Elizabeth, welcome to the Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood!
Q: How did you start your career in publishing?
A: I have been writing in one form or another for most of my life. Somehow I never thought about a career in publishing until I took a job as a copyeditor/proofreader for an English newspaper in Puerto Rico. It was an epiphany to realize I was equally as happy, if not more, working with others' words. When I relocated back to the mainland I took an internship at a small, nonfiction publisher in California (Hunter House Publishers) and later became its acquisitions editor. I brought to that job years of administrative, legal and technical writing/editing experience. Once working with books, I knew I'd found my "vein of gold." To further broaden my perspective on the industry, I began reading for Kimberley Cameron & Associates in my free time. When a position opened at the Agency and was offered to me, I did not hesitate to accept it. The Agency has a long legacy, and Kimberley is an amazing mentor.
Q: As an editor for Hunter House Publishers you acquired non-fiction books. Are you planning to focus more on fiction now, or both?
A: I will focus on both fiction and nonfiction. At Kimberley Cameron & Associates we receive more fiction manuscripts than nonfiction, but I have a strong, personal interest in nonfiction books, so if interesting proposals cross my desk, of course I will consider them. I also have a real soft spot for memoir and hope to represent many of them.
Q: What type of fiction do you represent? What are you looking for in a manuscript?
A: I represent both literary and commercial fiction. I also represent YA and genre fiction. In genre fiction I’m attracted to mysteries and thrillers and some science fiction. Right now I'd be interested in looking at anything with a Japanese theme, and rumor has it mermaids are supposed to be the next coming rage. Just to give an idea of some of my current projects: dystopian/science fiction YA, two nonfiction humor, literary historical fiction, commercial women's fiction, and a mystery. In a manuscript I look for great writing first and foremost, and am attracted to writing with a strong voice and compelling story that moves.
Q: What genres/themes you do NOT represent?
A: I don’t represent fantasy, but will consider magical realism. I don't represent horror, although Kimberley does. The science fiction that I am interested in is limited; I like grounded science fiction. I also do not represent romance and inspirational fiction.
Q: What are your top three authors of all time? What about your top three novels?
A: Tough question. Top three authors that come to mind: Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, and Jon Krakauer. My current favorite novels: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl, and The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.
Q: Since you lived in Puerto Rico for some time, have you thought about representing books in Spanish or Latin American/Spanish authors? Is there a particular Latin author you like?
A: Although I am not able to represent works in Spanish, I would gladly represent a Hispanic author and/or a novel set in a Latin American country. I think my favorite Hispanic author is Esmeralda Santiago (http://www.esmeraldasantiago.com/), author of When I Was Puerto Rican. Esmeralda has a new novel out, which I plan to buy soon, titled Conquistadora.
Q: Do you think American Publishers are acquiring more or less multicultural novels than before?
A: I think American publishers are acquiring more novels with multicultural themes, and sometimes the trend is set by world events. In the last couple weeks in the deal pages of Publishers Marketplace I have seen at least three works set in Japan sold to publishers. I also believe we read to learn and be transported. What better way to learn and be transported than by entering a setting where we've never been through a voice that is culturally different from our own?
Q: Young Adult and Paranormal/Fantasy novels are extremely popular among agents and writers nowadays. How do you see the market for Historical and Women’s Fiction?
A: There is still a strong market for both historical and women's fiction, but the projects need to be unique. Agents and editors are attracted to a work by a combination of market trends, whether a work has a place in the market, and personal interest and passion for a project.
Q: Approximately how many submissions do you receive per week? What do you look for in a query letter and what is the best way to submit to you?
A: At the Agency we receive more than two hundred submissions per week. I appreciate brief and concise query letters--no gimmicks. I'm fairly forgiving of poorly written query letters. I have come to understand that the query letter is a technical piece of writing, a type of writing fiction writers rarely engage in. I often don't get through an entire query before moving straight to the writing. I've often been shocked by how well an author can write after choosing to ignore a poorly written, egocentric or gimmicky query. I would strongly urge writers to invest time and money in writing a good query since many literary agencies have intern readers that are much less forgiving of gimmicks and typos. As a writer you never know the conditions under which your query letter will be read, and you've already invested so much time in your manuscript. It's worth the effort to have a polished query so your submission isn't one that can be discarded on a technicality. There is always an issue of volume when it comes to queries at a literary agency. If you are brief, professional and concise in your query, and if you have done your homework on the agent you are submitting to, your work will likely be reviewed.
