Monday, March 25, 2013

Conventioneers! O Conventioneers!

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson...

I'll be attending a couple writer's conventions in April and May.  So while this is fresh in my mind, I thought I might delight you dear readers with a few tips about writer's conventions.

Conventions can be fun and provide you with some useful insights and exposure to the publishing world.  Whether the convention you're attending is large or small, there are a few things you should probably know about what to expect (and to not expect) at a convention.

What you should expect

Writer's conventions are often held by writer's groups, but sometimes by magazines and other professional groups. For writer's groups they work simultaneously as a benefit for the members, a fundraiser for the group, and a membership drive.  Writer's groups can be helpful for all sorts of reasons, the primary one being Community.  Being with other like-minded individuals and sharing your struggles and information can be a blessing.  Writing is a rather solipsistic activity, and encouragement can be difficult to find.  If you do not belong to a writer's group, then consider joining one, and consider going to their convention first to find out if it's your scene.

Usually these conventions have a few familiar components.  The first are classes or presentations.  Guest lecturers from inside the community and from without will hold forth on a range of topics, usually having to do with books (how they ought to be written, how best to sell rights to them once they are).  The second is some sort of keynote speaker (or draw) usually a notable author, agent, editor.  Then, there are the agents and editors.

There are typically a few panels dedicated to agents and editors where writers are given an opportunity to pick our brains, ask about submissions practices, and what our likes/dislikes are.  That is usually followed (though not necessarily) by a pitch session, where authors can pitch their projects to agents and editors in person.

It seems to me that there is an undue amount of attention put on the pitch sessions, which, in my not so humble opinion, are only about as important as the other stuff on the agenda.  Certainly a lot of authors will skip a lot of the other conference stuff, and go right into their tete-a-tete with the hungry agent, eyes gleaming with false hope.

What you should expect from these sessions is for an agent to listen patiently to your attempt at pitching the concept behind your work and, if you're lucky, to request a sample of your work for further study back at their respective lairs.  That is the best-case-scenario.

You can't reasonably expect a professional, whose job it is to evaluate book properties for their potential marketability to learn everything they need to know about your property from a brief spiel, and a few minutes of chatting.  There is the small matter of having to read the work, and decide whether or not you're actually as good on the page as you may have been in person.  Since what end-users (see: readers) will be reading is the book (see: your book), the pitch (see: your pitch) doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.  So don't build it up to be something bigger than it is.  If you blow it, you haven't really lost anything.  You may have embarrassed yourself a little, but so what?  What matters is what's on the page, and as long as you nail that, you should be fine.

While you should certainly prepare for your pitch session (more on that below) what you should focus on during your convention experience is building a community and opening yourself up to new information. If you obsess about the pitch session at the exclusion of everything else, then you're not really getting your money's worth.

The pitch session isn't a make-or-break moment for anyone's career, it's just an exercise.  At best, it can be the beginning of a business relationship, but in order for that to transpire it first has to be an interaction between two human beings.

What you should not expect

You should not expect to win publishing.  It's not a prize, it can't be won, and if it were it certainly couldn't be won in the convention hall of a hotel. This is a scenario that will never play out:

Author pitches book to agent. Agent immediately stops author mid-     sentence and declares: "that's the most brilliant thing I've ever heard! I needn't even read this book, it will be a best-seller, I am certain! I wish to sign you up as a client right now!"

"In fact," the agent continues "let me call every editor I know right now and let them know you've won publishing. You're absolutely correct unicorn slash fiction is the new Harry Potter." Agent immediately takes out cellphone, conferences every editor agent knows while drawing up your contract. End scene.

The best-case scenario, as mentioned above, is that the agent/editor thinks your idea is neat, and pending a review of your material may make a determination at a later date.  That's nice, but not really cause for a ticker-tape parade.  The same could have happened if you had sent a blind-query.

The added benefit to you is that you actually got to discuss the book in a real conversation with a real live human being.  In a conversation you get to provide the agent/editor with some information in response to their direct questions.  That information is, hopefully, more pertinent to them than information you may have volunteered in a query.

So now that you have your expectations set, what can you do to make the most of your pitch session?


1. Do take the opportunity to hang out with other authors.  Before you even consider signing up for a pitch session you should make friends, talk shop, compare notes, give and receive advice.  The purpose of the conference should be more than preparing for your big debut with the agents and editors. In the long run it's your fellow authors who are going to be the biggest help to you.

