Some Comfort, Maybe

On March 2, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, “The problem with querying is… that supply exceeds demand. There are more good writers out there than there are reader eyeballs.” I came across this statement by an agent recently and wondered what you thought about it.

I asked my husband, and he mentioned a study of song popularity. There is a threshold of skill, he said, but once this is surpassed, which song “makes it” and which doesn’t is completely random.

This was not comforting.

Sadly, I think this is probably mostly true. And true of all the arts. Humans are drawn to art, and many of us are good at it and love to make it. There aren’t enough readers, theaters, concert halls, museums, art galleries to provide all of us with an audience, let alone a living.

Once the skill threshold has been reached, luck becomes important. Agents’ slush piles teeter to their ceilings. The interns and junior staff who read them–I’m guessing–find no easier to say than yes.

Many of you know that it took me nine years to get a manuscript accepted. I may also have written before that at one point in my long trek it occurred to me that if I had set out to become I brain surgeon, I would already have been one (aside from the fact that I’m too squeamish even to remove a splinter). This thought jumped to the fore when I met a doctor who had given up his practice to try to write for children. Yikes! I thought. I hope he knows what he’s getting into. Yikes! I hope he has savings!

During my pre-published time, an editor visited one of my writing classes. He said that the way to get published was either to write something great or to write about something that few were expert in. The only subject I was expert in was welfare programs for people who were healthy enough to work, and that topic didn’t seem promising for a children’s book. As for great, I felt defeated right off.

Hence the nine years.

Now, let me try for some comfort.

When I talk to kids about the nine years, I ask them for the moral of my story. Hands pop up, and the answer I get is, “Never give up,” which was true for me. If you give up, you don’t get published. You also may stop writing, and for some of us, that’s like cutting off a limb.

Okay, maybe not comforting. I’ll try again.

There’s another moral. During those nine years, I took adult ed writing classes and read the Newbery-and-Newbery-honor-winning books of the prior twenty or more years. Both helped me become a better writer and one who could write for the readers I wanted. In my classes, I met other wannabe writers. We supported each other. I joined and formed critique groups and made friends. Turns out, this was one of the happiest times of my life, even though achieving my goal still seemed more a dream than a likelihood. So the second moral is: While you’re never giving up, find a way to have a wonderful time. Which will help you stick with it.

Also, a critique group and classes gave me a (tiny) audience, and one of my most important reasons for writing was to be read. 0thers were self-expression and to learn a skill.

So these are comforts, I hope, for continuing to write, regardless of the eventual outcome, which, unless we have a crystal ball, is unknown. And I still find them valid. I’m published now, but I don’t know if a particular book will catch on with readers. My audience for any one book may be small, but I’ve still added to my skill set by writing it. I still have writing pals who sustain me. This, as I’ve said here before, is especially true of writing poems.

But there are things that we can do to increase the odds of luck smiling on us. Some of these, alas, don’t apply until you turn eighteen.

Go to conferences, if you can afford to. At many writing conferences, the editors and agents who are speakers and panelists will preferentially treat participant submissions, which means your work won’t be placed at the bottom of the slush pile.

If the conference includes a critique option from an editor or an agent, sign up for it, even if there’s an extra fee. Frankly, these industry readers (I’ve been one) will see a lot of work that falls sadly below any reasonable threshold. Writing that rises above will be a relief. The editor or agent will be so happy not to have only bad news to deliver to the writer. You may begin a relationship that, if not immediately, may result in an eventual acceptance.

When you’re there, move outside your comfort zone. Introduce yourself to editors and agents. Talk about your work. Do not mention your uncertainty about its worth.

Also, for the comfort of community, speak with other participants. Make friends, if any of them appeal to you. Share experiences. Get tips.

If you’re old enough and you’re writing for children or young adults (which these days extends into college age and a little beyond), join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (, a great organization for people just starting out–in terms of its focus on getting published as well as on craft. Get involved in your local chapter, where there may be meetings and may be a regional conference that’s much cheaper than the national one.

Send your work out! You can’t get published if no one is looking at your stories. I once heard of a critique group where the person who got the most rejections in a year got an award–because the one with the most rejections is the one most likely, after a while, to get the most acceptances. I recently went through my files. My folder of personal rejections is about three inches thick! I didn’t keep the form letters, or we wouldn’t be able to get into the basement.

Don’t get in your own way!

For example, a woman in my favorite writing class was working on a book I adored. I don’t know if she’s finished it, twenty years later. I know it isn’t published, and I also know she’s shown it, or parts of it, to this friend or that. She keeps fooling around and not getting to the point, and the world is deprived of a great story.

