Agency Lessons: Not a good fit

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Today, I'm reaching into the mail bag to answer a reader question about querying. Here's the question:
What does it mean when an agent says "it's not a good fit for me" when it was exactly what they were requesting?
This is a great question. As agents we tell you to pay close attention to our submission guidelines and what we are looking for. Many of us tweet special requests and there's an entire website dedicated to finding out exactly what agents are looking for. But, it's not uncommon to narrow in on an agent who has requested the very special blend of genre/character/voice that you have and still come away without a request. 

The reasons for this pass fall into two main categories: Missing the mark and Missing the goods

Missing the Mark
So an agent asks for a historical romance sent in Spain and you are pumped because you have just the Spanish Regency that is going to wow her. Turns out your Spanish Regency involves the aristocracy and what she was really looking for was something focused on the commoners.

It's easy to say, then why didn't she just say she wanted a Spanish historical that focuses on the commoners. But that's dangerous territory for an agent, the more limitations we place on our submissions list, the more authors who think we won't be the right match and pass us over. Or maybe we that agent was okay with the aristocracy, but recently took on a Russian historical that focuses on the royal family and just needs something different.

As agents we'll never be able to pinpoint the exact manuscript we're looking for, because we haven't read it yet. Does that make your job harder? Yes. It also makes our harder, too. It'd be lovely if I could give a check list of exactly what I want in a manuscript, but I don't know what those items are yet anymore than a reader knows exactly what they want out of a book.

So there's really no such thing as "exactly" what we're looking for.

Missing the Goods
Please don't throw tomatoes at me when I tell you that there are some phrases agents use to very politely say "this book just isn't good enough". No one likes to be told their book isn't up to par and it isn't any fun as an agent telling people they are not good writers. And yet, it happens. We get queries for projects that are just not even close to being publishable work. Not that the author in question can't be a fantastic writer, but the project is not ready.

"Not a good fit for me", "not right for my list", "not something I can sell", etc. These are all phrases that can mean, this isn't good enough. Now, I say can mean. Because they can also mean that a book just isn't the right fit. I come across projects all the time that are perfectly good stories, it just isn't something I feel strongly enough about to represent. So it's not right for my list. But sometimes, I say this because it's nicer and softer than saying "this is not even close to being publishable in it's current form".

Which is it?
When it's your query on the line, how do you know which of the categories you fall into? For sure, you really can't know. Yeah, sorry. But the best way to find out is to surround yourself with some honest critique partners who are willing to give it to you straight. You won't be doing yourself any favors if everyone only tells you how great your story is. Find other writers who know what makes a good story and then get their honest feedback.

This can be painful, but it will hurt a lot less than hundreds of form rejection letters.

The infinite cycle of goal setting

So last week something awesome happened. I accomplished all my pre-publication goals way ahead of schedule.

While that's great news, it also means that I don't have any goals on my list for this book. And that's not a good thing.

When it comes to achieving our goals we need to take a minute to celebrate. I have a gift card to a restaurant that my husband and I received at Christmas that is sitting unused on top of my microwave. As soon as we are both in the same room, I'm planning to go out and enjoy a dinner I don't have to cook or clean up. Meeting our goals is a big deal and it's important that we reward ourselves for a job well done.

But then, it's time to get back to work. And that means new goals. Yep, goals are something a writer should never be without.

Because if we don't have goals, how will we know which tasks will get us where we want to go? Goals help provide us with direction and help clear the path when we aren't sure what we should be doing. There are so many busy action items that I could be doing. Should I hunt down guest post opportunities, run a promotion, write some press releases, target book stores? All of those are good ideas, but they won't all get you the same results. Setting a goal will help me focus on the activities that will push me toward my goal.

Honestly, I'm not 100% sure what my next goals for Rite of Rejection should be. I still have my big goals that are bigger picture career goals versus the three big book goals I set before release day. So, for me the next step is evaluating those goals and deciding how I want this book to fit into them.

Once I understand how Rite of Rejection, and my next projects, can help me achieve those goals, I'll be able to set realistic goals to do that. I've been so focused on hitting these publication goals, I've taken my eye off my other goals. Now that I have more breathing room room it's time to refocus and develop a game plan.

