Publishing

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I tell clients all the time that my job is to manage expectations. Part of working with a freelance editor is expecting to be pushed outside of your manuscript comfort zone a little bit. Most writers come to me with the thought, “I am excited by my idea but I know there are several things that aren’t working. I want to learn and grow and make it better.” Maybe that writer has gotten some early feedback from critique partners about things that need tweaking. Or they’ve already done an unsuccessful submission round with agents or editors and they didn’t get the response they expected. Or maybe their manuscript isn’t meeting their own internal expectations and they just don’t know what to do about it. Enter a second pair of eyes: an editor.

A small percentage of writers, however, and I’ve only had this experience twice in my editorial career, are so convinced of the merits of the manuscript that they’re not looking for an editor. They are looking, I’d imagine, to get on the radar of someone even tangentially connected to the industry, and get a booster to the top. Maybe they think I will recommend them personally to agents. Maybe they think I’ll start agenting again myself for the sake of scooping up a hot project. Or maybe they just want the gold star from someone who has made a career of saying, basically, “yes” or “no” to thousands of other writers.

I try very hard to generate constructive, actionable feedback. I’ve never sent a set of notes that says, “This sucks, it’s dead in the water, and you should probably stick with your day job.” One time, at a conference, I met with a writer who told me something shocking. “This,” she said, “is the first manuscript I’ve written in twenty-five years. I had a writing teacher in college tell me I was no good, and it hurt so much that I stopped writing altogether.”

This woman lost twenty-five years of her writing life. She clearly loved doing it, but because one voice (in a presumed position of authority) told her she wasn’t good enough, she gave up on her dream for a quarter of a decade (and almost all of her adult life up until that point). People perceive me as an authority, too. And so I have made it my goal to never wield that power in a way that hurts a writer.

Do I rave about every manuscript unequivocally, then? Absolutely not. Even excellent writers have some blind spots. So whether I’m helping a beginning writer cut fancy “said” synonyms out of their dialogue, or I’m helping an MFA-graduate with beautiful prose work on plot and overall sales hook, I try my best to do it with the dignity and respect that each writer and each manuscript deserves, for where they are in their individual journey.

All that said, I still run into writers who have expectations that perhaps outpace their current manuscripts. Whether those expectations are of the one-in-a-million runaway success, or their shot at being a multimedia mogul, perhaps even in the query letter, I see this happen with writers. They’ve created websites, maybe, or products, or they’ve already self-published. They have a lot to say about various awards they’ve won or endorsements they’ve gotten. There’s little talk about the manuscript, though, as if that was just an afterthought.

This sends a message to me that the writer isn’t as interested in rolling up their sleeves and working on the product itself. To me, everything but the manuscript is just noise. You can send me a t-shirt with your characters on it, or a list of testimonials from school appearances, and all that is fine and good. I’m a driven, type-A personality, too, and I have way more ideas than I have time to make them all a reality. I respect proactive people. But my only concern is the manuscript.

It’s what an agent or editor will respond to. It’s what will stand out among the noise if it’s, indeed, worthwhile. I saw excitement bubbling over for a perfectly lovely client last week, and I wrote to them: “The only way to get someone excited about your work is by presenting good work, and letting it speak for itself.” It’s easy to say but very hard to do. It’s also at the very core of what I do as an editor. Every writer has a different personality, and some are more eager than others. That’s okay. My job, however, is to help put the crucial piece of that manuscript into place, and help writers create good work so that they can then present it. It’s as simple and as difficult as that, but, man, do I love my job.

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Relatability

There was a New Yorker article that made the rounds about six weeks ago. Why am I writing about it now? Because I just bought a house and I’m super slow. Besides, let’s face it: You get your breaking news from Facebook and Reddit and wherever else. If you’re trying to get it from my blog, I…I feel terrible for you and I’m sorry.

The article in question calls out “The Scrounge of ‘Relatability‘” by Rebecca Mead and it’s a great think piece. It goes into a brief history of the word “relatable,” takes some pot shots at Ira Glass, and completely denounces the concept of relatability as the act of readers or viewers demanding “a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, The New Yorker. You look a little tense. Take a seat, loosen your tie. Would you like a drink? You seem a little…peaked.

