Besides making mistakes I confess to, I do actually do some things well. I pay attention to what people who know more say. On that note today, I’m sharing my interview with the sassy and talented Betsy Thorpe. Betsy has been in the book business for 20 years and has an impressive bio as an editor, co-writer and ghost writer. She is a literary badass. Take a moment to sip on a beverage and absorb her generous insight.
Q: There comes a time when a writer thinks their book is ready for submission. How often do you think that writer is incorrect? As in – they should put it away for XX amount of time (days, weeks, dare I say a month) and then look at it again give it another pass and then send it out?
B: There is never a time when a book is truly “done” because you can always keep working on it and tweaking it. However, from my own experience writing a novel, I’d say produce at least three drafts of a novel before submitting, and make sure you’ve had multiple other readers, and a professional edit if you can afford one. You’re trying out for the Major Leagues here, so you need to make your work extremely polished. And as far as putting it away for a certain amount of time, I’d say, be highly involved in your next book already before you submit your first (I got that piece of advice from Stephen King’s book: On Writing, which I highly recommend).
Q: When a writer is ready, is it in their best interest to then give the manuscript to an editor? We can put in your editing services here- I know you have a blurb on your blog. Tell about your upcoming 2 editors and a comma event.
B: I think you owe it to your work, which you have slaved over and worried about and loved like a baby, to give it the best shot possible in the world. The competition is so fierce for representation with a reputable literary agent and publishing house, and to use the baseball try-outs analogy again, to submit without an editor would be like trying out for the Yankees without a coach. I consider my role as a coach for writers – to determine whether it’s time for submission, whether another draft is needed, what an author’s strengths and weaknesses are, whether the manuscript has commercial potential, which agents to approach, etc. There are numerous decisions that need to be made with a person’s work. I try and work with people at all budget levels to make sure they have at least some of that feedback.
Our upcoming Two Editors and a Blog workshop on April 20th is on dialogue. This is such a fun and important topic! I’ve been working with a lot of novelists lately, and they all seem to need help in this part of their writing. How do you make dialogue seem authentic, and not archaic. How can you differentiate characters by their voices. Dialogue tags and the descriptions that nestle between dialogue passages. Getting these facets right can enhance your book greatly. I can’t wait to teach this with my colleague Carin Siegfried.
Q: Do you write queries for clients? Do you require the client to at least write a rough draft? Is there a most common mistake you see in query letters?
B: Query letters are so crucial. I was briefly an agent, and I can’t tell you the amount of submissions that I got that completely ignored the protocol for what should go in a query letter, and thus were summarily rejected. So if you’ve got a great query letter that is formatted in the way that agents want to see them, you’re already ahead of 90% of your fellow would-be published writers.
Yes, I do help authors with their queries, as there is a format and a structure that will help them look polished and pull an agent in to ask to see sample work. I do ask that they draft the letter first, telling them the general parameters of what I need, and then I’ll polish it and we’ll go back and forth for a few rounds of edits. It doesn’t take me long to do this with an author, so it’s a very good investment on behalf of the author’s work.
Q: Please expand upon query basics: one page in length, …
B: Treat the letter as though you’re applying for the job. Make sure you have researched the agent to whom you are submitting, and can tell them why you are submitting to them. In the second paragraph, give a brief description of your work, and potentially two books that you could compare your work to (but don’t make it obvious – I can’t tell you how many people compare their books to Eat, Pray, Love, or The Da Vinci Code, or Twilight.) Be original! The third paragraph should be about who you are, your background in writing, if any, and why you’ve written the book, and any means to market your book (this is incredibly important for non-fiction). The fourth paragraph is basically a conclusion, hoping that the agent will want to read more and be in touch.
Q: Please share what common responses actually mean:
B: No response :
Most agents will say on their websites that due to the enormous amount of submissions they receive (some over 10,000), they can not reply to queries unless they are interested. So no response will mean a “no.”
Some agents will have a form letter that thanks the author for their submission, but will say it’s not right for their list. It’s important to know here that finding an agent who loves your work is akin to finding a soul mate, so be prepared to kiss a lot of frogs here before you find your match.
