Friday, October 20, 2006

Spreading Yourself Too Thin

Admin note: I know that there are a lot of new readers to the blog, so here's how it works: have a question about the publishing industry (mags or books)? Send it to me via email at or post it in the comments section, and I'll answer it here. It's that easy! And don't be shy. Unlike some other bloggers, I won't bite! Promise.

Question of the day: When you were searching for an agent, how many queries did you send out at a time? Some writers I know send out 50+, while another friend has just targeted her top three.

When I began my agent hunt (back on book number one, which did get representation, but didn't sell), I think I started out by contacting about 10-15 agents from the get-go. I felt like this was a safe enough number to assess whether or not my query letter would work (it did - I got a lot of responses), but not too many that I closed off a lot of my top choices should these 10-15 not pan out. And the strategy worked for me. As I quickly discovered, there were dozens of other agents to submit to - beyond my initial 10-15 - and with every rejection that came in, I fired off another query to another agent. I tried to always have about ten queries, partials or fulls in play, so that there wasn't any downtime when I didn't have anyone reading. However, agent hunt number one wasn't perfect, by any means, if only because, as I alluded to above, I could have perhaps better targeted my initial pitches to agents I was truly wild about, rather than firing off emails to agents who fit my general criteria but might not have been great matches for me in the end.

I was better educated the second time I went on my quest - not in terms of quantity, I still stuck to my "ten balls in the air" theory, rather in terms of quantity. This time out, I really focused solely on agents who I knew would be great fits for me. How did I know? A lot of research: seriously, there's very little that you can't find out about an agent online, and if you look long enough and hard enough, you'll be able to pinpoint who you think would work well for you. I was also much more confident in this ms (TDLF), so I aimed the bar high, primarily targeting agents whom I might have been intimidated to contact from the get-go the first time out. Which, when I think about it, is sort of silly. The intimidation part, not the targeting part. It seems to me that you want the best possible agent for your work. Aiming the bar slightly lower because you're concerned that a fabulous agent will reject you is non-sensical. (Even though I did it!) I mean, if he's going to reject you, he's going to reject you! Why not give it a try? Which is what I did this time around, and I was shocked that some super big-time agents not only took the time to respond, but to also read the full and provide lovely feedback.

Though this does bring me to another tangent altogether: just because someone is a super big-time agent doesn't mean that he or she is the right agent for you. In fact, in the end, I intentionally chose an agent who was up-and-coming but not too huge yet because I wanted someone who still had time for me. So when you're making your top 10 or 20 list, don't just go for the big guns; go for the agent who can pull out the big guns for you. This is critical. There is no "perfect" agent; only the perfect agent for you.

But back to your question: I don't think I'd have 50+ queries in play. What if your query letter sucks or what if you decide to revise your ms and you've already burned through most of your choices? I like the 10-15 number because it ensures that someone is always reading the ms (or query), but isn't so expansive that you limit your options in the future.

How have you guys gone about your agent hunt?

PS - SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! Jim and Pam 4evah! :) (You regular readers know what I'm talking about, and you non-regulars, get thyselves to a TV to watch The Office asap!)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Thank You Notes

When you were beginning your freelance career and received rejections from editors (one-liner's that basically say "No, but thanks for thinking of us."), did you send an e-mail back saying "thank you for responding" or would editors rather you didn't respond to a rejection?

I always, always write an editor back and thank him or her for responding. Hell, I'd do it even if she just sent me a note saying, "NO." I've never heard that editors find this annoying, and frankly, I think it's the courteous thing to do. Think of it this way: you don't know them, they don't know you. You send them an unsolicited note, which, while technically part of their job to read, really isn't a requirement since you're a stranger, and they not only take the time to read it, they actually respond. The polite thing to do is let them know that you appreciated their time. Yeah, yeah, I know you're reading this and thinking, "hey, they're not doing me any favors by replying to a query, since it's the least they can do," and you're not wrong. But what I'm saying is that since plenty of editors DON'T reply to unsolicited emails, it's nice to genuinely thank the ones who do.

