Please Help Me Translate Litspeak

If you read the following two articles (edited for length but all points intact), you will most certainly be confused. The first article is an interview with literary agent Jane Dystel at indiereader.com. The second article is an article from J.H. Mae, also of Indireader. For your entertainment I’ve added my commentary since I was obviously (not) there.

Article 1

Loren Kleinman (LK): What’s been the most challenging aspect of choosing a title?

Jane Dystel (JD): I think the most challenging is finding something that is fresh.  The more I read, the more stories sound the same.  I am looking for “different” as are other agents and publishers.

B&B: Pretty much every story possible has been told in a basic form. Can I submit a story about a talking raccoon and a talking tree stump? Oh wait...

LK: How can authors improve their chances of engaging with a readership?

JD: The key here is, of course, the book.  Their story has to be well told and well written and fresh, as I said previously.  Second,  they need to spend lots of time on social media to build their fan base/potential readership. That is the key to sales these days—whether one is self-publishing or being published be a traditional publisher. Having a unique voice and working within a built-in community of authors and readers is a great way to stand out and cross-promote on social media. Authors should find what platform works best for them or that they’re most comfortable with (whether that’s Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.) and focus energy there. Better to excel in one place than to be mediocre in several.

B&B tip: The last sentence is very true.  Consider holding off your literary agent approach until you have at least fifteen thousand followers on social media or e-mail subscribers.

LK: How important is an author platform for the author, publisher and agency?

JD: The author platform is extremely important and will definitely make a difference in whether we can sell an indie author’s book to a traditional publisher. Social media is a big part of an author’s platform these days, and we find it works best when authors focus on the kinds they enjoy so that they can be consistent and genuine.

B&B: Very true for the most part, but something I feel like most agents and acquisition editors are missing. Just having a lot of social media followers doesn’t work if your book is terrible. It’s easier to market a great book from a relatively unknown than a total garbage book from a celebrity. Don’t believe me? Ask me how many books Snooki has sold. Social media matters but it isn’t the only thing. Follow my blog and I’ll tell you why!

LK: What can indie authors do to make their books more appealing in terms of covers, editing, etc.? What do you think is the most important aspect?

JD: The cover is very important in the indie world.  It needs to stand out in a very crowded market.  And, a manuscript that reads well—with proper editing and copy-editing—is always going to do better than one that doesn’t. Covers need to look professional. Invest in quality design or stock photos—something anyone could slap together on Microsoft Paint isn’t going to attract a reader, especially since they are only looking at a little thumbnail photograph of the cover and not holding a physical book in their hands. So, to that end, nothing too intricate either—what will stand out on a little screen is going to be what works.

B&B: Excellent point. Agreed.

LK: Do indie authors have more of a chance at traditional publishing later in their careers than those directly seeking publication or representation?

JD: It is very important, as I said, for the indie author to have a solid fan following in order to find a traditional publisher.  That takes time.  Also, unit sales of their self-published books is a factor in their ability to interest legacy publishers. Naturally, quality of writing is also very important—since traditional publishers aren’t as keen as they once were to purchase rights to books that have already been self-published, an indie author needs to be able to produce new work that is a) in line with the type of book they’ve been successful with and b) well-written and unique.

B&B: We won’t touch your book unless you have either a) celebrity status b) an easily accessible base of internet followers OR great access to some big-time talk shows or c) at least twenty-five thousand sales, likely e-books. After you do the work, THEN we’ll jump in and ask if you’ll turn over 2/3 of your revenue (or more) so we can give you “distribution” and “marketing”. IF we like you.

LK: What kind of authors are traditional publishers looking for these days? Is there a particular profile they consider?

JD: First, traditional publishers are no longer all that interested in picking up previously self-published books.  They want authors who are willing to work with them to grow their writing careers.  There is still so much to learn on both sides, and I think legacy publishers want to invest in those authors who are patient in terms of their growth as authors.