If a writer feels we are a good fit for their manuscript, we ask them to submit the first 50 pages and a one-page synopsis along with their query letter attached as Word documents or as PDFs. We prefer electronic submissions. Submissions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and directed to whichever agent seems most appropriate for the work.
Q: What are the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you receive?
A: The most common problems I see in manuscripts are high word counts, excessive description slowing the pace of the novel, stories that don't get moving soon enough, and characters that are underdeveloped.
Writers should know what acceptable word counts are in their genre. Generally, for debut fiction we like to see works between 65,000-85,000 words (historical fiction can sometimes be an exception). Agents will reject you based on word count alone.
Be careful spending time in description of characters and things that aren't absolutely necessary to the forward movement of the story. Description can really slow the pace of a story, especially since the reader's own mind acts to fill in those details many times. If your character is in the elevator with a bike messenger, don't waste story pace telling me what he is wearing if I'm never going to see him again; I can already picture him perfectly. Watch excessive use of adverbs and don't use brand placement to try and give me a sense of the type of person your character is. Should the fact that your character drinks Amstel beer or carries a Kate Spade purse mean something to me? Only use brands if you feel it is important to your character's psychology, if it's an obsession that moves the story forward. If you drop too many brand names, they stand out in the manuscript, and those are not what you want your reader to notice.
To catch the attention of an agent, your manuscript has to move right from the start. Keep your story active and moving. Don't let it get bogged down by excessive description or dialogue that isn't crisp. And give your characters an inner landscape.
Q: Do you consider yourself an “editorial” agent or are you aiming to find manuscripts that are almost ready for submission to publishers? Would you take on a client based on his/her potential even if the manuscript is not ready to be sold?
A: I am definitely an editorial agent in spirit. I love to work on manuscripts with authors. However, because of the number of submissions we receive, I take on these kinds of projects based on both market considerations (is there strong market potential for it) and whether I have the time and strong personal interest. I'm working on developing a nonfiction humor book right now, but it's only a 60-page manuscript and the writer I'm working with is a professional and quick at revisions. In addition, there are hundreds of emails in my inbox that need attention. So, it's a little bit of a juggling act, but if the right thing crossed my desk at the right time, I would take it on and develop it.
Q: Writers are often times frustrated with how difficult it is to get the attention of industry professionals. What do you think is the most effective method for a writer to get noticed: conferences, blogs, query letters, contests?
A: There are many ways for writers to get noticed. If a manuscript is where it needs to be, a writer can easily get published by pitching an agent at a conference or by submitting to an agent online. In some cases it may take longer to find someone to champion your work. If you've gotten rejected by dozens of agents, try and get feedback on why and be open to the notion that your work might not be quite where it needs to be.
Personally, I think every writer should get a freelance editor known in the industry who will give them professional feedback on the market potential of their work, story structure, writing... It's an investment, but one that will speed up the process significantly. Otherwise, a writer may get rejections from agents and not understand from a publishing perspective what the problem is since rejections are usually template. In this publishing climate, the competition is stiff. I think writers spend a lot of time in the dark about their work, and a freelance editor is an unbiased source with a background that can give a writer the perspective that family, friends and writing groups can't give.
Agents usually attend conferences and listen to pitches. I just did eight consultations at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference in California. If a writer's manuscript is where it needs to be when I consult with them, I would ask to see more on the spot. A writer can also send query letters to agents listed in literary guides, but should make sure the agent is the right fit for the manuscript, that their query letter is meticulously crafted, and that their work is in the best possible shape. Also, be sure to include any information about yourself and your author platform. Author platform is more important than ever. Invest in an author website and get yourself on Facebook, Twitter, and Blogspot. If you have published clips, let us know about them. An author platform can tip the scale on an agent's decision to represent you.
Q: How do you feel about writers posting excerpts of their unpublished novels and/or creating websites for them?
