Tag Archives: publishing business

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Self-Defining Success

Islevale compositeAs you know at this point, we are in the midst of release week for Time’s Assassin, the third book in my epic fantasy/time travel series, The Islevale Cycle. For today’s writing tip, I am going to address a matter I’ve talked about before in conferences and workshops: defining success and balancing external disappointments with the satisfaction we ought to take in work well done.

To state the obvious, we want all of our books to succeed, to garner great reviews and sell like gangbusters. (And, with that in mind, you can order Time’s Assassin here. You can also get books I and II in the series at a special price. Here’s the link.) With few exceptions, our most recent efforts tend to be the ones we think are the best. That has certainly been the case with my work. Some series are more successful than others, but generally speaking, I have been most proud of whatever book I have completed most recently. The Islevale books are no exception to this. I love, love, love these books. All of them. And I think that Time’s Assassin is the finest concluding volume to a series I have ever written. I had creative goals for the book — things I wanted to accomplish with the narrative — and I feel that I achieved every one of them. I’m deeply proud of that.

Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)The truth is, I have felt that way about all three volumes of this trilogy. The Islevale books were incredibly difficult to write. I knew going in that writing time travel would be really hard — as one friend told me, “It’ll make your brain explode.” So much can go wrong. We have to examine every plot point from every possible angle to make certain it holds up to logic, and to the simple reality that time travel gives us endless opportunities for do-overs. Put another way, every event in a time travel story is negotiable. Each one can be altered or reversed by the very plot devices on which our stories depend.

I have never struggled with a set of books so much. Part of the problem was, maybe due to the time travel, I could not outline the books. I’m a planner. I outline all my novels. Except these. And, early on, it showed. My wonderful agent, Lucienne Diver, tore apart the first draft of the first book, which I liked very much. And every criticism she had of the book was valid. I wound up cutting 40,000 words from that initial iteration and then writing scenes totaling 60,000 words to make it work. It was a brutal slog. But when I finished that new draft of Time’s Children, I knew I had written the best book of my career.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.I hoped that Time’s Demon, book II, would prove easier to write. It didn’t. This time, I did most of the cutting and adding on my own — I didn’t need anyone to point out most of the early flaws; I saw them for myself. Again, I couldn’t outline the book, but by the time the second volume was done, I had fallen in love with it as well. And so it went with book III, Time’s Assassin.

These books have also had a tangled history. The first book received terrific reviews — a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a designation as the Best Fantasy Novel of 2018 from Reviews and Robots, an Audie nomination — and sold well, too. The second book also received great reviews — and one high-profile poor one that stung. More, its release coincided with a turnover in management at Angry Robot, the original publisher. The book got lost in the transition and tanked. Angry Robot’s new editor apologized to me about this, but sales being what they were, she could not pick up the option on book three. Fortunately, John Hartness at Falstaff Books took the book on and made this week’s release possible. I’m grateful to him, and to all the great folks at Falstaff.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)I frequently tell beginning writers that they need to self-define success, something which is really hard to do in this business. All too often we writers are forced by the nature of publishing to seek exterior affirmation for our work — reviews, sales, awards if we’re fortunate enough to win them. These are the things the industry values and so, naturally, they are the things we care about as well. The problem with this is, the industry is cruel and capricious. We all know of good, even great, books that go unnoticed and unacknowledged. We all have seen mediocrity rewarded with terrific sales and undeserved attention. And we know that this is true in the world beyond publishing as well. Life is not always fair.

With the books of the Islevale Cycle, I have been left with no choice but to heed my own advice: I have to self-define my success. I can lament that these books deserved a better fate than that which the industry offered, or I can draw satisfaction from what they have meant to me, personally. Because they mean a lot: The series in total was the most ambitious project I’ve taken on, and the final products represent the finest work I have done. Writing these books forced me to stretch as an artist — every book and story I write from here on out will be better because of this series. So, yeah, I wish the second book had sold better. I wish I hadn’t had to deal with the pain of being dropped by the first publisher. And I hope that the release of this third volume will build sales for all three books.

I said at the outset of this post that I LOVE the books. And it’s true. I love the characters, the setting, the magic system, the prose, the emotion, the twists and turns. And I am hopeful that you will love them, too. Not just because I want to sell some books — though, yeah, I do — but because I take pride in the work, and I want others to see what I’ve done. I’m like a little kid showing his latest scribble to everyone who’ll take time to look at it. And I’m okay with that. When we’re kids, self-defining success comes easily. It’s when we’re older, and more aware of the pitfalls of creative careers, that we lose sight.

