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How Do I Get An Agent? - Fiction

This is the second most frequently asked question in my life, right after, "what is your diet?" and a childhood friend wrote me about it last week.

If a question is asked this often, it's probably a good idea to answer it someplace once and for all so that I don't have to answer it again.

"How do I get an agent?" is unanswerable. It is unanswerable in the short run because I don't know what you want an agent for. Fiction? Nonfiction? Historical fiction? Cozy mystery? Biography? How-to?

First lesson: Know your category. No one can begin to tackle this until s/he knows what you have to offer. Agents tend to have likes and dislikes. I couldn't, for instance, get into fantasy for love or money, although I like magical realism. Nor did I represent romances or science fiction.

I was merely deeply skeptical of everything else.

Let's say you've written a novel. The next question that needs to be asked applies to every kind of novel: is it finished?

Next: have you copy-edited it tightly? Have you compared its length to other books in the same genre?

It costs more to publish a long book than a short one. That's a simple matter of paper, ink, printing charges and the time given the book by its editorial and rights staff.* I advise any writer in these days of a severely slumped book market to keep it short.

Have you edited it to be as compact as possible? I'm not talking pulling the margins out so that a 500-page manuscript becomes 400 pages. Is its word count as low as possible while retaining story and style?

OK. I'm assuming you've now clarified what genre the book fits into and that you've cleaned the manuscript up. It's time, then, to write the query letter which is now, more often than not, sent be email.

You have four paragraphs, two of which are perfunctory -- the greeting, in which you state the genre of your manuscript, and the thanks at the end. The second paragraph is a description of the novel, which you will make as brief as possible. DO NOT TELL THE AGENT WHAT THE NOVEL MEANS. Stick to its plot -- "Cinderella is the beautiful stepdaughter condemned to a life a drudgery. When the prince of the kingdom decides to take a wife..."

The other piece of that paragraph is mention who the novel's cousins are. If it's historical, is it literary, like GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING? Is it popular, Rosalind Laker? Is it the first in a series, like Philippa Gregory's novels set around the Tudor courts?

You might think you're unique or that it's dangerous to mention the competition. You aren't unique and Chevalier, Gregory and Laker are not your competition. They are your betters, what you aspire to as a first-time author. I'm not insulting you. Not that long ago these authors were being asked to define the writers and books they were like.

And publishing is not the most creative business in the world. It doesn't like books that fall between slots because it's difficult to market them. I know this because my books have fallen between slots. Health? Memoir? Diet and weight loss? I find my books in all kinds of areas in bookstores.

Your second paragraph is biographical and it needs to stick to what is pertinent to the sale of the book. Do you have prior publications? Do you have a degree that will make you more of an expert in this genre? Do you work in a field associated with your degree and genre?

The agent doesn't need to know if you're married, have children, like to knit or play golf. All of that can come up over lunch, later.

There are scads of books out there on how to get a literary agent. I'm giving you my experience here but you'll need to invest in at least one of them for the directory of agents.

In choosing whom to submit your work to, your first resource is who your cousins' agents are. You'll most likely find this information in the author's acknowledgments. You probably won't recognize all the names there and the author may not make it clear who her/his agent is, so use your directory to figure it out.

The directory will also tell you what the agent's interests are, what books s/he represents and, often, whether the agent is open to new clients and what kind of proposal s/he wants to receive.

The directory that I felt gave me the best space to represent something of who I am is Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents: Who They Are! What They Want! How to Win Them Over! I recommend it for that reason. If you're reading this, you can hopefully skip buying the books about "pitching" your book.

It's not that complicated. And back in the day, no one in publishing actually used the word "pitch".

Next up: Nonfiction.

*"Rights" refers to the various subsidiary sales in a book's life: first serial (excerpt in magazine in the same month of the book's publication), second serial, audio, book clubs, film and television, foreign rights) Read More 
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In Defence of Kindle and the Reader

I was chatting with my agent last week who was bemoaning the State of Publishing. Mind you, in the thirty-one years I've been in or around the business, we have been bemoaning the State of Publishing. In bad times, there were stock market crashes. In good times, there were buy-outs and mergers. Bantam Doubleday Dell, for instance, were once three separate publishers that merged together and then, eventually, were merged into Random House. The rules changed about imprints within the company competing in auctions or who we could submit work to.

Still, the State of Publishing is pretty bad right now. One event coordinator in the Northwest told me that their store had hosted a couple of readings by local authors and no one showed up. (Was I ever grateful I had a decent audience.) When houses are being repossessed and people are loathe to buy a new refrigerator, it's hard to slap down twenty-five bucks on a new hardcover.

