Just what are you proposing, exactly?

Please have pity on a fool. I've spent the last month trying to educate myself about your business, and I have asked this question elsewhere before, but what do you mean by a proposal? I understood this to be for a project that was not yet written.

It's both--some people write them before they create their work, so they have a better idea of where they're going; some people write them after, and they're used so that editors can bring in a proposal to the ed board meeting and everyone has a good idea of what the book will be like without reading the whole thing.

If you'd like some guidance, I'm partial to
The Art of the Book Proposal, by Eric Maisel--he does a wonderful job of explaining why it's a tool for you, as well--not just for those who may purchase your work. It includes great thoughts about brainstorming and the creative process, too.

That said, when you do write the proposal, you'll need the following (cut and pasted from an email to a writer friend):

  1. A cover letter. Be sure to be cordial.
  2. Title page--include your name, address, email, phone.
  3. Table of (proposal) contents
  4. An overview--1-3 pages
  5. About the Author--1-2 pages, focusing on things relevant to your work--but make sure you appear human, too. That said, don't list all your hobbies, pets, and childhood aspirations.
  6. The Audience/market--who will buy your book, and what you plan to do to promote it. Some authors make crazy promises (I'll fly myself to every major city); most promise a Web site (which doesn't have to be ready yet), mentions of networks you have (if you belong to organizations that know lots of readers), etc. 1-2 pages.
  7. Competing Works--a quick run-down of the works closest to yours currently on the market. Each one should get a paragraph describing, in a sentence or two, the other work--the bulk of the paragraph being about why yours is better. Try to aim for 4-5 other works, or 1-2 pages...more if necessary. You could also cram it all together in one big mini-essay, noting the major points, but usually the paragraph method is best.
  8. Special Marketing and Promotional Opportunities--if applicable. Usually unnecessary.
  9. Manuscript Specifications--word count, how soon you can deliver the manuscript after signing an agreement, any special requirements (photographs, permissions, etc).
  10. Manuscript outline--usually by chapter, with a few bullet points under each to note the major points. Note which are included in your sample chapters. Some people summarize each chapter in a paragraph. It's up to you--we just need to get a good idea of the material covered in the book.
  11. Your sample chapters--usually 3-4 chapters, or around 50-60 pages.

Hope this helps.

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

It's the end of August--so I would assume everyone out there would be wilting, frying, burning, vacationing, iced-coffee-ing--swinging lazily in hammocks with lemonade, SPF, perhaps an issue of Saveur (have you seen their roasted beet and garlic tart?)--and yet there is so much good work.

I don't think I've ever seen so many good queries and partials in the office at one time before. This is both wonderful (I can't wait to read them) and terrifying (what if someone else with a smaller reading pile gets to them first?). It's the first time I've actually wished for an electronic reading device, so that I can carry them everywhere. Park and manuscripts? Yes, please.

Several of you have asked about a typical day. I will get on that shortly. But here's today so far:

9 am: Reading work email at home.
10 am: Arrive in office's neighborhood. Tea time: Lady Grey.
10:30: Put out series of small fires in email.
10:55: Running, face-first dive into pile of queries.
10:57: Decide to count queries, as it's a very large number. How many today?
  • Sixteen hard-copy queries. Requested one immediately, set aside two to think about.
  • Sixty-six e-queries. Requested fourteen. With a little math (somehow I remembered proportions), that's 21.2 percent. Are you kidding? That's amazing. Plus, fifteen more were good enough that they got a personal rejection. Wowza.
I won't even tell you how many manuscripts came in--if I do, I may go into a small panic.

And from the looks of them--they're really, really good.

Questions, please.

Surely you have questions about the business. Ask them; I'll answer as I can.

It works for bestsellers, too.

Am I huge YA fantasy fan? Yes. Am I fan of every YA fantasy? No way. So it dawned on me that this must be just how it is for an agent reading a query or sample pages of a book in a genre they typically represent, but just don't love. The writing may be strong, the characters developed - sometimes you just don't connect with it. The book I'm reading got some great reviews, it's a published book, yet I'm not in love with it the way I'd hoped for...Just another reminder of how subjective it all is.

Yes. Spot on. And this is an excellent point: this works for published, praised, awarded, bestselling books as well. We all have personal tastes, and sometimes we can't quite articulate why we don't love something. And then there are bestsellers that, when one of us brings them into the office, we exclaim, "Ugh! I never would have taken that on!"

Our calculations may be more complex--but we like and dislike works just the way you do.

