I'm in limbo, staying with a friend until the moving truck arrives with our stuff. So I figured it was the perfect time to reach into my grab-bag of questions writers have sent in and respond to a handful that have been sitting and waiting for me...
John wrote to say, "I met with an agent at a conference, he got excited about my book idea, and he asked me to send him a proposal. But that's been months and I've yet to hear a word from him. How long should I wait before sending a brief note asking about the status? Six months? A year?"
If an agent has actually asked you to send him something, I think it's fair to drop him a short, polite email after three months. Just something quick that says, "I wanted to stop by and see what you thought of my writing." Don't make any big demands, just drop by to say hello. If you haven't heard a month or two after sending that note, it wouldn't be unreasonable to send another, just to check on the progress. Some things take time. Patti and I have been going through a move, and I've recently had to apologize to some authors for not getting to their projects sooner. But if the agent has had it a year, and you've not heard, the most likely scenario is that the agent either didn't receive it or isn't terribly interested in it. This is a time-sensitive business, and we all move forward on the projects that excite us.
Tim asked, "I know bookstores are reporting drops in sales due to the bad economy, but is that true for both fiction and nonfiction? I've read that movie ticket sales are actually up, since movies are relatively cheap entertainment, and I'm wondering if fiction sales might also be improving."
According to Nielsen's Bookscan, romance sales in 2008 were up 18% over the previous year, and even in this bad economy romance was up 2.4% in the first quarter of 2009. There's evidence to suggest that genre romance, historical romance, fantasy, and some young adult fantasy are all looking up, even in this crummy economy. People in hard times are looking for an escape -- especially one where things turn out for good in the end.
Scott wrote to say, "I have a manuscript that's more of a manual than a book. It has templates with references, and is aimed at the religious market. Where do I look for publishing companies that might consider this sort of project?"
A good place to start doing any sort of research is a big bookstore. Wander into a Borders and a Barnes & Noble. Check to see which publishers already do the type of book you're writing -- since they already publish in that genre, they'll be your most likely candidates. Since this is a religous book, you can also try visiting a good Christian bookstore, and you can do some research online at places like Amazon. Once you figure out which houses produce and sell projects similar to yours, you'll be better prepared to know who you can approach with your own manuscript.
Abby asked, "In your view, does a novelist stick with the one big idea that's in her head, or look for an idea that a publisher might get excited about? I've got what I think is a great idea, but my writing friends are suggesting I research what the publishers want instead of working on my own story."
There's not really a correct answer to this question. If you think you've got a great story, and you feel you have to tell it, then you probably need to follow your heart and spend the time writing it. But, of course, you could be wrong about it's potential for success, so you may want to spend some time researching to see if there will be any interest in your manuscript when it's completed. (For example, you could write a fabulous western right now, but it probably wouldn't sell -- the westerns market is dead.)
On the other hand, I generally think it's a mistake to blindly chase the market (i.e., "Fantasies are hot! Amish books are hot! Vampire books are hot! Let's do an Amish romance set in the future, where Sarah and her kinsman-redeemer are chased by vampires!"). The problem with this sort of thinking is that by the time you can spot popular trends in bookselling, the publishers have already lined up the needed titles. So while I think some research is important to make sure there is actually a potential market for your book, simply selecting a genre because it appears hot rarely leads to success.
Sandi asked, "Does a reputable publishing house release free copies of a published book to the authors? If so, how many copies should an author expect?"
Yes, your publisher will offer you some free copies. The standard contract will offer you about ten, so you've got a few for your bookshelf. An author can frequently get more if they propose to use them for marketing purposes (which is to say the author is going to give them to influential people, or as giveaways on their website, or to people in the media). Asking for a case of books is generally reasonable, and a good agent can often negotiate more. What publishers don't like is the author who insists on getting 200 free copies, then proceeds to try and sell them all at her speaking engagements. That doesn't help the sale of the book at all, and winds up competing with local bookstores. Learn to view author copies as marketing tools, to be given to those who can help you drive other people to a bookstore in order to purchase your book.
Lonnie wrote and said, "I've heard an author needs to acquire their own copyright for their books. How does she do this? And do publishers usually agree to this, even if you're a new author?"
There's an old fallacy that an author needs to print a copy of his book, seal it in an envelope, and mail it to himself in order to preserve his copyright. But we in America have the best intellectual property rights laws in the history of the world -- if you wrote it, then it belongs to you. A copyright is implied in your creation. The only reason to seek a copyright is if you are going to produce and sell printed copies -- and any legitimate publisher is going to arrange to have your work copyrighted, in the author's name, and have that information printed in the frontmatter of your book. (And I should note that I'm not a lawyer, so I am not giving you legal advice. If you are seeking a legal opinion, you should ask an intellectual property rights lawyer to answer your questions.)
Janice sent this: "I've been publishing nonfiction magazine articles for years, and am working on a book proposal that one editor told me had great potential. Is it a good idea to start focusing my article writing around this one concept? And can an agent help me figure out what steps to take next?"
My response to you is to say, "Only focus all your article-writing around this one concept if (1) there is clearly a market for the idea, (2) the concept is big enough to require several different kinds of articles, and (3) you feel passionate enough and knowledgeable enough to want to focus your writing life on it." Since I don't know your idea, I can't offer any advice as to whether or not it's big enough/important enough/interesting enough to make that sort of decision. But yes, a good literary agent should be able to help you think this through.
Valerie wrote, "I'm nearly done with the second book of a trilogy, but still don't have a publisher for the first book. My question for you: If I get a deal for the first book, what will happen to the sequels?"
While negotiating with the publisher, you (or your agent) needs to bring up the fact that the initial book is the first part of a trilogy. The publisher may make the deal based on publishing all three titles. Or the contract may stipulate that it's a one-book deal, but the publisher has an option on books two and three. Sometimes a book contract will grant the publisher first right of refusal on any additional books that maintain the same characters or have the same setting. And, frankly, it's especially tough to sell the second and third books in a series to a publisher other than the one who did the first book in the series. So be up front with them about the entire trilogy.
After my previous post, Lea asked if agents actively look for information from publishers, in order to stay on top of what the various houses are seeking. The context for her question was that she has researched an agent to discover what he represents, but then receives a rejection stating the project "does not fit what we're seeking."
Here's the thing to understand: Most agents have a standard rejection wording. They don't want to write back and say, "Yikes! This idea is terrible, and the writing sucks. No thanks." So they gentle it up a bit and say something like, "I don't think this is for me." Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that everyone who receives a "not for me" rejection has a terrible idea or can't write. I just think authors should know that getting a letter stating that a project "isn't a fit" might simply be receiving a form letter. But to answer your question, yes, most good agents are definitely checking to see what various houses are looking for.
And one more...Tiffany Colter, who runs the Command Performance Speakers Bureau, speaks French fluently. She noticed that a recent post of mine was mentioned on a French writers' site, and noted that the name "Chip" didn't exactly translate well. They referred to me as "Morsel MacGregor" -- literally as le sur le morceau MacGregor. I just think it should be noted that someone in France sees me as a yummy dish. (And faithful blog readers will remember that my name in Chinese was translated as "Chip-Chip," which is some sort of candy, apparently. Better that than the Native American guy who said his only known reference to "chips" had something to do with "buffalo chips.")
Patti and I are back on the west coast, after having spent a little more than a year in the midwest, where I was teaching a couple classes as sort of a visiting professor in the Professional Writing Program at Taylor University. SO NICE to be close to the Pacific Ocean again! And I'm trying to catch up on writing and publishing questions. If you've got something to ask, this is a good time to send it in.