Book Agents and Editors: The Interaction

Book Agents and Editors: The Interaction

Speakers: Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada
Forum organizer: Jude Berman
Notes by Karen Asbelle
Forum June 20, 2007

Literary agents Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada offered encouragement to editors working with book authors, particularly new authors. Clearly, editors can increase their value to clients when they are familiar with the realities of what it takes to get a book published in today's competitive marketplace. Editors can also lend support to an aspiring author attempting to get noticed by inundated book agents and publishers.

With more than 290,000 titles published in 2006, the book industry needs good editors; Larsen and Pomada insist it's a good time to be an editor, especially with so many writers in the San Francisco area. In a lively and entertaining presentation, they shared their perspectives and experience working with freelance editors who want to broaden their support of clients daunted by barriers to having their book published. A visit to their Web pages offers a comprehensive overview of the "getting published" scene, with insights, tips, and candor to augment a freelance editor's understanding of how publishing works. Following are some of the points discussed at our June forum.

What Motivates This Writer? Where Does This Book Fit?

There are more ways now to get published. Before working with a book agent, an editor can help a client consider where a book might fit best in the market. Support your author in being realistic about the market potential for a particular book, and have realistic expectations about profit. How much money does the author want to make from writing? Know the value of the book. Make sure it's 100% ready. Be sure to help the author sustain plot, character, and setting. Focus on the differences between what the writer is writing and what buyers are buying. Is the book marketable? As editors, we may have more objectivity than the author.

Consider how to get casual browsers to pick up a book in a bookstore; that is half the battle. Titles are an extremely important selling tool, because a book cover announces what's inside. Effectively wrapping a new concept around a not-so-new idea? That's the brilliance. Editors can charge for coming up with titles for an author's book; frequently, they may have better perspective to do so.

Testing for Potential Market Acceptance

Authors should test-market their work and get feedback from a range of readers. They can then show a publisher that readers "want it." There are 800,000 reading groups nationally--indeed, reading groups can make a book successful. Find bookstores that have reading groups. Also, the Internet makes reading groups easy and feasible. Lots of online activity and cross-suggestions occur between reading groups. Explore putting a monthly chapter on a Web site. Novelists can build a following that way. (Remember hearing about 19th century serialization in magazines and newspapers?) Articles can turn into columns in a magazine, or they can turn into a book.

One Larsen-Pomada client was invited to be on National Public Radio NPR based on blog writing, and is now selling a novel based on her blog. Another client wrote a true story about her grandfather, but it didn't sell until it was marketed as a novel (complete with real photos). Publishers seem interested now in the trendy "misery novels" that feature abuse, hard times, and unfortunate lives. A book idea must make sense to a publisher's editor or editorial board, to the sales reps who would promote the book, and to the book store chains that would sell it. If any key player along the progressive marketing and distribution path says "No" to it, that book may be dead in the water, at least to big publishing houses.

Building a Promotional Platform

These days, to many authors' surprise, ensuring a successful book absolutely requires having strong promotion potential, developing a well- considered promotion plan, and effectively demonstrating that the author can execute the plan in the short- and long-term. Promotion plans are practically as important as the book itself.

State what the author can and will do to promote the book. Describe the author's platform and budget, in descending order of importance.Encourage your author to take the necessary time to build a promotional platform that suits the book. If there is good promotional ammunition, authors could set their sights on a big publishing house. If the promotional potential is not very strong, they may do better to approach a medium or small house, or else spend time further developing the promotional strategy.

Every author needs a Web site to help promote a book. Publicity is cheaper than advertising. Publicity triggers sales initially; the role of advertising is primarily to sustain the sales. Writers often lose opportunities to sell their books. The most powerful form of advertising is word-of-mouth, which takes time but can create a bestseller.Small independent bookstores know their customers better than the chains. They often have lists of picks. An independent bookseller can make a book a bestseller. Authors should plan to visit bookstores and introduce themselves to owners. Go on tour for reasons beyond media: network with people around the country. Determine who can become the loyal, go-to-first booksellers when the author brings out a new book. Fiction authors can do readings at bookstores.