If you do send something out and get criticism from an agent, take the criticism seriously. Try out what’s being offered to you, and do it relatively quickly. After you’ve revised, ask this person if she’s willing to see it again.

Before you send work out, proofread it obsessively. It should be free of typos, spelling errors, and grammar mistakes. If it isn’t, you won’t get much of a reading. If you’re not good at this skill, ask someone who is for help–not with critiquing the story, in this case, just checking for these sort of mistakes. Same for query letters. With something as short as a letter, read it backwards, which will help you notice the itty-bitty things.

End of lecture.

But here’s a little more comfort: According to my favorite podcast, Planet Money, fiction writers are unlikely to be replaced by robots. Chances are better than ninety percent in our favor.

And new people break in all the time, and debut books come out constantly. Yours can be one of them.

So–since I have no prompts to offer this time–have fun, and save what you write!

The book biz part two

Before I start, here’s a link to an interesting New York Times article about reader reviews on Amazon:

I didn’t finish writing about publishing last week, so here we go back into it.

You may remember that I mentioned the Rutgers conference and said it’s the best one I know of, but I didn’t say why. First off, here’s the link again: The conference is for writers for children and young adults, and it’s another one that you have to be at least eighteen to go – but if you’re not there yet, you’ll reach that mark sooner than you think. You also have to submit a writing sample to get admitted to the conference. You’ll find information on the website.

The conference is the best because everyone is paired with a mentor, who is either an editor, an agent, or a published author. The overwhelming majority of mentors are editors or agents. I’m one of the few author mentors. They let me in because I’ve been going for so long, first as a mentee – and I met my agent at the conference. We’re not paid for mentoring. The editors and agents volunteer because they’re hoping to find new writers.

There’s a panel on some publishing or writing topic and a speaker, but the most worthwhile parts are the one-on-one and the five-on-five sessions. Before the one-on-one, the mentors read the selection submitted by the writer with whom they’re paired. Then the two meet for forty-five minutes and discuss the work and answer any question the writer may have.

In the five-on-five, five mentors and five mentees get together to talk about publishing and craft, with one of the mentors as a moderator to keep things moving. Again, the mentees can ask whatever they like.

And there’s lunch, when the editors and agents mingle, and you may be able to ask an agent or an editor if you can send her something.

In my starting-out days, before I had an agent, when publishers still looked at unagented submissions, I often waited many months for a response. Even if I’d met the editor at a conference, I waited. Sometimes my work was lost. It was maddening. Once or twice a rejection letter for someone else’s story arrived in my mailbox!

In their defense, editors are very busy, and they squeeze in reading manuscript from newbies in odd moments. So, as is true of everything else in writing and publishing, you need patience.

Most of the editors and agents who go to conferences are near the beginning of their careers. If one of them falls in love with your manuscript, she will be almost as happy as you. Editors advance through acquisitions. If your book does well, it’s a feather in her cap. If it does super well, she may get promoted, say from assistant editor to editor.

Your editor does a lot more than edit. She (most are women) will negotiate your contract with your agent, your literary lawyer (see the last post), or you. She represents the publisher with you and your agent.

She represents you inside the publishing house. One of her jobs is to get the sales force, the people who sell books to bookstores, excited about your book. As an example, my editor dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood when she presented my picture book, Betsy Red Hoodie, to the sales people.

She’ll consult with the art director about your cover. If your book is illustrated, she’ll have a say in picking the illustrator. More than anyone except your friends and family and possibly your agent, she’ll be your book’s biggest booster.

And an agent does more than find you a publisher. She (again, most are women) will negotiate your contract, which means she’s an expert on contract clauses, language, and the fast-changing publishing world. She knows each publishing house and what its policies are. There are differences, but I’m not privy to those secrets. I think the similarities are greater than the differences.

Your agent may also represent your film rights and may sell your book in foreign markets. Or may not.

Your agent will certainly represent you to the publisher. If your relationship with your editor gets gummed up, she’ll help you straighten things out.

Your royalties go to her. She takes her cut, usually fifteen percent, and then passes the rest on to you. But before she pays you, she checks over your royalty statement to make sure it looks correct. For example, you’ll get a different royalty rate for hardcover books and for paperbacks, different again for e-books. She’ll check to make sure that the correct rates are applied. Mistakes have been made!

Onto the contract.

I discussed some of this in my post almost exactly two years ago, on December 29th, 2010, so you may want to go back and take a look.

