“The Great Unspoken” – Why Agents Don’t Critique

There’s a secret agents and editors share. Something they seldom discuss with each other, and never with writers. It’s something they dislike. Intensely. It ties their hands when it comes to guiding writers guidance. It’s the #1 reason they turn down proposals, and the #2 (and sometimes #1) reason they’ve gone with form rejection letters. It’s something many inexperienced agents and editors try to change—I know I tried to change it, both as an editor and as an agent. I still try from time to time, but like most editors/agents, so far I’ve had to accept it’s inescapable. And trying to change it costs too much—in time, effort, and heartache.

It’s something we all know. And something we can never say to writers.

It’s something writers always tell us they want to know, but when we speak it, what we get in response, by more writers than you can imagine—and I’m talking about all levels of skill and experience and professionalism—is indignence. Outrage. Sometimes vitriol. About our knowledge, intelligence, and, believe it or not, salvation.

No, that’s not hyperbole. There have been times, when I’ve dared to utter The One Great Unspoken, that I’ve been told I’m stupid, insulting, arrogant, and, yes, unChristian.

But I’m going to try again. I’m going to speak it here, to you. Because I want you to know how we agonize over what we say to writers. How we wish we could just be up-front on this count and know that when we did so, writers would trust that we’re not trying to put them down or put on some false superiority. What we’re trying to do is help them. And be faithful to the task we’ve been given by our employers. Because when we accept a manuscript, we’re making a commitment on behalf of our employers to invest a major amount of money, time, and manpower.

So here it is, The One Great Unspoken. The tacit, time-tested truth many agents/editors hold to:

Thou shalt not comment on a person’s writing inability.

Notice that says inability, not ability. When someone’s writing is good, just not right for that editor or agent, it’s far easier to respond to that. And that’s far easier for a writer to hear than, “I’m sorry, but your writing just isn’t ready for publication.” Or, if we’re totally honest, “I’m sorry, but writing may not be the right career choice for you.”

Please note, I’d never tell someone not to write, period. But not all stories are meant for publication. That’s just one of the many reasons God gives people the task to write. But I also don’t want to give false encouragement. I think it’s wrong to do so.

Before I go on, I want to know what you think about that. You writers, be you new to the craft or someone who has been working hard at it for years—tell me: is saying that cruel, even if it’s the truth, even if it’s said with the utmost kindness? And please, don’t tell me: “You can’t make a statement like that.” Of course I can. It’s my job to decide whether or not someone is ready for publication. And in the process of doing this job, I’ve seen utterly beautiful writing. Writing that makes my heart ache because of truth and power it contains. And I’ve seen a lot of material that is not only not ready for publication, it’s flat-out awful. Painfully so. But do I think the writer of beautiful prose is better or smarter than the other writer? No. If I say someone can’t write professionally, it doesn’t mean I think the writer is awful or stupid or anything negative. I just think they can’t write. Not professionally. I’m not criticizing them personally or spiritually, I’m stating a professional opinion. One I’ve spent over 30 years developing.

But let me—or any agent or editor—dare to say that, and suddenly, no matter how kind we are in saying it, we’re terrible, mean-spirited, cruel, and arrogant. Hateful, even.

So you writers tell me, what are editors and agents to do?

One caveat: this is not the place to tell me what a terrible person I am, or what a bunch of meanies agents and editors are. This is your chance to give me—and the agents and editors out there—honest feedback on what has been a troublesome issue for years.



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News You Can Use – Dec. 4, 2012

Guideposts sells Ellie Claire Line and Selected Summerside Titles to Worthy Publishing – Worthy Publishing adds a great gift book line along with some Summerside non-fiction to their company. Plus they added a new VP, Jason Rovenstine, who joins them from his similar role at Ellie Claire/Summerside. The Summerside fiction line remains with Guideposts with no editorial changes. Guideposts fiction and non-fiction remains untouched. (If you are curious an out of date web site shows previous products published under the Ellie Claire imprint.)

Three Things You Can Do in a Novel but not Onscreen – Derek Haas helps writers understand the difference.

The Elevator Pitch – READ THIS ARTICLE!!!! – Susan Morris nails it on the head. The best way to talk about your book to and agent or an editor. Excellent.

