Welcome to Part 2 of my interview with literary agent and author Michael Larsen. You can read the first interview here. This interview was originally part of a private bonus teleseminar for my Bring Your Book to Life Program participants. In part 2, Mike answers students’ questions about how to secure a literary agent, platform, publishing deals, aspects of how to write a book proposal that gets results, and more.
Lisa: We had some questions about how to write a book proposal and how to secure a literary agent.
Student B: I went to the International Women Writers Conference and I pitched a couple of literary agents. One asked for a couple of sample chapters and I sent those off. I was wondering if there’s a way you should follow up after you send something.
Mike: You should follow up. Go to the agent’s website or check their listing in directories that say how long it takes them to read something. Email is most logical.
Lisa: You know, I think about a client recently who had pitched, not an agent, but she pitched Psychologytoday.com and didn’t hear back. Fortunately, she called and the editor said, “Oh, I’m really interested; I never saw your pitch,” and it turned out the pitch was in her spam folder. So especially because email is not completely reliable, it’s certainly okay to say, “I want to make sure you got it and, if so, if you’ve had a chance…”
Mike: Excellent point. Ten to twenty percent of emails never arrive. So you don’t know they haven’t arrived and the people you sent them to don’t know they even arrived. So it’s important to follow up.
Lisa: And can you speak to the idea of going with a newer agent, Mike? Do you think that can be a good strategy sometimes?
Mike: It’s more complicated than that. New agents have more time, and they’re more open to new writers, because they’re building their list of authors. It’s about the knowledge, skills, and experience they bring to the job. If somebody has been a staff editor for ten years, that’s significant. If they have a blog and a website, and are active on Twitter, those are good signs.
When you’re thinking about an agent, you want to think about their experience and the books they’ve sold. If you can, meet with an agent who wants to represent you. It’s a working marriage like your relationship with your editor. And if you can, it’s nice to get a sense of what that working marriage will be like. You can talk to other writers about agents to help you. One way to find agents is to look at acknowledgment sections of books because sometimes they thank them.
Don’t send generic queries. The best way to start a query is with the name of the person who’s recommending that you go to an agent. You can say “[Name] suggested I contact you about…”; that’s meaningful to an agent or an editor. If you start by writing, “Because you sold X, which is one of my favorite books, I thought you might be interested in my…” it makes you look like a professional.
Lisa: It’s so critical to do research; sometimes people will send to agents who are completely inappropriate. I interviewed an agent recently who said it takes so much of her time responding to completely inappropriate queries. It really is an important courtesy to do the research and know who you’re sending to and that they truly could be a good fit.
Mike: Today, you need to look at an agent’s website, see what they want, and see how to approach them—e-mail or regular mail. If you’re not doing that, and you’re just sending a letter, or just calling on the phone without knowing that, that means you’re not ready to get published and you’re not ready for an agent. And letters you write to agents should be personalized. If they do not like the query letter, they’re not going to read the proposal.
Student C: Can I send to more than one agent at time?
Mike: Yes. Get a list of potential agents or editors and send a one-page query letter to as many as you want, but at the same time let them know you’re contacting other people. If they express interest, then send them what they ask to see. Let them know you’re sending material to other people as well. Not thirty, though; try ten at a time. You might get some feedback that might help with the next submission. I encourage you not to do contact agents or editors one at a time; it may take too long.
Lisa: While we’re talking about agents, I thought this was a good question someone sent in: What are some of the things an agent negotiates in a publishing deal?
Mike: Well, there may be said to be two kinds of points: Deal points and contract points. A contract may be as long as 36 pages. Among the deal points are the advance and how it will be paid; usually the bigger the advance, the more parts it will be divided into; royalties, and subsidiary rights.
Once an agent sells the book to a publisher, they have what they call an “agent boilerplate.” And the publisher has their own boilerplate, their basic contract. And when an agent sells the book to a publisher, they make whatever changes they can make. Previous contracts become a basis of putting together a new contract which makes it simple for a publisher. So when they sell the next book, they can just use the agent’s previous contract. It’s all computerized, and then change it as needed for the new deal.
Lisa: Do you want to talk a little bit about foreign rights and some of the ways that an agent protects an author from giving everything away?
