Journey to a Bestseller: Making a Spreadsheet For Researching Agents (Series #27)

Here are new “author photos” that are mostly me being my goofy self and my sister in law snapping away. She came by this week and did my hair and makeup for the photos. So sweet, she just called and volunteered to do it. Beca is a hair and makeup guru. @Lipstickzombae Don’t let my wrinkles ruin your opinion. Lol. I think we had more fun than anything.

Okay. She wipes her hands together with an evil laugh. Mwah ha ha. How are all of you writers this week? This new year of 2020 should be a great year of learning and success for me. I’m excited. If things go well, I will have at least one bestseller, and one contract with a large publisher. It’s good to have goals. And writing goals count. I plan to write 2 to 3 books this year, depending on how The Clockwork Pen goes. This post details the next step in our publishing journey after we finish writing the book. In a minute.

As for marketing, I spent this last week working on marketing and promotion for the trilogy. I wrote to about 50 YA book bloggers inviting them to read my trilogy, because I need reviews on the third book. You can easily find reviewers like these. Just Google “Best YA book review blogs” or bloggers. Lots of results pop up, and relevant ones, too! Lol. Here’s an article from May 2019 that lists 30 Teen Book Bloggers, Bookstagrammers and Booktubers. It took a very long time to find all 88 bloggers on my list, personally message each of fifty of them, make a spreadsheet, and add all of them to it–so I can know who I’ve asked and who answers, their contact info, and hopefully document their review. The same with all the blogs. You have to go there and read their review policies to see if you fit, write the letter for them, contact them, and record their info.

*sigh* So far, zero have responded. However, I also messaged a whole ton of Instagram book bloggers and got EIGHT positive answers. The probability of reviews there is maybe one? Even as I say that, I am hoping (praying/dying) for eight reviews, but I know from experience and the average, that it won’t happen. I don’t know if it’s a bigger bummer to have no one respond to the request, or to have many positive responses that all fall through.

I always believe in people and their word. And for a long time it hurt when ARC readers didn’t honor their agreement to leave a review, just like it hurt when someone hit “unsubscribe” on my mailing list. (Nevermind the other 800 people on there… Lol.) It felt personal. I thought, “they must have hated it so bad, they’d rather not leave a review.” And I’d cry little author tears. I had to ask myself, “when I’m cleaning out my inbox because I’m missing important messages and hit unsubscribe on someone else’s newsletter, am I thinking malicious thoughts about them?” Am I thinking, “what a dummy, they don’t have any new information?” Am I thinking, “everything they say is stupid and their gifs suck?”

No. Of course not. I’m thinking, “I don’t read any of these anyway, I’ll come back to it.” I don’t ever go back to them but that’s because I move forward. I find new things to fangirl over. The point is, the unkept reviews, the unanswered messages, the unsubscribes, aren’t personal. So they shouldn’t hurt. Nowadays, I see it as a business decision. They took their business elsewhere. If it bothers me, I need to get off my butt and win them back with some advertising or a better book.

You can use a spreadsheet for bloggers, as well as beta readers, too. I’d love some beta readers for my upcoming novel. Message me if you are interested. I write young adult science fantasy.

Step two after typing “the end.”

Let’s get to the good stuff…

If you wrote a NaNoWriMo novel and have it edited, etc. You may be ready to query. Maybe you’re still editing. That’s fine. But those of you who have manuscripts out with readers, during this time, when you are waiting to be read and for people to respond, there are productive things you can do. Like making a spreadsheet, researching agents, and writing a query letter. (I will be going over query writing again as I journey through it in a few weeks, but until then, feel free to click that link to see what I’ve already posted.)

First, before you get to researching anything, you will learn that as an author, you need to record everything. (Self-publishers are still in the editing/beta phase, too, so they don’t have to worry about this part.) If you will be querying, however, you want to make a spreadsheet. It can say whatever you want, but here’s how I do mine:

This is an exact image of my query log for The Clockwork Pen.

*First, number down the left side.

Now, across the top, make a column for each of the following headers:

1|Round/Date sent;

2|Agent;

Agency;

3|Email;

4|Wishlist details;

5|Submission specifics;

6|Response;

7|Full requested;

8|Response date;

9|Explanation (If there is one).

Yes, I’m going to explain, hold on.

~*~

1|Rounds: In this category I type “Round One,” and then the date I send those queries out. You want to send your queries out in rounds for a few reasons. First, do NOT query more than one agent per agency at a time. If you have queried someone from ABC Agency in round one, you can generally query someone else from ABC Agency when you query round two (OR as soon as the first agent has declined). Some agencies, like the one I used to work at, have a policy that a “no” from one, is a “no” from all. In that case, they WILL know (from Query Manager especially) who you have submitted to in that office and what was said. So pay attention to this. Make sure you write down the agency name in your spreadsheet. If you really like two agents at the same agency, either send in rounds or choose the one that’s best for your book.

