Now in its 28th edition, Herman’s Guide to Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents includes insider details about agents and editors too, explaining how they work and differentiating between the Big 5 publishers and independent publishers.
Jeff Herman’s literary agency has ushered nearly 1000 books into print. Jeff graciously agreed to an interview to answer some common questions I get from potential authors. If you’d like to win a copy of his book, leave a comment below.
Update: I chose a winner using Random.org. Thanks to everyone who entered.
Here’s Herman on the agenting business, how publishing works, and how writers can keep motivated despite the challenges:
Q. What is the number one thing writers don’t understand about agents?
A. I find a lack of knowledge about the crucial role agents play. Traditional publishers don’t have time or energy to screen unsolicited submissions, which are non-flatteringly referred to as “slush.” This is understandable. An editor might have to crunch several hundred slushies to find a single potentially viable project. That kind of negative ratio demotes the slush pile to quicksand.
So how do editors find publishable product? They mostly rely upon reputable agents to do the screening and to pitch projects that might be a fit.
Having an agent equals genuine access to the people who are empowered to acquire books for publication. However, in no way does that guarantee that a book contract will follow.
Q. What do writers get wrong about editors?
A. The word “editor” suggests that editors are primarily responsible for editing. That was probably accurate 50 years ago. While there are still editors who spend considerable time editing the most important titles and authors, it’s more likely the task will be delegated to a third party who specializes in editing.
Today’s editors wear many hats. Publishers expect them to have several skillsets that have nothing to do with editing. Their primary function is to discover books that ultimately make money for the publishing house.
Secondary functions include managing the author (no small task), building relationships with agents, coordinating all aspects of the publishing process, and serving as the author’s primary contact. Many houses also have a managing editor, who helps handle logistics and ensures that the trains are running on time.
Q. What defines a successful cookbook?
A. Cookbooks need to meet the same standards as any other nonfiction books. Of course, the design and production values are crucial to the final product. The publisher usually delivers those pieces, including the photography, unless the author has the ability to do it better. In that case, the publisher provides a production budget.
Measuring success depends upon what the expectations are at the outset, and how much the publisher invested. It’s not unusual for a celebrity to receive a healthy six-figure advance and substantial publisher attention. When followed by poor sales, the publisher doesn’t break even.
The irony is that the book might appear on key bestseller lists and receive wonderful reviews. As far as the public is concerned, the book may appear to be a huge success.
Behind the scenes, however, the publisher is licking its wounds. The author is unhappy about not receiving future royalties, and perhaps not being able to leverage a similar advance next time.
Conversely, if the publisher pays a modest advance, doesn’t splurge on production items, and doesn’t print too many copies at a time, all parties are more likely to be satisfied with the outcome. The ideal scenario is for the book to be a steady seller for many years, and plant seeds for more titles by the same author.
In the long run, it’s better to be an author whose books earn healthy royalties for many years. That’s as opposed to an author who receives a fantastic one-time advance, but never sees another dime in royalties.
Q. Why do book proposals have a 99 percent rejection rate?
A. There’s a huge imbalance between desire and opportunity. But that’s just a number and it doesn’t tell the whole story. Authors shouldn’t see themselves as subservient to the so-called odds.
There are countless ways that self-empowered, ambitious writers can push their way up the food chain where the odds are much more in their favor. Ignore the rejection rate and focus on the fact that thousands of first-time authors are published each year. Make it your mission to be one of them.
Q. How important is a platform to selling a book idea? What is the optimum numbers of followers?
A. Explaining and defining “platform” is, frankly, a pain in the ass for writers and agents. The thing is, publishers prefer authors who have sufficient numbers of people waiting to buy the book.
It’s a common misnomer to think that accumulating impressive numbers is the bottom line. What really counts is engagement, which means generating quality social relationships with people who self-identify as members of relevant communities. To what extent will your contacts actually buy your book? And, will they voluntarily promote your book to others, whether in person or online? Ideally, you’ll be able to prove your optimistic claims to prospective publishers based on real evidence, as opposed to expecting them to have blind faith.
What happens when you Google your name, product or company? You can be sure that interested publishers will search for you, possibly before even reading your book proposal’s Overview.
Conventional platform bypasses can include simply being well known and popular where it counts, ongoing coverage in the media, or piggy-backing onto something or someone else.
Sometimes the subject, not the author, is the platform. For instance, several years ago I agented a successful book by a writer with zero platform who had been a top executive at Facebook. Thousands of businesspersons wanted to know what he knew about Facebook. Facebook was the platform.
Q. How can writers keep motivated in the face of rejection?
A. By forgetting that they were rejected and only focusing on generating the next opportunity. However, if you’re being serially rejected, try to understand why. It’s often possible to change the outcomes by adjusting what you’re presenting and how you are presenting it. No one who rejects you is “wrong.” Think about creative ways to make the next person “right.”
Nothing is over until you decide it is. Don’t let others make that decision for you.
Q. What is your best advice to someone who wants to publish a cookbook?
A. Investigate meaningful current competition. Always try appear to be the first person with your concept. There are ways to always be original, because no two people are alike.
Clearly demonstrate that there are already a lot of people who want to buy your cookbook, and that many more will follow once it’s available.
Be sure that your presentation goes beyond merely explaining the idea. Envision your project as an energetic living entity that always needs you to re-nourish it.
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If you’d like to win a copy of Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents leave a comment below. I will pick a winner at random by March 1, 2019. This offer applies to residents of the US and Canada.