I get that all of this might sound like I'm strategizing a war in my living room. And in some ways I am a bit like a battle field general, directing all the moving pieces. The cavalry may not know why it's moving south when the enemy is to the west, but I can see that they need to reinforce the infantry.  The point being, we need to take a 3,000 foot view of our goals and make sure that are various efforts are working together instead of against each other.

So how are your goals for 2015 going so far? With the first quarter of the year almost over (great googly moogly, where did the time go), now is the perfect time to re-evaluate and refocus so we are putting our efforts toward the actions that get us where we want to go.

Talk to me about your goals? Did you have a special way to evaluate your progress? Are you changing or adding to your goals so far? How do you refocus when you fall short on a goal?

Dear Author: connecting with your readers

Color me more than a little surprised.

I am constantly told how hard it is to connect with your readers and how so many authors wish there was a way to really get to know who their fans are. This sounds legit. After all, I don't get an email from Amazon each month with the names and email of the people who bought my book. For the most part, I have no idea who my readers are.

But I do know a few. For example, I mentioned that when I got my Netgalley feedback there was a selection that readers could check if they were interested in connecting with the author. So, I finally got my act together and sent emails out to the lovely readers who were interested in chatting.
Imagine my shock when the first two people emailed back saying how happy they were that I contacted them, because NO ONE EVER DOES. One reader said she's been a member of Netgalley for years and has always checked the contact box. I was only the second author ever to reach out to her.

I realize that many of that feedback comments never make it to the author and the publicist is the one who sees it (this is me throwing shade at you, publicists who don't pass this on). But there are plenty of indie authors on Netgalley. And that means there are tons of authors pretty much ignoring an opportunity to connect.

Which got me thinking of other easy opportunities that authors could be flubbing. Check this list to see if you are committing any of these sins.

1. Solicited contact
This can be through a service like Netgalley, a contact form response, or a formal request through your agent or publicist. Whatever the circumstances are, if a reader says "hey, I'd love to get in contact with you", you do it. I just cannot fathom any good reason for not doing this. Seriously, just do it.

2. Fan (e)mail
Most of us don't make our addresses public for good reason, but I hand out my email address with no issue. And, as expected, I get emails from readers. Most of them are just really nice notes thanking me for the book. Others want to know about certain aspects of the book and some want to know about the next book. Regardless of the nature, I respond to every email I get. Now, I'm not Veronica Roth who probably receives hundreds of emails a day, so the influx is super manageable. I'm guessing Veronica Roth isn't reading this, so for the rest of us. Respond to your fan mail.

3. Book info
Speaking of email, are you making yourself easy to find? Your email address should be in your back matter. I know some folks get squeamish about making their email so public. I don't personally get this, but I don't want to judge. If that makes you uncomfortable, then create a new email address to use for your books, website, etc. Just make sure you check it regularly.

4. Blog comments
I admit to falling down on the job with this one, but it's important and I want to do better. I'm talking about responding to blog comments. When someone leaves an insightful comment or a question, we really need to take a minute and respond. Not only is it polite, but it's a very public way to show your approachability.

5. Social media shout outs
You don't need to send a thank you to everyone who favorites the picture of your morning coffee. But you should respond when someone sends you a direct message. And if you get a lovely shout out online, a lovely "Hey, thanks! You rock, too!" is quite...lovely.

While we'll never know exactly who is reading our work, we have plenty of chances to connect with our readers. What are the ways you stay connected with fans of your work?

Agency Lessons: Crafting the perfect first page

 Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

We (writers, agents, readers, book people, etc.) make no efforts to hide the importance of the first few pages of a novel. It's one of those topics that is discussed constantly. What's the best way to start the story? Where do I start the story? Is this dream sequence a bad idea?

And yet, when asked, what makes a good first page, most of us stumble around a bit in the answer. Because how could we possibly tell you how to write a great first page.

But one of the advantages of reading so many first pages from my query box is that I have a pretty good idea of what should and should not be in those opening pages. So here's a look at what I think about when I scroll down past the query and jump into the story.

