Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Why Do I Need an Agent?

Deb excited about her book in the window of Cracker Barrel
I received a question this week that I thought might interest my writer-buds. My answer is included below. 

Q: A friend of mine has just self-published a book and is having a debut with lots of people and publicity. I remember you talking about your agent. My friend does not have one. He does not know how an agent works or how it may help him. Would you be able to share your agent's number so he can get advice from him/her?

A: If your friend has already self-published his book (or is in the process of doing so), it's too late for an agent. The job of a literary agent is to represent a literary work in seeking a traditional publisher, much like a realty agent (realtor) does in selling a house. Once a book is out (as in self-published), it's considered "sold," and is unlikely to interest a traditional publisher - or agent - in wanting to publish it for their company.

The exception is when a self-published book sells well within the first 2-3 months of its release (we're talking 10-20k copies here). Those numbers will turn an agent's head (and publisher's). Otherwise, the time to query an agent about representing your work is after the manuscript is completed, professionally edited and ready to be shopped around to traditional publishers. 

If you intend to self-publish, you don't need an agent. 

Most traditional presses will only deal with agents - not the authors themselves - so the only way to get a better (bigger and more lucrative) book deal is by having an agent. But sadly, they're VERY hard to get these days. You don't audition them, they audition you, and are generally very picky about whom they sign on - they only make $ when a publisher wants your book and offers to pay for it (agents make 15% of your advance and royalties). If they can't sell your book, they make zero.

I strongly believe agents are worth their weight in gold. 

My first three books (with the best marketing I could do myself) all together sold about 10k copies. In contrast, I've had three different books published (through my agent) by a traditional publisher that have sold over 30k each. The difference is largely because of distribution. They had a system in place to market on a national level. I didn't. 

And 3-4 of my other books have sold between 5k-10k each. One is nearing 60k. The difference is the wider distribution you get with traditional publishers (my books are in WalMart, B & N, Cracker Barrel, Sam's, airports, grocery stores, convenience stores (just saw one of my titles at a nondescript “Food Mart” in rural Georgia when we stopped for gas on a trip recently) and Christian bookstores everywhere, besides being sold online as e-books and print books).

It's very difficult to get widespread distribution like that when you self-publish or publish through small presses (small presses pay for everything but the marketing is pretty much up to you; self-publishing means you pay for everything and do the marketing yourself).

I had three books out with a small press before I was able to interest an agent in representing my 4th book. His name is Greg Johnson of WordServe Literary Agency - your friend can Google Greg and the agency if he likes, but I don't feel comfortable giving a recommendation to Greg unless I've read part/all of the book myself and know that it's ready (meaning it's thoroughly edited and polished and of the highest quality).

Finding an agent is not something to be taken lightly. It's actually a lot of work - your manuscript must edited, re-edited, and edited some more so that it absolutely shines. You need to have your book proposal (about 10 pages long) ready too. Then you send prospective agents a query letter (which must be of excellent quality - there are books out there on writing a query alone) just like you would to a publisher. If the agent thinks it's good enough, he/she then offers to represent that work (JUST that one manuscript), you sign a contract, and you're off to the races. 

When your agent shops the manuscript around and finds a prospective buyer, you talk turkey and hammer out the details of the deal (date the final m/s is due, royalty percentage, advance - if there is one - who owns which rights, number of author copies provided, etc.). Then you sign the contract and the real work begins: Preparing to sell your book. 

Agents nowadays specialize in particular genres, so when your friend completes his next book, he needs to do a little research on literary agencies that specialize in his genre and start sending out queries right away. It's a huge bonus if you can meet your agent-match-made-in-heaven at a writing conference face-to-face. (Many conferences offer personal meetings with agents as well as publishing house editors - take advantage of this!)

I hope this answers your question sufficiently. I can be reached through my website if you or your friend have further questions. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

How Does Your Book Get National Attention?

Look what Shellie found in Cracker Barrel! 
Earlier this week, my friend and writing bud, best-selling author Shellie Rushing Tomlinson ("Belle of All Things Southern"), sent me this phone photo of her own coy eyes peeking over the top of a pretty pink and teal book in Louisiana.

Boy was I surprised!

It was my own Too Blessed to be Stressed Journal. Now this was fun in itself, to see someone of Shellie's celebrity holding my humble book (she's hugely well known in secular as well as Christian publishing for her hilarious southern-genre books like Sue Ellen's Girl Ain't Fat, She Just Weighs Heavy), but the thing was ...

The surprise wasn't just WHAT the book was, but WHERE it was.

Gift bundles, anyone? 
Yup. My very first book to hit Cracker Barrel. Woohoo! The big time! And Shellie's local Cracker Barrel was apparently one of the first to grace their shelves with my baby blessing. 

Later in the week my daughter-in-law sent me another photo of my book in the central Florida Cracker Barrel she just happened to stop in for lunch. Not only were copies of Too Blessed to be Stressed Journal in the window, they'd wrapped some in this nifty gift wrap packaged with some cool bookmarks and other Cracker Barrel-y stuff for your shopping convenience.

Then other messages and photos of my book in Cracker Barrels across the country began popping up from my faithful reader friends. (THANK YOU if you're one of them!)

A glorious event for any author. But how did it happen? How does a book make it into a highly trafficked, nationwide consumer outlet like Cracker Barrel? My writer friends are clamoring to know.

Well I must tell you in all honesty that it was none of my own doing. The sales force employed by my super duper publisher, Barbour Books, is responsible. When Barbour decided to print a hard cover version of Too Blessed to be Stressed, they wisely made it upscale and beautiful and turned it into a journal (meaning inside it's basically the same as the original  paperback Too Blessed but with additional lined pages to answer the reflection questions at the end of each chapter and for the reader to journal her thoughts.)

And journals are IN these days. As are gift books. And gifts, of course, are what Cracker Barrel is all about.

Barbour knew this, of course (because it's their business to know what's hot and where it's selling), and when their sales team pitched a list of possible purchases to the Cracker Barrel home office marketing people (as they routinely do to Walmart, Sams, Target, LifeWay, B & N ... you name the retailer), even though the Too Blessed to be Stressed Journal was a few dollars more than the original paperback, they bit.

Why? Because it fit their before-Christmas-gift book criteria and seemed to be a good fit for their store.

I only wish it was easier for self-published and small press books to be considered for distribution by these national chains, and perhaps it will be one day with the ever-changing face of the publication industry, but for now, it's one of the benefits of going to all the trouble of getting your manuscript professionally edited to a glaring shine and enduring the angst of trying to interest a literary agent to represent your work.

That's the path to hooking a traditional publisher and the traditional presses seem to be the ones in the queue.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep spit-shining your manuscript with detailed editing or consider self-publishing. The two should go hand-in-hand. That's the way the glass ceiling will shatter ... good quality books by good quality authors will be chosen by good quality retailers. Regardless of their birth.

And I truly hope it's your book that leads the way!