Way back in the ancient days of June 9-10, I taught a class at the DFW Writers' Conference. It's about all the stuff I learned about the publishing business from the time I found an agent up until more or less now.
Here are my notes:
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING TO GET PUBLISHED
Introduction [Slide 1: Title Card]
· Is anyone else terrified to be here? No? Just me, then.
· Hi, I'm David, etc.
o I’ve been a wannabe writer all my life
o I decided to start taking it seriously in 2012. Joined the DFW Writers workshop.
o Three years later, I sold two books to Haughton Mifflin Harcourt. I highly recommend joining, but should stress that results are not typical.
Why we're here
· You're interested in learning what happens after you finally land an agent and a publishing contract. Having some insider information will help you avoid mistakes and present yourself more professionally to the first literary professionals you interact with. This is a people business, so being able to interact well with people will only help you.
· You were too tired to move after the last class
· I learned a lot of things really rapidly when Stephen Barr first asked to represent me, and I want to share them with you
· I am (a) terrified of public speaking, and (b) a glutton for punishment.
What we’re going to talk about [Slide 2]
· How We Got Here: the epic story of how one frustrated novelist accidentally embarked on a path to becoming a published children’s book author.
· Landing an Agent: what happens when an agent likes your query, loves your manuscript, and thinks he might want to represent you
· The Sale and What Comes After: It’s not quite as simple as signing on the dotted line and cashing a big check.
· It’s Not All About You: writing is a solitary activity. Publishing is a team sport.
· The Waiting is the Hardest Part: your journey is just beginning. Like many journeys, it begins by a long wait, as if in an airport or a doctor’s reception room.
How We Got Here
· I started writing genre fiction for adults, and still do a little bit. But I have a short attention span and a tendency to write myself into corners that it takes me a long time to think my way out of.
· As a hobby or to take a break, I would write children’s stories and poems. Everybody always says they started writing stories for their kids, and it’s so twee. I wrote children’s stories to freak out my niece and nephew’s parents. Which is to say they were weird.
· The DFW Writers’ Workshop inspired me to try to get them published. Everyone also says how inspiring their writers’ group is, and that’s also so twee. I got into writing children’s books because other members of the Workshop would guilt-trip me if I hadn’t read anything to critique in a while, and all I had to read was children’s stories because I was stuck on my novel.
"I Think You've Found Your Niche" [Slide 3]
· My picture books got a better response than any of my adult writing ever had.
· I wrote a few more just because it was fun, and a great break from my "serious" writing. A picture book MS. is around 700 words long, and about as hard to write as a regular-length short story. Harder than flash fiction, easier than a novella. And fun, at least for me
· I decided to submit to few agents at the 2014 Conference (2014 was a good year for children’s agents and editors. We had like three or four). I sent out a few queries. My rejections got nicer and more wordy faster than my adult fiction rejections were.
o A little bit about my query process
▪ I can stand to writer about five query letters at a time, and I can work up to it about once a month. That’s a really terrible rate of querying. You should all do better than me.
▪ In my defense, though, queries for picture books are different than for novels. Every agency seems to want a different number of submissions. Some say send one full manuscript. Others want two or three. So it’s hard to just write a generic query and customize it for each agent.
▪ But I’m just as bad about my short fiction. I just really hate rejection, and querying is the first step toward getting rejected.
Landing an agent [Slide 4]
· And then, all of a sudden, one of the agents said yes. Stephen Barr, from Writers House, wanted to represent my Ginny Goblin picture book series. I’d had a couple other rejections recently, and I almost deleted the email without reading it. -- Important lesson: read all your emails from agents.
o Insert my query letter [Powerpoint Slide]
· [Slide5] And now a brief diversion: how you can tell your writing is improving via rejection letter.
o Form letter: I’m being polite
o Short note: This shows promise
o Note with feedback: You’re pretty good. I hope I hear from you again.
· “Can you send me some more pieces?”: I think we can work together.
· Similarly: how you can gauge an agent’s interest in your manuscript
o Query letter: I’m being polite
o Ten pages: I see possibilities
o 3 chapters: I’m really interested
[QUESTIONS: What do you guys already know about working with an agent?]
· There’s more to getting representation than just finding an agent who likes your manuscript. A good agent wants to like YOU, and for you to like him. Stephen set up a phone call and we talked for like an hour before we agreed to work together.
o You want to like your agent and feel like you’d be able to work with them. You’ll be doing a lot of work together.
o You want to know what your agent’s plans are. A good agent will communicate with you about where she (or he, as in my case) plans to send your manuscript and what kind of future she thinks it has.
o A bad agent is worse than no agent. I don’t have a bad agent, so I can’t tell you exactly what might go wrong.
