Alis Franklin: Books of the Wyrd

I’ve talked before about a wonderful fanfic-writer-turned-agented-commercial-author, Alis Franklin. Time for a bittersweet update. LIESMITH has a great sequel, STORMBRINGER, which you can read. And what looks to be a couple of brilliant follow-ups, which you can’t (not yet anyway).

You can find out more about her writing here.

Out of respect for Alis and her agent, I’ll refrain from a more-targeted industry rant. Let’s just use what happened to Alis as a teachable moment for newer authors getting a shiny offer from a Big Five publishing imprint.

Breathe. Do your research again. Find the skeletons in the publisher’s closet before you become one of them.

Be aware that for potentially much higher sales than a small press, you may be trading publishing rights tied up forever. If the book doesn’t sell, the publisher may not accept new books in that series. The publisher will continue to eke out tiny sales on your existing work, and you’ll not only get pennies…you can’t republish it or the sequels elsewhere. If you’re lucky, you or your agent arranged reasonable termination clauses whereby you can get your publishing rights back if sales fall below a certain threshold in a specific timeframe.

I’ve heard rumors that certain digital-only publishers got themselves blacklisted by their greater genre community, for alleged non-standard to overtly-predatory contract items. This often deeply hurt the authors and agents who committed to those deals. Was the shunning merited? It’s hard to say, except by looking forensically at a case-by-case basis.

So if you have an agent recommending such a deal, go over the contract offer with a very fine comb. Especially with digital-only or digital-first offers. Especially if you write in one of the ‘diversity’ boxes like Own Voices, POC, or LGBTQIA! Is that shiny Big Five imprint interested in you as a writer, or only as a checkmark in that box…and only as long as you write predictably and safely ‘on message’? (A blog post specifically about that will follow this one.)

Find out how well similar authors are selling at that press, or its rivals. I know one digital-only Big Five LGBTQIA author who probably sells enough ebooks a month to make her rent. I know others who’ve made low four or even low three figures for multiple books, across several years.

Have a realistic conversation with your agent about how they will handle the worst-case scenarios listed above. Will they support your move to another press and/or another pen name, or cut you loose to find your own way via self-pub?

New-to-publishing authors often fixate on the idea that getting an agent is their main goal, when it’s merely a stage in a journey.

Mark Engels: ALWAYS GRAY IN WINTER

One of the best side-effects of online novel-pitch contests: the community around them. Whether or not a writer makes the cut (agent request, mentorship, etc), most writers can find new friendships and even collaborations within the larger pool of the hopeful and hopeless.

Mark J. Engels and I met during a pitch contest in 2016 (was it #DVpit? #Pitmad? #SFFpit? They blur, yanno.) Neither of us got anywhere meaningful in the actual contests, other than some helpful critiques. But we hit it off as sounding boards.

Who is Mark, other than a cool guy who is a go-to source for locomotive engineering and logistics questions? Go here and find out. Or here: https://www.mark-engels.com/ 

Psst: if you do, you are going to see some wicked cool art. Like Pawly Doing What Pawly Does:

Mark has a book launch today: ALWAYS GRAY IN WINTER, which I read in beta form last year. This novel will be slanted toward ‘Furry’ readers, which is okay, because the Furries I know are eagerly waiting for it. But GRAY is so much more than what many outside readers (and even Furries) are expecting. For one thing, it’s not erotica, romance, urban fantasy, or paranormal romance.

I stand by my initial impulse to call GRAY ‘Furpunk’: a Military Thriller that happens to have shapeshifters in it. Pawlina Katczynski is a well-written strong female character without being a caricature. Her story runs on high stakes, killer action sequences, sneaky plotting, and some deft worldbuilding (as there should be, to fit an embattled clan of Polish were-lynx mercenaries into a world that would be familiar to the leads of ‘Atomic Blonde’ and ‘Bourne’.)

Will you like it? The book will be in print first, but hopefully the publisher will release an ebook version soon, too. Go to Mark’s site, click on ‘Novel’, and see if it sparks your interest.

Book links:

https://www.amazon.com/Always-Gray-Winter/dp/1945247193/

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36008025-always-gray-in-winter

 

Agents, offers, assumptions, and bad behavior

This was going to be just a section in Filigree’s Rule, but I thought it deserved its own post. (Added info, as of 10/4/2016.)

