Agency Lesson: It's not you, really it's not

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.

I found this post in my archives. I have no idea if I ever published it here or shared it as a guest post (clearly I need a better system). But the advice is still valid so I'm sharing it today and ask for your forgiveness if it's a repeat.

There are a lot of sites and blog posts out there dedicated to helping writers with the dreaded query letter (my personal favorite is Query Shark). Unfortunately, most of the blog posts about writing query letters I’ve read lately have left a sour taste in my mouth.
Was their advice wrong? Not at all. Just maybe a bit too … hopeful.
The advice all tends to be the same. Follow the guidelines to perfection. Only query agents who represent your genre. Don’t pull any bonehead moves (mass emails, spelling the agent’s name wrong, sending a link, etc). Write a good query letter.
Do this and you’re golden. The serious writers, the ones who scour the web for query writing advice, already know this stuff. They’ve studied the guidelines and rewritten their query a dozen times or more until it shines like the Hope Diamond. Then they send their baby out in to the world full of all kinds of warm fuzzy feelings. They followed all the advice and now the requests should start pouring in.
Only they don’t.
Cue dramatic crying and eating cookie dough ice cream out of the pint with a serving spoon. “What’s wrong with me?” the heartbroken writer asks.
Thing is, your query might need work. Or your writing just isn’t good enough. It happens people. You might have a brilliant concept, but not the skills to pull it off yet. Good news for you: you can get better.
But what if your query is so good it hurts, and your writing makes little blue birds sing? You can have the perfect submission and still not get a request. And it isn’t because agents are blind or the entire publishing world is out to get you. Here are five reasons you might get a rejection that have nothing to do with you.
The market is a fickle beast
One minute paranormal vampires are all the rage, and the next they’re the butt of every literary joke out there. It doesn’t mean writers ran out of good vampire stories. It does mean publishers don’t feel the market can sustain any more of them. Could they be wrong? Sure. It doesn’t change anything.
 An unsold book doesn’t make anyone money

New Adult is sweeping the nation, but publishers are just now starting to buy them. Not because they don’t think they’re any good. Just like an agent doesn’t want to sign a book they can’t sell to publishers, publishers don’t want to sign a book they don’t know how to market to readers. They are figuring out new markets like the rest of us. Your book might be so original an agent (or publisher) doesn’t know how to sell it. 

Clients come first
You have an amazing YA contemporary with hints of magical realism that takes a fresh look at teen relationships. Great. So does an author already signed with the agent you’re querying. Bad for you. Many agents work with their clients to talk about what they are writing next. So even if the client’s book isn’t anything more than a one page outline, if the concepts are similar it wins against your completed, fully polished manuscript every time. Yes, I’m fully aware of how much that sucks. 
You've hit on the next big thing
I can see all your confused looks from here. “Wait a minute,” you say. “Isn’t that what every writer wants to do? Don’t we all want to be the first?” Yep. But this just doesn’t happen very often. Here’s an example for you. I haven’t seen a genie story come through the slush pile in six months. Last week I saw at least five, and most of them sounded really good. Does that mean genies are going to be the next big thing? Maybe. Let’s say they are. How many of those genie stories do you think an agent should represent? If you guessed one, you’re today’s big winner. So even if your story is fresh and really well written, it now must be the best genie story. Because if genies aren’t the next big thing, no agent wants to be caught holding five genie stories she can’t sell.

      Agents are book lovers
What happens when you read a really good book? One that stays with you and changes how you think or feel about something. I don’t know about you, but I tell people about it. I become a fan and make it my personal mission to get other people to love that book. That’s an agent’s job, too. They become the biggest fan of their clients manuscript and do everything they can to convince publishers to love it. Now picture trying to do that for a book that you like, but don’t love. “Yeah, this book was pretty good. You should stop everything you’re doing and read it now.” It just doesn’t work. So while an agent may like your book. Maybe they even like it a lot. If it isn’t love, they are going to pass.

Is that enough doom and gloom for you? Before you throw the pages of your manuscript down in disgust and shout “You vile impersonation of a book” while standing on the sidewalk in your bathrobe, here’s a nugget of hope. Despite all the reasons why your stack of rejection letters could rival the Eiffel Tower, there are still plenty of reasons why agents would beat each other senseless with hardback copies of 50 SHADES OF GREY for the chance to represent you.
If you love writing, then keep doing it. And if you dream of being published, then keep working toward that goal. There’s no guarantee that all that hard work will eventually pay off with the publishing contract of your dreams. But no dream comes with a guarantee. That’s what makes them as sparkly as a rainbow unicorn.

