Highlights of morning sessions kindly supplied by Lisa Robbins
Gregory Messina: Linwood Messina Literary Agency (France)
Matthew Smith: Publishing Director, Urbane Publications (UK)
Maisy Lawrence: Bookouture Digital Publishing
Katherine Sands: Literary Agent, Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency
Victoria Brownlee: author
Go Steady with Your Agent, with moderator Lisa Clifford.
How to choose the right agent, how they build your brand, shape your career, increase career longevity.
Lisa shared her own experience of getting published – a direct approach to publishers – as a potential solution to surmounting the difficulties of staying connected to an agent when non-resident of the country where you hope to market your book. She stressed the importance of finding a good agents or publisher: some may not keep you top of their priority lists.
What is the best author-agent relationship?
Matthew said if you want to be represented by the big five publishers you must have an agent. You will be more successful in finding that agent with a track record. The best agents should look out for the author’s best interest and calculate how to sell the most copies of the book.
Katherine defined the agent as the author’s ‘mother, mistress and bartender’. The most exciting aspect of her job is moving something that has never existed along the process to final publication. She noted the huge scope of the agent’s remit, from ‘first writes to last rites’ and emphasized the collaborative process. (Matthew seconded this)
Victoria added that having an agent gave her the freedom to focus on her writing, while the agent pursued a clear idea of where to market her book. She values the face-to-face aspect of relations with her agent.
Greg (Victoria’s agent) noted that authors can be quite vulnerable – he avoids pressuring his clients, sees his role as that of a ‘guiding light who supports the author. ‘Find the right match,’ he said.
Matthew said that some agents don’t read the author’s books, rather, consign them to a specific field in order to best market them. He felt there should be a strong trust between agent and author, for life.
The Collaborative Process and Creative Sway – how much should agents have?
Matthew: Publishers are often focused on trends that represent reader preferences. A recipe for success is when author and agent join forces in line with these trends.
Katherine spoke of the difference in marketing fiction vs non-fiction. Acquisitions and marketing are the main focus for marketing non-fiction – and this would dictate any discussion concerning how to structure or write the book. ‘You need to tread more carefully with fiction,’ she said. Best supporting the author means remembering that the content is the author’s own creative vision.
Maisy, who caters more to digital than print markets (following popular demand) bases any suggested changes on what the book should have in order to sell in a specific market at the scheduled time of release.
Panellists agreed that a top priority must be to get the publishing house editor excited early: editors often read only the first five pages of the manuscript before determining whether to proceed or put it in the slush pile.
Greg asks himself how far he should push his authors into directions they may not have intended. Authors should pay for editorial revision before marketing their work to potential agents, to increase their chances of being taken on.
Maisy seconded this. She is mentored as a poet and trusts her editor to provide valid advice. Katherine countered that writers don’t often have the funds to pay for professional editing. A good friend who reads in the genre can provide overall comments.
Victoria agreed that her readers improve her MS before she sends it to the agent.
Matthew cautioned that there are many who set themselves up as editors – it would be best to find a reader to provide (honest) commentary. ‘You can find book bloggers who read in your field to offer their thoughts.’ (gratis)
Maisy disagreed. When it comes to fiction, a book blogger should be paid if asked to make critical comments, she said.
What if an author asks you to consider his ideas?
Maisy and Greg love it when an author comes with this request. ‘It is my chance to help the author tell his best story,’ said Greg.
Matthew added that you could better help build a brand if the author bounces ideas around with you.
Katherine disagreed. ‘You need to see the idea’ in its written representation in order to really understand and help, she said.
Response time – how long to wait?
The general consensus was to wait three months (industry standard response time) after submission. Katherine suggested that the author might set a formal response date, after which time it would be assumed that the agent (or publisher) was not interested in taking the submission further.
Representing authors who are non-resident – how can agents best market in their country of origin?
Greg and Katherine said that where you are located geographically in these global times is irrelevant. The phone and Internet cover all needed communications.
Matthew looks for any pre-existing contacts that the author has. Where will the author be available in order to market the book? He noted that the cover letter is crucial and can place your submission on the top of the pile.
Maisy said authors often know how to place themselves in specific genres and already have connections.
What is the agent/publisher looking for in the first five pages?
‘I want to keep turning the pages. I look for the exciting incident that creates suspense,’ said Maisy.
Matthew makes his decision based on the cover letter as well as the first pages.
Katherine thinks of herself as a ‘douser/water diviner’. She looks at the setting, the character and the exciting incident as if they were a movie trailer. ‘Do I want to stay with this?’ she asks.
Industry News with Moderator Katja Meier.
Moderator and author Katja Meier shared the story of how she hurried to self-publish her topical memoir of setting up a refugee camp in Italy. It is now selling well.
She addressed being up to date with the latest news in the publishing industry plus news of publishing opportunities, latest book trends, and deals in her questions to the panel.
What has been changing in the industry over the last five years?
Audio books double their sales each year, said Greg.
Yes, audio and eBooks are hugely successful, agreed Maisy, who noted that unabridged is far more popular than abridged books, compared to the reverse phenomenon, a decade ago
While Audible made audio book sexy, these days, publishers are launching their own audio books, noted Matthew. He added that non-fiction is more successful than fiction.
The panellists attributed the success of audio and eBooks to the variety of platforms that make them accessible to more people.
Despite this digital trend, Matthew noted that 70% of Urbane Publishers’ market is still in print books.
The panellists advised marketing to smaller agents or publishers. Debut authors often get lost in the sheer volume of those who approach bigger houses. They spoke of how the author needs to work hard to make their own work sell. They agreed that an author should never pay to be published by a publishing house. There are innovative ways in which contemporary fiction and non- fiction is being published, they noted. This includes self-publishing and crowd funding. Greg and Katherine noted that the UK publishing industry pays authors far less that the US
Importance of social media
‘So much of today’s success depends on defining the author and creating a brand. You need to get out there, engage with the audience if you want to sell your book,’ advised Matthew.
Maisy added that social media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) create a sense of community, which Katherine said can become part of your platform.
‘What’s important’, Mathew said, ‘is the author’s wiliness to be engaged with their readers. If they already have a standing, this helps’ Of all the social media platforms, Instagram is growing fast while Twitter is used less frequently, he added.
Popular types of books in the contemporary market, according to the panel:
biography, especially if subject is a celebrity (Michelle Obama’s Becoming)
memoir from both male and female authors
auto fiction – autobiography, altered in innovate ways to garner readers
flit lit (Peter Mayle, Frances Mayes)
stunt memoir (e.g., story of corporate drop out who became a river boat captain)