Form letter with a personal note:
This is an encouraging sign that the agent was engaged in your work, and wanted to let you know that “job well done.” You were better than most, but it still wasn’t right for her.
Personal letter but still rejected – This is almost like the above, but definitely an encouragement.
Personal letter saying I like but needs work, revise and resubmit
Some authors might get rankled over the feedback that an agent doesn’t love the book exactly as it is, but this is a huge sign that you are close. Listen to what the agent is looking for. Is the beginning weak, so that it takes a while to get into the book? Is there a point at where the plot becomes unbelievable? Do your best to fix this, and definitely re-submit. Don’t do this in two days – take your time to make sure you get this right.
Send material: This is a very good sign that your query letter was intriguing. Now you have to find out whether your material lives up to the query letter. If you get a bunch of requests, and no offers, there is something wrong with your manuscript, and it should be fixed. Ask for feedback from the agent who requests your novel/non-fiction/memoir, and then rejects it. There could be multiple reasons, or it could be just one (but don’t harass them – the are busy folks who are just trying to make a living – it’s not their job to give you feedback unless they feel compelled to). I had one client I worked with recently who had a ton of requests for her novel, but the agents all had the same feedback: the start of the novel just didn’t work, and the book didn’t take off until after page 50 (it was to her great credit that she engaged them enough that they actually read that far!). I helped her completely change the beginning of the book, because I could easily spot this flaw and saw what she needed to do. After we finished, she had three agents fighting to represent her, and now the book is out on submission with editors.
Q:Have bribes ever worked?
B: Bribes with agents? Well, I guess a box of cookies or chocolates or flowers is always nice, but in the end, agents get paid only when they sell a book, as they work on commission (15%). So if they don’t believe they can make money selling your work, bribery isn’t going to work for sure! Agents want to see your work first before they’ll start falling in love with what a nice and thoughtful person you are.
Q: How many times would you take rejection before giving up? Do you recommend revising book as it’s being queried or starting a new one?
B: This depends on the subject. For romance, you can easily find over 60 active agents who represent in this field. For some non-fiction topics, it’s hard to find 20 (do your research on Publisher’s Marketplace and look at agents’ deals). The number of agents representing in certain fields is usually in relation to how large the shelves are that their books are going onto. Have you seen the size of the parenting shelf lately? Tiny. Have you seen the rows of shelves for romance? Very large. So I usually say about 60 for fiction, and probably 45 for non-fiction.
Q: How helpful are conferences at making connections?
B: I couldn’t encourage authors more to meet with agents and editors at a writer’s conference. Face-to-face time is huge, and you will be remembered. Just make sure what you submit is polished. If you get encouraging feedback, take the time to polish the whole book one more time before submitting it to the agent. They’ll remember you and wait.
Q: How do you feel about self publishing. How do you feel about it if all a writer has received is form rejection letters?
B: I think you should be proud of your work and have a forum in which to publish it, and self-publishing, with its tiny up-front costs (I never recommend buying one of their “packages”) at least assures that your work is out there. The trick with any book, be it published with a large publisher or a self-publisher, is getting the reader to the book. Make sure the reader can read a sample online somewhere. Make sure you have a gorgeous jacket, interior design, and that’s it’s been line edited and copy-edited. Treat this like a small business project and learn about promoting your book. Certain genre subjects do very well being self-published (romance, fantasy, thrillers, non-fiction on a niche topic), so there is hope for success there. And at the very least, you can leave a copy of your work and your thoughts and your passion for those you love. I personally think everybody should write a book, and those who have done so already should be inordinately proud, as so many people tell me that they want to write a book, but precious few do.
Q: Can you recommend any self publishers?
B: This is a huge topic. I wish I had more time to personally research all self-publishers, as ten new ones seem to open every day. But I can tell you that some of my clients have published with lulu and createspace, but there are a huge amount of options there. Research this thoroughly, and look for professional and consumer guides by journalists and fellow authors. There’s a ton of information out there available on the web – it just requires time to go through.
For additional information on Betsy, her services and the upcoming workshop please visit: www.betsythorpe.com