Advice for author please: editing, marketing, getting a literary agent etc

I recently registered for a workshop for authors who were interested in doing their [del]autobiographies[/del] excuse me, “memoirs”. But they turned down my application. Maybe for good reason as the workshop seemed to be aimed at people trying to get started. I’ve written about 50 of the 51 years I set out to cover and I’m up to somewhere between 1100 and 1200 pages, so “how to get started” isn’t really what I’m in need of.

I also know how to COPYEDIT, i.e., clean up grammar and spelling, sharpen up badly written individual sentences and paragraphs and so forth. Don’t particularly need help with that.

But insofar as the intent is to get this tome out there for people to read, I need to learn how to be an EDITOR (and/or how to find and work with an editor) to focus the material more around the central themes. What to discard, what to streamline and how to streamline it. Possibly what to elaborate on, although I assume on balance I should shorten the overall length. Laura Ingalls Wilder got away with a very long lifestory (by breaking it up into several books) but I assume I should aim for a single book of more conventional size.
Alongside of that, I need to know how to MARKET this thing. Pretend for the moment that good editing has already taken place and that it’s a good piece of writing for which a market exists. How do I get an agent or an editor interested in working with me?
I can see that the EDITING and the MARKETING components would have a lot of interplay. They sort of become components of each other, don’t they?
Anyway… is there anything akin to a good workshop for newbie authors here in the New York City area where I could learn these things?

Anyone here work as a literary agent and feel inclined to give me advice on how to approach their world?

::Lowers head, aims at thread, and bumps it::

Have you checked out this website?

Or maybe something at The Learning Annex?

The situation is god-awful, and isn’t going to get better.

The only thing I’ll say is: never pay anyone to read your stuff. If you find a literary agent who charges a reading fee, say, “No, thank you,” and keep looking.

If your stuff is good enough to be published, then they should pay you for it.

And if your stuff isn’t good enough to be published, there are lots of ways to find out without paying for the honor.

(I worked, gratis, for several years on the screening committee for a literary agency. We did first-level triage on books sent for consideration for agency representation. About a third were illiterate tripe. About a third were actually fairly good, but not quite good enough. About a third were very good indeed, and these, we passed on with recommendation for further contact.)

(I was also the submissions editor for a fiction magazine, now, alas, defunct. The same general proportions obtained. About 1/3 of all writers can’t spell “cat.” About 1/3 have some good ideas, but need to spend more time learning their craft. About 1/3 are at a fully-professional level of skill.)

Emphatically: if they ask you for money, say no.

Stephen King offered a lot of practical advice on agents and the commercial side of being an author, in his book: “on Writing”.
I read it because I’m a King fan and I would read his grocery lists if he published them, but still, it was useful advice to aspiring writers.

My husband gained an agent through networking with other writers. They use each other as ‘beta readers’ - people who read through your first decent edit of your manuscript and give you feedback, before you send it on to a decision maker (be that an agent or publishing house). One of the beta readers said ‘I think my agent would like you, let me make an introduction.’ Since becoming agented and published, my husband has been able to pay this forward by helping other writers find agents/publishers through his network.

So, a great way to get your foot in the door is to have someone already inside open it for you.

My husband didn’t know any of these people before he embarked on his writing career, but he went to conventions and joined writing groups with the aim of finding networks, and he kept in touch with people via email and Twitter.

Hope that’s helpful.

First of all, you’ve set yourself a difficult task if you’re writing an autobiography. Autobiographies today are either by a celebrity, by someone who overcame tremendous odds to achieve great success, or by someone with a spectacular (and not just interesting) life. You have to ask yourself the hard questions: if I didn’t live through this, would I want to read about it?

So you have your work cut out for you. Let’s assume there’s something unique and spectacular about your life. Then the first thing is to find people who are not your friends and who are willing to tell you what’s wrong. Show it to other people. If they have nothing but praise, ignore it. If they have any objections or points where they were confused or bored, then you’re getting help.

There’s the old editing advice: kill your babies. You have to look at the work objectively and see what’s bad. Another important thing to remember is that bad writers notice what’s good in their work, while good writers notice what’s bad. Which is essential: if you can’t see what’s bad, you can’t improve it.

The best book on writing I’ve seen is Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, though it’s primarily about fiction.

Amazon search for nonfiction query and for nonfiction book proposal.

Pick out a query title that seems right for you. Read it. Then write and rewrite and rewrite until you have one page that will make an agent want to buy your manuscript and get a publisher to publish it and an audience to buy it. Pick out a proposal title that seems right for you. Do everything they tell you to do. Send the query off to agents. There are books about that as well and lists of agents on the Internet. They get literally several hundred queries a day, so most will say no or never reply. If you get back a request for a proposal, have that, written and rewritten and rewritten, ready to go. Again, most will say no. What agents want is a romance about sexy wereghosts that can be expanded into a six-book series aimed at women or young adults. You aren’t offering that. You need to be able to explain what you do offer, whether that is a unique story or a platform from which the book can be marketed or a celebrity endorsement. Yes, they will ask if you have a celebrity to endorse your unwritten book. I’m not kidding. Read the submission guidelines at a selection of agent webpages.

