Author Responsibility

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last weekend I went to the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in New York City and one of the key note talks was on the issue of author responsibility. I have to admit it isn’t something I’ve thought much about – beyond my responsibility to readers to write the very best books I can. My books don’t tend to contain graphic violence or sex and I don’t write with any particular agenda or controversy in mind, so it was interesting to hear what one writer thought was her responsibility as an author. 

Obviously, the issue was of particular concern to her (and to most SCBWI members, I suspect) because she wrote for children and teenagers. What I didn’t expect was that she would feel so strongly about her responsibilities, beyond that of ‘professional grace’, to instances where readers were indirectly affected by the book she had written. One example she gave was of a family who were listening to her audio book in the car and who were so overcome by emotion by the story that they were pulled over for speeding – she felt that she, as the author, was responsible for that occurring. Now in that instance, I disagree. I think there are many indirect consequences of reading/listening to a story which are not the author’s responsibly because readers have a choice as to where and when they read/listen and for their own behaviour as a result. 

Still, the concept of ‘author responsibility’ is an intriguing (and often fraught) concept…and I’m not even sure I’m totally clear on what that concept means to me. At the very least I think author should take responsibility for striving for excellence in their writing and that they should behave as a professional in all aspects of their career. At a minimum they should be held responsible for plagiarism and copyright infringement of other people’s work. As an author I also wouldn’t want to incite anyone to hatred or violence – but when I think about other authors’ work I can see the concept of ‘responsibility’ could be a slippery slope indeed.

As a strong supporter of intellectual freedom, I certainly don’t believe in author censorship but as a mother I’m also aware of the responsibilities involved when caring for young minds. I think it’s important that writers (including writers of children and YA books) tackle weighty issues such as drug abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, racial discrimination, persecution and bullying. Adults, children, and teenagers can only benefit, in my opinion, from being exposed to a variety of books dealing with a broad range of issues and perspectives (even those that make me personally uncomfortable).

Though I am often ‘caretaker’ when it comes to what my children read, I never feel that I have any right to advise others as to what their children should or should not be reading (ditto for adults!). So what do I feel, as a reader/mother, is an ‘author’s responsibility’? Do these standards differ to what I feel I’m responsible for as a writer? I’m not sure. But the talk at SCWBI certainly made me think about what I expect from both myself and other writers. 

So what do you think is your responsibility as an author? What standards to you hold yourself up to and do these standards differ when it comes to other authors?

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The Most Important Thing Literary Agents Owe Their Clients

