Title: Untitled

Titles are a funny thing. The good ones intrigue book browsers, grab attention, and are memorable. The best ones describe a whole book in a few words. (Some, on the other hand, are not as clever.) And so it’s normal that writers spend a lot of time stressing over giving their manuscript the very most intriguing, grabby, memorable title.

However, from this side of the table, I gotta say, titles are about the least important part of the work I’m considering. Yeah, it’s nice to be catchy in a query. But I’d estimate about eight times out of ten (four out of five, then), a title changes, sometimes multiple times, before it hits shelves. In at least one case, I’ve seen a title change after it was published.

Even if a title doesn’t change, it’s almost always part of a discussion at some point in the editorial process. So when writers and clients ask me what I think of their title, the truth is that I generally think of all titles as “working titles” until they are printed on jackets. It’s not something I focus on in critiques or edits, unless I think it’s wildly inaccurate or misleading. But as part of the query process, it’s not a make-or-break aspect. Make it as good as you can, but also know it may change a dozen times, and then a couple more.

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Reading Queries Like

I was browsing new books at a shop this weekend, picking them up, reading some flap copy, flipping to the text, and putting things back on shelves (or, for the lucky few, into my bookbag). It occurred to me then, and I can’t say why not before then, that the experience was very much like reading queries.

People ask all the time what it’s like to have an inbox full of manuscripts, and how agents and editors know when something is right for them. And I tell you what, if you’ve ever been looking for the right next thing to read out of the mountains of options at the bookstore or library, you already know what that experience is like.

We picky-but-voracious readers suffer from always wanting the next excellent story, and needing to comb the stacks to find it. How many times have you found yourself not knowing what you’re in the mood for, until you finally read a jacket that gets you excited? You take the book home and dig in excitedly and either it is as wonderful as you’d hoped and you can’t wait to tell everyone, or it falls flat and you move on.

Well then, surprise! You know exactly what it’s like to read as a publishing professional. We go through queries in that same mindset we all have at bookstores or scrolling GoodReads. Where is that thing we didn’t know we wanted? What ignites and delights and intrigues? Where is that thing we can’t wait to stay up all night to finish? Keep it in mind when you’re wondering what will make an agent request your manuscript. It’s basically the same thing that makes you want to buy one.

There, now you know. And for writing effective queries, knowing is half the battle.

How to Find an Illustrator

I just got off the phone with someone who called because she had seen an image done by one of our artists, and she wanted to know how she could get him to illustrate her picture book for her. I spent some time trying to tell her that that isn’t really how it works, but she just wasn’t hearing me. And so I changed tacks, and ended up telling her it would be very, VERY expensive. That she heard. But I was left with the feeling that my point was not made.

Writers: You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

In nearly all cases (exceptions explained below) the publisher will hire an illustrator for you. Your job, as a writer, is to write. And you shouldn’t be spending money on an illustrator (or an agent, or making hard-copies of your work). You’re doing things out of order. Once your words have been sold to a publisher, they will work very hard to find exactly the right artist for the job. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator.

I know it seems like a smart idea to send out a full-package to potential agents or publishers. But agents, editors, and art-directors are very practiced at reading picture book texts without art. Part of the fun is imagining the pictures before they exist. By hiring an illustrator, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. Here are a few reasons why you definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator:

  1. Your vision is not the agent or publisher’s vision. Your manuscript could be brilliant, but even the best professionals have a hard time separating text from art sometimes. And sub-par art could mean turning down a perfectly decent manuscript.
  2. The friend who you hired isn’t really as great an artist as you think, which can make you both look unprofessional.
  3. You end up spending money when you don’t need to. Let the publisher pay the illustrator for you.
  4. It would be nearly impossible for a picture book hopeful to hire, say, a New York Times bestselling illustrator, but it’s pretty easy for a publishing house to do so. Don’t you want a New York Times bestselling illustrator attached to your project?

But what are the exceptions? 

  1. The friend you paired up with has a few picture books under her belt already. Or is at least more than a weekend hobbyist-artist. You and she have been working hard together and attending conferences and understand that you are doing things in an unconventional way.
  2. You plan to self-publish
  3. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator

Here’s why it’s a good idea to trust the agents and publishers to hire an illustrator for you: 

  1. It’s their job to understand the entire industry, from what stories and styles are working in the current market, to who won which awards this year. We know people’s schedules and stuff, too. 
  2. It’s common practice to pair a new writer with a “known” illustrator to bring some name recognition to a debut. 
  3. The publisher may have an “open contract” with an illustrator, and they may be looking for just the right thing to fill it.

Please, please save yourself time, money, and the headache of art-directing someone who isn’t right for the job. Trust that your words are enough, and that the person in charge of finding you an illustrator will do so with aplomb.

