Comp Titles in a Query and Other Questions About Book Comps

Questions about comp titles in a query are common, because book comps can either be a powerful part of your pitch, or a bit potential pitfall. Here are some more thoughts on whether to use them, or not, and how. (My original article on comparative titles is here.)

comp titles in a query, book comps, comparative titles, comp titles
Your book comp are calling. But are you using them well?

Comp Titles in a Query and How to Use Them

The conventional wisdom about book comps is that, if you have good ones, use them. If you have outlandish ones that communicate your delusions of grandeur (I’m Rick Riordan meets Suzanne Collins!), skip them.

The purpose of strong book comps is to make a realistic comparison between your work and someone else’s. Ideally, the author or book you’re choosing is thoughtful, rather than just a runaway bestseller. It’s always best to give reasoning for your choices, if you can. For example:

My manuscript has the quirky sensibility of How to Say Goodbye in Robot and the freewheeling voice of Sorta Like a Rock Star.

Both of these comps are older than I’d use (see below), but they came easily to the top of my head because they’re both so very specific. Here are some more considerations, gleaned from questions asked over the years:

Age of Book Comps

It’s best if your comp titles are recent, published within the last three years or so. This does double-duty and communicates to the literary agent or publisher not only your comparison, but that you’re keeping up with the marketplace.

But don’t despair if your perfect comparable title (an alternate term for “comparative title” that you’ll sometimes see used) is older. If you simply must weave The Giver by Lois Lowry into your pitch, pair it with a more recent comp and ta-da! The best of both worlds.

Relevance of Comp Titles in a Query

Per the “reasoning” point, above, your comp titles should be relevant to your current pitch. It’s okay to compare your middle grade historical to a young adult dystopian comp onlyThe Hate U Give if you give a specific rationale. For example, The Sun is Also a Star by Angie Thomas and  by Celina Yoon don’t have a lot in common in terms of premise. But they both explore societal pressures and race in different ways, and those are connections you can draw for an unlikely “meets” comparison.

As long as you’re thoughtful about it and guide the literary agent or publisher on why you made the choices you did, and the choices make sense, you can do whatever you want here.

Similarity to Your Book

You can get away with book comps that aren’t really similar to your book, except for an element or two. But what if your comp titles are too The War That Saved My Lifesimilar? This is a fine line. If you’re pitching a story about a disfigured girl whose mother hides her away during World War II and using  by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley as a comparative title … uhhhhhh … you’re maybe calling too much attention to the fact that your idea already exists. And then you may have to justify how yours is different or better. It’s a better idea to pick books that are similar but not eerily so.

Picking Comp Titles from the Agent or Publisher’s List

Some smart writers customize their comp titles in a query to reflect books represented by the literary agent they’re querying, or the publisher they’re submitting to. This can be an effective strategy. Keep in mind, however, that agents and publishers won’t want to cannibalize their own lists. So if the book you’re pitching is too close to one the agent represents or the publisher has published, this might actually be a liability for you. Their loyalty will always be to the author and project that already exists in their portfolio.

Number of Comp Titles

The ideal number of comp titles in a query is two or three. I recently read a query with six book comps mentioned. That writer had clearly done their research, but they need to tone it down. Two strong comps are better than four lukewarm comps and way better than six comps that just all happen to be in the same category. The more specific the better, so you don’t want to dilute your pitch by citing too many other books.

How to Find Book Comps

This is a quick answer: Read! (Here’s my argument that reading not only exposes you to your market, but helps develop great writing voice, which every writer should care about.) Read in your category. Read outside your category. I will never, ever, ever understand writers who refuse read because it pollutes their process. Spinning in your own echo chamber is fine, but it also tends to produce (ironically) derivative fiction because the writer doesn’t know enough about what’s out there to realize that they’re repeating common tropes, using cliché language, or not exposing themselves adequately to what’s possible.

Reading is a delightful way to get to know the publishing landscape, discover new voices, add fresh ideas to your own writing toolbox and, yes, discover book comps that you can use in your pitch.

As a freelance manuscript editor, I not only work on your book, but I help every client with their pitch, query letter, and book comps, too. Let me set you up for success in submission!

Political Children’s Books

How should a writer approach political children’s books? I received an interesting inquiry today from a potential editorial client. (Just as I was casting around for blog ideas! Hooray!) The writer has written a book for young children and, before sending me the manuscript, warned me that it had a specific political bent about Donald Trump. This writer wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be offended. While this is considerate of the client, it’s not my job, as an editor, to bring my own political biases into the editorial process.

political children's books, politics in children's books
Something we can all get behind, right? Maybe that and “Snacks are awesome!”

But the question did get me thinking: What’s the role of politics in children’s books? Especially books for younger readers? Here’s what I came up with.

Political Children’s Books: The Real Concerns

When I come across books that have any kind of bias, whether it’s political, religious, philosophical, etc. it’s never my job to comment on the actual content.

