Blogger: Wendy Lawton
What kind of things do I look for in a new client? Things like being knowledgeable and invested. And writing books that have commercial appeal. And offering fresh ideas and a fresh voice.
I also look for a writer who is realistic and prepared for the career view. When I get a query that insists I look at the “next bestseller,” I toss it in the round file. Yes, there are a number of debut books that became overnight successes. Just like there are lottery winners who recently won hundreds of millions of dollars. But does that mean if you buy a lottery ticket you’ll win millions?
We can’t plan a career around hoping for a miracle. Many fine, fine published books go virtually unnoticed every year. Reaching bestseller status is a convoluted combination of hard work, writing skill, word-of-mouth and that unpredictable combination of events that take an author to the tipping point.
I’m looking for writers who are realistic– knowing that they are going to have to pay their dues, possibly with very little return in terms of attention and money for the first few years. A writer must work hard at building his readership. Success comes when that readership builds with every book. It’s when a writer has a number of books in print, regular royalty checks, new book contracts and a growing readership that a successful writing career is born. One bestselling writer once told me that it took eleven years until she broke the six-figure income barrier.
So I’m looking for writers who are prepared financially for the long haul. When we have clients who are desperate to make money we have a problem. This industry is not like a job. The money is sporadic and never guaranteed. A writer needs to be able to support himself while he builds his career. Or else you need a “patron of the arts,” as one writer describes her spouse.
Building a writing career is not so different from starting any business. If you were going to buy a Subway franchise, say, you’d need the money to purchase the business; money to buy food, materials and supplies; and you’d need money to live until the business hits the break-even point. Why do we believe writing will be any different?
Financial desperation leads to all kinds of short term decisions that sabotage a career. We’ve all heard of writers who take on too many projects because they need the money and end up missing deadlines, turning in shoddy work and losing the respect of their publishers. And a writer who is worried about money cannot be creative. The book always suffers.
I’m also looking for writers who are emotionally equipped for the long haul. Writing is a tough business. It can break your heart. The market is fickle and the odds are stacked against us. Writers need to be able to take rejection, critique, tough reviews and sometimes a stalled career. Too-fragile writers will crumble under the pressure. All that said, there is nothing else quite so satisfying. I look for resilient writers.
I also look for writers who have enough years to build a career. As agents, we pour ourselves into our clients. The first several years we may see precious little return on our investment. That’s okay, that’s our part of the financial long haul. If we believe in a writer we’ll work like crazy with absolutely no return in the early years if necessary. But if a debut writer who is seventy-five years old comes to me, I need to be positively bowled over by her book because, even if she writes for ten years, it’s barely enough time to really get a career launched. Of course that’s not to say I wouldn’t take her on if I loved that one book. I’ve done it more than once.
I look for settled writers. If a writer tells me he’s going to be moving to Sri Lanka for a period of five years I have to wonder how we can build a career with an inaccessible author. Writers who take “writing breaks” to raise children, to care for parents, or to “find themselves” usually find themselves with a stalled career. Writing is like any other business, the commitment needs to be there.
As you can imagine, things come up in any writer’s life. We can’t plan for everything but I am talking about building a career. These are some of the things I chew on when seriously considering a new client.
I sure appreciate the honesty in this post, Wendy, and it addresses two of the reasons why I no longer query.
– First, I don’t have the money to invest even in the needed infrastructure of a professional web page. It’s simply not there (even though I do have a domain name reserved).
– Second, I don’t have the years.
* The only career for which I can hope is based on a miracle – more than one actually. I need the miracle of healing that will allow me to write a meaningful amount again, and the miracle of a blog post or one of my existing books going viral.
* Hoping for a miracle doesn’t mean I’m sitting back and waiting for it to happen; far from it. I push as hard as I can to do what I can, but it’s painfully (literally!) evident that it’s not nearly enough.
* My writing future, not to mention my very existence, are in God’s hands, and now I realize that they always were.
Thanks for your straightforward and realistic advice. I’ve been conflicted about why I am writing, and to whom, for a long time. Consequently, my memoir of childhood “drama and trauma” is schizophrenic, and I know it. In truth I don’t have the years or the dollars to invest in a writing career. I won’t stop working, but now I am able to approach my work with very different expectations. I am eager to apply the new freedom your advice has given me!