I’ll be the first to admit that I talk a lot about the concept of relatability as it, ahem, relates to writing fiction, especially for picture book, middle grade, and young adult readers. And no, I did not have an epiphany reading this op-ed piece about how that’s stupid and “hopelessly reductive” to advocate. I still believe that relatability is very important when targeting younger readers, because one has to take their mindset into consideration. Today’s MG and YA readers, especially, thrive on connection and are going through a lot of stuff that they don’t have the facilities or life experience to process yet. Good stuff, and negative stuff. And a lot of the time, they run into problems when they feel alone. They are bullied, they are abused at home, they feel like they have no voice, something secret gets out about them and they feel like they have no control over it, etc. etc. etc. Readers in these age groups want to read to form relationship.

And relatability is a natural extension of wanting to capture a readership that craves connection. Do we make each character an Everyman meant to emulate and capture the widest possible audience by having the most generic (more relatable?) traits possible? No, nobody said that. I would argue that even the more quirky or odd or unsympathetic characters in fiction are relatable by virtue of how weird they are. Because we all have, at one point or another, felt like a profound freak. And even if they’re not the same kind of profound freak, we find solace in their freakishness.

One of my favorite “weird” characters is Beatrice from Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye In Robot. I have a lot in common with Beatrice and a lot absolutely not in common with her. But something about her is so damn relatable that I can’t stand it. Why? I believe it’s because the character is so specific. She feels real. A lot of detail went into her creation. She is the very opposite of the wide net Everygirl trying to be all things to all people. And yet she’s as relatable as any character I’ve read.

Rebecca Mead says that relatability is a pox because it somehow demands that a work to “be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader… (who) remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” Again, I disagree. Those works that pander to the audience and try to grasp the loose concept of relatability might maybe fall to this flaw.

But when Natalie Standiford was writing Beatrice, I don’t think she was coming from a place of “I have to construct this girl to appeal to all.” She wrote a quirky and TRUE character. Now, what’s true about Beatrice to you might be very different from what’s true about Beatrice to me. And that’s okay. The fact remains that there’s just so much there to choose from about this rich and complex characterization.

Instead of producing a cookie-cutter character and a one-size-fits-all book to strive for Rebecca Mead’s portrayal of relatability, Natalie Standiford created a work where relatability was a natural byproduct of a lot of tough, honest, and incredibly specific characterization and plotting. Nobody cut any corners, in fact, I bet it was harder to write someone so nuanced.

Long story short, I think that PB, MG, and YA readers are precious. And if they’re anything like I was in those age groups, they are searching. They crave connection. If the idea of relatability urges writers on to write even better characters and stories for readers who will very much flourish when relating to the work, I’d say it’s an amazing thing. Let The New Yorker see the glass as half-empty, I see it as half-full of great inspiration and potential for writers.

(Also, and not to ruffle any feathers with my off-the-cuff attempt at humor, I am a damn theatre major and I think that a lot of Shakespeare sucks. It’s a rigorous mental exercise, and a lot of fun to perform, and it revolutionized the English language, and all that is fine and good, but, as a modern woman, I’m happy to leave it at that without putting it on a pedestal. I’ve read the complete works once, when I was young and full of idealism. And you know what? Ain’t nobody got time for that!)

 

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The post below is written by my editorial client Scott Plumbe, who came to me for the first time last year with a highly illustrated MG story about a fox named Theo who has some family secrets and a fascinating adventure across India and the Himalayas. It’s been really great working with Scott, and when he decided to independently release his book with a subscription model, I approached him to write a few articles about his experience.

I’m sure that a lot of my readers are curious about independent publishing and Kickstarter. As a freelance editor, I’m seeing more and more clients self-publishing or pursuing alternate paths to seeing their work in print or digital release. If a guy can make tens of thousands of dollars off of a potato salad, why can’t books get funded?