▪ Bad publishing deals
▪ Spoiling your relationship with publishers by being unprofessional
▪ Failing to communicate
▪ Being disorganized
▪ Dogs and cats living together
[Pause for questions about query process]
How do you find agents to query? [Slide 7]
· The way I found agents to query was mostly by Google
o Search for “Agent” or “New Agent” and your genre, and you’ll get lots of hits—many from Writers’ Digest—of agents who are looking for your kind of stuff
o Then Google-stalk them a little to learn about them.
o Check Predators and Editors, a site run by the SFWA. If you can’t find your agent listed, be a little careful. If you find anything bad about him, look for a different agent.
▪ Pred-ed.com is currently out of commission. It’ll be back eventually. For now, the Absolute Write forums seem to be the best compilation of agent and editor info.
o It’s totally cool to email other authors your potential agent reps and ask them how he is. I wish I’d known that, but I got lucky without. And once I did think to look into it, I found nothing but rave reviews.
How would you ask for references?
· I’d just straight-up ask the agent if it’s okay to email some of his s other clients.
· If you follow one of them on social media and he seems like the kind of dude who would answer, I’d just ask the author directly.
[ask who has an agent and what they know about the basic agent business]
Now You Have an Agent [Slide 8]
· Representation Agreement: The deal is finalized when you sign the representation agreement.
o A contract between you and the agent, spelling out that the agent will represent your work, you will pay a percentage of the commissions, and some other stuff.
o The agreement is voluntary. Either of you can end it at any time, with no penalty. Sometimes an agent just can’t place your stuff. Sometimes you just need another agent.
o The representation agreement probably starts with a specific body of work, but your agent is likely to be willing to represent most of what you do. There might be an exception if you write something in a genre the agent totally doesn’t represent—which is to your benefit because you’ll need someone with the right contacts. But even then your agent is going to help you out.
· Editing: before Stephen submitted my stuff, we went back and forth for weeks polishing all the Ginny Goblin stories. In today’s publishing world, editors aren’t doing as much editing as they used to, so you need have really polished work.
· Submission: Agents do pretty much the same thing we do when we're submitting ourselves, but they get to use the editors' personal email addresses and phone numbers. And they get to make multiple submissions. Stephen sent Ginny Goblin to 18 editors, each at a different publishing house.
o Starting with top-tier houses. If they’d all passed on it, he had a second list one tier down. And so on, presumably.
· In the meantime was still writing, and still submitting adult stories.
Things I learned about having an agent [Slide 9]
· CC your agent on emails with your editor. Stephen (and every other agent I’ve ever talked to about it) likes to be able to go through old emails to keep apprised on what’s going on with the book.
o You’re not violating your editor’s privacy or anything. My editors always CC Stephen, too.
· You are not the only client. Be reasonable.
· Feel free to ask questions. There are no stupid questions; just stupid authors who didn’t ask something they really needed to know and ended up doing something stupid because of it. And agents are genuinely pretty nice people. They almost have to be. Their job is to talk to people.
· The Publishing Food Chain: Authors never pay for food. Agents pay for authors. Editors pay for agents. Kinda makes me wish I drank alcohol, because Stephen gets off really cheap.
[Pause for Questions]
How do you communicate with your agent? How often?
· Secret codes and blind drops
· Or maybe email and phone. Most of the time, email. When we need to discuss something, we arrange a time for a phone call.
· On auction day, Stephen called me without setting up a call first to tell me one of the publishers had made a preemptive offer. I assume if anything of that level of urgency came up, he’d do the same.
· We emailed somewhere between daily and once a week from the time we started working on Ginny Goblin until all the major publishing stuff was settled and there was nothing to talk about. We still email a little more than once a month just for a “hey, what’s going g on?” sort of thing
[Ask What do you guys know about selling a book?][Slide 10]
The Sale and What Comes After [Slide 11]
· Selling a book. Nothing is simple. The editor doesn’t just immediately decide to buy your book.
o Editors express interest, then take the book to an editorial committee, then a sales committee.
o This can be going on at multiple publishers simultaneously.
o And most of the time, just one (if even one) will make an offer on the book. There's some haggling, but not a lot. This probably changes once you’re as famous as J.K. Rowling.