Kindle versus iPhone

I just got a Kindle. So far I really love it, but I can see it starting to nickel and dime me as even MORE debits from Amazon appear on my account. Recently I just read a post from Kindle lover that was starting to take a liking to the Apple phone for his reading pleasure. Have you tried?

Well. This is complicated. I'd read about people doing this, and have every intention of trying it. Many of my friends have iPhones, and I will bug them (perhaps tonight) to let me see.

It seems to make more sense: I don't find reading on a Kindle any more comfortable than reading on a computer screen. Why would I? It's gray on yucky gray. But the iPhone has gorgeous color, and good contrast, and a choice of fonts. Not to mention the fact that, though it can track your location (so can the Kindle), it's somewhat less Orwellian. I have a hard time imagining the makers of the iPhone deciding to delete books I'd purchased through one of their apps. But please comment and let me know if you've heard of any scary Apple-versus-reading activity!

That said, I have a personal fear of smart phones. I'd have to have two: one for work use (that I could turn off and leave at home when going to, say, dinner parties--I do not want to be that guest) and a normal, no-email cell for social use. But two phones, chargers, numbers, emails? With my predeliction for small purses, and a life with already too many details? Eh, not so much.

Fit vs Genre

I see you take YA, but what about subgenre? In the interview, it seemed like a contradiction that you take any subgenre and yet rejected 33% of MS based on genre.

Could you please clarify?

Excellent question!

When I created this pie chart--over six months, 2007-2008--I was looking at works rejected by the agency as a whole, rather than those rejected by me. As the youngest agent onboard, I saw everything that went into and out of the office. We weren't as flexible then: we generally didn't want anything having to do with zombies, aliens, sci-fi, murders, violence, detectives, organized crime, trials, etc. It was a matter of personal tastes, not principle.

That said, I used "Genre" in the pie chart for purposes of simplicity--there wasn't much space, thank you Photoshop--but what I really meant is fit. This is, of course, so much more complicated than, "Eh, its title mentions blood. Send it back." In that period, we did, actually, request some works that went against our usual grain--if the writing seemed good enough.

Fit becomes very slippery. Just this morning, I received a call from a British man whose work I'd rejected. It was about science and spirituality--things that show up on our online client list. Why, then, did I say that it was a great concept but not right for us?

I found myself pausing, taking a sip of tea-over-ice (it's wickedly hot in NYC), and wondering how to explain: this is never an easy question. Do I tell him, as he pays goodness-knows-how-much a minute, the office theory on eyes meeting and something happening? Do I explain the intuitive processes? Do I say that it's so much more than the topics, the genre, the writing, the narrator, the perspective, the setting, the sensibility--but, somehow, a combination of all of these?

The good thing about phone calls--and I confess, I generally don't like them; I feel put on the spot and, admittedly, don't like hearing the unhappy stew of emotions that is the rejected author--is that one can, with tone, express so much.

"It's the feel," I finally said. And, miracle of miracles, voice traveling 4,000 miles, he got it.

I told him about Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens--authors he hadn't yet seen in the UK. (Thinking back on it, this seems odd--Hitchens is British, is he not?) Anyway. I told him about how Amazon allows one to view the first few pages--including, if one is lucky, the acknowledgments--so it may be possible, there, to discover who represents these works, and send his work to these agents.

So, yes--to fully answer your question--I'm looking for any possible subgenre of YA that strikes my fancy. What that will be, well--I guess I'll have to wait, read my submissions, and see.

Life of Pie

Hello writers! After much fussing with Photoshop, I've managed to make my Excel chart (created this way as a model for the markers-and-poster-board version) into an image. It's a bit tiny (sigh) but, I hope, still readable.

A bit of explanation: genre problems--more accurately, problems with your work being the right fit for the agency--weigh in at 33 percent. This is the number-one reason for form rejection letters from our agency. Keep in mind that this means a third of your competition is eliminated immediately--and that it's an area that, with a little research, is completely within your control.

Next after genre/fit, we have a concept that is not marketable--18%. This is, as I mentioned, often ambiguous: Curtis Sittenfeld couldn't, at first, sell Prep because she was told there were too many prep school novels already on the shelves--yet when it became a bestseller, she says, everyone shrugged and said that of course it did so well--it was a prep school novel, after all, a tried-and-true concept. Some say that you'll know you have the right idea for your book when you simply cannot wait to get working.

