comfy shoes. Stay hydrated. Don't drink too much booze, even if it is free, and don't stay up too late, no matter how much fun you're having. Talk to people. Yes, even scary agents. :-) Here are some more great conference tips from SCBWI-conference veteran Linda Joy Singleton.

Up next time: HOW DO I PITCH MY BOOK?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Words fail me today.

My dear friend and client LK Madigan has some hard news to share on her blog.

I've had several emails from friends and fans asking what they can do for Lisa.  Well, right now you can send her love and prayers and healing thoughts. I don't think that she's up for getting emails, but I know she's reading the comments of her blog. 

And if you're of a mind to, you can buy her books FLASH BURNOUT and MERMAID'S MIRROR, or check them out from the library, and read them, enjoy them, and share them with a friend, and smile, and think about what a great writer and wonderful person Lisa is.

Then hug your friends and family.

Then if you're a writer, get to work. You don't have enough time to waste any of it!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Link Roundup

I have to share some stuff with you guys so these rascally tabs can be closed. And I can't concentrate on writing a long blog post because Moxie the Dog is going crazy trying to find a mouse that is hidden in the walls and making noise. Argh. ANYWAY:

As most of you know, the ALA youth media awards (including the Newbery, Caldecott and Printz awards, among many others) were announced today. Many congratulations to all!

The Association of Jewish Libraries also announced their awards. Congrats to clients Margie Gelbwasser, Daniel and Jill Pinkwater for being named Sydney Taylor Notable books.

Client Kate Messner wrote a wonderful, and inspiring, and tear-inducing post that everyone who writes for kids must read. Particularly if you DIDN'T win a fancy award today.

YA author Lisa Schroeder on why "Oh Well" should be in every author's vocabulary. A great post for perspective.

Last year's Morris Award winner, my client L.K. Madigan, interviewed this year's winner, Blythe Woolston.

I'm on the front page of the HuffPo books section dishing out kids book advice with my pal David Henry Sterry. Me = loudmouth.

My friend (and non-client) Laurel Snyder reveals her beautiful new book cover. Swoon!

What is up in YOUR worlds?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Happy Agentversary to Meee

I realized last night on Twitter that Jan 1 marked my third anniversary as an agent. Woohoo!  Here's how it happened:

I had been an unpaid intern and reader at another agency for a year, but they hadn't wanted to let me actually start taking on my own clients. It was OK though, as they were a grownup book agency and I really wanted to work at an agency that specialized in kids books. So when I met Andrea and the gang in Summer of '07, it was a perfect match.

I hung around ABLA for several months, reading like a madman, working closely with the other agents, especially Andrea and Laura, getting to know the lay of the land and how the agency worked, gathering up a few first clients by lingering around the Blue Board and asking in locked blog posts. Then January 1, 2008, at the stroke of midnight, my bio "went live" on the website. It was funny -- I remember it exactly because I was babysitting, and the kids were asleep so I was checking email... and all of a sudden at like 12:02 I got QUERIES.  12:02!! On NEW YEARS! I checked the website and LO, there I was. (I will admit, I definitely did a happy dance.)

Andrea had warned me that I should not expect to sell a book for the first year that I was an agent. Some new agents do well straightaway, of course, but mostly there is a bit of a learning curve and it takes several months or even a year to get up to speed, meet tons of editors, and start selling. And even when you do start selling, it can take many months to get a contract and get paid, etc, so you have to be prepared for it to be a lean business, especially at first.

I had a project that I was super-duper excited about called FLASH BURNOUT.  It was a 'boy book' but with definite girl appeal. It was gritty and funny at the same time. I loved it!  (still do, in fact).  The author, LK Madigan, had been a critique partner of mine way back when I thought that I wanted to be a writer myself. I loved her book then, and I told her so, but she (because she is gracious and lovely and wouldn't be presumptuous) thought I was just being nice (me?) and basically had to have her arm twisted to actually query me. But she did, finally, and that was going to be the first project I sent out into the world.

I did a lot of research about who to send it to, but I had a gut feeling that one place in particular would love it. That was Houghton, and in particular, the editor who had brought Barry Lyga's books to print. If she "got" Barry, I thought, she'd "get" Lisa. I was confident.

But I still didn't think that I'd get a call in less than two weeks. Nor did I think that the call would be at 6:00 am (editors don't always remember about west coast time). Nor had I planned out anything to say if such a call were to come.  So this was how it went down (remember, I am BLEARY-EYED, having been awoken from a sound sleep).

Me:  [totally asleep, croaking voice]  "hh'looooo?"
Editor:  "Hi! I am calling from Houghton Mifflin... is this... Jennifer?"
Me: [false awakeness]  "YES! HI! HOW ARE YOU!" 
Editor: "Well thanks. So I loved FLASH BURNOUT."
Me: "yay!"
Editor: "And I want to make an offer" [proceeds to rattle off numbers]
Me: [searching through blankets for nonexistent pen] "ok, could you possibly email that to me? I don't seem to have a working pen at my desk here..."
Editor:"Sure thing"
Me: ....
Editor: ....
Me: "Umm..." o.O
Editor: ....
Me: "OK, so... forgive me, this is going to sound silly but... err... what do I do now?"
Editor: "Mmm... probably you should talk to your author."
Me: "AHHH! Yes, right. OK!"

And that book became not only the first book that I sold, but also my first AWARD-WINNING book, and the start of this whole crazy ride.  (The picture is of FLASH with its Morris Award finalist sticker - in fact, it ended up with the gold, I just couldn't find the image. BUY IT.)

I just did some quick calculations. I currently have 28 clients. (5 of them I picked up in 2010).  I've sold 55 books (not counting foreign sales, audio books or film options). 15 books have been released, and 10 more are slated to come out by Summer 11.

All in all it has been a great few years, and I look forward to an even more amazing stuff to come, because I work with the MOST talented and interesting and surprising group of authors ever.


Monday, January 03, 2011

Slightly Self-Serving Link Roundup, plus a plea


* My fave blog Editorial Anonymous is back from hiatus, with a couple posts about Agents right up top.

* Several famous authors were asked to talk about their agents in the latest Horn Book. Here's one of my clients talking about me.

* A blog in which three agents (one of whom is me) give three pieces of advice. I sort of rant a bit, but.

* Here's a superb article on productivity: If it won't fit on a Post-It, it won't fit in your day. (Full disclosure: I read it, appreciated it, then promptly disregarded it and made my to-do list on a large whiteboard.)

* In case you missed it over the weekend, here's a new Open Thread for the new year. There are A TON of really great questions being asked in comments, feel free to chime in or add your own!

* Several clients have had good news lately: Tara Kelly's HARMONIC FEEDBACK is a YA Cybils Finalist. Daniel Pinkwater's ADVENTURES OF A CAT-WHISKERED GIRL is a Smithsonian Notable Children's Book for 2010. Kate Messner's SUGAR AND ICE was Amazon's Best Middle Grade book for December. Am I missing any good client news? If so, remind me in the comments and I'll add it!


I want cheering up. So what is going on in YOUR world? Any great news to share?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

New Year, New Open Thread

Hey gang,

It's that time again - OPEN THREAD TIME.  Have a question about things book/publishing/agentish? Or just about, you know, life in general? ASK AWAY.  Have an intense desire to share pictures of your pet, or tell me what you got for Christmas? GO FOR IT.

Short answers will be dealt with in comments, long answers will be blog-fodder.

Happy New Year!

xo Jenn