Advice From an Agent

William Dietrich

William Dietrich, NY Times bestselling author and Pulitzer-winning journalist, has given us permission to post this piece from his blog about San Diego Historical Novel Society Conference 2011. It summarises advice given to aspiring authors by agent Jennifer Weltz of the Jean Naggar Literary Agency.


Agent Jennifer Weltz of the Jean Naggar Literary Agency gave some good advice in a speech to the Historical Novel Society convention in San Diego June 18. For aspiring authors, here’s part of what she said, posted with Jennifer’s permission:

How do I get published you ask? How do I grow my readership in the challenging publishing landscape of today?

What do you do in your office all day??

First and foremost – I am a reader:

I read queries (I and each Agent in my office individually receive about 8000 a year – request chapters from about 10%- and request manuscripts from about 10% of the chapters)

In the past year I have taken on new clients.

I also read my author’s new and revised and revised and revised manuscripts, outlines, proposals…

I read all of the sold titles from other agents in our office as I actively sell all of our books into the international market. This is largely fun reading for me as these are books sold by people with great taste and my job is to tell the world what I love about their books!

When I can squeeze it in, I also read for pure pleasure – books from people who are not my clients. I seem to be able to manage that sometime in August.

To dispel a myth – No I do not read during my time in the office! I welcome Buses, planes, trains, long lines and other seemingly passive hours that many bemoan, as do most editors and agents. The downside can be missed bus stops because I just must know if the kidnapped girl will come out alive!

My role as an agent also involves being a preliminary editor who gives you feedback from a reader’s point of view.

I love to tell stories. I tell them to editors over the phone, at lunch, at a party or in a meeting. I tell the same stories every half hour to different people from around the world at Book Fairs. I tell stories to film producers, audio publishers and even unsuspecting people who make the mistake of asking me about a good book I’ve enjoyed recently. Please ask me about one of our author’s books and I will happily launch into the details that captured and enthralled me. Don’t ask me character’s names however. I can never remember those!

I am a negotiator who loves a good deal, and is always looking for a win-win solution -(as long as my author comes out on top) and delight in arguing the finer points of a contract. So many changes have been happening in publishing and in the legal terminology used to define our author’s rights in print and electronic that this has become a much larger part of what I do. I see my job as the one person my authors can turn to when they want to understand the latest developments in e-rights, royalty structures or what a micro payment is.

I also need to know what makes a good deal in France versus Indonesia, what is needed to get an audio deal and what stipulations need to be in a film contract to make sure the producers are kept on track.

And I do not scream rant and rage to get you a better deal. Frankly I find that, not only unprofessional but counterproductive. Instead I try to find the irrefutable reason why my author should get what I am asking for and that, so far, has worked just fine.

I am a navigator 

From deal to revisions to covers, galleys to books, and publication and marketing plans, I try to help my authors receive what they need to make their books reach their highest potential.

I am there when we need to determine if the cut of the sleeve or the bow in the hair, is historically accurate on a cover. Do we cut off or show her face? Does the landscape make sense? And, most importantly, will the package of cover and title attract the readership waiting to discover this new book?

I try to help facilitate the meetings, conference calls and e-mails about events, blog tours, advertising, web sites and social networking and other ways to publicize and market your books and have gone as far as embracing these mediums myself to be sure that I have some idea what I am talking about when asked for advice. You can follow me at @jvnla by the way on Twitter or Friend or Fan us on Facebook.

I am the numbers person –

I vet royalty statements, write checks and explain how reserves for returns work. I analyze bookscan versus real numbers of sales versus the rising market share of e-books – especially in historicals.

Luckily I do not have to do all of this on my own and so I am also a manager of a wonderful team where we all work together to make sure our authors and their books are best served now and for the future. These days, this has often meant, with our Agency celebrating 33 years, that I am looking for new opportunities for our out-of-print books and, sadly, working with the estates and children of the authors we have worked with for decades.

This all makes for a very busy day that is always full of surprises… and new challenges.

What advice can I give to you of the 1 query in 8000 wishing to be noticed?

Once you have completed, revised, revised and revised your manuscript – do your homework. Research the myriad resources that will tell you which agents are the best to approach for your story. Follow the guidelines given by that agent. Make sure you tell me about your story and be sure to give me a sense of your voice and your passion for the subject and characters of your story. Whe you tell me about yourself, be sure to include your publications awards, recognition, connections etc… Before Agenting, I would have told you that my favorite platform was made of cherrywood and about this size. Now everyone asks first, and not only in non-fiction, what is his her platform? Have you read an author from my Agency? Let me know. This tells me you have thoughtfully chosen me and I will in turn take more thought in deciding whether to request materials.