Mike: A contract is a document that divides the money between the author and the publisher. And editors work for publishers; they want to maximize the publisher’s income and they do that by holding down advances and royalties, and keeping as many subsidiary rights as possible.
The agents who are earning a 15% commission from writers want to maximize the writer’s income. So that’s why they get as big an advance as possible and as good royalties as possible and keep as many rights as possible.
Deals vary depending on the book and the author, Publishers’ contracts vary as how flexible they are in negotiating them. So it depends how much leverage an agent has with the publisher, how big the deal is, and how many competing bidders there are, as well as how anxious the publisher is to have it.
Lisa: There was a question, too, about mid-size advances—are there many anymore?
Mike: Advances tend to be big or small—that’s true. There are midsize advances. But publishers spend less than $20,000 for most books. And publishers are starting to buy just e-book only rights with no advance. Again, every book is different, but competing bidders or a pre-emptive bid that will take a book off the market can increase the size of the advance and increase the value of the whole deal.
Student D: Mike, I read your book, How to Write a Book Proposal three times. It’s so helpful.
Mike: Thank you. That’s very kind.
Student D: I’m writing a memoir that crosses over into true crime. When you talk about audience or market size, is there a website or resource you could give us where we could find demographics for different genres?
Mike: You mentioned memoir; you mentioned crime.
Lisa: I have a thought. Maybe one thing, rather than just getting numbers of people in that demographic, is just to say this book would also appeal to readers of, and I’d give some examples of books maybe that are particularly in your case related to organized crime, and so names and best sellers that are about organized crime, I think that would do it, right, Mike?
Mike: Yeah. Models are extremely helpful for agents and editors because they create a sense of what you’re about from a literary and commercial point of view. And they don’t have to be books, it could be movies, it could be writers, it could even be TV series. Since your book is a combination of true crime and memoir, it might be good if it could be a combination of one memoir, and one true crime book.
Student E: I have an idea for four books, so is it better for the author to do all four as a series and get the agent and sell that as a package?
Mike: Is it fiction or nonfiction?
Student E: They’re all nonfiction. I’m expecting the fourth book to be the big one.
Mike: Authors who become successful usually do so over a series of books. Sue Grafton’s first hardcover bestseller was H is for Homicide, the eighth book in the series. So you build an audience for your book and then you write the breakout book. That’s usually the way it happens, if it’s going to happen.
So series can be a good thing. If you have an idea for a series of books that will sell each other and then you enjoy writing and promoting, you may have be able to create a career out of it.
One of my most successful authors is Jay Levinson. It’s not the name most people know but they know the name Guerrilla Marketing because it becomes generic for marketing for small business people. And there are more than forty books in the series now.
Student E: What should I do?
Mike: Editors might be wary when somebody wants to write a lot of books. At the same time, they don’t want just one book wonders; they want novelists to turn out a book year. For nonfiction, it’s unlikely they might sign up more than one book but they want to know it’s there.
Your first book is extremely important. When it comes time to sell your second book, bookstores will look up on the computer how the first book sold and order accordingly. So it’s important to make your first book successful. In fact, it may make more sense to sell your fourth book first.
Jay marketed the Guerrilla Marketing series by giving talks about these books all around the world: Russia, China, wherever. That’s the way of thinking about creating a successful writing career.
Student F: My question is about the whole notion of platforms. When I read the ecosystem handout you sent, it made so much sense to me and it made me say, boy, writing is great but I also need to be getting out there and doing more before I actually want to talk to someone about my book. My question is can you dimensionalize things like platform? Give specific numbers?
Mike: No. If you were doing a blog, agents and big publishers would like to see at least a five-figure quantity of people reading it. Again, it depends about your goals; it depends on if you want a big house or little house. Publishing is about numbers.
So, just like a promotion plan where you’re listing a set of impressive points of what you would do to promote it—with numbers whenever possible—do that with platform: How many friends you have on Facebook, connections on LinkedIn, followers on Twitter, how many people read your blog and visit your website? Those numbers are important to a big house. The bigger the numbers, the better.
