Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On criticism and critiques. But mostly editing.

Do you take criticism well? I don't, really. It's probably one of the reasons I'm better suited for being on this side of the "desk," in a relatively anonymous role in the publishing process. I try to have a thick skin, but I understand intuitively what writers experience when they see a review of their work which is not so much a negative review as a "nastygram." Not all criticism is constructive, to say the least.

But I've been spending a lot of my day, nearly every day these past few weeks, giving critiques. Not all agents do this, I'm told-- some literary agents send out their clients' work as-is, figuring that it's up to the publisher to work with the author to get the work into publishable state. I suspect this no-critique technique, on the agent's part, is increasingly rare as the market gets tougher and tougher. It's hard enough to find a publisher for a book the author and I have worked very hard to whip into shape. I can't really imagine doing things another way.

I have a spiel that all my clients probably have memorized by now: I do a lot of editing, but I am not an editor. My job is to help the author get the manuscript (or book proposal, for nonfiction) into a state in which the prospective publisher can recognize its potential. If and when we sell the book to a publisher, the editor will then work with the author to bring the work into its final, polished, published form.

At the larger publishing houses, there are three different stages to the editing process, though I hesitate to even call it that. These three stages are done by at least three different people. (At smaller houses, it's more common for one person to wear more hats, as you might imagine.)

1. The editor who buys the book-- usually the person to whom I sent the manuscript in the first place-- is the acquisitions editor. This person negotiates the deal with the author's agent, essentially hammering out all the specifics. How big is the advance? Will the publisher be allowed to sell their version of the work around the world, or just in the U.S. and Canada? Who owns the film rights? At most houses, the acquisitions editor will also be the line editor. This is a somewhat nebulous task, as it really varies tremendously from book to book in terms of what's really needed. For a novel, a line editor will look at things like the plot arc, the tension, the character development, and so on. He or she will work with the author on making sure all aspects of the manuscript, large and small, are the way the author and the publisher want them-- that the finished book will be a product everyone is proud of.

2. The editing many people think of when they hear the word is the work of the copy editor. The copy editor works with the manuscript after the line editor (who's often just referred to as the editor) has signed off on it, and it's the copy editor's job to make sure that the spelling, grammar and punctuation are all in good shape. But a copy editor's work goes well beyond that, also looking at and questioning individual details like a fact checker at a magazine. The two possibly apocryphal stories I was told when I started in the publishing industry are as follows:
-when a room is described in a manuscript, a copy editor will draw a map of the room to make sure that when the bad guy fires a gun from the doorway and the bullet goes through the window, the bullet and the doorway are both in the right place.
-if a novel involves a chase scene through the Paris metro, the copy editor may pull up a map of the metro system to ensure that the characters are following an actual train line.

3. The third and final stage of edits to a book are done by the proofreader. The proofreader is working with literal proofs of the work: reviewing the pages of the manuscript all laid out for the printer. At this stage, the running heads and the page numbers are all in place; the proofreader will double-check that the pagination runs properly and will also look one more time at the spelling and punctuation. This is a fine-tooth comb type job, as you might imagine. Other things the proofreader looks for: font continuity, widow/orphan control, and anything else that will affect the reader's experience of reading the book. I am not an expert on this stage of the process, but I suspect that the rise of the e-book is complicating the proofreader's work quite a bit.

One of the reasons I try to be crystal-clear with my clients about the whole "I am not an editor" thing is that I am immensely respectful of the work that editors (at all stages of the process) do. A good editor deserves every word of the glowing praise you so often see in the acknowledgments section of a published work.

Back to the critiques, though: with many authors with whom I work, my critique of their work is the first real interaction I may have with that person. That first critique often happens before I've offered representation, and how it is received by the author tells me a lot about the author's personality, style, and our likely dynamic.

Today is the solstice, which means that after a month of warm (sometimes sweltering) weather in NYC, it's officially summer in the northern hemisphere. I've already been through my first round of blisters as my feet get reaccustomed to summer shoes, and I'm well on my way to the very important seasonal calluses. It's an accidental (and kinda painful) technique, but it works.

How do you go about thickening your skin?