"And then there's this whole digital book mess," she said.

"I think it will be the saving of us," I responded.

She was shocked. "How can you say that? The book prices are so low!"

"What's the royalty on a Kindle sale?"

"Twenty-five percent," she said.

"OK, so ten percent of a twenty-five-dollar hardcover is two dollars and fifty cents. Twenty-five percent of a ten-dollar Kindle book is...two dollars and fifty cents. AND it's a one-off."

"What do you mean?

"You can't resell a digital book. You can't loan it. You can't donate it. The price makes purchasing easier to swallow and if you have a whim in the middle of the night or during a blizzard, you can still get your book immediately."

"Ah," she conceded. "I hadn't thought of it that way. Should you write about this"


I can't believe that my reasoning hasn't been written about in the trade magazines or the press, so I'm sticking it up here.

Is the reader hurt by the digital book? Of course. The device itself isn't cheap. You can't use it for academic purposes because at least the Kindle doesn't have page numbers. There are other drawbacks as well, but the main one is that you might not be able to get The Girl Who Played with Hornet Tattoos at a garage sale for a dollar or at a used bookstore for five dollars. You can still buy it used at Amazon or other resale sites -- for about fifteen dollars.

Which is five dollars more than you'd pay on your Kindle or Sony Reader.

And which cheats the publisher and author out of their ninety and ten percent of the cover price respectively.

But there is always the library. And remember: the more you take out books from the library, the more support libraries will get in this State of the Economy, and the more you'll contribute to that book's inevitable wear and tear...so that it has to be replaced.

At ninety and ten percent of the cover price for publishers and author respectively.  Read More 
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What Book Did You Read???

Among the eighty-two thousands things an author now needs from the web in order to publicize her book is a simple gadget called the Google alert. This alert can be used for any word or phrase one wants. I still get updates on "obesity research" which I relied on while writing ANGRY FAT GIRLS and I get daily updates on "Frances Kuffel".

This alerts have grown more necessary each year because so much is being written exclusively on the web. Despite getting a lot of updates on how my books are selling on eBay, I'm also clued in to what people are saying about my writing in blogs.

Sometimes it's not pretty.

Sometimes I have to respond, as creepy as that makes me feel.

One such blog drifted on to my radar this week. I think the real problem the writer had with the book was actually with me. It's Okay to not like me. I don't like a lot of memoirists and the ones I do, I'm scared of. However, if I was going to blog about a memoir I didn't like, I would at least check my facts.

Bloggetta scoffed at how small incidents like being yelled at when my dog jumped and barked at a man who startled her can start me on a binge. I can certainly see that most people would not gain weight over such a moment but a slightly closer reading of the book would have reminded her that I suffer from depression combined with social anxiety and that one of the things that really finished off my weight gain was realizing I had been willfully ignorant about the options I had in dealing with my abusive boss.

Obviously, someone who couldn't tell her boss not to twist her nose is going to be sort of a weenie. Part of the book is about my struggle not to be such a weenie.

Nor could Bloggetta understand why being fired, with a severance package, from a bad workplace could jeopardize my thinnosity.

What are the three things considered most stressful in life? Death, moving and job change. Job loss IS job change, and I had truly identified myself as a literary agent so much that it was difficult to find another meaning in my life -- despite the fact that I was ten months away from publishing Passing for Thin. I hadn't made the transition to being a writer.

I'm venting here because Bloggetta posts on a site that allows less response than a fortune cookie. Still, I think a slightly more sensitive reading would have revealed to her that this fat lady, for one, has to factor depression into any equation. She would also have remembered that I lived in self-blame for not having defended myself in that job, or with the guy who verbally abused me over Daisy's misbehavior.

And Daisy was OF COURSE on leash, Bloggetta -- a point you really got wrong.

I often respond to thank blog writers for taking the time to read my work. If the review is simply nasty (go look at Amazon comments on PFT if you want to know what it's like to be publicly disliked for perceived venalities), I let it go. But when it's wrong, either in fact (Daisy off leash on a busy Brooklyn Street? I don't think so) or in spirit (hadn't I described how hard it is for me to identify what emotion my reaction is and how to properly express it?), I have to respond.

Because along with Google alerts, the Web is becoming the end-all of publicity. A couple of years ago, Blogalina might have read a review in the Post and decided to read the book but now it's more likely she'll read Bloggetta's take and decide to give the book a skip.

For someone who has a hard time standing up for herself, I sure have to do a lot of it lately. Read More 
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The Littlest Loser

Gad, have I been remiss with this blog or what?

