Caroline’s origin story
Caroline Leavitt: So, my origin story started a long time ago, when I was in my 20s. And back then, I really believed that I would publish short stories first and then I would get a book deal. But after a lot of rejection, I entered a writing contest and to my surprise, I won first prize.
Everything blew up. I started getting emails from agents saying, "I want to represent you," and I knew nothing about [how it worked].
They said, "But you have to have a novel." I had no idea how to write a novel. Back then, what happened was a publisher was interested, said, "You know what, we'll buy her novel on the basis of this short story." I don't believe that happens now very often, but it happened back then.
So suddenly I was a novelist with an agent and I had an experience that's very rare in that my first book blew up. My publisher did everything: They arranged all the publicity. I was on TV. I was on the radio. I was flown to different places. I thought, "It's always going to be like this!"
But guess what? My second book did okay, but not as well. And then my publisher went out of business. So, I got a new publisher. They went out of business. And then I bounced around for the next few books from publisher to publisher. None of the books did very well. They all got great reviews except for one (which deserved the bad review) but there were no sales because there was no marketing.
So there I was on my ninth book, which was Pictures of You. No sales. Nobody knew who I was. I had gotten a new agent but, the chances of selling this book were nil. Finally, sold it and the publisher rejected it on contract. The editor called me up and said, "We don't like the book. We don't want to publish you. It's not special enough."
So I was devastated because if you get rejected on contract and it's your ninth book and nobody knows who you are, your chances of getting an agent are very slim. All of you out there who don't have agents, your chances are good because you're just starting out. It’s harder if you already have nine novels.
So I turned to the writing community, and I cried. Well, actually I was hysterical. And my friend said, "We'll help you." And one of my friends had an editor at Algonquin who said, "We're going to get you there." And they did.
The editor called me up, and she was talking about Algonquin and my book. And I'm an honest person so I said, "Look, I have to tell you, I don't sell books," and she laughed.
She said, "Well, honey, we will now." And they took that non-special book and they got it into six printings six months before it was published. It became a New York Times Best Seller its first week out.
So my origin story is really a story of don't give up, be persistent.
Gina’s origin story
Gina Sorell: Yes, I was a debut author in 2017, and I came to writing an entirely different way. I had a background as an actor for over 15 years. And then I wrote my own material. I'd worked at Second City. I worked on Improv. And so for me, it was all about story. And a story was the thing I was most attracted to.
Then when I went out to Los Angeles for acting, I decided that I was really bad at the whole waiting game — waiting for the phone to ring. I knew I should do something else that I've always loved with my time, the thing I love the most about acting was telling stories.
And so I went to UCLA and I did the UCLA extension program, where I met Caroline and I started working on my first novel, Mothers and Other Strangers. If it wasn't for her, I would never have been published. That's a fact.
So I had to do the whole thing that everybody with a debut book is doing and that is to get an agent. I had to do that from scratch. And I had a couple of false starts: I had a start with a big agent and then that didn't work out. And then I was with another agent and that did work out.
I went out to all the big publishers — there were people who liked the book but weren't sure if it would sell: people didn’t know who I was, I didn't have a pedigree, the timing. Those things you can't control. I got a lot of really wonderful, heartbreaking rejections that were so full of praise. Those are the worst kind and the best kind.
Then I managed to get published at a small press, and I got published at that small press because I wouldn't give up. They were closed to submissions but Caroline really championed my book and they opened the door and agreed to read it. And then I got published.
So that was my first book. And then my second book is Three Wise Women. That's going to be coming from HarperCollins next year. And that is with a new agent (my first agent and I parted ways amicably) and a big publisher and it's my first time doing that.
But the interesting thing is every time I was queried, I went through the slush pile and it was my query that attracted their attention. And so there really is something to be said for writing a great query. We're going to talk to you about that here today.
How do you want to get published?
Caroline: There are different ways of being published. We're going to talk about self-publishing, traditional publishing, and something new, which is called hybrid publishing. There's also publishing without an agent.
Caroline: Self-publishing works really well for fan fiction, romances, non-fiction books that have a platform attached. It's changing and that it's getting more and more open. Places like Publishers Weekly, which is the magazine for all of publishing has 20 pages devoted to serving published books. However, they do review them, but you have to pay for the reviews. But even so, you want to, because you want to be reviewed.
It's harder to get large sales. It's more difficult to get into bookstores unless you're willing to consign them [where you only get paid when stores sell the books]. And it's tough to get traditionally reviewed.
