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Questions Answered

Q:
Would you suggest submitting to a mix of “safeties” and “reaches” where agents are concerned—or rather agents you REALLY REALLY WANT versus agents you WANT.
(submitted via Twitter August 30, 2012, by Lauren Spieller)

A:
This is a great question, because shopping for an agent is a lot like dating. You might think you REALLY REALLY WANT a hotshot agent because they represent really big authors, or because they’re known in the industry, but those aren’t always going to be the agents that are a good fit for you. You’re looking for someone who’s going to nurture and support you; importantly, you’re looking for someone who LOVES your book. Don’t sign with someone who doesn’t have editorial feedback for you, even if it’s all positive. You really do want to feel a meeting of the heart and mind. If an agent doesn’t express enthusiasm or tell you why they like your book, they’re going to have a hard time pitching it to editors! I often recommend authors consider young agents, too. Young agents are hungry. They want to sell. Sometimes they have something to prove. Their bosses, the ones who have been in the industry forever, often aren’t taking on new clients, and truth be told, some of them are super jaded.

 

Q:
I have some self-publishing questions, Brooke. If you’ve already published with a traditional publisher, are there any drawbacks to then putting out a self-published work? How would a publisher view an author who has gone back and forth? Also, how do you imagine agents might feel about one of their authors self publishing? Thanks! Interested in your thoughts on these.
(submitted to Facebook on June 27, 2012, by Cami Ostman)

A:
Great questions, Cami. The thing to know about the publishing industry is that it’s easy to get pigeonholed. If you’re a novelist or a memoirist and you want to branch into self-help, you might find it challenging unless you already have a built-in platform for the new work.

Book publishers like authors who are consistent. Therefore, authors who are going to have the hardest time “breaking out” of the mold publishers want to keep them in are memoirists because most authors only have one memoir in them. There are those authors who have more than one (Augusten Burroughs, for instance, who wrote Running with Scissors and Dry). But you can see how it works by taking a sampling of other authors. You can be a memoirist and move into fiction, like Alice Sebold, who wrote the very popular memoir Lucky, and has since followed up with two novels, The Almost Moon and The Lovely Bones. One could argue that she stayed consistent, however, because the themes of all of her books are equally dark. You can also be a memoirist and move into nonfiction. Consider Julia Scheeres, who wrote Jesus Land, and then followed up with a nonfiction account of Jonestown called A Thousand Lives. In her case, writing about Jonestown was a natural extension of her first work, and so through a publisher’s eyes, she was qualified to write that book.

So what do you do if you’re a novelist or a memoirist who wants to jump genres? Basically, the publishing industry treats you like a novice. You generally can’t make the case that the readers of your novel or memoir are going to be a natural readership for your next book unless it covers similar ground—like Sebold’s novels and Scheeres’s nonfiction work.

And so yes, self-publishing in this situation can be a good solution because it can get you on the map. As long as you self-publish well, your readers won’t know the difference. And if you can sell a lot of copies of your self-published book, then agents and editors will actually see you, the entrepreneurial author, as an asset should you want to do a second book in your new genre. (By a lot of copies I am talking about at least 1,500-2,000 books, and ideally closer to 4,000 or 5,000.)

At this point in time, I don’t think publishers look down on authors who move between self-publishing and traditional publishing. It’s happening more and more, and some very high-profile authors are self-publishing because they choose to, because they don’t want to deal with publishers, and because they want to keep more of their profits. This makes sense for established authors because they already have a built-in readership hungry for their work.

If you’re already agented and you want to self-publish, talk to your agent about it. In all likelihood, he or she will be supportive. There are some models now where agents are continuing to agent their writers through the self-publishing process, keeping a percentage of their sales in exchange for representation. My feeling is that any agent who believes in their author would want to do this because self-published books can be very successful. I’ve said it countless times: the book publishing industry isn’t the gatekeeper anymore, and you don’t have to let your book die just because editors can’t see its value or can’t figure out how to sell your work.

We are on the frontier of some very massive changes here. As I move forward with She Writes Press, I’m seeing a lot of interest from agents. There are a handful of models that are already supporting agented self-published books (including The Perseus Books Group’s Argo Navis)—and that’s something no one would have thought possible five or six years ago.

 

Q:
This past weekend I had the honor to speak to “Write On, Mamas,” a writing group out of Marin. The question came up about whether you can change your Facebook fan page name and carry over your likes. This question comes up a lot for writers who want to create a fan page for their books-in-progress, knowing that the name of the book may well change prior to publication. I’m a huge advocate of doing this, and so I was pleased to see the answer to this question.

A:
This answer comes directly from Facebook. It’s only possible to change the name of a Page with fewer than 200 likes.