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood and put it into a gnat’s navel, and still have room for two caraway seeds and an agent’s heart. 
                                 – Fred Allen
Mr. Fred Allen was a famous curmudgeon who labored in the entertainment (mainly radio) business. I would note that the Hollywood agent and traditional literary agent are largely different species. But that doesn’t stop me from using the quote to tease my agent friends.
And I do have friends who are literary agents. Is that so odd? When I was a lawyer, people still befriended me. It can be done!
Seriously, those agents I know are good ones: caring deeply about the success of their clients, hurting when they can’t place a project, or when a client is dropped by a publisher. But they know this is the duty they signed up for. They are professional about it.
That’s a key word, professional. In any business relationship, no matter how warm, there are duties. So it’s proper to ask what each party owes the other. 
What do writers owe their agents? I think they owe them productivity, optimism, partnership and patience. There will be times, of course, when concerns must be expressed and details hashed out. Time for phone calls and complaints. But these should be rare in comparison to the positives.
A writer needs to listen. Part of a good agent’s job (we’ll get to bad agents in a moment) is to guide a career, and the writer (who ultimately makes the decision about direction) ought to consider and attend to an agent’s wisdom.
And just plain not be a “pill” (slang, 1920s, “a tiresomely disagreeable person.”)
I said we’d get to bad agents, and here’s all I have to say: it is better by a degree of a thousand for a writer to have no agent than to have a bad agent. A bad agent is one who will make you pay fees up front before reading or submitting something; who will slough you off to an editorial service which kicks back a finder’s fee to the agent; who provides no feedback on projects or proposals; and who throws up anything against several walls to see if it sticks. How does one find the good and avoid the bad? The SFWA has a postthat’s very helpful in this regard.
Now, what does an agent owe a client? Honesty, encouragement, feedback. But I think there is one thing above all, and that is what prompted this post today. Over the years I’ve heard from writer friends who are frustrated and sometimes “dying on the inside” because of lack of this one thing:
Communication.
When I was an eager young lawyer I took a course on good business practices from the California Bar. One item that stood out was a survey of clients on what they most wanted from their attorneys. At the very top of the list, by a wide margin, was communication.Whether it was good news or bad, they wanted to know their lawyer was thinking about their case or legal matter. 
Writers are the same way. Even more so, because the insecurity of the business is an ever-present shadow across their keyboards. So if a writer sends in a proposal or list of ideas to his agent, and the agent doesn’t respond within a few weeks . . . and writer sends follow-up email or phone call, and stilldoesn’t hear from agent . . .this is not a good thing. In fact, for a writer, it is close to being the worst thing.
So I would say to agents what the California Bar says to young lawyers: just let the client know what’s going on from time to time. Especially if the client has sent something to you.
Now, I know from my agent friends that there are times when they can’t drop everything to communicate immediately. They have other clients, and things may be popping for one or more of them. It may be that the writer has submitted something that is going to take a lot of time to go over and assess. The agent may be off at a conference or maybe, gasp, needs some personal family time. All understandable.
But communication can be brief, even if it is just a short email acknowledging receipt.
If I may be so bold: if a client submits a proposal, it shouldn’t take more than two months to get back to said client with substantial feedback. If the client submits some ideas, or communicates about another concern or quandary, I would think a couple of weeks is the outside limit, even if it’s brief.
I think there is one area where an agent, being human, is reticent about communicating: the area of bad news. It may be that a proposal or manuscript has failed to land. It may be a publishing house dropping a series. Perhaps the writer has sent the agent a proposal that, for the agent, falls flat, even after notes and suggestions from the agent have been incorporated. It may even be that the agent has lost confidence in the writer’s long term prospects.
At times like these it is tempting to put off communicating with the client. My plea: don’t do it. As hard as it is, as painful as it may be, this is the time the client needs you most.
And authors, remember, it’s a tough time out there in the publishing world, for agents and everybody else. So give them something good to talk about—namely, killer fiction from a productive writer.

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Tips on Pitching your Manuscript

By Joe Moore

At this year’s ITW ThrillerFest VI (July 6-9) we’re once again featuring a portion of the conference called AgentFest. AgentFest is a perfect example of why ThrillerFest is and will always be held in the heart of the publishing industry, NYC. Why? Because this year, we have 60+ top agents and editors from the biggest New York houses ready to hear your pitch and find new talent. This number could not come close to being achieved in any other location or city.

We all know how important it is to prepare when pitching a manuscript to an agent, whether it’s at AgentFest or any other occasion: look professional, act professional, be able to summarize your premise in a couple of sentences, and know that not every book is right for every agent (most of the time, that’s why they say no).

But what about those things you don’t want to do; those things that could wreck you presentation or turn off the agent? Here are a few pitfalls to avoid:

Never refuse advice or feedback. Even if the agent or editor is not interested in your book, many times they will offer suggestions or advice on making it more marketable. Never have a closed mind and think that it’s your way or the highway. Professional agents know the market and are aware of what the publishing houses are looking for at any given moment. Also remember that just because an agent is not interested in your book doesn’t mean the book is not publishable. It’s just not for them.

Don’t begin your pitch by saying that “everyone loves your book. Of course they do, because everyone is probably your family and friends, and the last thing everyone wants to do is hurt your feelings. If they were completely honest with you, it would be like hitting your ego with a sledgehammer. Now on the other hand, if Dan Brown, Ken Follett or Stephenie Meyer read your manuscript and loved it, I would mention that somewhere right after "hello".

Don’t be a pest. By that I mean sending the agent multiple emails, phone calls, letters, presents, or anything else that would quickly become annoying. If the agent says no, the likelihood of you turning them around with a box of Godiva chocolates is not good. Send it to me instead.