Gina: Interestingly enough, I find that the pressure on those who self-publish is in many ways greater. It seems counterintuitive because if you have a publishing house behind you, you think that you're going to have really big sales. But there seems to be an even greater expectation for those who self-publish to have really great sales if they ever want to switch to traditional publishing. Everything's on you. You're going to have to get the publicist. You're going to have to do your website. You're going to have to hold your own events.
As Caroline is saying, unless there is a platform that you have or an audience. Maybe everybody in your city is a huge fan of your Instagram cooking show and now you have a chance to make a cookbook. And you know that you're going to sell thousands of copies because you've got 25,000 followers on Instagram.
I don't say that you should go for self-publishing first. People publish for different reasons and that's okay. Maybe you just want to publish because you want to publish. Maybe you want your friends and family to read something. Maybe you have a nice relationship with bookstores. Maybe the number of copies sold isn't the most important thing.
Your decision has to be really specific to what your goals are. I don't think it should be viewed as, “I'll do this for this one and then I'll go traditional for the next one.” I think it can be hard to switch back and forth. If your dream is to see yourself on bookshelves, then try traditional publishing first.
Caroline: I only actually know one publisher who does that now, but it's becoming a new model. It's one step up from self-publishing. There's one hybrid publisher in the United States called SheWrites. You pay a fee, not as much as self-publishing, but they edit the book for you. They market the book for you. They get reviewed in high places, and that's not a bad thing.
Martin Cavannagh, host of Reedsy Live: One thing that I want to clear up about hybrid publishers. There are a handful of great ones. She Writes, I believe you've worked with before and they sound great, there's one here in the UK that’s crowdfunded — Unbound. They’re sort of a hybrid and they’ve got a great reputation.
You need to make sure that they are very picky about what they publish. The trouble is that vanity presses have picked up on the term and they'll call themselves hybrid publishers, which muddies the waters in a big way.
So you really need to be careful about what exactly you're paying for. Because sometimes these ‘hybrids will say, "Yeah, don't worry. You're going to pay for half. We'll pay for half. Your half is $7,000." And of course, $7,000 more than covers their side of it. And it gives them instant profit after which there'll be little incentive for them to actually sell your book.
Have a look at the books they've published. Go on Amazon, see what books they put out. If they've got no reviews, if their sales ranks are abysmal, if their covers looks terrible, then chances are they're just taking your money.
Caroline: Traditional is where you don't pay for anything — they pay you. Most people dream of a big publisher like Random House and a $200,000 advance. But I have to tell you, that's not always what you want. I have many, many friends who got that $200,000 advance from Random House, and the book did not sell in the first two weeks. It didn't make any lists. Sales were okay, but not great. So what Random House did and what many publishers do is then they turn their attention to another author. So if your book does not get sales, it won't look great for you the next time you're out.
Concurrently, I have friends who went with smaller publishers. Maybe they only got a $5,000 advance, but they very quickly made back that advance.
I guess I should explain what an advance is. An advance is the money that the publisher gives you when they accept a book. It's an advance to sales. You don't have to give that money back, but you will not get royalties, which is extra money, every time you sell a book, until you earn that back in sales. So sometimes smaller is better.
Gina: I had a tiny advance for my first book. And they were so nice. They said, "Look, we have very little money to offer you." I was just going to get published. So I took this tiny little money and went out to dinner.
But there are so many other things that they could offer me. They said, "You are clearly somebody who likes to be involved in the process, having been an actor and an artist and have created your work for so many years." I wanted to be involved and they were great about it. They said, "So you can sit in on those publicity conversations we're going to have, and you can pitch in your ideas about the book cover. We're going to let you have the final say on it."
So there were so many parts of the process that I could be a part of. It wasn't money, but it was really rewarding. And it gave me a sense of control of my book, which I had spent so many years working on. From the time I started writing the book till it was published was, I think, seven years. So to have a lot of say was really great and rewarding. And I was able to make back my advanced many times over, which was really a great feeling.
I have a big publisher now and it's a different story. I have a book that's at one of the Big Five, and I'm terrified and excited. So it's really exciting. And it's interesting.
The advance split
The advance can come out in many different ways. A lot of publishers are now doing it in four or five parts. This means you'll:
- Get some when they say, "Yes, we want to sign you";
- Some when they ask for revisions;
- Some when it actually gets published;
- And some a year later in time for the paperback.