The time to strike is while you're "hot" (I wish!), so I and my Oscar-winning ankle have been home working on two new books proposals, one for a group of essays, and the other another memoir that I'm not yet confident about discussing. I had an essay to write and the bulk of it took about two weeks, then I pressed home by finishing it and the other proposal in about three days.

I sent it all off to my agent on Monday night and have been lurching around in a coma/post-partum thing since. I'm determined to be more productive today while I wait to hear back. Waiting is hard at any time. When you're in a cast & you're hit with a sleet-snow storm that produces many inches of icy snow, waiting is f-o-r-e-v-e-r.

Many thanks to the comments from my last post. The yo-yo is tiring, isn't it? The worry about what to eat, whether you can pull yourself together the next day if you eat THAT -- I'm amazed at how we live.

I've kind of gotten the drift of how to use Twitter as a marketing device. I find an interesting person or product, follow it, then look at who is following that Twit. When they follow back or someone initiates a follow, I have a canned response pointing them to my book.

Ninety-nine percent of the people who follow me are weight-loss/fitness experts. My response is always, if you want to know more about why people have such a hard time with this, read my book. (The other one percent are women associated with chubby porn sites. I learned only this morning that there is such a thing as a double-L bra cup...)

I only have some hundred characters to make my point. If I had more, I'd say, "Look, Mr. Abs, you work with flabby, desperate people who have a history of trying, succeeding, failing. Why don't you think about the underlying causes of eating?"

A terrific radio interviewer recently asked me what I think of THE BIGGEST LOSER, and in particular an incident in which a coach berated a contestant during a work out.

I tried to contain my fury on the radio. We don't get fat because, gee, life is swell. We get fat for a lot of reasons, but one of the very big ones is, as a commenter said about the last post, we're stuffing down anger. What is anger but a reaction to being hurt? And being hurt is a reaction to being denied love and/or respect.

So when a coach viciously attacks an obese contestant, I freak out. The coach is pushing exactly the button that says, "Eat!" but expecting that the pressure of the show will keep him or her from doing so.

Making weight loss a competition is a crime. I could no more watch THE BIGGEST LOSER than I could a dog fight.

I remember that some years ago there was a recovery clinic for anorectics that claimed phenomenal success rates because they smothered the girls in love. This was long before I began the process that became Passing for Thin but I thought, "THAT is what we need. We fatties need to be held, reassured, coddled, LOVED. We need to be touched. We need to learn that we have all the reasons in the world to fight for our lives."

So I get furious at THE BIGGEST LOSER & the comments about laziness. If I ran a clinic for obesity, I'd have massage therapy every day. I wouldn't let patients see the scale. I'd make my staff hurrah for every clean meal eaten, every effort made to build self-respect & self-confidence. You made your bed? Gold star! Washed your hair? Aces for you! Put on EARRINGS? Go to the head of the class!

Anyone who forgoes any substance that represses scary feelings is THE BEST LOSER.

Fuck the biggest. Rejoice in the small gains & losses. Read More 
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Shit Happens

The third flat-out, crawl-to-a-fence-to-hoist-myself-off-the-pavement fall occurred on January 16. This time I heard a snap. My left ankle immediately doubled in size. I could move my foot so I assumed I'd sprained it but by the time I got Daisy home I knew I was in trouble.

I have a World Class Sprain. It sounds so so-what but my podiatrist explained why a very bad sprain is worse than a fracture or some breaks: sprains involve ligaments, either tearing them or stretching them. Whereas bones have a great blood supply, ligaments do not. Therefore they are much slower to heal. I'll be in a cast for another three weeks but I get to take it off for therapeutic minutes and I can start to walk again.

I told my publicist that if Oprah calls, of course I can go. I just won't get to wear [both of] my beautiful new shoes.

Luckily, I've only had a couple of radio gigs in the last ten days. I did them in bed with my Frankenstein foot elevated. Unluckily, I've only had a couple of radio gigs.

I wasn't with it enough last week to do more than piddle around with Twitter. Today I read some blog posts that mention me and AFG, one based on the book, one on the Marie Claire abortion. I answered each, clarifying a little on the issues the writers were concerned with.

It's interesting to see what triggers people. One blogger (http://fashionablyfit.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/weighing-in/) wrote, "I would never follow a diet that cut out all of the foods that made me fat — the pizza, the jalapeno poppers, the french fries, the ice cream – because I know it would be destined to fail."

People are enormously afraid of what they might have to give up. This involves not only specific foods, but the fear of parties, holidays, rituals that revolve around food. But I speak mostly for myself or in the collective when I've made it clear that the collective is of a certain kind of make-up.