Hmmm. Years to train and hone your skills for the career and constantly working to improve. No expectation of overnight success. Emotionally equipped to handle frequent disappointment with results and even failure. Not someone who bounces around trying to find herself.
*You’re describing a research scientist! Who knew I was developing all the skills I needed as a writer? And I made a good enough salary in my scitech career that I can be my own “patron of the arts.”
*Delayed gratification―scientists are good at that, too. Writing a million-seller might be a little more likely than getting the Nobel Prize, but there are similarities. That Nobel usually comes 15-30 years after the breakthrough discovery, but you do still have to be alive for the Nobel Committee to select you. With all the marketing an author must do, I guess only living authors can expect success as well.
Carol, Lol and recognition of a kindred spirit who has found success and built transferable skills in their day job (mine is Financial Consultant) while longing to fulfill the dream of traditional publication.
If you’re working on fiction about science or scientists, I might want to see your manuscript!
Wendy L Macdonald
Wendy, this is an impressive and intimidating list of credentials. Looking at it from a writer’s perspective, these are the same qualities I desire in an agent. I don’t want something I’ve written flung into print and publication before it’s been fully ripened on the vine of edits and revision.
My husband recently called my writing a mission. He sees himself as more than a patron of the arts—he sees himself as part of a calling. This blessed me beyond any words I could write to him in a thank you card.
Blessings ~ Wendy Mac
Very sweet, Wendy … I love what your husband said.
Hmm, guess this makes me a patron of the ministry. I have worked so that Hubby could do ministry without worry over the salary.
* Long haul? Kids are launched. This would be a good time to start a new “long haul” (a book is a lot like a kid, right?)
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
For wont of a better. less long winded comment, I tossed the keys when I got on this ride, and I don’t plan on leaving the park.
I’m a long-haul kinda girl.
Yes, you are. I’m enjoying your journey! 🙂
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
And I’m thrilled you’re a part of it.
Thank you, Wendy, for this inside look into what you look for in a potential client. Your points make a lot of sense, and there’s definitely encouragement in knowing that a good agent will be committed to the long haul, as well.
Janet Ann Collins
Nearly all of my published writing has been in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. I don’t expect to get rich from my writing, but I’ve learned several times that something I wrote made a major change in a reader’s life, so that makes it all worthwhile. Of course if any of you do want to buy one of my children’s books I won’t complain. 😉
Hmmm, I’ve got 9 years 8 months and 26 days left to query.
I’ll pass, thanks. Eight years was enough.
David, we need your voice. PLEASE don’t pass.
“Pass” as in “not query”. I’m still writing and publishing. Just through other means than trade publishing.
Good on you, David.
For me, if I didn’t believe in my message I would quit or see writing books as a hobby. But it’s not a hobby for me. It’s part of a calling. The years are not in my favor but I carry on. I am convinced that God propels some books forward and that is an encouragement, which we all would agree is true. Wendy, you are telling it like it is. We, the keepers of the flame, must also see it realistically but also hopefully. The option to self-publish is a gift we’ve been given (providing the book is well done). I like to pray for opportunities. For some of us it would appear it is too late. But I don’t believe it (on my better days). I also know that it is not possible without a lot of hard work, knowledge of the craft, and key people in our lives. But for God. He may be the One who represents us, and I’m okay with that. He makes the miracle happen. Your job is to see the potential and follow the formula for wise business decisions. Our job is to be faithful with what we have been given. -Blessings to all. I haven’t been commenting lately, but I always read what you all have to say. Going through a rough patch (but still writing).
My first book was published in 2015, and I was 75 years old. Since then I’ve had two more novels, a novella published in a compilation ,with another one that will release in May. Plus, the first of three novellas that follow my original series, the others will release in July and November. I’m grateful for a publisher who believed in me enough to disregard my age. I don’t know how long I have to write. But neither do they who are much younger. God has ordained my years, as He has theirs. As long as He gives me stories, and a keen mind (although with fiction, who would know :O), I will keep writing. There is something to be said for years of living that give credence to the stories that are told.
Thank you so much, Julane. I am 70 years old, and hope that my writing will be published some day.
I love your list, Wendy. Because you’ve lived this list. One of many things that I admire, as an outsider, is your selection of clients. I love how supportive of each other they seem to be. I can’t imagine being in your shoes … choosing people that you plan to spend your years with and on. I know you bless each other.
