Saturday, December 26, 2009

Schiavone Responds to Frequently Asked Questions

In his resource guide on publishers, editors, and agents, Jeff Herman asks agents to describe their concept of the "dream client." I envision the dream client as one who has done his homework. This author has researched agencies that handle his genre, knows about query letters and how to write them, and has read sufficiently to determine which agents are best suited to handle his representation needs.

The best approach to my agency is through the query letter, preferably via email. The telephone call is the least effective method. A call to my office will only elicit my suggestion to write a query letter. I am sometimes surprised when an author making a cold call asks, "What's a query letter?" I can only suggest that he visit a library or book store to find the info he is seeking. Bottom line: forget about cold calls to agents.

On the other hand I find the telephone the most effective form of communication with my author/clients. Once representation is established I maintain close contact with each of my authors through telephone conversations. I work out of my home office in Florida and in NY and I'm generally available after normal office hours and on weekends. My authors are free to call at any time to discuss their concerns and questions. I will also call my authors when I have important news to share with them.
Close communication between author/agent is of paramount importance to the business relationship.

My authors ask: "How do you keep your clients informed of your activities on their behalf?" This is a legitimate and important question. To enter an agreement with an agent and then to be left in limbo is unfair. The author needs to be kept informed as to each and every submission. He needs to know which editor and publishing house has received his proposal and or manuscript. With today's technology many of the larger publishers accept electronic submissions from agents. I always copy my authors on these submissions and when a response is received, I forward the response to my author.

"Do you consult with your clients on any and all offers?"

Absolutely. When an offer is made I inform my client to let him know that I will negotiate a publishing contract on his behalf. Initially, the publisher's boilerplate is sent to me. From that I begin my negotiations to insure that each and every paragraph is in the best interests of the author. We discuss the advance, the time for final submission of an acceptable draft, the escalation scale for royalties, and all of the essential elements posed by the contract.

When I'm certain that the terms and conditions of the contract are in the best interests of the author, I advise that it be signed. Of course the author may consult with an attorney. The author is the bottom line and he makes the final decision to sign on with the publisher. Ordinarily the agent is not a signatory to the publishing agreement but the agreement will contain an agency clause which authorizes the publisher to conduct all business relating to the book, including the payment of royalties, directly to the agency.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Rejection Letter

Rejection letters are not unknown to authors. Even the top best selling authors have had their share of rejections. And having a best selling title is no indication that others will follow. While published authors stand a better chance of getting new books published, there is no guarantee that this will happen. It is not surprising that a published author may not get published again. This means that successful authors are not immune to future rejections. Obviously form letters cannot possibly have any degree of redeeming value. For the most part established agents receive an inordinate amount of queries, many of which describe projects that they can't sell. Since rejections are of no benefit to the agent, any attempt to respond with specifics is not practical and results in a loss of valuable time. In short, agent rejections are for the most part handled with the short, polite rejection slip. Often the rejection is a result of a poor match. Perhaps the author did not do an adequate research of agents handling the genre in question. There are times when an agent is overloaded with incoming queries while working on current projects for submission, or negotiating several book deals and publishing contracts. These conditions often prevent the agent from considering less profitable projects.

It is generally accepted that agents will send out form rejection "slips," rather than a more formal 8 1/2 x 11 letterhead. Hence the established practice of including an SASE with the query. Nowadays, with the convenience of email, most agents accept this mode of communication and have a prepared "form" rejection delivered with the click of a mouse.

On the other hand, rejection letters from editors may have in some instances occasional redeeming value. Seasoned, highly successful editors do not send form letters - certainly not to an agent. On rare occasions I have received such a response. I then notify the editor that this is unacceptable and that I am removing his name from my submissions data base. Authors need agents, and agents and editors need each other as well as authors to keep the industry functioning. Protocol dictates that an editor needs to respond to an agent in the form of a letter, however brief. With a hard copy submission most editors who reject a work respond with a letter and a return of the material. With an email submission via attachment, it is appropriate for the editor to respond via email.

Essentially then, a rejection letter from an editor is more apt to have important clues for an author, than one from an agent. The editor sends the letter to the submitting agent who then shares it with his author/client.