Know that how you act before we know each other, is my indicator of the future!

If I pass, please understand that you are truly better off finding someone else who will feel the necessary passion to bring about a sale in this difficult market.

Keep in mind, when looking for an agent that you are looking for a long term partner. Frankly many of our relationships with our authors have lasted longer than their marriages!

What advice to the published or soon to be published authors here? First congratulations! You are the honored few.

As publishing has evolved and readers have learned to expect access to their authors, your roles have evolved as well. You can no longer take you advance and retreat back into your writing room to work on your next masterpiece. These days, after a deal, I explain to authors that they often must count on reinvesting a large portion of their advances back into their careers. Sometimes it will buy them a web site, blog adds, maybe a publicist if needed, time to social network, gas money to visit bookstores, or even a plane ticket to the HNS convention! If you want to build your readership and further your writing career, this investment in yourself is crucial.

Everyone in this room is already involved in one of the most important actions to further your careers -and that is building supportive communities. This means braving social networking through Facebook friends and Fan Pages, Twitter, Blogs (yours and others), web sites, forums, chat rooms, etc…

And hey, you might actually enjoy it!

Keep in mind it is better to do one or 2 well than to do all.

I am a Twitter person myself. 140 characters seems to be what I can handle during my busy day. I have learned, in the past 2 years (and over 2000 followers!) the importance of including links and organizing the people I follow through lists that let me see immediately what my authors are writing about and what the industry is excited about. I have tried to also make sure that I share a bit of myself too.

Recently I created a JVNLA Authors Daily paper that takes ours and our author’s links from the past day on Twitter and organizes them into a readable on-line paper that anyone can subscribe to. I have to admit that I enjoy finding new ways to help get the word out about our authors and encourage all of our authors to do the same with each other.

In our 2 years of efforts as an Agency, we have seen authors meet and connect through us online and begin to cross promote each other’s books as well as connecting them to reviewers and bloggers and even a TV appearance!

Book Groups, as I learned from Donna Cross many years ago can drive your success, but what is new about what we should be doing with them now? Community.

When you meet with a book group, instead of just telling them that you will be sure to e-mail them all when your next book is out (which I hope all of you are doing!) suggest, that, while they are waiting and based on what they loved about your books, you would be delighted to recommend so and so’s book.

We should not be re-inventing the wheel with every author, but instead drawing on each other’s strengths to achieve greater heights through collaboration. This means not only blogging about your thoughts and books but interviewing or reviewing fellow Historical writers and offering to do pieces on other people’s blogs. Not only does this create variety for you, but it expands audience for both of you.

Retweet and repost news of publications and events of fellow writers. Join in the conversation or create conversations as a group.

In a nutshell Pay-it-forward. You would be amazed at your returns.

Now, while encouraging you to embrace social media I must also caution you.

Please always be aware that, while you are typing alone in your room or office, literally, the whole world can see what you write… and yes, your agent, editor, publicist, publisher, etc… are reading it too.

Keep in mind that, while you would not want your agent or editor saying or writing negative things about you to other authors or their colleagues, you need to treat them with the same courtesy.

Don’t Tweet out how depressed you are with too many rejections your agent is getting on your manuscript.

Don’t leave descriptions of your unsold manuscript on your web-site – just in case your agent might want to present them as new in the future.

Give your agent warning before blogging about how, while you highly respect her opinion, you have decided to completely ignore her advice.

Be careful in chat rooms, on blogs and on facebook when discussing the stages of the publication process.

Above all remember you are a community that is stronger when united. Don’t tear each other’s works apart publicly and, if you see others ganging up on a writer, condemn those actions.

Keep in mind that your readers are thrilled to read different perspectives on similar subjects and are always ready to devour a good read.

We are happy to read the books that convince us that Prince Richard in the tower survived as well as the ones that make us sure he didn’t. It reveals that there are still unsolved mysteries yet to crack!

So, what is the future of publishing you may ask?

I have watched the historical market rise, tank and then rise again.

Bookstore closings hurt it, book groups helped it, More bookstore closings large and small took another bite and then Bloggers have been gradually filling that void but only for the technically savvy.