Here’s Scott’s first article about his process. I’ve contributed to his Kickstarter. If you’re curious, you can find the link here.

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The past few weeks have brought about a massive change of direction for me. I am officially starting a Kickstarter campaign. This post is the first of three in which I’ll share my crowdfunding experiences before, during and after my campaign.

I’m an illustrator who has always had a desire to tell my stories through words and pictures. Comics and graphic novels may seem the obvious choice, but the complexity of my story, The Unlucky Fox, isn’t suitable for either. Instead, I’m creating an illustrated novel of 60,000 words and over 100 pages of full-colour illustrations.

After much consideration, I’ve chosen to launch the story through the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter. I’m offering potential backers a monthly subscription to the story. Every four weeks, backers receive a fresh chapter replete with newly completed illustrations.

Why crowdfunding instead of other emerging or traditional avenues?
Being a freelance artist who has never sought representation, I have a strong streak of DIY in me. And without that characteristic, I don’t think anyone could undertake a crowdfunding campaign.

Why Kickstarter?
There are numerous crowdfunding options out there, including Indiegogo. I like the inherent risk aspect of KS — it’s all or nothing! If a campaign fails to meet its target, no money is collected from your backers. This prospect weeds out a lot of potential creators who are not as confident. It places those campaigns that do launch with KS amongst a community of like-minded creators and entrepreneurs. I believe the core KS users are creative types. That means artists, designers, innovators and makers — people accustomed to calculated risks. And let’s face it. As a debut writer, I’m a risk! By choosing KS and sharing the process of bringing my project to life, I hope to reduce the unknown and gain some support along the way.

What kind of preparation is involved?
I took a full year to decide on my current path. During that time, I followed KS projects and undertook a major revision of my manuscript. I also sketched out a list of ideas for possible rewards and sourced suppliers. I’ve spent the last six weeks putting that plan into action. That means finalizing the rewards, writing my pitch, making the video and a website to support it all. I also poked around and made a list of blogs and local news outlets to send press releases to.

Why an incremental subscription release model?
From a traditional publishing perspective, as a first-time author I have many challenges. Not only is it a hurdle to promote the work of a debut author, but add on top of that my desire for accompanying colour artwork! It has taken nearly four years to bring the manuscript this close to completion, but I still have heaps of artwork to finish. I decided to take my cue from the world of comics and TV serials and break up the delivery of the story. Interestingly, some anecdotal evidence from friends in the gaming industry suggests that many game studios are moving away from the traditional Hollywood ‘tentpole’ model, pushing projects forward with incremental expansion instead. They deliver their content in small doses, rather than one big launch. Studios are taking less risk and getting instant audience feedback as they progress. In their case, the result is a product that essentially has no end and can lead to a more empowered fan base.

What are your risks and challenges?
I have many! Most are obvious, while others are specific to my story. In particular, the chance of not connecting with an audience is notable. The KS community is primarily adult, not the young teens my novel is written for. But encouragingly, there have been several successful campaigns for young readers. Most notably, Augie and the Green Knight that earned nearly $400,000 in pledges. Of course, this is the exception and not the rule!

Well, I guess it’s time to hit LAUNCH!
I’ll check back in when my campaign is underway.

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I Got Rhythm

In my career, I’ve worked a lot with rhyming picture book texts. Not on my agenting list, unfortunately, since the market for rhyming picture books was (and remains) tough. Of my dozen or so picture book author clients, most were author-illustrators who could bring a unique art voice and sense of balance between text and image, the rest were prose picture book writers, and only one worked exclusively in rhyme. Tough odds. The rhyming one did get a book deal during our work together (the absolutely charming GOODNIGHT, ARK by Laura Sassi, illustrated by Jane Chapman), but I heard over and over again from editors that rhyming was tough.

Well, let’s leave rhyming out of it and talk about rhyming’s black sheep sister for a minute: rhythm. If you want to write rhyming picture books, I would actually argue that rhythm, not rhyme, is king of the genre. Most people get so caught up in finding the right rhyme that their rhythm is all over the place and completely sinks the manuscript, almost before it gets started. Are you writing in rhyme and failing to count your syllables? Disaster lies in that direction.