Sometimes the editor rejects the work because it would compete with a forthcoming or published title and will state this. Or, there are currently several competing titles already out there. At times an editor will remark about plot, pacing, characterization, mood, etc. My advice to authors is that if they take every remark as gospel they will surely go bonkers. If the same clue appears from two or more editors, then there may be something to consider. On the other hand five different objections from five editors may not amount to a hill of beans.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Author Credentials for Works of Nonfiction

Sheri Rosen raises a key question. She asks "how much of an 'expert' must a nonfiction writer be for agents to be interested in representing him?" While each agent spells out specific submission requirements (and writers will save valuable time and effort to check these out), most have the expectation that an author must be qualified in the subject matter of the book. It is therefore essential that one's qualifications and expertise be stated in the query letter. For example, an author who writes a memoir of personal child abuse, is not an expert in child psychology, and is no authority in that field. Likewise, an author who writes about conquering obesity, may offer a compelling memoir about his/her success with dieting, but is in no position to write an authoritative exposition on any aspects of nutrition.

While life experience is essential in writing both fiction and nonfiction, books on self-help, health and nutrition, medical procedures, investing and finance, politics and current events, etc., require expertise in the area as well as specialized formal training and often university degrees.

As I stated, agents have specific submission requirements. Some accept query letters accompanied by a formal proposal. Agents like myself accept query letters only, so it is imperative to state in one or two pages the concept of the book and indicate the qualifications of the author. I'm especially sensitive to highly qualified nonfiction writers, as my overall goal as an agent is to bring important works to press. It therefore behooves the writer to let me know why he/she is competent to write about the proposed subject.

Given the fact that my agency receives about 7,500 queries annually, and that we offer representation to only a few projects at a time, many well written letters are rejected due to a multiplicity of reasons. Therefore, the diligent writer needs to persist in searching out the right agent for representation.

In addition to the author's qualifications, is the all important platform. But that's another subject.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Significance of the Query Letter

Among the hundreds of queries I receive each week, I must uncover those that are engaging and marketable. I receive queries from prison inmates on a regular basis but to date only one seemed viable. An initial query letter from Michael G. Santos, an inmate at a minimum security federal camp in Colorado, immediately piqued my interest, based on his continuous accomplishments under incarceration. He earned a bachelor's degree from Mercer and an M.A. degree from Hofstra. The college degrees, coupled with three books published by prestigious academic presses, deserved my attention. His publications were much too academic for the general interest reader. Given the the astounding and growing number of American prison inmates, I believed that I could sell a straightforward nonacademic account of living in prison that would inform the reading public about conditions in American prisons.

I am a firm believer in the importance of a well-executed, professional proposal for nonfiction works. The days of editors like Maxwell Perkins, who were able to publish their authors of choice, no longer exist. An editor, no matter how enamored he or she may be about an author's work can no longer make a unilateral decision to publish a book. Instead, he or she must face his or her associates in a "pub" meeting and convince them of the viability and marketability of the book. Often the sales department can put the kibosh on a project they do not believe they can sell. Therefore, the author must provide the editor with as much ammunition as possible. By presenting the concept, competition, marketing strategies, etc., along with at least two or three sample chapters, the author provides the impetus for agreement among the editorial staff.

I suggested to Michael that he check out books on publishing that guide writers in the preparation of a book proposal. Often, templates of solid outlines and ideas are suggested and when followed result in the development of a winning proposal. Michael did his homework and followed up with a dynamite proposal for his book, Inside: Life Behind Bars in America. Within ten days of making multiple submissions, I received a call from an editor at St. Martin's Press expressing interest in the work. A contract was negotiated and St. Martin's published the book in 2006.

My advice to authors is always query first. Then if you are asked to send a proposal, do your homework and get that winning proposal off to the agent.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Books by My Clients: Inside: Life Behind Bars in America, by Michael G. Santos

From a federal inmate in his more than twenty years of continuous confinement comes a controversial expose of the shocking details of life in American prisons. American jails and prisons confine nearly 13.5 million people each year, and it is estimated that 6 to 7 percent of the U.S. population will be confined in their lifetimes. Despite these disturbing numbers, little is known about life inside beyond the mythology of popular culture.

