Saturday, January 26, 2013

Will an agent represent me just for one genre of fiction?

Hi Noah. Really enjoy the blog. I had a question about writing under a pseudonym. I've written several books of narrative nonfiction with a major house, two of which became NY Times bestsellers. I also have a crime novel coming out next year, all with the same agent. I've recently finished a supernatural novel that I want to publish under a pseudonym, to create a separate identity for that part of my work. My agent doesn't represent any supernatural authors and doesn't know that world. I'm also concerned that some editors believe I'm too prolific and that branching out into a new genre will be seen negatively. If I have my agent send out the supernatural title, I'm sure the industry will know that I'm the author, as the style isn't that far removed from my crime book, and my agent does very little fiction in general. i've let my agent know I'd like to seek other representation for my supernatural work, but my question is: will other agents be willing to represent just my horror?

This is a tricky issue, for several reasons. 

If your agent represented you just for nonfiction, and you wanted to branch out and find a new agent to handle just fiction, that would be much simpler and more feasible. I would see no issue with that. 

The complicating factor is that your current agent does represent you for fiction – crime fiction – and you want to find another agent to represent you just for supernatural fiction. That will be messy. There are several issues to consider. There are legal issues. You will have to check your contract very carefully with your publisher of crime fiction. There may be more of an issue with them than with the agent: typically when a house signs you for fiction, they will have an option on your next novel. In most cases they will not specify what genre of fiction. You may be obliged to submit to them. And depending on the agreement with your agent, your agent may be entitled to a commission on option book with the deal he's already set up. So that all has to be sorted out first, as well as any agreements you may have signed with your agent to represent you for fiction in general.

Assuming that you are legally free and clear, the other obstacle will be whether another agent wants to represent you just for horror. That will not be that easy to find. Typically if an agent takes you on, he will want to take you on for anything you write, fiction or nonfiction. Finding an agent just to represent you for fiction is harder. But finding agent to represent you just for one genre fiction is even harder. A lot of agents will resist, unless you are an already established mega-bestseller in that particular genre fiction. 

Even so, if the agent should land you a deal with a publisher, you're going to have the same sticky issues with your new publisher regarding option clauses, and clauses that specify you should not be working on another work of fiction at the same time. The pseudonym will help. But it will not completely clear you.

Your safest bet might be to self publish your horror under a pseudonym online, as an e-book – assuming that is something that you want to do. If it is very successful, you might not find the desire to even find a print deal. If it is not, you can always revisit the issue of a print deal. 

In any case, what you are proposing is difficult, and fraught with many potential issues, but not impossible. But if you have a good relationship with your current publisher of crime fiction – that is the natural place to start. They may also want to publish your horror. And if they do, I see no reason why your current agent couldn't negotiate that deal.

How should I handle my sales history?

Hi Noah, My question is also about trying to publish again. My literary novel was published by a major house, but I did not earn back my advance. I simply do not now how to address (or ignore) this issue in my queries. I have two additional novels and would really like to get them out in the world. How tough is this going to be for me? Thanks for any help you can give.

There are two different issues here. The first is whether or not you earned back your advance. And the second is how many copies you sold, and in what format. For example, if you are paid a million dollar advance and only earned back $500,000 of it, you would still be in good shape, because that means you have sold a lot of books. So the issue here is really the number of copies sold, and in what format. 50,000 copies sold in hardcover is hugely significant, and would virtually guarantee you another deal. But 50,000 copies sold in mass-market is not impressive, and certainly would not guarantee you another deal.

Sales history is a major issue for most authors. Most authors who are lucky enough to break through and finally land a deal find themselves in the frustrating position of having had their first book published and not selling well. The only thing harder than trying to land a deal for an author who has never been published is trying to land a second deal for an author who has been published to a poor sales record. The problem is, there is n6o way to hide it. You need to let agents and editors know in your bio that you have indeed been published, especially if you plan on using your real name. They will know of your publishing history. And once they do, the first thing editors will do when they receive your submission is type your name into Bookscan, and it will tell them exactly how many copies you sold. There is no way to hide it. So there really is no dilemma of whether or not to tell them. They will know for themselves.