Archway Publishing: Simon & Schuster Adds a Self-Publishing Division – Victoria Strauss pulls back the curtain. If you weren’t aware “Like the other self-publishing divisions of trade publishers (LifeWay’s Cross Books, Thomas Nelson’s West Bow Press, Harlequin’s Dell’Arte Press [which, unlike other ventures of this sort, produced a furore upon its introduction and had to change its name], Hay House’s Balboa Press, and Writer’s Digest’sAbbott Press), Archway Publishing is outsourced to Author Solutions Inc.”  And Author Solutions was recently purchased by Penguin…which is merging with Random House.
Confused yet?
If you get a contract from a publisher and you don’t have an agent, check out Victoria Strauss’ site and do your research.

The Art of Shameless Self-Promotion – Nathan Hangen makes a great case.

Want to be amazed? Watch this one minute video of a machine scanning a book at the rate of 250 pages per minute. Do the math. If there are an average of 300 words on a printed page and it takes five minutes to set up a new book, you could feasibly scan ten books an hour or 80 per day. A library of 5,000 books could be scanned and digitized  in two months.

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The Cost of Permissions vs. Fair Use

by Steve Laube

Every book contract has a clause that reads something along these lines:

If permission from others is required for publication of any material contained in the Work or for exercise of any of the rights conferred by this Agreement, Author shall obtain such permissions at Author’s expense, in a form acceptable to Publisher, and shall deliver such permissions to the Publisher as part of the complete manuscript of the Work. Permissions shall cover all territories, rights and editions covered by this Agreement.

In other words, if you use someone else’s book you must get permission or a license and cover the cost of that license. Be sure to consult with your agent or your publisher when securing the license to make sure it fully covers your project. Some places will charge for the first x number of copies and then require that you pay again if you sell more.

There are some projects where the permissions and licensing are a bit more complicated, especially with certain non-fiction books. For example, our clients Khaldoun Sweis and Chad Meister created Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources (Zondervan, 2012). This 560 page book compiles selections from over fifty primary sources that address various challenges in the history of Christian apologetics. The compilation includes a wide range from Saint Augustine to Saint Teresa of Avila and Blaise Pascal, to more recent and present day apologists such as C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig (our client), and Richard Swinburne. (Click here for a sample chapter PDF and the Table of Contents.) To include every chapter’s material where the source was still under copyright the authors had to pay for the permission. They used the advance monies received from the publisher to secure those licenses.

Another example is our client’s project The Kingdom of the Occult (Thomas Nelson, 2008). (Click here for a sample of this work.) This 752 page reference book by the late Walter Martin and co-edited by Jill Martin Rische and Kurt Van Gorden has over 3,000 citations in it. When some of the citations are collected they comprise a good portion of the original source material. So they had to secure the permissions and pay for the licenses to use that source material in their book.

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Fun Fridays – Nov. 30, 2012

You may have seen some of the “Gangnam Style” song parodies that are all over the Internet. (By the way, the original Gangnam Style video is now the most watched YouTube video of all time with over 830 million views…since July.)

Recently the cast of Arizona Broadway Theatre’s “Oklahoma,” where my daughter Fiona is performing, just released their version called “Oklahoma Style.”

Be sure to watch through the end of the credits. (you’ll see Fiona’s name a few times as co-director and choreographer along with a fun ending with the cast singing.)

Enjoy, and spread the word.
–Due to copyright restrictions YouTube will not allow this to be viewed on a mobile device (smartphone or tablet).–

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Reactions to Your Career

Often, strangers ask me what a literary agent does. Once I tell them, they’ll want to share with me that they are writing a children’s picture book. Or an aunt, cousin, or friend, is writing one. I think a lot of parents write read-aloud books because they are part of the bedtime ritual with their own children and perceive that the volume of books published means the market is vast. Unfortunately, it is not, as I discovered when I wrote three of my own, never-to-be-published children’s picture books. But I digress.

When I said that I present books to editors, an auto mechanic asked, “So you are teaching the editors how to read?”

Most people understand what I mean when I say I’ve written Bible trivia books, but conversations can get more lively when I tell them I’m the author of Christian romance novels. One recent reaction was laughter. And more laughter. I think he may have even pointed at me.