To edit your Page name:

  1. Open your Page’s admin panel
  2. Click Manage
  3. Select Edit Page
  4. Select Basic Information from the left sidebar
  5. Change the text in the Name field and save your edits

To change the name of a Page with 200 or more likes, you’ll need to delete your Page and recreate it. The Facebook team isn’t able to change Page names for you.

 

Q:
Hi Brooke! I am a brain tumor survivor. A rare brain tumor 10 years ago on my memory center. I wrote an article one month before my brain surgery which was published in my collegiate alumni magazine. It received much more than expected attention and many requests for a follow up afterwards. When I started putting all of my notes and memories together, I realized it was more like a book than an article. It is complete and I’m just starting to send queries. My question is this. Should I just send the queries and quit worrying about if the manuscript is perfect or not? Thank you.
(submitted by Amy Sokalski LaNoue, March 2012)

A:
Perfect is pretty subjective, of course, but shopping a manuscript is a very strategic process. You might shop to an agent, or you might shop to a publisher. Either way, if you’re writing nonfiction, you need to have three things to shop your book: a query letter, a nonfiction book proposal, and at least two sample chapters. The more you have written of your manuscript the better. I’m not sure whether your book is a collection of essays or a sustained narrative, but either way, it’s worth your time, effort, and money to pay an editor for an assessment. An assessment is a read-through of your manuscript without edits. The assessment will help you determine the shape your manuscript is in and whether it needs editorial development or a copyedit, or maybe just a proofread. My personal opinion is that a book that’s in really good shape and only needs a proofread is shoppable, but if it needs a copyedit, then you should wait. Having a manuscript that’s riddled with typos is going to reflect badly on you, and you don’t want to ruin your chances to get published when getting an assessment is not too much of an investment. I offer this service, in fact, and it generally runs authors anywhere from $200-$400, depending on the length of the manuscript. Once you get rejected from an agent or editor, it’s very hard to reapproach them. So be mindful. Treat shopping your book like you would going on an interview. You want to present your best self. You want to be immaculate and as perfect as you can be.

Q:
After someone’s work is edited, does that writer have the right to reject the changes? If the writer accepts the changes, is the work no longer considered the writer’s? Does it borderline plagiarism if the edited work (changes made by someone other than the original writer) is published?
(submitted by S. B. Hadley Wilson, February 2012)

A:
The author ALWAYS has the right to reject changes. What’s important when reviewing any changes an editor might make is to ask yourself how much it resonates with you. If you feel like something is better said or helps your writing, the editor is doing his/her job. If something rubs you the wrong way, you “stet,” the industry term for “leave as is.” When the writer accepts the changes, the work is still very much the author’s. The nature of the editorial relationship is collaborative, but editors are trained to bring out the best in a writer’s writing. Good editors can often see what the author is trying to say and then either write or prompt the writer in that direction. For new writers, an editorial relationship is key to becoming a better writer. Editors do not (or should not) feel like they have creative “control” over a project. They are meant to be shepherds. They make your work shine. It is never plagiarism to accept an editor’s edits, even if they’ve done extensive rewriting. Entire books are ghost-written, and this is not considered plagiarism either. You have the copyright over your own work and your idea, and as you move forward with an editor, those ideas, words, sentences, and content are all yours. An editor is meant to be an objective partner. Most published writers would agree that they never could have gotten their book into the shape it’s in for publication without an editor. This is why editors are generally the first people to be thanked in a book’s acknowledgments. It’s an important job, but their work should never ever compromise the author’s writing. It’s certainly true that there are some editors who over-edit, and you need to be able to discern when this feels like it’s happening to you. If something is suddenly not your voice, something you would never say, or said in a way that you don’t like, then you get to assert your feeling on that matter and “stet.” However, if an editor changes something and you like it, feel you could not have said it better, or wish you’d written the sentence that way, check to make sure you’re not feeling something like envy, or mad at yourself for not having written it better yourself. I recently told one of my writers to think of good editorial feedback and changes as a gift. If you like the changes, “accept changes.” And know that no published book (on a traditional house anyway) gets published without a thorough edit (or sometimes two or three!).