You are correct to think that this puts you in a very difficult position. It does. If you have scores of glowing reviews and awards, despite poor sales, that could help. If the genre is literary they may be more forgiving. But ultimately you just have to hope that you find that one editor who falls so much in love with your work that he is willing to give you another chance. It is not impossible. I've seen it happen, many times. But it is not easy.

Was I correct to accept a deal directly from a publisher?

"Hi, I have written my first 98,000 word novel and one fourth of the second novel in the series. I have now got offers from 4 publishers - one in England, and 3 in the US - with great reviews. These are not from agents; they are offers directly from publishers. I did not even have to look for long. Does that mean my book and series is good? Does it mean that I might make good money from my works? I have selected one of the American publishers in order to reach an American audience. "


Congratulations. This is most unusual. If the publishers who offered on your book are major, reputable publishers, such as Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, etc., then your book must certainly be very good. It is extremely unusual for this to happen to an author. Even when agents submit a novel, in most cases, they are lucky to just get a bid from one major publisher. So I would say that the signs are very positive.

If you have not yet signed a contract, one thing to keep in mind is that if three major publishers love your work so much, it is quite likely that even more will, too. The virtue of having an agent is that she can reach dozens of imprints that you may not be aware of – and that she has very good personal relationships with the acquiring editors. In situations where authors sell books directly to publishers, authors think that they're getting a great deal because they are saving an agent's commission. But in reality, the opposite is true: if the book is good enough to be sold without the help of an agent, then that usually indicates that an agent would have been able to get far more bids for the author, and have coordinated a wide auction – and used her leverage and negotiating skills to get the advance and royalties to be significantly higher. Not to mention that the agent would also negotiate a far better contract. 

So if you have not yet signed a contract, I would suggest your finding an agent and having her coordinate a massive submission and auction for you. 

Regardless of what happens, you must be very talented, and you have a bright future ahead of you. Congratulations.

How long should I wait for my agent?

"Mr. Lukeman-- I am a first-time author and I've been working with an agent for a year and half (we signed a contract). In that time, I've done three revisions for her. This last revision, she assured me would be "the one." However, after I sent it to her, she said that while it was "Amazing and I will have no problem selling it" she still doesn't think it is the right version to send out. She also said she did not have time to offer me notes because of other commitments. I suggested (kindly) that perhaps we should part ways, but she assured me that she didn't want to do that and she would get me notes when she could. Should I stay or go? I'm not sure what signals she is is sending. Thanks for your help"

On the one hand, most agents don't have time to offer multiple rounds of revisions, and one could argue that this is something rare and valuable, and that you should appreciate this and stick with this agent.

On the other hand, there is something wrong with this situation. To begin with, it is rare that an agent will take on a work and sign an author knowing that that work will need such extensive revision – so extensive that a year and a half later, and after three revisions, she still was not satisfied. That doesn't make sense. If an agent feels a work needs extensive revision, she will likely just reject the book, or, she might offer you to resubmit it after you've done the revision. But it is most unusual for an agent to sign you, then put you through years of revision to reach the point where she is satisfied. And if that is the case, then that agent certainly should have warned you in advance that she expected to spend many years revising it until she would be satisfied, and have given you the opportunity to make that decision for yourself.

This sounds to me like the case of an agent who is a perfectionist, and who cannot be satisfied. She also sounds like an agent that moves exceedingly slowly, and takes way too much time. The vast majority of agents will not behave this way, so I would not call this normal behavior. I would no longer continue to deal with an agent like this. The way it is going, it sounds like the process could go on for months or years more, and you'll never even know if you will finally satisfy her. Not to mention, her vision of the book might end up being different than the vision of an acquiring editor at a publisher. That is one of the reasons why, as an agent, I'm always wary of asking an author to revise a work to suit my vision: writing is subjective, and it is inevitable that editors at the publishing houses will have their own vision, that may very well differ from mine. I can't tell you how many times I've sent out a novel, and then received dozens of rejection letters, with half of the editors complaining that the novel was too fast paced, while the other half complaining that the pace was too slow. If you revise to please one person, you will inevitably not be pleasing others.