· You’re probably not going to sell your entire 7-book epic immediately.
o While Ginny Goblin is a 5-book series (so far) Stephen only sold 2. Most publishers aren't going to buy a big series from an un-tested author right out of the gate.
o Selling one title was more likely than 2, and 2 was the most Stephen expected to sell.
· Stephen set up phone calls between me and each of the most interested editors. Of the 5 who were eventually involved in the final decision, I got to talk to 4 on the phone before the sale.
o Not to entertain offers. That's the Agent's job. Just to get to know each other and talk about direction for the books a little. A professional editor isn’t even going to try to talk money with you.
o You DO want to talk about what the editor sees for your book. You want to know what the publisher’s plans are. Where do they see it on their list. That kind of stuff. A publisher who can’t answer those questions might not be worth your time.
· My books went to a single-bid auction. 5 editors each made their best offers. You're not obligated to take the highest. Other factors might make you decide to accept a lower offer.
o My second sale went a lot faster. Tracey Keavan is an executive editor, and she was able to put together a huge prempt really fast. We didn’t get to communicate much at all.
· Rarer than that is a real auction where they keep bidding each other up.
· After the sale, the contracts take several weeks. There's some negotiation on contract points besides the price, like how many comp copies you'll get and what the exact royalties will be. Based on reading the emails between Stephen and HMH and the notes on the early draft of the contract, a lot of this is pretty standardized.
o The advance is specified in the offer, and won’t change.
o Royalties can go up from the initial offer. Those are called “escalators.” Stephen says he pretty much always asks for them and it’s pretty common to get them.
· There's probably an Option in your contract on your next book. Stephen negotiated mine to be just for the next Ginny Goblin book. I could publish another book with a different publisher.
· You might not get the advance immediately.
o There are several ways it can go. A pretty typical one is half up front and half upon delivery of the final manuscript. You might also get paid part upon publication. That sucks.
· Here’s another weird thing. If you do entertain multiple offers, it’s traditional to write a thank you note to the editors you turned down. Yes, that’s right. You get to write rejection letters!
· You might get to be in Publisher’s Weekly. I was. Almost a whole inch of type, and a tiny little picture. I think my mom bought a copy.
[pause for questions]
How long did the sale take?
· From initial submission to sale date was a little less than a month
· It generally takes somewhere around a week for a book to get through committee. So for longer manuscripts, I’d expect something like 6 weeks.
· The series I sold to Disney*Hyperion took way longer, over 2 months from offer to advance – but part of that was because it was during the pre-holiday rush.
o Smaller publishers might have leaner process.
What’s covered in the contract? [Slide 12]
· Too much to go into. Essentially:
o Rights: in what forms does the publisher have the right to publish the work. English, Foreign Lang, Domestic, World, video, audio, etc.
o Royalties: How much you’re getting paid per copy.
§ You don’t start earning royalties until you’ve paid back the advance.
§ Royalties are distributed quarterly
o Comp copies. These are yours to do with as you will. Lots of authors give them away as promotions. I’m probably having one of mine bronzed. (Is that still a thing? Even if it is, I bet it doesn’t work on books…)
o Your responsibilities: Basically, that you will provide an acceptable manuscript. If you don’t do that, they don’t have to pay you.
§ One weird requirement is that you provide two typed, double-spaced copies of the manuscript.
· According to Stephen, this is in just about every standard literary contract.
· Nobody actually enforces it.
· Nobody cares enough to remove that clause from all the boilerplate contracts in the world. People are weird.
It’s Not All About You [Slide 13]
Working with your editor
Here’s a few things I’ve learned from working with my professional editor: Kate O’Sullivan at HMH Kids.
· Your editor is a busy person. Don’t pester them unnecessarily. Do ask questions you need answered. I learned this when Stephen gently suggested I not email her as often as I was the first week after I signed the contracts.
· My experience has been great. Kate tells me my writing is wonderful and then makes suggestions that improve it even more. Once in a while, I dig my heels in on a small change, and she’s cool with that. We’ve only revised about 1500 words together, so that’s hardly a representative sample. Your editor wants your book to be awesome, and wants you to be happy with it. She (or he, I guess) is probably pretty darn good at figuring out what makes a book awesome, so you should probably listen to her suggestions.
Authors and Illustrators
This part will mostly be interesting if you do picture books, but the rest of you don’t get to ignore it. It’s also true about your cover design.