My concerns, instead, are the following:

  1. Does the political element work in the context of the story? Is it necessary or is it gratuitous?
  2. Is the message and its packaging appropriate for the intended audience?
  3. How might this political element affect pitch and marketability?

This is the same way in which I would treat an “issue book.” For example, if there is a book where the character happens to be a certain sexual orientation, I’m always asking, “Is there more to the story than this element, or is this the central focus?” I ask this because I doubt that a book where politics is at the very center, or sexual orientation is at the very center, and nothing else is going on, is going to be very marketable. Readers expect multiple layers from a story, so if it’s just “a political book” or just “an LGBT book” with no other significant plot or character arcs, then I worry that it’ll fall flat. A story cannot stand on one element alone.

Another way of thinking about it is this: If I remove the political element, what’s left? If the answer is, “Nothing,” then you may have written a rant or an opinion piece or a manifesto. But a story? Maybe not.

Depending on what role the element plays, and the writer’s execution in including it, a political element in fiction could be either an asset or a liability.

The Marketability of Politics in Children’s Fiction

The other issue to consider regarding political children’s books is that of marketability. This consists of two parts:

  1. The audience
  2. The publisher

In children’s fiction, you have the additional element of your audience’s age to consider. Sometimes, politics in children’s books plays well. Consider dystopian YA novels. All of those authoritarian governments have a political message, and most of those stories have something to say about ideas of human rights and individual freedom. Plus, the YA audience is going to be more aware of current events, and more receptive to themes that lend themselves to the dystopian genre.

But a picture book about federal regulation shutting down a lemonade stand, bolstered by a discussion of big government? I just don’t know if a typical picture book reader (3-5 years old) would find that very relevant. You might be speaking to the adult reading the book, but that disenfranchises the core audience (the kid) and I doubt you’ll get very far.

You also have to think about the potential publisher. Most major houses like to make money. If they publish polarizing fiction, they may alienate potential customers. Sure, there are a lot of left- or right-leaning houses, editors, or imprints, but you should at least recognize that your opportunities to place the manuscript are going to be limited if it has an overt stance.

So How Do You Include Politics Successfully?

All this being said, you still have a message for young readers. These are, after all, political days, and your idea probably feels very relevant and timely to you.

Go ahead and include your political message. But also give careful consideration to writing believable child characters who minimize preaching. You might want to go Wizard of Oz with allegory, or disguise the political force (an oppressive student government at school, for example). Make sure there’s more to the story than the message. There should be compelling characters and high-stakes plots driving political children’s books.

Make sure it’s appropriate and relevant to your audience. Is a three-year-old really going to be fired up about Grandpa Joe’s long discussion of tax reform? Will a nine-year-old understand the intricacies of your Cold War references?

In the same vein, search for agents, editors, and imprints who are open to politics in children’s books. An agent who has a few books about social justice on their list might be much more willing to “go there” with you, for example.

Finally, check your motives regarding your drive to write political children’s books. Story must come first. If your main interest is in preaching or converting or soapboxing, you’re likely not coming to the page with the right intentions. No matter which side of the aisle you’re sitting on, save the grandstanding for your Twitter. Political element aside, you still need to practice the storytelling craft.

Do you want to make sure your manuscript is compelling without being preachy? Hire me as your children’s book editor and we can convey your message along with compelling characters and a high-stakes plot.

The Good Old Days of the Writing Life

I recently received a beautifully written question about the writing life and being an author, then and now. (If you have questions of your own that are of a general nature, and not necessarily specific to the manuscript you’re working on, check my sidebar for how to contact me!) My reader, Cate, had a lot to say about the golden days of children’s publishing. I know many of you are probably wondering the same things as her, so I’ll let you read it, and then I’ll answer.

the writing life, being an author
Ah, the good ol’ days of the writing life…

The Relationship Between Editor and Writer

A little over a year ago I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and was amazed that somebody had been able to look at that manuscript and draw To Kill a Mockingbird out of it – and was struck by the fact we probably wouldn’t have TKAM today if it hadn’t been for Tay Hohoff. Then I forgot about it, until recently, when I was reading a collection of Ursula Nordstrom’s letters. She told about receiving a collection of random notebook entries, called the writer in to discuss them and how they could be developed into a book, and was taken aback when the writer finally said, “I’m sorry you don’t like them,” since she’d just spent an hour and a half talking about them. The writer was Louise Fitzhugh and the pages turned into Harriet the Spy. Ursula Nordstrom also talked about going to FAO Schwartz and being so impressed with a window display that she asked the designer, a kid from Brooklyn, if he’d like to “draw some pictures” for her. That was the start of Maurice Sendak’s career. Then last night I was looking at a collection of letters by Margaret Mitchell, who said that (contrary to popular legend that says her book was rejected umpteen times) Harold Latham of MacMillan tracked her down on a trip to Atlanta, persuaded her to let him see her incomplete first draft of Gone With the Wind, and had to buy an extra suitcase to carry it back to NYC with him.