In general, no agent should tie you up that long in the process, especially before even submitting your work. I don't foresee any good reason why it should take an agent more than three months, or six at the most, to get your book out the door – unless the delays are coming from you. Most agents will go out with a book within weeks, if not days, of signing the author.

So I would part ways and find someone else.

How many revisions?

"Hi Noah, In "Land a Literary Agent" you say that a draft you send in to an agent should go through "20 or 40 revisions" first. I've never heard a consistent definition of revision, so I'm wondering what your idea of a revision is. I've heard "revision" mean everything from a complete rewrite to a read-through with a couple of minor grammatical changes. On a side note, thank you for making your work so available. I've read "Land a Literary Agent," "Write a Query Letter," and "Ask a Literary Agent Year 1," and I am currently reading "The Plot Thickens." I'm working on my first novel and I plan to use what I've learned from you to sell my book when it's done. Thanks"


There is no firm rule us to how many revisions a work must go through. In my books on the craft of writing, which are read by a lot of beginning writers, I tend to be more strict, and err on the side of suggesting more, rather than fewer, revisions. A common problem among first-time authors is that they will assume that their book hardly needs to be revised before sending it out to publishing professionals. They might just go through one cursory revision and send it off in haste. By impressing the point for a great number revisions, my hope is that they take it to heart, and that they will do at least two or three revisions, even if I know they will not do twenty.

There is no fast rule for what defines a revision. Typically, a revision is considered to be a pass through your entire book. If it is a first revision, one would assume that a lot more work would be entailed in that pass than, for example, a fourth or fifth revision. By the time you get close to your final revision, it could certainly be a matter of just skimming through and looking for certain grammatical or typographical issues. It is different for every writer.

The other important thing to consider when it comes to revising your work is the issue, often overlooked, of time. We as human beings are changing every day, and the way that we perceive our own work will change from the day we wrote it, to a week later, to a month later, to three months later, to six months later, to a year later. That is one of the great virtues of giving yourself time between revisions: it gives you distance away from your work, gives the work time to breathe. It gives you a different perspective. You might notice that if you pick up a work that you have written five years later, you may have the funny experience of not even remembering what you wrote, or being surprised that you wrote it. That is because you have changed.

That said, there is also a great merit to not giving yourself time between other revisions. In fact, it is crucial that you hold your entire book in your head through some revisions, so that you can remember, in one sitting, instances of repetition. This is why all different types of revisions are called for: the revision done immediately, the revision done after time, the revision done in one sitting, and the revision done over multiple sittings. Just as there is a great virtue to holding your entire book in your head in one sitting, there's also a virtue in a different type of revision, of isolating a random chapter and approaching it out of context. This will put it in yet another light.

That said, you don't want to revise forever, either. After a certain point, you have to let your book go. You learn a tremendous amount through revision, perhaps even more than by writing. I've heard it said that 90 percent of all writing is revision. But what some writers don't realize is that you also learn a tremendous amount by letting a book go. Through moving onto a new book. The learning curve on a single work is finite. In order to grow as a writer, you will need to embark on a completely new work, maybe even in a different genre.

Should I serialize my entire novel on my blog?

"Hello Noah :D I'm new to writing, I'm currently working on a womens fiction novel that I hope to finish this year. I do not have an agent, as I'm not at that stage yet, however I have been researching agents, queries, publishing and the like. I've also been looking into indie publishing, but I'm no PR or sales expert. My question relates to copyright etc, and I'm hoping you can advise me…? I have been advised to ‘blog the book,‘ chapter by chapter, to promote myself and my book, to hopefully gain an audience of potential readers before publication. However, although I will probably have to self publish initially , I understand that mainstream publishers buy the rights to your work when you sign a contract, so if I were to blog my actual book, would that mean that the rights would no longer be available to sell? Also, I have concerns re copyright theft. What is your opinion on ‘blogging a book‘ as a means of promotion? Your advice would be greatly appreciated."

You were given bad advice. 

I would not recommend serializing your entire novel on your blog. There are several issues at stake. The first, as you say, is that you will be posting the entire text of the book onto the Internet, and hypothetically, anyone could copy and paste it for themselves. There is certainly a possibility, however remote, of theft. You can, of course, copyright your book, but that won't necessarily prevent piracy.