Issues you want to avoid:
  • Excessive Typos: We can all overlook the missed comma and rogue typo. But if I count multiple errors in those first pages, I'm going to assume the other pages are just as bad. And no matter how good the book is, I don't have the time or skill set to be a proofreader.
  • Passive Voice: Not sure what that is? Here's an awful example. She had wanted to tell him, but hadn't managed to find the right time. Passive phrases use ten words when three would do and tend to dance around the action. No dancing.
  • Distancing phrases: He heard the sound of a gun shot. She smelled the rich, savory duck from the main hall. He thought about going, but changed his mind. She wished there was something more to be done. Bad, all bad. Don't tell us he heard the gun shot. Tell us a gun shot rang out in the dark alley.
  • Excess: This can include description, dialogue tags, character movement, back story, etc. All this excess leads to a wordy manuscript. If your ms has a high word count, excess suggests that you need more editing. In a low word count ms, excess is a sign of a weak plot.
  • Cliches: There are some opening situations that will almost guarantee and immediate rejection. Waking up, looking in the mirror to give a character description, first day of school, work, etc. Driving in the car. Arriving at a new home. Describing the weather. Yes, there are some novels who use these that do really well (I'm looking at you, Hunger Games). You are not Suzanne Collins (unless you are, and then, HI!), so find another way to start your novel.
Ways to make those pages shine:
  • Good world building: Build the world without showing the instruction manual. Let the reader live there with your character and use context clues to improve understanding.
  • Situational twist: Open with your character doing something that is outside the norm for most readers. Milking a cow, rebuilding a car engine, competing in a yodeling contest. You get the idea. And if you must start with something expected, make it different. Breakfast with your character...and their twelve siblings. 
  • Goal!: Give your character a micro goal for the opening scene. I'm not talking a save the world, objective of the novel goal. Just something to keep us wondering. The goal gives us a reason to turn the page and helps us connect with your reader.
  • A hint of normal: Too many authors try to throw us into the conflict right from the start. The problem with this is that I don't care if your MC gets eaten by a bear yet, because I don't know him and don't have an emotional attachment. Let us see a hint of your characters normal world before you turn it everything on its head.
  • Nail the voice. This is so crucial in YA and MG, but is important for every book. Your character needs to sound appropriate for their age and the age of your reader. The best ways to learn this are to read a lot in the appropriate age group and spend time listening to your target audience.
This list is far from comprehensive, but hopefully it gives you a good idea of how to craft your next opening page.

So what about you? What drives you crazy in an opening page and what makes you want to clear your schedule for the next six hours?

Lessons learned from unplugging

You may have noticed that the blog was pretty empty this week. That's because on Sunday my family took off for the woods on a much needed mini vacation. I only told the folks who really needed to know where I was. I didn't pre-schedule any posts and turned the wifi off on my phone so I couldn't accidentally pick up a signal and jump online.

Here's what I learned from four days of unplugging.

1. The world does go on. Despite being completely out of contact, nothing broke, caught on fire or self-destructed. In fact, quite the opposite. Everything continued to run as expected. Clients turned in projects which were patiently waiting for me on my return. Emails were sent and everyone understood from my away message that I would respond when I got back. We may feel like we are the only ones holding life as we know it together, but we aren't. The world will survive if you take a break.

2. Marketing is not a 24/7 job. Admittedly, I've done less marketing recently than a few months ago, but I've still be posting here on the blog, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and trying to do some promotion. But with no internet, I was completely cut off from all those tasks I thought were so important. And you know what. Sales didn't tank. In fact, in the midst of my tree-filled hiatus I had one of my best sales days ever. Now that doesn't mean you should stop marketing to have better sales. But it does mean that I can take a break if I've put the right foundation in place. My marketing machine is running on its own with minor tweaks from me now and then, and that's how it should be.

3. Stepping away from your work can make it seem less daunting. I have several tasks that have been sitting on my to-do list for a while now. Nothing pressing, just things I need to get done. But I haven't done them, because I just didn't want to. Several days away from the grind of tasks that I have to do gave me the break I needed to get back in action and tackle those delayed items.