2. Do prepare for your pitch session.  Your pitch session will last anywhere from three to ten minutes, but you needn't spend the entire time on the "pitch" part of pitching.  The pitch should be only a few sentences long, and it should give the agent/editor a good idea of what the book is about and who the book is for. As with a query, you should do research about where your book likely fits in genre-wise, and you should already have a brief summary of your book on hand.  For the pitch you're going to want to condense that summary down to a few sentences, and write those sentences down.  You needn't practice them verbatim, but you should be able answer, in a few brief sentences, the direct question that seems to beleaguer even professional authors: "So, uh, what's your book about?"  The tendency when faced with this question is to think to oneself "what isn't this book about?" and that is the highway to the danger zone (see: Don'ts #2).  What you should do instead is take your written pitch and read it aloud several times (again, not memorizing it, just reading it aloud) and get a feel for summarizing your book in the most natural way possible.  Once you feel like you've nailed it, then practice it on some test subjects (a willing spouse perhaps, or an honest friend) to see if you make any sense.  If you pass that test then you should be ready to go.

3. Do try to be professional. You don't have to dress like it's a job interview, or a black-tie event, but do try to appear professional.  Do conduct yourself with a bit of decorum. Do be polite, and gracious, and kind. In short, do try to behave like the sort of person an agent/editor might like to be in protracted business relationship with.  Personality is a factor in evaluating potential clients and authors.

4.That being said, do relax. Agents and editors are just people.  They aren't smarter than you, or better than you, they probably aren't even as good looking as you.  All they have is a bit more experience working the levers of publishing, and a bit more time spent reading unpublished manuscripts. Their evaluation of your concept as a marketable concept is not an evaluation of you as a person or an artist. Also, they aren't there to judge you, they're there to help you.  If you're on the verge of success they have both a personal and a financial interest in helping you get there.  If you're struggling, they have an interest in seeing that you have the tools to succeed.  They want more and better authors, and they know that authors aren't born, they're built.  To the extent that they can help you, they will.  If they can't help you, no biggie, the convention should be full of people who can.


1.Don't be a pitch robot.  I don't need your help reading your query letter.  I would be in a lot of hot water if I was an illiterate literary agent.  So you needn't waste your time reading your letter to me.  Even less helpful is having you memorize and recite it.

2. Don't ramble.  While you don't want to be a robot, you also don't want to give me the long version of your pitch.  Keep it brief, so that we have some time to talk. Also, so I can keep the story straight.  There is such a thing as information overload.  Stories are full of information (character building, world building, back story) all of which may be necessary in the novel, but not in the pitch. You start describing every minor character and sub-plot and you're going to lose me, and lose me quick.

3. Don't omit necessary info. While you are trying to not be a robot, and also trying to keep it brief, try to give me a good idea of what we're talking about.  If your pitch omits important information it's just going to complicate matters as we start to talk, and I try to parse out exactly what your story is supposed to be about. Your summary should include all the relevant info: genre, length, main characters (name them, tell me who they are and why they are important), central conflict, how that conflict is resolved (spoilers welcome).  I once had an author pitch to me, and I wasn't clear on what the central conflict of the author's book was or how it was supposed to be resolved.  I kept asking questions, and the author kept responding "you'll just have to read it".  After a while I got fed up and finally said, "actually, I don't have to read it, that's the point of this conversation."  When you have limited time, and the other party has limited patience, it's best not to be coy. If I didn't want to know who the secret murderer was in your mystery novel, I wouldn't have asked.

4. Don't forget to have fun. This should be fun. Learning is fun.  Meeting new people is fun. Remember to have fun.  If you don't plan on having fun, don't bother coming.  You'll just harsh everyone else's cool.  If you know you're prone to nervousness and panic, and your strengths lie primarily in written communication, then maybe querying is the best path for you.  If you still feel like you'd like some face-time with an agent, but you don't think you can pitch your book without breaking into a cold sweat, you can sign up for a pitch-session and use it to ask the agent questions. They won't be disappointed (in fact they may welcome the break), and you don't have to feel like you have to perform for them.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In Defense of the Royalty-Only Model for Digital Publication

John Scalzi, author, blogger, lame-duck (but by no means lame) President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, defender of working writers everywhere, and client of the agency I happen to work for, has been commenting this past week about a shift toward advanceless book deals and the gradual erosion of authors compensation in the digital marketplace (summary can be found here).

While John is mostly right (especially about Random House's new Hydra/Alibi/Loveswept/Flirt "profit share" endeavor being exploitative) I thought he was perhaps a bit unfair to the royalty-only model, and I thought I might supply a counterpoint to his criticism, and also a bit of context about how the royalty-only model rose to prominence in the digital book sphere.

The royalty-only model is, as mentioned by John, not a new model, but its rise in the digital book world is not surprising, nor should its adoption by the larger publishers for the purposes of creating their own low-overhead imprints be necessarily surprising either. The model was born out of desperation by upstart e-publishers who didn't have the initial capital to pay out advances.  Even before the rise in popularity of self-publishing, they needed an arrow in their quiver to convince authors to write for them, rather than focus their efforts elsewhere.  That arrow was a higher than average royalty, and in some circumstances flexibility on the rights retained by the author.  