You know where I’m going with this, right? It seems like the relationship between editor and writer has changed a lot over the past few decades. I’m wondering if you can address that – why the change, and what expectations are realistic these days. I’m also wondering if you have any thoughts on the fact that some of our favorite books might never have existed if they came along today?

The Evolution of Publishing

Oh Cate, Cate, Cate, sweet Cate. I hear you, loud and clear. I also think you know what I’m going to say.

In the good old days of the writing life and being an author, a lot of crafts used to be much more obscure, or at least prohibitive to most people. If you wanted to make a video, or take pictures, you had to afford or borrow cameras and film. If you wanted anyone to see your work, you had to schlep it around on media that you carried in your hands, and you had to sit them down, and you had to show it to them. Flash forward to now. Now my dogs could have a thriving YouTube channel with millions of subscribers, and I could film, edit, and post their content all from one gadget. While wearing pajama pants.

Publishing used to be a niche industry. It wasn’t until the paperback revolution that books started selling to the masses and actually making money. It turns out there was a market for this stuff! That revolution didn’t come to children’s books specifically until the 1990’s. If you’ve read Ursula Nordstrom’s letters (and if you haven’t, you absolutely should), you will get a sense that she was seen as the red-headed step-child at Harper. Children’s books weren’t sexy, they didn’t bring in the big bucks. They were…quaint. And then Harry Potter showed everyone what a “dumb little kid’s book” could do. In terms of cold, hard sales numbers. Enter the commercial revolution, kidlit phase!

The Writing Life Hasn’t Always Been the Stuff of Dreams

Editors used to have to track writers down and squeeze books out of them. Develop their careers. Foster their talents. Deal with their eccentricities. Take the train to Vermont and trudge through the snow to their cabins in the woods, if need be, to get good books. Believe it or not, the writing life and being an author haven’t always had this glamorous, dreamy quality. Kids didn’t aspire to it. People didn’t dream of it. “That’s my weird old aunt Emily Dickinson,” folks would say in an embarrassed whisper, “she’s a writer.” So editors wouldn’t have thousands–yes, thousands–of submissions coming to them per year. They’d have to go out and make submissions happen.

Trust me, I would love to have a kindly editor come to my house and say, “Mary, I know that you’re having an existential crisis and have written five pages in the last six months, but I really think there’s something there. Why don’t I advance you a little money so you can pay for that cabin in the woods and some quiet time to create?” I would love it if someone encouraged me to live the writing life with a little financial incentive. But writers with day jobs are par for the course these days.

The Content Explosion of the New Age

But the crux of this new age is that publishers and platforms are swimming in content. They no longer need to make content happen. It comes to them. Their jobs now are to cherry pick good and marketable content. Today’s editors are overwhelmed with submissions. Sure, they do tremendously important editorial work with their stable of authors, but those authors are brought to them on platters. The tough truth is that editors also spend their days attending powwows with marketing and sales people. Doing administrative work. Meeting with agents. They often edit–which many would consider to be their actual jobs–on their own time. Any effort they spend to massage good books out of people becomes a second job.

Furthermore, your weird old aunt Emily Dickinson would have someone standing over her, in today’s market, asking her where her next poetry collection is because the last one didn’t perform as hoped, and we’d really like to get on a book-a-year-schedule, kthnx. Today’s most successful writers are expected to produce. With minimal hand-holding, if possible.

Sad? Yes. True? Yes. That’s why more and more writers are choosing to work with developmental editors before they get to the publication phase. In this new reality of the writing life and being an author, you are just not going to find the same editorial relationships as you did in the good old days.

I’d love to be your developmental editor and help shape your story into an agent-worthy manuscript.

Dealing With Writing Feedback and Making Sense of Writing Critique

One of the most difficult things to do if you get a lot of writing critique or pay for reads at conferences is to synthesize all the writing feedback you’re receiving into something that makes sense. Last week, a blog reader wrote in to ask the following…

writing critique, writing feedback, beta reader, critique group, manuscript critique
Getting varying writing feedback? How do you deal with writing critique that varies, or that you disagree with?

I have a question about writing feedback about a WIP. I recently had 3 manuscript assessments completed, two full reads by highly recommended freelance editors (paid for), and one 10-page review by a professional agent (also paid for). The first two were really positive with minor ‘fixes’ to consider and when asked if I should persevere, the response was ‘absolutely’. However, the third writing critique, from the literary agent, basically told me to start something new and give up on that MSS. So how does one take such varying feedback? Which feedback do you take on board and which do you reject without being biased?

Dealing With Diverse Writing Feedback

This is a tough one. If it were me and my manuscript, I’d try and find a middle ground between “minor fixes” and “trash the thing.” Also, keep in mind that the editors read the full manuscript, which is helpful, while the agent only read the first 10 pages. In this writer’s case, I would be very tempted (as a human) to choose the editors’ opinions and discard the agent’s.