The biggest mistake people writing rhyming PBs make is letting rhyme dictate story. Why does the dog have fleas? Because it has to eat cheese in order for the rhyme to work? Wrong. You’ve written yourself into a prison and you’re going to keep sacrificing the integrity of the story just to hit your rhymes. That’s not great.

The second biggest mistake, as you might be able to guess, is not paying attention to rhythm. If you aren’t yet familiar with syllable counts, iambs, trochees, and all the other trappings of verse, it may be worth your while to get a high school or college poetry textbook. That’s right. A textbook. Because there is stuff to learn about rhythm that was so intricate that you quicky repressed it in the 9th grade. People have been hammering away at poetry for centuries and centuries. Give their hard work at least a cursory nod and study the poetic form before you throw your hat in the ring.

You could have the most beautiful rhyme in the world but if the read-aloud factor isn’t there, and it’s pitted like a road after winter, with starts and stops, your rhyming picture book will go flat. And if you aren’t reading your work aloud as you compose or edit, especially for rhyming picture books, what, exactly, are you doing?! That is absolutely essential, because how it sounds in your head probably isn’t how it sounds out in the air.

Ideally you compose for content (story) and cadence (rhythm). Those two come first and foremost. Only when you master rhythm can you even think about incorporating rhyme.

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If you are an illustrator, I highly recommend having a simple portfolio website that you can use to display your work. When you’re querying, instead of attaching images (most editors and agents don’t accept attachments anyway), you can just send a link to your collection. Add new things, change out images in your rotation, and keep it clean, simple, and maintained. That’s about it. And if you’re not tech savvy, you may be able to hire someone via Elance (a freelance marketplace I’ve used to find web designers, or contractors in any arena, in the past) or in your circle of friends to put your image files (scans or digital creations) online. Just make sure that if you use scans, they are of high quality and taken under good lighting that’s true to your intended color scheme.

Two sites that I see a lot of illustrators gravitating to are Wix and SquareSpace. They are built to be user friendly and easy on the wallet. You can use templates provided or get someone to customize your site. These options are modern, work well across multiple platforms, and are easy to link to your other online efforts. I haven’t used either but I’m coming up on a project in my personal life and seriously considering SquareSpace because I like the design and functionality of their sites. I’ve been on WordPress for years and years, so maybe it’s time to try something new, minimal, and graphics-focused!

If all of this is very scary to you, you can just start a free Flickr account and make a gallery of your images. This is the bare minimum, and allows you to host your image and a description (I would opt for one if you can). Send links to the entire gallery in your query so that visitors can click through the whole thing instead of landing on just one image.

Many people overthink this sort of stuff because sometimes computers can be scary and the demands of building a platform seem overwhelming. Don’t let that stop you from putting up a portfolio. Hosting one online has become quite necessary these days, and agents and editors except to see several examples of your work, with different composition, subject matter, tone, palette, etc. (if possible), before they can decide if they’re interested or not.

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When I talk about a logline, I mean a quick and effective sales pitch for your story. It is the same as the “elevator pitch” or your snappy “meets” comparison (Harry Potter meets Where the Wild Things Are!). However, not everyone’s book fits the “meets” way of doing this, so they’re left with constructing their own short sentence to encapsulate their work. That’s where things often get hairy.

If you think queries and synopses are hard, loglines are often a whole new world of pain for writers. Boiling down an entire book into four pages? Doable. Into a few paragraphs? Questionable. Into a sentence or two?! Impossible.

Or not. The first secret to crafting a good logline is that you should probably stop freaking out about it. If you can get it, good. If not, you can still pitch an agent or editor with a query or a one-minute summation of your story at a conference or if you do happen to be stuck with them in an elevator. Nailing it in one sentence is more of an exercise for you than a requirement of getting published.