The second concern would be giving away too much of it to readers. If they've read the whole thing, then why would they buy it? Typically, readers are given a free excerpt of 10 or 20 percent of the book. Rarely, if ever, are they given the entire book for free.

Third, if your blog gains a huge following or a tremendous number of fans, and they've all read the entire book, there could be a concern among agents or editors that you have already serialized your entire book. This concern could hypothetically be shared by magazines, newspapers, or other publications. There is a real value to first and second serial rights. If a book is extremely well received, it is possible that a publication may want to buy first serial rights. But if it has already been serialized completely on your blog, there may be some concerns. Of course, if you only have a few dozen followers, that probably won't be as much of a concern. Publishing professionals will probably overlook it, and just tell you to take it down. But I don't envision your giving away the entire book on your blog gaining you more followers than your just giving away portions of it.

Finally, there are much more effective ways to gain followers than by serializing your entire book on your blog. I am skeptical as to how many fans that might get you anyway. There are other things you can do which might gain you far more fans, and carry no risk. For example diversify your efforts to Facebook and Twitter and Goodreads and a host of other places, instead of just your blog.

Not to mention, even if you do gain a large number of followers on your blog, that by no means will assure you a book deal.

Keep in mind that we are strictly discussing serializing your book for free on your blog. This is an entirely different scenario than you're giving away your book for free in e-book format, for example as an e-book whose price is free on Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, or elsewhere. In some instances, that could be a very worthwhile endeavor. But that is an entirely different topic.

Should I use a pseudonym?

"Hello- I was wondering about using a pen name if my name is similar to someone who has a quasi-known name. There is a Harvard law professor named James L. Heskett who has published non-fiction books on economics. I would like to use my own name (Jim Heskett), is that too close? Should I go by Initials + Last name? Does it even matter if I would theoretically be writing fiction books? I've already started to try to build a brand around my name. If I was to switch to a pen name, would prefer to do so as soon as possible (reserving domain names, twitter accounts, etc.) Any advice you can give would be helpful"

An unusual situation, and in your particular case I would say that it does not matter that his name is similar. It is not identical to yours. And the fact that you are writing fiction, and he is known for nonfiction, gives you even more distance. I can't imagine readers confusing the two of you, or it potentially hurting your sales.

That said, the issue of whether or not to use a pseudonym in general, is one that deserves more attention. You are correct to give this careful thought: readers make decisions to buy your books based on a number of factors, including jacket, title, and synopsis--and I would not say that it's too far-fetched to assume that a reader might even be influenced by your pen name. Whether or not a reader is influenced at purchase time, it certainly will hold a greater influence down the road, when it comes to whether or not they remember your name. Branding is crucial. A name that's easier to remember might, in the long run, garner a larger readership. So you are correct to think carefully about this.

Whether or not to use a pseudonym has become a much bigger issue these days, with the advent of e-books. Many others are choosing to use pseudonyms because they want to feel free to write in different genres, and not be stereotyped. Some authors might already be famous in a particular genre, and they don't want to risk hurting their current readership by venturing off to a new genre, so they protect themselves with a pseudonym. There is nothing wrong with this, and in fact I believe this is a wise decision. People tend to remember one name for one genre, and there is a risk of confusing readers.

For many authors, it is important to them to use their real name. There is certainly nothing wrong with that either. I wouldn't necessarily assume that would hurt sales, either – I am sure you could come up with a ton of examples of best-selling authors with odd names.

However, if you decide to use a pseudonym, then I would say choose one very carefully. Do your research. You don't want to choose a name that is already famous, especially for another author. Ideally you want something shorter, easier to remember. You don't want something that obviously sounds fake. And you have to decide if you want a name that will resonate with men or women, depending on the genre in which you are writing. You might also do a preliminary search of domain name availability, and find out if the .com is available, which might impact your thinking. And you might even examine the names of other best sellers in your genre, and ask yourself if the name you chose might subconsciously ring to readers as sounding like one of these.

Of course, at the end of the day, a pseudonym, no matter how good, will not substitute for great writing or for a great book. But it is just one more factor to consider.