And I too have heard stories of people not making it back (or making it back years later). I've heard of publishers caring about that, and publishers not caring about that.
I've heard of people who were published during an election year and things went sideways and it's not their fault. I think it all depends on the circumstances, but it is a risk either way. It’s important to remember that, even when you're getting published, it's a risk and there's really so little that you can control. You can only focus on the work and doing the best you can to get it out there.
Viewer comment: Let's be honest here. To get an agent and to get published, have to know someone or get really lucky.
Caroline: No, you don't.
Gina: You have to be really good. You have to be really good.
Caroline: You have to be really good and you have to be really persistent. Gina and I both know so many writers who have gotten upto 60 rejections from agents. Number 61: they get an okay. Then they go on and they get 60 rejections from publishers. And then the 61st: they get published and all of a sudden, it's the best seller.
Persistence wins all the time as long as you’re honing your craft. But that's not true. Don't give up.
Gina: Also your idea of who you know can be really different. You'd be surprised. Let's say that there's an author whose work you love and you can reach out to them. Maybe there's somebody who you met at a book event — or a teacher that you have a good relationship with. Perhaps a workshop you attended. You could say in your query letter, "I took this really great workshop with this teacher," who maybe the agent knows, or maybe you know they went to the same school. And that's considered a connection.
We always think that connections are, "Hey, I'm related to [insert famous author]" but it's not/ It can be that your tastes align — you can think of that as knowing somebody.
Improving your chances of getting an agent
Caroline: We're going to talk more about publishing and what happens. But first I want to tell you some things you can do to improve your chances of getting an agent.
Short stories and contests
Caroline: First, you can publish short stories and enter contests.
Everyone should go check out Poets & Writers. At the back of their magazine, they list contests, and sometimes the prize is publication. Sometimes the prize is $50,000. They also list places who are looking for things to publish — there are also a whole lot of places online that publish personal essays: Refinery29, The Millions, Scary Mommy, Salon, The Manifest Station.
The Holy Grail of course is something called Modern Love, which is in the Sunday New York Times. Modern Love is the gift that keeps on giving because if they publish you, and they respond in a month, by the way, if they publish you, then you might be chosen to have a great actor read your story out loud in a podcast, or you might be chosen to be in their HBO series. So, aim high.
Caroline: Get on social media. I saw that there were questions about this before. Yes, it's important to be on social media. And here's why: every single agent, book reviewer, writer, whatever, is on social media.
You don't have to do it for more than 10 minutes a day. In the morning and at night, choose two platforms. Twitter is the best because it's so fast. Instagram is the next best.
What you want to do is Google “top literary agents on Twitter.” It'll spit out a list. Go and follow them.
1) Before you follow them, make sure that your profile says ‘novelist’ or ‘writer’. Doesn't matter if you're published or not. Because what happens is you're going to follow them and they're going to say, "Who the heck is this person?" And they're going to go to your profile and see, "Oh, it's a writer. Okay, I'll follow them back."
2) Do not pester them about your book. Instead, think of yourself as being at a cocktail party. If an agent you’re interested in posts, "Oh, I made spaghetti for dinner." That's where you come in and say, "I have a brilliant spaghetti recipe. Can I give it to you?" Or, "Can you give me the recipe?" You want to develop a relationship.
Creating a connection
Gina: I think it's also just really important to be true to who you are. Caroline is a natural at all of that on social media. A natural at finding connections, she’s able to have great conversations with everybody and engage them. She makes it feel really easy to do it with so many people at once. I find it really challenging — I like to take my pictures on Instagram. That's nice. I'm better at Twitter now. But I don't spend a tonne of time there engaging yet, but I will say don't underestimate that you can just learn a lot from reading on social media.
So if someone recommends a book, I’ll read the book and then I go to the back and see who they're affiliated with. I might go, "Oh, I did an event with that person. That's fantastic." When I was looking for agents, I'd be like, "I did an event with that person,” “They’re a friend of that person — they might be a good agent.”
Then I’d reach out or try to find a way in — or at least mentioned in my query letter. “Hey, I did an event with your client."
So I think there's always ways that you can use it that feels right and true to you because you don't want to come off as inauthentic, right? Yeah.
More places to find agents
Caroline: So, I'm going to give you a list of more places to look for agents:
- Poets & Writers. They have interviews with agents. A
- Agentquery.com. They have a search engine. You put in what genre you're in. You can say literary fiction, romance, sci-fi, whatever you're doing. It'll spit out a whole list of agents.
