Someone called the other day and asked, “If I’ve self-published my book and want you to consider it for representation, should I even bother sending it? Or am I toast?”
I answered, “It depends.” [For you regular readers, do you think that should become the motto of the Agency?]
The question suggests it is an either/or proposition…determined by a set of rules that cannot be broken. The reality is more nuanced.
The Frequency of a Blue Moon
Last Wednesday was a rare celestial event, a Super-Red-Blue moon.
A Super moon means the proximity of it to the earth makes it look much larger than normal in the sky. (Only 223,820 miles away last Wednesday.)
A Red moon happens with a Lunar Eclipse where the shadow of the earth covers the moon as it moves between the moon and the sun. If it is a full moon, the shadow casts a red hue on the lunar surface.
A Blue moon is commonly understood as the second full moon in a single month. The typical Blue moon happens every 2.7 years. In 2018 it happens twice, in January and again in March.
The combination of all three at once is quite rare. The last time there was a super-red-blue moon was 1982 and the next time will be 2037.
Why this explanation? Because it illustrates the idea that things CAN happen which are out of the ordinary.
Your Self-Published Book Becomes Traditionally Published
Yes, a self-published book can be re-released by a major publisher. It happens a little more often than the blue moon, but it is not the norm. I’ve represented a few projects which were originally self-published. The topic, the content, the quality, the author, and the sales all contribute to its viability.
As we have written here before, self-publishing is a form of test marketing. If no one buys the book the question becomes, “Why not?” The author often answers, “My lack of marketing budget, sales ability, and visibility.” To which the major publisher asks, “If the author’s platform is so weak, then why should we invest in it?”
Thus, landing a self-published book with a traditional publisher CAN happen, but “once in a blue moon.”
Your Book is Turned into a Movie
Many authors dream of seeing their novel on the big screen. Their friends, family, and editor will say things like, “This should be a movie! It is so good!” The writer calls their agent and asks, “When are you going to get my book with a major movie studio?”
The process for getting your story on screen can be complicated. Read Robin Jones Gunn’s fascinating ten year journey How My Book Became a Movie. We always follow every lead that comes our way with regard to film options and licensing but getting to a deal and then to production can be a challenge.
Books into film is a nuanced conversation. I talked with one producer who said the novel needs two things. 1) Significant sales in the traditional market, i.e. a bestseller. 2) The story needs to be “cinematic.” Meaning it would translate well on screen because the core story is easy to convey. A complex plot can be difficult to translate into a 120 page double-spaced movie script (one page of script per minute on screen is the formula). That same producer then rejected our bestselling novelist because the stories were not “cinematic.”
Another producer wanted one of our client’s stories but said, “I need to have a PG-13 type script so I can attract investors. Therefore, we need to add some ‘skin’ and at least one ‘f-bomb’ to the story.” (The author said “No” and the deal was not done.)
Don’t get me wrong, we have done a number of film options for our clients, but the journey to finding the funding for the production has been difficult for the producer.
On the other hand, Lynette Eason, one of Tamela’s clients, had her story optioned by her publisher to the Lifetime Network. The made-for-tv movie aired last Friday at 8pm. Very fun. Here is the trailer for “Her Stolen Past.”
What I’m trying to say is landing a movie deal for your book CAN happen, but only “once in a blue moon.”
Getting an Agent
The faint of heart should stop reading. This past month I personally received 137 unsolicited email proposals and 42 unsolicited hard copy proposals. That is about average. Some agents receive three times that many.
A lot of people are writing and seeking representation. I don’t need to repeat what we’ve said before about the review process.
Suffice it to say, getting an agent CAN happen, but only “once in a blue moon.”
The bottom line is that anything can happen in our industry. This is why we try to maintain an open door when it comes to proposals. We never know what might be next in the pile. It might be your project that connects with us and then connects with an editor and then connects with the marketplace. I hope yours will be the one that falls under the category of “Once in a Blue Moon.”
Roz Morris @Roz_Morris
This is an interesting point. You wrote: ‘Self-publishing is a form of test marketing. If no one buys the book the question becomes, “Why not?” The author often answers, “My lack of marketing budget, sales ability, and visibility.” To which the major publisher asks, “If the author’s platform is so weak, then why should we invest in it?” ‘
What about this scenario? The writer’s platform is small and they have a few hundred sales. But they have genuine, intelligent, rigorous reviews that demonstrate that readers were very satisfied with the book and would recommend it. You see, the writer’s job – their job that no one else can do – is to create an excellent reading experience. Surely a writer with consistently good and believable reviews has demonstrated that if a publisher got behind them, those few hundred sales would be turned into a much bigger number?
