Friday, June 16, 2017

How Do You Know When You're Done? Tips to Evaluate Whether Your Manuscript Is Really Ready

One of my private clients has been working on her memoir for quite a few years.  She's workshopped it through my online classes and with writing partners, and in our coaching sessions, we analyzed the structure and she made many great revisions.  She sent it to a few other writers for feedback and got ideas on what else needed tweaking. 

This week, she emailed me with the big question:  Are we there yet? 

How does a writer know when the book is cooked, ready to send out to agents?

The short answer is:  We don't. 

But there's more to say.  There are signs, or so I've learned, that I've done as much as I can without industry feedback (agents or publishers). 

Most writers get their manuscripts to a point where they either (1) can't stand looking at it anymore and have to get it out there or (2) have covered all the bases, gotten high-level feedback, and feel confident that it's ready. 

If you're in the first group, hold off.  Being "done" or just fed up is never a good indicator that the manuscript is also done.  I'd advise putting it away for six weeks, six months, a year, while you work on something else.  Let it sit, get some more education and practice, to help you get over your boredom and stall out.  Then come back to the book.  I'm speaking from my own sad experience here.  I've sent out my manuscripts in the past just because I couldn't wait any longer, but it was done out of impatience, not because they were ready.  I needed more time, and I learned that by accumulating many rejection slips.

Tragic result:  you may never pick up that manuscript again.  It wasn't ready, you got no's, and you slammed the door shut on what might have become a good book. 

If you're in the second group, and you've really worked the process, test it out with a few submissions.  The average for response, according to a writing colleague who worked privately with a professional in the industry, is about 1 "interested" to 75 "not interested."  That's not a great encouragement, but it's reality.  You may, however, get gold from just the submission process:  good feedback from agents.  That's very valuable.  One agent who rejected a past manuscript of mine gave me a long email of tips on how to revise, and I used them with gratitude.  She could see what I couldn't, and it made a much better book.

For either group, here's the to-do list that I always use before submitting.  It might seem like too much, so pick and choose what you prefer.  Your weekly writing exercise, if you're wondering if you're at this stage, is to try one or several of these.

1.  Revise a lot.  Maybe 10-20 versions is average.  Some, like myself, do a lot more.  Never, ever, send out an early draft just because you want someone to say it's great.  Heartbreak city, ahead, if you do that.  Fair warning.

2.  Assume you don't know what you don't know.  Get a small group (a class is great) where you can workshop the manuscript in chapters or maybe the entire thing, with peers, so you have peer-level feedback.  It's not as valuable, in my experience, as paid professional feedback, but it's a great step forward.  Pay attention to what you hear.  Don't take it personally, keep it about the book.  If more than one person says the same thing, points out the same weakness, really pay attention.  Back to revision!

3.   Find and pay a professional editor or coach.  I am one, people pay me, but I also hire one for my own books.  Even though I am well trained, I can't always see the weaknesses in my own writing (nobody can).  You can find these gems through the internet, via colleges, via friends.  I found my current editor through another student in a writing class I took.  He's worth his weight in gold.

4.  Run the manuscript by beta readers.  These are other book writers at your level of skill, who may want to exchange full-manuscript reads.  They'll have more in-depth comments than the peer readers.

5.  And one more time, even if you've done it several times already, read the entire manuscript aloud to yourself.  You'll catch stuff.  We always do.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Selling Your Nonfiction Book on a Proposal Alone: An Interview with Katherine Ozment

It used to be common to sell nonfiction books via a book proposal--an expanded outline, a synopsis, marketing research for the topic, and sample chapters.  I sold five books this way, back in the nineties, got good advances, and published happily.  Many agents I speak with today are less keen on selling via proposal, unless the writer has an excellent track record and a market niche (audience) already established.  Occasionally, I do hear of a great success story from one of my former students.  This week, I wanted to share Katherine Ozment's story.  Hopefully, it'll inspire other nonfiction writers who are putting together their book proposals.

