Saturday, February 16, 2013

How to phrase my query letter?

Dear Mr. Lukeman, Your books are among my favorite writing references. As I prepare my query letter, your advice on the topic has been particularly useful. I've composed a personal query that I feel reflects the type of novel I have written. Yet, frequently I've come across emphatic advice to place the hook in the first paragraph, leading with such phrasing as "When Jane Doe is faced with (random compelling crisis)" or the like. My tastes lean toward literary fiction, and when I imagine phrasing my query leading with a hook, it doesn't suit my story. In your query letter book, you mentioned how conflicting the advice is on the subject. Is it due to genre preference perhaps? Do you consider this type of format more typically used with manuscripts of commercial fiction?

It is impossible to say, to speak in generalities, without having a chance to read your query letter specifically. In every case it will be different.

The most important thing to realize here is that query letters are limited; you only have finite space. They are also showcases for writers to exhibit their talent with word economy and with their ability to grip a reader in just a few sentences. On any given day at a major literary agency, hundreds of queries might arrive. Yours must stand out. Not in a cheap, gimmicky way. But in an organic way, one reflective of you and your writing. That said, it is not a passive letter--it must be an active one, one that appreciates how much is at stake, and how much must be accomplished in a short period of time. Remember what Mark Twain said:

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."

Can I submit to multiple agents simultaneously?

If an agent doesn't specify that they don't accept simultaneous submission, then can I assume that they do? I have my novel with one agent now, but would prefer to have it with more if possible. 

I always suggest submitting your manuscript or proposal or query letter to as many agents as possible--and to do so simultaneously. It is hard to land an agent, and hard to land a book deal, and it is also a very subjective and slow-moving business. If you submit to one at a time, or just a few at a time, you can be waiting years to further your career. I would always err on the side of a more aggressive approach. Even if three agents like your work, all three can still reject it when reading more. Don't wait on anyone--unless a bonafide agent takes a genuine interest in your work and is responding rapidly and requests a limited time window, say a few weeks, of exclusivity.

I speak to this topic at length in my book HOW TO LAND (AND KEEP) A LITERARY AGENT, which I give away for free. I suggest you read it.

Can I submit requested material via email?

I have a question in regards to publishing. i want to send a manuscript to a publisher who allows sending manuscripts either as a hard copy by post or by email. I wanted your opinion on which way is better.
If a publisher or literary agent specifies that they have no preference as to whether you submit via hard copy or email, then feel free to submit either way. Neither form of submission will necessarily gain you an advantage--or hurt you. In general, always follow an agent's guidelines. The bigger issue to worry about is your biasing an agent to your work because you submit a manuscript via email when he specifically requests hard copy--or vice versa. Just respect their wishes and all will be fine.


Which publishers should I submit to?

What are some good publishers that we can use? I have recently written a book and received an offer from Tate Publishing but turned it down due to their contract. So now I'm off to looking for another publisher. Any suggestions?

If your goal is to land a traditional publishing deal with a major publisher, then you should find a literary agent first. You should not submit directly to publishers, for many reasons (your not knowing which to choose being just one of them). In fact, submitting directly can do you more harm than good. I speak to this topic at length in my book, HOW TO LAND (AND KEEP) A LITERARY AGENT, which I give away for free.  I suggest you read the chapter devoted to this topic.

Do I need photographs?

Dear Mr. Lukeman, I have written a novel in the historical fiction genre, and I have identified seven photographs that I want to include. I have already begun the process of securing rights to them, and it doesn't look like there will be any problems. My question is: if I send out a query letter to an agent, and the agent wants to see part or all of the manuscript, I think it's important that I send the pictures along with the prose - do I need to have already paid for the rights to the photos, or can I just note that I don't have the rights yet (i.e. haven't paid for them) but that the owner is known and the rights are securable?
First of all, keep in mind that most novels, whether historical or not, do NOT include photographs. You might want them in, but chances are that, assuming you sell it, your editor will not. So I would not recommend your doing all this legwork.