Brennan S. McPherson
I’m sure Steve has much more wisdom to add here than I do, but here’s my two cents. Great reviews don’t translate into great sell-ability, and publishers need slam-dunk projects to make sure they get enough sales to stay floating. Maybe it could happen that a publisher would want to take a chance. But publishers are cautious because of the financial risk and the jobs they’d put at risk if they didn’t function cautiously toward new projects. That’s even more true with movie producers. A less risky idea would be for you to write another book and pitch that one instead–publishers would be more likely to take a fresh book than a self-published book that sold a few hundred copies.
If you could smash a button to make $10,000 one year from now, guaranteed, you’d hit it, right? But if smashing that button also had a 50% chance of losing you $15,000, and making your friend, Frank, lose his job, I think we’d all think twice before hitting it.
Reviews are only one factor. Unfortunately you may know they are independent and rigorous, but an agent and an editor has a healthy skepticism.
For example, I know a case where the pastor of a church asked every member of the church to post a 5-star review on Amazon. The reviews are genuine, but are the rigorous?
The other issue is trying to use the number of reviews as a criteria. That is a losing scenario since reviews can be purchased. For example, look at this Kirkus Indie Review program:
If an Indie book has 30 reviews does that mean it isn’t any good? What if it has 300 reviews?
That is why accolades and reviews are One factor. As I wrote above, “The topic, the content, the quality, the author, and the sales all contribute to its viability.”
In general, I don’t solicit reviews. I can usually tell the ones that came from people who review on request from those that are the spontaneous outpouring of appreciation from a reader who loved a book. The unsolicited ones are what affect my perception of a book. But only between 1 and 2% of the readers of my Kindle editions post Amazon reviews. How many of the remaining 98% liked or loved the book but don’t post reviews? How many didn’t like it but were too gracious to post something negative? I’ll never know.
Is that a typical fraction of sales to spontaneous reviews for traditionally published, Steve?
No way to answer the question. Your guess is as good as mine!
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
I like how you think, Roz! Your points are well made!
Roz Morris @Roz_Morris
Thank you, Sheri!
Thank you for this insightful blog post.
You said, “This past month I personally received 137 unsolicited email proposals and 42 unsolicited hard copy proposals. That is about average. Some agents receive three times that many.”
This was very helpful information for me, as I have just begun sending out proposals to agents. I have questions about this statement.
1. Of the unsolicited proposals, on average, how many of those do you request more materials?
2. On average, how many proposals to you receive per month total (unsolicited and solicited combined)?
I know it doesn’t make one bit of difference to me personally ,but I was just wondering as I hit send on my proposals what kind of odds I am up against.
Thank you again for the informative post!
I don’t dare give a numerical percentage as it will either be a wild guess or terribly discouraging.
It depends on the quality of the proposals I receive…the bandwith I have at the moment…my feeling for the receptivity in the marketplace for that idea…whether or not our cat was nice to me last night… Okay the last one was there to make you smile…the cat is NEVER nice to me.
The above numbers are about average for me. I get around 2,000 unsolicited proposals a year.
Do I sign anyone who sends an unsolicited proposal? Yes. It has happened…once in a blue moon. !!!
There is a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel of queries! Haha thank for you post! Not only for the honesty, but encouragement!
Never. Just when I think I’m “caught up” the tide changes and the inbox fills up again.
This is not a complaint!
If it weren’t for an author’s desire to have a literary agent our jobs would not exist.
The queries are a little like Christmas or a Birthday. Each box is a gift to be opened never knowing what’s inside.
Sometimes it is coal. Sometimes it is gold.
Sometimes it is an ugly sweater…
I could go on with the metaphor, but I’ll let you all have fun with it.
I love it! And your reply to my comment made my day! Hope you find the proposal you’re looking for! 🙂
What you said here is not surprising to me. It’s why I’m currently self-published and happy with my loyal group of followers. Yes, I will try to pitch books in the future, but if it doesn’t work out for me, then I’ll know it was God’s will. I still enjoy the writing process, and if I inspire even one reader to further explore their faith, that’s all that matters in the big picture.
Love this! <3 what a wonderful perspective! You've already inspired me!
There’s a short poem that fits this very well, I think:
“If you think you are beaten, you are;
if you think you dare not, you won’t;
if you’d like to win but think you can’t,
it’s almost a cinch you won’t.
Life’s battles don’t always go
to the stronger of faster man;
but sooner or later the man who wins
is the man who THINKS he can.”
Life is full of unlikely outcomes, but the only way to get there is to turn belief in oneself and one’s mission into the positive actions that keep improving the odds. “The Christmas Box” and “The Shack” began life being sold from car trunks at swap meets, not because the authors didn’t have anything better to do, or wanted to make a few bucks on the side, but because they believed in what they were saying, that their message deserved a chance – and by gum, they were going to give it the best chance they could.
