For the Slushpile Live we were separated into two groups, one chaired by Harry Bingham and the other by Emma Darwin. I was part of Emma’s group and was selected to stand and deliver my Covering Letter, to which I received some surprising reactions – so surprising I feel I should share them with you.
A preliminary word about the letter: it had already been through at least two assessment processes. So, although the final version was my responsibility, I felt confident it must be basically sound. At the end of this post you can judge for yourselves, but before that you might be interested in the issues it raises.
Firstly: social media. Do you remember two years ago we were advised to tweet, blog and inhabit facebook? Maybe you couldn’t be bothered. If so, well done. On the other hand maybe, like me, you wanted to do the right thing. If so, let’s hope you enjoyed it, because the industry isn’t interested. Sam Copeland (of Rogers, Coleridge and White) and Angus Cargill (fiction editor at Faber and Faber) both advised cutting references to social media. I do not recall if Jodie Marsh (United Agents: children’s, teenage and YA) agreed, but she didn’t disagree.
Afterwards, I asked Emma what she made of such reactions, and she guessed social media may become relevant further into the process, that is when author and agent sit down together and consider strategies. Before then the only important question is whether the sample chapters are good or not.
Secondly: writing achievements. Perhaps you have read that it’s helpful to include references to short stories which have done well or even books previously published. Once again, the industry people are not interested. It took me a while to work out the logic of this, but I think it goes like this: you may well have established yourself as a small-time author but how attractive is that? Are agents really looking for small-time potential? Is that what sets the pulse racing as they open the next submission on the pile? For that matter, would it set your pulse racing?
As before, I was advised to cut.
Thirdly: elegant phrasing. I opened the letter with “May I introduce you to...” and concluded a paragraph with “Because of this, it is perhaps best...” By now you can probably guess the advice: cut. You can probably see the logic too. Fine writing belongs in sample chapters; letters are for something else.
What is that something else? Introducing the book, and in this respect my first three paragraphs – redundant phrases aside – went down quite well. They gave the title, word count, a glimpse of characters in action, and an idea of themes. But there remained a problem, as follows.
Fourthly: literary fiction. Does a book titled A Short, Selective Journey Through Hell belong in literary fiction (as it may have done in the times of Dante or Milton)? Apparently not. I didn’t argue – however, if you want to carry on the discussion in your head, here’s an interesting question: what would Dante or Milton be writing now, if born into our era rather than their own? Probably not theologically based poetry. More likely Fantasy/SciFi if still chasing cosmic questions, but my guess is they might go for something a bit more like Life Of Pi – allowing scope for wide ranging debate and nerdish levels of selective learning.
Anyway, the advice was the familiar one: cut, in this case the reference to literary fiction.
And there you have it. Cut, cut, cut, cut, and you might end up with a decent letter. Earlier in the day, Harry gave a presentation on covering letters and although I didn’t take notes, I think I can recall the gist: introduce the book, then get out of the way.
Here’s the letter.
May I introduce you to A Short, Selective Journey Through Hell, an 80,000 word novel for the mainstream adult market?
Dunc is about to find out how it feels, really feels, in Hell – and he’s looking forward to it. Occult research has convinced him that a quick suicide and stint in the depths will enable him to reincarnate with enormously enhanced power. However, he does not understand his deepest motivations. Once he has passed through the mirror of death he finds the abused and mysterious Maream is the centre of his every desperate need while his hated rival Jon has become his necessary ally.
If A Short, Selective Journey Through Hell is ultimately an old fashioned morality tale, it is also an exploration of the furthest reaches of human imagination – the hells, objective or psychological, that people can inflict on themselves. Because of this, it is perhaps best described as literary fiction.
As for myself, I won an Ian St James Award with a 10,000 word story that was published in the Fontana anthology, Blood Sweat and Tears. More recently my 85,000 word biography of a great twentieth century mystic: The Two Worlds of Wellesley Tudor Pole was published by Lorian Press (Washington State). I was also co-author/editor of my wife’s teenage fantasy-thriller The Salamander Stone published this year by Champagne Books (Alberta). To help publicise her book I employed intensive tweeting, much of it linked to my blog, dimensionsbeyond, as well as Facebook.
I would be delighted if you felt able to represent me, although, of course, in keeping with present practice I am making a multiple agent submission. Naturally I will inform you if I receive other offers. Meanwhile, I do hope you enjoy the enclosures: the synopsis and first three chapters, accompanied by an SAE.
