SHY EXPLORER SERIES: Asking the Experts
by Judy Clement Wall
I’m on a quest, asking the experts – people already in the industry – for publishing advice to writers…
I’ve been curious how agents feel in these tumultuous times, whether they feel optimistic about the future, or troubled by an industry in flux. And, let’s face it, I’m a writer doing final revisions on my first novel; I also wondered what makes them tick. As writers, how can we make ourselves more attractive to agents on the lookout for the next big thing? Literary agent Laura Strachan was kind enough to answer my incessant questions.
j: The publishing industry is in the middle of a major transformation brought on, in part, by the internet, the popularity of e-books, and the growing opportunities for indie authors seeking non-traditional paths to publication. What is your sense of it? Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Is it a good or bad time to be a new author seeking publication?
Laura: The industry is, indeed, changing and I’m not sure any of us really has a good sense of what it will look like in five years. I do think that authors will have greater opportunities, but those opportunities may not include traditional – physical book – publishing. It’s getting easier for an author to publish digitally and, perhaps more importantly, to find a targeted audience. I suspect, sadly, that the traditional, physical book may become an objet d’art. Either that, or it will become desirable for a small number of connoisseurs, much like vinyl records.
I don’t know that it’s either a good or bad time to seek publication. I do think that authors need to be open and flexible about what publication means and be willing to explore some of those non-traditional paths.
j: How has the internet (and social networks in particular) affected the way you do your job?
Laura: The internet has made things so much easier. It’s far easier to stay on top of what’s happening in the industry: what the trends are, who’s buying what, who has changed jobs. When I first started the agency about 12 years ago, manuscripts still needed to be photocopied, boxed, and mailed to editors. Now manuscripts are transferred with a few clicks. Easier, cheaper, and way better for the environment!
As an agent who isn’t in New York, I love the way social networks like Twitter and Facebook have allowed me to get to know other people in the industry more fully and personally. It helps me know who they are and what they like (or dislike), which allows me to do my job better.
j: Twitter is a great way for writers to connect with readers, agents, publishers, booksellers. Unfortunately, we’re all still figuring out how best to do that. It was a tweet about author bad-behavior that inspired me to do a series of interviews asking experts for advice. What is your advice to writers on the best way to use Twitter to further their cause?
Laura: I think this follows up on what I was saying before. Social networks are good for exactly that – connecting socially. They aren’t a place for a hard sell. I like interacting on a personal level on Twitter. My advice to an author is to be himself or herself. Show your passion. Make us excited to see what you’ve written, because you’re interesting and interested – in other authors, in what’s going on in the industry, in the larger world.
j: As an agent on Twitter, I imagine you hear from writers a lot. Do you have any funny, heroic, cautionary tales?
Laura: Use common sense. Do you really think an agent wants to be asked if she’s open to submissions on a holiday?
j: What do you look for in an author’s platform?
Laura: “Platform” is one of those buzz words in the industry. Everyone is looking for it, but I’m not sure how valuable it is. The basic idea of platform is that an author has both an identifiable potential readership AND a way to deliver that readership. Unfortunately, no one can really guarantee that people will buy a certain book, but it’s a way publishers hedge their bets, so I look for the types of things that they would look for: websites or blogs that get lots of traffic, regular media appearances, meaningful endorsements, etc. In the end, though, for me, it’s about the writing, not the platform. I’m looking for a compelling story that is well told, whether fiction or nonfiction.
j: I think writers will be reassured by your answer. Platform isn’t king.
Laura: Platform isn’t king to ME. Platform seems to mean a lot to publishers, but to me it’s a misplaced reliance, because even platform doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. Think of all those celebrity books that end up remaindered. And for that matter, even when an author has a solid platform, it doesn’t necessarily mean publishers will bite. However, if an author doesn’t have a traditional platform, he needs to have a good (realistic) idea of how he’s going to reach an audience.
j: Should writers blog? Should they blog book excerpts?
Laura: I think it depends on the author. A blog is a good way to grow an audience for your work. I’m not sure how effective it is purely as a marketing tool. I would say that if a writer enjoys connecting with his readers through a regular blog it’s a good thing. If a writer feels it’s a chore, that will come through in the blog and be counterproductive. Blogging book excerpts can be a good way to get feedback on material or to generate enthusiasm for a project.
j: What is your best advice to authors seeking an agent?
Laura: Do your homework, not only about the agent, but about the industry. So much information is available now with a few clicks. It’s always a pleasure to be queried by an author who really has done the work.
Revise and polish your manuscript – don’t start querying agents as soon as you’re typed “THE END.” Know where your book will be positioned in the marketplace. What other books is it like? How is it different? Who is your audience? Be able to describe your book in a few sentences in a compelling way. Make sure the agent you query is the right one for your particular project. Be realistic and professional – don’t use hyperbole. Remember, this is a business.
j: And finally, I always ask: What do you like to read, and what are you reading now?
Laura: I like to read literary fiction. Sadly, I get very little time to read that isn’t related to work. I belong to a book club just for that reason, so that at least once a month I have to read something that isn’t a manuscript. This month’s book is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I hadn’t intended to read. I wasn’t crazy about The Corrections, but so far I’m enjoying it. (Or was, until I misplaced it. Ha.) I also signed on for the War and Peace Read-Along on Facebook. I’m finding it a challenging read: lots of characters with multiple nicknames and my knowledge of Napoleonic history is weak. My pleasure read when I get a chance will be Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Judy Clement Wall is putting the final touches on her novel, Beautiful Lives. She blogs about the perils of life, love, writing and cheesecake at Zebra Sounds: http://zebrasounds.net. Follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/jdistraction.
Laura Strachan is the founder of Strachan Literary Agency, a small boutique agency that focuses on literary fiction and narrative nonfiction: compelling stories, well told. A licensed attorney, she combines her love of books and great writing with a lawyer’s sensibility in order to best represent her clients.
Follow Laura at http://twitter.com/strachanlit