That said, my surefire way to think about loglines is as follows:

1) Connect your character to your audience

2) Connect your plot to the market

Let’s examine this. First, begin your logline with your character and their main struggle. This is a way of getting your audience on board. For example, with Hunger Games, Katniss would be “A girl hell-bent on survival…” or “A girl who volunteers herself to save those she loves…”

Now let’s bring plot into it. When you pitch your plot, you always want to be thinking about where it fits in the marketplace. At the time that the first Hunger Games was published, dystopian fiction was white hot as a genre. That’s not so much the case anymore, but if I had been pitching this story at that time, I would’ve definitely capitalized on the sinister dystopian world building. To connect the plot to the market, I would’ve said something like, “…in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” This says to the book or film agent, “Dystopian! Right here! Get your dystopian!”

So to put it together, “A girl volunteers herself to save those she loves in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” That’s a bit long, and not necessarily elegant, but it definitely hits all of the high notes of the market at that time, while also appealing emotionally to the audience. (Volunteering for a “fight to the death” contest is a really ballsy thing to do, so we automatically want to learn more.)

Notice that here, even the character part involves plot (it focuses on Katniss volunteering).

If I’m working on a contemporary realistic novel, the “plot to market” part is less salient because we’re not exactly within the confines of any buzzy genre. That’s fine, too. You should probably be aware early on whether you’re writing a more character-driven or plot-driven story. The Hunger Games nails some strong character work, but I would argue that it’s primarily plot-driven, or “high concept.” With character-driven books, the former part of the logline construction becomes more important. Let’s look at Sara Zarr’s excellent Story of a Girl. The title is pretty indicative of the contents. It’s literally the story of a girl, and the girl is more important than necessarily each plot point that happens to her.

With character-driven, I’d spend most of my time connecting character to audience. I’d say, for example, “A girl from a small town struggles with the gossips around her who refuse to forgive her past mistakes…” This is the girl’s situation for most of the book, and part of her biggest “pain point” as a person. Then I’ll need to indicate the rest of the plot with something like “…must step out from the shadows of her reputation and find out who she really is.”

Notice that here, even the plot part involves character (it focuses on the more subtle work of figuring herself out rather than, say, battling to the death).

Both are solid loglines because both communicate the core of the story and the emphasis of the book (plot-driven vs. character-driven, genre-focused vs. realistic). Try this two-step exercise with your own WIP.

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I’ve had many writers coming to me over the course of my leaving myself open to questions. (If you have any general writing or publishing questions, email me at mary at kidlit dot com or leave them in the comments anytime!) Some of these writers are struggling with their agents. I know, I know. Most would simply die to have an agent in the first place, but once that hurdle is cleared, there really are issues that come up. Sometimes agent/writer relationships dissolve. Sometimes communication isn’t the best. It’s certainly a wonderful professional achievement to land an agent, but being agented isn’t a magic bullet guarantee of getting a publishing contract.

One question that a lot of writers have goes along these lines:

I got an agent. Yay! But my agent isn’t really sending my project out to a lot of editors. Is this normal or does this spell trouble? Do they not like me anymore? Etc.

There are a few behind the scenes reasons why your agent might be sending to a smaller list. First of all, “small” and “a lot” are quite subjective. That’s why you should talk to your agent about submission strategy before you sign with them. They might be the type to blast your submission all over New York, or they may be more selective, sending to six or eight carefully chosen editors at a time. Both of these approaches can be the “right” way of submitting. It all depends on the project, its prospects, and the agent’s personal style.

When I was submitting, for example, I would try between six and twelve editors at a time for a project, and I’d have a list of other potential names ready to go for future submission rounds, if necessary. That way I could control the submission, be deliberate about my selections, and usually only contact one editor per publishing house. You can submit to more than one if you target different imprints, and sometimes that approach makes sense, but those judgment calls, again, depend on the circumstances of the project.