Authors can do virtual book tours. With one camera, they can talk to 80 stations around the country. In one Webcast, they can reach 20 feature editors at once. Not all books lend themselves to talks. Think creatively about how a book can be promoted if it appears to be in that category. When a book is published, get the author onto Amazon; have friends and associates buy the book all in the same day. Registering 400 sales in four hours "early on" is good for an Amazon rating, and can sway the reviews.

There's a growing gap between what NY publishers want vs. what writers can provide. Many publishers want to see an in-place promotional calendar before they decide to publish.

To the authors, our forum speakers addressed these remarks: Create a speaking market. Corporations and nonprofits have meetings and need speakers; there are always many places to speak for free. If a session is important enough, videotape it. Become a leader or advocate of a movement so that you are asked to speak to further the cause.

"Be creative, use your imagination. Become a fundraiser for a sponsoring group. Build partnerships. Make a HEAD or HEART connection with your audience. Keep track of people you spoke to last year, this year, and next year. Start talking now for practice. You can't sit home; you've got to get out there and show a publisher you are committed to actively promoting the book. Publishers will not accept 50 appearances a year written into a promotion plan if the author is doing only five now; an author must demonstrate she can actually do 50 talks a year.

Attracting an Agent

An agent's reputation is on the line with any submission to a publisher, so all materials must be in the best shape they can be. Ninety percent of nonfiction books are sold through a book proposal. An agent usually gets 15%, but no money is expected or paid until the first check from the publisher arrives.

Literary agents supply 90 percent of the books published by the major houses. To understand how publishing works, understand how agents work. Book agents aim for major advances (six figures). That's the way it is. And, big houses have big overhead. In reality, 70 percent of (good and bad) books published fail— in the financial sense that they don't earn back the publisher's advance to the author.

Agents generally reject 90% of submissions they receive. But response to writing is subjective. Agents and editors can turn down books that become bestsellers. Writers sell more books to small presses than agents do. Good books will sell, with or without an agent. Publishers and agents start working with a writer in the hope they will establish a permanent relationship that will grow more profitable and creative as the writer's career develops.

The "first page" test for gaining agent interest: style, story, something, someone.

Editors can contract with authors to help them write book proposals and cover letters. Give book agents exactly what they ask for when submitting a book proposal. Do your research. Find out online what the agent wants in the way of submissions; don't send material the agent doesn't handle. The editor should go back and forth with the author until the agent's instructions are met. Larsen said it's rare when an initial book proposal has followed his prescribed directives.

All that matters is the content on the page. Degrees and good schools may only drive the literary agent to read a few more sentences. Pomada rejects authors who clearly depend only on spell-check. Larsen says a cover letter tells him if the author cares: was the letter written carefully? Edit everything so it sparkles and comes off the page. An agent should see only proposals that are enjoyable, informative, and readable. Every word should be right when you submit to a book agent. Let the agent know whether other agents have it, too.

Larsen and Pomada always attempt a gentle, respectful rejection, primarily because a writer may develop into a better writer in time. It's impossible to predict how dedicated writers might improve their craft. A rejection letter is not a death sentence; if you apply yourself, who knows what will happen?

Editors Reaching Out to Agents

Agents understand the importance of the editor's function. There's just not enough time for publishers or agents to edit. That's where a editor can support both author and agent. Book agents send authors to editors who can help them.

How can an editor develop relationships with agents? Try these things. Gentle nudges. Make a list of what you've edited: title, author, publisher. Prove you're a real editor. Send a letter every year to stay on top of the agent's pile. Send a book to show what you've edited. Approach publishers as well, but know that they're swamped with paper. Timing is everything; regular contacts are good. If you do email, don't make people work to download anything; put it all at their fingertips. Use your authors to introduce you to their agents for other work references. Your email signature should list your services..

Editors should be quite careful not to rob the soul from an author's piece when preparing it for a book proposal. Larsen and Pomada have seen some entries come back from an editor who cleaned it up so much that it had become as flat as a pancake when it only needed 10 percent change. Don't lose the heart of the book or pound out the author.

Ms. Pomada added that publishing is a circus, where linking authors who have great ideas and passion with publishers who offer the "brass ring" is the aim of an effective agent. Editors can find ways to support both authors and agents in this ongoing balancing act.



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