Reedsy also has a directory of literary agents to help you with your research.
You have to look through the agents and see if are they accepting new clients. Do they have any clients you recognize? If they don't, you probably don't want to go with them.
How do agents want to be approached?
Caroline: Every agent is different. Your goal is to have a list of 60. Go to bookstores or go to your favorite book, look at the acknowledgments. Authors who love their agents always acknowledge them in the acknowledgment page. And that's what you want. You want to aim for 60 and you want to try to do three query letters a day while you're revising. So by the time your manuscript is ready, you can send all those query letters out at once.
Viewer question: Do you mean send out 60 query letters at one time?
Caroline: Yeah, I do actually. Because what happens with agents is when you send out a single query letter, they can take anywhere from six weeks to three months to six months to answer. So if you're querying one agent at a time, it could take you years. If you query 60 different agents all at once, you're compressing the time it's going to take to get back to them.
Gina: I think you can divide it up into three lists of 20 if you wanted. You can have your A list and your B list and your C list. The reality is, if they're not looking, you'll get a response pretty quickly. “Thank you so much for submitting. We're not taking new people on. We wish you best of luck, right, boom.:
You don't want to be spending two weeks in between the process, then researching because it can feel discouraging doing research after those initial rejections. So it's great to have that list ready and then have your A and your B list. And if you're so lucky and you get it on the first one, you can write everybody back and say, "Hey, I got an agent. Don't bother sending those few ones out."
Martin: The other advantage of sending queries in waves is if you're not fully sure whether the query is right — if maybe you've got your comps wrong or have a poor hook. You could potentially burn through your 60 most favored agents.
Be part of the community
Gina: If you're someone who hates social media, you're going to have a terrible time on it. It's going to be a waste of your time. But you could be doing something else.
Ask yourself: what can you do that you a) love to do, and b) will help further your engagement with this community that you want to be a part of?
Lots of writers are not on social media, but they can be good literary citizens. They can go to people's launches — especially now that we're doing so many of them on Zoom, they're easy to attend. Or get the word out of other books that they like. There is a way to still engage that feels that it's genuine to who you are.
What do you want in an agent?
Caroline: It's always important to google an agent and find their website. This will help you find somewhere where they're talking. After all, you want to know if the agent's personality fits with yours.
Do you want an agent who's just a shark who's going to sell your book or do you want an agent who's going to edit, do they have a film group, is that important to you?
Also, do you recognize their clients?
Gina: Some agents are really hands-on, some are really editorial. Some are not, some are just transactional and they just take your book out and it's about selling it. So it's really important to know what kind of agent you personally need. Some people don't feel like they need a lot of editorial work. Some people like myself, I love to have an agent who I can talk to all that stuff about. That's important to me. So I want someone who is able to do that kind of work, whether they need to or not, because I like to have those discussions.
What do agents do for you?
Caroline: The first thing is agents schmooze. They have all the contacts. Your agent might be best friends with your dream editor at any given publisher. They can just pick up the phone and say, "Hey, you know what, I know you love books about cows. And I have a great book here about growing up on a farm."
Agents get you better deals. If you've ever seen a book contract, they're impossible to understand. I've published 12 books. I still do not understand my contract, but I trust my agent to understand. And there's always cross-outs and additions of who gets what rights. You need an agent to stand up for you.
How you get an agent
Gina: Here’s the ideal situation: you send out your first 20 query letters (following the submission guidelines on their websites). Your dream agent writes you back and says, "I love these first 10 pages, send the whole manuscript." And then you guys hit it off. It's great.
They become your agent. They will probably do a revision on your manuscript. They'll maybe do one, they'll maybe do two. Some are more hands-on than others. There's not really an agent anymore who's going to take you through the whole thing like an editor would. "Let's work on this. Let's find out what the story is." It doesn’t happen anymore.
So you’ll work on the manuscript together for maybe six months but probably closer to a year. Everything I find in publishing is longer than you think it's going to be — you're not their only client.
You’ll revise, then wait three months to get your notes, then you do another pass. When it's finally ready, ready to go, they'll take it out to publishers.
My experience has been that there'll be a list that you come up with together. And yes, your agent knows everybody and you don't. So I could only say things like, "I love these books. I think that was a really great editor based on these books that I like. I think that's a really great publishing house based on those books that I liked." And then my agent would go like, “Oh yeah, I know that editor.”