This is the part that can get dicey, though, and it’s frustrating because it’s largely out of the client’s control. Sometimes an agent has projects out with a lot of editors. If you have twenty clients, for example, and they’ve all turned manuscripts in recently, you can find yourself with fewer and fewer potential available editors that aren’t already considering your other submissions. You want to send to the right editor for the project, always. But you also want to send to editors you know and like. This keeps your relationships alive and inspires those editors to give your projects more careful consideration. You want to work with them, they want to work with you. And, more importantly, they trustyou to bring them good stuff that they can buy.

This brings up the issue of capital. Just like editors have capital with the pub boards–it’s understood that they will bring their directors great manuscripts and only really fight for what they believe in, rather than bringing ten things to every meeting and trying to make a case for things they’re lukewarm on–agents have capital with editors. You don’t want to send an editor three projects while they’re still reading your previous subs. That’s careless and maybe they won’t be as excited to open your future emails or take your future calls because soon your pitches will feel like impersonal spam. You’ll be backed into a corner, because you don’t want to cannibalize their attention in favor of one client over another. So if an agent already has other projects with the Perfect Editor that they had in mind for you, you may not see Editor’s name on your submission list. At least not until the previous project either goes through or doesn’t.

And sometimes an agent gets into a relationship with an editor at a certain house, and they want to take care of that relationship because said editor is handling a big book or top client for the agent or agency. (This sounds a lot like office politics, and it is. Sometimes an agent has the agency’s other interests to consider.) It’s unspoken but recommended that the agent bring more projects to that editor, in the hopes of lightning striking again. If that’s the case, and that editor isn’t a fit for a certain client’s work, maybe that whole publishing house falls off of the submission list for the new client. Agents try to be as diplomatic as possible, but it’s a tough decision sometimes between thinking either “I hope it doesn’t alienate Mr. Editor that I sent him something not quite his style” or “I hope it doesn’t alienate Mr. Editor that I contacted a colleague of his instead of wasting his time with something not quite his style.”

Sometimes, it’s true, an agent will only submit to a few editors because they don’t believe in the project 100% and they want to test the waters. That’s a tough pill to swallow. To be perfectly honest, sometimes agents send out projects against their better judgment because they are feeling undue pressure from their clients. “I have a feeling this won’t sell as is, and I feel like I’ve tried to discuss the issues with my client,” they think. “But the client says it’s ready and wants to see a submission list, so maybe I’ll send it to a few editors. If it doesn’t sell, at least the rejections might mention the same issues, and maybe the client will finally listen.” That, and sometimes you want a little vindication when a publishing colleague agrees with you. This way you’re not the only bearer of bad news about a writer’s beloved manuscript, and there are more messengers to shoot! Editors, of course, do not appreciate being used as a “second opinion” on problematic manuscripts, but this does happen on occasion.

This article lists some scenarios that might result in a smaller submission list from your agent. The key takeaway, though, is that you should keep all this in mind and yet be more proactive. It’s your agent. They work for you. If you suspect any of the above, ask them why their list seems small. Get into specifics. Don’t look at it and take offense or start constructing conspiracy theories. A lot of realistic considerations go into a submission strategy, and you deserve to know what’s going on. If an agent is out with projects all over town and that leaves no editors out there to give you a fair audience, see if you can’t wait a little bit. If an agent is frustrated because they feel like your manuscript still needs work, do the difficult thing and try to see where they’re coming from.

Client management is difficult, as is sitting at your computer and waiting for news from your agent–the person in charge of making your dreams come true. Be honest, be informed, be understanding. Keep your lines of communication open. And if you feel like something is going on, and it’s not making you feel great, start that conversation sooner rather than later. Judging by the emails I’ve received from agented writers, there are too many out there stewing in silence or complaining on message boards. That doesn’t have to be you!

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I’ve had a few writers recently come to me with questions similar to this one (summarized):

Help! I am querying agents and publishers simultaneously and I’ve noticed something strange. All of the agents seem to say complimentary things about the writing but reject my idea. Some have even said that they wouldn’t know how to sell it and that there’s no market for it. One went as far as to say, “Give up already, nobody is going to buy this.” Meanwhile, the editors I’ve reached out to rave about the writing and say that it’s a really good idea. Does this happen often? Who’s right?