Publishing can (and should) be scary

So I did a big scary thing today.

I applied for a writing opportunity that would be a huge commitment. Commitment of my time, my resources, my energy. I'm equal parts ecstatic and terrified.

And that's a good thing.

We talk a lot about creating distance from your work. You can't let the negative reviews impact you. Once you publish the book belongs to your readers. Don't let rejection impact your ability to keep writing.

This is all solid advice.

But you can take it too far. You can become so separated from your work that you lose that emotional connection with your words. In order to make sure you aren't hurt, you put less of yourself into your work.

The result is a less scary publishing process. But probably less successful.

Readers can feel the soul we poor into our work. If that's missing, your readers will know.

And that's why it's okay to be scared when you write your next story, start a new genre, make a big business committment, send those queries.

Because that fear is a result of caring. If we didn't care, there would be nothing to fear.

So today I did a scary thing and I'm not going to try to talk myself out of being nervous/terrified/nauseous. Those emotions prove I care. And if you don't care, then why bother.

Writing your next book is not a super marketing strategy

What I'm about to say flies in the face of just about every piece of marketing advice out there for new writers right now. I realize that. I promise I have not gone off the deep end (yet). Stick with me and I will explain.

The best thing a new author can do to promote their work is write the next book.

If you follow any of the big blogs or listen to the most popular podcasts, this is going to be the advice you hear most often. Authors and marketing pros who will tell you that nothing sells a back list like a front list.

Respectfully, I disagree.

I say that as an author who is currently seeing a significant uptick in sales after just publishing the third book in my trilogy.

I realize those statements look like they contradict each other. They don't and here's why.

Ten years ago when eBooks were infants in the book world everything was different. Amazon Kindle launched with right around 400,000 books. When you break down all the different genres and subject matters you can see that discoverability wasn't as much of an issue ten years ago. Good books floated to the top without much friction and authors didn't need to jump through hoops to get the word out. Early Kindle adopters were eager to find new books to read. Even just a few years ago an author could make their book free for a few days and ride the tails of increased visibility for months.

So, it made sense that the best thing for an author to do was write more books. After all, Amazon already made it remarkably easy for your book to be found and your target audience was much smaller (based on early Kindle users) so large base marketing efforts would likely have been overkill.

Today, the landscape is remarkably different. Instead of 400K, Amazon boasts millions of books. Millions. And since eBooks never go out of print, that number will only continue to grow. Books are rarely discovered organically. There are just too many on the market for that to happen. With new books coming out daily, readers don't need to go digging to find their next read.

So if you launch your book with minimal marketing and don't really gain any traction, what exactly will launching a second book do for you? Another book is pointless if no one knows who you are.

Many authors will talk about the importance of virtual shelf space. The more books you have available, the bigger your shelf and the more visible you are to readers. And this makes sense to an extent. If a reader does happen to find you, they are more likely to commit if they see you have several books. It makes you appear as an established author instead of just a lone wolf with a single title. But the reader has to find you first. You aren't visible to them by virtue of just having a lot of books. You are visible when they discover one of your books (via some marketing effort) and then find all your others. Simply having a huge back list won't move you up the charts.

I also worry about this advice when it comes to burn-out. I feel bad for the authors out there who keep focusing on putting out more books. They are shelling out a good amount of money on covers, editing, formatting, etc. But they aren't seeing results. So they spend money on another book...and another. Until they have a handful of books out, and should be doing fine according to the conventional advice, but they still don't have readers. So they quit. Because no one told them that just writing another book won't cut it.

Before readers can find your virtual shelf, they need to know you exist. Readers have to find you in the sea of millions of eBooks. You have to put in some marketing efforts.

I consider myself lucky. I'm not making enough to support myself (yet), but my books do fairly well. While I recognize that luck does play a huge role in publishing, I will also tell you that I've put in a lot of effort to both my pre and post launch marketing efforts. My book came out over a week ago, but I still have a summer filled with marketing tasks. I know that my books existing isn't enough to keep them selling. Yes, the third release helped. But the time and effort I put into marketing carried the brunt of the load.

I'm not saying you shouldn't keep writing. More books keeps you fresh for the fans you do have and helps you continue to grow as an author. Always keep writing. Also, it's important to note that sometimes, regardless of your efforts, a book never really catches on. In that case, you need to be able to put out your next book and try again. Just understand that putting a book into the market without letting anyone know it exists is not a marketing strategy for your back list. It is an almost guaranteed way to increase a virtual shelf that no one is reading.

Agency Lessons: Stop double dipping

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.