A: I think I'd prefer to have an author work on an author website rather than one for the novel, to start, since titles often change in the publishing process. I'd rather see an author build up their general online presence first. And rather than publishing or posting excerpts, it might be wiser to write some additional content about the characters in the form of a short story and publish it on a website such as Smashwords for free or $.99. I would love to be able to say to an editor I am pitching that an author I am working with has had thousands of downloads (and great reviews) of a short story of content related to the manuscript.
Q: As a former publicist, do you think every author should hire one? Or do you think most agents can (or are willing) to take on that role for their authors?
A: Agents do not take on the role of publicist for their clients. Because I have publicity experience, I tend to keep my eyes open for opportunities, but agents do not handle publicity at all. We may do some promotion on our website, but publicity is handled by the publisher, and now more than ever, publishers require that authors help promote their works.
I urge writers to hire outside publicists if they have a book in the publishing process. However, the author should be sure to avoid conflict with the publishing house publicist (assuming there is one).
It is in the best interest of the writer to help sell as many copies of their work as possible. If a writer has only sold one book to a publisher (no series deal or two/three book deal), that writer wants to make every effort to sell as many copies of their work as possible so when it comes time to pitch the next book the writer can show that there was demand for their work. Publishers look at Nielsen BookScan, which will tell them how many copies of an author's work have sold. If your first book did not sell well, it will influence a publisher's decision on whether to acquire your new work.
In addition, the more copies sold, the more royalties the author will receive! This is an author's paycheck. Work it.
Why not just rely on the publisher? Because some contracts I have seen are vague about the kind of publicity a publisher will do; meaning, they may not be legally bound to do any publicity for you. I've heard a publisher say that some books aren't important in the scheme of an entire list, which may be accurate from the viewpoint of their financial perspective, but that can be a real bummer for you as a professional writer. Even if your work is published by a big house with an in-house publicist, you will only have that publicist for a window of time unless your book really takes off. Help it take off!
Q: How much marketing/self promotion is expected from a writer aside from Internet interviews/blogs? What are other ways in which authors can promote their novels?
A: If not you, then who? Your book will have a window of publicity with your publisher, and maybe not even much of that depending on who your publisher is and what your contract agreement states. It is in all writers' best interest to research book publicity and marketing. Know your audience. Who will buy your book and where can you find them? Think of your work from as many angles as possible; what are the themes? Does your book have a theme that the National Organization for Women can get behind? Are you an African-American author? Dissect your work from multiple viewpoints and seek relevant publicity and marketing opportunities. Get authors or experts to give you a quote about your work. Get Amazon reviewers to review your book (or galley) or find other online reviewers and/or bloggers on the subject to review it (most people buy books based on reviews, Verso Study on book-buying trends). Review other authors' works and have the review link back to your author page, short story content, or book. Write articles related to some theme in your book and offer the article for free to magazine editors if they agree to include your bio at the end of the article, which will include an "author of..." sentence (you aren't pitching your book in the article, rather your expertise on a theme of your book). Magazines need to be pitched six or seven months prior to publication. Pitch them articles for holidays or another tie-in date with your book.
Write related content and publish it as an e-book for free. Do a book trailer. Get that author website up (check out www.LoisReed.com or Xuni.com) and do all available social media (get your kids or grandkids to manage it). Consider getting basic CisionPoint for a year, which is a database that has every media contact you could ever want (not cheap). Organize a book tour in your area and find creative ways to get local media involved. Let your alma mater know you've published a book and offer to write an article for the newsletter. Get all your friends, family and colleagues networking for you, and listen to their ideas on how you can generate interest in your book. Sign up for Amazon Author Central on the Amazon.com site as well as other websites. Pitch a radio show, rather than your book, to your local radio. Do an email blast (Constant Contact is great for this). Write a press release about the book and send it out to relevant media. Get friends and family to review your book on websites such as Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and e-book retailers if you have an e-book out. Submit your work to book clubs and moms' groups! Google "How do I promote my book?" or "book publicity" and read as many articles as you can.
Be creative. There are so many ways to get your work out there and so many opportunities online. Create a media plan (examples can be found on the Internet) for your book, and begin promoting your work six to seven months before release.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for these very informative answers!