For those of you who are considering inserting photos in your book, keep in mind the following:

If your editor agrees to insert photographs, then you will have to supply them (i.e. pay for them). This can be quite costly. I've seen photo permissions cost $400 to $1,000 or more per picture. Depends where you get them from. It's possible they can be less, but regardless, they will cost you. Unless you turn to public domain images--which editors may or may not want.

Additionally, it can take MONTHS to get all the written paperwork done for permissions for the photos. Thus editors begin this process early. Many times it causes a problem, when the work needs to go to press and photos are not signed off on.

Also keep in mind that you will need to secure WORLDWIDE rights to photos, something that authors frequently overlook. If your publisher controls world rights they will need this--and if you or your agent control world, then you will need this. The time to do it is upfront, not later. And this can increase the cost.

Also keep in mind that if your manuscript includes photos then legally the publisher only has to pay you on delivery and acceptance of ALL materials--thus if you deliver your manuscript and the photos aren't cleared for many more months, you won't get your advance delivery payment until then.

In any case, a discussion of photos is not one to be having when it comes to fiction--and especially at the stage of seeking an agent.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Is my age a factor--and how to land an agent?

"Dear Mr. Lukeman, I am an underage author, I'm 12 years old. I'm writing a book called The Blessed and I am not yet finished, but I would like to start studying up how to get an agent--any words of advice? I just really need to know if my age will be an asset or a turnoff to literary agents and any you would suggest...? Thanks. -Anonymous "

I salute you for starting so early and being so ambitious. Keep up the good work, and whatever you do, don't give up, and eventually, you will make it.

First, several other young authors have asked a similar question regarding their age on this blog. I have responded to it in depth numerous times. Please read the response in all the blog posts here, and please read all posts going back to the beginning. That will also help you with landing an agent.

Second, I wrote two books--which I give away for free--HOW TO WRITE A GREAT QUERY LETTER and HOW TO LAND (AND KEEP) A LITERARY AGENT, which contain hundreds of pages of detailed information and advice that will help you land an agent. To download them for free, visit

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Should I submit to magazines first?

"Greetings Mr. Lukeman: For the sake of argument, let's just say I have a body of humorous non-fiction stories, well-written essays that comprise more than enough laugh-out-loud moments to capture the attention of an agent and/or publisher. Let's say I have enough material for several books and I'm the kind of author who's central character (in other words, his own personality) could be rendered for marketing purposes, much in the same way the "character" of David Sedaris is central to most of his work. (And please forgive me for being yet another one of the thousands of aspiring authors who directly or indirectly compare themselves to David Sedaris...) Once again I'll ask you to play along with me and pretend, for the moment, I'm the next great American icon of literature, as of yet undiscovered. Here's the question: should I submit one or more of these stories first to magazines for hopeful publication, or should I bypass that route and submit them (to an agent) as a full book?"

There is no black and white answer to this. On the one hand, if you are successful in landing one of your stories in a major, national publication, like the New Yorker, then yes, that can make all the difference in the world. On the other hand, if you are only able to land your story in a lesser known publication, that may end up not having any impact – and indeed, if you land your stories in too many publications, it could even potentially turn off an agent or editor, because they might feel as if the book has been over serialized, and overexposed.

The other issue is that if you submit your stories to all the major publications, and they all reject you, you've lost your one shot. It is possible that if an agent had submitted the same story, or a sub rights director at a publishing house, perhaps the same publications would have accepted your story. Unfortunately, who is doing the submitting can often make a big difference in how seriously your story is paid attention to.

But then again, agents rarely have time to submit individual stories to magazine, and the same is true with rights departments. It all depends on the book. For some authors, sub rights are very big deal, and a single story can demand six figures in a publication. But for the vast majority of authors, they will never sell serial rights, and if they do, it will be to a lesser publication, and for a nominal fee of a few hundred dollars. That is why it is hard to make blanket generalizations.

The other consideration is that it could take you many many months of trying to place your stories in magazines, and one does not want to put on hold his career or his search for an agent too long. Especially because the chances of your landing your stories in a place that can actually impact an agent's decision, like the New Yorker, are very slim. And you don't want to spend so many months to finally land your stories in lesser magazines, and then search for an agent only to discover that even these small successes will not impact the agent's decision.