Every Wednesday the good folks of Corvisiero get together and go through our query boxes. It's cathartic and helps to keep us on track with the never ending supply of hopeful writers. Last week I noticed a startling trend. It wasn't a good kind of startling.

Over the course of several hours I ran into no less than three queries for projects that had already been queried to me in the past. To be clear, I'm not talking about projects sent to another Corvisiero agent and then sent to me. I'm talking a query addressed directly to me.

I don't keep a physical log of queries, because let's be honest, that would take forever. But I do keep all my emails so I can easily search by email, name or subject line to go back and find and old query. No, I don't remember the name of every author that queries me, but I do remember premises.

Here's what I think when I see a double-dip query:

1. Poor organization
No one loves a good spreadsheet more than I do, but you don't have to obsess over Excel to keep track of your queries. You need to develop a system that works for you so you can track who queries were sent to and when. Not only does this help you to not stress that the agent you just queried hasn't responded yet, it let's you know who already has your query so you don't query them again.

Being organized is a must for an author who wants to make writing their career. You have to keep track of deadlines, multiple versions of your manuscript from multiple editors, your marketing efforts, and your finances. I need to know that my authors can handle keeping track of their own information, because I don't have time to be a personal assistant and neither does any other agent out there.

By double querying me you are indicating that you can't keep track of your own query process and that's a red flag against your ability to manage your author career. 

2. Inability to move on
So, almost without exception, these double dip queries aren't coming a few days or weeks apart. I tend to ignore those as more of an oops or bad copy/paste in the midst of querying. The double-dippers tend to re-query months or in some cases years after the initial query. This make me cringe and tremble in horror for two reasons.

A project that you were pitching two years ago is most likely dead in the water. Editors have moved on from whatever they were taking on two years ago. Readers have moved on. Everyone has moved on except the double-dipper.

As the author, at some point you have to say this project isn't going anywhere. You need to set it aside and work on something else. Because here's the reality. Getting an agent is no guarantee of selling to an editor. Your project might pitch for six months...a year...and never get picked up. Your agent is going to expect you to have something else to pitch so you can both move on. They are not going to beat their heads against the wall pitching the same project for years. Not only is it a waste of time, it looks bad for that agent and will project poorly on everything they pitch in the future.

There is only one exception to the double-dip, so listen carefully. Let's say you query a few agents and all of them come back and tell you the story starts n the wrong place and needs less telling. So you make the wise decision to scrap the first 50 pages and do a deep edit for telling. Your manuscript is much better.

Any of those agents who invited you to re-query are a no-brainer. Send that puppy off. But what about the ones who didn't? If you got a generic rejection, no, don't do it. But if that agent said to cut the beginning, then go for it. Don't be surprised if they pass, but it's worth a shot. CAUTION! Do not edit the first five pages of your manuscript and requery. Only re-send to the same agents if you have mad significant changes to the project. Got it? Good.

So do yourself a favor, keep good records and be prepared to let go of a manuscript that isn't going anywhere. If you get this into your mindset before you start querying, you'll be in much better shape on the other side.

How to pay for publishing

Before I start, I want to let you guys know that today is the final day for the Acceptance series to be on sale. Starting tomorrow, these books go back to their regular prices. If you're planning to pick them up, better do it now. :)

One of the downfalls I currently see in marketing advice is that seasoned pros forget what it was like to be a brand new newbie with all the hopes and dreams still swimming around with all the fear and anxiety that a nebulous future can provide.

I've stopped cringing every time I need to buy swag or pay for an outstanding proofreader. But that wasn't the case when I published my first book. I was counting every penny, weighing the pros and cons, and deciding what was a must and what I could do without and still give my book a fighting chance.

Because when you self-publish, you fund the whole darn thing. Instead of an advance paid to you, you pay for all the publishing costs before you know if your book will may a single dime. It's scary, and overwhelming, and for a lot of authors it's reason enough to forget self-publishing all together, even if they really want to.

Which makes me sad.

So, I came up with a quick list of ways for authors to make money to publish their book. I realize that some of these will require a lot of work. For some, you might have to work for months to save anything. But if you believe in yourself and your work, it's worth it. Now, on to the list.

1. Sell all the **** you don't need
Stop what you are doing and look around the room you are in. How much of the stuff sitting around you do you really need? Could you get rid of some of it and be fine? Would getting rid of it possibly make your home happier?

Time to break out the boxes and fill them up with all the what-not you don't need anymore. A garage sale can be a ton of work, but it can also be highly profitable. I made several hundred dollars at my last sale. If that's not your thing, try posting your items on Craig's List or check FB for local sale pages. I also suggest looking at consignment stores or children's sales if you have that sort of thing, they can be a great way to unload and rack up the dough.