When you sell your book to a publisher, you’re selling specific rights. For example, you might grant it the right to publish in English all over the world or in English only in North America.

In exchange, you receive an advance against future book sales (royalties). You have to make some promises, like that you’ll deliver the manuscript by a certain date – which you can negotiate. If this is your first book, you’ve probably already delivered.

The contract will say that the publisher can’t change your words unless you agree, but it can follow its own standards of punctuation, spelling, and so on. In other words, it’s your book. I hardly ever make a fuss over a comma.

The contract commits the publisher to releasing your book within a certain time. And it spells out your royalty rates and says when you will be paid (usually twice a year).

Subsidiary rights are included in the deal, which means that you’ll let the publisher handle things like book club or audio book rights. (Or your agent may handle the sale of audio book rights.) The contract will specify what percentage you’ll get and they’ll get if there are such sales.

You have to warrant (assure the publisher) that your book is original – that you wrote it.

There’s more, but that’s the heart of it. There are other parts that you need to keep in mind, but your agent or literary lawyer will go over everything with you. Ask questions. You should understand it all. My latest contract is thirteen pages long, written in legalese. Many of my books have been published in other countries and most of those contracts are blessedly short, not much more than: I promise I wrote the book, the publisher promises to publish it, and if it doesn’t, I keep the money. Nice.

Here’s a prompt:

I forgot to say anything about query letters because they weren’t very important when I was trying to get published. But nowadays, you need ‘em. Usually the query letter will go with your sample chapters and probably a synopsis of your story. The purpose of the query is to create interest in your book, much like the copy on the back of a book creates interest. You paint your story in the best possible light in a few paragraphs and say a little bit about why you wrote it. The letter should be less than a page. Here’s a link on the subject: If you google query letters you’ll find more. A query letter is a little like bragging, which may be hard for some of you but in this prompt I want you to give it a shot. Write a query letter for one of your stories. Could be your latest NaNoWriMo creation. Even if you’re unhappy at the moment with everything you’ve ever written, pick one and find great things to say about it.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The book biz

I’ve contributed a couple of books (Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It and Writing Magic) to a silent auction in relief of victims of the shootings in Connecticut. There are many wonderful items in the auction, which you can view here:, and some of which have bearing on today’s post. There are manuscript critiques on offer, which may be great and seem to be at bargain-basement prices and the cause is certainly worthwhile. My only caution is that I don’t know the people making the offer, so before you bid, do a little research.

Back from poetry land: On September 4, 2012, Lark wrote that she was wondering “how to get published” or “the publishing process.” I know that’s a tall order, and might be a lengthy post- I wrote my 9th grade research paper on book publishing and got a C because it was WAYYY too long, was more of an instructional manual (!), and most likely mediocre at that because I’ve never been published- but as a FAMOUS 😉 published writer I, at least, would love to hear your thoughts on that. I’m sure that getting published is a main goal of at least a few of the readers here. 🙂

Well, this is fortuitous! I was going to post this link anyway, and it fits right in. A few days ago, on the Guestbook of my website, robin s. asked  if there are any novel-length contests for teens. I didn’t know, so I googled and found this opportunity from Scholastic: Scholastic is about as reputable as you can get, so I would absolutely trust it. If you have something ready or almost ready, I would encourage you to put on the finishing touches, follow the instructions, and submit. The deadline approaches.

If you can’t get ready in time, you can make next year your deadline and have it to work toward.

If you do submit, be sure to follow the instructions, which require a certain number of chapters with a minimum and maximum page length and an outline of a specified length. My guess is that if you don’t follow the rules your submission won’t be read.

When I googled “novel writing contests for teens” the Scholastic one was the only one that popped up that I recognized. There was one from Delacorte, but it seems to have been discontinued. If any of you know of any others that you can vouch for, please post the information. There may be online contests that are good. I’m just not informed enough to judge.

In fact, I’m not knowledgeable enough about online publishing to discuss it at all. Or self-publishing, which I understand is more and more an acceptable way to go. This post is about traditional publishing-house publishing that results in a print book and, probably, an e-book. My perspective is from the children’s book corner, which includes young adult (YA) books, which have recently been inching older and older into upper teens and even early twenties. And I think that most of what I’m about to say applies to adult publishing too.