Q:
Hi Brooke, Thank you for this opportunity. I was reading through some of your past posts with much interest. Thank you for posting them. My question is about the title of my memoir. First, is it just me or are titles one of the more difficult tasks of writing? I finally came up with a name that seemed apropos but recently a fellow writer read my ms and thought the title wasn’t very good. So my question is this: Is there a straightforward approach for assigning a title to your work? Certainly it should capture the essence of the content but any other advice you can offer? Should it follow a trend for marketing purposes? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
(submitted by Grace Peterson, November 2011)

A:
Thanks for the question Grace. Titles are one of the more difficult tasks of taking your book to the next level for sure. I recommend being okay with a working title when you’re first starting out, and even to the point of shopping your book. Titles are a tough thing because the publisher ultimately retains the right to change your title, so you may well be out there in the world doing platform-building with a title that will change. There’s nothing you can do about that! The best thing you can do is have a title you love. If you trust the opinion of the person who gave you the feedback, then it might be worth going back to the drawing board. But be careful! Lots of people love to give their opinions, but they’re not experts, and titles are relatively subjective, and they’re subject to trends. Right now the one-word titles are all the rage. All I ever hear from sales folks is “Make it shorter! It’s too wordy.” However, occasionally you’ll see really successful books with ridiculously long titles, so it’s not to say short is the ONLY way to go. Remember that titles are meant to grab. They should be provocative or literary or emotion-grabbing or beautiful. They don’t really have to mean anything. They certainly don’t have to be literal, especially if you’re writing a novel or a memoir. If you’re doing a prescriptive book, the subtitle should do the heavy-lifting of describing what the book is. If you’re writing memoir or fiction, spend some time browsing your competition. Maybe enroll your smartest friends in a brainstorming session with you. Sometimes moments of brilliance come after a double shot of espresso or after the second glass of wine!

Q:

1. How do I go about writing with partners?

2. How do I decide to go with an academic publisher or other?

(submitted by Monica Duggal, October 2011)

A:

1. The best thing to do when it comes to writing with partners is to sit down and figure out who’s going to be the primary writer, particularly if you’re writing with more than one other person. Once you get three voices in the mix, the end result can be quite choppy if you don’t have one person who’s making sure the voice is consistent. If you are a writer partnering with non-writers, it makes sense that you function in the role of editor, smoothing out the various voices and styles so that your final manuscript has a unified voice. Another way to work is that every single person takes on one particular section or chapter, and then each writer passes their work around to the other writers. So, for instance, Writer 1 would pass their work to Writer 2 for an edit, and then after that edit it would go to Writer 3 for an edit before coming back to Writer 1. Always make sure you use tracked changes for these exchanges. You need to assess upfront whether you’re all writers, however. And you’ll want to establish a very clear process before you even start. That process will inform you as you go. You might need to make changes as you all get used to working together, so I recommend having weekly or bi-monthly meetings with your cowriters to go over process and how it’s working.

2. You decide whether to go with an academic publisher based on what you’re writing. What is the topic? Is it something that would appeal to a trade audience? Trade books are just books that you see in bookstores or sold on Amazon that are specifically targeted to mainstream readers. You can always submit your work to multiple publishers and include both trade and academic presses on your submissions list and see where you get bites. But some books are clearly academic books because their orientation is academic. Or maybe they are particularly niche or very obviously going to be used as resource or reference books. Many academic presses do publish books for the trade, so if your book has some crossover (meaning it could appeal to both), then consider that you might have a hybrid on your hands that could appeal to different types of publishers.

 

Q: I’m currently looking at hybrids, a model in which I pay for everything and the publisher helps with the distribution aspects. What are your thoughts on this? (submitted by Suzanne McQueen, September 2011)

A: I think hybrid options can work well for the right author. If you’re motivated, then having a team and a distribution company behind you can certainly give you a leg up. From a business perspective it makes sense for a publisher to offer hybrid models because it drastically reduces their risk. Look into the possibility of the publishing company absorbing SOME of the risk. There should be some room for negotiation there so that you’re not paying 100% and getting only 50% of the profit.

One benefit of going this route over self-publishing is that you wouldn’t have to figure out how to distribute your book and you get the marketing support of being with a more well-established press. The downside is that you do invest a lot of money upfront—generally quite a bit more than you would with self-publishing. Also, the control is in the hands of the publisher, whereas when you’re self-publishing all the control is in your hands.

Be very upfront about asking about how they will track sales too. Because you don’t work for the company, it might be harder than you imagine to get actual sales figures. Make sure to at least ask about this, if not build it into your contract.
Publishers that do hybrid publishing include White Cloud Press, North Atlantic Books, Balboa Press (a division of Hay House), and Bookwise.


Q: Writer’s Relief, among others, say that memoir is the only nonfiction genre that should be handled like fiction—query letter, manuscript, chapter summaries, but no book proposal. What would you recommend for a first-time memoir writer? (Submitted by Mary Reynolds Thompson, August 2011)

A: I disagree with this assessment from Writer’s Relief. I think that proposals are very important for memoir. I always advise memoirists to do a complete proposal, including Overview, Chapter-by-Chapter Summary, Author Bio, Marketing & Publicity, Competitive Titles, Manuscript Length and Anticipated Delivery, and Sample Chapters. As an acquiring editor, I have often personally bought memoir on proposal, meaning they weren’t complete. And I always appreciate a full proposal because it helps editors understand how to position the work.

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