“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Kimberly Shumate) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agencies.
She is seeking: Adult fiction, YA fiction, Christian living, dating/marriage, parenting, self-help, apologetics, health, inspirational, environmental, social issues, pop-culture, women’s issues, and men’s issues. No
cookbooks, children’s books, science fiction or fantasy, memoirs, or poetry. No simultaneous submissions, please.
GLA: What is the number one thing in a query that screams amateur (and then rejection)?
KS: This question is oh-so-easy to answer, but it’s not one thing—but several. For starters, there are those who don’t even know what a query is, and it happens more often than I can say. I was at the Willamette Writers group a while back and heard an editor complaining about the state of queries today.
Let’s demystify “the query,” shall we? It’s actually the easiest thing you will ever write, if you know what is expected of you. A query is simply your name and contact information, the book title (and subtitle or series title), the genre and word count, and a quick one-paragraph pitch that hopefully identifies your target audience and intrigues the agent or editor into requesting the book proposal and sample chapters.
If your query is for a nonfiction work, give a snapshot of your author bio and your platform. Easy!
Moving on, there is nothing more amateurish than someone who sends their material via hard copy, e-mails a gazillion Word attachments for a single book project, rambles on and on about their book that has yet to be requested by the agent, and who sends material that the agency or publishing house don’t even carry, thus wasting everyone’s time.
And I groan out loud every time an aspiring author says, “I’ve got the next New York Times bestseller.” There is self-confidence, and then there’s plain ego. Think humility. And last, it’s that poor soul who uses a query to exhaust the agent or editor with personal information about themselves, which can often have absolutely nothing to do with the project.
GLA: You pride yourself on your “ability to identify and polish the diamonds hidden within the coal mines of unsolicited submissions.” That said, and given your own writing experience, how hands-on are you in terms of editing?
KS: With publishers gun-shy to untested authors, the material truly needs to outshine the rest by being as close to print-ready as possible. These days, editing is a necessity for new writers still trying to get their feet in the door, even though established authors aren’t always expected to turn in highly polished work. Publishers have a pretty good idea of how many copies a well-known author will sell, even if the manuscript needs quite of bit of editing or even rewriting. Unknown—and untried—writers don’t have that luxury.
First-time authors need to submit a clean, professional manuscript that piques the editor’s interest and increases their confidence in your potential success. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to be both agent and editor while shopping material and acquisitioning new authors.
When I began, I did a full line edit on everything I signed. Eventually, through industry friends admonishing me and plain fatigue, I realized there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to do this myself. My authors do receive notes from me concerning where I think the material can be improved, but it is up to them to address those issues.
For nonfiction proposals and sample chapters, I do take time to do a line edit. For fiction writers, since publishers need the entire work completed and included with the proposal, I will edit the first three chapters for the writer. Before I submit their project to a publisher, the writer will get one final opportunity to look at my edits and comb through the rest of the manuscript to make changes where needed before I send it out into the world.
GLA: How much input do you expect to have with your clients’ work?
KS: I hope that the authors I sign trust my judgment enough to make the editorial changes I suggest. With my publishing experience, I’d like to think that my view from the other side gives me an edge. My goal is to remove every obstacle I can perceive—take away every reason the publisher would say no—to provide the best chance of getting an offer. If that means taking the time to build a platform, I tell the author to get on it, and we’ll wait until it’s there. If it requires adding 25,000 words to a novel to reach an adequate word count, then so be it.
Why are publishers so sketchy these days? Consider that it takes, on average, about fifteen people to turn your manuscript into a book. That includes a substantive editor, a copy editor, two to four proofreaders, a text inputter (who makes the actual changes to the electronic manuscript), a back cover copy writer, a catalog copy writer, and a managing editor who coordinates all that activity. Don’t forget the interior and exterior book designers, and those editorial assistants who register your work with CIP (Catalog In Publication) and the copyright office. Then it’s off to the printer before you receive the actual book some months later. That equates to 150 man-hours per book and thousands of dollars for a single publication.