They’ll put together a list of about 20 people and go through it with you to find out if you have any problems with any of them. And for me, the answer is no, I loved the people that my agent presented.
And then the full manuscript gets sent out. The hope is that you hear back in about two weeks:
“I'm enjoying it.”
“I need more time.”
“It's not for me.”
“I love it.”
“Are you talking to other people?”
That kind of thing.
And hopefully, you get an offer — or you get more than one offer. If that happens, you'll have the opportunity to then talk to the different editors who were interested and see if you connect with them on Zoom or a phone call. I always do phone calls because I'm too distracted, staring at other people's places like, "Oh, that's nice." So I just want to do a phone call.
And I ask them:
- What did you like about the book?
- What would you change?
- Where do you see it sitting on the shelf?
- What other authors do you think are comparable?
If somebody says something totally off the wall, “you've written a romance,” and they're mentioning thrillers the entire call, you're like, "Oh, okay. That doesn't seem like a good fit to me." Or if they're like, "It's great, but it just needs to be more tragic. We have more tragedy in every chapter." And you're like, "Oh, it's actually a comedy." Then you can see whether or not it's a good fit.
You can have a conversation afterward with your agent and you'll decide who is the best person for this book. Not just who you like the best, who's the best person for this book, and ideally, who's the best person at the best publishing house that you can see yourself building a career at?
Then you accept it and the deal-making and negotiating starts happening with your agent doing that for you. And at that point for my experience, it's just been to say, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
How can you find out what an agent has worked on?
Caroline: We mentioned Publishers Marketplace. It's an online service that you can join and type in an agent — then it'll show you the deal that was done with which editor at which publishing house.
And that's really helpful. Because you'll see, "Oh, it's this person at Random House. Oh, okay. That's great." Then you search that editor and you see who else they've done. "Oh my gosh, they've done all my favorite books this year," or, "Wow, they're fantastic in literary fiction." And so then you start to get a sense of what their tastes are. And that can be helpful too.
Caroline: Publicity's a really tricky one. I hired a publicist for my first book. It was a really small press, and they were really honest. Like, "We can do this, this, and this." And I was like, "Okay, that's all they can do." There's a couple of people that were running that press. And I knew that I had to have a wider reach. So I hired a publicist and she was terrific. And I was able to work with her as I mentioned, and also with the publishing house. And we did all those things. I had really actually really nice stationery printed up off of Etsy. I made up a cute logo. I did the name of the book. I said when it was coming out.
Gina: And then I hand wrote cards to all these bookstores. I think there were like 100 bookstores in the States. And then I wrote to like 100 bookstores in Canada. And to authors that I admired, I wrote to them and I sent these out everywhere just telling them about the book, that it was coming. Could I send them a copy or could my people send them a copy?
If they couldn't afford to send them a copy, did it myself. I walked around to bookstores and I gave people copies and then they would read it. And it worked. I had somebody who read my book and who loved it and then contacted me and said, "Hey, do you want to do an event?" That was my first event. And it was at a bookstore in Michigan called Literati, which is a lovely bookstore.
And I drove to Michigan with my sister and I did an event there, but then I could write to other bookstores and say, "Hey, I just did this event with Literati." And feel very important about myself. And then people like, "Oh, well, that's great. You want to do an event here?"
And now on Zoom, you can get together three debut authors, four or five debut authors, and you can do a whole night about what it's like to be a debut author. So I think there's a lot that can be done on your own.
Caroline: It's also important to say, you really need to be part of the writers' community. There are places online. Binders full of writers is a great resource. You can google different ones because you need to know other writers. They will help you. All writers try to help each other. And if they don't, well, there's a special circle on hell for them.
Respond to writers even if you go on Twitter and just to tweet to a writer you admire and say, "I loved your book. Thank you for writing it." They'll remember that.
Caroline See, who was a great, great writer and a great book critic told me that I should write a lovely letter to a writer every month. Not asking for anything, but just telling them how much I love their book. That's how you build a writer's community. That's part of it and that's important.
Dress your manuscript for success
Caroline: I just wanted to mention that it's really important that your manuscript be dressed for success. I've gotten a lot of manuscripts from people where they use colored fonts. Don't do that, or they use fancy fonts. Don't do that either. It'll irritate the agents. No pictures. No pictures, unless it's a picture book or you need photographs. That goes in a separate file.
