Are You High Maintenance?

by Steve Laube

Last week I was asked to define what is meant when an author is deemed “high maintenance” by an agent or a publisher. The more I thought about this the more I realized how difficult it is to quantify. Any attempt to do so is fraught with potential misunderstanding because most people are looking for specific rules to follow.

Normally “high maintenance” is a description of someone who is difficult to work with or is constantly in need of attention. It can be anyone from a “diva” to a “rookie.” The best way to express the issue is in the following word picture:

When you contract with an agent or a publisher you are granted a large measure of “Good Will” in the form of a bag of gold coins. You are free to spend these coins however you wish during the course of the business relationship. The cover design is completely wrong? Spend some coins. The marketing plan appears weak. Spend some coins. And as time goes by and positive things happen you receive more gold coins for your bag.

However, many authors make the mistake of spending their entire bag of coins the first time something goes wrong. And then the next time they need a favor or a special dispensation there isn’t any “Good Will” left.

I think there are three areas where these relationships can break down.

Unreasonable Demands/Expectations

Remember that publishing is a business and should be treated professionally. Each author comes into the business with their own understanding of the industry and therefore with their own set of expectations.

  • Expecting your agent to answer their phone at 10am on a Sunday morning is unreasonable.
  • Expecting your publisher to fly you to Germany to research your next novel is unreasonable.
  • Demanding that your agent drop everything to read your sample chapters and respsond…in the next hour.
  • Arriving unannounced at a bookseller convention and expecting that your book will be displayed in the publisher’s booth (even though the book is not a new release) isn’t going to earn good will coins.

Lest you misunderstand, it is okay to ask, but don’t expect a yes to every demand that you make and then be petulant when you don’t get what you want.

Unreasonable Behavior

  • Going ballistic and screaming on the phone at an editor about your manuscript edits is unreasonable behavior.
  • Sending a barrage of emails to your editor every day is unreasonable behavior.
  • Shouting angrily at an editor and declaring that he is obviously not a Christian because the art department created a weak book cover is unreasonable behavior.
  • Asking your agent to lie for you with your publisher is unreasonable behavior.

You get the picture? Every agent and editor in the business has shocking stories of unreasonable authors. Be aware however that they are the exception…that is why they are memorable stories. 99% of the time everything is peachy. –?– Okay, 97% of the time…

Don’t Become a B.E.N.

Karen Ball asks that her clients not become a Black-hole of Emotional Need (what I call B.E.N.). This is a delicate area to navigate because a writer’s life is full of disappointments and frustration. Your agent should be safe place where you can vent. But too much drama can become a challenge for any relationship. Becoming overwrought over every issue and constant complaining can be draining to all those with which you do business. As with all things, use discretion and lots of communication to make sure any lines are not crossed. I addressed some of this in the post “Never Burn a Bridge.”

I’ve heard it said that if you aren’t demanding and in the face of your publisher or agent, they will stop paying attention to you. Sort of like saying “the pushy bird gets the worm.” There may be a measure of truth to that. However I can say that many times “the pushy bird gets the boot.” I’ve been in meetings or conference calls where the publisher says it is no longer worth the expense of time and emotional energy to continue working with a particular writer. Let me simply implore you, “Don’t be that author!”

Coin Collecting

To counter those times where you must spend your Good Will coins to get something fixed there are some things you can do.

  • Remember to say thank you when a job is well done. Everyone enjoys being appreciated.
  • Remember to always speak with grace in your email communication. Email can suck the pleasant tones out of every note; you will always sound stern. If you’ve got a tough letter to write your publisher, run it by your agent first to make sure you are not out of line.
  • Try to avoid personal pronouns when writing your publisher if you can. Not “you messed up”… instead “the team failed to get this done right.” Avoid putting your in-house advocates on the defensive.
  • Be reasonable with your expectations. And if unsure, ask your agent if this is normal or not.

By the way, I know what some of you are thinking. “Steve is writing about me!” Let me assure you that I’m not. It seems that each time I write a post like this a client or a person in the industry writes and says “I hope you weren’t writing about me!”



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The Synopsis Tells the Tale

Because the synopsis is so critical to a proposal, I decided to write this spin-off of last week’s blog, “Keys to a Great Synopsis,”  in hopes of helping authors not only write more effective synopses, but to impart a bit about the fiction market, too.

When I read synopses from authors, much is revealed. For instance, I see:

Cozy mysteries that are meant to be romance.

Gothic plots presented as historical romances.

Women’s fiction that the author intended to be romance.

Mysteries masquerading as romantic suspense.

In the submissions I see, these are almost never flipped, so to my mind, this suggests the romance market in particular is one that many authors seek to understand, but don’t quite get. Hence the near-miss plots. I think this may be because the romance formula is strict and authors seek to offer readers something unique so without realizing it, they can stray into other genres. An eternal truth about romance novels is that editors and readers do want fresh plots. However, they also know that the romance story has set guidelines from which writers must not venture. Plots can hit the edges of the box but not punch holes. In my view, what the author must understand about the Christian romance reader is that she seeks to be assured that even in our coarse culture, a godly woman unwilling to compromise her faith and the accompanying physical and spiritual virtues can find a Christian man to love her forever.