I have begged literary agents before: please clarify your stance on negotiating publishing offers for querying authors.

We authors need to know beforehand, if you never do this and would rather we not contact you with offers, or if it is something you’ll consider doing on a case by case basis. Please put this in your goddamn guidelines, blog posts, Tumblr, whatever. We’ll be grateful and not bother you.

Otherwise, things like this are going to happen, leaving agents furious, authors confused and angry, and publishers in limbo.

Today we’re going to talk about AgentFails, offers of publication, offers of representation, and the assumption of offers.

I have a writer friend who has a great mms. It’s hard to pin down in genre, but it has good bones and a good editor will turn it into a dazzler. Friend has been trying to get this book in front of agents for a while, through queries, twitter pitch contests, etc. Friend finally gave up on those, and subbed directly to some interesting small-press publishers.

Some of which I liked and some I didn’t, but it’s not my book at stake. Friend got enthusiastic responses from three publishers, and was left with The Choice: 1. A newish press with very little to recommend it yet. 2. A stellar independent press with new capital investment and serious editorial and marketing power. 3. A quiet, niche-focused, but fairly professional press with the same core passions as Friend, and some decent plans for the future.

Friend wrote all three and asked for time. They granted it. At the same time, Friend emailed one of the agents who had asked for a query letter during a recent Twitter-pitch event. Agent agreed to look at mms.

It was then I started shaking my head and mouthing the words ‘Make no sudden moves and back away slowly’ to Friend. Because I have seen some of the online and behind-the-scenes meltdowns Agent has allegedly caused or enabled, going back to the agency where Agent learned to do these things. But again, not my circus, not my monkeys.

Agent…made a tentative offer on just a chapter or so. This is not unheard of, but it’s really strange for a new writer’s first book. Most agents want the full, so they can see where the story goes.

Friend sent off mms, and reminded Agent there were offers on table. Friend asked for a value-added statement from Agent, as in ‘What can you do for me that I can’t, in these current markets?’

No further word from Agent. Faced with offers and ticking clocks, Friend finally stepped back from agent-hunting and took offer #3 from the Nice Little Place. Sent a polite email to Agent, to thank for the time and consideration spent.

Only Agent had just cross-posted, apparently anticipating Friend’s acceptance, and sent an editorial letter with suggested changes and some other markets. A few minutes later, Friend got a terse email generally concerned with the wasting of time, the bypassing of protocol, and unprofessional behavior.

Bear in mind, the Agent made no formal offer of rep, set no timetables, did not contact Friend at all after the first gushing comments on the first chapter read. There’s even some worry on Friend’s part that Agent was planning on collecting an easy 15% for ‘negotiating’ the already-issued offer from the Nice Little Place.

And then Agent tweeted about it in public, in terms both snide and histrionic.

I can actually see Agent’s POV, and the assumption that Agent did a favor and was rebuffed. I know a few weeks to a month is probably not a good time limit on deciding whether to rep a book or not, let alone an author.

But this is WHY professionals trained by professionals FIRST make formal offers with specific timetables, expectations, and concessions…so nobody jumps the gun and writes what they think of as a ‘wasted’ editorial letter. Or assumes that they are the One, the Only, and the Perfect Choice.

And now Friend knows their incredible, uncanny luck, at avoiding having to work with this particular Agent.

I’m really looking forward to seeing that book.

 

#SFFpit: the epilogue

So a few days have passed. I did about as well in #SFFpit as I expected: one of the small publishers I know and trust liked my entries, as well as a few other people. It was a long shot with some hidden value beyond the pitch day, so I wasn’t that worried for the mms’ sake.

However – and not to diss Dan Koboldt or any of the other many people who made the June 2016 #SFFpit happen – it seemed largely a wash. Part of that may just be summer doldrums, and a one-day event sandwiched between the twitter juggernauts of QueryKombat and PitchWars later this summer. Part had to have been the Brexit vote and its aftermath, sucking up all air on the internet during Thursday. Part may simply be twitter-pitch fatigue.

