Okay, so summer isn't the vacation it used to be, is it? I'm still in denial about that. When my kid gets out of school in June, I'm still of the mindset that life should be should be all about popsicles, flip flops (I did not call them thongs, you'll note), searching for the perfect swimming hole, and lazing around in the hammock. Not only for him, but for me, too!
However, I think I work harder during the summer just to keep up than I do during the rest of the year. It's okay though. I love fall, too. Though the ubiquitous roar of leaf blowers (grrr... get a rake, people!) has replaced the more pleasant ka-chink wop-wop-wop of sprinklers, it's good to be back at work and thinking through what I learned this summer.
This summer I met editors and authors at conferences in Philadelphia, Oregon, Denver (twice), and Seattle. And I learned a lot. I think, though, I can distill my most important summer lesson into a quick three point report. Hopefully I'll get a good grade.
AUTHOR BE READY, BE WILLING, BE ABLE
If there ever really was one, the age of selling book ideas is practically over. Even well published authors are now having to work harder to get commitments from publishers than ever before. Considering this, if you have a semi-completed novel and are a first-time author, my advice to you is to not bother working on marketing it until it is complete, edited, and polished to a high gloss. Spend your energy doing the hardest thing first - finishing it! I talked with several authors over the summer who had great ideas for novels, but I can't sell ideas. Certainly not for first timers, and unfortunately, it's getting difficult to do for well established authors also.
The thing is, publishers (and therefore acquisition editors) are looking for a sure thing. Whether it's fiction or nonfiction, if they don't know you, nothing feels sure to them. If they have heard of you and you are represented by a well-known, reputable agent, it can help. BUT, the first question out of every editor's mouth these days is "What is the author's sales history?" The second question? "Is it finished?"
I'm working with a published novelist whose third book sold over 20,000 copies in the general market in the first six months. But when her agent went part-time, her editor left on maternity leave and decided not to come back, she and her book were more or less orphaned. When we started talking about a year ago, we decided it was best to keep her options open regarding her next project and try marketing it in both CBA and the general market. She reworked the proposal some, and I got to work pitching it, and her.
With her track record, writing experience, and work ethic, I thought it would be a slam dunk to find this author a new home. The proposed (finished) novel received lots of interesting feedback, but no commitments. After about six months of trying, we decided it was time to take a new approach. A year and at least six full-length synopses and dozens of sample chapters later, we have just received a commitment from a publisher. Given the current state of things in publishing, she may be looking at the smallest advance of her career, but this author understands the importance of keeping in the game for the long haul and she's willing to do what it takes to begin building her career again.
During the time we were looking for the right publisher to help her relaunch, she worked hard to respond to the suggestions and recommendations of several editors and was open to discussing other possibilities. Never once did she complain that she was too good (though I thought so), too busy (which I know she was), or too important to do what it took to get published. I don't like that I had to ask her to jump through so many hoops to get her here, but that is the reality and what it took in her case. The good news is that I'm certain her hard work and willingness will pay off.
I see bad writing all the time. Given all the books, websites, conferences, lectures, and generous authors who lead critique groups and spend their time mentoring junior authors, there is simply no excuse for it.
After seeing lists and lists of workshops and classes offered at conferences, meeting successful authors who also freelance edit, hearing story after story of authors who spent years honing their craft before getting published, it's clear to me that while it may be more difficult for some than for others, writing is something which can be learned, practiced, honed, and constantly improved. I'll admit that the ability to write well is an innate talent for some. But, it is still hard work for every author. Some may say it comes naturally, or that not writing is not an option for them. But I don't think I've ever heard or read an author say "writing is easy". If so, I'd wonder who they were plagiarizing.
Being ready takes time. Being willing takes sacrifice. Being able requires resources. Becoming ready, willing, and able demands all three.
Perhaps now is a good time to head back to school in one area or another? Good news is, flip flops are optional.