Publishers are wary of promotion plans, which is why platform is so important. They tend not to believe them unless you are already doing what you say you will do. You can’t say you’ll give fifty talks a year to promote your book when you’re only doing five now. They won’t accept that math. They may want to see a list of places you’re speaking and know how many people you’re speaking to.
Agents and publishers will check you out online for sure. They’ll visit your website; they’ll check out your blog and see what you’re doing on social media.
Writers look at it as a challenge but I look at it as an opportunity. You’re investing in your career. You’re creating communities that are going to be with you as long as you keep writing. It’s this ecosystem you’re establishing. Once you build it, it’s just going to be there for you always. You write a book, you show it to communities in as many ways as you can, and they’ll go to your talks, they’ll buy what you produce.
Student F: When you say that, I wonder what I need a publisher for.
Mike: That’s a perfectly reasonable question! You can get a publisher if you can prove you don’t need one. Why have it published? What does a publisher bring to the table? They’re giving distribution that you won’t get, for example. One of the big challenges is getting books into stores and keeping them there. Publishers have more of a shot than an author will. Also design and editing. There are three kinds of editing: line, copy and developmental, and you need them all. Big houses will do this. And the physical designing of book covers are very important. Reviews. Publishers are more likely to get reviews for their books than authors.
Lisa: Anything we missed?
Mike: Even if you plan to self-publish your book, doing a proposal is extremely helpful. It forces you to answer the questions you have to in a proposal — about markets, about promotion, writing a sample chapter, and seeing if you like writing about the subject and how well you do it and outlining it to really get a sense of where you’re going. A proposal is like a business plan. You’re asking the publisher to invest in a book, and the publishers want a business plan that will show them why they want to do that. A business plan is important for a self-publishing author as well as for a publisher.
Lisa: You know I’m glad you mentioned that business plan because—hopefully people don’t have that idea in this class—but many times people have this idea of making a whole lot of money on book sales. You want to be thinking, “What is my business plan? How is this going to make money?”
You may invest your advance or royalties or book income in publicity and other ways to spread the word of your book. You’re going to be making money, not because of book sales, but because the book is out there bringing you business whether it’s coaching, consulting, speaking, information products online, merchandise.
There are so many ways to make money but generally the book is not going to be it. I want you to be thinking about your business plan, thinking numbers, and that will help you create this platform Mike is talking about.
Mike: No question about it. Someone asked that question about doing a promotion plan if you don’t have a lot of money and it’s not about money. There’s so much you can do sitting at your desk. You can do a virtual book tour and a blog tour, teleseminars or webinars, syndicated articles, and then making your website as sticky as possible. And a virtual book tour combines all the ways to be visible with video and with audio. And getting online reviews — it’s all helpful.
So do as much as possible in a systematic way. You have to balance your time online and off, you have to balance your time among creating, re-purposing content and communicating, making the connections to make your book successful. And you don’t want to overdo it: you don’t want to burn yourself out and you also want to have a life. That’s also important. So go about it in systematic way and get all the help you can.
Lisa: And speaking of help, any publishing blogs you recommend?
Lisa: Yes. And I love what you said about being systematic; it goes back to what you said about looking for models, looking for what people are doing already—that’s the sustainable model. And you do need to be strategic—you mentioned connection and community. That’s another big takeaway linked to your idea about a mastermind or continuing group. You can’t accomplish success as an author without community—so lots of really great takeaways. Any parting words?
Mike: People in every field use a combination of events, organization and the media. You should know as many authors in your field as possible. People will give you blurbs, or a foreword, people can connect you to speak. Learn from colleagues. See what they’re doing. A lot of them have websites.
Lisa: Mike, I’m so grateful, thank you for being with us tonight.
For our readers, please leave your questions and comments below.
Michael Larsen and his wife and partner Elizabeth Pomada worked in publishing in New York before moving to San Francisco in 1970 where they started Larsen Pomada Literary Agents two years later. They’ve sold hundreds of books to more than 100 publishers in print. Michael is the author of “How to Write a Book Proposal” which has sold more than a hundred thousand copies. He also wrote “How to Get a Literary Agent” now in its third edition, and he is co-author of the second edition of “Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 Weapons for Selling your Work.” Elizabeth and Michael are co-directors of The San Francisco Writers Conference.