I was amazed when I told people I was writing a book, or then that I had an agent that their first question was whether I’d stop working right away. To your point about ” It’s when a writer has a number of books in print, regular royalty checks, new book contracts and a growing readership that a successful writing career is born” — that’s just for the career to be born. Those things have to continue or the career won’t grow.
I’ve never tried to see it as a tipping point of ‘not working any more.’ The work might change, but always continues. I’m excited about some upcoming opportunities that can help build the platform for the ‘real book’ – but taking each day, week, and opportunity as it comes and enjoying the ride and adventure.
Mary Kay Moody
Thanks, Wendy, for the wisdom and integrity to speak the hard truths. For new-to-the-pub-world writers, this business can seem veiled in thick fog. You’re a great lighthouse/foghorn. 🙂
Well, let us see, now. If I’m too old, don’t bother. Which is true, given how long it takes publishers and agents to get it together.
If I don’t have an appropriate amount of money, don’t bother. I suspect that’s because trad-pub takes years and years of rejections that I should wait for before writing my next book. Good luck with that. So yes, I won’t bother.
Travelling? Don’t bother. No prob. I won’t bother you either.
All in all, a good list. Unfortunately, I’m too busy writing and publishing under pseudonyms while selling books to bother.
I am disturbed and disappointed by the comment about a writer’s age. There are no guarantees in this world. No one can say a writer in their 20’s will not die tomorrow. Of course you want to be “positively bowled over” by any book you wish to represent, don’t you? Age should never, ever be a reason to judge a writer or their work.
Morgan Tarpley Smith
lol I love the “patron of the arts” comment. Unfortunately, my “patron of the arts”/husband is a high school teacher, so while he gives plenty of valuable support and feedback he is not so much of a patron. 🙂 Anyway, thanks for this realistic look into the “writing career view.” I definitely will not quit my day job and I do not expect my writing to fund my life, but it’s great to have those goals while they are grounded in reality. The advice is much appreciated. And I hope I get the privilege one day to be grounded in reality with my own literary agent. 🙂
Thanks for the blatant, unrepentant ageism. Dissing of those over a certain age serves nobody well. I did not sell word-one till I was 50. Luckily I don’t need an agent and if I did, I would never allow Books & Such into the running.
So you wouldn’t be too interested in some old geezer living and writing in Siri Lanka? I dunno, Wendy, it kinda worked for Arthur C. Clarke! BWHAHA! TBH, I chose self publishing five years ago and am doing quite well… living the dream and all. Sure beats selling dolls, huh?
Thanks a lot, Wendy. I learned something from this article and understand the truth that Wendy tells from her heart at agent’s side. But I want to share my point of view regarding “age” and “settled writer”.
Three years ago, I was inspired to write a historical fiction in the background of WWII, Pacific War, and Korean War. The book title is Momentary Troubles that tells the life of a Chinese Christian intellectual who had American university degree in 1930s. The novel is done recently. I had scientific and administrative academic backgrounds, both at graduate level, but no literature training. Before writing the novel, I had never imagined building writer’s career. When my first novel is done, I have reached 50.
Wendy mentions “settled writer”. I would like to say, it is recent more than two decades’ “unsettled” tent journey in two countries and a few cities that forms the reservoir of my writing treasures, particularly, the life of ministry in a pagan’s country as pastor’s wife, Sunday school teacher, sermon interpreter, and business manager. Youth is precious, however, I couldn’t get the novel done before I am 50 years of age.
Since last year I have planned writing other books, however, I have learned one of the most important lessons: If it is the LORD’s will, I will live and do this or that. (James 4:15). Truly, I want to share a cherished gain through my writing: always pray before typing, never stop praying for the Lord’s leading and inspiration. I know who holds tomorrow.
Linda Elliott Long
Thank you for your thoughts, Ann — very encouraging. I hope I have time for my novels to published, even though I’m 70! I must have faith that, if the Lord wants my writing to be read by anyone else (and, I hoped, blessed), that He will make it happen. Blessings to you.
Thanks a lot Linda for your kind words.
Linda, you are 30 years younger than many people worldwide who are more than 100 and still write for themselves, not to mention us who write for glorifying the LORD and HIS kingdom.
\We should pray for getting constant courage and strength from Christ.
Even we are silent after leaving this world but the book still speaks for our faith and our Savior Jesus to bring people to repentance.