Keep the same readable font. Times New Roman is good. Garamond is okay. Nothing fancy. Double-space your manuscript. The page number on the upper right-hand corner. The left-hand corner should be your name/the name of your novel. Margins, decent margin, inch and a half on the left, an inch on the right. Appearances count.
Martin: And would you believe it? We've got an article for that as well at Reedsy. In that guide, you can even download a template that you can use to format your manuscript.
Should I personalize my query letters?
Gina: Absolutely. There's a real form to query letters. I don't know, Caroline, do you want to speak to that quickly? Because I know you've got it down pat, but you really do want to personalize your query letters to each agent.
Caroline: Yeah. You want your query letter to pop with personality. What I always do is you direct it to a single person in the literary agent. You have to know something about them because you don't want your query to sound like you're sending the same one to 8,000 agents. So a good first paragraph will be something like:
Dear Ellen Levine,
I recently read an interview with you in Poets & Writers. And I loved when you said that writers are like pasta [or whatever she said].
Or you can say:
Dear Ellen Levine,
I recently read this book and I just loved it. I didn't want it to end. So I looked at the acknowledgment pages and I saw that you were acknowledged. Because I love this book so much with this in mind, I'm hoping that you will take a chance on me, a debut author.
So you've already schmoozed the agent, made them know that you like them, you want them.
The second paragraph is a very brief tease about your book.
The third paragraph is the “about me”. This isn't just, "Oh, I'm Caroline Leavitt. I've written 12 novels and two are New York Times Bestseller." Those are the facts. You want to add things like... say if you've written a book about horses, you would say:
I learned to ride a horse when I was two, and I own three horses and they live in my backyard in New York City.
You want interesting stuff that people are going to want to listen to. They don't care that much about what you did as much as they care about what you can talk about. And the last paragraph is simply I followed directions. Every agent is different. This is where you're going to say, as indicated, I'm sending you the first chapter, or as indicated, I'll send you the whole manuscript, or as indicated, I'm sending nothing but the query letter. But you want to try to get your personality in there.
Can I self-publish a book first and then send queries to agents?
Caroline: You can but they may not pay attention unless you have a million say reviews on Amazon. I know Lisa Genova who wrote Still Alice, which became a very famous movie. She had to self-publish that book because she couldn't get a publisher, couldn't get an agent. It had something like 2,000 reviews on Amazon and they came to her. You can, but it's much better to try to get an agent first before you self-publish I believe.
Gina: Yeah, I think so too. I think you can always do it. I know of an author who did it. And the same thing, her book was hugely successful. People really liked it. And so she had another one and she's like, "I don't want to do it myself again." I think it's okay, but you got to be prepared for ... It's just more pushback. But it can be done.
Do agents keep track of queries they've rejected? Should I re-query them?
Caroline: No, do not re-query them. You will get like three different kinds of responses from agents. The first will sound like a formal letter, which will say, "Didn't connect," or, "this is a tough market." That means they probably didn't read it. So just move on to the next, do not re-query.
If you get a response to your query that says, "I really wanted to love this more, but what stopped me was your ending. I wanted this to happen in the end and so I have to regretfully decline." That is where you can email that agent and say, "I thought about what you said. If I rewrite my ending, would you be willing to take another look at it?" Then they will, but don't re-query. Just email them back.
Should I query with my real name?
Gina: Yeah, I would use your real name. The nice thing is let's say they pick you and then for whatever reason you think, I want to use a different name. They'll ask you, "Now that you're publishing this, what are you going to still use this name, or is there another name you want to use?"
But they want to look you up and see who you are and what you've done. Maybe you've written some great articles or maybe you've hiked a mountain that nobody else hiked or something. And are you a real person?
These questions were asked by viewers during the course of the live presentation
How much should an agent charge you?
Caroline: If an agent charges you, run. Run, run, run. They make their money on commission.
Should you ask for a smaller advance?
Full question: If you find yourself offered a large advance in lucky days but with one of the big publishing houses, is it worth negotiating a lower advance so you could earn out quicker, and will your agent like that?
Caroline: No, don't do that, Beverley. Whatever money they offer you, take. The only time you want to renegotiate if it's not enough. Sometimes publishers will write things into your contract, “we're giving you this amount of money, but if you make the New York Times Bestseller list, we'll give you an extra $10,000." You also have the opportunity to get more money if it goes to audiobook. Foreign sales could also result in more money. But don't negotiate a lower advance.