Another response: “Like, in the ads where you see ‘Meet Christian Singles’?”

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Agents and Proposals: What to Expect

Last week I left you with a question: How do editors/agents get through all the proposals they receive. For me, as an editor and now as an agent, the answer was to hire someone to be my first-pass reader. In my case, this person is someone I’ve worked with now for over fifteen years. She knows me and my tastes well, and, as an avid reader and a skilled writer herself, she knows quality writing. She reviews my proposals and, based on a list of criteria I’ve given her, determines if said proposals are at a level that I should review them.

Here’s a hard truth about proposals: roughly 95% of the proposals my first-pass reader reviews, she rejects. And that percentage is fairly common for many editors and agents. When my reader determines the manuscript isn’t ready for me to review, she sends the writers something very similar to the noncommittal response most writers dislike. Honestly, I’m not that crazy about it when I receive it from editors! But I understand and accept it, because I know it isn’t the editors’ jobs to to critique the proposals I—or others, be they agents or writers–send them. Just as it isn’t my reader’s job to do so. What she’s supposed to do is determine whether or not the proposals meet my clear criteria.

So what, you ask, are my criteria?

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News You Can Use – Nov. 27, 2012

McGraw-Hill Agrees To Sell Its Education Publishing Business For $2.5 billion – Someone thinks publishing is still worth a lot of money!

Using Elements of Your Story to Market Your Book – Great article by Debby Mayne

Daily Routines of Famous Writers – Take a look at how Kurt Vonnegut, Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, and others did their work.

Amazon Takes on Supermarkets with Groceries in the UK – The article mentions the eight distribution warehouses Amazon has in the UK. In the U.S. they have over 40 massive warehouses. They are experimenting with groceries and home delivery in the Seattle area (click here for their site).

How Writers & Publishing Professionals Can Network on Twitter – Useful directory if you use Twitter.

Ken Burns Documentary Revives Rejected Book – After 73 years a book rejected by Random House gets attention in a big way. There is a moral to this story, don’t you think?

The Biblio-Mat – the first used book vending machine. $2.00 per book random selection. Click through to a video of how it works.
[tentblogger-vimeo 53679084]


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The Landmine of Fair Use

by Steve Laube

Remember you can use the big green button to the right of this blog to ask us questions. Recently we received two that were on the issue of fair use of other people’s writing.

What are the standard fair use rules for quotes of other published works? I used quotes in my book and my understanding was that if it was less than 250 words then you don’t need permission. But a friend is self-publishing and is concerned about quotations fearing she might get sued.

Always err on the side of getting permission.

One major publisher we work with has the author get permission for any quotations from a single source that is more than 25 words, collected (aggregate) across all uses of that source in the book. So if one quote is 10 words and 100 pages later is a quote for 20 words, the author must get permission.

Another requires the author get a written release from every person they interviewed and quoted in their non-fiction project. Including family members like your spouse, parents, or friends.

For more information read this excellent article by publishing attorney Kelly Way called “All’s Fair in Love and War – But Not in Copyright Law.”

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I’m Thankful for…

Happy Thanksgiving!

A tradition my (Steve) family has had during Thanksgiving is to play “The Thankful Game.” Since we spend our day with extended family we have a bit of driving to do to get there. So during the trip we would rotate around the car with each member of the family having to to finish the sentence “I’m thank for…” The answers could be serious or silly. Everything from animals to favorite foods to sports to faith was placed on the table (or the altar if you think in terms of symbolism).

In honor of that tradition I thought it fun to have the three of us agents play the game for you. But then you are supposed to continue the game in the comments below.

May God’s grace be with you all as we give thanks to Him from whom all blessings flow.

I’m thankful for…

Steve: The legacy my dad left to us. We miss you.

Tamela: My husband, daughters, and parents, who always love me.

Karen: A family legacy of faith and love

Steve: Mentos

Tamela: Tunes for the car!

Karen: The unfettered delight my dogs exhibit whenever I come home.

Steve: The joy of reading

Tamela:  The times in my life when the Lord has spoken to me.

Karen: a supportive and loving husband, family, and friends, all of whom make the good days richer and the dark days easier to bear.

Your Turn!
What are you thankful for? 

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