4. Writing is not work. I obviously didn't have my computer with me, but I did take a notebook and a pen. On our second day, I took my notebook down to the lake to do some writing while my girls got some quality time fishing with their dad. My husband made a comment about not being able to stop working. This struck me as odd, because I don't think of writing as work. It's a joy. Sure, it's hard, but it's also fun or I wouldn't do it. In between hiking, fishing, playing Uno and making s'mores, I managed to squeeze in about 2000 words. I was able to forget about everything else for a while and just enjoy the magic of filling pages with words. I know that if that ever loses its magic, it'll be time to hang up my pen.

My hiatus from the real world was short and sweet. I got right back to work on Thursday (er...Wednesday night) answering emails and planning my take over of the known universe. And all those to-do items were still waiting for me, just where I left them. It's not always practical or possible to step away, but we all need to find ways to unplug and recharge.

So how do you refill your cup and re-energize?

Waiting for Perfection

As writers (and really anyone who creates) we want our work to be perfect. How many times have you thought I'll send this out...I just want to read through it one more time. And as agents, we tell people all the time not to rush to publication. Take your time and send out your best work.

Well that can be good advice during the creation process, but it can be crippling when it comes to marketing.

* We wait until we can afford a fancy website before we create one
* We wait until we have an enticing bonus gift before we open a mailing list
* We wait until our blog template is perfect before we really promote it

I'm raising my hand here as guilty. I should have created a mailing list ages ago, but I just started mine in August. I knew I needed one and the sooner the better. But I felt like a hack if I didn't have a prime bonus to offer people signing up. So I waited. I have a decent list, but I can't imagine how much better it would be if I hadn't waited for perfection before opening it up.

There's a lot of pressure on authors these days to do it all right. You've got to look professional, while being accessible and in the midst of it all, staying true to who we are as people. And with all those requirements on everything we touch, it's not surprising that we let opportunities go when we don't feel the stars have aligned perfectly.

I'm trying to remind myself that there is a big thick line between productive and perfect. I can have a website that isn't perfect that still gives reader what they want. I can order business cards that don't look amazing, but still give people the information they need to get in touch with me. I can launch a mailing list, even if the offer isn't knock-your-socks-off stupendous.

It's hard, but at the end of the day, some efforts, even mediocre ones are better than zero executed perfect efforts. So cut yourself some slack, don't compare where you are with someone else, and just do the best you can. No, it's probably not perfect, but honestly, what is?

Maximizing your Amazon Keywords

There are approximately 1.2 billion* blog posts available at this exact moment about how to use Amazon keywords. They are all full of helpful information that can be a great starting place for your keywords.

Unfortunately, I think they focus on the wrong area and don't serve authors as well as we hope.

The goal for most keyword selection is to get on the various best sellers list. Like these:

And these lists are great. They make us feel good as authors, give us goals to shoot for and make it feel like our books count. But when it comes to marketing, they don't count for much. I'll give you the fact that it looks impressive to a reader if you are checking out a book and see that it's hit lots of lists. It gives your book more social proof that it is worth reading. But that only helps once a reader has found your book. For discovery, these lists are not helping you.

Here's why. When was the last time you searched one of these lists when looking for a new book? And if you have searched these lists, how many pages are you scanning? I don't know any readers who are going searching on a very drilled down list and then flipping to page five to find their next book to read.

That doesn't mean keywords are useless. It just means we need to stop focusing on these lists. Instead, we need to use keywords the way readers use them. Amazon is a huge search engine that rivals Google. Readers type in what they are looking for in the search box and you want your book to be among the top results.

So instead of focusing on the words and phrases that will get you on a list, use the terms that readers are using to search for books. How do you know which phrases those are? Use the Amazon search bar.

I literally sat down one day and started typing in words. I started with YA and looked to see what other words are commonly searched for with YA. Same thing with Teen and Dystopian, since those are my big categories. After that, I simply matched up the phrases that were most searched for with the ones that best matched my book. It's really that easy.**

And it works. After making this simple change to my keywords, I watched my daily sales slowly double and then triple. Wow, that sounds like a late night infomercial, except this doesn't come with a bonus set of kitchen knives.