B&B: STOP! STOP! check out the two parts in bold. “Unit sales matter” and then “we don’t really want to publish previously self-published books.” So on the one hand, we won’t publish a book which has a lot of sales because we want an author to grow with them, but we want you to already have a lot of social media followers and success before we’ll offer you a contract?

How can you grow with a publisher if you have to do all the legwork before they’ll take you on? Someone help? Please?

Article 2

“These days, self-publishing doesn’t necessarily mean your novel will wither and die, unread, on the digital and real life bookshelves. Books with polished writing, a compelling voice, eye-catching covers, promising sales numbers and an author with a decent reader following may be destined for great things. Meaning a traditional book deal.

With so many indie titles released every day, the pool of authors has become something of a resource for literary agents eager to unearth new talent and sign the next breakaway bestseller – and a testing ground. “Traditional publishers let the indie market experiment, then they swoop in and try to grab what has worked,” said literary agent Evan Marshall with the Evan Marshall Agency.  “When a (book) is of high quality, the attention and popularity naturally come with it.”

The main indicator is sales rankings, which creates a slush pile that is self-curating,” added Laurie McLean, a partner at Fuse Literary Inc. Basically, if the numbers just aren’t there and the book isn’t making waves in the indie market, it likely won’t stand a chance in the traditional one, either, added Andrea Hurst, literary agent with Andrea Hurst & Associates.

The indie world is also allowing the traditional folks to see how new genres resonate with readers. It’s a “freedom and flexibility most traditional publishers don’t have,” Marshall said.

But there are barriers between a literary agent and the next great indie find. Mostly, it’s the sheer volume of titles, which bury the best ones. “It’s the same with the normal slush pile we deal with as agents,” said McLean. “We read. A lot … It’s the same as finding those needles in the huge haystack that we deal with every day.”

So where do agents look? Amazon Bestseller lists, The New York Times eBook Bestseller Lists, Bookbub and other major indie advertising sites. WattPad is another big one, along with Scribd – where McLean’s hybrid client Ransom Stephens got his start – Textnovel, FictionPress, FanFiction, textnovel, Worthy of Publishing, Mibba, figment, Quotev and other writing sites, as well as author web sites, popular review blogs and any place indie authors are being talked about – “the proverbial online water cooler vibe,” McLean added.

Writer’s conferences are also key. That’s where Toby Neal, a self-published author of police procedurals, met and clicked with McLean. Now she has an eight-book audiobook deal and two new series. “She’s given me six months. If I fail, she can always self-publish them. But this gives me a huge incentive to get this book pitched quickly and sold.”

And though word of mouth may be low-tech and old-fashioned, it’ll still get writers’ work under an agent’s nose. One of McLean’s hybrid clients, Michael J. Sullivan, referred her to two fantasy authors whose work he enjoyed and now one of them – Brian D. Anderson – is getting a chance to sell his new series with publishers in New York. “So, do a good job and your name will spread, I guess,” she said.

But the pressure is on indie authors to impress if they want to snag a book deal. Great writing, fresh ideas, a popular genre and novel-length stories – not short stories, novelettes or novellas –are required, added Marshall. (B&B: Didn’t the author of this article just say It’s also a popularity game, evidenced by a strong reader following and social media presence, plus a marketable author brand. But McLean pointed out another critical element– desire. (B&B: First it was new genres being monitored for signs of success, but now if you want a traditional book publishing contract you have to be in a popular genre? Hello? Help, please?)

“We’re particularly looking for indie authors who also want to have at least some presence in traditional publishing. “We’re in it for the long haul of an author’s career and we are looking to grow hybrid authors who can have one foot in the indie world and one in traditional publishing at all times.”

This element can be a challenging one to attain, because indie authors unfamiliar with traditional publishing get frustrated with the process. “They expect everything to move quickly and to have a say at every point along the way. That’s just not the way it works for the most part. You don’t get to pick your covers. You need to make some tough editing choices and trust your editor to make you a better writer. And you need to be patient.”