Gina: I know one person that did, but it's very rare. And they did it to get something else out of the contract. So they wanted world rights and they said, "Well, I don't want to give you world rights. I want to give you North American rights — how about you give me a little less?" Because they knew that if their agent sold world rights, that that would work towards their advance.
I'm with Caroline, though. I would just take the money that you're offered and say thank you. There are some publishers, small presses who might offer $5,000 or $1,500 or $500. I know a lot of people who had their debuts were really happy to get $20,000 or $25,000. It's hard. It's hard to get the big bucks, but it can happen.
I've written hundreds of query letters and I haven't gotten an agent.
Gina: No, I understand that feeling. I wrote so many query letters to get my first stage. And I think I wrote 60 or 65. And it took a year, which is, it's a lifetime. But, I has so much shame. I thought really I was the only one. And the nice thing is, is as you get to know other people in the industries, you realize that that story is all too common.
Someone's like, "Oh yeah, I didn't find an agent for my first book or my second book. It was my fourth book that got it." Those things aren't uncommon. I was like, "Oh, it took me seven years to get published." And I heard the people say, "Oh, that's great. It took me 10," or, "it took me 12." It just takes a long time. And you just can't give up. If it really matters, just keep on it.
Do you need a finished manuscript before you query an agent?
Caroline: Yes, if you are a debut writer. Yes. You do.
Gina: I have heard of people who have been caught off guard by this. I know of a writer who sent a query letter out with three-quarters of the manuscript finished thinking it would take three more months. Someone wrote back right away and said, "It sounds amazing. Send me the whole thing." At that point, you don't want to have to say, "Give me three months."
It worked out for that person, which is great, but it doesn't always. So I say, definitely wait until your manuscript's finished.
Should you copyright your manuscript so no one (agents or editors) steals your idea?
Caroline: No, that happens in the movies and the film industry. That's where you do want to register your script and your idea, but publishing is still very much a gentleman's (and gentlewoman's and gentleperson's) business. Plus you have a record of your manuscript on your computer, which is probably dated.
I don't know any time where that has happened. A few times that it has happened. Usually happens after a book is published and all of a sudden there's a real brouhaha where somebody plagiarised from somebody else's already published book — and that's a really bad thing. And then the person who did it never gets a book deal again. So you don't have to worry.
How do you query nonfiction?
Caroline: I'm not the best person to talk about proposals for nonfiction. All I know about them is that you need elements like marketing plan, who's your audience, what books are comparable to yours and why, why is your book different or better? I'm sure Reedsy must have something about non-fiction books and how to market them.
Martin: We do indeed!
Do you need a book proposal for a memoir?
Caroline: Memoirs, you do not need a proposal for as far as I know, because memoirs operate the same way that novels do. They have the same structural components, where you want to be invested and on and on. You want to query the whole memoir.
Is there interest in novellas these days?
Caroline: I don't know.
Gina: We're going to find out. I've got a friend who's got a fantastic novella out there that's being read right now by agents. And so I'm really hoping so. I think there's more interest than there was before. So, I think that's, or at least it's come around again because their response has been that people said, "Yes, send it to me." And really great people. So that tells me that they wouldn't ask for something to spend their time reading if they didn't think that they could publish it.
So let's hope so. The books have gotten a bit shorter. So, anything's possible.
Do you work with an editor before contacting an agent?
Do debut novels get on the bestseller list?
Gina: Yes. There's always a lot of excitement for first novels because people like discovering new things. It was the same thing when I was an actor, somebody wanted to be the first agent to find you, the first director to use you. There's a lot of promise and potential there, right, so that's actually a great place to be. And that was something I never knew as a debut author.
Should an author focus on contacting agents in the same region or country as them?
Caroline: Not necessarily. It doesn't matter. Sometimes it's a plus if you're from a different country because that makes for a good media hit, how interesting it is in America where publishing the debut with an author from Europe or wherever.
Gina: It's all global now. I don't think it matters.
I'm a 65-year-old first-time author. Do I have a chance in hell?
Caroline: Absolutely. They don't care about your age.
Gina: Yes. Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing [by 69-year-old debut novelist Delia Owens]?
Caroline: Gail Godwin is really famous in America. She's 80-something years old. Agents do not ask how old are you before they take you on, neither do publishers. They're looking for a good story.