I’m going to try and address this intelligently without insulting too many people. Agents and editors are different and represent different steps in the publishing process. Agents can often be accused of taking more mainstream projects with an eye toward the market and current trends. That comes from the way that agents make money: They want to attract as many buyers to your project as possible so that you, your project, the agent, and the agency get the most favorable outcome, which usually tends to happen to “bigger” or “commercial” projects that inspire a bidding war. Then they want to use this momentum to sell even more rights, like foreign and film. They take a percentage of the sale (sometimes with a salary, sometimes working only on commission) so they have to do a lot of big sales in order to profit.

Editors, on the other hand, often seem more sympathetic to more marginal projects without paying as much attention to market trends. They know that their publishers service many audiences, including schools and libraries, and that there are many different slots that a potential book can fill. They are willing to look at things that aren’t as immediately marketable and see their potential. They also don’t have to hustle for their money. Sure, they are under pressure from their bosses to acquire profitable projects. But they have more job security they can take more time and be more charitable with feedback for things that come across their desks. (This is not to say that editors don’t work hard. They work incredibly hard! But they, in general, are also more secure financially because they work for large companies that pay a salary.)

Before you think that I’m calling agents mercenary art-killers and editors starry-eyed idealists, though, here’s another layer of complexity: In the real world, it is very difficult for either party to get what it wants. Blockbuster commercial projects that will go on to sell in the six- or seven-figures come around once in a blue moon. Everybody wants one, everybody fights for it when it appears, but only one agent gets it. The rest of the time, agents have to see the potential in more challenging concepts. And as fun as it is to hold a huge auction, it’s just as fun fun to sell a “quiet” book to the perfect editor who immediately “gets it.” Finding this fit is a lot more work for often less (monetary) reward, but it feels amazing, too.

And while an editor may love the idea of doing a book for a very limited audience or with a totally out-there subject matter, they have to answer to their bosses, their pub boards, their finance guys, their marketing departments, etc. etc. etc., and they sometimes get brought back down to earth by a “no” that comes from above. So while the editors in the sample question all seem to be much more amenable toward marginalized concepts, I didn’t hear that any of them were offering to buy the manuscripts in question, either. Liking something and saying nice things about it is very different from putting cold, hard money on the line. We all go into children’s publishing to help get amazing books into the hands of worthy young readers, but these aspirations often butt right up against the fact that publishing is a Business-with-a-capital-B. And sometimes a book with a challenging subject matter, or one without “high-concept” commercial potential will take more work to see in print.

Agents do have to focus on more commercial concepts sometimes to stay afloat. And editors have to jump through a whole lot of hoops and “sell” a book to their team before they can make an offer. For books where the potential to profit isn’t obvious, that means it will take time to place them witheither and agent or an editor. I don’t think it’s right for anyone to say “Just give up, this is a fool’s errand!” But I also don’t want to say that every book will get published, because some ideas are jut too far out there to invest in in a competitive market.

Part of trying to get published, however, is understanding the process. Here I hope I can offer some insight into why agents and editors sometimes seem at odds when it comes to their decisions. It’s never quite as black-and-white as it appears. A caveat: This post is NOT about drawing a line in the sand and saying “this type of book is commercial and this isn’t.” Part of the gamble of publishing is to look and imagine and take chances. I will never tell a writer that this idea categorically won’t work and that idea is a guaranteed bestseller. It doesn’t work like that. There are no certainties. My core message has always been that writers who focus on the craft and learn about the publishing business are setting themselves up for greater success. This post is instead about addressing a disparity between agent and editor responses that several writers have noticed, and trying to explain the possible reasons.

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A reader wrote in over the weekend to ask:

I wrote a nonfiction article for a kids’ magazine. I sent it recently, haven’t heard back yet. Because I’m completely fascinated with the subject I wrote about, I sat down and wrote a different story on the same subject that ideally would be a nonfiction children’s picture book. I’ve sent it to just one agent a few days ago. No here’s my dilemma: I know all the “first-time rights” and “all-rights” lingo, but I’m wondering that, 1. does it apply because the mag article is different than the picture book story, and 2) in the 1-in-billion chance that the agent wants to pursue my book, do I need to jump up and shout- wait!- a magazine might publish a different-but-same-topic article I wrote. I feel like this could be potentially sticky…and I’m just wondering if there’s any justifications for my worries.

