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.




Anne R. Allen’s ‘How Not To Sell Books’

The sun rises. The living move in the waking world. Sadness remains, as well as selfish fury at a universe that would take Terry Pratchett before he could give us another Tiffany Aching book…*

Sigh. I’m short-tempered this week, partly because of that. I’ve put several people on ‘ignore’ in various social media forums, because I can’t figure out if they are trolls or just clueless – and I don’t care enough to engage to find out.

There was a #pitmad this weekend, and already I’m seeing giddy authors talk about this or that new, unknown (and in some cases, old and notorious) publisher or agent liking the author pitches. I expect heartbreak in a few months.

I saw the lineup for the Tucson Festival of Books this weekend. Yep, more non-book exhibitors than publishers (though self-pub and commercial authors had a good presence.) What’s more troubling was the presence of at least two known vanity publishers. I’m deeply skeptical of this book festival now (sad, too, because I’ve loved going there in the past.) I’ve seen these same publishers at two recent festivals, so it’s not like they’re sneaking in. I’m beginning to get the feeling this shindig is not vetted as well as I thought it was…

Lastly, in the wake of several vast Twitter campaigns by some marketing social groups I know, this article from Anne R. Allen was refreshing in its bluntness.

If you have a published book and you are trying to sell it to people, please read this:

It contains wisdom.

It will keep people like me from having to ‘ignore’ bad marketers.

* So, I learned there will be a last Tiffany Aching novel, and a couple more posthumous books from Sir Terry. I’m glad, but still weepy. Because those will be the last.

Twitter pitches in publishing

Twitter is a wonderful tool for writers.  It creates interactive communities and allows extremely customized newsfeeds. Twitter also opens doors between authors, agents, and publishers, through intermittent pitch contests like #pitmad (Pitch Madness), #AdPit (Adult fiction pitches), or #SFFpit (science fiction & fantasy pitches).

In general, contests like these allow participants to post their novels’ short hooks in a common public forum on Twitter. Agents and editors who ‘favorite’ a particular post indicate they’d like to see more of it in a formal query letter, expedited when the author mentions that the agent saw the hook in a pitch madness contest.

It’s not an offer of representation or a publishing contract. Just a request to see more of that story. Theoretically, this is another way for authors to bypass the query slushpile, or at least jump ahead. The professional participants can be editors from world-class publishers, or well-known literary agents who might not be open to most unsolicited queries.

I’ve heard of some heartwarming success stories. They’re fun events, and I like seeing how other writers create one-sentence hooks.

Here’s the dark side to pitch contests: they also allow inexperienced, ineffective, or frankly predatory agents and publishers* to hunt for new authors. In many cases, the selected authors are so thrilled by the attention, they query with the requested material…without properly researching the requesting agent or editor first.

In a recent contest, I was startled to see the names of some agents and publishers already assessed negatively on community watchdog groups like Preditors & Editors, AbsoluteWrite, Making Light, Hi Piers, and other sites.

A twitter pitch favorite or request is simply an online handshake at a business party. Would you buy stock, open a bank account, or trust your potential livelihood to a stranger you met at one social function?

You shouldn’t. Respected agents and editors won’t mind if you do some background checks before submitting a requested query. It’s easier and more polite to simply never query someone, than to retract a query after realizing the recipient is not someone you want as a business partner.

* Added March 2, 2015: In a lovely roundabout way, a diligent researcher can narrow down such publishers, agents, etc. by their participation (either directly or through sock-puppets) in online sites that oppose some of the aforementioned watchdog groups. I won’t name names 1) to avoid giving the former bandwidth, and 2) as per Filigree’s Rule, I think new authors need to learn how to do their own research.

But the clues, they are out there.

Added February 4, 2016: Here is one big clue about agencies and publishers to possibly avoid…if they seem to be favoriting everything they see. Especially if those likes spread across many genres. This can be an indicator of a vanity press, a new small press that hasn’t narrowed down its focus, or a fee-charging agency.

Added March 20, 2016: Same caution goes for the admittedly wonderful tool of #mswl (Manuscript Wishlist), along with every other helpful online or printed list of ‘publishers/agents seeking X genre’. Very few of those lists are vetted for accuracy or professionalism. The bottom feeders know this is a great way to snag unwary authors. The list organizers likely have no interest in the controversy that would erupt if they policed their lists better – or the time to do so, in the first place.

On these lists, I keep seeing names of literary agents, agencies, and publishers I would not trust based on their previous reputation and shenanigans, ranked alongside known and respected professionals. Again, authors, do your own research! Remember, heartbreaking as it is: the best agent in the world < a bad agency. 

You need me to be even more blunt? Okay. If an agency already has a wide, repeated, and multi-agent rep for shotgun submissions, lack of communication, arbitrary edits, unrealistic expectations, litigious behavior, failure to provide submissions lists to outgoing authors, and/or poor contracts with bad publishers…why the hell would you think a new agent there is going to be any different?

Fortunately, many agents move around over their career. If you see superstars in scary agencies, just wait a couple of years. If they’re great agents, they’ll probably go to a better agency sooner or later.

Added June 24, 2017: But what about new publishers and agents? I keep getting asked this by folks caught up in the giddy whirl of a successful Twitter pitch. What if the person who favorited or liked your pitch has no track record?

What are their industry credits? Did they apprentice with another publisher, or have applicable job skills? Do they have the capital and business plan to survive their first couple of years in the business? Do they know what they’re doing?

Take a chance on a new publisher or literary agency, if you can afford the risks. It might be safer to ask them up front about their skills and background. If they’re honest, they’ll answer. If they lash out in histrionic offense, you have a big clue about their business style.

What you don’t do: ask the just-signed authors of a new publisher. They’re probably still in the honeymoon period, and they more than likely have even less of a clue about the publishing industry than their publisher. Ask them a couple of years down the line. If they’re still happy, they’ll tell you.