B&B: OK OK OK, hold up. Let’s break down the last two paragraphs together:
“We’re in it for the long haul of an author’s career and we are looking to grow hybrid authors who can have one foot in the indie world and one in traditional publishing at all times.”
But…Ms. Dystel said I need a massive amount of success in indie publishing, but then the publisher doesn’t want my previously successful work. The only want new books in the exact same genre I write in, assuming I write in exactly one genre. And if I switch genres? What then?
“They expect everything to move quickly and to have a say at every point along the way. That’s just not the way it works for the most part. You don’t get to pick your covers. You need to make some tough editing choices and trust your editor to make you a better writer. And you need to be patient.”
The technology world changes frequently. So on the one hand I have to be cutting edge and keep up with the latest in social media and book publishing, but if I were to be signed by a bigger publisher, I lose control of my work and it will take months or years? And while I agree a good editor is indispensable to a writer, the agent being quoted wants great books out. But that means I most likely hired a decent editor (besides close friends of course), and assuming I’m only writing one genre to build a “brand” (because God knows you aren’t allowed to try something different- see what happened to Lady Gaga?), then can’t I use my awesome freelance editor? Or is she out now?
B&B summary: I post this because I was colossally confused. Let’s be honest. I am very unlikely to ever get a traditional book deal, no matter what.  You, dear reader, are very unlikely to ever get one. It doesn’t matter how good or interesting you are. It doesn’t matter, in all honesty, how many books you sell at the end of the day because that isn’t enough. Heck, it doesn’t matter if I write a blogpost criticizing them, or don’t. All that matters is you and I do the legwork and build the fanbase, in a genre which is forever popular, then you “gets” if you are one of the “chosen ones”.
I have nothing personally against agents or publishers as people. I completely understand the difficulty in making decisions; only so many books per year can be printed and the sheer volume of query letters, plus self-published novels, plus the backlists, plus new material from the A-listers, is overwhelming. It isn’t always easy to understand why one book is so popular and one just like it is not. Changes in the industry have created a lot of uncertainty and I feel for those who worry about their future job status, especially in this economy. I have respect for publishing companies like Lee & Low books which publish the books they want, regardless of whether it has “commercial appeal.” Publishers like Lee and Low and Baen Books will even accept unagented queries, offering you at least a tiny chance to get your name in print, if this is what you want, without having to go through one more “gatekeeper.”
But to be honest, the agents quoted above come off as somewhat arrogant. They act like they’re doing you a favor by making you do all the legwork of building a fanbase, paying for your book’s production and marketing, building your website and your e-mail list, and then AFTER you put in that work they come in and offer to take 15% off the top, plus another 52.5% (give or take) to the publisher, for the right to do what?
What is the value added on they (publisher) are giving you if you’ve done all the work? Are they going to somehow give you a better cover than whatever your cover artist (or you, if you’re so talented) came up with? Will the editor they assign to read your book be better than the freelancer? More flexible? A better time table? Will they offer you help building your author site (this one’s a new post next week!)? Will they do a great job marketing beyond what you’ve already done on your own and can do by yourself or with a hired advertising team?
As for the agent, will she or he get you the money you’re looking for? Will she or he do a better job of managing your accounts and sales volume than Amazon, Ingram, or even an accountant? Will your book get a movie contract solely because of her work, and for more money than you would ever have been able to negotiate on your own?
And what about children’s books? It isn’t like there’s a major market for self-published kid’s books, especially compared to romance and mystery. Will a self-published children’s author attract their attention if the challenge of building an audience of kids is really difficult?
Unless we see reasonable and civil answers to these question, I get the impression, from the agents’ own comments, that the main appeal of being “snatched up” is to give you “legitimacy” at having your name in print by a Big 5 imprint. It’s prestigious. That seems to be about it.
Fellow bloggers and authors, please, help me learn Litspeak. I’m still new to this.
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