Friday, June 10, 2011

On Amanda Hocking.

I'll have lots more to say on this in my forthcoming post on self-publishing, but here is an article about Amanda Hocking's success as a self-published author. And here is Hocking's own post about why she decided to go with a traditional publisher, at least on her next few books.

Self-publishing is an incredible amount of work, especially if you do it well, as Hocking obviously did. A self-published book that's sold less than 10,000 copies, as an absolute minimum, typically makes it much MORE difficult for an agent to get a publisher interested.

Note that I'm talking, first, about self-publishing a book that you'd actually prefer to sell to Random House or Penguin or Simon & Schuster or any of the other "biggies." Hocking's deal with St. Martin's Press-- a "biggie" by anyone's standards-- is for new material, not for the books she's already self-pubbed.

Second of all, when your sales numbers are as good as Amanda Hocking's, the rules don't really apply to you anymore.

This page, on Writer Beware (which I highly recommend to anyone who's interested in these issues), notes that the average "print on demand" book sells about 200 copies. I realize that these are print numbers, and probably a few years out of date at this point. But even with Twitter and the other tools that "social media marketing" has brought us, it's still not that easy to self-publish and self-promote-- very, very few writers find any real success at all via this avenue.

The industry is changing really fast, particularly when it comes to e-books (which is, of course, the medium in which Hocking found such spectacular success), but at least for the time being, if you decide to self-publish a book that you're hoping I'll sell to a traditional publisher on your behalf, you've just made your job and mine a whole lot harder.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

On professionalism and communication.

Disclaimer: What I have to say pertains specifically to the literary agent/client relationship. The degrees of formality are very different in different industries—and even in different segments of my industry.

We’ve had a lot of productive discussion in the comments (thank you!) regarding professionalism and formality in business relationships, and I thought it might be worthwhile to map out my own feelings on the subject.

On “first contact,” usually the query letter:

I prefer “Dear Ms. Miller-Callihan” for the first missive, even though I immediately encourage a first-name basis relationship as soon as I start corresponding with an author. When you first email me, you don’t know me or how I prefer to be addressed (okay, you do now), so it’s best to err on the side of formality here. “Dear Courtney” is a little too familiar in this context; “Hi Courtney” is MUCH too familiar.

Extrapolating a bit: I’d encourage you to address women as “Ms. [Lastname]” and men as “Mr. [Lastname].” I don’t know any woman in the working world who, at this point, would be offended by the “Ms.,” by the way, which has become widely accepted as the default honorific for adult women. My marital status is irrelevant to the work I do. So “Ms.” it is.

On staying in touch through the querying process:

Especially when you’re a writer who is querying agents and seeking representation, there are a lot of pitfalls regarding the communication. Is it okay to check in with the agent, and if so, when? How often, and under what circumstance?

If you’re querying me, I always want to hear from you, in descending order of importance, under the following circumstances:

1) if you get an offer of representation from another agent. Please let me know if this is the case, even if you haven’t heard back from me on your initial query. Agents are human, and it’s human nature to want things that other people have. This is just as true of debut novels as it was of the hottest guy/girl in your high school. If you’ve got an offer of representation from someone, use it to your advantage and follow up with the other agents you’ve queried!

2) if you've gotten word that you have serious interest or an offer from a royalty-paying publisher. This rarely comes up, but as a public service announcement I feel compelled to say it here: Please DON'T query agents and take steps to self-publish your work simultaneously. I think there are great reasons to self-publish, which I'll discuss in a separate post if you are interested, but if you're interested in a so-called "traditional publishing" book deal, self-publishing will really mess up your chances, no matter how fantastic your book is.

3) if you have a personal or professional connection that you didn't mention in your first query. Say you write romance novels and meet Nora Roberts at a writing conference, and she offers to blurb your book. I would very much like to hear about that. But don't hold back that information from your initial query (and don't stalk Nora Roberts!); this applies only if something changes in the interim.

4) if you've been to a conference or otherwise received professional feedback (say, from another agent) and have revised the manuscript accordingly, let me know that too. I don't want to tell you not to revise, but generally speaking it's probably better to leave the work alone during the query process. Work on your next manuscript in the meantime!

