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Articles    H4'ed 5/4/11

Literary Agent Shares Trade Secrets With New Writers

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And then I knew the angle of vision through which we would tell the story of publishing--that of the editor.  Hence the title: " Thinking like Your Editor."

Within a couple of minutes, I was ready to write.  I titled the chapter It's the Audience, Stupid and was able to write the first draft of that chapter in about two hours.  I showed it to my husband, who, for the first time (after having suffered with me through my many false starts), said simply, "Now, you're really saying something fresh and new."

Now, let me address your other question.  Did my knowing the industry help?  Absolutely.  But most authors know their subject matter. The trick in successful writing is figuring out which aspects of your broad knowledge of a subject (in my case an industry) will be of interest to your intended audience.  I have said to authors many times, "Your readership does not want the entire course."

Finally, editors have a great deal of sympathy and respect for authors because they understand that writing is much more difficult than editing.  But, there is also a degree of frustration that is rarely talked about between author and editor.  What I am about to say may seem a bit controversial. But it needs to be said.  There is a huge disconnect between what writing programs, including university programs, teach students about writing and what editors define as good writing.

The majority of writers who want to be published seem to have been taught little about how to write character-driven narrative, even though this is where the industry is firmly positioning itself. As a result, editors can't find enough books to acquire while, at the same time, most authors can't find a good agent to take them on, let alone a publisher to publish them.

We spend a great deal of time at the agency trying to teach authors how to transit to this new way of writing because that seems to be, for the present, the key to getting published. But, there needs to be a much more frank discussion between educators and editors about writing.

To do a book proposal properly is neither quick nor easy; it demands a great deal of introspection and careful analysis. You say that anyone unwilling to be flexible or listen carefully to what editors are looking for might want to think twice about going this route. On the other hand, have you seen dramatic Before and After book proposals?

Mais oui!   Every day. And the results can be the difference between no offer of publication and lots of offers or between a small contract with a weak house and a weak editor and a major contract for major money with a major publisher. We've had authors come in with fully developed proposals, only to sit down with us and discover that they have a much better book in them. Others have come in with one vision for a book and, through their answers to a series of questions, realize the advantages of tackling the same topic but from a very different angle. Finally, we've had authors determined to focus on one aspect of a topic when, in fact, what the public wants is an examination of another aspect of that same topic.

Pick your agent carefully.    

Very helpful, Susan. What's your take on self-publishing using Amazon/Kindle or any of the other self-publishing tools? Is self-publishing an effective alternative? Are you worried that it might put conventional publishing houses out of business?

Self-publishing is a very effective alternative.  Indeed, so effective that both agents and editors are trolling the self-published lists on Amazon looking for projects that deserve commercial publication.  The benefit of self-publishing is that you skip the publishing gatekeepers--people like me and the editors--and go right to the reading public.
I think the trick in effective self-publishing is to keep your costs very low, so you can charge very little for your book.  Ideally, publish it solely as an e-book and price it at $1.99 to $3.99.   You want to make your profits through volume, not a high mark up. 

And when your book sells more than 20,000 copies, e-mail me  at  susan (at) and maybe I'll take you on. 

Fair enough! Anything you'd like to add, Susan, before we wrap this up?

If you want to be a writer, start by being a reader.  It's wonderful to read the classics but writers need to read what is being published today.  It's easy to criticize what is being published today but the would-be writer should be asking herself: "What did agents and editors see in this book that I am missing?"

Thanks so much for sharing an insider's take on  contemporary publishing. Wouldn't it be great if your book (and this interview) produced a slew of effective book proposals from fresh new writers?

Now, that would be wonderful.  We'd love to hear from your readers.

That is a great offer. The gauntlet has been thrown down, readers; now, let's see what you can do!


Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction - and Get It Published    

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure (more...)
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