I looked across my categories of interest: fantasy, epic fantasy, high fantasy. I saw some great entries that I wished were available books. Many of these pitches were YA, but not as many as I’d feared earlier. Most of them didn’t get a single agent or editor ‘like’; the best entries seemed to gather only (low) single digit-likes.

Not a lot of play visible from major agents, but the usual small-press/vanity/new company suspects were out in full force. I’ve already written about similar companies and their strategies in ‘Filigree’s Rule’, so I won’t go into a dissection here.

It was a fun experience, but I doubt I’ll do it again in December, or take part in other twitter pitch contests for this particular fantasy mms. I have already queried and had rejections from most of my target agents, with only a few stragglers left on my list. By December, I hope to either have agent representation or (more likely) be working on the process of self-publishing at least 4 novels.

I’d still recommend that every unagented author with a completed and polished mms try at least three twitter pitch events. I’d also recommend they use a scheduling program like HootSuite or Tweetdeck to automatically send their tweets at the right times during the contest hours, especially if they have a life outside Twitter.

The greatest thing about twitter pitches? The incredible community. The second greatest thing? Developing and honing twitter pitches leads to better elevator blurbs, loglines, and teaser copy.

When I considered #DVpit (Diverse Voices) in April, I wasn’t sure I could manage to create a single pitch, let alone three or four. Turns out, those pitches sucked: I used Classical mythology references that younger readers and agents didn’t get, I used 15-year-old or older comparison titles, I relied too much on pop culture shorthand, and I didn’t drill down into the conflicts of my story.

Here are my first three #DVpit attempts:

1 LGBT secworld Orpheus: a warrior, a bard, and the genderfluid Hades who must keep them alive. McKillip+Lee’s Flat Earth #DVpit #highfantasy

2 Sword&planet Orpheus: a warrior, a bard, and the genderfluid Hades who must keep them alive. McKillip+Lee’s Flat Earth #DVpit #highfantasy.

3 The tyrant rules only while her mortal consorts live: LGBT Orpheus #highfantasy #Adult McKillip+Kushiel VivaLaVida the novel #DVpit

They were riffs on a description that had gone over tolerably well in a couple of online writing forums, but suffered when condensed to 140 characters. I didn’t know the approved abbreviations for SFF subgenres; I should have used #HF for #highfantasy, for example.

People were unfamiliar enough with Classical themes that they thought ‘Sword&planet Orpheus’ was the title, instead of a theme. My comp titles were so old that only a few agents even recognized them. Using a Coldplay song, while sort of accurate, probably hindered more than it helped. Worst of all, I had no detailed sense of the book’s conflicts.

Out of DVpit I got one agent’s interest on a partial; but the book had too much romance for her, so that went nowhere (I’d already queried her agency in March and had a rejection, so no surprise.)

I noticed a lot of agent likes and editor retweets across the board in fantasy, epic fantasy, and high fantasy…even if a lot of them seemed to be in YA. It was a lively day.

Before stumbling onward to Brenda Drake’s #PitMad (Pitch Madness) on June 9, I participated in Kyra M. Nelson’s #MockPit on June 2. This one-day event is a kind of practice run for #PitMad.

I used the old pitches and got roundly trounced; this was an event dominated by YA authors and agents, and they showed me the deep faults in my pitches. (Though I wasn’t ready to really see or admit them yet.)

On to Pitch Madness!

I refined my pitches to the following:

1 LGBT Orpheus: a warrior shedding her humanity, a bard transcending his, and the genderfluid Hades who must keep them alive. McKillip+Lee’s Flat Earth #PitMad #A #F         

2 Sword&planet Orpheus: a warrior, a bard, and the genderfluid Hades who must keep them alive. McKillip+Lee’s Flat Earth #PitMad #A #F

3 Rebels plot murder: ageless tyrant rules only while her mortal consorts live. LGBT Orpheus McKillip+Kushiel meets VivaLaVida #PitMad #A #F

I was still stuck on those beloved old comp titles, even knowing they had to go, but I was getting a little better with my subgenres.