· My general understanding is that the author and the illustrator don’t actively collaborate most of the time. The publishers tend to be nervous about potential conflicts, so they’d kind of like it if the author and illustrator didn’t talk to each other. But it’s not a hard and fast rule, and sending your illustrator an email is not going to tank your publishing deal. (Probably)
· My personal stance is that I won’t seek out the illustrator, but if we connect for some reason, that’s okay. I will only not offer input about what I want to see in the art, but I will respond to questions. The illustrator is a better artist than I am.
· You’ll probably get some input on the artist. I got to choose from a pool of a few Kate liked. Also normal is for the publisher to pick and you will be able to veto one you really hate. The publisher doesn’t want to alienate you, but they do have a business to run.
· This can vary quite a bit. The books I sold to Disney*Hyperion came with the illustrator attached: Andrea Tsurumi, who wrote and illustrated Accident! She’s another client of Stephen’s, and he asked her to do concept art that was part of the submission. Andrea and I are social media buddies and we chat online sometimes. Tracey has skyped with us before.
[pause for questions about working with editor/illustrator]
How do you communicate with your editor?
· Almost exclusively by email, so far. We’ve talked on the phone once.
· When we were editing, we’d email every couple days. Before we started editing, it was less than once a week. Then, recently, there was this whole drama with nailing down an illustrator. We emailed a couple times a week to discuss different possibilities, find one we loved, then find out he or she was busy until 2039.
The Waiting is the Hardest Part [Slide 15]
· CS Lewis famously wrote, in the dedication to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:
My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still.
· After the contracts are signed, you wait. Then you wait some more. I got my first payment about two weeks after the contracts were signed. The next payments took longer - more like a month - probably because more departments are involved.
· The editor will send you any editorial changes. In my case, they were pretty easy. I doubt anybody's going to buy your manuscript and then ask for a total rewrite. We went back and forth twice on each MS. Kate O'Sullivan made some suggestions. I took them for the most part. Then she asked for a couple other small tweaks. Then it goes to copy editing, and a couple weeks later I get a huge wire transfer. I'm pretty sure my bank thinks I'm a drug dealer now.
· The standard process is that publisher will pay the agent, who takes off his %15 and then the agency sends you the rest.
o %15 seems to be pretty standard across the industry.
· Children's books take a long time to get published. Ginny Goblin took more than two years from sale to publication (which is in a little over a month now)
You're Not Done Yet [Slide 18]
· So now I'm waiting, but not idly.
· I’m not sure how this applies to other sectors of the market, but it seems likely
o Having sold my first picture book, I can’t really sell another one till 2018. HMH bought my debut manuscript, and it’d be unprofessional to sell another one that might come out before that one.
o So now it’s back to writing. I’m working on Chapterbooks and Middle Grade, and still working on adult stuff on the side.
· Now is a good time to do some business-related stuff, too.
· If you haven’t already bought yourname.com, go buy it now. Buy yourname.net, too. And if you really want to splurge, buy yourname.org. You don’t have to put up a website yet, but you want to control that domain. (In fact, even if you’re not on the verge of publication, go buy yourname.com. It’s just good sense.)
· I AM NOT A FINANCIAL ADVISOR, AND THE FOLLOWING DOES NOT CONSTITUTE FINANCIAL ADVICE--
o Find an accountant, preferably one who knows publishing. You have a small business now, and you get deductions for all kinds of stuff. As I am not a licensed financial advisor, I will not venture to suggest what those deductions might be. I will just tell you there were more than I thought.
o If you’re fortunate enough not to be buried in debt, maybe you should do some financial planning. Think of your first advance as a one-time windfall. You can’t be sure you’ll ever sell another book, so don’t go increasing the cost of your lifestyle, but DO buy stuff you could never otherwise afford. (I didn’t get to do that. Instead, I paid off a busted sewer line, a broken foundation, a maxed-out credit card, and a major down payment on a new car when my 15-year old Escort died. But I did take a vacation to New York, so that was cool.)
· A LinkedIn profile is probably a good idea. Maybe not a necessity, but it’s free and doesn’t take very long.
· Promotion is Coming
o Talk to your agent and editor about promotion, particularly as the publishing date gets closer. I’m lucky enough to have HMH’s publicity department. Lower tier publishers probably don’t have a lot of resources in that direction.
[Final Slide: Something about a continuing journey. A path leading off to adventure? The Fool tarot card?]
· Please don’t ask me anything hard. Please don’t ask me anything hard. Please don’t ask me anything hard…
Advice from Other Writers
• A bad agent is worse that no agent.
• Agents are different, and the right fit is important.
• With publishing, there are a million things outside of your control. Don't beat yourself up about those things.