The best part of this technique is that it isn't about gaming the system or tricking readers into buying something they don't want. It's all about helping readers find the books they already know they want to read. And that's really the essence of marketing.

Keep in mind this isn't a magic wand for book sales. Before you implement these changes make sure your book looks great for when readers do find you. That means an eye-catching cover, a compelling description, meaningful editorial reviews and a professional bio. If you want readers to take your book seriously, you have to take it seriously as well.

So go ahead, experiment and see what happens. If it doesn't work for you, you can always change it back. But if it does work, you'll find yourself with a lot more happy readers.

*I absolutely made this number up, but you get the idea

**A note on traditionally published authors. You probably don't have access to your back end SEO, but that doesn't mean you can't put this in place. It never hurts to ask your publisher/editor what keywords they are using. They've probably already got the best phrases in place (they are professionals), but it doesn't hurt to check. You both have the same goal of getting your book in the hands of more readers so it's a win-win for everyone.

Agency Lessons: The death and rebirth of the novella

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

If you take a gander over at my submission guidelines, you'll see that I don't accept novellas for representation. I don't keep up on what other agents accept, but I'd be willing to go out on a limb and say that the majority of agents are with me in this exclusion.

And yet, if you hop over to Amazon, you'll see that there are plenty of novellas out there in the marketplace and many of them are doing really well.

So.... on the surface, it looks like I and my fellow agents have our heads stuck in the sand.

But allow me to lay out the reasons for all this apparent tom foolery.

First, let's talk about the novellas that are doing well. They generally fall into one of two categories. The first are those put out in very niche genres and usually are priced low ($.99). The second group are those that are tie-in novellas for series. These have been especially popular lately in the YA market as little tastes to keep readers sated until the next book comes out. Those are great, but they are sold as stand-alones and are generally added in after the fact.

So group two isn't something you query, because it's more of a marketing tactic than a main project. Not to say that they aren't written well, they're just generally sold as a way to increase awareness for a series or promote an upcoming release. If you have a series out, this can be great, but it's not a query project.

And publishers aren't interested in that first group for good reason. They aren't going to make money within the traditional model. By themselves, novellas really aren't long enough to invest the money in a print run, so eBook is the only real option there. And while you can price them higher, right now the market isn't going to sustain anything much over $1.99 for a novella. That's just not enough to spread out among all the players in the traditional world. Honestly, without serious sales, I doubt it's enough to make much of a splash for an indie author either. It's hard to break even when you only earn $.33 to $.66 per book.

So what do you do with your novella?

You actually have several options. You can self-publish them individually. Package several together and publish them. Submit them to niche publishers or magazines. You can also post them for free on your website or an external site such as Wattpad to begin growing your reader audience.

Novella's may have experienced a death in traditional publishing, but they can have a rebirth. Just not in my query box. :)

Publication goals...and why mine don't matter

So...Rite of Rejection has officially been out in the world for three months, and because I'm a chronic over-sharer let's talk about where things sit with my goals.

Here's a refresher of the goals I set for myself pre-publication

1. Hit 50 Amazon reviews in first month (Goal achieved, woohoo!)
2. Make back my investment in three months
3. Sell 1,000 books in six month

First, I never really talked about goal #1 other than the fact that I hit it. As of writing this, I have 61 reviews. Other than being awesome, this tells me that there is no way I would have hit 50 reviews if I hadn't made it such a focus of my first month. Reviews don't just show up, at least not in large numbers when you're a new author.

So, this month is the check in for #2, probably the one most people are interested in. Yeah, sure we want to write because we love it and want people to read our work, but we also have needs. Like food, shelter, chocolate and coffee. We hear stories of people that hit it big and then the stories of folks that after years haven't made enough for a happy meal. So, you know, there's a lot of grey.

Before we can discus if I hit the goal. You need to know how much I spent. Here's the breakdown again. You'll notice there are a few more expenses than last time.