Thanks, and keep writing.

Monday Musings: On New Releases and All That Comes With Them

Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)It is release week for Time’s Assassin, the third book in my epic fantasy/time travel series, The Islevale Cycle, and so that will be the focus of my posts this week. And I’d like to kick off the week with some musings about new releases and the excitement and anxiety that comes with them.

Release days are odd. Even today, with the marketplace changed and production times for books shortened by digital advances and the movement toward smaller presses and self-publishing, the actual day a book drops seems to be removed from time — an irony given that, in this instance, the release is a time travel story. Producing a book takes months, and while the rest of the world sees Time’s Assassin as my newest work, I know it’s not. Since completing the submitted draft of this book, I have written short stories, a non-fiction piece, several novellas, and a full-length novel. I’m currently reading and worldbuilding in preparation for another multi-volume project. In other words, my mind has moved on from Islevale. Talking and writing about this book feels like a journey to a different time.

To be clear, it’s not a journey I mind making. I love the Islevale books; I believe they’re the best novels I’ve published. They’re just not the focus of my professional life the way they were when I was neck-deep in writing them. And that’s a bit of a problem. The fact is, the success of Time’s Assassin and the two volumes that came before it will have a huge impact on everything I do after. Sadly, that’s how publishing works. We are only as successful commercially — and, to a lesser degree, critically — as our most recent work. This is why even perennial bestsellers still worry about each new release. They sweat the reviews and pore over their sales numbers.

We want to take satisfaction in the publication itself (more on this in Wednesday’s post) and to some degree we do. Certainly we should. Writing a book is no small feat. Completing a series is an accomplishment that deserves a moment’s reflection. I still get a thrill out of seeing the jacket art for a new book, or holding the printed novel in my hands for the first time. I have a bookcase next to my desk that holds a copy of every novel I’ve published, every anthology in which I’ve placed a short story or which I’ve edited. Two shelves are full; I’m about to start filling a third. I’m proud of that.

That said, I’m already invested in other projects. I want this release to go well, but my creative energy is focused elsewhere. I don’t mean for that to sound jaded. This is, I believe, as it should be. It’s not just the allure of the New Shiny — though that is real, and worth exploring in a future Writing-Tip Wednesday post. Looking beyond the current release is, to my mind, a natural expression of all that we love about our profession. Yes, completing a book feels great. And yes, starting a new novel can be daunting.

For authors, though, as for all artists working in all forms, creation is a constant. We work on the next project because we have ideas that demand attention, and because we believe with all our hearts that as much as we might love the thing we’ve just finished and are currently promoting, we know that we can do even better.

So, we worry about the sales and the critics. We do what we can to promote the new release.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)…And allow me take a moment to urge you get a copy of Time’s Assassin. (You can order it here.) It is, I believe, a wonderful conclusion to a series I adore. If you haven’t yet read Time’s Children and Time’s Demon, now is the time. The three books are out. There will be no more in this world. And they are as good as any work I’ve ever done. And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post…

But I’ll be perfectly honest with you: Even if the reviews for Time’s Assassin suck, and even if we don’t sell a single copy (neither of which I anticipate), I’m still going to work on the new projects. I am a writer. This is what I do.

Creativity is its own reward. At least it should be. Sometimes things get a bit more complicated than that, a phenomenon I’ll address on Wednesday.

Today, though, I intend to enjoy having my mind in two projects at once, two worlds at once. I am deeply proud of my new release. I hope you’ll buy it and I hope you enjoy it. AND I am incredibly excited about my new projects. I can’t wait for you to see them.

Enjoy your week.

Writing Tip-Wednesday: Reevaluating Goals in the Time of Covid-19

Each of us responds in his or her own way to stress and uncertainty and fear – and there is plenty of all three to go around right now. I have one friend who has been unbelievably productive during the past six weeks. And yes, I hate her just a little bit.

I believe strongly in setting professional goals for myself. Sometimes that means work goals – “I want to write book X by June 30th and book Y by September 30th, and then I want to write three short stories in October and November…” Sometimes it means what we might call achievement goals – “I want to see this book in print by the end of summer, and this book sold to a publisher by the same time, and this short story placed by the end of the year…”

I find that work goals keep me focused and productive. They are a tool I use to self-motivate. Once I write something down in my work calendar – “Work on new fantasy from January to April” – the end of April becomes, in my mind, a deadline. I treat it as such, even though in a technical sense no one may be waiting for the book at the end of that period.