• A bad deal is worse than no deal. Before signing, ask your publisher how they see your book(s) fitting on their list. If they don't have a plan, or even an answer...they might not be worth your time.
• Lastly, the solution to every problem is pretty much always...write another book!
Wish I'd known:
1. You can move tens of copies on your own initiative. Maybe even hundreds of copies, if you're an especially good little Girl Scout. But you cannot move thousands of copies by yourself. For that you need a publisher's full financial heft behind you. (And if you don't have that, you have to sink serious time and money into promoting your work.)
2. You will almost-certainly not set the world on fire. And no matter how carefully you set your expectations, you will almost-certainly be sad about that.
3. Jealousy is real, and it's ugly.
4. Good work is the kind you feel good after you've done. (Writing, exercise, cleaning, etc.) Bad work is the kind you resent having had to do. (Being forced to apologize, for example, or your boss making you do a stupid/meaningless job.) Do not let self-promotion become bad work.
5. It is possible that nobody will ever enjoy or care about your work as much as you do. It is possible that it will make no impression whatsoever. It is vitally important to come to terms with that.
6. Adjacent to number 5: anything that writing is going to fix for you, will be fixed in the act of writing itself. Fame will not fix you. Success will not fix you. Every happiness that depends on other people is an illusion.
7....but the enthusiasm of other people still feels really, really good.
Neat stuff I've found out:
1. You do not have to chase success. Instead, let it be a byproduct of living a life you're proud of. (Then even if you're not successful, you have something to be proud of.)
2. Books are not movies. They're not supposed to make a million dollars their first week out. They do not disappear overnight.
3. Branding yourself is a three-step process. 1) Do things you enjoy. 2) Notice which things people respond to. 3) Do more of those things. Recalibrate and repeat as necessary.
4. At the end of the day, people won't remember what you wrote. But they will remember how you made them feel.
5. The right one-star review is worth more than the wrong five-star review.
6. If you want people to care, give them a laugh, get them excited/fired-up about something, or help them solve a problem. Those are your choices.
7. Writing is special. It's not like sports, or college admissions, or cancer treatment. There is no "Game Over" screen. There is only "Do you wish to continue?"
A) sell books / make money
B) upsize platform
C) help someone
D) have fun
If a given project does not promise at least two of those four things, I'm not doing it. It's VERY easy to give away all your time, money, and energy and get nothing in return. Dual-purpose projects halve that risk.
The Ginny Query
Hi Mr. Barr
(Actually, from your profile page, you seem like the kind of guy who'd say "call me Steve," but I'd rather err on the side of caution.
My name is David Goodner, and this is the part in the query letter in which I’m supposed to wow you with my amazing credentials. I can’t actually do that, since I have none, so I’m going to attempt to appear witty and self-effacing instead.
I live in Arlington, Texas, and work for the Arlington Public Library. I’ve served on the board of the DFW Writer’s Workshop for two years.
I have a range of interests that my friends would describe as “eclectic” and other people would just call “weird.” I also have several adorable nieces and nephews in my life, and I’ve fooled them all into believing I’m the cool uncle.
I also feel a little bad about starting three paragraphs with the word “I,” so I’m going to shift to talking about my book.
Ginny Goblin Is Not Allowed to Open this Box before Dinnertime Is a picture book manuscript that clocks in at just under 400 words. The plot is fairly self-explanatory. There’s a box, and Ginny Goblin is not allowed to open it. But oh, how she will try. Her attempts will involve lock picks, grappling hooks, catapults, and baby goats. She is not allowed to use any of those things to open the box.
It’s a story that interacts with the reader, inviting her to attempt to curtail Ginny’s increasingly strident efforts. Whenever I write a children’s book, I try to make it completely accessible to children, but also fun for adults. Ginny’s story is no exception. Ginny herself is a wild character who refuses to be held back. Her adventure escalates steadily, and there’s lots of iterative repetition that appeals to young children. The story is also funny and engaging (or at least I like to think so). My test audiences of children loved it, and my test audiences of adults also really enjoyed it and said they’d like to read it to their own kids.
Ginny has had four other adventures to date, learning that she can’t go outside to play in the rain, can’t have a monster for a pet, has to eat her peas, and has to get ready for bed right now. And, lest you think I’m a one-trick pony, I have several other picture book manuscripts as well.
So, without further ado, here’s Ginny Goblin Is Not Allowed to Open this Box before Dinnertime. Thank you for taking time to read my submission. I look forward to hearing from you.