I first met Katherine at one of my storyboarding workshops at Grub Street in Boston.  I was immediately taken with her book idea--how to find grace outside of traditional religions--and her experience as a journalist.  She signed up for my online storyboarding class after the workshop, and I got to watch her book structure evolve through the twelve weeks.  By the end, she had an excellent outline and synopsis, ready to present to an agent. 
Katherine has a wealth of writing experience as a journalist for Boston Magazine and National Geographic, among others.  So I wasn't surprised to hear, not long after the class, that she'd signed with an agent.  Her book, Grace without God:  The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, was published last year to stellar reviews.  It was named a Best Book of the Year by
Publishers Weekly and Spirituality & Health and recently received the Gold Nautilus Award in the category of Religion/Spirituality of Other Traditions.
Her search for an agent was short and sweet, but inspiring because she had a great proposal that took into account book structure, she knew her audience, and she knew what she wanted. 
I interviewed Katherine this week to discuss the agent search and what she learned. 
 
Tell us how you found your agent.
I had been writing a series of reported essays on parenting, but I felt that my 4000-word articles weren't doing justice to the topics I was writing about, topics such as my generation's inclination toward overparenting, raising kids in a digital age, and why so many people are leaving religion. I wanted to turn one of these rich topics into a book. My friend, a published author who was finishing a new parenting book herself, suggested that I get in touch with her agent. Once that personal connection was made, the rest came quickly. I emailed the agent some writing samples, along with a description of my book idea, and we set up time for a long phone call to discuss the possibility of working together.
 
Did you attend pitch conferences?  If you did, did it prove useful?
 
Years ago I attended the Muse and Marketplace, held each year by Grub Street Writers, and I submitted a sample of another book I've been working on for years, a memoir about my brother's suicide. In that case, I was pitching editors, not agents, because I was (and still am!) more interested in how to make that book work structurally. I came home with a clear and honest assessment of the chapter samples, including a suggestion about structure that was very helpful. It was well worth the extra money.
 
What caused the "click" with this agent?
 
Because my agent came through the personal referral of an author I trust and admire, I felt a certain level of comfort from the start. From there, I was mostly curious about other books the agent represented and if we would be a good match. So I studied her website to see who her other authors were and the kinds of publishers they'd ended up with.

The "click" for me was really the immediate comfort level I felt when we talked over the phone. I appreciated her calm, thoughtful demeanor and just knew I would enjoy working with her. For me, that is perhaps the one most important component of an agent-author relationship: You have to like your agent as a person because you will spend a lot of time with him or her and not always the happiest of times, but also frustrating, deflating, and stressful times. Be sure you trust the person completely. If an agent gets on your nerves, talks over you, or just doesn't grab you for whatever reason, find someone who's a better fit in terms of personality. It's a lot like dating; make sure you notice if any alarm bells go off during the courtship phase. For me, I had none of those, and the relationship continues to be a strong one.
 
The agent read through my material, we signed a contract, and then we went through some rounds of editing on the proposal before sending it out. Different agents work to different degrees on the proposal writing itself, and I was happy that mine liked to get in and offer editorial comments and advice. People seeking an agent should be sure to discuss this aspect of the publishing process upfront and figure out if editorial feedback on the proposal is something you need a lot or a little of.
 
What would you recommend to new writers looking for their first agent? 
 
If you have the time and money, meeting agents face-to-face at a conference during a short pitch session is a great way to go. It's like jumping into the deep end of the pool but with a little inner tube around you. You get to meet with an industry professional while also honing your sample material and practicing your pitch. So, even if you don't end up signing on with the agent you meet, you'll learn so much about the process, not to mention about your own work. Another good way to find an agent is to see which agents are mentioned in the books that you love. A word of warning though: If the book is big, the agent will likely be big as well, and as a first-time author you may not be able to land a giant fish. So read industry magazines with an eye for new, up-and-coming agents, the smaller fish trying to become the big ones. Last but not least, if you're struggling to land an agent, keep returning to the work. I wrote articles and essays for nearly fifteen years before I found my book and landed an agent. So don't give up hope. Just keep writing until you have something they can't resist.
 
