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It Takes a Committee

by Tamela Hancock Murray

Portrait of a group of panel judges holding score signs

One well-known and frustrating fact about seeing a book finally accepted is the looooooong process. Trust me, literary agents would like to see the process move faster, too.

Believe it or not, the fact that at most large publishers, a proposal must go through several rounds of review before a contract is offered is actually good for the author. Yes, you read that right. It’s good for the author. 

I got dumped
Let me back up to an experience I had writing for a newspaper years ago. I had a pretty good gig writing about real estate. Then, Chris, the editor who hired me, left. 

Soon afterwards, I overheard someone identify me as, “Oh, she’s someone Chris brought on.” 

Her dismissive manner of me and the way she emphasized his name told me my gig wouldn’t last much longer because the new guard wanted to bring on their friends. Assignments from the new guard evaporated within a month. I was fine, though, because I had several other writing gigs at the time and wanted to move away from writing about real estate, anyway. But I might not have felt as cavalier if this had happened while I was writing books.

Strength in numbers
As a book author, you do want your editor to love your work. But you don’t want your editor to be the only person at the publishing house to love your work, even if that advocate is the most powerful editor at that house. 

Why? Because even the top editor may decide to leave, for any number of reasons. Then where are you as an author with your only advocate gone? You may be left as an author with very little support for your current book, which is sure to mean terrible sales numbers and no future contract with that house. Not to mention, terrible sales numbers will ensure a difficult road to a contract with a different house.

All aboard!
The editor who’s excited about you and your work will do everything she can to ensure success for you at each meeting as your proposal makes its way through the chain. When the team of editors, along with sales and marketing people, understand you and your book and are rooting for you, they feel invested in you and your work. Having the team’s support is much better than one editor fighting the good fight alone.

And if your editor does decide to move on, good people at the publishing house will still be left to make your book a success.

Patience is a virtue
Indeed, this is yet another example of how the writing life tries our patience. And to use yet another cliche, good things come to those who wait.

Your turn:

How has being a writer tested your patience?

What is the longest you have waited for a response?

Why an In-the-Know Agent is Your Best Partner

by Tamela Hancock Murray

businesswoman on the phone

Even in the tightest market, new opportunities develop. Not only can authors keep up with these opportunities by being well-connected themselves, but this is just one part of your career where partnering with a great agent is key.

Why? Because editors don’t always put out a call to every writers’ loop when they need proposals. Most don’t have time to become inundated with lots of proposals that won’t work. Instead, editors go to their friends, the agents. An experienced agent with a healthy list of talented authors will send editors appropriate proposals.  

A well-connected agent with a stellar agency is likely to learn:

When there is hole in an editor’s schedule. Writers miss deadlines for many reasons. That’s when your agent can help you fill that hole. This can be the start, or continuation of, a fabulous relationship between you and a grateful editor.

About a new line. Agents are often the first outside of a publishing house to learn about a new line. This can help you be among the first authors to submit a proposal.

About unexpected needs. Editors will often let agents know they are expecting to need certain categories of books in the near future. This knowledge also gives you a chance to be an early contender.

That a house is changing direction. Publishers’ web sites and Amazon listings are informative but even the most up to date only reveal what has just happened. You want to look to the future because your book will be published in the future. That’s why, based on a web site, it may seem like a great idea to submit, say, a chick lit book to a house. But if that house has decided to move in the direction of WWII novels, your agent is more likely than any of your other business partners to know this. Your agent can keep you from submitting a fantastic proposal — fantastic for last year.

A key person is leaving. Just one key person’s departure may not only affect individual authors, but might even impact the future direction of a publishing house. Knowing personnel changes sooner rather than later will help you stay ahead in the game.

This doesn’t mean agents, even extraordinary ones, are the first to learn every bit of important news — but we are privy to quite a bit. And this does not mean that just because an author is among the first to submit work, that her work will be accepted over proposals arriving later. But being in the know early is still just one of many good reasons to partner with a great agent.

Your turn:

What are some other reasons you think it’s a good idea to partner with a wonderful agent?

Have you ever been able to submit a work early based on your agent’s inside knowledge?

Or do you disagree? Do you think authors are just as effective as agents in learning news early?

Book Proposals I’d Love to See

by Tamela Hancock Murray

beautiful red rose flower on black background

By God’s will and pleasure, during my career as a literary agent I have been successful in representing authors writing Christian romance, Christian and general market trade book fiction, and Christian nonfiction.