My suggestion is to audition possible concepts by telling them to everyone you speak with. See how they react, and give them multiple concepts you're considering--then ask for their favorite. This not only results in an informal poll, but your interlocutors won't feel rude by favoring one idea over another--they may, however, feel badly about telling you not to write that alien abduction memoir if it's the only idea on the table. Go to Amazon, and your genre's shelf in your local book store, and make sure that there's something similar and successful--and that you have a new twist. Ideally you will also have a platform (if nonfiction) and know others in your field who can give your work a look.

After this we have a tie: 10% and 10%. The first is the percentage whose writing is simply not yet strong enough. This is where professional editors, like the lovely Marcela Landres, come in. The other ten percent refers to writing that is excellent--but writing on a topic that isn't right for us. As you can imagine, both concept and writing are necessary for a successful book.

Note the nearby 4%, which is a concept that is great, but writing that is not. Most of these authors got, "We love the concept, keep working on the writing" notes.

(A statistical note--when writing was good enough but the concept wasn't, this is differentiated from the 33% by the fact that not only did we not find the concept right for us, but we worried others--even those who do work in the genre--would agree.)

Another 9% go to projects that, intuitively, didn't seem right. I thought, before deciding to quantify my decisions, that this would be a much larger number--at least 20%. My boss likens the process to meeting eyes with someone across a crowded room: when regarding a query, something either happens, or it doesn't. However, only 9% were rejected for this reason alone--which is fortunate, as this is one aspect over which writers have little control.

6% of queries were rejected because the project simply required further work. Again, you can control this by doing all of your research--and not, for example, telling us about the great book you will write (never mind that not a sentence exists yet), once you can afford to do so with your advance.

5% to those queries rejected because of an unprofessional approach. Granted, if you write brilliantly on kitten stationery, we'll give you a look. However, I've yet to meet a perfumed/lavender-colored/typed in a spiral query that made it to the next level. It's also unwise to demand (as one author did) that the book make $40,000 in royalties a year--or that it's just not worth it. Other unappetizing ideas include reprinting other rejection letters (including them as proof of...what?), ranting about the unfairness of the business, and telling us that if we're real agents we'll see that your work is better than Harry Potter. Right.

3% Oversaturated market. Sorry, but if you're writing on a topic that's already been done--where every publishing house already has their version--we doubt we can sell yours. Prevent this by doing your research, and making sure to emphasize why your work is new and better.

2% Platform lacking--again, thought this would be a much higher number--but, then again, to get to this point and be rejected because of platform requires a few preliminary hoops. Platform is, as Marcela said, your responsibility--no one is born with one, including Oprah.

That's all for now...please feel free to ask any questions you may have.

The Synchronicity of the Few

Shortly after graduation, I discovered several of my friends had taken up publishing positions and could, therefore, could give me a better sense of what's going on in their offices. Sometimes we send instant messages with office gossip (ie, Editor X is getting back from maternity leave; send her your book on babies!), but it's more than that--it's a useful look into the trends of this generation of writers and editors.

This is a business that makes one believe in patterns and synchronicity. I was impressed when, in one three-week period, we received three fiction manuscripts from the perspective of a 10-year-old girl in 1930s-40s Florida. Then we received two manuscripts set in 1880s Ireland--we received them not just in the same day, but within an hour of each other. (Thank you, FedEx.)

Therefore, you can bet that someone, somewhere, is writing something similar to what you're working on. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, however, somewhat more difficult to sell (and this is just one example--surely you can think of more) works that take place in the 1960s--last summer was a flood of them. Guess what? You weren't the only one who realized it was, then, forty years since 1968.

Does this mean you're doomed? Of course not: you simply have a more exaggerated version of every writer's mission: make your work stand out. But do so with your writing.

As much as I'm amused by some gimmicks (chicklet gum with Chick Lit, tea with Buddhist manuscripts, chocolates with books on happiness), they do not a published manuscript--nor, incidentally, a sugar-high-ed, caffeinated, full Jessica--make. If you find yourself with a work in a glutted genre, admit it--you'll earn our respect.

I got a query a few days ago that did this very well:


Two of my top fiction fixations for as long as I can remember are: 1) teenagers, and 2) vampires. I find them both endlessly fascinating and inspiring subjects. Unfortunately my timing is terrible; I am well aware of how glutted the publishing market currently is with post-Twilight copycats. However, despite the public’s faddish infatuation with all things bloodsucking right now, I feel far too many of them suffer the same failings: weak female protagonists, an excessively gothic and angst-ridden worldview, and two-dimensional supporting characters. I wanted to right all these wrongs with my novel, [Novel title]. I wanted to write for the anti-Twilight generation, for readers with a wittier, hipper, more feminist, and more literary aesthetic sensibility.