The benefits to the publisher of such a model are fairly obvious: by not having to pay advances, they had more money to invest in expanding their business, and greater discretion to acquire works.  By not having to worry about recouping an advance and by having limited production costs, not only could these small upstarts publish with greater frequency, but they could also experiment with more niche works and sub-genres, and find readerships that were previously not serviced by the larger publishers.

If you need an example of one such publisher, consider our agency's other client Ellora's Cave Publishing.  They began in early 2000 as an upstart by a romance and erotica author named Tina Engler (you may know her by her pseudonym Jaid Black) who found that her steamier material was too hot for mainstream publication and decided to begin offering her and her friends' erotic tales online.  The transactions used to be handled over PayPal, and the books delivered via email as PDF files. Now they are a multi-million dollar operation with over 800 authors, a backlist of over 4,000 titles, and they have launched the careers of several best-selling authors including Lora Leigh, Shiloh Walker, and Sylvia Day.

Now that's all well and good for Ellora's Cave, and other such royalty-only e-book publishers, but what about the authors?  Well the redounding benefits to the authors are that now there is a market for erotic romance, where none used to exist.  In 2000, good erotica was hard to find, now its ubiquity has spawned several competitors to Ellora's Cave, as well as paved the way for mainstream successes such as 50 Shades of Grey.

In 2000 there was no one willing to publish an author's male-male paranormal romance novel, now an author can choose between several different publishers, including an imprint of the largest romance publisher in the world.  Next year Ellora's Cave authors will pioneer several new sub-genres (ever wonder what a vampire steampunk menage-a-trois might be like?) and a handful of their authors will grace the New York Times e-book best-seller list while doing so

It's hard to say that Ellora's Cave's authors are exploited by their royalty only agreements because they receive no advances. Authors receive a substantial share of their book's take, and the back-end compensation is not as big a burden because the lead time between delivery of the manuscript and publication is short, and royalties are paid monthly or quarterly. Certainly there have been a few authors whose experience with Ellora's Cave didn't live up to their expectations of what publication should be, but when considering the alternative (no publication at all) it hardly seems fair to begrudge Ellora's Cave their business model.  

Arguably, it was the rise of Ellora's Cave (and other notables like Samhain Publishing) that caused publishers like Harlequin to experiment with their Carina Press imprint (headed by former Samhain and Quartet editor Angela James), and Carina Press that started the domino effect at the other publishers to capture the same lighting in a bottle. Overall I don't believe this trend is harmful.  In fact the opposite is probably true. Publishers throwing their weight behind royalty-only digital-only imprints means gaining additional opportunities for authors to reach readers with partners that offer a bit more stability than a fly-by-night digital startup can offer.

While I'm not running to go get all my clients digital-only royalty-only deals (I would prefer an advance against royalties and a print component as, I'm sure, would most of my clients) a royalty-only ebook deal is better than no deal at all, and it presents a viable alternative to self-publishing for authors who don't have the knack for it.

Not every book is mainstream enough to warrant a substantial investment by a publisher (just like erotica was thought to be unpublishable in 2000) but that doesn't mean there's no readership for that book. A publisher's knowledge of the market (or potential markets) is not absolute, and because they can't afford to take as many risks when it comes to offering an advance they often don't. That's not to say publishers don't take risks, they do, but the business of publishing is more art than science.  Whole sub-genres can get written-off because a publisher's first trial with that particular sub-genre was a flop.  Taking a flyer on some weird book by a new author is hard to justify when you've got to put up tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege. 

Royalty-only e-book publication offers a viable alternative for success in the instance that a mainstream publisher deems a book too big a risk to publish through traditional means.  I am happy to see that the big publishers are each sporting new digital-first/digital-only imprints (some of which, like Berkley's Intermix and S&S's Pocket Star, do pay nominal advances, though smaller royalties) and I think creating more opportunities for up-and-coming authors to get published should be encouraged, even if that means giving up an advance in lieu of back-end compensation.

That being said, John is right to be wary of the big publisher's foray into this realm. In the absence of advances, royalties should be higher than average, and authors should never be on the hook for expenses related to publication. Nor should authors tacitly accept less than favorable terms, just because their book is being sold digitally.  There is always room to negotiate, and authors, agents, and writer's groups have a responsibility to insist on fair compensation. (update: it turns out such insistence works)

The point of these digital-only/digital-first imprints should not be to lure noobs into exploitative arrangements but to use the flexibility afforded by the low overhead to explore new vistas of genre and style and to discover and cultivate readerships that can blossom into new enterprises that will benefit authors, publishers, and readers alike.  

Monday, March 11, 2013

Turns out writing is like...hard

Which is to say, I apologize for my long absence.  I've had no shortage of things to blog about, but little time to actually spend blogging.  I have decided, however, to rededicate myself to the noble effort of shouting into the internet void.  More content to come...