My interests have changed very little since my first blog post for The Steve Laube Agency, “Happy to Be Here,” but here’s an update for you:

Do you still want to see Christian romance novels?
Indeed I do! I’m happy to say that this is one area of Christian fiction that continues to thrive and enjoy an enthusiastic readership.

I am still passionate about Christian romance novels. I respect and honor the fact that the editors of the romance lines are very specific about their needs and wants. They look for hardworking, dedicated, talented authors who are able to write a fresh story within the romance novel framework. Does this describe you? If so, I’d love to partner with you!

What about other genres of fiction?
As those following the industry are aware, the trade book fiction market has contracted in recent years, but I have never experienced an easy time for authors to break in to trade fiction. As with modeling and acting, more people want those jobs than there are jobs available. This is a perennial fact.

However, I am always seeking a tale well told that I believe deserves a place in CBA. My personal tastes will always veer to heavy romantic elements. To wit, if my husband has a movie on television and I don’t see any women (e.g., cowboys sitting around a fire or a bunch of guys on a boat), I find something else to do until the movie is over.

But as long as there is a heavy romantic element, I’m open to all sorts of stories.

Are you open to general market fiction?
Yes. But the story must be so clean you’d be willing to share it with your most devout friend or relative. Nothing that would dishonor God or disrespect the faith of the church, as defined by The Apostle’s Creed, is welcome here.

Are you still open to nonfiction submissions?
Yes, and I continue to be highly selective. The importance of author platform here is magnified a thousandfold in comparison with fiction. I need to see an author who’s already connecting with his or her audience so I can show publishers the author has gained respect and credibility with current readers and will be a great partner with the publisher in expanding reader base. Nonfiction readers are looking for insight, consolation, help, knowledge, and encouragement. An author needs to come from a position of authority when delivering a book to these readers.

Platform must be accompanied by a great idea told in dynamic writing. Tell me why you have an audience eager to read what you have to say on your topic, and why. I love books that  make me want to read them even when the topic doesn’t apply to me. Now that’s a well-written and engaging book.

And in today’s market, that’s what you need.

Do you have a lot of slots open for new authors?
God has seen fit to allow me a client list that is fantastic beyond my wildest dreams. However, I am humbled and honored by authors who take their valuable time to learn about me and afterwards feel led to submit their ideas to me, especially when CBA is blessed by so many talented literary agents.

Although we are not perfect in our level of response (meaning it’s OK to follow up if you don’t hear from us), my assistant and I do consider submissions from new authors. I am thrilled to work with promising new as well as established authors. You can send proposals via email to ewilson@stevelaube.com (please visit the guidelines for specifics).

Are you still happy to be here?
Why yes, I am!

Should I Respond to a One-Star Review?

by Tamela Hancock Murray

 1star-665x15

Have you ever received a one-star review? Or do you dread the day that might happen? Or perhaps you are hoping to be published so you can get a review. Any review. When you start receiving reviews, some of them might not be as stellar as you had hoped. So what, if anything, should you do?

Good, Bad, Indifferent?

When I look at reviews of sites such as Amazon, I think it’s healthy to see a range of reviews from five stars to one star rather than all fives. Why? Because a reasonable mix of reviews indicates that strangers are reading your book. Any author can find a few friends to post five star reviews, but a mixed reaction shows that a book is being marketed to a variety of readers. It’s nice not to receive any one-star reviews and keep your mix in the five to three range, but a few lower reviews mixed in with positive comments shouldn’t mark the end of your career.

That doesn’t mean one-star reviews take you to a happy place, though. Instead, you may feel angry, defensive, offended, surprised, and perhaps tearful. No matter what, don’t let your fingers hit the keyboard to respond publicly to any review when you are feeling these emotions. Call a friend and gripe, cry to your spouse, play catch with your dog, but never post any comments until you are calm. In fact, this applies to any form of posting comments online.

A Gracious Response

The idea for this topic occurred to me when I spoke with one of my authors, Angie Breidenbach. Angie has a positive outlook on life and she wasn’t upset by her one-star review on her book, A Healing Heart

Instead, she posted a gracious response that even gained her at least one more reader:

Thank you for your review. The character reactions are actually based on the study of people I know in real life. And to be honest, Mara is based on my own journey back from being angry with God. So I suppose it’s simply a case of whether you’ve ever experienced it or seen it happen to someone you love, or not. I wish you a delightful and joyous life – one that never has to face these dilemmas. May yours be a peace-filled, happy journey :)

That’s not to say that a well-mannered response will always be successful, though. We’ve all met the person who just won’t like us or our books no matter what we do or how we write. So how to decide?