By some rare miracle, a great publisher and a really good agent liked my work. The publisher is one of two I might consider in lieu of self-publishing. The agent now has the full mss. (The agent is old enough to have liked my comp titles. Whee! For that, I can wait another 8 to 10 weeks.) The same usual suspects chimed in, plus a few trolls.

#PitMad was interesting in general because it had the same relatively high agent/editor participation that #DVpit had. Lots of YA, even with many agents specifically asking ahead of time for adult work. This event covers many genres, so it’s very big.

I hoped that #SFFpit would let me narrow my pitches to legitimate agents and editors in my subgenres. With that in mind I threw out most of the old pitches, and decided to take advantage of #SFFpit’s generous 10-pitch limit.

Here are the tweets I used, roughly once an hour from 8am to 6pm EST, plus their character count and the MST times launched:

1 Rebels plot. An ageless tyrant rules only while her mortal consorts live. Her lovers just won’t do protective custody #SFFpit #FR #LGBT                               135                         5:05am

When his wife flees from humanity, the last bard of a dying race thwarts a secret war and ancient gods to rejoin her  #SFFpit #FR #LGBT                          135                6:07am

3  A warrior sheds her humanity and a bard transcends his, for love of a genderfluid sorcerer whose life is tied to theirs #SFFpit #FR #LGBT                   137           7:13am

His wife outcast from humanity, the last bard of a dying race thwarts assassination and ancient gods to rejoin her #SFFpit #FR #EF #LGBT               136             8:22am

Ageless tyrant rules only while her two mortal consorts live: one has known from birth, the other is a sworn enemy #SFFpit #A #FR #LGBT                         135                     9:14am

A warrior exiled from the bard she loves; for her, the bard gives up everything but the sorcerer destined for them both #SFFpit #FR #LGBT                              137                 10:26am

Forbidden shapeshifting magic may reunite a bard with his exiled wife, after she sends him to win an enemy mage’s heart #SFFpit #FR #LGBT                    134                    11:07am

8 The last bard of a dying race thwarts civil war and ancient gods to join his outcast wife; a Dark Power loves her, too #SFFpit #A #EF #LGBT                      139                     12:19pm

Rebels plot. An ageless tyrant rules only while her mortal consorts live. Her lovers just won’t do protective custody #SFFpit #EF #LGBT                                         137                       1:08pm

10  Immortal tyrant rules only while her two mortal consorts live: one has known from birth, the other is a sworn enemy #SFFpit #FR #LGBT                              133                   2:21pm

After the day was done, the most likes I got was 4. No retweets. Only a few of the likes from known publishers I trust.

Even so, I think the experience was valuable, in that I have ten slightly different but accurate pitch lines, for when I’m doing advertising pushes for the self-published versions. I have better ideas about plot and sequels. I met some great people: writers, agents, and editors whose conversations have enriched my life.

A good result for a little typing and auto-scheduling, I think.

Even though I can’t participate in it this round, I’d like to do a shout-out for The Knight Agency’s first ever agency Twitter-Pitch event. You can find out date and time here, if you’re interested.

 

 

 

Diverse Voices pitch contest 4-19-2016

A PSA for writers in multiple genres with query-ready manuscripts (finished & polished): if you and/or your characters meet certain qualifications, you can participate in tomorrow’s #DVpit contest on Twitter.

It’s being sponsored by agent Beth Phelan, and looks to include a lot of well-known literary agents and editors (usual caveats apply).

This is a very encouraging sign of publishing professionals actually doing something about representing diverse authors and books, so it needs as much community participation and support as possible! (But do follow the rules about the actual event, because they’ll help streamline the chaos.)

***

My #DVpit experience was fun and useful. Honing my tweets ultimately helped me improve my query letter. It let me see what works were getting multiple notices, and probably why. I reconnected with an agent whom I’d queried before, but that ultimately led to an expected rejection on genre. I’m still unsure about the utility of editors boosting unagented authors’ pitches when they can’t take unagented pitches…it’s a long shot whether any eventual agent will be able to place the mms on the basis of one retweet months back. Especially for a book already rejected by the publisher in question.

Will I do #DVpit or other pitch contest again? If I have a book more in the YA camp, maybe…it seems that diverse YA gets more traction and notice than adult work. I notice that YA often seems to get more attention and space in other online pitch contests, too.