The greatest challenge facing publishers now is figuring out how to launch new authors when there aren’t places where you can walk in and the owner can say, “Oh I know you’ll love this book!”.

In my opinion, one crucial way publishers can combat this is by Branding themselves more strongly in the on-line world.

They are already tackling this through social networking, but I would love one day to see us be able to search, not only for a book by author or category when going to an on-line retailer, but also by imprint. This way I could discover a new author that I know will be wonderful because all of the books in the BLANK imprint have been great!

Who knows. Maybe if enough people asked for this search function, we could make it happen…

How have e-books changed publishing’s landscape and what is our place going to be in this NewWorld?

First a question: What do you predominantly buy when wanting to read a book? HC, PBCK, Large Print, Audio, Kindle, Nook, Sony?

Just last week, the Principal of my daughter’s school came up to me as I was reading a manuscript on my e-reader to let me know he had just bought a Kindle and he was a convert! He told me how the ability to enlarge the print has increased his reading pleasure ten fold.

A friend who is constantly traveling and used not to read much, e-mailed me for book suggestions because he has an app on his iPhone. A relative who used to only buy Hard Covers, now only buys ebooks…to read on her BlackBerry. They both wax poetic about the convenience of always having a book with them as the major reason behind their switch and neither one is looking back.

A sea change is happening around us. We are seeing non-readers discover the joys of a good book because of the ease of obtaining one and we are also seeing our loyal Hard Cover buyers switching out.

In the Historical Market, I have witnessed 1:1 sales. This means that for every print book sold one ebook is sold as well. 2 weeks ago I analyzed an author’s sales numbers. I first went to Bookscan – the one place in publishing where we can look up how many books have sold to an actual consumer or Book-reader. Let’s say, the number I came up with was 1,000 copies. I then delved deeper and asked more questions and discovered that this represented only half of the true print sales. Now we have 2,000 copies. I then realized that these reports didn’t include any e-book sales (supposedly this will be changing soon) and that for every 1 print book sold, 1 e-book sold as well. The final number is 4,000 copies.

Bookscan had only represented 1/4 of the true sales history for this title!

Why is this important? Because Bookscan can be where publishers, editors, publicists, marketers, agents and now also authors look to see how a book is performing and then make decisions based on this information.

Keep in mind that this skewed perception is not truly the fault of the industry. Just last year, if I had been giving you statistics, I would have told you that Bookscan was 70% accurate and that e-sales maybe added 20% in sales. Publishing is changing faster than it ever has before!

What does this mean to you as authors? It means that your percentage of sales from e-books is going to continue to increase. The key is to make sure this doesn’t mean your revenue decreases.

What about the many new players who are showing up to the publishing table? Well, as I said to someone recently from Amazon, we as agents always welcome more competition for our wonderful books!

That said, proceed with caution. Everything comes with a price. A higher percentage might require you to be exclusive to one device when new ones are gaining market share (remember how many people raised their hands?)

As readers do become fiercely loyal to their devices, this could mean that a whole section of readers will never read your book simply because of lack of access. Why does this worry me? Because I look at, not only what is a good deal for today, but what is a good deal for my author 30 years from now.

Recently, we were battling with a publisher about new terminology that had been introduced in a contract regarding ad revenue. Months went by and my wonderfully patient author asked me why we were digging in our heels on such a small and seemingly inconsequential point where we would be lucky to get 10 cents in revenue! This is true now, I responded, but what if your publisher offers your book (otherwise known as content) for free because they find that they can make more by selling ad space while offering free content? Unheard of? Ever read a popular blog?

It worries me when I see publishers making short term choices that cut production corners and have the potential of long term losses of sales.

Is self publishing the way to go? The hype tells you yes, but the reality is quite different. The success stories tend to be authors who have already established a following that was built with their classical publisher before they broke away.

So, what advice for the future?

1st let’s celebrate the myriad new options out there for getting your wonderful words into the hand of  eager readers!

2nd keep in mind that there is no one path to take.

3rd make sure to make your decisions are based on careful considerations of the cold hard facts and not the hype.

And 4th know that you are a vital, if not, THE vital ingredient for success throughout the process. Not only because the burden is now more and more on you to connect to your readers, but because without you…

There would be no business!

Your imagination and talent is where it all begins as pages turn, even virtually, and you transport yet another willing participant back in time to plunge into a deeply satisfying read.

And that is what I look for every day.

(You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @jvnla , Fan the agency on Facebook and look at the website

Posted by Richard Lee

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