Another reason for rounds is that when an agent asks for the full manuscript, some agents want to know. But especially if you receive an offer from one agent, you want to politely cover the phone as you scream, then tell them you’d like to think about it for two weeks. After you calm down, you jot down an email saying, “I’ve had an offer and I would like to let you know, in case you were interested.” Something like that, maybe fancier. Send it to all the other agents with whom you have a submission. Anyway, the agent will think, “Hey, if they have an offer, the story might be really good. I’d better check it out.” That raises you to the top of the slush pile. Now, if more than one agent is interested, you have your pick. If you just know that you want that first agent when they contact you, go for it. Surely you’ve vetted your agents before you sent to them anyway. In which case, you need to jot down an email saying, “I’ve accepted representation” and send it to all the agents you have queries out with. See why you might want to do it in rounds? Let me caution you though, do NOT think it’s a smart idea to falsely tell an agent that you have an offer just to raise you to the top of the pile. They may ask who your offer is with, or what agency you are considering.

2|Agent/Agency: You will notice that I say this all the time, all over the blog. Vet your agents. Make sure that they are targeted. If your book is Top 5 house material, you shouldn’t need to send to 100 agents. Yes, even J.K. Rowling was declined 12 times. But that was twelve times. Twelve. If your book has what it takes for a top house, you should know within a few rounds of 15-20 agents. But even if this is the case, if you send out queries willy nilly, without research, you will be wasting your time. One, you could get an agent that you decide you don’t want. Trust me that is a hard road, for both agent and author. Know beforehand. Don’t just send a query to anyone who is on LinkedIn listed in “publishing.”

Please, please, do not query agents (or editors) over social media. You will probably be ignored and deleted. Not maliciously, of course not. They have queries and manuscripts that they are working on who came through the correct channels, and don’t have time for those who don’t follow the rules. I have people write to me and say, “I don’t do queries, but do you want my book?”

Y’all, that is not how that works.

You must write a query if you want an agent. You have to have an agent if you want a Top 5 publishing house or imprint. If you have been querying and getting nowhere, there’s a problem. It might be with your submission materials and it might be with your story. I don’t know. I usually try to help people figure it out, but I have too much on my plate to help people individually, so I’m putting it here where anyone can read it. (Even if you bypass the agent and go directly to the small publishers, you still have to write a query.)

The cold hard fact is that Top 5 houses skim the cream off the top. They take the great books. They take edited, spell-checked, proofread, beta read, entertaining, well-thought out stories with good pacing and great voice. I’m not saying your book isn’t all of these things, but talent ranges in an unfair curve. Can it be learned? Absolutely. Stephen King said you either have it or you don’t. Total bull. You can absolutely learn craft, learn publishing, learn marketing, learn query writing, make connections, network, learn from the best. Your first book shouldn’t be able to rival your fifth. Your talent grows exponentially when writing and editing a book from start to finish.

If your book is good, and you know it–maybe not great, and you know it–if you’d be happy with any contract, if you’d be happy with a small publishing house, make sure you look into small publishers like you do agents. You do NOT need an agent to get a contract with a small publisher. Almost all of them will take an author submitted manuscript. Some will even take the submission, though their website says they won’t. I sure wouldn’t test someone who I wanted to accept my book, though, so be careful, ask around, Google is your friend.

The job of an agent is to gather names of acquiring editors at publishing houses, similar to how you did with the agents at each agency. Except these are people they have a personal connection with. Acquiring editors are the ones who actually buy your book for the publisher. Agents rely on a network of colleagues. Without those connections, you might as well be Barney the Dinosaur with a romance novel. You’re getting nowhere. When I first became an agent, the only contracts I could make for my clients were the small to mid-size publishers because I didn’t have the connections yet. Even agents have a hierarchy.

Then the agent pitches your ms to a round of editors, until one likes it enough to offer, then they can tell the other editors about the offer. If more than one publisher is interested, they have a bidding war and the author gets the best deal, hopefully. The editor may have to take it to a table discussion for a unanimous vote before they can make an offer, but once a contract is in play, the agent’s job is to negotiate it to get the author a fair deal (This is very important). For some agents, that is the extent of their job and they are done when you get a contract. Some will work with you longer, for example, I used to work through launch.

With a small publisher, like I said before, the agent is not required to make the pitch. Most small publishers use a standard non-negotiable contract. So there is NO negotiating for the agent to do. They pitch to the house, then sign the contract with you and get 15% of all your future profits.