Professional goals, obviously, are more fungible. They have to be, because we have limited control over the marketplace and our relationship with it. Even those who self-publish can’t fit every circumstance to their needs and desires. But still, having those sorts of goals can help with focus, with productivity, and also with that tendency many of us have to overwork our books and stories and thus delay sending them out. (See last week’s Writing-tip.)

As I have already written in this Wednesday feature, the pandemic, and the economic collapse that has come with it, are bad news for the publishing industry in general and new writers in particular. This is a scary time to be pursuing a career in any of the arts, writing included. This is, in my opinion, not a good time for strict adherence to achievement goals.

Work goals, on the other hand, might just be the secret to making the most of this time of social-distancing and Stay-At-Home orders. Each of us responds in his or her own way to stress and uncertainty and fear – and there is plenty of all three to go around right now. I have one friend who has been unbelievably productive during the past six weeks. And yes, I hate her just a little bit. I have another friend who has been unable to do any creative work at all. I probably fall somewhere in between – I’m too distracted to be as productive as usual, but I’m managing to get work done. I recently completed a 30,000-plus word novella, and I’m already nearly halfway through a second. Given how distracted I’ve been, I’m pleased.

My productivity has actually gone up in recent weeks, and I believe that’s because I have finally adjusted to this new reality, and so I’m no longer beating myself up for not writing as quickly as I usually do. I had considered revising my work goals for the year; instead, I abandoned them entirely in favor of work goals for the next couple of months. We are in uncharted territory at this point. No one really knows what the world is going to look like two weeks from now, much less two months, or six. And so for now my goals are to finish this second novella and then write the third. When that’s done, I’ll edit them and figure out what to do with the trilogy. And after that… Who knows? I’ll make those plans when the time comes.

At the same time, though, I am not ready to give up on goals altogether. True, I don’t quite know how I will market the novellas when they’re ready for distribution, but I still want to get them done, and I still want to feel productive. The truth is, I’m happier when I’m working. I feel better about myself and my career, and I genuinely enjoy creating. I seek a balance: I want to have goals that force me to work, that maybe push me to keep writing, even if not at my usual pace. At the same time, I have to be cognizant of the simple fact that I’m not at my best right now. This is a global crisis – medical, economic, political, social. It’s a frightening world we’re living in, and that has to take a toll.

If you’re one of those people who can work through this at your normal pace or even faster than usual, good for you. I hate you a little bit, too. For the rest of you who feel as I do – that you want to remain productive, but can’t quite work at your usual speed – find that balance I’m talking about. Maybe you usually write 1500 words a day, but currently feel you’re only at 75%. That’s 1100 words a day. That is still a decent pace. That will give you a novella in a month or so, a novel in three months. You’ll feel like you’re accomplishing something while also being realistic about our current situation.

The point is not to write quickly – the goal ought never to be solely about that. Now especially, the goal should be to find a pace and level of achievement that maintains both our standards for the work we produce and a feeling of professional and emotional health.

We really can’t ask for more than that.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Making the Most of Our Present Situation

My Writing-Tip Wednesday post for last week was a downer (and also had a rather annoying typo near the end, for which I apologize). No way around it: The publishing business is in a bad place right now, and if I am going to offer writing advice to you every week, you deserve as well an honest assessment of the market.

Today’s post is not intended as a corrective for last week’s, so much as a chance for me to offer a way forward. My career is taking a hit right now, too. Almost everyone’s is. But I’m not giving up. For one thing, I have no other marketable skills. More to the point, I still love what I do, and I have a ton of stories I want to write.

The truth is, much of the advice my colleagues and I offer at conventions and workshops, and in online venues like this one, seems tailor-made to this new world in which we find ourselves. Here are some examples:

“Don’t try to write to the market.” My reasoning with this bit of advice has had two components. First, the market is a moving target, and getting a book out into the world can take a little time, particularly if you’re trying to publish traditionally. By the time you get your book about The New Hot Thing out to the reading public, the Thing might well be neither New nor Hot. Second, we generally write best those things about which we’re passionate. Sure, every now and then our passions and the market’s predilections align perfectly, but those moments are rare. Better you should write the book you are burning to write. It will reflect your enthusiasm, your passion, and that will make it more compelling. In today’s world, “Don’t write to the market” makes even more sense, because the market doesn’t know right now what the hell it wants. Writing the things YOU care about and WANT to write has never been more important.

