How to Get a Literary Agent

Asking “how do I get an agent” is the wrong question. Some excellent advice in this article:

It’s not because self-publishing is the future or because you don’t need an agent in 2014 or blah blah. There’s plenty of room for those discussions elsewhere. It’s just the wrong question because asking it means you think the process matters.

It’s like saying: How do I enter the password? That’s helpful sure, but um, you have to have the actual password first. Chances are, you don’t. None of us do at first.

To make that clear: the password here is to have a really great book. A book with a lot of potential to sell or win awards or accomplish things that people in publishing find important. Actually not just potential, but likelihood, real likelihood of fulfilling it. That might not be easy, but it is really simple.

This is exactly it. The process doesn’t matter; you’re not selling your ability to follow a process, you’re selling a book. The book matters. Worry about writing a great book.

Who’s stealing ebooks?

This infographic makes the case that the cost of ebook piracy is far less than the benefits of DRM-free distribution. It’s not a question of whether copyright ought to exist (which is where this sort of discussion often seems to go); it’s a question of how, in the current technological world, copyright holders are best served.

I knew about TOR Books removing DRM from all of its ebooks a couple of years ago, and by all accounts the experiment was a success. Most e-publishers (e.g. Kobo, Amazon KDP) allow for non-DRM distribution as well, although it’s rightly the author’s choice.

I think we’re going to see that, like the iTunes model, making content easily available for a reasonable price is what will win the copyright battle for the rightsholder. I know I’d much rather buy an e-book from Kobo or Amazon than find it, download it, and sideload it. There’s a real convenience in the current system and I’m willing to pay for it. I’m even put off when people offer free epubs, because I don’t really want to go through the hassle of getting it on whatever device I happen to be using.

I also had a recent issue where I bought an ebook from Kobo and discovered that I was allowed to read it only on their desktop reader, not on any device. I’m not one to stare at my desktop computer monitor for 200 pages’ worth of reading; the question is why that limitation would exist at all. I argued until I got a refund, which is something Kobo doesn’t normally offer. They ended up with hassle, a lost sale, and an annoyed consumer; I ended up without the book I wanted; the author ended up with nothing. We would all have been better off if the content were automatically available for multiple platforms.*

Am I wrong here? Is there any real benefit to keeping ebooks under DRM’s lock and key? I think it’s more likely that we should be working on streamlining distribution, ensuring that when readers want to pay for a book they can, and that everyone else in the chain – retailer, distributor, author, publisher – is paid in the process.


* It’s quite possible that this book was published a long time ago, and the necessary rights couldn’t be obtained from the publisher for some reason. Still, it was on the Kobo store, so it was reasonable to assume it would be readable on the Kobo app.

Coming soon: the Toronto Novel Marathon

In one month I will be running the only kind of marathon I’m likely to finish: the Toronto Novel Marathon. One weekend to write an entire novel. Yeah, that’ll be fun. I’ll be preparing all through July for this gruelling run… uh, this gruelling write.

But there’s a catch: it’s in aid of Renascent, a charity that helps those suffering from addiction in the Toronto area. So I need pledges! Please consider throwing a few bucks in the pot here.

More on the preparations will come as I get closer to the date…

Access Copyright’s Payback Program is open

This year’s Payback Program is now open for registration. If you are a Canadian writer, and have print publication credits to which you hold the rights published from 1993-2012, you can collect royalties from this program.

Don’t know anything about this program? Read the FAQ [PDF].

Here’s where you get into the Payback program.

To be part of the program, you need to register with Access Copyright — and if you didn’t register with them as of the end of last year, you’re not eligible for this year. But that means you should register with Access Copyright today, and be ready for next year.

The reason to get into this program is because you actually get a real, live cheque in the mail every fall. Even with one book in print, you are eligible for a portion of the royalties paid out to writers. It’s pretty nice to get a cheque for a couple hundred dollars every year — it’s not a lot of money, but it feels good.

If you qualify, get registered. If you’re not sure whether you qualify, find out.

Accepting Rejection

I’ve had some ups and downs recently with my work — some positive signs about a couple of manuscripts that I worked on, and some rejection as well. Even very small victories do mean a lot to me, as a writer, but the rejections do take a little bit out of me.