You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

Venturing Forth

Many queries tell me “this is my first attempt at writing” or “I’ve never written a word before this” or some such. And I always feel excited for people who’ve found the powerful magic of changing the world with words.

Like anything, though, one would never expect to become a professional at one’s first try. Imagine walking into an open tryout for the Brooklyn Cyclones, picking up a bat, and saying, I’ve never played this before, but I just love baseball. Or hanging a shingle on your front door advertising flu shots because you’d always wanted to be a doctor.

There are many steps between “I’d like to give this a go” and “I’m getting pretty good at this” and “a publisher might actually be interested in this”. And some of those steps can maybe be skipped, depending on circumstances, but it’s not the smart bet to walk in thinking they can ALL be skipped.

Don’t know what the steps are? That’s cool. The internet is the best place in the world* for finding things out. Like any profession, there are communities full of people who have advice for you. And like I always say, the SCBWI is a marvelous resource. So are webinars. So are blogs. And retreats. And books about writing books.

The path is a long one, but you’re on it, and you’ll find many people along the way to make sure you stay on it, show you appropriate shortcuts, and keep you from getting trampled. Your first attempt is a great start. But if you’ve never written a word before today, think about whether you’ve been at it long enough to be considered a professional. Don’t worry, books will be around a while, we can wait. And we’ll cheer you along as you go.

 

*take with a grain of salt, geez.

My Mantra

I have a simple mantra I use at work that helps tip me to a decision: Maybe is no.

It may sound a little harsh, but hear me out. I see dozens and dozens of submissions, and in between, I critique manuscripts for conferences and hear pitches. Most of those are no (because they have to be) and a very few are yes. The rest, I’m afraid, are maybes. And maybe is ultimately Not Yes.

I struggled for a long time with the maybes. Seeing the potential in something that isn’t all the way there yet, or not close enough, anyway, is hard. I get excited when I read things that could be good if only they…I have spent cumulative weeks of my career hemming and hawing over the maybes. And 99% of the time, it’s just wheel-spinning.

Sometimes there is a very exciting maybe-plus. And those do get some extra-attention, usually in the form of an invitation to revise and resubmit. Some days I wish I could work with all the maybes to get them to yes. But unless what comes back is a YES DEFINITELY, it’s still a maybe, and maybe is no.

Guest Post: Melissa Edwards on Copyright Law

Ever wondered whether you need to register your manuscript for copyright before you send it out? Agent, lawyer, and friend to Doug the Pug Melissa Edwards has some things to tell you. Let’s learn things!

Copyright and Wrong by Melissa Edwards

Here’s the scene: you just wrote your first manuscript and you’re ready to send it out to agents to shop for representation. Congratulations! What an achievement! But before sending, your mouse poised over the send icon on your computer, you think, “uh, are they going to steal my book? I just put my blood, sweat, and tears into this manuscript and now I’m going to send it over the Internet without any protection at all?! PANIC!”

Take a sip. It’s going to be OK.

Your manuscript is protected as soon as you put it into fixed form (type it on a computer, hand write it on a legal pad, etch it into stone, etc.) The Constitution of the United States (with extra help from the Copyright Act of 1976) protects you from harm.

First, let’s get some lingo out of the way. The protection you seek for works of authorship is copyright protection. This is not the same as trademark protection, which protects a brand in commerce, and it is not the same as a patent, which protects inventions. Those are entirely different types of intellectual property law and the words are not interchangeable.

For the most basic copyright protection, all you need is a work of authorship, that is original, and fixed. Protection under the Copyright Act of 1976 will get you approximately your life plus 70-years’ worth of exclusive use. Registration with the U.S. Copyright office is not necessary for protection. Generally, your work is registered by your publisher, after it’s fully edited. If you register an unedited manuscript before you send it out to agents, it’s going to be slightly problematic to register another draft of that same work later on. That being said, you must register your copyright before you’re legally permitted to bring a lawsuit to enforce it and timely registration creates a legal presumption your copyright is valid. If you’re planning to self-publish, registration is not a bad idea.

“But what if someone steals my idea?!” Ideas are not copyrightable. If you have an idea for a novel but you haven’t written it, you have no protection. Just because you thought a book about a boy wizard would be cool in 1995 doesn’t mean J.K. Rowling infringed on your work.

You may have heard the phrase “derivative work” being bandied about. A derivative work recasts or transforms some expression from a previous work and thereby creates a new copyrightable work. You still need permission to use the underlying work—hence fan fiction is technically infringement. The exceptions to this rule include works in the public domain (i.e. when a work is so old, it’s no longer protected by copyright) and fair use.

Fair use is another often misused phrase. The courts use a four part fair use test when determining if a derivative work was fair use or infringement. These questions include the purpose of the new work (commercial v. educational?), the nature of the original work (factual v. fictional?), the amount of the portion used (heart of the work?), and the effect on the potential market for the existing work. The answers to these questions can be argued in every which way, thereby racking up the legal fees. The most famous type of fair use is parody. Be careful if you’re borrowing copyrighted material in your work—fair use is a wobbly leg to stand on! You can always seek permission from the underlying rights holder—this is called, unsurprisingly, a permission.