“Love what you do.” Similar to “Don’t write to the market,” but broader. “Love what you do” is probably the answer I give most often when asked, as I often am, “what advice would you offer to young writers.” And I mean it in three ways. First, as I said above, write the story with which you’ve fallen in love, the one aching to be told. That’s the one that will turn out best. “Love what you do” also has a deeper meaning. At the best of times, writing is a tough profession. So do it for the right reasons. Do it for love of the written word, for devotion to story telling, for fascination with characters. Writing because you think it will be an easy gig, a way to make money – that’s never been a good idea, and it’s never been a worse idea than it is right now. And finally, “Love what you do” means enjoy the process, and commit to doing it well. None of us knows where the project we’re working on right now will wind up. Will we sell it to a publisher? Publish it ourselves? Let it languish in a proverbial trunk? So it’s more important than ever to love the actual writing, to lose ourselves in the act of creativity.

“There is no single right way to do any of this.” Boy, if I had a dime for every time I’ve said this… It applies to the craft and to the business, and I believe it’s vitally important that writers offering advice repeat this often. Those of us who have enjoyed some success in publishing speak with authority, simply by dint of having experience and a publication history. Less experienced writers take our words to heart, and so they have to be reminded that our way is not THE way. Because THE way doesn’t exist. And this is especially true right now. As I said last week, people who claim to know what publishing is going to look like after Covid-19 are fooling themselves and anyone foolish enough to listen to them. No one knows nothin’. And even if they did, there is no single right way to do any of this.

“To the extent you can, make writing part of your daily routine.” Earlier this year, I wrote a post in which I said that those of us proclaiming “Writers must write every day” had oversold the point and done a disservice to writers who can’t write every day, whether because of family obligations, or day jobs, or health issues, or whatever. I also said, though, and will continue to say, that writing often and regularly are good things. The more we write, the better we get and the greater our daily output. In this way, writing is like exercise – it gets easier the more we do it. And so, in this time of stay-at-home orders and social-distancing, why not try to write every day? There’s really no down side, and maybe you’ll finally finish (or start!) that project you’ve been thinking about for months (years?). In other words, tying in another bit of advice my colleagues and I have shared before, “BIC!” Put your Butt In the Chair!

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Scary New Realities of Publishing

Really, though, this is about more than the immediate economic and health crises. Publishing has been in trouble for some time now – falling profits, fewer opportunities for writers and their books, less support for those writers who do land contracts.

I give a lot of writing advice – not only in these Wednesday posts, but also at conventions, writing workshops, and other professional events. I try to offer encouragement along with that advice. The idea and hope, of course, is that those I work with in those settings will eventually find a home for their written work and an outlet for their broader creative ambitions.

And so this is a difficult post for me to write. Difficult, but necessary.

The market sucks right now. I mean it really, really sucks. New York publishers are laying off editors. Authors with whom I share a listserv – and I’m talking about some big names (bigger by far than me) – are sounding the alarm about the industry’s impending collapse, about rapidly shrinking advances and print runs, about the future of their careers.

Yes, this is somewhat anecdotal. There are still opportunities out there for writers who are self-publishing or going the small press route. But even there, economic downturns like this one… Well, there has never been an economic downturn like this one, so we really don’t know what it’s going to mean for our profession. We do know that during times of recession, content creators suffer just like everyone else. Sure, people need entertainment, including reading material and audiobooks. On the other hand, people have less money for luxuries than they did even a few weeks ago. And, in times of crisis, people often become so obsessed with reading about current affairs that their other reading falls by the wayside.

Really, though, this is about more than the immediate economic and health crises. Publishing has been in trouble for some time now – falling profits, fewer opportunities for writers and their books, less support for those writers who do land contracts. Big house traditional publishing has become ever more a haven for the most successful and most famous. The so-called B-list – authors who have decent-but-not-spectacular sales, who have fan bases but not true fame – has been squeezed for the better part of a decade. Recent events have simply accelerated an ongoing process.

So what does this mean? It means that more new writers than ever will be forced to go the self-pub/Indie route, which, in turn, will mean that an already crowded Indie marketplace will be even more difficult to navigate. It means that writers like me – middle-aged, long wedded to the traditional publishing model, moderately well-known and successful, blessed with a small but devoted fan base – will need to turn more and more to unfamiliar and even intimidating technologies and business models. Everything has been disrupted. Everything has changed. We are in a new world.