2. Overtime
This isn't an option for everyone, but if you work at a place that offers overtime, start raising your hand. Even and extra hour of two a week can really start to add up and chances are you won't miss the time. Just make sure when your paycheck comes in, you siphon off that extra and put it right into your savings jar. Otherwise, you'd be shocked how quickly that extra bit disappears.

3. Sell your body parts
Not your organs. You need those and it's very illegal. But selling plasma is totally legal and a completely legit way to make money. The process takes about an hour and you can do it up to twice a week. Generally, the more often you give, the more you make. Plus, it's an inactive process, so you could take a notebook and get some writing down while you make money. That sounds like a good deal.

4. Give up the splurge
This one requires more of a sacrifice, but then again, all good things do. Time to give up your Starbucks and brew your coffee at home. Instead of going out for lunch, pack a sandwich at home. Put that new shirt back on the rack and wear something you already own. Many Americans spend way more money than they realize on small items. We tell ourselves it's only a few bucks. But a few bucks, a couple times a time, every day in a week really adds up. Cut back on those little expenses and you'll be surprised by how much you save and probably shocked at how much you were spending without realizing it.
*Bonus: if you're a smoker, you know exactly how much you could save by quitting. The question is, how bad do you want to publish that book

5. Offer  your services
Are you a graphic designer? Set up a fiverr account and offer to make logos or design social media headers for other authors. Are you handy with book formatting tools? There's money to be made there as well. Maybe you don't have a skill that other authors will want. What else can you do? Can you sell arts and crafts? We have several local individuals who do well by making up meals and selling them to third shift workers who have a hard time finding decent meals at midnight. If you are without skills (besides writing of course) then elbow grease is always an option. Maybe you can mow lawns or clean houses. Ask yourself what you're willing to do to make your book dreams a reality.

You'll notice none of these are get rich quick schemes. Newsflash, neither is being an author. But if you're willing to put in the time, make some sacrifices and work hard, you can save up to make sure your book publishes they way it deserves. And those same skills will serve you well as an author, too.

Patience learned from Kelly Clarkson

Even if you don't watch American Idol, chances are you've heard the newest release from Kelly Clarkson. If not, take a second and watch her live performance here. In fact, even if you've heard the song 20 million times, watch the live performance. Just trust me on this one.

First...a little background info

Kelly won American Idol back in 2002. Quick math, that was 14 years ago. She put out six albums before releasing Piece by Piece, which debuted at #1.

This song is gut-wrenching. It's raw, personal, and highly emotional. It also differs in that the rhythms are slightly less than traditional and many of the lines don't even attempt to rhyme, instead focusing on the message of the words.

Piece by Piece details the hurt Kelly experienced as a child and the healing she's gone through as an adult since her marriage in 2012 and the birth of her first child in 2014.

Timing is crucial for creatives

I'm telling you all of this so you'll understand how long Kelly waited to release this song.

This isn't a new emotion for her. This isn't a song she just whipped up one night.  Clarkson wrote this song when the time was right for both her and her audience.

As talented as she is, I don't think she could have pulled off a song like this back in 2002 or even 2010. She waited until she had developed her voice. Not just her singing voice, but her storyteller voice (yep, songwriters need that and yes, Kelly co-wrote this song).

Timing matters in building your audience, too

She also had to wait for her audience to be ready. As a newer performer, Kelly had to focus on giving the fans what they wanted. She gave them songs they could sing and dance to and built her fan base up to the level it is now.

This isn't isolated to just Clarkson. Queen Bey (all hail) had the same amazing patience in releasing her Lemonade album. She gave the fans all the club tunes they could ever want (you should sing All the Single Ladies and do the dance now, because I know you know it). Then once we all fell in love with her, she released the music that spoke to her soul.

You aren't ready to write all the stories

So what does this mean for us writers. It means there are stories we aren't ready to write yet. Some of them are too big for us. We need to work out our fingers and find our voices  in order to tell the story the way it deserves. I have a story like this. It's nothing more than an idea that floats around my head. I haven't written one word of it on paper, not even the wisp of the thought. I'm not ready to write it yet. I'm not strong enough in my craft. Someday I hope to get there and the story will wait for me. We need to have the patience of Clarkson and Beyonce to wait until we're ready for some stores to be told the right way.

Your audience might not be ready either

We also need to wait for our audiences. I'm not saying you can't write hard hitting stories. In fact, those are the ones that most resonate with readers. What I'm saying is that you should save the experimental, not what anyone was expecting type of stories for later in your career.