Besides, you can never go wrong by being unfailingly polite....regardless of the situation or industry. In fact, I'd use your thank you note to let this editor know that you not only appreciate his or her feedback and time, but that you'll also be in touch again with new ideas. This forces you to get your rear in gear and generate another query, and also gives him or her the heads-up that you'll be emailing again. This time, maybe you won't be considered such a stranger.

Btw, this same logic applies to agent queries as well. Even if an agent sent me a flat-out form rejection, I'd shoot back a quick note saying, "Thanks for your time. I really do appreciate the response." And you know what? I remember doing this for Jennifer Jackson of the Maass Agency, and the next day, she blogged about how that week she'd gotten thanked from a few writers whom she'd rejected and how professional and courteous we were. So...that's straight from the agent's mouth. It never hurts to leave a good impression, even if they're the ones who are kicking you to the curb.

Anyone else always thank the very people who are rejecting them?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Stolen, Schmolen

I pitched an idea to an editor I'd never worked with before. A few months later, I saw a story in the magazine that was virtually the exact same idea I pitched! I'm irate. Can I do anything about it?

No. And you shouldn't either. WHY?? You might ask/fume? Because the odds are slim to none that YOUR idea inspired this story. Stick with me here, and I'll explain.

At some point in many fledgling writers' careers, they assume that one of their ideas has been ripped off. It's an easy enough assumption: ideas aren't copy-writable (yes, I think I made that word up), and hey, since you sent it into your editor, surely, she read it, loved it, but just passed it on to someone else. Right? Right? Wrong.

Here's the deal: as genius as we like to think of our ideas, most of them, sadly, aren't really that unique. Chances are, if you thought of it, so too did at least one - if not six - other writers. Think about this. We all have access to the same research, news reports and general trends. If you develop a pitch on how yoga can save your life, the odds are very likely that someone else has too. Sometimes, landing a story is simply a matter of who presses "send" first. I can't tell you the number of times that an editor has come back to me and said, "we just assigned a piece on this subject, sorry!" And I'll stew over my keyboard thinking, "why didn't I motivate and get off my ass and send that in sooner??" Ah well, c'est la vie.

The thing is, it really doesn't serve any purpose for your editor to take your idea and run in the other direction. Why would he or she do that? Editors aren't there to screw you, and they're not unethical or amoral. If you deliver a well thought-out and researched query, they'll be impressed. But just as importantly, you have to deliver a unique query. "10 Ways to Lose Weight" is not unique. "10 Ways to Spice Up Your Sex Life" is not unique. Get the picture here? If you send in a pitch like this, well, of course you're going to think that they ripped you off because at some point in the near future, an article will appear on these subjects....but that doesn't mean that the editor took her inspiration from you. In fact, if it was a fairly generic pitch, she probably read it, hopefully responded, and then deleted it. (Sorry, it's true.) It didn't haunt her enough so that she took the time to farm it out to a different writer. Trust me, really, she didn't.

If you're 100% certain that you've been ripped off, because sure, it does occasionally happen, then I'd send her an email saying something like, "I loved the story in the November issue on how to turn your garden into a kibbutz. I remember pitching you something very similar, and that you responded to it positively. I was hoping to, of course, be assigned this piece. Was there a mix-up along the way?" Or something like that. I wouldn't make flagrant accusations because unless she used your intro word for word or cited the exact anecdotes that you provided, you really have no way of knowing what truly happened. Sometimes, you'll send in an idea, it won't be right for them at the time, then several months later, someone else will submit a similar idea, and it will fit. It might LOOK like the editor stole your idea, but, in fact, she'd forgotten about the original pitch and was just struck by this one.

And don't forget: most monthly mags work on at least six months lead time. So if you've pitched something and see similar a story three months later, it wasn't stolen at all. You were simply behind the game.

The bottom line is that you can stew and steam all you want. But moving forward and developing finely-honed and researched ideas is a much better use of your time.

Ever thought you had your idea stolen? How did you react? Editors on this board: want to chime in and explain how often you see the same idea over and over again?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Besides doing a Google and search of the subject, is there any other way to know if your book idea has already been published?

You can also check out Publishers Marketplace, which, for $20 a month, is well worth the investment: you'll see which agents are making what deals, which houses are buying what books, etc.