And there you are: cut half of it out, and the rest might be okay.
Oh, maybe I should mention synopses. The gist, so far as I could gather, is this: agents don’t like reading synopses. (Well, would you?) They are only likely to look at a synopsis if, having read the sample chapters, they wonder how the book continues. (Once again, isn’t that the way we would do it?)
Cheers, everyone. It’s a funny world on the edge of publishing. So much floundering around trying to do the right thing, and all the while the right thing is to cut the flounder and tell the story.
There was a ridiculous article last week in the Wall Street Journal called “Cherish The Book Publishers – You’ll Miss Them When They’re Gone.”
I was going to write a take-down of this, but Kris Rusch and Joe Konrath beat me to it. You should check out both their responses. Krus Rusch goes point-by-point, and Joe Konrath, in a post titled “The Tsunami of Crap”, laughs at the ridiculousness of it all:
“Some people believe the ease of self-publishing means that millions of wannabe writers will flood the market with their crummy ebooks, and the good authors will get lost in the morass, and then family values will go unprotected and the economy will collapse and the world will crash into the sun and puppies and kittens by the truckload will die horrible, screaming deaths.”
Michael Stackpole weighed in too with an exploration of the genesis of this myth. All worth reading.
I’m not going to follow suit, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, and this carp is already riddled with bullets. In any event, I’ve already dealt conclusively with the myth that a “mountain of crap” will prevent good writers from making a living in this blog post.
Also, as Kris Rusch pointed out, it’s hardly a new story, and snooty bloggers, as well as various people invested in the status quo, have been pushing this line for some time.
I’m sure you remember last month’s hullabulloo instigated by one publisher hysterically claiming that 99c self-published e-books were “destroying minds“.
What was interesting to me about this Wall Street Journal article was that it was trying to elicit sympathy for the billion dollar corporations that have lost their monopoly over book distribution.
And it was also trying to spread fear about how horrible the world would be without the gatekeepers that shut out tons of new writers to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into books by Snooki and The Situation.
But I don’t want to talk about that. Instead, I want to look at all the terrible developments since the rise of self-publishing:
1. No More Disappearing Genres. Before, if you were a fan of a genre that New York declared “dead”, as happened with Horror and Westerns, you would struggle to find any new books. Self-publishers have shown their is life in these genres, and that readers were craving new books. This is good for readers and good for writers.
2. Writers have more options. So you went on submission with your agent, and only got one lousy offer. Before, your only choice was to swallow your pride and accept, or write another book. Now you can self-publish, make some money, build your audience, and still pursue that trade publishing dream if you wish. And, if you could never crack the system, now you are no longer barred from reaching your readers.
This one was getting a bit long, so if you want to read the rest, pop over to:
I have spoken on my blog several times about what the future holds for agents in a world where publishers are disintermediated by the dominance of e-books and the marginalisation of bookstores.
Some agents are responding to the fall in advances and the collapse of print by seeking alternative revenue streams: editing services, creative writing classes, and, worst of all, becoming publishers.
However, it’s now becoming very clear that some agents have decided that the time spent dealing with the fire-hose of submissions would be better spent scouring the Amazon rankings for indie writers.
When I suggested this on a writing forum, I was told to “get real”. Some people are so scared of the changes occurring in the publishing industry that they are willing to go on record and deny basic, provable facts.
Noah Lukeman has been closed to submissions for some time. That in itself is not surprising, a simple glance at the list of awards his clients have won will tell you that this an agent in demand. What is notable is that he is now signing self-publishers.
Powerhouse agency Trident Media Group have been extremely vocal about what a terrible idea it is for agents to become publishers. What are they doing instead? They have signed five self-published writers this year.
To anyone who still doubts that this is occurring, or that it’s becoming more common, here are a list of self-published writers that have been approached by, and signed by, New York agents in the last twelve months: Mel Comley, LC Evans, Victorine Lieske, Scott Neumyer, Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Linda Welch, Lynda Hillburn, Christopher Smith, Nancy Johnson, Colleen Houck.
On top of those eleven writers, several more have been approached
by publishers directly (both foreign and domestic), or have been
approached by agents but haven’t signed anything yet. Over half
were signed in the last three months.
Read the rest at: http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/the-kindle-store-the-new-slush-pile/