Of course, if you don’t want a Top 5 publisher, and really don’t care, then self-publish and learn how it all works. Learn writing as a craft, learn editing, there are tons of videos and podcasts, after awhile you’ll notice people saying the same things over and over. Those are probably the lessons you need to learn, but fact-check. Just because 99 wrong people believe candles are made with sand, doesn’t make it true. If you hear something over and over, dig a little deeper and find the answer instead of perpetuating the falsehood. That’s how publishing myths get made and scare the crap out of people.

I want to tack on here two other blog posts I wrote on the subject: How Do I Choose My Agent? And Finding the Right Agent. In these articles I go into more detail and the second one, finding the right agent, details the publishing journey from start to finish.

3|Email: No matter where you get the agent’s name from, drop by their agency website and double check their email address, and submission guidelines. the best way to shoot yourself in the foot, is to waste the one chance you get with an agent by submitting the wrong things to the wrong place (or using the wrong name. yikes!). Like I mentioned earlier in this post, if you query me over Twitter, I am going to ignore you. Busted. Well, I probably won’t ignore you because I’m overly helpful, but every smart agent worth their salt will. And I will one of these days.

4|Wishlist Details: Jot down little notes from the agent’s wishlist (www.manuscriptwishlist.com) about what they’re looking for, or things they say they like that are found in your book. I make codes for myself and put things like, “story w/savvy protag & sl dark tone, c-o-age.” This means that the agent said they enjoyed stories with savvy protagonists, books with a slightly darker tone, and coming of age stories. I’m sure it said other things, but these are the things they liked that pertain to my book. So I’m writing them down.

5|Submission specifics: This is another field I have code for. I put something like this, “q+sh/syn+bio+5 pgs.” This means that the submission requirements for this agent are for: a query, a short synopsis, an author biography, and a five-page sample. Sometimes they say, “query only.” Sometimes they tell you what to put in the subject line, and sometimes they give very detailed instructions. If they do this, pay attention. *They are looking to see who can follow directions.* Generally all agents ask for a query. Many ask for a two-page synopsis and sample writing. You should have a small author bio in your query, but if they are asking for a bio specifically, you might lengthen it a bit. Here they want to know about your writing experience. You don’t have to put that it’s your debut, but definitely add if you have been published before. Most of the people who queried me were debut authors. If they had already published a book, they likely had another agent, or were with a small publisher or self-pubbing. So, I kind of assumed my queries were debuts unless they said differently.

I wrote a post on writing an author bio. Actually it says, “A writer needs three versions of their author bio. A long, or extended, version for your website, media kit and publisher. A medium length for queries and use for being a guest on a website. And a brief bio, fit for bylines and social media.” 

6|Response: I either put here “Declined,” “Closed,” or “Accepted.”

7|Full Requested: I put a checkmark here if the agent requests my full manuscript.

8|Response date: duh.

9|Explanations: When an agent responds with a decline, I put their reason in this spot. Agents use a kind of code when it comes to answering queries. An agent can never say, “This sucks.” Besides being rude and crushing an author, it just wouldn’t be good business. The response you’ll see most is: “We’re sorry, but your project is not a fit for our agency at this time, so we will have to pass.” That one is just as generic as can be, and means that for whatever reason, it didn’t trip their trigger, and they are passing.

I’m going to pass because it isn’t right for me.” If you see this one, you might be querying the wrong person. You may have something that was NOT on their wishlist, again, this is a personal choice and the subject matter is generally to blame for this.

“It’s just not a fit.” You’re in the wrong genre or age group, or it just isn’t their style. These first three should be mostly avoidable if you know what the agent wants and doesn’t want, theoretically. But you just can’t know what everybody is going to like or think is great.

“I already have a similar story.” The problem here is that the agent just pitched a story like yours to all the editors they know and if the editors were interested in that story at all, they put in an offer, and if not, well the agent already knows the chances of your getting through. So if they have one just like it, trust that they know what they’re talking about.

The voice didn’t resonate with me.” Every author has a voice. It is the way a story is told. It’s the way a writer phrases things, describes scenes, and structures sentences. Different genres often have different voices. That’s natural. Imagine sharing a story with someone else. You wouldn’t tell a horror story in the same voice you would tell a light fairy tale retelling. It makes sense that your voice would change between these types of tale. A strong voice is cultivated in the editing process with concise language, sensory words, and emotional expression. Do not think the word concise only means “short.” The definition of concise is: giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words; brief but comprehensive.