If you'd like to check out Katherine's book, here's a link.  You can also visit her website at
 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Launching a Debut Novel: Working with Publicists and Promotion

It's been a month of book birth announcements.  Another student from my online classes and private coaching has just released her debut novel, Eden.  Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg has launched it with great panache too--with excellent reviews on Kirkus, Booklist, Redbook, the Boston Herald and other publications.  Writer Anita Shreve calls Eden "a masterfully interwoven family saga with indelible characters, unforgettable stories, and true pathos." 
I first met Jeannie at a storyboarding workshop I taught at Grub Street in Boston where she was working on a two-storyboard novel, exploring the financial ruin of a family's historic home in seaside Rhode Island and the backstory of the matriarch who decides to reveal a long-buried secret and introduce the child she gave up for adoption in her teens.  Weaving the two storyboards together was a challenge that Jeannie approached beautifully, and her excellent book is the result. 
Once it was finished, she looked over her options for publishing.  I interviewed her about her choices and what she eventually decided to do. 
How did you get started with researching publishing options for Eden? 
Two years ago, I met April Eberhardt at Grub Street's annual writing conference, Muse and the Marketplace.   April describes herself as a "Literary Change Agent" and she introduced me to She Writes Press, an indie press based in Berkeley, California.  I followed up with my own research on SWP, as well as similar presses.  I was lucky to have a mutual friend with Brooke Warner, the publisher of SWP, and heard wonderful things about her.  If you just follow Brooke on social media for a week or two, you will get a sense of her passion and energy and commitment to her work.
 
When Eden was ready for submission, I sent it to April and she agreed to take me on.  We talked a lot about my goals:  Whether it meant more to me to have the prestige of publishing with a traditional house, or whether I wanted to get my story out, have it be the best it could be, then move on to the next project. 

We also talked about how much control I wanted to retain, and how much I was willing to invest in the book. 

I decided not to hold out for a traditional house because:  a) it was a long shot,  b)  I wouldn't have control over when they'd decide to release my book, and c) I'd be doing a lot of my own promotion anyway. 

April was happy to explore any route on my behalf, but at this point in my life I was certain of which way I wanted to go.  

Tell us about the process of working with She Writes Press.   
After Brooke's initial read, she connected me with an editor named Annie Tucker who worked with me, chapter by chapter, for many months.  I feel like every suggestion from Annie really made my book better.  It was fun to work with her because she was just as excited about my book as I was.  I was close to the ninth or tenth revision at that point! but who's counting? 

The work we did was creative but was also very practical at times in terms of making decisions toward publishing, including many hours on brainstorming a new title.  Our aim was to have our work done in time for my book to be included in the May 2017 catalog because I think my release is well suited for "summer-read lists" and a Mother's Day promotion.
 
The other two huge things that She Writes Press offers is top-notch cover design and distribution.  I was involved in the conceptual process, and was then presented with about fifteen options to choose from. I can honestly say I loved all of them.  I polled friends and family for weeks in order to decide on which one to go with--a lot of fun. 

For distribution, SWP uses Ingram Publisher Services, the same service traditional publishers use, so from a retailer's POV, my book is no different. Ingram also has a terrific sales force and Brooke has worked tirelessly to develop a tip sheet for my book so the salesforce can go out and sell it.
 
In addition, SWP offers a large community of other authors to be a part of.  We are all a part of a very active Facebook group where we share strategies and help each other.
 
You secured excellent blurbs and pre-publication reviews for Eden.  Did you work with a publicist?
I hired Crystal Patriarche, whose firm, Booksparks, is under the same umbrella as SWP.  My project manager at SWP and my publicity team are able to work together, again, just as if they all worked at a traditional house. 

Booksparks developed my website last summer and helped me get the ball rolling in all sorts of ways in order to make my launch successful. 

Anything else you'd like to share from your experience with other debut authors? 
Make as much of investment in your book as you are able to.  I think this is important.  From editorial support to publishing, to publicity, I feel very satisfied in the process and in my book's chances to be well received.   Even though my royalties will be higher with SWP than with a traditional publisher, I don't  expect to break even on this book. If I do, wonderful!

But I'm also making this investment to set myself up for my next book  which I am hard at work on.
 
Eden: A Novel was released on May 2.   You can purchase it from  www.jeanneblasberg.com or on Amazon.