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A Time to Share

 I’ve been thinking for awhile that I’d like to do some mini workshops on this blog. Now, I have a boatload of topics I could teach on. After all, I’ve taught or keynoted at writers’ conferences all over the country for the last 30 years. But here’s the thing, I don’t want to teach just another workshop. I want to help you with the issues you’re facing in your writing. So here’s your chance to open up and share.

What struggles or questions are bugging you the most? Is there some element of the craft that you’re arm-wrestling lately? Or is finding and maintaining creativity your bugaboo? Are you losing sleep wondering about proper etiquette at writers’ conferences or trade shows? Whatever you most need as a writer, share that here. I’ll gather the responses and put together workshops to help you figure it out.

Sound good? Okay then.


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News You Can Use – May 29, 2012

Self-Publishing: Under 10% Earn a Living – An article out of Australia makes a bold claim. I would claim, however, that only 10% of traditionally published writers earn a living too. Of course that depends on your definition of “a living.”

100 Best First Lines from Novels – In honor of the last two weeks where we talked about “first lines” I found this article from the American Book Review that chooses the top 100.

Stephen King’s 20 Tips for Becoming a Frighteningly Good Writer – Jon Morrow extracts the best parts from King’s book on writing and then applies it to the blogger.

Six Ways Copyeditors Make Your Book Better – Linda Jay Geldens makes an excellent point. Never skip this step before putting your work out in the public.

The No-Tears Guide to Podcasting – There are many who say podcasting is an excellent way to extend your platform and engage your readers.

Two Excellent Articles about Commas: Their use and misuse – written by Ben Yagoda
Fanfare for the Comma Man
The Most Comma Mistakes

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15 Latin Phrases Every Writer Should Know

15 Latin Phrases Every Writer Should Know

Persona Non Grata
“An unwelcome person” (lately defined by some as a literary agent) Habeas Corpus
“You have the body”  (The legal right to appear before a judge.) Cogito Ergo Sum
“I think, therefore I am.” For a writer it would be “Sribo ergo sum” E Pluribus Unum
“Out of many, one” Quid Pro Quo
“This for that” or in other words, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” Ad Hominem
“To the man” During an argument or discussion, when one party attacks their opponent’s reputation or expertise rather than sticking to the issue at hand. Soli Deo Gloria
“Glory to God alone” – a motto of the Reformation. Johann Sebastian Bach would sign his compositions with the initials S.D.G. Caveat Emptor
“Let the buyer beware” (before you use the “1-click” feature on Memento Mori
“Remember your mortality” (also the name of an album by Flyleaf) Caveat Lector
“Let the reader beware”   (be nice to your reading audience!) Sui Generis
“Of its own kind,” or “Unique” – a key principle in copyright or intellectual property law Veni, vidi, vici
“I came, I saw, I conquered” – A message supposedly sent by Julius Caesar to the Roman Senate to describe a battle in 47 BC. For the writer? “Veni, vidi, scripsi” (I came, I saw, I wrote) Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam
“For the Greater Glory of God” – see 1 Corinthians 10:31. Johann Sebastian Bach also used the initials A.M.D.G. Mea Culpa
“By my fault” – or in common language today, “My bad.” Pro Bono.
“Done without charge” – Incorrectly used by fans of U2.
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Keys to a Great Synopsis

When I posted my ideas on some Keys to a Great Book Proposal, a few writers said they were challenged to write a synopsis. I agree that writing an interesting synopsis is difficult. However, it’s not an element you want to omit from your proposal because a synopsis orients the editor to the book’s contents. Here are my answers to often-asked questions:

1.) Do I need a chapter-by-chapter synopsis?

For fiction, no. I think I get this question a lot because years ago, a popular and respected editor I worked with asked for this type of synopsis. This is because some authors the editor worked with sometimes took liberties with the plot once they sat down to write the complete book. The book the editor received was different from the one contracted! Hence, this requirement. I got in the habit of writing this type of synopsis and found it helpful when I wrote my books. I knew exactly where I was going and why, as well as what my chapter cliffhangers would be. Working this way is a discipline that gave me confidence. I recommend that writers try this method at least once to see how they like it. But I don’t ask for this in a proposal because few fiction editors want to see a synopsis presented in this manner.

However, nonfiction proposals do need a chapter by chapter breakdown to explain what each chapter will contain. This is because often in nonfiction, chapters are loosely connected by a topic but can be read as separate entities. Readers may skip around with nonfiction books, gleaning information they need and discarding the rest. So this type of synopsis is helpful for nonfiction proposals. However, I do recommend summarizing the purpose and theme of the book in an overall description of a couple of paragraphs as well, then moving on to the individual chapter descriptions.

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What’s MY Line? (First Lines – Part Two)

I loved reading your favorite first lines last week. Isn’t it amazing how the right first line sets the stage, how it can pull readers out of reality deep into the story that’s being woven around them? I’m always awed at the power of the written word.

As I said last week, a group of writer friends likes to share the first lines of their works in progress. JUST the first line. Not the first paragraph, or even the first two lines. All we can share is that one, lonely line. And you know what? It’s been so helpful to do this. Because I realized, as I played from time to time, that my first lines weren’t as strong or emotive as they needed to be. And that, far too often, those first lines only had impact when combined with the second line.

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News You Can Use – May 22, 2012

Where is Publishing Headed? – This it a great article! Read is carefully and you will want to read more. I recommended John Thompson’s book Merchants of Culture last year (my review is here). Now it is in paperback for $17 (retail price) and for either the Kindle or the Nook for around …

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