Of course, I’m still hunting for the big success. I know I’m getting closer, but I think of all of the little steps forward as little bites, while I’m still trying to land a fish. It’s frustrating, of course, but you can’t get the fish without getting some bites first.

I did get one excellent rejection recently. The editor was positive about the work, but had a list — a long list — of edits she’d want to see; she said she’d look at it again if I took care of those things. They were often very fundamental weaknesses in the story, or issues that were woven throughout the book, and to attack those issues would take some time and effort. I’m going to do it, though. It’s a good book and everything she listed would make it a better book.

But even more encouraging is the fact that I wouldn’t have this list with any of my more recent books, or at least I wouldn’t have a list this long. Part of the problem was that I embarked upon that book without any real idea of what I was going to do; I actually took a four-month hiatus from it — paralysis, really — before I could figure out what to do with the last third of the book.

More recently, I’ve learned to outline my work, so that I don’t have these important characters who are AWOL through most of the book, and I have motivations clearer in my head before I start writing them. I know I also write more quickly with an outline. The trick has been getting the outline at the right level of detail, but I’ve figured out the sweet spot for my writing.

In any case, it’s a good rejection, and the publisher is willing to look at something else I’ve got. I can get used to this kind of rejection… but not too used to it!

Don’t worry about your network, worry about your friends

Accordion Guy’s advice (and the article he’s referring to) for people who mess around in the high-tech sphere is perfectly applicable to writers, too:

If you have successful friends, you will be successful. It’s pretty much that simple. If you hang out with a bunch of losers, you too will adopt their loser ways and not achieve anything. Regardless of whether or not you go out and network, please make sure that your friends are ambitious and hard working people who you admire.

The writers I hang out with, work with, swap editing with, and read all have one thing in common: they write. Usually they write a lot. And when they write, they’re serious about getting their writing out there, one way or another.

I used to describe them as people who were working to get published (and I appointed myself as judge of whether they were realistic in that, for better or worse). Now I look a little more widely, realizing that there are many paths, and many measures of success; now I look for writers who have defined useful goals and work to achieve them. (Again, whether the goals are useful is something I judge for myself.)

But people who talk about wanting to write? They aren’t people I talk to about writing. People who have been working on the same novel for ten years? People who have this one idea they’d like to turn into a novel? People who do nothing but “free-writing”? People who don’t want feedback on their work?

Those are good people, fine people. I have no problem with those people. But they aren’t people I talk to about writing. The people whose opinions I value, whose stories I hang on, whose work I seek out and ask to read and offer to help with and whose signed copies I display on my shelf with pride: those are writers.

And there’s another side to this: why would those people want to hang out with me? They are perfectly capable of judging my goals, and whether I’m working towards them realistically. And there’s no doubt that plenty of them have considered me and found me wanting, by their standards. And that’s fine, too.

In short, to be a peer of other people whose work you respect, work like hell and make sure that what you produce is at least approaching the same sort of quality. If you want to hang out with great people, start by being one of those people.

The Oenophile’s Quandary

Cartoonist David Malki introduced us to the Oenophile’s Quandary:

Presented with something that, over time, increases in quality (like wine) or value (like money in a savings account), when’s the right time to use it? If you’re saving for a rainy day, how hard does it have to rain before that’s it? And as the item gains worth, wouldn’t it have to rain harder and harder before it makes sense to pop that cork?

And isn’t it good to exercise a healthy discipline of delayed gratification? If in doubt, save it?

Sound familiar? I think of this every time I finish something I want to send out for publication.

The work itself doesn’t improve over time, but it can potentially improve through revision. Theoretically, you could revise something infinitely, increasing its quality more and more with each pass.

Then again, you don’t want to have to wait forever to publish something, do you? In today’s world of zero-cost (or at least zero-upfront-cost) publication, you could e-publish immediately upon completion and start earning income right away. But a single pass through the piece to proofread it would be minimal time invested, and potentially keep from turning readers off with an errant first-page typo.

Or is it just an excuse to put off the unpleasant work of actually sitting down and editing one’s work?

This weekend I submitted something to a publisher during one of their rare open submission periods. I had to submit the first five chapters, and I spent a long time on them. Someone should tell philosophers about deadlines.