5) if I’ve requested a full manuscript from you, and it’s been more than a month since you’ve heard from me. I get swamped with reading sometimes. It’s a lovely problem to have. My current clients always get priority over my prospective clients; if you sign with me, you’ll be glad this is the case! But while I try very hard to keep up with all of it, everyone needs a nudge from time to time. If it’s been a month with no word on your full, go ahead and nudge me. (nicely please.)

6) if you sent your initial query six to eight weeks ago and have not heard anything from me, it's OK to send one follow-up email asking me to confirm receipt/let you know if I am still reviewing the material.

Here are some circumstances under which I do NOT recommend following up with an agent whom you're querying (in no particular order):

1) If you've tweaked the manuscript so that Chapter 2 is now Chapter 3 and Chapter 3 is now Chapter 2, and so-and-so's name has changed. It's unlikely to affect my feelings on the work. If you find that you accidentally sent the wrong attachment, or you forgot to attach it, it's OK to send it again. Mention in the email that this replaces your initial query, and that you do not need an immediate response from me.

2) if it's been less than six to eight weeks (or the ballpark time listed on the agent's website) since your initial query. I try to be quick. It doesn't always happen. If you follow up too quickly or too aggressively, I'm likely to take a quick look at the material and (unless it blows me away) send you a nice "no thanks." My interactions with people during the query process definitely weigh into my decision about whether to offer representation. The writing is paramount, but the quality of the interactions matter too.

3) if you just want to confirm receipt of the query (and it's been less than six to eight weeks with no response). I understand the anxiety of wondering whether something's gone into a black hole, but sometimes this strategy is less about the anxiety and more about trying to forge a connection/force some kind of response out of the agent. Let your work speak for itself. Caveat: If I've requested a full manuscript from you, I don't mind a bit if you want me to confirm receipt of that. Asking in the same email where you send the manuscript as an attachment is ideal.

4) calling the office. If I have not given you my direct line (which I do only if I am seriously pursuing the project/the would-be client), please don't call. In the midst of a busy work day, a cold call from a prospective client feels like a telemarketer phoning on Thanksgiving.

5) adding me to your mailing list under any circumstances. If I want to be on your mailing list for some reason, I'll let you know.

6) if you are re-sending the same query, unless I asked you to, of course. I once received the same query-- I am not making this up-- three hundred and fifty times, often three or four times per day.

7) adding me as a contact on LinkedIn. I'll accept LinkedIn invitations from anyone I know personally, anyone with whom I have worked (as colleagues) at any time, any clients of mine or of my agency's, and anyone with whom I've exchanged emails, say regarding a revision. But lately I've had a slew of LinkedIn invites from prospective clients, and I have to admit I'm a little perplexed at why this is the case. If you're looking to engage me via social media, comment on a blog post or follow me on Twitter; I'd love to talk to you. But I don't get the LinkedIn thing.

On keeping your agent happy:

1) Be polite and professional in your dealings with me, with my agency's employees, and with anyone and everyone at your publishing house.

2) Make your deadlines. If you can't keep to the schedule we've discussed, let me (and your editor, if applicable) know as soon as possible.

3) Keep me posted on what's going on-- personally as well as professionally, as needed. I've mentioned before that I love it when my clients let me know if they're going to be away or unavailable for a few days, especially if they are waiting on me for something.

4) Write fantastic books.

5) Write fantastic books.

6) Write fantastic books.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On Bob Loomis's retirement.

This is a marvelous tribute to an incredible career, and a deserving interview subject. All writers should be so lucky as to get to work with someone as thoughtful and meticulous.

I'm especially enjoying the stories about Bob's varied approaches to working with different authors (isn't the bit about Maya Angelou's telegrams delightful?), and will have more to say in a future post about how I think this translates to the agent/client or editor/author relationship more generally.

I'm still ruminating on the excellent discussion in the comments on yesterday's post regarding the pitfalls of informality; thank you.

Your turn: who or what helps you to improve or refine your writing? Do you have a critique group, a trusted "beta reader?" When someone gives you feedback on a piece, do you prefer the Styron or the Angelou approach?

[edit: fixed link to point to first page of article]