Content Editing     $383
Cover Design        $225
Proofreading         $187
Domain Name      $42
Proof Copy           $9
Netgalley              $80
Giveaway             $39
Review Copies     $242
Postage                $53.50
Total                    $1261

The good news is even with these added expenses I earned back my investment with several weeks to spare. And thanks to a really good February, I'm on my way to having my expenses for book two saved up before I have to start shelling out the cash again. Woohoo!

For goal #3, I've still got three months left so this one is a bit off my radar. That said, last month I was feeling a little nervous about this goal. Book sales were steady, but slow so you get the idea. But then February was randomly a really good month for me. And (this is key) I have no idea why. I'd like to think that all the heavy lifting I did in the beginning of the release kicked in, but who knows. So thanks to a stellar month I am pretty close to my six month goal now. Still, no one ever knows what's going to happen, so counting hatched chickens and all. You get it.

Now that you've got a little update, I want to talk a bit about why you should totally ignore all of this. Seriously, one of the great things about the indie community is that so many authors are willing to share their information and push back the curtain on topics that were previously not discussed openly among authors. It's also one of the worst parts, because it leads to comparison. Authors who look at someone else's numbers and don't understand why they aren't doing as well.

Keep in mind that authors who are just barely breaking even (or are running in the red) are unlikely to write a blog post about it. Well, I would have, but I think we can all agree I'm an odd duck. That means that you are seeing a skewed picture of publishing. So take my journey for what it is: one singular example of what indie publishing looks like. Try not to focus on how you compare. Instead try and learn from where I've had success and where I dropped the ball to improve your own process.

So that's it on goal updates. I won't have another one until we hit the six month mark since that's my next milestone goal. Until then, please don't hesitate to ask me questions. You can do that here in the comments, email me, hit me up on social media. Whatever works for you. I share all of this because I want to help other authors on their own journey. Because in the end, no matter what we write or how we publish, we're all in this big publishing family together.

Agency Lessons: A teen character does not a YA novel make

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Who loves YA novels. Oh, it's me. I do. And now that they are popular again tons of writers are coming out of the wood work to write more YA novels. To this I say, Woohoo! More YA books for me to read.

However (you knew that was coming), there seems to be some confusion on what exactly a YA novel is. I'm seeing this a lot in my query box. Some authors seem to think that if their book has a teen character, their book is automatically YA. Game of Thrones has children in it, but I wouldn't hand it to my 6-yr-old. Context is everything folks.

You've got to think about the larger arc of the story and who is driving the plot. And yes, is this story line targeted to teens? There's a big difference between appropriate audience and target audience. I'm sure there are plenty of teens who have read the Game of Thrones series and were able to handle the difficult scenes and adult themes. But I'm guessing if we ask George R. R., he'd tell us that his book was targeted to adults. Just a guess.

And then there is the idea that you can take an adult situation and substitute a teen in for what would normally be an adult. Like, hey look, teen assassins, teen secret service, teen doctors. I love several projects that have teens acting in adult roles (I love you Doogie Howser, MD), but these work for two very simple reasons. They have a clear explanation for why the teen is in this adult situation AND they don't ask teens to be adults.

So let's use Doogie Howser because I love him and apparently feel the need to show just how old I am. The child doc with perfect hair was a prodigy and went to med school when he wasn't even old enough to shave. Slightly impractical, but we accept it (and there are real world examples that are similar). And once he was a doctor, young Doogie still found himself in loads of typical teen hi-jinx and struggled with the ladies. Because that's what was appropriate for his age. Another great example of this is the Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter. Teen girls in a school for spies who use their skills to stalk their crushes. Yes please.

All of this to say than when an agent (raising my hand) asks for a YA National Treasure, I'm not asking for you to substitute in a teen for an adult character and let 'em ride. I want a book with similar action, themes and goals that is appropriate for a teen character. That means they need to struggle with finding themselves and where they fit in the big world they live in. They need to experiment with independence and find a streak of defiance. They need to question everything and let the hormones rage. In essence, you need to let your teen characters be teens.

And when you do that, you'll have an awesome YA novel.