Straight Talk on Tough Times For Writers

A trio of agents were tweeting yesterday about how tough it's been to find a market for a good story. I chimed in (of course) to ask Colleen Lindsay, Elana Roth, and Lauren Macleod a few questions.

I thought it might be helpful to share their answers here, along with some input from Nancy Mercado, executive editor of Roaring Brook Press, and few other authors as well (my tweets are in red, and I edited the conversation slightly to make it more blog-friendly).

It all started with Colleen sharing a link to a blog post from another agent ...

Colleen: Agent Kristin Nelson with a harsh reality of today's market. Books that would have sold in about two weeks last year are being lovingly rejected right and left. It is un-fun.

Elana: I'm getting those same responses on things that would have easily sold a year ago. Ain't it grand?

We want to hear about the exceptions, too. Tell us about new books that are encouraging risky business.

I don't know. I've passed some of the world's nicest rejection letters to authors pretty frequently lately. It's sad.

Colleen: I'm not seeing any right now, to be quite honest. How about you, Lauren?

Lauren: Sadly, I've also been getting lots of praise-filled rejections for beautiful, well-written books.

Elana: I've learned my lesson taking on projects where I didn't get that tingly feeling but thought it could work.

Colleen: I'm doing the same. Much much much pickier about who I sign on, and they must be able to take editorial direction.

But wait! Agent Mary Kole says, "Editors are salivating to buy and publish amazing stories." What (if anything) can agents offer to reduce risk and nudge a publisher to the tipping point?

Lauren: Ain't that the question! A perfect book ready to go to press?

Colleen: Offer a manuscript that is beyond amazing, and needs very little work. Ah, but there's the rub: the vast majority of projects simply aren't as amazing as they need to be these days to get published. And these days, I wouldn't take on a client who needed that much work anyway. I no longer have the time to play editor.

Elana: I've been choosier and then still do the editorial work to get it as perfect as I can. Speaking of what I want in clients, I blogged about it yesterday.

Lauren: I still do editing, but I have to really, really, really love the book before I'll take it on. On the fence now equals no, more than before.

Colleen: In the old days, editors had time and manpower to work with an author on revising a not-quite-there manuscript. Not any more.

Nancy: I think it depends on what you mean by not-quite-there. Most of the novels I sign up go through at least 3 or 4 revisions. I'd say in kids' publishing extensive editing is the norm.

Colleen: Do you find that you do more fine-tuning of manuscripts, or tearing apart structure and story lines?

Nancy: I'd say it's working on structure and story for the first two or three drafts, then fine tuning for the last two.

Any editors getting a reputation for taking risks and having vision?

Lauren: It seems like Flux is doing some cool things, but I don't have first hand experience.

Elana: They do, but they also have a slightly less risky business model/advance set-up. Which...definitely has its positives.

Lauren: But they are also new, so they don't have as much choice -- they have to take more editorial risks.

Elana: I do think what you (Nancy) are doing is more and more rare in publishing, though. It's wonderful, but rare!

Nancy: Thanks, but I find that hard to believe. I know so many editors in this industry who do the same. I've seen amazing edit letters in the printer at every company I've worked for.

Elana: I've had great editors for my clients, but you took a risk on something knowing how much work it needed. You're a rarity for me.

Do you encourage a writer to pay for professional editing before querying? I fear this on behalf of broke writers.

Colleen: Ethically, I can't encourage my clients to use a professional editor. But there are some very good ones out there.

Elana: Ditto. I both support freelance editors and am wary when queriers say they've used them. It's a tough call.

Lauren: I don't know if you need a professional editor as much as you need a great friend/critique partner.

Colleen: A GOOD professional developmental or line edit is going to cost a writer a couple thousand dollars, just as an FYI.

For Kid/YA books, here's a summary of freelance professional editors -- check out their sites to find out more about prices. For more agent chat on twitter, follow #askagent or #allaboutagents.

Writers, it's like we've got a tough teacher who gives us Cs when we used to earn As. Tight times should make our writing shine.

Christine Marciniak
: That's a good way of looking at it. But it makes it seem like the grading curve changed in the middle of the course.

Susan Marie Swanson
: I don't know--seems to me that we've got the tough teacher who now has bigger class, new administration, more stress.

Maybe @SCBWI wants to offer the fee for a topnotch professional editor as an award for emerging Kid/YA writers? I'd donate.

Susan: Wouldn't this be an endorsement of a particular business model on part of SCBWI, whereby authors shoulder even more expense?

Bonnie Adamson
: Also, the Namelos model (a firm started by Stephen Roxburgh, formerly of Front Street) of paid book prep is getting dangerously close to self-publishing, yes?

So what do you think?

(1) Is a professional critique before querying worth it?

(2) As Bonnie suggests, when does this process shift into the realm of self-publishing?

(3) How do you feel about authors bearing more of the risk (and up-front cost) of publishing than we used to?

(4) Are there creative, entrepreneurial options writers might pursue, given that the publishing industry is questioning the future of the printed book as the public's preferred, primary vehicle of story?