However, as an agent (definitely not human, LOL), I say that the source does matter. Don’t reject the agent’s harsher writing critique because you don’t like it. Here’s why: Besides writing quality, agents also have to react and think about premise and marketability, and they know more on that front than laypeople or even trained freelancers. They’re the ones staying on top of trends and the ones closely familiar with what is and isn’t selling.

(Sidebar: I’m not particularly thrilled with the agent’s response myself, though I would say there’s probably some truth to it. The reason for this is that saying “burn it” isn’t constructive to a writer. Even if I see little hope for a manuscript, I always try to at least provide some actionable writing feedback. I’m sorry to hear this wasn’t the case in this situation.)

Considering the Source of the Writing Critique

Freelance editors focus primarily on the strengths and opportunities for grown in the manuscript as it exists before them. If the manuscript is technically good and the story moves along well, they may be tempted to rate it highly. Agents, however, are looking at the quality of the thing, sure, but they are also always trying to place it in the context of saleability. (Opening up the great art vs business debate!) Because the most amazing piece of writing isn’t going to do anyone much good if it can’t be published for whatever reason (usually a too-slow or too-quiet or too-clichéd premise). So while the agent’s writing feedback is harsh, there may be truth to either the writing or the concept not working.

If the writer in question wants another agent’s opinion and money is not an issue, I would encourage them to seek yet another agent or editor’s opinion (ideally an editor who has had publishing industry experience). That should clarify the picture a bit. If they can’t get another professional critique at the moment, I would focus on tweaking the story and concept to something that’s more exciting by today’s standards. Concept might, after all, be what the agent reacted poorly to. There’s also nothing like actually putting a project aside and getting a fresh new idea. The project doesn’t have to die, it can just step aside for a minute while you chase something else.

Odds are good you’ll come back to it, ready to see it with new eyes. That’s a way to take the agent’s negative-sounding writing feedback and make it empowering instead.

I’m a book editor with thousands of freelance clients and ten years of experience in the publishing industry, including five years as a literary agent. I bring the best of both worlds–business and art–to your book project.

Young Adult Fiction for Boys and the Male Protagonist Issue

Here is a question about young adult fiction for boys and the male protagonist in YA from Royce:

Is there any niche demand for stories for young adult male readers? Most of the agent profiles and marketplace news indicate demand for Distopian, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, etc., and most of the published books seems to appeal to teen girls.

young adult fiction for boys, male protagonist, boy YA, teen boy book, teen boy young adult, teen boy YA
Thinking of writing young adult fiction for boys? Here’s how the male protagonist factored into this market, and it may not be great.

Is There Really a Young Adult Fiction for Boys Market?

I don’t want to open a can of worms. So before I begin, let me say that there is The Way I Wish It Was, and The Way It Really Is, and What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap with the male protagonist issue in YA.

The Way I Wish It Was: Boys reading voraciously into their later teens, publishers publishing robust lists for these readers, teachers, booksellers, librarians, agents, and editors really excited about the market segment.

The Way It Really Is: There is not a robust market for YA contemporary realism, per se, compared to fantasy genres, and the market for a YA boy audience is dreadful because most boys in that age group have either stopped reading altogether in middle school or they’re up in adult fiction that they discovered around age 12 or 13.

Books marketed directly to teen boys don’t tend to do well and the YA section of the bookstore is so thoroughly steeped in paranormal romance and purple faces with female faces on them that I’d avoid it, too, if I was a self-respecting dude with money to burn from my first pizza delivery job. (More considerations of teen boy books here.)

How to Make the Male Protagonist Work in YA

While we all want to work hard to change that, that’s the reality right now, as I see it from many discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues. Unless yours is a boy character who appeals first and foremost to girl readers (John Green’s work), you will have a tougher time, as girls are the overwhelming audience in this age group. Through to You by Emily Hainsworth, features Cam, a boy protagonist who goes across parallel universes in the hopes of getting his girlfriend back. He’s a dude, and he’s the narrator, but the premise is thoroughly romantic and so will attract a lot of girl readers.

Other recent examples of boy characters tend to strongly feature female protagonists as well. So this puts the lie to the idea of “young adult fiction for boys,” because the closest we’re getting is “young adult fiction for both … but mostly girls.” Here, I’m thinking of The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.

If he was on a quest for, say, a cache of lost movies by a legendary horror movie director or a really awesome video game, I don’t think it would’ve sold because its market share with female YA readers would’ve evaporated. Though books like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline prove me wrong, but notice that it wasn’t published as YA.

What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap: Not terribly much in terms of actual action. There’s a lot of talking and blogging on the subject, though. But publishing is a business and, unless the YA boy-book-intended-primarily-for-boy-readers segment of the market starts taking off like, say, fallen angel romances, I don’t know how many editors will be able to put their houses’ money where their mouths are. (Or, if they do publish a good boy YA list, how often they will be able to add to it.)