Not All One-Star Reviews Are Equal

Some reviewers will state what they disliked about the book in an honest way. The nicer ones will also say what they did like about the book as well. Chances are, as the author, you won’t agree with a negative review. Very few people would be able to respond without appearing defensive or argumentative. Approach responding with extreme caution. Or better yet, don’t offer a retort at all.

Other reviewers are looking for a safe way to vent their own anger and frustration and may attack you and your beliefs personally. There is no reason to respond to them. By virtue of name-calling, the person has lost the argument.

In the Christian publishing world, we have a problem peculiar to us in that some people will read our books and then become mad that they portray a Christian message. These readers didn’t properly review the promotional material around your book before deciding to purchase. That is on the reader, not you, as an author. No need to respond to these reviews.

I’ve seen many one-star reviews commenting that the electronic format was poor so they rate the book one star for that reason. Sadly, this will bring down a book’s average but the author’s only safe response is to alert the publisher to the problem.

Still other reviewers will rank a competing book with a one-star and then try to convince readers to buy their books instead. Usually they’ll get called on this unethical practice by other reviewers. No need to comment on such a transparent ploy.

Remember, You Have a Team

If a reviewer has made an unjustifiable attack on your work and you really feel you need to make a correction, I still recommend not responding in any way until you speak with your agent and/or editor. For example, if a reviewer says your book misstates facts, defending the integrity of your research may be in order. But by all means, consult the team of publishing professionals behind you before engaging in any public defense or explanation.

Your Obligations

Yes, you are obligated to your readers in that you must deliver the best quality work you can at all times. This shows you care about your reader and her time. But you are not obligated to respond to your reviews at all. Many authors make a firm practice not to read their reviews. The flip side of reviews is that too many glowing ones may make you feel overconfident. Sort of like the old Hollywood expression about the star who believes his own publicity. 

Whether you keep up with your reviews or not, don’t take any of them too seriously. Better to spend your time writing your next wonderful book.

Your Turn

Do one-star reviews keep you from buying a book?

Have you been disappointed in a book with glowing reviews?

What book or books do think have really lived up to their reviews?

Have you ever written a one-star review?

God’s Timing

by Tamela Hancock Murray

ringtone

Since he is a wise businessman himself, my husband almost never calls me when I’m at a conference. He knows how hectic business travel can be. But on a recent trip, he had asked me to call him when I reached the venue. Excited and pulled into a meeting immediately upon my arrival, I forgot to call. So right in the middle of a later worship service, my phone summoned me. Hubby’s special ring tone for me? “What’s New Pussycat?” Um, hardly a good match for the reverent mood.

I’m always glad to hear Hubby’s ring tone, no matter what the time. But after the phone rang, I couldn’t help but think of God’s timing and how perfect it always is, regardless of our own forgetfulness, laziness, circumstances, or mood. I forgot to call my husband even though he is never far from my mind. But God never forgets us, even when our prayer lives seem lacking or lethargic. 

God’s timing is perfect, even when His answer is, “No,” or “Wait,” in spite of our passionately pestering Him every hour.

I can’t recall how many times writers have told me, “The publication of this book shows God’s perfect timing.” 

My prayer is that you will see God’s perfect timing for yourself.

Your turn:

When have you seen God’s perfect timing?
How do you bide the time when waiting for God’s answer?

Just for fun:

What are your special ring tones?

Who Are You Hanging Out With?

by Tamela Hancock Murray

Bored asian girl lying on the couch watching tv at home in the sitting room

During a recent television program, realization struck. I didn’t like anyone on the screen. So why was I spending time with them?

I don’t think I’ll be returning to that program soon.

When you are writing a story, you are asking your reader to hang out with your characters. For a very long time. Will they want to do that?

Granted, you’ll be providing drama and conflict. For the sake of the story, a couple of your characters may be stinkers. But in the end, the reader will need to like your protagonists. Or at least be intrigued enough by your anti-hero to stick with your story. Whatever you do, make your characters worth your reader’s time.

Your turn:

What is the most sympathetic character you can remember? Why?

What characters do you feel have become fictional friends of yours?

An Atypical Time in an Agent’s Life

by Tamela Hancock Murray

5663132-xsmall

I have enjoyed reading various “typical day” posts lately on other blogs, so I thought instead of sharing a typical day, I’d share an atypical month:

Sad News for Us

My father-in-law, a Baptist minister, passed away at age 89 after two strokes. While our family is sad to lose him, his funeral was a celebration of his life. 

