Are Writers Our Best Hope for the Future?

We Americans write our own history. And the chapters of which we’re proudest are the ones where we had the courage to change. Time and again, Americans have seen the need for change, and have taken the initiative to bring that change to life.

–Al Gore

If luck is ability meeting opportunity, you are part of the luckiest generation of writers who ever lived. If you want to write about creating change, you have the biggest opportunity writers have ever had. The problems our communities, states, country, and planet face continue to grow, as does the gap between what government and nonprofit organizations can do and what must be done to ensure our future.

            Writers are needed urgently to provide the hope, vision, guidance, and inspiration to act that humanity needs to thrive. Writers have the creativity, independence, and the ability to

  • research, organize, and write about their ideas
  • test and promote their work
  • build communities of people eager to help

             And they have the power of technology, the greatest gift to writers since the printing press, to accelerate and amplify their efforts. Al Gore did a thousand talks in high schools before An Inconvenient Truth was published or the film about it was released. A Vice President has access to audiences and the media that new writers don’t, but writers can use all of the media to communicate their message. Gore’s efforts changed the public’s perception of the problem and led to new initiatives to solve it.

            What nobler challenge can writers ask for than helping to solve the problems that threaten our children? Readers and publishers want books that foster change. Small houses, niche presses, and university presses are less concerned about an author’s promotion plan than big and midsize houses. You may want to self-publish your book, if only to test-market it. Sell enough copies and publishers will coming looking for you.

            If writers don’t do all they can, who will take their place? So find a need and help fill it. Pick a problem you’re passionate about and dig in. Contribute to the most vital conversation on earth. You can accomplish far more than you think you can. And as Thomas Friedman wrote in Hot, Flat and Crowded, you have just enough time if you start now.

Many thanks in advance for sharing this blog with activists and with new and published writers!

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)

Huge thanks to Linda Lee for upgrading the blog!

8 Steps to Hiring the Agent You Need

Finding a literary agent tips

It’s been said that an agent is like a bank loan: You can only get one if you can prove that you don’t need it. But there are more than 1,200 agents in the United States, and more than 90% of them must find new writers to make a living. Here are eight steps to getting the agent you need:

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1. Find a salable idea.

2. Write a proposal or manuscript. The only time to contact agents is when you have something ready to sell.

3. Research potential agents online and off as my previous post suggests.

4. Write an irresistible query letter about the hook, the book, and the cook, the subject of an upcoming post.

5. Follow the submission guidelines of the agents you contact. The comedian Steven Wright once saw a sign in a restaurant window that said: “Breakfast served at any time.” So he ordered French toast during the Renaissance. Of course you don’t want hear back from agents at any time. You want to hear yesterday. But don’t call or email to see if your work arrived or when you will get a response. Established agents receive thousands of submissions a year and don’t keep a log.

Make a note on your calendar or your copy of your query letter of when the agents’ guidelines say you will hear from them and call or email them if you don’t.  If it’s important for you to know that snail mail arrived, send it certified or get a return receipt.

If you’re mailing your work, and you don’t want the material back, you still have to include a stamped-self-addressed  #10 business envelope if you want to be sure to get a response. If you don’t, you may lose the chance to get feedback and may only hear back if an agent is interested.

6. If the agent has a written agreement, read it to make sure you’ll feel comfortable signing it, and feel free to ask the agent questions about it.

7. Meet interested agents to test the chemistry for your working marriage. Look at the challenge of finding and keeping an agent as creating and sustaining a marriage that has personal and professional aspects to it.

8. Choose the best agent for you, based on passion, personality, performance, and experience.

Then bask in the glow of satisfaction that an agent thinks enough of your book’s  potential and yours to represent you. I hope you find an  professional, knowledgeable, and motivated mentor for the adventure that awaits you.

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Writing to Make a Difference / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org /Keynoters: Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)

10 Ways to Find the Agent You Need

An old cartoon shows a group of agents sitting around a table, and one of them is saying: “We’ve got to figure out a way to keep these damn writers from getting ninety percent of our income.