Don’t suggest that if the agent wants to know all about you they can visit your website or blog. It doesn’t matter if Michelangelo designed your graphics, James Patterson wrote your text, and Lady Gaga composed the music for your book trailer. The agent doesn’t care. All she wants to know is: who are you, what is your idea, and can you present it in a logical, concise and professional manner.

Even if your manuscript has been rejected before, don’t volunteer that information. As far as the agent is concerned, they’re getting the first look at your idea. They’re also realistic and know it’s probably been pitched before. And the fact that you’re standing there means that if it was, it was rejected. Always remember that rejection is as much a part of the publication process as line editing or cover design. It happens to everyone. Move on.

Don’t claim that no one has ever written anything like your book before. If that’s really true, there’s probably a good reason no one has. But trust me, claiming that what you’ve written is a brand new idea is as compelling as claiming you have the winning numbers for tomorrow’s lotto. What you might want to do is suggest that you’ve completed a unique and original treatment of a well-established theme or premise. That will make sense to the agent.

Never say that your book is going to be the next blockbuster or that it should be made into a movie. The top professionals in the publishing and motion picture industries cannot predict with certainty what will be the next blockbuster or bestseller. Neither can you.

In general, always assume that an agent or editor has already heard every variation on a theme there is, because they have. Much of your success in capturing the attention of an agent is you, not your story. Be enthusiastic but not obnoxious, knowledgeable but not condescending, proud but not conceded, prepared but not pushy. And most of all, be friendly and professional. Your presentation is a foreshadowing of what it would be like to work with you. Agents don’t want to spend a year or more in a wrestling match with a jerk.

Remember that literary agents and editors are people, too. Yes, they can have a tremendous impact on your writing career, both positive and negative. But just like the rest of us, they get excited when they hear a great idea. Treat them as people, not gods.

If you practice all these tips and you have a killer idea for a book, there’s a good chance the agent will hand you her business card and ask for a partial. And if by chance, she asks for a full, go celebrate. You’ve accomplished more than most ever will.

Any other pitching tips out there?

————–
THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is now available online. In stores June 8.

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Want to Be a Professional Writer? Act Like One.

James Scott Bell

I’ve been teaching at writers conferences for over fifteen years, and I’ve seen a ton of aspiring writers in various stages of disequilibrium. Everyone wants to get a book contract, and everyone’s a little scared they never will. They hear stories about the odds and it sends shivers to the tips of their typing fingers.
Those who persevere have a chance.
In the course of these conference years I’ve seen a number of writers who have gotten that contract and gone on to be published by major houses. I’ve even helped a few get there, which is nice. And while it’s nearly impossible to judge why one manuscript makes it and another, which is comparable or even better, does not, I have made note of one item. The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve seen make it are those who look and act like a professional.
When you meet unpublished writers who act like pros, you form the immediate impression that it’s only a matter of time before they make it. This impression is not lost on agents and editors.
So what are the marks of a professional?
1. Grooming. Successful writers-in-waiting look professional. They do not come off as slobs or slackers. They dress sharply though unpretentiously. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we do it all the time with people. Don’t shoot down your first impression by looking unkempt or having stink-breath that can kill low flying birds.
2. Industry knowledge. Professionals know something about their profession. They spend time reading blogs and books and the trades, though not to the exclusion of their writing.
3. To the point. A pro has the ability to focus on what the other person (e.g., an agent) will find valuable and, most important, can deliver that in a concise and persuasive manner. You should be able to tell someone, in 30 seconds or less, what your book is about, in such a way that the person can immediately see its potential.
4. Courtesy. Common courtesy goes a long way. If you have an appointment with an agent, be there two minutes early. When you’re done, thank them. Follow up with a short and appropriate e-mail.  Don’t call them unless you’ve been invited to. Don’t get angry or petulant, even if there’s a reason for it. Burning bridges is never a good career move.
5. Take action every day. Over the long haul, a successful professional in any field is always in a growth mode. Always looking for ways to improve, studying, doing, taking action toward goals. When you do this, day after day, you begin to build momentum. That, in turn, will fuel your confidence and keep you going. And there is nothing an unpublished writer needs more than motivation to keep going.
So . . . keep writing. Keep learning. And act like a pro. 
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