There are great, great, great books that deserve boy reader attention. Feed by M.T. Anderson. The work of Steve Brezenoff, Barry Lyga, A.S. King, Ilsa J. Bick, Andrew Smith, and more. But either we’ve lost some faith in attracting these readers or the market really isn’t there. All I know is that a boy-targeted YA feels like a really tough sell.

If you’re writing a male protagonist, maybe your work can be slotted elsewhere. I can help you with market considerations as well as craft ideas as your developmental editor.

How To Write a Book That Sells

Most aspiring writers are trying to figure out how to write a book that sells. Here’s a question from a blog reader that touches on this question:

Would you turn down a story you loved but knew wouldn’t be an easy sell? I’m imagining something literary that for whatever reason didn’t suit the market at this time…

how to write a book that sells, my book didn't sell
I obviously need to love, very deeply, all the books I sell. However, it’s the selling part that matters undeniably in today’s marketplace.

This is a great question and one I wrestle with all the time. It also illustrates how I’ve grown in my thinking as an agent. Unfortunately, I haven’t grown in the direction that some writers will want to hear.

Must Love Books, But…

Here’s a great qualification for someone looking to get into the agenting business: must love books. But a qualification to stay in the agenting business is that they must sell books, too. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, by any means. I obviously need to love, very deeply, all the books I sell. However, it’s the selling part that matters undeniably in today’s marketplace, and I don’t plan to look for another job anytime soon, so I have to build my list accordingly.

Early in my agenting days (and it’s still relatively early, mind), I took on some projects that did tend toward the literary, the quiet, the beautiful. And I’m not going to lie when I say that some of them have turned out to be tough sells. I’ll sidestep a discussion on selling out and how the whole high-concept commercial fiction  world is a travesty and what havoc it’s wreaking on the literature-starved youth of tomorrow and all that blah blah blah here and just mention that I am majorly bummed that these fine, beloved manuscripts of mine are hanging out in “my book didn’t sell” territory. Enough said. The undeniable fact, though, is that it is easier to sell something with a commercial, high-concept premise than something that’s a review-driven award contender or a school and library market darling these days.

How To Write A Book That Sells: Consider Market Viability

Two things. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to sell what I already have that’s in this vein. My love for those books is unwavering. And that doesn’t mean I’ll lower my literary/writing quality standards for the lure of the commercial money-grab. But I do have to think about the sales pitch and market viability as I’m falling for a story. That aspect weighs heavily on my mind as I’m deciding which projects to represent. These days, sales potential is probably the number one thing that separates a beautifully written near miss from a client on my list. So, to answer Siski’s tough question, if I didn’t think I could sell something I loved, I would probably pass and ask to see the writer’s next book. Love can’t be the only consideration anymore. If you want to know how to write a book that sells, you have to consider market viability.

That’s not a bad thing at all. What would you like? An agent who gushes over your work but leaves you in “my book didn’t sell” territory? Or an agent who gushes over your book and then sells it, makes your dreams come true, and turns you into a soon-to-be published author? Sorry to be so callous, but I think you’d best be served by the latter, and that’s who I want to be for my clients.

Wondering how to write a book that sells? When you hire my manuscript editing services, I’ll push you to produce a piece of work that balances emotional resonance with commercial appeal.

Literary Agent Response Times

This post is all about literary agent response times. How long does a literary agent take to respond? Does a longer wait in the slush pile response queue mean a bigger chance at rejection? This clever question comes from rifferaff, in the comments:

I have a theory, based on the many writer blogs and forums I read, that when agents offer representation, they usually do so quickly, usually within two weeks, but often days. Is there any truth to this? Would you hold onto a full for 2 to 3 months and still offer representation? Or if you’re offering representation do you usually do it as soon as possible?

literary agent response times, how long does a literary agent take to respond, does a long wait mean rejection, slush pile response
Waiting too long for your love letter from a literary agent?

Decoding Literary Agent Response Times

I can see why a lot of writers would think this with regard to literary agent response times. Blogs and forums are full of sexy stories: “My agent offered representation the same day!” or “An editor read it overnight and pre-empted with a huge deal!”

It’s a little less exciting to get on your blog or a public forum and be like “I heard absolutely nothing for six weeks, turned myself into a basket case, and then my agent offered representation, but by that point I was locked away in the attic, murmuring to myself, and my husband had to coax me out with a bottle of wine!”

No News Is…No News

I’m exaggerating, of course, but there’s a reason why the stories shouted the loudest on the Internet are about quick literary agent response times that come with offers of representation. A long wait and lots of daunting silence — which is often what happens with writers who end up with representation — just doesn’t make a good headline.

While it’s true that agents who spot a really hot premise or really great writing in their submissions pile will be compelled to read quickly, and those really big-sounding projects will most likely have multiple offers of representation, also quickly, that’s not the only way that writers get representation. (I’ve noticed a lot more of this happening recently, with everyone pouncing on the most commercial projects. Read more about it in my post about the book bidding war.)