Snow, Snow Everywhere!

I realize snowfall in Virginia is laughable in comparison to other places, but the number and intensity of our storms has been atypical this winter. We drove to Connecticut in between storms, only to be greeted by a storm when we arrived. Instead of visiting my mother-in-law on our first full day in town, we had to hole up in the hotel room.

And Speaking of Hotel Rooms…

Because of a variety of circumstances, my father-in-law’s funeral in one state and internment in another state required that my husband and I be on travel for eight days. So we stayed eight days at the Hampton Inn. 

Contracts Abound!

All the while, I kept getting messages that contracts were pending, on their way, or attached to emails arriving on my smart phone. Thankfully, this is the one aspect of this time period that is not atypical. My 88-year-old mother-in-law asked if all the ringing notifications got on my nerves. “Oh, no!” I assured her. She also said, “You are always on the phone.” I forget that not everyone is as plugged in as I am.

Are You in a Cult?

The nice lady who prepared our free breakfast every morning (Yay, Hampton Inn!) asked us why we were there and we said we were there for a funeral. And we were there. And we were there. And we were still there. On our last day, I asked her if she wondered if we were part of a weird religion where burial requires eight days. She laughed, but I still wonder if anyone there did a Google search on weird religions.

Florida Christian Writers Conference

No time to settle in before leaving for the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference! http://www.floridacwc.net/

This conference is headed up by the lovely Eva Marie Everson and the awesome Mark Hancock. Of course, Hancocks are always awesome. Everyone was wonderful and understanding about my late arrival. By the way, this is a very good, informative, and enjoyable conference. This year, several key note addresses were given by our agency’s own Ellie Kay! (www.elliekay.com) Do consider attending next year.

And finally, Snow!

Today is Monday and in honor of my arrival home, more snow! So a-shoveling I will go.

And there you have it: an atypical time in the life of an agent.

Your Turn:

What has been the most atypical time in your life?

How Much Back Story?

by Tamela Hancock Murray

escape

Sometimes in my review of a novel, I find that the story doesn’t pick up soon enough. I’m not sure what I’ll be reading about and my interest may lag, though I can still eye great writing.

“But I wanted my readers to know about my characters,” the author may protest.

Understandable, indeed.

However, I believe it’s important to lay out the basic conflicts for the reader early on so she’ll know what she’ll be exploring with you and will be eager to keep diving in. Before I learn that the hero had a difficult childhood and the heroine struggles with lingering effects of poverty, I want to know their immediate obstacles to their current goals. Those goals may be (whether they know it or not) their ultimate romance. Or they may be involved in a quest. Or perhaps solving a mystery. In any event, the reader wants to know what type of book he’ll be reading and will want to learn what obstacles he’ll be overcoming with the characters right away. Then, once the reader is interested in the characters’ journey, their back story will be all the more fascinating and relevant.

Do You Like to Cry While Reading?

by Tamela Hancock Murray

Woman in tears

I’ll have to admit, I don’t like to cry. I don’t even like depressing songs. Instead I prefer things that are upbeat. For example, here are some of the lyrics to a song that helped me get through my teen years:

Flashlight.

Red Light.

Neon Light.

Spotlight.

Most of all you can funk. Help me find the funk….

Yoww

I think I found the funk!

["Flashlight" was written by Ronald R. Brooks, Gregory E. Jacobs, David R. Elliot, Bernard Worrell, William Earl Collins, and George Clinton Jr..]

Not that I can’t get serious. But I still like that fun song even today.

So now it’s your turn, if you like to cry while reading. What have been your favorite tearjerker books? I’ll give you a clue. Steve Laube told me that the marketing people at Bethany Publishing House wanted to mail a box of tissues with every copy of Deborah Raney’s A Vow to Cherish when it was first published.

So, what is your favorite tearjerker novel? 

Rooting for the Bad Guy?

by Tamela Hancock Murray

Man with mysterious eyes

Last week I blogged about amoral protagonists. But what about protagonists who are unquestionably immoral?

Some general market books make their readers root for the bad guy. Think about accounts of bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, written from their points of view. Or a book written primarily from the point of view of a courtesan, such as Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement. These books set the reader in a life where there is no Christ, yet the reader can’t help but feel sympathy for the protagonists by coming to an understanding of how circumstances combined by the moral failings of others set characters in one unhappy situation after another. 

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