But we’re not finished yet. The publisher then prays that your baby will sell enough units to—at the very least—cover your royalty advance and the printing expenses. Paper and ink ain’t cheap, nor is the “slow boat from China” if a foreign printer is used. Now you know why publishers are being so selective. They simply can’t afford not to be.
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GLA: Given all your experience, what is your outlook on the future of the publishing industry? Bright or bleak—and why?
KS: Let’s just say different. Yes, there are plenty of naysayers—gloom and doom types—who think the industry is changing so radically that it scares them to ponder where it’s all going. With Barnes & Noble on the block and brick-and-mortar stores closing in droves, you can almost smell the panic. Nothing looks like it used to as technology continues to advance. People are inherently afraid of what they don’t know, and right now, there are plenty of “us” who are trying to balance the uncertainty.
Where are we headed, and where will we end up? In this girl’s humble opinion, I’m very optimistic. It’s an exciting time of cool, convenient ways readers can enjoy their books whether via hardcopy or hard drive. With all the new technologies and choices, consumers are figuring out what they prefer—iPad, iPhone, nook, Kindle, Border’s on a Sunday afternoon—which leaves the industry doing its best to keep up with so many multi-media outlets. It takes time, money, and manpower to convert all that text—past, present, and future.
GLA: What is something personal about you writers would be surprised to hear?
KS: Having struggled with severe dyslexia throughout school (I could barely read a Denny’s dinner menu), I ended up dropping out to take up manicuring for the fifteen years that followed. I moved around—from Eugene to Atlanta to Seattle, and finally settling in Los Angeles—where I landed a job in Beverly Hills at the Jose Eber Salon on Rodeo Drive. With clients like Elton John, Linda Grey, Rebecca De Mornay, and Eric Roberts, life wasn’t exactly dull, although renting a cockroach-infested room on Hollywood Boulevard wasn’t the epitome of glamor.
GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers’ conferences where writers can meet and pitch to you?
KS: The Oregon Christian Writers Conference has a special place in my heart, and I am a regular at their amazing get-togethers.
I’m also a member of the Willamette Writers group and attend their meetings held in Eugene on the first Thursday of every month. (See www.willamettewriters.com for more details.)
I may be on future conference schedules; just keep your eyes peeled. Of course, if you can’t make it to a conference, I’m always available by e-mail. And feel free to post a message on the agency’s blogsite regarding this interview. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?
KS: Add good books on writing to your personal library. Here are some suggestions:
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress
Collins Cobuild dictionaries by Collins Cobuild
Elements of Style by William Struck and E.B. White
Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing by Gary Provost
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Gregg Reference Manual published by The McGraw-Hill Companies
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
Line by Line by Claire Kehrwald Cook
Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein
The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark
The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist by Thomas McCormack
Revising Fiction by David Madden
Woe Is I by Patricia O’Conner
Keep reading the kind of books you want to write, and continue to hone your skills. Even seasoned writers take classes and workshops to keep their tools sharp.
Be willing to start small. Magazine articles are a great way to stretch your wings, gain experience, and build a platform.
Beyond practicing to write (at least a few words everyday), think about your writing. Carry a notebook and jot down life experiences, dialogue, and those flashes of brilliance that could become your next book idea.
Spend time in your local bookstore to see what inspires your own creative process. Also, visit the library and comb through the magazines such as Publishers Weekly to keep up with trade trends. Go online to see what the New York Times bestsellers list is doing—what’s fading out and what’s gaining momentum.
Finally, expect rejection. It may sting the first hundred times—kidding—but it will get easier. Be comforted knowing that you are in excellent company, that all the great writers have their own private file of rejection letters and manuscripts marred by editors. It’s all part of the journey—a journey not for the faint of heart, but for those willing to persevere and take home the prize. That’s you! Enjoy the ride …
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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- How to Write a Male Point of View.
- 6 Things Writing a Second Novel Taught Me.
- NEW Agent Seeking Clients: Thao Le of Sandra Dijkstra Literary.
- The Characters Must Come First — Here’s Why.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.