Did I ask to see more? Yes, yes I did.

Book Netflix?

I like to think of myself as benevolently bossy: do it this way, really, and everything will be so much better. I have advice on many things--from how best to format a query to how you really don't need about seven of those seventeen steps in that recipe. (You should see me make pasta: eggs + flour + stir + flatten + boil.)

Admittedly, at times, this is a function of my being lazy. I have an idea; I don't have the time to implement it. So.

Could someone please create a book Netflix? I'm all for technology. I'm all for books. But the Kindle is, as Nicholson Baker mentions in this article, sickly (but not necessarily environmentally) green and occasionally Orwellian. Last week, we spent several hours on Kindle tech support. Great for travel, but when home--not a fan.

So why not use the Web to make paper books more accessible?

There is one site that attempts a book Netflix; however, the pricing is unfortunate. (See www.BookSwim.com.) Here's what I recommend: use the same system of PaperbackSwap.com (if you are not online, please join--and tell them I sent you) that determines how much each book will cost to ship. Allow users to print out labels, postage and packaging from their computer, using this system, to toss books in the mail and avoid the half hour "this is only a non-exploding book, I promise" over-13oz line at the post office.

Then charge only for postage and, I don't know, a dollar per.

So. Someone out there, please invent it. Then send me the URL, and I will be a most loyal and appreciative customer.

The Work We Fall in Love With

It should be noted that we don't simply go through our (seemingly endless) piles of mail searching for work without flaws. Just because there is nothing wrong with your work does not mean, therefore, that there is everything right. Rather than checking off criteria on each--and taking all of the work without issues--we go through the pile looking for the few that we fall in love with.

I tend to use the terminology of love and dating often in this search because both processes are subjective in similar ways. Sometimes you meet eyes with someone (or the first fifty pages) across a room and something happens--or something doesn't. Sometimes both parties are interested, to a degree--but as time wears on (and we pass the work around the office) we find ourselves admitting we don't have our hearts set on these projects--we're "just not that into them." (My thoughts on HJNTIY aside.)

But it is a sort of courtship--queries being first, blind dates; partials being subsequent meetings; passing the work around the office being meeting the parents. If either party emails/calls too much, they can be rendered instantly unattractive. Sometimes we make each other jealous--the author claims another agent is interested (whether true or not) and sometimes issues an ultimatum; sometimes the agent says, "I'm not sure, we have something similar--we'll get back to you." Until the contract is signed and the whole thing official--and even, these days, then--there is no certainty.

Just as you wouldn't date every person who met a checklist of qualities (hair color, height, weight) we don't take on every project with solid writing and interesting subject matter in one of the genres we represent.

So, please--don't consider it anything less subjective than a glance across a room of queries.

Rocket scientist rejected by twenty-something: film at eleven.

Suppose you are a mature professor with multiple advanced degrees in rocket science and/or particle physics, and your manuscript was rejected by me, a twenty-something without even a Master's--hardly an expert grasp of the subject matter. How is this, in any stretch of the imagination, fair?

I will freely admit that my knowledge of physics is lacking (just ask my former Physics teacher who said once, and I quote, "Jessica, there's a brain in there somewhere--I just know it.").

But what I do know is which books will sell. Get the awful image of young women at agencies out of your head: we do not, as a rule, smack gum; we do not simply give each query a three-second glance, grunt, file a nail, and heave it into the ol' circular file.

That said, we are not all experts in every field. But we don't need to be.

Unless you're positioning your book as one for experts (in which case the book isn't a good match for my company anyway), the average, reasonably intelligent reader should be able to make sense of your work--and, combined with your proposal, a publishing professional can evaluate it for marketability.

Quite often decisions are made without ever having seen the work itself--for example, "This is a book on my pet cat George" is enough to tell us, before a few polite questions about the approach and the writing, that the book is not for us. Conversely, if you have hilarious, snappy writing on a topic of great relevance to a great many--often this takes only a few query lines to establish--we don't have to see your work to know it has a great chance.

Don't worry. We are competent, well-read humans with a wide variety of interests. If you're worried we won't know the significance of the academic journal you've been published in, tell us, in a line or two. If you think we won't understand your theories, do what you can to simplify--you'll have to in the book, anyway.

In other words: it will be fine. We know the part of the equation you do not--the book part. Keep expanding your career--give talks, attend conferences, get small works published. All of these things tell us you're ready to translate your expertise into book form.