Getting Behind the Scenes in the Slush

Unfortunately, sometimes slush pile response times have nothing to do with you. It’s not like we “hold onto” a project for two or three months, actively considering it. Sometimes forces outside our control or an overwhelming submissions pile keep us from reading full requests that we’re genuinely excited about.

Other times, a writer will get another offer, which usually shoots that manuscript to the top of my To Read pile. Sometimes, though, nobody else has expressed interest and the manuscript just waits in line until I can read it and give it the consideration it deserves. Unfortunately, it could be months before this happens.

When offering representation, I’ve gotten my clients by offering the next day, by winning contests where a lot of agents were interested, and also by offering in a few weeks or a few months after the initial submission. I’ve also offered representation and gotten a client whose previous manuscript I’d rejected, and then had them come to me with a new, stronger project.

Try Not to Drive Yourself Crazy

Every writer will have a different experience with literary agent response times. If you have a knockout commercial idea–and you’ll usually know it–expect things to happen quickly. But don’t despair if they don’t. It is perfectly fine, and more common, in fact, to wait.

The worst thing you can possibly do when you’re waiting in the slush pile response queue — and I tell this to my clients who are out on submission to editors — is to start reading into every little thing. Sometimes, wait times and rejection letters and communications with agents or editors are laden with meaning. Other times, they’re just a natural part of the process.

While out on submission, I would highly encourage you to start working on your next project, even if it’s just an idea brainstorm or an outline. This will be a much better use of your time. And I can only hope that you don’t have long to wait, but if you do, that’s fine, too.

Help your writing stand out in the slush pile. Hire me as your developmental editor. My Submission Package Edit covers the first ten pages, query, and synopsis–everything an agent wants to see.

The Story Idea Or The Execution?

This question about story idea versus execution comes from UK reader Adele:

I recently heard someone on the radio ask a famous business entrepreneur (James Caan from the UK version of Dragon’s Den), “What is more important: the idea, or the execution?” His response was that, in business, ideas were a dime a dozen but the execution of the idea was the deciding factor in whether it would turn into a business or not. So when it comes to a book – what is more important, the idea or the execution?

story idea, idea to execution
Having a great story idea is only the first step in crafting a memorable manuscript. It’s execution that separates successful writers from those that put all their stock in ideas.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and I’m so glad Adele landed in my inbox to give me a great launching pad (or, you know, soapbox, if you will).

Books Are All About Carrying A Story Idea To Execution

I could pitch editors fantastic, high-concept ideas until their ears bled, but if the actual manuscript didn’t live up to the promise of the great story idea, none of my enthusiastic, great-idea-but-don’t-read-it-just-trust-me-that-it-rocks manuscripts would result in a sale. Because the idea is just the first step in a long writing journey.

In my experience of writers (and my own experience as a writer), there are often idea people and then there are execution people. I’m an execution person. The few times I’ve had idea manuscripts, I didn’t execute them as well as I could’ve. Some writers have both fantastic, commercial ideas and then know how to take them to the next level in terms of writing and storytelling (execution). Those are the writers I want to work with.

I Always Ask To See Writing

If a writer came to me and pitched me the story idea of, “A group of kids locked in a death match, playing as the political pawns of a crumbling country,” I would be electrified to see it. But would it be done as well as THE HUNGER GAMES? I’m sure there have been similar ideas written and pitched in the world, but most of them remain in drawers and on hard drives because Suzanne Collins took this dynamite, dystopic idea and really gave us a world to immerse ourselves in, characters to care about, and unbelievably high stakes, written like an action-packed thriller.

That’s why I always ask to see writing when I hear a pitch. Many ideas sound fantastic when pitched to me at conferences. But that’s just the story idea. How does the writer carry that idea to execution? I can’t decide anything until I read the manuscript.

Snakes On A Plane!

In stark contrast to this, I’ve heard that a lot of people in Hollywood don’t read (this is not an insult, Hollywood people themselves always seem to brag about this). They’re all about ideas. Pitches fly around the room and the ones that sound the most awesome are frequently the ones that turn into fast-tracked blockbuster action flicks that have a great premise, but usually aren’t nearly as satisfying as the movie that bloomed in your head after you heard the story idea. Why did the movie Snakes on a Plane get made? Not because of its brilliant art house execution, let me tell you (which still didn’t stop me from going to the midnight showing…ahem). It was because Samuel Jackson heard the title (which implies the idea of the movie) and, without reading it, greenlighted the project.

Idea + Execution = Great Writing

Not so in books. In your writing, you should strive to have the kind of story idea that would make a Hollywood board room sit up and take notice, but you also have to deliver on the promise of the premise and write a killer book. Would THE HUNGER GAMES have ridden on the coattails of its great premise to the kind of worldwide success it has enjoyed if the writing had been flat, the pacing slow, and the suspense mild? No. So you can’t rest on the laurels of a great idea, either. You have to carry the idea to execution.