It’s not an easy path to walk, because that belief has to be carefully nurtured. It’s not about ego; there’s a humility involved, a real care that the world can be a better place through the existence of this book, the reading of these words. Not because I wrote them, but because for once in my life, when God talked to me, I listened…and I wrote it down.
Nurturing a belief in the possibility of the improbable is best done by holding examples close to the heart (like, say, Helen Keller!), surrounding oneself with honest encouragers (not sycophants), and maintaining a disciplined lifestyle, with exercise, a good diet, and regular hours dedicated to work, even through holidays (because if you believe in what you’re doing, it’s got to be a priority).
And push aside the naysayers, even the well-meaning ones who try to offer a comforting sort of excuse…”Under you’re circumstances it’s not surprising that you didn’t make it, but you tried your best…”
It’s not a matter of brilliance or assurance of God’s bounty or the flash of green serendipity, the kingfisher’s quick turn over a dawn-lit pond.
Making the impossible your reality is manufacturing a reason to hope, every morning.
And journeying in Hope is success in itself.
Almost left out the most important bit about nurturing hope – encourage others!
As you send your heart out into the wide world to help others when they stumble, you know it can be hurt…but it’s also the only way a heart can take in the free air and sunlight, the only way it can grow.
Such a heart will never be faint.
Andrew’s poem is a superb summary of why some fail and some succeed. For any creative endeavor, whether it’s scientific research, exploratory engineering, or writing a novel that touches the hearts of those who read it, success belongs to those who persevere even when roadblocks bar the way and others question your sanity.
I had a research manager who asked why I thought I’d succeed when so many had failed to solve a particular problem. My answer: “Because no one ever tried what I’m going to do before.” (It worked.) Would-be authors need to ask God for inspiration, work however hard it takes to write well-crafted prose and develop a platform, and be willing to never stop trying, even when others question why you expect success. That success might be a publishing contract, or it might be more than a few hundred sales as an indie. But success might also be that one person whose life is transformed because she or he read what you wrote.
Thanks for the dose of reality, Steve. I’m a dreamer at heart and love to imagine all sorts of possibilities: book contracts, movie deals, having you for an agent, and fat-free chocolate as nutritious as spinach. The last one will of course never happen, but I can at least strive for the others.
Once in a blue moon? Well the blue moon did appear last week and you do have my proposal. Hmmm. Just kidding. But I can dream. 😉
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Fascinating blog, Steve. Thanks for the wake-up call and, as always, for the information!
Regarding having a novel that might become a movie, I have a book by C.S. Lakin entitled “Shoot Your Novel: Cinematic Techniques to Supercharge Your Writing” that’s very much worth reading. I’ve adopted some of the techniques described, and it has really ramped up the emotional impact of crisis/climax scenes. It also makes it much easier to plot and to generate good dialogue because I play the scenes in my mind like they were movie shots.
But if you choose this approach, forget the dictum about only one POV per chapter. I make crisp, clean POV breaks between characters in a given scene, but I write what I’ve seen called multiple deep POV. No movie director shoots through the eyes of a single character. I don’t think authors should slavishly follow the single-character rule, either. That rule was set by writing “experts, not by readers who want an emotionally satisfying experience.
Interesting information. Thank you for sharing with us. “It Depends” sounds like a good motto. Ha!
Cindy Mahoney/Claire O'Sullivan
Love the poem about ‘think you can’t.’ My sister recently asked me why I keep plugging along, and suggested it was selfish vanity. I replied with, it’s an occupation, one a person loves, no different than any other. I also mentioned that I believe that God places desires in our hearts, and this develops patience.
Yeah, not a positive response from her about that last one…
Well, have to say, that’s my sister.
And love this agency for the reasons Steve posted. One’s work may be that one in a blue moon. Who knows? And, because I push this through beta readers (and others on a critique site), I can share Scripture, and who knows how far and wide the message of the Gospel can spread?
Sure, a movie is awesome, and Steve, you are right. By gum and by golly we want to see it on the ‘big screen.’ But look at Misery by Stephen King. Okay, don’t, I’ll just share. His book was magnificent in the layers of true suffering the main character went through, his thought process, his feeling of hopelessness.
They put it on the big screen and there … was … nothing. Worse than ‘Cat Woman.’ gah.
We pray, we write, we edit, we hope. Pretty sure St. Paul had no idea he’d be published in every language, or that much of the New Testament would be Scripture, and his hand (or scribe) would pen much of it. Best … seller and movie maker.
Hmmm. Once in a blue moon times three moons overlooking the world in my SFF series means my chances just went up. hehe
Thank you all for letting me eavesdrop on this conversation. Many salient points and meaty food for thought. What a great writing community this is!