This is hard and will take you a long time. I find it odd that anybody’s memoirs are ever bought, yet I see piles of them in every bookstore. The route that sandra_nz talks about - networking and writer’s conferences and the like - obviously works for some people but I have no experience with any of that, and you still have to have a proposal that an agent can work with. Especially for nonfiction. If you’re not into social media then you will have a doubly hard time with today’s publishing world.

The bottom line is that you must convince strangers that many thousands of strangers would buy your story. And you have to condense that into a hook that will grab a bored stranger that sees hundreds of these every day. Trying to write a good query will tell you a lot about what your real story is and will help you shape and pare your impossibly huge manuscript to get it down to just that story.

This is your mission should you decide to accept it. If you do your head will explode in five seconds.

Submit, submit, submit!

To tons of agents, and publishers. They have, in their employ, people who’s job it is to spot potential. Include a plea for suggestions in your letter.

Remember, you’re going to have to send out a lot of submissions. And some of what you hear back is going to be negative. Likely, all negative, right up until - it’s not! So keep trying.

And keep us posted, we’ll all be dying to know how it went!

Yes, yes, yes, but queries only, unless an agent says specifically he or she will accept more. Follow the submissions guidelines to the letter. Never, under any circumstances, submit a whole manuscript. Nobody will look at it. Ever.

Almost no publisher will deal directly with the public these days. Agents only. This is not quite absolute - the romance field has a variety of small publishers who don’t require agents - but it is the norm, and especially so for nonfiction.

Yes, these people are called agents. Agents spot potential and then try to sell editors on this potential. There are times when you can talk directly to an editor, because many writers conferences exist at which writers can make pitches. Agents also go to these. Again, this is almost exclusively for fiction. Given a successful pitch an editor or agent may ask for a whole manuscript, but only after.

Totally unprofessional. Never do this. If an agent likes your work and forms a relationship you will get suggestions. Otherwise you will get a polite no, and nothing more. Agents do not give out advice for free. They are always looking for reasons to bounce #162 in a long day’s worth of queries. Don’t give them an excuse.

Yes, this is completely accurate. Well, as long as you understand that negative is a polite no. There are some stories about agents making a comment about quality in a rejection but those are talked about because they are so rare.

Here are real life rejections:

I didn’t intentionally pick out examples that all said “Best of luck.” It’s just that they almost all do. Agents live for finding new authors. (They make their money that way, but they are uniformly excited about books or else they wouldn’t be in such an awful business.) They want you to succeed. But they expect you to work for it.

Thanks for all the overviews, advice and tips!

Here are some more specific questions, if y’all don’t mind:
a) Do I correctly understand that I should not send along snippets / samples of any size, just as I should not send the tome itself, until and unless an agent expresses interest?
b) Obviously I need to describe the work. Do I craft my description so that it, itself, is like the blurb on the back jacket of a book, i.e., very carefully designed attention-getting interest-provoking ad-copy-esque stuff?

… or is a more businesslike fact-centric approach better?

… or do I assume, instead, that agents know more of that kind of thing than I do, and just concentrate on summarizing what I think my book is about?

c) I have Getting Your Book Published for Dummies. It’s good some advice (good advice, I would imagine) for things like how to do an inquiry letter but I feel like a musician who has just read How to Orchestrate Your First Symphony. I really wish I had a workshop that was rather narrowly focused on how to write an inquiry letter to a literary agent. (Any suggestions?)

d) I’m rather shaky and unclear on how one knows what agents to write to, or how one finds an agent to write to. I do that first, right? is there a good technique for finding out which agents various published authors who wrote things loosely similar to mine happened to use?

Exapno writes:

I just want to say that my experience is not the same. I’ve sold more than one book directly to the same publisher. They were nonfiction, not romances. This is a Good Thing for me, because I haven’t been able to interest any agents in my work.
So there’s hope, although I suspect it’s going to be more of a fight for memoirs/autobiographies.

There are zillions of literary agent listing sites on the Internet.

Putting memoirs in AgentQuery brings up 454 hits. Clicking on a name will give you previous sales. That’s a good site but others may work better for you.

You can try sending directly to publishers. Again, Google is your friend. Publishing a Memoir Without Agent Representation gives a list of names. I’ve never heard of the great majority of them. But I also don’t know whether you just want to get the book published or get it published by a major publisher. Small publishers can be great or they can be worthless. There are few if any generalities about publishing. Something that worked for Cal or worked for me may not work for you and vice versa. The point is that you have to do your homework and research each agent or publisher and find out what they are looking for.