This is why I’m still baffled by people who wonder, “How do I copyright my writing?” before submitting because they’re afraid agents will steal their ideas. If ideas were all that mattered, I’d probably make a nice living off of stealing other people’s ideas and selling them for a lot of money. But the ideas aren’t the hard part. It’s the execution. When I read slush, my biggest complaint is, “What a great story idea, I wish they’d made it work.” So to make any money as a plagiarist, I’d have to spend years of my life stealing great ideas and then coming up with my own execution for them since the original writer couldn’t. That kind of labor-intensive theft suddenly starts to look a lot less likely.

What Would You Rather Trust Your Life To?

I will leave you with one more example of this point: ever since humans realized they were earthbound, they’ve wanted to fly. Drawings for flying machines can be found in Leonardo da Vinci’s journals, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first to have that particular lightbulb flare on. But it took a very long time for people to carry that idea to execution, and even longer to make that execution commercially viable and safe for constant use (and, I hope, snake-free). So what would you rather trust your life to? Leonardo da Vinci’s great idea for a flying machine? Or an airplane as executed today?

Did you find this practical advice useful? I am happy to be your manuscript editor and consultant for writing and publishing advice that’s specific to your work.

Teen Boy Books: Boy Protagonists in YA

Reader Melissa asked this question about teen boy books a few weeks ago and it’s one of my pet issues in YA. I talk to a few of my clients about this, and to anyone that asks, really, because it is a mystery, a frustration, a conundrum.

teen boy books, books for young men
Some houses usually do one or two books for young men per season and that’s it. Because that’s not where the readers are, unfortunately.

Teen Boy Books: The Question

I am hoping you can answer a question for me. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about boy MC’s (YA) being a hard sell, yet many agents request books for young men on their websites/blogs. Are boy MC’s a hard sell? My current involves a boy MC but with a romantic element to the story. Is this the same topic or are these two different types of books? To me, it would seem that boy MC books directed at boys alone are very different than boy MC books that have the romantic element so desirable to girls.

In YA, Boy Readers (and Protagonists) Are an Endangered Species

When people request “teen boy books,” I find that they’re more often talking about MG, where boy readers are still more active. In YA, boy readers are almost extinct. They have a) stopped reading or b) moved on to adult sci-fi/thriller/fantasy, etc. In MG, adventure and mystery and especially boy/girl teams of siblings or friends are doing well in the marketplace right now, so editors are looking to add those types of stories to their lists.

Not so much in YA. When I’ve gone on submission with teen boy books, I have literally heard from editors, “Oh, we’ve already filled our slot.” That’s right. A single slot. Some houses usually do one or two books for young men books per season and that’s it. Because that’s not where the readers are, unfortunately. As much as editors would like to change the reality of older boys not reading, most have found that putting out more and more books for young men doesn’t necessarily move the needle.

The Work-Around

One way that teen boy books can be successful is if they take lots of girl appeal, as Melissa says, and apply liberally. John Green is a really successful test case. He writes boy MCs that girl readers want to date, simple as that. His boy protagonists are quirky, nerdy, in love with a girl, and chasing her with such passion that boys can relate, sure, but girl readers swoon.

Girl readers can easily see themselves in the role of that girl, and they want the geeky, cute, dedicated boyfriend type that populates John’s pages, even if he is a loner or flawed or otherwise damaged. Girls love a good fixer-upper in some cases, not just the blazing-hot romantic hero. Vulnerable boys, not just sparkly ones, really do appeal.

So I think Melissa’s on the right track with the young adult romance element. More than 80% of your readers, even with a male MC or a mixed-gender or gender-neutral tale, will be girls. Give them lots to dig into. And a guy they can dig. Give the boy readers good stuff, too, and a character to relate to who’s not a total girl-pleaser, but know that your core audience will most likely be girls. And if you’re planning a book that’s totally boy-centric, it will be a harder push to get it on publisher’s lists, unless it is just really appealing and awesome for teen boys and you nail the demographic well.

Working on a young adult novel? YA is my favorite category and I’d love to be your young adult editor.

Self Publishing Considerations and How to Self Publish

I have never talked about self-publishing on this blog. Of course, I have many thoughts on how to self publish, but they’ve largely been hidden. Why? Because some people who self-publish usually use gatekeepers like agents and editors as an excuse, like we’ve literally driven them to Lulu.com with our cruelty. We are The Man. We keep literary geniuses down. So they circumvent The Man and self-publish. Since I’m The Man, what do you really expect me to say?

self publishing, how to self publish
Ready to forge your own path to publication and self publish? Some thoughts on how to self publish and if it’s right for you.

Self Publishing Considerations: Is It Right for You?

What finally got me to articulate myself on the topic is a fantastic Salon article. This is the closest I’ve come to reading my own thoughts about self publishing.