In the early eighties they did find a way: they raised their commissions to fifteen percent. Agents are now trying to figure out how to cope with the changes in publishing. Some  are adding services and increasing their commissions. But one reason why now is the best time ever to be a writer is that there are more ways to find an agent than ever. And the more challenging publishing becomes, the more agents and editors need new writers. Here are ten ways to find the agent you need:

1. Your writing community: The writers you know, online and off, will recommend agents.

2. The Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR): The 450 agents in AAR are the best sources of experienced, reputable agents. Members are required to follow the AAR’s code of ethics. The directories talked about in item number five of this list indicate when an agent is a member, and you can look up agents at www.aaronline.org.

3. The Web: Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Google, online directories, agents’ websites..

4. Writers’ organizations: They’re listed online and in Literary Market Place.

5. Directories: Directories vary in the kind and amount of information they provide. For the best results, check what the first two say about the same agency: Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents; Guide to Literary Agents; Literary Market Place (LMP).

6. Literary events: Writing classes, readings, lectures, seminars, book signings, conferences, and book festivals present opportunities to meet and learn about agents and publishers. Conferences offer opportunities to meet agents.

7. Magazines: Publishers Weekly, The Writer Magazine, Writer’s Digest, and Poets & Writers have articles by and about agents. If you don’t want to splurge on a subscription to Publishers Weekly, read it at the library or online.

8. Books: Check the dedication and acknowledgment pages of books you like and books like yours.

9. Your platform: Let agents or publishers find you—be visible online and off, get published and give talks, publicize your work and yourself. When your continuing national visibility is great enough, agents and editors will find you.

10. PublishersMarketplace.com. This is an online news source and community for publishing insiders. If you become a member ($20/month), then you’ll have access to a database of publishing deals made by agents and editors, as well as contact info for hundreds of publishing professionals.

Finding agents is easier than ever. Getting one to say yes is a far greater challenge and the subject of the next post.

Adapted from the fourth edition of How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen, Writer’s Digest, April 2011.

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org /Keynoters: Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America) / blog: sfwriting4change.wordpress.com

2048: From a Bestseller to a Movement

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

–Eleanor Roosevelt

Kirk Boyd is a visionary. He’s an attorney who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law where he is executive director of the 2048 Project. He’s also a client and the author of 2048: Humanity’s Agreement to Live Together.

Kirk met Jeevan Sivasubramanian, executive managing editor at Berrett-Koehler, at the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference. BK published 2048 last April, and it spent four weeks on the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list.

Kirk wants 2048 to change the world, and he’s using the book to help build a movement. He is a passionate advocate for his dream of having an enforceable International Convention on Human Rights, signed by every country by 2048. The date will be the hundreth anniversary of the signing by the United Nations of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt helped to write.

Kirk and Jeevan will discuss how to make a book a regional bestseller and build a movement at the Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference, November 13-14, 2010, at the eco-friendly Hilton/Financial, www.sfwritingforchange.org. Berrett-Koehler is a conference sponsor, www.bkpub.com.

Kirk wants everyone to help write the declaration by contributing to it by mail or by email at www.2048.berkeley.edu. You’re welcome to help him change the world by participating. Kirk is a perfect example of how one writer can make a difference. If you have a dream about creating change, the conference can help you make it a reality.

Publishing Goes to the Movies: Part 2

I’m not in the this business to make art; I’m in it to make money to buy art.

–Producer Joel Silver

More similarities between publishing and its West-Coast cousin, the movie business:

  • They have a star system that caters to those who generate the most business. Hollywood suffers from “sequelitis.” It needs brand names, either “bankable” actors or the titles of series, billion-dollar “franchises” like science fiction epics that begin with the word Star or include the name Harry Potter. You know when the stars in publishing’s firmament have a new  book, because their names pop up on bestsellers lists. The most visible celestial body? James Patterson, who, with the help of coauthors, had nine books out and made $70 million last year. His publisher has earned the right to change its name to Big Brown.
  • They want big openings. Although the first weekend’s income from a movie rarely determines how much it will ultimately contribute to the bottom line, a big opening weekend is a good portent. Books can also start slowly and become bestsellers, but the explosion of sales when books by stars are published catapults them onto bestseller lists.
  • Publishers and movie studios make editors and producers who generate enough profits intrepreneurs, in-house entrepreneurs. Studios support producers while they develop projects for them to distribute. Publishers give editors their own imprints so they can publish what they want and benefit from the sales, marketing, and production resources of the house that sustains them. 
  • They have a parallel release pattern. Movies in theaters are like the hardcover and ebook publication. DVDs, pay per view, and Netflix, like paperback editions, follow. Finally, they are on cable and network television, and sold in stores that mark down DVDs and sell remainders and used books.
  • They recycle what they produce in as many forms, media and countries as they can, and have a growing international audience.
  • They rely on their backlist for part of their income. Movie people call their backlist the  “library.”
  • They are dependent on chains that are replacing single-screen theaters and independent bookstores which struggle to survive.
  • They create synergy. Publishers test-market books for Hollywood, which buys many books for the screen. Bestsellers sell movie tickets, and when movies succeed, they can make books bestsellers or return them to the list as it did for Eat Snooze Love. A portent: Relativity Media, which will film Nicholas Sparks’s new book, Safe Haven, is promoting the book, online and off, even though they don’t even have a screenplay yet.
  • They have an insatiable craving for fresh ideas, new writers and good writing. Newcomers are more likely to make their way in the system by starting out producing their own work or with independent publishers and producers. But when they’re ready for the big time, the big companies will welcome them with open arms and wallets.

Write to meet the needs of the marketplace and sooner or later, you’ll get where you want to go.

 Upcoming Event

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)

Publishing Goes to the Movies: Part 1

Broadway Meets Hollywood Boulevard

There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows a Hollywood producer in his office on the phone saying: “There are two ways we can go here, 2% of the gross or 99% of the net.”

(It’s a Hollywood tradition that movie studios try to avoid having net profits no matter how much money a movie makes.)

[By the 1970s], the only major difference between the book business and the movie business was that in the book business the money was smaller.

–Former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and bestselling author Michael Korda in Another Life: A Memoir of Other People, my candidate for the most enjoyable book ever written about publishing.

If you want to be a successful author, you need to have a positive but realistic perspective about publishing. You also have to be able to read between the lines of what’s happening so you can figure how to take advantage of it to achieve your goals. What goes on in the film business will help you understand publishing.

Hollywood and publishing have a lot in common:

  • They are each dominated by six large companies. Two of the publishers and movie studios are parts of the same multimedia, multinational conglomerates:

             * HarperCollins is owned by the News Corporation, which also owns 20th-Century Fox.

             * Simon & Schuster is owned by Viacom, which also owns Paramount.

             * (Random House Films partners with Focus Features, a division of NBC Universal, on books Random publishes.)

  • They are being transformed by technology, which makes it faster, cheaper, and easier for newcomers to participate. Technology is also moving the culture from words to images, from product to experience, from possessing books and films to downloads. Meanwhile, the number of theatergoers and book sales are declining, so these companies are cutting costs and reducing their output.
  • Publishers and movie makers must produce winners to make the chains happy and meet corporate profit expectations. Hollywood must have hits—“tentpoles;” big publishers must have bestsellers. “Studios want movies that are bigger than ever,” said veteran Warner producer Joel Silver in an excellent piece about the cost-conscious state of Hollywood in the Sunday Business section of the New York Times (9/29).
  • They use marketing to build and sustain momentum, but what they release must generate good word of mouth and mouse to succeed. However, they are at the mercy of subjective, unpredictable responses of critics and consumers and fail most of the time. Less than one percent of what they produce becomes as profitable as they want it to be. Because they’re hit-or-miss businesses, the hits have to compensate for the misses. It’s the “Spaghetti Factor.” You throw a plate of spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it will stick.
  • They spend fortunes on failures and unheralded work by independent publishers and producers strike it rich. In Another Life, Michael Korda quotes one of former S&S president Richard Snyder’s favorite sayings: “Anybody in this business who is right more than fifty percent of the time is a genius.”  If independently produced books and movies break out, the big companies welcome the winners with open arms and wallets.

In the next post, more similarities between companies that would like to monopolize your eyeballs.

Upcoming Event

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)