But there's something else I wanted to address with this question. I think that if you're writing non-fiction, let's say you're working on a book on weight loss, it's obviously important to know what competition is out there. I mean, there have been a gajillion books written on this subject and you need to ensure that yours stands out from the pack. In fact, when drafting a book proposal for an agent, you'll actually include a section on the potential competition, so yes, doing some research and seeing that you're not merely duplicating a previously published book is important.

However, with fiction, I'd worry less that your idea has already been sold and focus more on actually writing the best book that you possibly can. As we've discussed before on the blog, there are probably only so many variations on overarching themes in books: reinvention, lost love, death, grief, coming of age, etc. But how you develop these themes, how you expand and play out your plot is as individual as your fingerprint. Just because you see a book about a 28-year old widow has sold on Publishers Marketplace doesn't mean that it will in any way echo your manuscript about a 30-year old widow. See PS I Love You vs. Good Grief. Both deal with losing a spouse, but neither really have anything to do with one another. (Or so I think...I'm just starting PS right now, and it feels like a very different work than GG.) Publishers (or agents) aren't going to turn you down because there's already ONE book out there that might have a similar overall idea behind it as yours. They'll turn it down because of a million other factors: the plot isn't strong enough, the writing isn't strong enough, your characters aren't strong enough. You get the idea.

Just write the best damn book you can. That's really all you can do.

Who disagrees? (I'm sure that some of you do!)

Monday, October 16, 2006

More on Relationships and Persistence

I wanted to share a little story in light of what we've been discussing over the past week or so: how to forge long-term relationships with editors, the power of persistence and the necessity of patience. Thought that this anecdote might really help drive all of these points home.

So I wake up Friday morning to an email in my in-box from an editor with whom I haven't spoken in well over a year. A YEAR! In fact, I don't think I've written for this magazine in at least that long, probably longer.

Now, before I go on, let me backtrack. Remember how I posted a story last week about how it took me three years to land an assignment with one particular editor, and I landed it only after she moved on to a new magazine? Well, for clarity's sake, let's call her editor A. And let's call the editor who emailed me on Friday, editor B. When editor A switched positions and magazines, she started assigning to me, as I mentioned. She also referred me to several other editors within the magazine, one of whom was editor B. I wrote a few articles for editor B, but she soon got promoted to a position at which she no longer assigned pieces. So...that was that.

Until Friday. She's now back assigning, and a year later, she sends me a note out of the blue and assigns me an enormous feature at a top pay rate. See where I'm going with this? The beauty of freelancing is that if you work hard at proving your worth and if you take the time to hone your relationships with your editors (as I did with both editor A and editor B), you can develop career-long ties. What did I do to imprint myself into editor B's memory? I can't be certain, but I'd say it had something to do with delivering well-researched stories, happily tackling a few rounds of revisions, and being cordial, pleasant and friendly the entire time. I mean, isn't that what we'd ALL want from an employee? It doesn't sound like a magic formula (right? I mean, you're reading that thinking, "well, isn't this obvious?"), but you'd be shocked at how many times I hear editors complaining that writers failed on one or more of these levels.

Also, back to editor A, who as of late had also been promoted to a new position within the publishing house...thus my dry-spell in writing for them. She's now helming a few new projects for the publisher, and she too has come to me for story ideas and assignments. Again, this is a relationship that I really took the time to invest in...not because I was assured of any sort of payoff but because a) she was someone whom I admired and wanted to work for and b) regardless of if it paid off, it was the right thing to do for my career. You can never go wrong in attempting to establish strong relationships, even if that editor never sends a single story your way. You never know what you can learn from her or the process, when she'll pass your name along to someone else or when she'll think of you out of the blue.

So...I just thought I'd share. I really thought that this situation drove home a lot of the points we'd been chatting about on the blog.

Unrelated PS - Why, oh WHY, does that spiteful idiot continue to reap prizes and first place on The Amazing Race while that dear open-minded couple pull up the rear?? Is there no justice on reality television??? (Don't answer that. And yes, I tried to keep this intentionally vague for those who haven't yest seen it.)