Thus I would recommend just submitting directly to agents, and not waiting on magazines. If your writing is good enough, the agent should want to take it on anyway. And if it is not good enough, then landing a piece likely will not make much of a difference. Of course, if you have exhausted your agent search, and the manuscript is sitting there, you can always try the magazines then. And if you do land one in a major place, then you can reapproach the agents.

Also keep in mind that in this day and age, there are many ways to approach it. Some websites can have even more impact than magazines--if you get millions of reads on a site, that can influence an agent's decision. Or if you break your humor into tweets and have millions of followers, that can make the difference, too.

Will my location affect my ability to land a deal?

"Hi Noah, I'm a 13 year old writer from Singapore. As the arts scene is not very vibrant in my country, I wish to find an American/British publisher. Do you think they will entertain my requests, taking into consideration my country? Thanks! "

I wouldn't worry about this too much. Good writing is universal. When an agent receives a manuscript, he takes it on its own terms. He does not – or at least he should not – look at the author bio to decide what country the author is from when making a decision. Good writing is good writing. And bad writing is bad writing. I'd rather take on a good author from Singapore than a lousy one from New York City. I don't see readers discriminating when making their purchases either – and I'm sure we can point to a ton of bestsellers written by authors who live all around the world.

The bigger issue will be whether your book is strictly about Singapore, and in a very limited way. That is not to say that a book about Singapore could not become a huge international bestseller. But if your book, the way you have written it, feels very local and specific to publishers, and feels as if it could not translate to other places and other cultures, then that might give them pause. So it is really about the topic of your book – and your writing style and execution -- not about where you live.

As far as your age, it is possible that could give some agents or publishers pause. I would not necessarily advertise your age in your query letter. Let them read and accept your work on its own terms. Then if they decide to accept it, you can always tell them after the fact. Indeed, in some cases that could end up being a selling point, as well.

The most important thing for you to worry about, being 13, is that you should keep writing, keep revising, keep improving your skills, and keep reading. At your age, you are building the foundation and building blocks for a long and successful career as an author. No matter what, don't get discouraged. It can take many writers many years of rejections before they break through. Don't let it affect you, don't pay too much attention to it, and whatever you do, keep writing and keep trying.

Can I re-submit after revision?

"Hi Noah, I have a question about querying that I haven't been able to find an answer to. After sending out a few queries, I received some advice that I really thought would improve my book. I took the advice and made some changes to my manuscript that changed the opening of the book (which I had already sent with some queries) as well as the length of the novel. Here's my question: What should you do if your manuscript changes after you've already queried? Obviously the MS is different than your sample pages, so what do you do? Thanks, ALC "

I wouldn't worry about this too much. From your post, first of all, it sounds as if you have only sent your queries out to a few agents. Typically, it takes sending a query letter out to dozens and dozens of agents until you land one. It is a numbers game. Chances are that you will not land an agent based on your small initial round anyway. So if the work that you already sent them is not in the best shape, there is not much you can do about it now, but I wouldn't worry about it too much, either.

If you were to contact these agents again with the revision of a query, it would likely be perceived that you as an author are too high maintenance. An agent does not wish to take on an author who is constantly submitting them revisions and never happy with the work. I have seen situations in the past where some authors will never be happy with their books, and revise endlessly, all throughout the process, even going right up to publication day, driving their agents and editors crazy. While you do want the best work you can have, you don't want to be perceived as one of these. It is too much work for everyone involved. At a certain point, you have to lock it down and be happy with it. Of course, the very nature of revision demands that we will never be happy with our works as authors. Which is why this is even an issue to begin with. At virtually any point in time, any author could look back at their work and want to make changes. At some point, we have to move on.

The other issue here is that, if an agent likes your general concept and genre and bio enough, presumably the agent would be intrigued to see more based on your initial query letter. If you made some minor revisions, that shouldn't impact their decision too much anyway.

Also be wary in general of making revisions based on a single agent or editor's comments. Publishing is a very subjective business, and if you change your manuscript to suit one person's needs, you might find that the other agents or editors would have preferred it the way it was originally. It is good to listen to people, but it is good to trust yourself, too.

