Wow, you memoir writers
are really keeping me on my toes! What a wonderfully active group
you are. And thank you all—memoirists, novelists, essayists, etc.—for your thoughtful questions, kind comments (I’ll be thankful for the constructive ones, too!), and steadfast passion for the written word.
One note: I’d really prefer to receive questions in my SheWrites mailbox, and leave the comments section for responses to the previous post. Of course, if you’d like me to clarify something, please do include that in a comment, but if you have a new question you’d like considered for the next post, please send it to my mailbox. It will be much easier for me to stay organized that way (you should see my desk at work—you’d think tornadoes frequented midtown Manhattan).
One more note: in some cases I’ve cobbled together a few questions into one, or edited them for length and clarity. No one will be identified by name unless you specifically request it.
Keep on keeping on,
The Girl with the Red Pencil
FIRST, A CLARIFICATION ABOUT MEMOIRS:
Yes, memoirs are non-fiction. At least they should be! But as many of you pointed out, they should be pitched differently than most non-fiction. First, I do recommend that you complete the entire manuscript before querying agents. With most non-fiction, an in-depth outline and some sample chapters are usually sufficient, but in memoir, your voice is incredibly important. How will you handle the end? An annotated outline would mention the death of a loved one, but how would you WRITE it? Even if an agent only wants to see the first few chapters at first, if she loves your work, she’s not going to want to wait until you write the rest. You don’t want her enthusiasm to flag as you plod along, writing the rest of your memoir. Also, most publishing houses want to see the entire manuscript of a memoir.
As for your platform (the credentials I said were so important for non-fiction), this is a bit different, too. You don’t need to be an expert on raising chickens or the world’s top yodeler. You’re the expert on your own story. Of course, other qualifications help. List previous publications. If you have a blog with a large number of followers, include your statistics. How many unique visitors do you have each month? But with memoir, your voice and story matter most.
Q: I am primarily a non-fiction writer and I am represented by an agent. He edits my work closely, and mostly I appreciate his suggestions. But how strong should an agent's influence be? On his recommendation, I have changed plots, character development, and have made things more "hip" than I would normally write. Is that the norm when working with an agent?
I think his editorial work is really good—he has a good ear for writing and for what jars—but his preferences in plots and characters are different from mine. And if I balk and refuse to make the changes, he will not represent the work. So either I change it, or it will not be sent out. I made a deal with him that I can send out fictional pitches on my own. But then they are refused because they do not come through an agent...
A: Agents and editors have at least one thing in common with our authors: we all want the work to sell. So yes, agents often make suggestions in order to make your work more appealing to publishing houses, and to the largest possible audience, but there’s a fine line between making your writing more saleable and turning it into something that no longer feels like it’s yours. You’ve put your heart and soul into your work, and you should feel good about the manuscript that makes its way into editors’ hands/e-readers and the finished book that hits the shelves at your local bookstore. It’s tough to balance, and you’ll probably struggle with the dichotomy of art and product as long as you continue to write.
So what can you do? There’s a possibility that he’s just not the right agent for you—agents and their authors should have a positive, supportive relationship. Agents should be passionate about your chosen genre and style. But it’s tough to find new representation. You may want to stick it out for a while longer, and if you do, consider having a respectful conversation that goes something like this:
You: I really like edits x and y, but z just doesn’t feel like my voice. Is your suggestion based on personal preference, or do you believe that my novel won’t sell in its current state?
Agent: I don’t think plot point A will appeal to a wide enough audience, because…
I don’t agree. Check out this article in Big City Gazette—I think people are still really fascinated by a, b, and c. Could we keep that part the way it is?
Ok, I see what you’re saying. But what if we tweak it THIS way instead? I would feel more comfortable with this change, and I think it still addresses your concerns.
Q: Do publishers have a select group of agents they work with, or can any agent who thinks she has a good product make a pitch? Also, what makes an agent an agent? Suppose my girlfriend thinks I'm a great writer and wants to become an agent so she can represent me. What criteria would she need as an agent (other than my masterful writing) in order to get a publisher's attention?
A: Any person can put up a shingle and call herself an agent. You don’t have to pass any tests or go to school for a particular degree. But when I receive a proposal from an agent/agency I’ve never heard of, who doesn’t have any published deals (although those agents just starting out are backed by the reputation of the agency that employs them), and who hasn’t taken the time to research my interests in specific kinds of books, I throw it in the trash. The relationships agents have with editors are incredibly important. While there isn’t a select group of agents publishing houses work with, individual editors are most likely to be excited about proposals that have been hand-picked to match her taste. And we trust the agents we know and have reason to respect. While your girlfriend can be your agent and submit your work, if she doesn’t have relationships with editors who are interested in books similar to yours, your proposal probably won’t fare much better than the ones without an agent at all.
Q: I've sent out some agent queries, but I also sent queries to a few publishers who accept unagented submissions. I got a few requests for the manuscript, and one offer. The publisher sent their "standard" contract. I did some research online and with friends who are published authors, and it seems like the publisher’s standard contract has lower than average royalty percentages, and, of course, they're asking for every right. I've read that I should use this offer to get an agent. Is this true? And if so, how should I go about making the request?
A: Congratulations on the offer! There are a few things you can do. You might want to ask your potential editor to set you up with an agent. If an editor happens to come across an unagented submission that she loves, she’ll often recommend an agent who would be willing to take you on as a client and negotiate the deal. Keep in mind, though, that this agent likely has a strong relationship with the editor—you want to make sure that the agent will be YOUR advocate, not that of the editor.
You can also query agents directly. Make sure that you note your offer from the publisher (though I wouldn’t include the advance/terms) in the beginning of your cover letter so she sees that you have a potential book deal already.
If you don’t have much time, you might choose to negotiate for higher royalty rates yourself. Tell the publisher that you’re aware of standard royalty rates in the industry. As for the rights, you might want to grant them (translation, audio, e-book, etc.) to the publisher, because it’s very hard to sell them without an agent (and you can use this give-a-little/get-a-little in your negotiation). And once you have that book deal, you can set about getting an agent for the next one!
***Please note that although I work at Random House, this column represents my own thoughts and opinions and not necessarily those expressed or endorsed by my employer***