Last point before I bore you to tears with all this legal nonsense, authors should always keep the copyright in a publishing contract. The book should be registered in your name, not the name of the publisher.

Now go off and send your manuscript to agents without concern! (And don’t mention copyright in your query. It’s unnecessary and the mark of an amateur.)

Follow Melissa on Twitter @MelissaLaurenE

Get to Know: Microsoft Word

I read lots of manuscripts. Dozens. Hundreds. Possibly even in the thousands by now. And I’d venture to say they are all in Microsoft Word. However, not everyone has a handle on the ins-and-outs of this marvelous software. It’s been around for a long, long time now, so really, there’s no time like the present!

When I’m critiquing or sending notes, I use track changes. That’s not necessarily the norm. Many editors still prefer to edit with a pencil and actual paper. I’m firmly in the “whatever works for you” camp. But when I’m working with a manuscript, there are certain formatting things that are standard, and really easy to use and learn, and very frustrating when they are not in place. This isn’t going to be a tutorial, because YouTube is littered with them. It’s a heads up on what you can do to make your editor and agent and critique partner’s lives easier.

First up, page numbers. So many people insert these manually. That must take forever, especially when you get past page ten! But moreover, when I’m looking at your page, they may not fall the same way they do on your screen. If I change the font, or the size of the font, all of the page numbers are suddenly on the wrong pages, or in the middle of the page. This way is a thousand times easier, and stays consistent.

Headers and footers work basically the same way as page numbers.

PS (or mid-post script?): Pippin and loads of other agencies’ submissions policies ask that you copy and paste your ms into the body of an email. Don’t worry about page numbers and headers when you do that. They don’t matter until we request an actual document from you.

I once edited a manuscript that was manually double-spaced. That was a formatting nightmare. Don’t do that, please. Try it this way.

If you’re interested in track changes, there are lots of tutorials for how it works. I recommend it, because why not know more things instead of fewer? Try this one.

And just a reminder, 12 point font is standard. I like Times New Roman or whatever is the Microsoft standard now (they’ve recently changed to Calibri and Cambria, both are good). Some people like Courier, for the record, I am not one of them. Please don’t get creative in your font choices. They are hard to read, unprofessional, and when I get a document in them, I change it immediately to something standard. And that often throws off your other formatting. (See above.)

You don’t need to be a pro with Microsoft, but if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you should have a handle on the basics. It does so many things, and is quite easy to use. Now if I could just figure out how to make it do laundry.

It’s Shark Tank, Pitches

I once sat for a pitch during which an author arranged her self-pubbed book, a standing tri-fold marketing plan, related merch, and a sheet of sales points and irrelevant stats on the table in front of me. At minute nine of the ten-minute appointment, I interrupted her recitation: “You have a book, you have a tote bag, so what do you need me to do?” She said she wanted an investor who could help her market the book. I asked how many she’d sold on her own. She’d sold zero in ten months. Splat.

A well-defined pitch does not a successful product make.

I don’t only watch the Great British Bake Off. I also watch Shark Tank. It delights me to watch entrepreneurs, passionate about their ideas, hoping to find a partner to take their product to the next level. Every time a new person steps onto that rug and launches into their pitch, I think about queries.  (Of course, I’m the Shark in this scenario.)

Writers and queriers are generally very good at telling agents and editors what they have. Pitches are practiced and honed and sound pretty good. But without having a polished product and understanding the larger market, and where your product (book) fits into it, the pitch doesn’t do me much good. (Did you guys see the ST where the guy pitched the surgical Bluetooth implant? Great pitch, ridiculous product.)

Queries are for you to tell me what you’ve got, yes. It’s most easily digestible if I know you know there is a market for what you’re selling me. Your book is a product. If there are too many others like it, there’s little shelf space for another. If there is absolutely nothing like it, there might not be a market for it at all.

The people who get deals on Shark Tank are the ones who’ve done their due diligence. They’re not weekend inventors holding up a prototype made of toothpicks and peas. They don’t speak in hypotheticals. They’re not hobbyists. They know their market. They know their customer. They’ve made dozens of prototypes and tested and redesigned. (Is this analogy holding up?) And after all of that, they head in looking for investors.

This is why you owe it to yourself to do your research. If you’re writing picture books, read every new picture book on the shelves each week. If you want to sell me a YA novel (and I hope you do), it’s important that your frame of reference is wider than Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars. Much, much wider. I may not be as awesome as Barbara Corcoran (yet), but my hair is almost as good, and I expect as much from my partners as she does. (For the record, I don’t understand the appeal of Pipcorn.)