Word tip: smart find and replace

One of the many superpowers Word has that writers will often need to use is the find and replace tool. You probably have used it yourself–for example, when you’re changing a character’s name and want to make sure you get every instance in the manuscript changed.

Let’s look at that example to start. The character you named Wesley is going to be called Lance now. So you hit ctrl-h:

04-03-2013 10-12-04 PM

and click Replace All. Simple.

Oh, but wait. You called him Wes most of the time, didn’t you? Better replace those too.

And then you proofread, and find this:

04-03-2013 10-12-04 PM


Whoops. Time to unleash the power of search and replace.

Start by clicking the “More” button at the bottom left corner of the dialog box, and behold:


Many more juicy options! In this case we’re going to select two of them:

  • Match case will make sure that only instances of Wes will be replaced. That means westerly and awesome won’t be affected.
  • Find whole words only will ensure that only Wes will be replaced. West Egg won’t become Lancet Egg.

This will take care of almost all of the instances of Wes in your manuscript. Just to make sure, though, we’ll search for Wes without the Find whole words only option, and see…

searchfail 2


So you’re still going to have to go through the manuscript with the search tool and scrutinize every Wes that appears. It might even be worth looking for wes, just in case. But by using the search and replace features that Word provides, your task is much easier.

Next up: Searching for and replacing special characters.


On Amazon and bestsellers

Recently, a somewhat successful writer demanded to know where all his money is:

This past summer, my novel, “Broken Piano for President,” shot to the top of the best-seller lists for a week. After Jack Daniel’s sent me a ridiculously polite cease and desist letter, the story went viral and was featured in places like Forbes, Time magazine and NPR’s Weekend Edition… My book was the No. 6 bestselling title in America for a while, right behind all the different “50 Shades of Grey” and “Gone Girl.” It was selling more copies than “Hunger Games” and “Bossypants.”…

From what I can tell so far, I made about $12,000 from “Broken Piano” sales. That comes directly to me without all those pesky taxes taken out yet (the IRS is helpful like that)…

The book sold plus or minus 4,000 copies.

Many writers, publishing for the first time, assume that the rewards will be far greater than they actually are. Because the book exists, their thinking tends to go, people will buy it; the inevitability of huge cash rewards must therefore follow.

And most learn in short order that the reality is different. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a handful of sales a month on Amazon. Four thousand sales in a week is a great total. But it’s still penny-ante stuff. How much money did the author expect to make from those sales? Why is he mystified that he’s not rich?

He sold more copies than the year-old 50 Shades blockbuster franchise. That series has sold 65 million copies, through every store in every strip mall and airport in the industrialized world. Outselling it for a week on one website? A blip in the statistics. Believe me, the 50 Shades stakeholders didn’t notice it.

No, the real lessons here seem to have passed the author by:

  • It only takes 4,000 sales to be a best-seller on Amazon. That’s fewer sales than it takes to be a best-seller in all of Canada. It’s not a lot of sales.
  • The traditional publishing and distributing model is still master of the publishing world. Will it change? Maybe — probably — but it hasn’t yet. More books in more stores equals bigger sales.

ABNA Quarterfinalist

Brendan's Way - ABNA 2013 EntryMy SF novel Brendan’s Way has been selected as a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Woo! It is one of 100 SF/fantasy/horror novels selected as a quarterfinalist, which is a list whittled down from 500 second round selections.

The quarterfinalist entries were selected on the basis of a 3000-5000 word excerpt from the novel. If you’re interested for any reason, you can download mine to your Kindle-enabled device here. And you can also add your reviews to the excerpt as though it were a real, live, Amazonian book. Please do so, especially if you have five stars hanging around looking for somewhere to go.

I’d love to share the enthusiastic and, I admit, embarrassingly orgiastic comments that the reviewing judges provided for my excerpts; unfortunately, they are not yet available, because of some kind of error on Amazon’s site. But when they appear, and provided that they are as unequivocally positive as I am assuming, I will post them here.

In the interest of pedantry (and no one is more interested in pedantry than am I), I note that quarterfinalist should be hyphenated. I don’t like this unhyphenated compound word, no, not one jot. It’s spelled correctly in the contest rules but they’ve removed the hyphens on the announcement web page. Odd. As long as I make it to the semifinals or semi-finals, though, I will withhold my complaints to the management.