I also can’t tell you what style of query would work best for you. You have to find your own style. Anything can work; nothing is guaranteed to work. The one that tells your story the best is the one for you.

I’m sorry if this is vague, but there’s no alternative. It’s as individual as anything could be.

Okay, you probably already know this, but first of all, it’s too long.

How to edit it? Take out the boring things, leave in the things that people might want to read.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a proposal for a memoir, but usually nonfiction queries have a query letter–nothing too long, basically explaining what’s interesting about your book.

The point of a query letter is to get the editor or agent to read the next thing, which for nonfiction is usually an outline of the whole work (Chapter 1. In Which AHunter Learns to Talk and Eat Solid Food, etc.) The purpose of that is to get the editor/agent to read the sample chapter, which is Chapter 1. It should be a well-written chapter, and if you include anything other than Chapter 1, the editor/agent will conclude that is the ONLY well-written chapter.

BUT: Look at the agent’s or publisher’s website to see what they want. I’m a lot more well-versed in fiction, but some agents wanted to see an outline and the first chapter, some of them wanted a synopsis only, and one wanted the first 50 pages. Send what they want.

The way you know who to send it to is, you look at published stuff that’s similar to yours and find out the house that published it and the agent that sold it. Publisher is easy, agent is not always as straightforward but easy enough to find. If you want to be really thorough, check out at least five books that are like what you are writing to see who published them. If you have only one book and a particular house you’re targeting, there are places where you can find agents who have sold more than one thing to that house, and those would be the agents you target.

Again, this is how I would handle a fiction query, but there have to be some similarities.

The standard, as I understand it, is “chapter and outline.” One chapter, and a brief outline (as succinct as possible.) Indicate that the full work has been completed and is available. i.e., don’t let them wonder if this first chapter is all that has been written yet, because if they think that, they won’t be interested.

Kinda. But not exactly. You want to describe it so they know how to market it. You still want some of the same blurbage – “Clever, fast-paced Damon Runyanesque social satire” – but a bit more concrete: “A novel, although composed of 16 interlinked stories with continuing characters, with some steampunk elements, with non-sparkly vampires, but primarily focusing on the university setting. Some sexual imagery, but soft-pedaled and not overtly graphic.”

i.e., help them figure out how they want to package it.

This, to a large extent. Help them know what the book is like. It doesn’t hurt to say, “In the style of Stephen King,” especially if it really is. That tells them an awful lot.

Dunno if such a thing exists… Also, ask fifty people, and you’ll get sixty different opinions. (If it isn’t clear, what I’ve said, above, is solely my opinion, based on my experience. I would not be a bit surprised…nor offended…if people respond, here, and say, “No way! You’re full of poop!”)

This very thread might just possibly be as good a workshop as can be found!

Just Google “literary agents” and hope for the best. If they want to be found, they’ll make it easy for you to find them. If they don’t want to be found, then ferreting them out won’t do any good.

A preliminary inquiry – “I’ve written a book; may I send you the first chapter and an outline?” – can never hurt.

I should throw in a recommendation for the Absolute Write forums.

It’s a message board very similar to the Dope except larger and more detailed. There is a specialty Bio, Autobio, and Memoir forum. The questions asked cover many topics that the OP wants to know. From the first page:

Other forums talk about individual agencies and publishers. After you’ve posted 50 times you can post a chapter for critique.

Don’t expect miracles. Memoirs is a small forum. Many of the posters answering questions also are newbies. The agent threads seem overwhelmingly tilted toward fiction. And some of the posters don’t appear to be literate enough to write a book.

Overall, though, you can get a lot of information and it’s real-world and real-time from people are going through the same process as you. It’s a good tool.

** bump **

800 freaking queries later, I may have a publisher. I certainly have a letter from one offering me a contract, and it isn’t a vanity press. They’re a small niche press and not without some prior issues with authors, and there are no guarantees in life and lots of ways this could fail to be the end of my quest, you know?

I am trying to keep reminding myself of that every few minutes. Between tequila shots. This may go nowhere.
ETA: I see this thread predates the edits. Current ms size is 97K words, not 1200+ pages / 970,000 words. It helped me to write out my entire lifespan and see where everything fits. But this is the relevant core story I want to share.


If you ever decide to go the agent route, I highly recommend the many pitch contests on Twitter. Warm leads are way more likely to lead to acceptances.

I have an agent now. This is shaping up to be real. Or seeming more real.
Trying to get an agent before getting a publisher interested took the form of 800 query letters, by the way. I know the usual route is “get an agent, the agent gets you a publisher”, but I’m happy something finally worked. (The obtaining of an agent post facto is because I’m a newbie and contract-ignorant and I want someone in my corner explaining contract terms to me and also letting me know which of the things I’d like are reasonable and customary and which ones will make me sound like someone who’s going to be impossible to work with)