creative writing community, craft and inspiration
This Sunday’s Speaker Series event, “Publishing Insiders” was a huge hit, with three articulate young professionals telling it like it really is in a rapidly changing and still completely vital industry.
Alex Cameron, Assistant to the Associate Publisher at Tor Books (part of Macmillan), Anna Worrall, Marketing & Social Media Manager at The Gernert Company, and Jake Rosati, veteran intern of two literary agencies this year alone, shared their passion for what happens behind the scenes in the publishing world.
In a time when books themselves are transforming in radical (some might say “disconcerting”) ways, why would three savvy young people pick publishing as a profession? All three were quick to talk about their love of reading, writing, and creating books. “It was amazing the first time I walked into a bookstore and saw one of the projects that I’d worked on up on the shelf,” Jake shared. “You go through the process of creating a book once and you’re hooked.”
Each panelist has played many roles in their fledging publishing careers, from reading the slush pile to going to bat for projects they truly believe in. Alex participates in marketing strategy meetings and is responsible for reviewing sales numbers for Tor titles. Anna currently focuses on guiding authors through the social media requirements that help build their “platforms.” And Jake currently works at Laura Dail, a two-person literary agency where it’s “all hands on deck.”
The panelists agreed that they exerted significant influence over decisions from their first days on the job. They are indeed the gatekeepers who first read writers’ queries and sample chapters – who say whether our work gets read by an agent or editor. They are carefully screened for their excellent literary taste and they know what their bosses are looking for. Interns who read the slush pile – and all three of them have done so – hold the power of rejection. As a first-time intern, Jake was tasked with reading “just June” from the slush pile at InkWell Management. There were over 500 submissions. When asked how many he passed on to the agents, he shook his head. “Not many.”
Surprisingly, there are some simple tactics to avoid this fate.The first unanimous advice the panelists shared was “Don’t use weird fonts in your query letters!” No Comic Sans, no fancy type-script. Just plain old Times New Roman. And make sure you spell the name of the agent correctly!
They pointed out that tricks and gimmicks authors might use to “stand out from the crowd” don’t work. What they look for is a compelling query letter accompanied by your most polished sample chapters. “Your query needs to be as well written as your novel,” explained Alex. “After all, an agent isn’t going to read your book if the three paragraphs of your letter don’t impress them.” The wise thing to do when querying is to follow the submission guidelines exactly. Send in only the material requested. (And those sample chapters need to be Chapters 1, 2, and 3 – not your favorites from the middle of your story.)
Debut authors often also make mistakes, like being too pushy or needy. “Publishers and agents are like everyone else,” said Alex, “they like to work with cooperative people.” Agents and editors will do their best to walk new authors through the process and make sure they’re as prepared as possible. While new authors have a lot of questions about the process, many should be addressed to their agents. “That’s what the agent is there for,” said Anna.
She went on to emphasize the importance of building an author platform early and growing it regularly over time. “If you tweet once a day for the two years it takes till your book comes out, you’ll have several hundred followers. It’s word-of-mouth and that’s what you need to help your audience grow.” Facebook and other social media accounts also make a difference. Alex concurred. “Publishers do look at those numbers. In marketing meetings, they check if you have a Google+ page.”
When asked if an agent is really necessary, Anna said, “Yes, if you want to be published traditionally. Almost none of the big houses accept unagented manuscripts.” Alex shared that Tor is one of the few that does. “In fact,” he continued, “we had one author rise out of the slush pile in the last year. It was a really big deal. At the marketing meetings, it was always mentioned – mostly because it’s so incredibly rare.”
All three panelists were quick to point out the advantages of traditional publishing, particularly the professional team that is difficult for an author to convene on their own behalf. “If you want to get on the front table at Barnes & Noble,” said Jake, “you need a traditional publisher.” Alex added, “Or if you want to have your books sold at pharmacies or airports.”
But all three also pointed out the opportunities of self-publishing, an arena that wasn’t available a few years back. “I’ve been asked to keep an eye on self-published work by my agency, as well as other forums. If we see that a work is gaining an audience, we might ask the writer if they are looking for representation,” said Jake.
There are also increased opportunities for fan fiction, which has clearly benefited from the wild success of 50 Shades of Grey. Publishers and agents are now keeping a close eye on websites like Wattpad for writing that’s getting a lot of interest. Especially in young adult and genre fiction, strong interest on these sites can lead to offers from agents or traditional publishers.
“A few years ago, it looked like e-books were the future,” Alex said. “The numbers were growing so fast that they looked ready to overwhelm print publishing by 2014 – this year! But things have leveled off. E-books account for about 25% of volume sales and about 15% of publishers’ revenues.” While e-books no longer look likely to take over the publishing world, Anna said, “We are keeping a close eye on the data – which books do well digitally and which do better in print. Data’s really the key that we’re all trying to understand better and use to improve discoverability.”
The finale of the event was to announce the winner of the Editorial Review raffle. Karen Jackson, a long-time TWC student, won the opportunity to discuss 25 pages of her work-in-progress with Amy Cherry, senior editor of W. W. Norton. And, thanks to the generosity of everyone there, the event raised $530 for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.