I can’t see where this will fit in the market.” This could mean that you are genre-blending, or you’ve picked a taboo subject, or it’s a crossover that goes too far. A lot of first time writers will say, “My book’s for everyone, it’s a book for all ages.” Well, great, but they don’t have a shelf for that at the bookstore. So, should they put you in the adult section or the children’s? And please don’t tell me that kids and adults alike love your book. Unless you wrote Harry Potter, probably not.

In case you aren’t clear on the age groups for each stage. Here’s a little run down. First come Board Books for babies, then Children’s Fiction, including First Readers, up to about 10-11 years old. Then we move to books for children who are 12, 13, 14 years old, they are called Middle Grade books. The kids who star in them and read them are about middle school age. From 14-18 years old is YA or Young Adult literature. There is a category above that for college-aged kids, called NA or New Adult. However, I commonly heard NA referred to as “college porn.” Most of those books are YA-type stories with older college-aged characters who get more sexually graphic. And books for 18+ are Adult.

Not sure if your book is YA or adult? Here’s a tip. YA is about “firsts.” First kiss, first job, first car, first boyfriend, first road trip, first best friend blood pact. LOL. Your protagonist can be a teen themselves, or college-aged, or they may grow throughout. New adult is about college, and roommates, being independent for the first time, and sex, lots of sex. Adult fiction has to do with paying bills, and work, and being married, and having kids, and buying a house and the car breaks down, and you spill coffee on your tie during the commute, etc. etc. You could have a child protagonist, but if the book has these kinds of “adult” themes, it’s an adult book. If it’s a book about an adult who goes through an experience that makes them act or have “firsts” like a teenager, well, that would be weird. But it would probably be a teen book. Probably only teens would find that funny. It sounds like a horror story to me. Ha ha. Says the mom of five teenagers.

“I just wasn’t passionate enough about it to be it’s champion.” This one might mean you’re on the right track. It sounds like they like some part of it, but not enough puzzle pieces are locking for them get behind it. Agents don’t make a cent until you get your first quarterly payment, or you get an advance which is not as common as I’d like. Everything they do for your book, from looking up editors to pitching, to contract negotiation, is all done for free, in the hopes that you’ll stay with that publisher and make some money. I have had clients that I have done all that for, gone to bat for, signed a three-book deal, and then the author breaks the contract with the publisher and I never see a cent for all the work I did. And I’ve had authors get their first paycheck for a few dollars and buy their rights back from the publisher, which means I never get paid for that book, either. Being an agent is a thankless job sometimes. Be nice to your agent.

“The pacing is too fast/too slow.” I feel like this one is self-explanitory, but maybe not. The pace, to me, is the rhythm of the story. You want to vary your sentences in length and cadence. Your characters should have their own style of talking and all that stuff about voice plays into this. But there is still an internal rhythm, like a train on the tracks, or a metronome. Click, click, click. Words vary, speech varies, sentences vary, but that pace needs to vary. Scenes of action, must be followed by a scene of reaction, and repeat. You don’t want to blow through the first couple of chapters and then have someone throw the E-brake and slow things down to a trickle. This can happen if you stop to unpack a concept, or describe the landscape, or go in a direction that slows the story. Maybe they are quite literally on a journey, and they actually stop and you spend three chapters on their cozy night in the cabin, with him chopping wood, and her cooking eggs, and hot cocoa on a bearskin rug…

If your book is a romance, this could be the meat of your story, but if it’s an adventurous journey, you’ve just slowed the pace down to a halt. Make sense? Or perhaps it starts too slow? Your inciting incident should be there in that sample writing you submitted. Of course, there are always exceptions so don’t yell at me. It’s a fine balance. You want to start with action, but not too much, give us a peek of their norm, but not too much, then comes the inciting incident–that thing or occurrence that shakes up the norm as they know it and begins our story. If you give an agent the first three chapters, or fifty pages, or whatever, and they are either still getting to know who the character is in their norm, or if you jumped off the diving board too fast and started with action gung-ho, they may comment on your pacing.

What have you heard from agents? Are you querying? Let me know some of your responses and I will be happy to try to decipher them for you. If you have more than one, let me know what they all say. It can give me a better idea of what the overall consensus is.

That’s all I’ve got for today. We’ll see where we are next week. Probably ready to do the final edit on The Final Rescue. Again, if you are interested in either reviewing the Freedom Fight Trilogy, or beta reading for The Clockwork Pen (both YA fantasy/sci-fi with romance), please contact me and/or comment. I am happy to help, too. If you’d like to exchange free books for a review, I’d be happy to talk to you about your own writing and how to help you meet your goals. Writers should network anyway! See you next week, and Keep Writing!

~jenn

7 thoughts on “Journey to a Bestseller: Making a Spreadsheet For Researching Agents (Series #27)

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