Michael G. Santos, a federal prisoner having served two decades of continuous confinement, has dedicated the last eighteen years to shedding light on the lives of the men warehoused in the American prison system. Inside: Life Behind Bars in America, his first book for the general public, takes us behind those bars and into the chaos of the cellblock.

Capturing the voices of his fellow prisoners with perfect pitch, Santos makes the tragic - and at times inspiring - stories of men from the toughest gang leaders to the richest Wall Street criminals come alive. From drug schemes, murders for hire, and even a prostitution ring that trades on the flesh of female prison guards, this book contains the never-before-seen details that at last illuminate the varied ways in which men experience life behind bars in America.

Michael Santos was convicted in 1987, at the age of twenty-three, of crimes relating to his participation in a drug-trafficking scheme and sentenced to forty-five years in prison. He has earned a bachelor of arts and a master of arts, and was pursuing a Ph.D. until the Bureau of Prisons rules blocked his progress. He contributes to an extensive Web site at as a resource for families of people behind bars. Based on his impeccable disciplinary record, he looks forward to his release next year.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Books by My Clients: The Cul-lud Sch-oool Teach-ur, by Sandra E. Bowen

Our Agency seeks out books of socially redeeming values. "The Cul-lud Sch-ool Teach-ur," (Seaburn,2006), describes a period in American history not fully understood by many young adult Americans. There was a time when colored teachers were revered by practically everybody in their communities, both white and colored. Being a colored teacher in the South was a kind of status. That day extended from its post-slavery beginning to World War I, for a period afterwards, certainly to World War II, and is said to exist in some remote places till today. These respected mentors were predominantly female and taught in public elementary schools where the bulk of southern school attendance was concentrated. Traditionally these women were CCC - the "cream of the colored community," their character without public flaws; dedication to the classroom their faith and religion. They were choice ladies sought after and targeted maritally by a coterie of colored men, many who had not completed the elementary grades, and were low wage earners, whose "thang" was to marry one of these women distinguished by their roll books and having principals as immediate bosses. Most of these men were decent, and some loved the women who would elevate them to statures they would never attain otherwise.

Bowen narrates a story of deep insight and understanding into some little known aspects of the culture of African America.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Our Agency and the SONY Personal E-book Reader

Welcome to the Schiavone Literary Agency, Inc., blog. This is my first entry and I'm writing about a relatively new device which I have been using over the past two years. In 2007 I purchased the Sony portable reader system model PRS-505. As a literary agent I'm naturally an avid reader. Like most avid readers I purchase many books, read them, and then add them to my personal library. Alas, like most readers, one soon runs out of shelf space. Often friends drop by, "borrow" a book which is never returned, and subsequently frees up shelf space. Many books do not lend themselves to repeated reading, so the shelved books need periodic dusting, and remain in place for years. With ebooks there are no storage or dusting problems.

Reading ebooks resolves the space problem, and enables the reader to carry dozens of books on the airplane, to the doctor's office, etc. It has proven a boon to my office operations as a literary agent. Not only can I purchase and download the latest books, I can also invite prospective author/clients to email their work to me via attached files. In the past I have never been able to read full manuscripts from my computer screen because of eye and back strain and prolonged sitting in the office chair staring at a screen. The Sony device is particularly useful to the agent since the email files are swiftly downloaded to the personal reader, making it possible to carry around numerous manuscripts and proposals conveniently, while avoiding the problem of having tons of paper in piles around the office.

Having the capacity to accept email attachments saves my authors time and the expense of printing and shipping their work to me. Recently, most of the major publishing houses have purchased ebook readers for their editors. While one cannot edit with the device, it streamlines the overall reading process. This speeds up my ability to get my submissions to the editors who now often prefer electronic submissions.

Of course I comply with my editor's requirements for either electronic or hard copy submissions, so that I utilize both approaches. I have been pleased to learn that many of my editors at the larger houses prefer electronic files. When a book is sold, the author must eventually provide an e-file anyway, so it is convenient to have one prepared. I must caution my readers that I only accept query letters. If the query interests me I will invite the author to send more via email attachment. We do not open attachments unless specifically requested. Please do not send anything other than a query letter by email or post.

It appears to me that the future for e-book readers and e-books will be prosperous. I encourage my author/clients to avail themselves of this exciting technology.

James Schiavone, Ed.D.