I will admit to being unnerved by all of this. I love what I do, but the part I like best – the part I have ALWAYS liked best – is the actual writing. The rest, the business stuff, the publicity, the ins and outs of turning my ideas into a physical (or electronic) product, I don’t know as well.

On the other hand, I have projects I want to work on that may have been considered risky in the old marketplace. They may be no less risky now, but I am bound less by those market forces. My audience in this new world may be smaller than I would like ideally, but those readers will, I believe, be receptive to reading the things I want to write. As I said before, there is opportunity here as well.

Those of you who are starting out on this journey, however, are coming into a world that none of us recognizes. Writers like me can continue to offer advice on craft – the fundamentals of good storytelling and sound writing haven’t changed. But take with a grain of salt ANY business advice you get right now. Because none of us has ever seen anything like this before. We don’t know where it will lead. We can’t promise you that doing A, B, and C will invariably carry you to success. That’s sobering, I know. Scary even.

I could offer you platitudes and false assurances, but they won’t help you, and they’ll leave me feeling like crap. It’s a Frightening New World, and all I can promise is that we’ll be exploring it together.

In the meantime, keep writing. That one bit of advice has not and will not lose its value.

Monday Musings: The Social Side of Cons

At the end of this week, I will drive to Charlotte for the Saga Professional Development Conference, where I will be speaking over the weekend. It should be a fun event and I hope to see many of you there.

As I prepare for it, though, I realize that I left something out of my recent Monday Musings post on attending conventions. Clearly, we all want to glean from our conventions and conferences all that we can professionally. But there is another reason we attend these gatherings. I am looking forward to my panels and my workshop, but mostly I’m excited to spend time with my friends and colleagues, to reconnect with fellow writers who I don’t get to see nearly enough.

I live in a tiny town in the rural south. It’s a college town – good places to eat, lots of cultural opportunities, and a wonderful community of smart, interesting, socially-aware people. But I’m pretty much the only speculative fiction writer in the area. There are plenty of writers in town – and I spend time with several of them – but our genre is not well represented.

Moreover, writing is a solitary act (if you don’t count the clamor of voices in our heads). It’s easy to feel isolated in this profession, especially early in one’s career, when we haven’t yet had the chance to build a writing community.

And so when we attend conventions, conferences, and the like, of course we want to sell our books and stories, of course we want to connect with agents and editors who can help us further our careers. But we also want to build that community of colleagues and friends. I’ve been in the business for a quarter century, and I still find new friends at nearly every event I attend. I’m not particularly good at small talk, at being “social” on demand. To some degree I have to force myself. There is a part of me – almost always – that wants to retreat to my hotel room and watch TV, or read, or work, or take a nap. Any of those would be easier than making myself into Socialize Guy. And I did make a point in that previous post I mentioned about building in alone time when attending a convention. I believe that’s important.

The danger lies in retreating completely. As I said, writing is a solitary act. Many of us are drawn to it for just that reason. I love my work time, I enjoy being alone with my ideas, my creativity. That element of my job comes naturally to me. It’s the hobnobbing I struggle with.

Yet, I’m fortunate. I’ve been doing this for long enough that I have lots of friends in the business. I already know many of the people I’ll be seeing this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited to catch up with them. Whatever social anxiety I have is helped by those long-standing friendships. I know that what I’m describing here is difficult, and even downright terrifying, for many people. And all I can say is, we’re really a friendly bunch, and we are more like you than you might think. Make the effort to step outside of your comfort zone, even if it’s just to introduce yourself to one person.

Because as much as we all want to connect with an agent or get invited into an anthology, it is every bit as important to start building your community. And the truth is, I wouldn’t trade a single one of my dear friends for all the book contracts and anthology invites in the world.

Although, if you happen to be a movie agent, you should ignore that last line. Really. Call me!

Have a great week!

Monday Musings: Getting the Most Out of a Convention

I am just finishing up a very nice weekend at Boskone, a terrific regional convention in Boston. This was my second Boskone, and I feel that I am starting to know people at the con, and also to be known. I hope to be back again next year.

The truth is, this was the first convention in some time that I have truly enjoyed. I am frustrated by elements of the business right now, and I’m struggling with my creative process. Over the past year or so, those frustrations have kept me from getting as much out of my convention appearances as I would have liked.