One of my favorite King novels is The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I won't spoil it if you haven't read it yet, but it's a deviation from standard horror. But as much as I love it, I don't think it would have done well earlier in King's career. He needed to start with demonic dogs and possessed cars, because that's what the genre and the readers demanded. Once he established his fan base and his prowess as an author, he could branch out into books that didn't fit in the mold.

Write with her heart and your head

I'm a fan of the advice that you should write the book that your heart demands be written. However, authors need to also have an awareness of their own skill level and their reader expectations. When you finally write the book the pushes you the most as an artist you want to make sure both you and your readers are ready for its awesomeness.

A special offer (because of guilt)

Okay, I feel really bad. Like I woke up this morning and it was the first thing on my mind kinda bad. I made my book free and then completely forgot to tell you all about it until there were only a few hours left to get it. I'm a dork and totally dropped the ball.

So I want to make it up to you. I can't make Rejection free because there are rules and I have to follow them. But I can make it as cheap as they'll let me. So for a few more days I'm going to leave both Rite of Rejection and Rite of Revelation at only $.99 each.

This means you can still get the whole series for less than $5. That's less than a carb-loaded fast food sub!

I know, I know. It's a whole dollar more than yesterday.

But it's less than it will be, because I can't leave these prices forever. I've got bills to pay and fast food subs to buy.

In all seriousness, I'm totally sorry I didn't tell you guys sooner and I promise to do better next time I have such big news.

Don't forget that you can get the novella that takes place in the 24 hours between books one and two totally free. Just sign up for my newsletter. In fact, that's the only place to get it. Plus, my newsletter folks totally knew all about the sale last week.

Also, a huge thank you to everyone who did pick up copies. Both books two and three are in the top 10K of all of Amazon and Rejection is THIS close. We're ranking on all kinds of lists and I couldn't be more tickled. So thanks for getting the books, telling your friends, and just being awesome in general.

I'm going to continue my post publication housework (i.e. this place is gross and someone should clean it). We'll be back tomorrow with regularly scheduled posts.

Rite of Rejection is free!

So, today is release day for Rite of Redemption, the final book in the Acceptance series. I've been running around doing all the fun release day business and I realized, now at 7pm, that I forgot something.

I completely forgot to let you know about a book sale. I'm seriously cringing at my idiocy right now.

Anywho, I'll keep this short and sweet. For one more night (tonight) you can get Rite of Rejection for Free and Rite of Revelation for only $.99!

Seriously, you can get the whole shabang of a series for less than $4.00! That's like giving up one Starbucks. Or two bags of chicharones. I'm not judging your cravings.

Here's all the linkage info for where you need to go to get your free book. Enjoy and Happy Reading!

You don't have to start in the middle

About this time last year, I got a bit of a wake up call.

My first book had been out about six months and I was feeling really good about how it was doing. Sales were good, reviews were good, and I was tossing around the idea of continuing the book into a trilogy. I finally felt like a real author so I started connecting more online with other authors.

And then that green eyed monster showed up.

No, not that one. I'm talking envy.

All these other others seemed to be way more together than I was. They were ordering banners and announcing tons of signing events and were generally a million steps ahead of me. My feelings of owning the title of author were quickly turning into imposter syndrome.

I had to take a deep breath and re-evaluate.

Because although I considered these other authors my peers, we were not on the same footing. These other authors had been in the game a lot longer than 6 months. They had a ton of books out compared to my one. They had put in the time and energy into lifting their careers to a higher level.

I wasn't there yet...and that's okay.

My immediate urge was to go order a banner and pay way too much money for events where I would likely sell very few books. None of that made sense for me. Because I wasn't there yet. I didn't need to start my journey in the middle of someone else's.

As authors, there will always be someone just ahead of us in our careers. Instead of feeding our jealousy, we should let these authors feed our motivation to work harder.

And waiting pays off. A year later, I'm about to release my third book. I finally ordered that banner because I'm going to my first conference signing this month. Instead of overspending for events that won't help me, I am attending events that make sense. And I've even reached the point where I'm getting invitations to attend events.

I'm not saying this to brag. I'm pointing out that a year ago I would have given my right arm to be where I'm at today. I could have spent a ton of money and forced myself into this position, but it would have been a horrible move. Instead, I let those other authors inspire me to do more.

There are still authors ahead of me. I pray they never stop moving, because having them right there in front of me is an amazing motivator to keep going. To put my head down, focus on improving and growing as an author. And if I do that, who knows where I'll be next year.