An interesting question! Here’s my response:

Rights to a book are pretty heavily connected to the text of a book. A lot of authors publish NF articles in their subject area before writing a full-length book about it (and lots of people pitching NF book proposals are told “This is more of an article” because there’s not enough meat in their topic/angle to support a full book).

In children’s, you could wander into a bit of a gray area because I’m imagining that both texts will be shorter and will cover a lot of the same information–i.e.: both overview biographies or both simple explanations of a scientific principle, etc. This is where you will want to pay close attention to the text and make sure that you’re not publishing a close replica.

If your article vs. book angles are very different, like one is an overview and one covers a much more specific area of the subject, you have nothing to worry about. But if the topics are close and lightning happens to strike twice in the form of a magazine acceptance AND a book publishing opportunity, there is nothing wrong with strategically delaying the article until you can share your concerns with an agent or editor. As opposed to the book manuscript and publishing plan with your acquiring editor, the article will be a lot easier to edit in a way that still meets the magazine’s purposes.

A larger point deserves to be made here: If you have a magazine editor, agent, or book editor on the hook and they like your work or area or expertise (in the NF world especially), there is nothing wrong with communicating openly, asking thoughtful questions, or attempting to get that person to work with you if something like this should come up. Your magazine editor might be perfectly willing to publish a slightly different article or time the article differently (delay it while negotiation is in process, run it closer to your book’s publication date to build momentum, etc.) in case you happen to get a book contract.

The good thing about this potential scenario, of course, is that being published in various venues on a subject will help you leverage yourself as an expert on a certain topic. As you build your career, you’ll actually want to seek out these types of situations and get your name out there. I know some of these questions are stressful, but try and think of this as a potential positive, because it very easily could be!

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I’m seeing some submissions lately that put the cart before the horse in terms of what they’re pitching. Several writers write and say, “I have such and such project that would make a great app. And then this other project just screams to be developed into a touring ice show. Finally, I can just see the face of my third protagonist plastered on everything from stuffed animals to t-shirts.”

There’s a lot to be said about focusing on your project as a book idea and letting all these other things come later. Since I’m seeing more and more of this type of pitch, I want to remind everyone that it’s okay to simply have a book that’s going to make a good book. In fact, that’s the point of trying to query a book.

And let me just add to what I’ve already said by emphasizing that nowhere is it stated that every single book idea will get every single ancillary product/right/option in the world. When you look at the sheer number of things that get published every year, a much smaller percentage goes on to merchandising opportunities, movie options, video game licenses, and all of the other things that some aspiring writers dream about.

I think that all this talk of apps really got people’s imaginations going. “It’s going to be a book AND an app, guaranteed,” one thinks, “because everyone is talking about apps!”Then that “and…” mentality spread to theme parks and licensed coffee tumblers and international editions. I get it. But it’s very important to remember that most books don’t get apps, or foreign sales, or entertainment deals.

That’s the danger of REQUIRING anything on your publishing journey, whether it’s a trilogy of books in order to tell your story or a read-and-play app that plugs into your premise. The more you require, especially as a debut, the fewer incentives you’re giving a house to take a chance on you. Your “and” turns into their “but,” ie: “We really see the potential for this book idea BUT they’re pushing us for a trilogy and I’m just not sure that we can make that kind of investment.”

Require less, open your mind to telling your story in the simplest way possible, and celebrate the ancillary successes that roll in. It’s often a fun and happy surprise when Hollywood calls or a comic book edition is picked up, and it can pay a month or more of your rent. Yay! But it’s not guaranteed and it’s also not the end all and be all. Keep it in perspective. That’s the best way to establish market savvy and tone down your expectations, thereby becoming a writer that many more people would be willing and excited to work with.

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