I have read plenty of “How To Approach a Convention” advice posts. I’ve even written a few. There is lots of helpful advice out there on how to network at conventions, how to comport oneself on panels and at readings, how to approach the entire con experience in a way that will maximize its impact on career growth. This is not one of those posts.

Rather, I am thinking about what I did this weekend to ensure that I had a positive emotional experience, to make certain that I didn’t come away with deepening frustration or the sense that I had wasted my time. So here is my $.02 on making the most of the convention experience on a more personal level.

Go into a convention weekend with realistic expectations. The best conventions I’ve attended are not necessarily the ones that result in book deals or anthology invitations or even new relationships with Movers and Shakers. No, the best weekends are the ones that simply leave me energized. You don’t need to have a huge breakthrough or a career changing moment for the weekend to be worth your time and money.

Along similar lines, be aware of the smaller moments and look to harness them. That energizing experience can come from something as simple as a stimulating panel discussion or a late night conversation in the hotel bar or a reading that helps you see beyond a plot point that has held up your WIP. Don’t overlook these encounters and experiences; don’t take them for granted. Try to recognize them as they happen, even if it’s on the very first afternoon of the convention, and make note of the moment. “What a great conversation! [For instance.] Even if nothing else happens this weekend, that justifies my being here.”

Take some time away from the convention. This is a big one for me. I love to travel and explore, and since conventions often take us to new places, I take the opportunity to see the city or landscape beyond the convention hotel. As an example, last year, the first time I attended Boskone, I walked part of the Boston Freedom Trail, seeing historical spots I’d written about in the Thieftaker books. This year it was too cold and windy for that, but on Thursday night, just after my arrival, I went out to dinner on my own, enjoying some good food and the ambiance of a fun restaurant. The next morning, I met a dear relative for lunch in Quincy Market.

The corollary to taking time away from the convention is don’t be afraid to be alone for a while. When we attend conventions, we often feel that we have to be social every minute of every day. That’s not only unrealistic, for many of us it’s a recipe for burnout. Alone time is healthy, it allows us to take stock of the experience we’re having and perhaps make some adjustments in attitude and approach. That dinner I had alone was great fun. So was the one I had the next night with several friends. We need a blend of experiences.

And since I mentioned attitude… Go into the weekend with as positive an attitude as possible. This doesn’t mean that you should be annoyingly peppy or anything like that. But do try to approach the convention with the expectation that it will be a positive experience. This year I was dreading Boskone a little bit. Not because it isn’t a great con, but because my recent conventions had left me so disappointed. But the day I flew up to Boston I tried to force myself out of my own head, as it were. I knew that if I approached the weekend expecting the worst, that would be what I got. Instead, I went in open to whatever might happen. The con wasn’t perfect, but I managed to laugh off those moments that didn’t go so well, and embrace those that did.

A lot of this is pretty basic stuff — and a lot of it can be applied to experiences other than conventions — but now and then it helps to be reminded of even the most simple notions. I needed the reminder before this weekend. And if you find yourself heading to a convention with feelings of trepidation or even dread, maybe this post will help. I hope so.

Enjoy your week!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Finding an Agent

Agents – good ones – understand contracts. They are fluent in legalese, and not only can they spot troublesome clauses in a written agreement, they can also improve terms on less contentious but equally important clauses. It is worth finding an agent for their contractual expertise alone.

A few of you expressed interest in a Writing-Tip Wednesday post about finding an agent. (And if you’re interested in offering suggestions for future posts, just sign up for my Facebook group here and leave your thoughts in a comment.)

I could write my next three posts about the agenting process and still not cover the topic in a comprehensive way, but I will do my best to start the conversation here. I will likely return to the subject later in the year. And further down in this post I will share a link to a couple of posts about querying written by my own wonderful agent, Lucienne Diver.

To start, though, I want to focus on a question I hear with some regularity: Do I really need an agent?

This is a valid question. The publishing industry has changed markedly over the past decade, and has undergone huge changes since I started writing professionally twenty-five years ago. At one time, when big-house publishing still dominated the industry, when self-publishing was still called “vanity publishing,” and small presses were at best an imperfect alternative, aspiring authors really couldn’t hope to make a professional book-length sale without an agent. Most large publishers were unwilling even to consider unagented manuscripts. And to some degree that remains true today.

The difference, of course, is that with publishing technology being what it is, and e-books and audio books taking up ever larger portions of the book market, small press publishing is far more viable than it has ever been, and, for many, self-publishing has become a legitimate path. Authors can sign with small publishers and/or earn money from their own books without necessarily having an agent.