This post can’t be nearly long enough to cover a subject that many books have been devoted to. The one I know is Harold Underdown’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books. Mr. Underdown also has a super-informative website at

Also, in October I gave you the name of an agent who is willing to read submissions from teens. Here’s the information again: She’s Brianne Johnson, an agent at the respected Writers House. She said to email her a cover letter describing the book and to send the first 25 pages in a Microsoft Word document, as an attachment. Brianne prefers to receive submissions via e-mail, at In your e-mail, say you got her name from my blog. Your writing sample should be double-spaced in 12-point type and the typeface should be easy to read. Your name, address, phone number, and email address should appear on the left above the title. Your last name and the title of the book should be in the upper left-hand corner of every page that follows, like this: Levine/Ella Enchanted. This is in case a page gets separated from the rest.

I’m not sure if the Scholastic contest rules specify double-spaced, but assume that is the requirement, because it’s standard. The double-spacing gives an editor room to write in edits and comments. If an editor takes the time to do that, it’s a very good sign.

And, just saying, whether you submit to Brianne or the contest or both, make your manuscript as free of typos and punctuation and grammatical errors as is humanly possible, because those will rule you out in a heartbeat.

If you do submit to Brianne and the contest too, let her know in your cover email that you’ve entered the contest. Not necessary to inform the contest that you’ve submitted the manuscript to an agent. The contest editors won’t care.

In the regular publishing process, aside from contests and special arrangements with agents, you don’t need to say anything about your age, whether you’re fourteen or ninety-four. If an editor or an agent falls in love with your book you can confess then, and the likely response will be delight that you’re so young or so ancient. Either way, there’s a story there for the marketing folks.

Conferences are the best way I know of to meet editors and agents. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ( offers regional conferences throughout the year (and throughout the world, pretty much) and two national conferences annually. Alas, you have to be at least eighteen to join the organization and attend. The Rutgers One-on-One Conference ( is the absolute best conference You have to be at least eighteen for that one too – sorry! You may find other conferences online. There are certainly conferences for other genres, like mystery, romance, fantasy. Look for participation by agents and editors.

If you meet an editor at a conference or in any other circumstance, like through a college class, and the editor says you can send her something, then you can. Otherwise, the major publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts – manuscripts that just arrive in the mail. Some smaller presses may – I don’t know. Most editors find new authors through agents.

AAR, the Association of Authors Representatives, lists agents on its website, which is It may take a long time to load, so be patient.. I suggest you check out individual agents’ websites or, if the agent works at an agency, the agency’s website. When you do, look at the authors who are represented by that agent. Look up the books published by those authors. You can even go further and read one of the books to see if you like it, to see if you respect the agent’s taste. The website and the AAR site say what kind of work the agents is interested in seeing and how to submit. Follow the guidelines slavishly!

If an agent is interested in your work, he (or she) may ask for revisions before he’s willing to represent you. He should never ever charge for any editing he does. If his suggestions make sense to you, if you think they’ll get you to a better book, revise according to his guidance. Even after he begins to represent you, he may edit your manuscript just as an editor would, meaning that you don’t have to do whatever he wants. The edits have to seem right to you.

Most agents edit but not all. Mine doesn’t.

One advantage of an agent is his knowledge of the industry. An agent has relationships with lots of editors; he sees them at conferences; they meet for lunch. He knows who’s looking for what, who like what. My agent sent Ella Enchanted to a particular editor because she knew Alix was “hungry,” eager for new material. Often these hungry editors are just starting out and don’t already have a slate of authors they work with. For example, Ella Enchanted was Alix’s very first acquisition.

If you do meet an editor somehow and the editor wants your book, you may still decide to be represented by an agent, and you’ll have an easier time finding one if you already have an offer of a contract.

The agent will negotiate your contract, and here industry knowledge is essential. The agent will know what a reasonable advance is, what reasonable royalty rates are, will probably have a standard contract with the various publishers, so you’ll get the benefit of that.

When you reach this point: an agent wants to represent you, I think you should meet the agent if you live or work near each other. If not, I think a phone call would be a good idea. You want to be sure that you’ll work well together, that he sees your work in the same way you do, that you’re a good fit. My first (brief) agent didn’t like fantasy. You can guess how that worked out.

If you don’t want an agent, however – the agent will take fifteen percent of your advance and royalties forever – you can have a literary lawyer negotiate your contract or help you negotiate it. You’ll have to pay the lawyer, but all your earnings after that will go straight to you. However, do not involve any other kind of attorney in the negotiation. Any lawyer who doesn’t know the territory will find the contract terms unacceptable, and a deal will be impossible.

This post is going on too long. I’ll continue next week with a partial post or a whole one. Your prompt is to ask me questions. If there was anything you didn’t understand or if there’s an area you’d like me to go into in greater depth, please ask. If you have industry experience, please add your expertise.

Have fun!