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

 

An #SFFPit analysis

This deserves a post of its own. Dan Koboldt has this reasoned and honest breakdown of last months’ #SFFpit Twitter pitch event.

The Fifth SFFpit and Twitter Pitch Fatigue

I’ve linked to it here, because it has some very good info for people just now querying science fiction and fantasy. Some mitigating factors include bad timing in June, ‘twitter pitch fatigue’ because of so many events, and small sample size.

Point 1: YA still dominates the pitch field, so we can draw a rough estimate that there are still at least a third more Young Adult authors than Adult authors trying to break into the field. This is a good thing in one way, because we need to keep pushing the quality and number of SFF books in YA. As long as YA SFF is separated from adult (it wasn’t, until about 15-20 years ago), it’s a main ambassador of SFF to younger readers.

It’s a bad thing for primarily Adult authors, because they may come away with the picture that publishers, agents, their fellow authors, and the market itself supports YA speculative fiction more than it supports adult. I don’t think that’s the whole picture, from looking at publishers’ catalogs, but it does seem to indicate that un-agented writers may have an easier time getting publisher interest if they are writing YA. It also seems to indicate that many agents (whether they openly admit it or not) seem to be more favorably disposed to YA authors.

Point 2: agent and editor participation was down sharply, and seemed to show fewer of what I’d deem responsible professional publishers. There were many more newer publishers and younger agents, often a warning sign meriting a lot more research.

Point 3: Dan ended his analysis with a pitch for the upcoming PitchWars. This may be good for some authors. PitchWars, according to Dan, gives un-agented authors a chance to have ‘published/agented authors, editors, or interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer critiques on how to make the manuscript shine.’

I’m still dithering about participating in PitchWars, mostly because of timing and market issues. I’m also probably not going to participate in more general Twitter pitching contests. It was a fun experiment, I learned a lot from it, I had valuable feedback…but in the end, I didn’t make any serious headway.

#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.

 

 

 

#SFFpit tomorrow, + how about them Dems

I’m an Independent, and I am actually proud of the House Democrats today. They made some history by staging a fearless sitdown in the House, in protest over the Republican refusal to even *look* at upcoming gun control laws. When Paul Ryan booted out CSPAN and turned off the microphones and cameras, he forgot about smart phones and the Capital internet.

That revolution was brought to you by Periscope and Twitter. Whether anything will come of it, who knows? I’m writing scathing letters to my senators and representatives.

One of the key problems is the NoFlyNoBuy bill, which reasonably suggests that if you are on a terror watch list, you probably shouldn’t be buying AR-15 guns and high capacity magazines. The ACLU has rightfully pointed out the No Fly list is riddled with mistakes and bad profiling.

Okay, sure it is…*I’m* on that watch list, for simply being a member of MoveOn.org for years. Let’s have that conversation when we bring up the bill. Others have suggested that the NoFly list’s profiling is not going to catch the ‘lone gunman’ usually crazy, religious, and white, who seems to cause lots of these domestic outrages. Well, duh, that’s why we need to have an adult discussion about gun control in America. Instead of the NRA members who have the luxury of a never-wavering ‘No’ vote every chance they can lobby.

***

In happier (I think) news, I’m going to be participating in one last twitter pitch session this summer, tomorrow’s #SFFpit. I have ten distinct pitches ready and scheduled though the day from 8am to 6pm EST. I have no idea what is going to happen, and I’ll be busy enough during the day that I can only look in during the morning.

Ten pitches. My eyes are crossing.

If you follow me on Twitter (@MCHana2), please do not like or retweet my posts, since that muddies the water for agents and editors. I appreciate all such shows of support, but those are against the session guidelines.

Gotta be honest: I’m not expecting much. I grew tenfold as a writing during these pitch contests, as I shaped new tweets and discarded old ones. Very educational. If it doesn’t help me get agent notice (the odds are very long), the new tweets will certainly help me in marketing for self-publishing.

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.