Can I post excerpts of my work online?

"Dear Mr. Lukeman, I was wondering if it was legal to post sample chapters of a book on, say, Facebook? I have been trying to publish for a while and want to establish my career as an author, so wish to create a Facebook page for my work. However, I am not sure if posting sample chapters would deter agents from picking up my work or if I could not do that because, once published, I would have restricted rights to post material. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks! "

There are two questions here. The first is whether or not, legally, you have the right to post excerpts of your own work on Facebook or anywhere else online. The answer is yes, you do. You own the work, and it is yours to do with as you wish. Of course, this is assuming that you have not signed any agreements with any publishers for its publication which might restrict such activity.

The second question is about marketability and overexposure. I addressed the topic of serialization and overexposure in a recent blog post. Please search this blog for the response to that. But just to recap briefly, you don't want to risk overexposing your book too much, giving away all of it for free online. It can certainly be a good strategy to give away a little bit of it, say one or two chapters – but I would not recommend serializing the entire book.

The other issue is whether this strategy would turn away a potential agent. It is doubtful. Unless your page is read by millions, usually posting a chapter or two of it will have such little impact that it is not likely to affect an agent or publisher's decision. And it can work both ways: if you're giving away the book for free, and millions of people are downloading it, that just might help you entice an agent or publisher to want to take it on. Keep in mind that while I don't recommend serializing your entire book for free, giving your entire book away, as an e-book for sale on the etailers with the price listed as free, is a different matter entirely, which I will not go into here.

How do I switch agents?

"Question: Does it reflect badly on an author (in regards to future deals) to change literary agents mid-contract? Obviously, my current agent is entitled to any monies earned by current and past deals, but I'm wondering how to professionally and ethically switch agents before I submit any more proposals to publishers. I hate that I'm even considering this-- I'm a very loyal person and my agent has sold several books for me-- but this last contract has revealed some ethical issues (dishonesty, missteps) that have made me feel like I cannot trust her. Also, if I were to switch agents, how would I start the process? By contacting the old agent? Submitting to new agents?"

To begin with, read these two posts from this blog, one from 2009 and one from 2010. They will explain a lot. I already covered much of this ground in previous answers:

There are several issues at stake here. First, you need to make sure that legally you are able to fire your agent. You will have to check the agency agreement that you signed with her. Every agency agreement is different. Some agreements commit authors to multi-book and/or multi-year obligations. The most important clause here will be the termination clause, if one even exists. That is a clause which allows you the right to terminate the agreement, and specifies upon what conditions. For example, a clause might read that you can notify your agent in writing and after 90 days notice, the agreement is terminated. 

But it is often more complex than this. From an agent's perspective, if an agent is working hard on a book and it is actively on submission and an author for whatever reason decides to fire him, the agent justifiably has to protect himself so that his work is not for nothing, and often there will be a clause stating that in the case of termination he is entitled to commission if that active submission should become successful. And it could take several months for publishers to respond. So there is often some sort of waiting window even after termination.

But after that window has passed, for example three or six months later, and the book is no longer actively on submission, then, assuming your agent allows you to terminate, there should be no reason why the agent continues to be entitled to commission. You don't want to end up in a situation where you terminate your agent, hire another agent, that agent sells your book, and the old agent comes out of the woodwork for commission on a deal that she did not make. Then you are stuck paying double commission. It all depends on what you signed.

Every agent has a different way of operating. Some agents will let you out of an agreement if you simply ask. Others will refuse. Some are litigious; some are not.

As far as finding a new agent, the big issue for them will be whether or not the current work has already been submitted, and how many publishers have seen it. If your old agent has already sent the work all over town, and there is nowhere left for the new agent to submit, then he won't want to take it on. That will be the bigger issue.

Ethically, if an author comes to an agent and tells him he has just fired his old agent, especially mid submission, it will certainly raise a red flag, and he will want to know why. If the old agent has acted unethically, and the author can prove it, then that of course explains it. But if the agent has not acted unethically, and the author is just demanding, then that is a different story and can turn off some agents. An agent's deciding whether or not to take on a book is always a combination of the book and the author behind it.