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.

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.

An Offer!

This post has been updated to clarify some points that were obviously confusing. 5/20/16

Oh my god, you got an offer of representation! Congratulations! That’s HUGE. So exciting! The very next thing you need to do is freak out. I mean, go into full on panic mode. The clock is ticking! Email all the other agents who have your manuscript and tell them they have 24 hours to decide whether they want to make an offer too.

This is a good idea, because then agents, very very busy people, will all say “Oh, crap. I don’t have that kind of time,” and drop out, making your decision very easy.

Obviously I’m being facetious. But this is something we see ALL THE TIME. Most weeks we get follow-ups to queries saying the author has an offer of representation, and the offering agent has given the author until x date (often a week or two) to claim their prize.

WTF?

I get the other agents’ motivation. Putting a time limit on these things prevents the endless stringing-along while all the other agents read and decide. Authors: You don’t have to agree to it. If the offering agent really wants to sign you, they’ll wait. They’ll wait and do battle with other offering agents. They’ll wait, and check in, and tell you again how much they love your work. If after two weeks, their interest in your work expires, well, they probably won’t be the best agent for you anyway.

Here’s the other side, and I’ll speak for myself. Other agents may have different feelings. But when I have a pile of urgent things that need to be done for my existing clients, and say this week someone has been particularly taxing, getting an email saying “you gotta read this and decide if you want to get married in the next week”, I may start to think, “Ugh. Here’s a demanding author. Do I really have time for her? Will she always be so insistent?”

Here’s a better way, in my humble agenty opinion: When you get an offer, tell the offering agent, “Hooray! Thank you! I need to get back to some people, and I will give you my response as soon as I can.”

If OA says, “You have two weeks to decide.” you can say, “Ok, I understand your time is valuable. I will try to respond in that time, but it may take a little longer to hear back from everyone. I hope that time limit is flexible.” Hopefully OA will understand. ETA: This doesn’t mean you should string them along for the next six months. But if it takes two weeks and 2 days, or three weeks, or a month, OA should be ok with that.

Then you go back to other agents, and say “I have an offer, and I’d like to be able to respond to it within two weeks. But if you need more time than that, please let me know.” Instead of “I need to know within two weeks or else.” ETA: You’re making a very big decision that will impact your career for a long time to come. Easing up on the timelines gives everyone the room to breathe. You can interview people. You can think about things. You can weigh out your options. Yes, two weeks is usually enough to decide. But sometimes it isn’t.

Also ETA: I’m not advocating for the process to take forever and ever. We all need to be respectful of each others’ time. What I’m saying is that 1. an offer of representation shouldn’t expire after a certain number of days, and 2. you can tell agents you want to hear from them by a certain time, but if they are interested and need more time, it’s in your best interest to work with that.

We’re all human, and believe it or not, we want everyone to succeed. So when we hear you have an offer, we’re happy for you. We may want in, but if you seem like a demanding diva, we may walk away on that basis alone.

ETA: Asking for what you want and need is not acting like a diva. Not being flexible to force someone to do things your way with no leeway is.

If time is money, is more time more money?

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

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.)

 

 

Q 4 U: Page Count

When I get queries saying a book is 9 pages, I wonder if that means book pages or manuscript pages. And if you mean manuscript pages, do you mean it’s 9 pages of 12 point font, double spaced? Or do you mean you’ve set it in 36 point, with one sentence per page because that’s how picture books look?

This is why agents and editors prefer word count as a guideline in queries. Because then if you tell me your picture book is 3,700 words, I don’t have to think too hard before I understand that it’s way too long.