And yet, I still believe having an agent makes sense. Why? A couple of reasons. First, I can’t tell you how many new writers I have seen struggling with bad contracts, dealing with publishers who, through incompetence or malign intent, have put them in impossible situations. They are stuck earning next to nothing and, in many cases, are unable to regain the rights to their work. Agents – good ones – understand contracts. They are fluent in legalese, and not only can they spot troublesome clauses in a written agreement, they can also improve terms on less contentious but equally important clauses. It is worth finding an agent for their contractual expertise alone.

But a good agent can help in other ways as well. The fact is, even if authors start out signing perfectly fine contracts with small presses, most aspire to more. They want to sell foreign rights to their books, not to mention film or television or game rights. They want to develop a career strategy that will take them to greater and greater heights of success. A competent, honest agent can help with all of that, and the earlier an author begins a partnership with an agent, the more fruitful that relationship is likely to be. So, yes, by all means, find an agent.

How?

There is no single method that is guaranteed to find you the best agent, the most honest agent, the agent who will bring you fortune and fame. Those things are as dependent on your relationship with your agent as they are on the agent herself. A lot of finding the right agent comes down to doing research, listening to people talk about their agent experiences, and then, in the end, finding someone with whom you have some personal chemistry.

The research is fairly simple. Most of us can place our work in a certain genre or subgenre. We know whose work is similar to ours, who our most comparable authors are. Likely, all or most of those other authors have agents who they acknowledge in their books or on their websites. Those names are a good place to start your search. On the flip side, many agents list their clientele publicly. Look at those lists. Do you see yourself fitting in with those other authors? It probably seems obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: If the agent in question specializes in, say, military science fiction, and you write, say, high fantasy for YA readers, you might want to keep looking.

You can also talk to friends, ask around at conventions and workshops, or even meet agents at such events and find ways to approach them. Agents attend conventions and workshops looking to connect with new writers. Approaching them – politely and in appropriate venues at appropriate times – is perfectly acceptable.

If meeting agents proves impossible, you can still query them. Here is Lucienne’s take on how best to craft a query letter. And here is her post on what comes next after the query.

Finally, you want to talk to any prospective agent in depth. It is always flattering to have an agent express interest in representing you, and it’s tempting to leap at that first offer of representation. Finding an agent is hard, and it’s easy to assume that the first offer could wind up being the only offer. The truth is, though, if one agent is interested, another is likely to be as well. And while that first agent might be fine, or even perfect, there is also the chance that the fit won’t be right.

Ask questions. Where do they think they might place the work you’re selling at the moment? What kind of follow-up do they think you ought to write? What do they think is the best direction for your career going forward? If, in discussing these things, you get the sense that the agent either doesn’t have good answers, or is pointing you in a direction you don’t wish to go, you might want to consider continuing your search.

A couple of nitty-gritty points before I finish: Standard agent percentage is 15% on domestic sales and secondary rights (games, media, audio, etc.). For foreign sales it’s generally 20%. Legitimate agents do not ask for retainer fees, reading fees, etc. They do not try to set you up with “book doctors” or freelance editors who will “improve” your manuscript for a fee. If an agent asks for money, or tries to arrange such services, chances are they’re looking to scam you. Run away. Remember that money flows TO the writer. Agents make money when you make money, by taking a percentage of your earnings. And remember as well that a bad agent – someone who is incompetent or dishonest – can do more damage than good. This is one more reason to be careful with your selection and to not rush into anything because you’re just thrilled to be offered representation.

Writers will work with many, many editors over the course of a career. Editors move from publisher to publisher, they might be interested in one series but not another. Changeover in the editor-writer relationship is to be expected. The writer-agent relationship, on the other hand, is for the long haul. It’s a cliché to compare it to a marriage, but it’s also true. I have been writing for a quarter century. I have worked with at least ten different editors on long fiction and nearly as many on short fiction. In that same time, I’ve had two agents. The relationship with the first ended amicably, as I was taking my career in a new direction and he was looking to retire. The relationship with the second is going strong after twenty years.

The search for an agent can be frustrating, it can be slow, it can be discouraging. Can you start your career without an agent? In today’s world, yes, you can. And if you have that opportunity, go ahead. In fact, if you get an offer from a small press, that can be the perfect opportunity to approach an agent. “I have an offer,” you say. “Would you be willing to represent me in my negotiations?” Many agents will leap at such an offer. And if they prevent even one bad clause from finding its way into your contract, if they win even one concession on royalty rates, if they make even one foreign sale of that same work, the percentage you pay will be well worth it.