Merry Perennial (http://merryperennial.blogspot.com/2010/01/perseverating-no-i-dont-mean.html) writes that, "I fear the reason is something mentioned in Frances Kuffel's book: we eat because that is all we have."

I LOVE the Holly Cole song, "I Am the Onion Girl". We have layers and layers of family, friends, work, hobbies, interests, chores and occasions. But -- again, for some of us -- when all those layers come off because we find them flawed or unusable, the core can be eating.

When I published PASSING FOR THIN seven years ago, I wasn't sure what a blog was. It wasn't a book mention I depended on.

Publishing had changed. Every blog helps; every misreading or laud helps. But I have to be active about participating...which is, luckily, a hell of a lot easier than opening up the Word document for the essay I'm writing... Read More 
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Forward March

I went to Fort Lauderdale on Thursday to tape an interview for BALANCING ACT, a morning talk show on the Lifetime network. I was out of the Bat Cave at 7.30 a.m. and got home around midnight but it was fun to be in a...h'mm, how to put it: national studio? It's not that doing Phoenix TV was unprofessional, but BALANCING ACT had the accoutrements of the networks: a dress code (jewel tones or pastels: I went with coral and a print skirt), a hair and make-up person, PASTRIES IN THE GREEN ROOM, two takes for the final version.

And a town car at my door and at the foot of the airport escalators -- such luxury.

Daisy stayed with her Uncle Gerry and it was wonderful to sleep in a little on Friday, then get up and do some of the chores that haven't been done in a while. One of my tasks was to speak with my agent. I think I'd rather scrub the kitchen floor than go through that conversation again.

I love my agent. When she was editor-in-chief of Little, Brown and I was a peon assistant in a literary agency, she was always kind and encouraging. She's stuck by me and she's a fabulous cheerleader. But we're at a new turning in my career.

No more fat books, or thin books. I want to write a collection of essays about the rest of my life, the sillier, more lighthearted life that's not all bound up in Issues. My editor agrees and my agent spoke to her while I was eating rugalach, hoping for the beginning of a negotiation, but my editor wants a sample essay and table of contents. I came home to an email that made me feel as though I'd failed in some way.

All of this, while it sounds like complaining, is actually PART of publishing a new book. The iron is hot and we strike for a new contract. Essays will keep my audience better than whatever other nonfiction I could make a hash of suggesting. And I see no reason to feel disappointed in Berkley's wish to see a table of contents (which is done and which I'd sent my agent back in December) and a sample essay.


Sometimes having been an agent is tricky that way.

We disagree on the subject of the essay, which will be comic, and, probably, on the theme of the collection. My agent tends to push for perky and sexy; my nature is more phlegmatic and sly. She's Piglet (or possibly Tigger) and I am Eeyore.

But we belong in the same book and I'm writing the essay I want to do because I'm trying to listen to my instincts this year and because I have a passion for that particular topic.

So now I'm being bother Author and Writer and trying to stay away from Adversary even while I do what I bloody well want to do. Read More 
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I'm flying to Florida for a minute on Thursday to tape an interview with BALANCING ACT on the Lifetime Network, then borrowing a friend's living room to tape an interview with LX New York on Friday morning. This means that each day this week I have to do some spiff-thing. Hair yesterday. Face today. Manicure tomorrow. I hate having my nails done. They are more responsibility than I am capable of.

I seem to gotten back into my life however, which feels good. Finally put my suitcase away, as well as rain boots, which I won't need until March. Small things but proactive because they're one-offs. I don't have to do them again.

What doesn't feel good is the profile that came out in Marie Claire yesterday.  Read More 
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Promoting a book at my level of (ha ha ha) fame is a matter of an adrenaline rush followed by lots of down time -- a lot like my father's description of anesthesiology ("long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of panic"). Today is a down day. That means it's internet housekeeping day.  Read More 
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Like everyone else, I wear many hats. The Author Hat, however, is a rarer one, that lasts for about six months after publication. I put on that hat back in December when I was interviewed for a feature in MARIE CLAIRE and went on to do some television and radio interviews in Phoenix and elsewhere.

How is the Author Hat different from my other roles?

I'm a dog-walker in between advances. My vocabulary is studded with words like, "Out!" and "Wooza-wooza-wooza." My wardrobe is even more limited. I let my hair go, struggle to shower, my fingernails are a wreck and my nose looks like Bozo's.

As a writer, I'm quiet. My words are dedicated to getting them on my computer and get used up by the end of a day's work. I let my hair go, struggle to shower, my fingernails are a wreck and my house, which I call the Bat Cave, is even worse.  Read More 
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