The average person has no idea what lurks in slush. The writers querying agents obviously think their stuff is up to snuff, or they wouldn’t be querying. Even so, most slush is not ready for human consumption. Why? Because writers are notoriously erroneous judges of their own work. A lot of them think they’re ready for “prime time,” and that is often not the case. It is my informed opinion — having read what most people call their polished work — that most self published books, unless professionally edited beforehand, will read like my slush pile, not like the New American Literature.

Most of the time, when you get a rejection, it is really saying, “This isn’t ready for publication yet.” (Learn about at types of agent rejection here.) The questions going through my head when I evaluate submissions are: Is this saleable? Can I sell it? If the answer to one or both questions is “no,” I reject. If the answer to both is “yes,” I’ll pursue the project. It’s really no more complicated than that.

I do have to say one thing in defense of self publishing: it is a very useful tool for people who have a niche audience or their own book sales channels. Ideally, both. These are the types of writers who should be learning how to self publish. Most traditional publishers may not do “niche” projects (not a large enough target market to justify general trade publication). If you have a book about a very specific subject, say, a kid with heart disease, and you also have access to the American Heart Association’s mailing list, for example … you might be successful at zeroing in on your target readers through direct sales.

Looking to Self Publish for the Wrong Reasons

But most people wondering how to self publish don’t have a niche book or a good marketing strategy: they want to target the mass market. They have a project that would appeal, in their opinion, to everyone and anyone. And self publishing a book intended for a trade audience is where these would-be authors get in trouble. Because reaching a mass audience — casual readers — when you self publish a mainstream fiction project is very difficult.

From now on, I’ll be talking about these people self publishing. The people who don’t believe what editors and agents keep telling them: their work isn’t ready. Just because a shortcut and a loophole exist, doesn’t mean you need to use them. And just because you use them, doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results as people who publish traditionally (your book distributed in stores … readers for your work … reviews … sales … any kind of profit).

The Internet disproves a simple, old-fashioned idea: “If you build it, (throw it up on Lulu or Amazon or any of these other websites) they will come.” Readers will not come. They have too much other stuff on their browser. It’s just like trying to get your band discovered by putting up an mp3 on MySpace. Every other band is putting up their mp3, too. (Not that MySpace is relevant anymore, of course.)

The Internet is flooded with content. As a reader, my time and psychic space are limited. I seek only the things I’m looking for or already know about. I don’t go trolling for complete unknowns just to check out a new ebook, and I certainly would never pay money to try random self published wares.

How to Self Publish the Smart Way

But it’s not my job to sway anybody from wanting to self publish. All the people who want to self publish, should. We clearly disagree on a few key issues and I, as The Man, have better things to do than argue. When folks actually self-publish, they’ll figure out firsthand how difficult it is to get their books in the hands of readers. It’s also one thing to self publish once you already have a reader base, like Kindle evangelist Joe Konrath, who now has Amazon releasing his books, but quite another to rustle up some hungry eyes as a rank debut. But if you’re wondering how to self publish and your book is a good candidate, you should check out the Self Publishing Blueprint, a very comprehensive course full of great information.

The decision, in my opinion, is this: do you work through the rejection, finesse your writing craft, earn traditional publication and make the dream come true in a big way, or do you find a loophole and “publish” your work to a very limited audience? It all depends on what will make you really feel like you’ve accomplished your goal. I’m a writer in my spare (ha!) time. And I want to target the mass market. I would never, personally, self-publish. To me, a self-published version of my work wouldn’t be an achievement. It would just be a printout of my manuscript bound between two thicker pieces of cardboard, and about as fulfilling as my pile of scratch paper. Blogger Christoper Keelty goes as far as calling self publishing, “selling your failures.” (Thanks to Colleen Lindsay for the link.) There are agents who will consider self published projects, if they have gone on to sell big (like, thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies). But very few literary agents and publishers will look at self published projects. They prefer to focus on bringing something to market for the very first time.

Sure, there are exceptions. Joe Konrath’s success with bringing his existing readers to a new format has been noteworthy. And there are self published books for the mass market that have sold huge. Christopher Paolini started out self publishing, and Fifty Shades of Grey is everyone’s prime example.

And you know why I know about these exceptions? Because they’re news. They’re rare. The other hundreds of thousands of self published books? They’re unvisited websites and unopened boxes in somebody’s garage that I don’t really need to know about. I’d rather work with the writers who are approaching me to pursue traditional publishers, and focus my attentions there. There is a lot of talent in the world that’s worth being found and developed. I wouldn’t be an agent if I didn’t think so.

But like I said, I’m The Man. You’re either with me, or you wish you were with me. 🙂 (And I’m a cheeky Man, at that.)

For a client’s firsthand experience with how to self publish, check out this self publishing case study.

Many of my clients either want to self publish or have self published in the past. No matter your goals, I’ll work with you as a self publishing editor to help you arrive at the strongest possible project for any market.