Writing Tip Wednesday: A Rose By Any Other ‘Nym…

Poor sales for one novel can drive down orders for the next one or even convince booksellers not to stock that next effort at all. And so, sometimes authors have to restart careers by switching names and starting over. With that new name comes a blank slate – no sales record at all, good or bad.

There are certain questions I’m asked again and again at conventions and workshops – Where do your ideas come from? What is your daily routine? How do you outline a novel? How do you find an agent? What is the average flight speed of an unladen swallow?

(African or European…?)

Many of these questions will find their way into upcoming Writing Tip Wednesday posts, but for today I would like to address another set of questions I get a lot: Why do I write under two names? And why might writers starting out now want to work under a pen nam?

I have noticed that many of the writers submitting to the Galactic Stew anthology have written their stories under pen names. Honestly, in some cases I’m not sure why, but that’s fine. It’s a choice, and we’re all free to do what we want.

But generally speaking, there are specific reasons authors resort to pen names or pseudonyms or aliases (all of which are basically the same thing).

When I first proposed the Thieftaker series, I had just completed my third epic fantasy series (the LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands). The books had done pretty well commercially and critically, but taken together the three series totaled eleven novels and close to two million words. I was ready for a change. The Thieftaker books were historical urban fantasy with a strong mystery element. They were shorter, leaner, focused on one point of view character.

Tor was interested in the new series, but they were concerned that readers seeing my name on the cover of the first book would think “David B. Coe – ah! Epic fantasy.” They would be disappointed to read something different and might respond with poor Amazon reviews, etc. So we went with a pseudonym. I was allowed to tell fans that the new series was in the works and coming out under the new name. Tor wanted me to bring as much of my audience as possible over to the new series, but they also wanted to avoid confusion.

This is what’s known as “branding,” which is something of a buzzword in today’s marketplace. Branding is probably the most common reason for using a ‘nym. Often writers switching genres will do exactly what I did with Thieftaker. Then again, I have several friends who write a broad variety of books and do them all under one name. And, for the record, I started writing epic fantasy as David B. Coe and historical fiction as D.B. Jackson; last year I released the second book in my epic fantasy/time travel series as D.B. Jackson, and my book for the History Channel as David B. Coe. So make of that what you will…

But if you have written mystery or romance under your own name and are now trying your hand at science fiction or fantasy, you might want to use a pen name.

People also write under pen names for reasons of reader sensibility. What does this mean? Well, as a for instance, I know authors who write, among other things, both erotica and middle grade. If they want to keep their middle grade audience, and if they want to avoid ticking off the parents of their readers, they are probably safest writing in these genres under different names.

Similarly, some authors are known under their own names for professions that have nothing to do with writing novels. In this case, selecting a pseudonym, or even choosing to write under a different form of one’s own name (say, D.B. Coe instead of David B. Coe) can be a way of preserving the professional integrity of both names.

Sometimes authors change names to fool bookstore computers. Seriously. Publishing is a tough game, and some would say that it has never been harder to maintain commercial success than it is right now. We are only as successful as our most recent book. Poor sales for one novel can drive down orders for the next one or even convince booksellers not to stock that next effort at all. And so, sometimes authors have to restart careers by switching names and starting over. With that new name comes a blank slate – no sales record at all, good or bad. In certain instances, that can be helpful.

Authors can use a pseudonym to conceal their gender. Not so long ago, publishers believed that female authors would have a difficult time selling fantasy or science fiction, and so many women in the business took on names that were purposefully androgynous, or used initials instead of names to obscure gender. Andre Norton’s real name was Alice. So was James Tiptree, Jr.’s. Today, the need for gender neutrality can work in any number of ways  – for example, a man writing romance might want the same sort of gender anonymity  – and this could be one more reason to consider a pen name.

Finally, authors can choose a pseudonym simply because they feel that their real names are not interesting enough, or might be difficult to remember, or might create spelling problems that complicate online searches (although most search engines are pretty good at discerning our intended targets, even if we don’t spell them correctly).

As I said at the outset, this is a choice, one that each author may have to make several times over the course of a career. Yes, there is something special about seeing one’s (real) name on the cover of a book. But if by using a ‘nym we increase the likelihood of the book being published at all… Well, to my mind, that’s a no-brainer.

Keep writing!