Q&A For Writers

Occasionally I get asked about contracts, agents, queries, etc., so I wanted to list some answers here. Remember, this Q&A reflects my opinion only, and shouldn’t be the only source of information you utilize.

I’m writing a novel and I want to get an agent. When should I start querying?

After you’ve finished your novel, polished it, and sent it out to at least one trusted person for feedback (preferably more). It’s amazing how many things you can miss, like grammar errors that spellcheck won’t catch or places where your plot has holes. A critiquer is invaluable for catching many of these mistakes.

All right, I’ve done all that, now where do I begin to look for an agent?

I recommend Writer’s Market. Browse through their agent listings to see who’s accepting new clients in your genre. After all, there’s no need to depress yourself with a bunch of rejections simply because you’re sending queries to agencies with full client lists, or those who only rep non-fiction when your book is fantasy.

What is a query letter, anyway?

It’s a one-page description of your book’s title, genre, length, and content. Another way to look at query letters is by using a Hollywood example – your query letter is your book’s movie trailer. It doesn’t explain every character, subplot, motivation and resolution – it gives a broad, brief overview of your novel meant to make an agent excited about reading it. Sound impossible? It’s not. Several great sites give examples of what info needs to be in a query letter, and what’s telling too much. I highly recommend Miss Snark’s Crap-O-Meters. Browse through those and you will see literally hundreds of examples of good queries versus bad ones. The only thing I will stress about queries is to try to make them brief, don’t forget your S.A.S.E. (self-addressed stamped envelope, if submitting via reg mail) and be sure to include an email address if you have one. After all, if an agent’s interested, then you want to give them the quickest way possible to let you know that. And always close with thanking the agent. Good manners are never a bad idea.

But do I really need an agent? Can’t I just submit to publishing houses without one?

Yes and no. Many of the larger publishing houses will only consider agented work. So not having one limits where you can send your manuscript. Another advantage to having an agent – knowledge. Know a lot about book contracts? Rights? Average advances? Which editors are looking for the genre you wrote? A good agent does, and they can usually get you a better deal than one you’d broker on your own. Plus, a good agent helps you plan for your future as well, so they really can make a tremendous amount of difference.

Okay, so I know I want an agent. But how to tell a good one from a bad one?

Writers swim in shark-filled waters, so before you sign a contract with an agent, check them out! You’ve worked way too hard on your book to let it be taken on by someone who isn’t going to do their damndest to sell it, and some scammer agencies look a lot like the real deal.

First thing to check:

Do they charge any up-front fees? ANY agency who charges an editing/representation/reading/retainer fee is a scam. Don’t believe me? Check out the Author’s Association of Representatives (AAR) and they’ll tell you the same. It’s unethical, and worse than that, it means that agency is most likely not going to even try to sell your book. Why should they? They’re already making money without having to spend time earning it. Reputable agencies charge 15% commission, period (except for overseas book sales or film rights). Don’t be fooled into believing otherwise. Some sites will even warn you about scammer agencies, like Predators and Editors or Writer Beware, so it’s good to check there too before signing any contracts.

Second thing to check:

Do they charge ‘administrative’ fees for postage/copying? This is a tricky one. If the agency deducts these fees AFTER they’ve sold your novel, then yes, that’s legit. If they make you pay in advance for mailings, copies, postage, out-of-state phone calls, faxes, keeping them up at night planning a marketing list, etc., BEFORE your book has sold, then you’re getting ripped off. Check out Writer’s Beware and listen to some authors talk about how they’ve paid anywhere from $500 all the way up to a couple grand a year for these ‘administrative’ fees. Know that jingle about the difference between the poisonous Coral Snake and its non-deadly cousin? “Red touches yellow, kill a fellow. Red touches black, good for Jack”? Well, I’d like to offer my own little jingle about telling the difference between a good agency or a scam agency: “Green before sellin’? Agent’s a felon!”

Say it a few times, it’s catchy *grin*. More importantly, it’s a warning. If you have to cough up ANY money before you get an advance check from a publisher, be afraid. Be very afraid. That agency probably isn’t a legitimate one, or if they are legitimate, then they might not be very good or they could afford to wait for your advance check before they deducted their ‘administrative’ fees.

Third thing to check:

Do they have verifiable sales? Okay, they don’t charge an up-front fee of any kind, hooray. But you can’t find a client list or a list of recent sales. Well, if you’ve been offered representation – ASK. You have a right to do this. They should be able to tell you names of other clients, even give you a reference or two, or rattle off some sales that you can look up yourself. If they dance around that and don’t give you a straight answer, then take it as a big red flag. Sure, an agent/agency can be new, but then they should be up front about that and be able to talk about some connections they have in the pub industry, like “I used to be an editor for such-and-such house, but now I’ve opened my own agency and I’m building a client list.” If they don’t have any sales or connections that you can verify … well, it’s your call, but I wouldn’t do it.

But so what if they’re new without connections yet? Isn’t having any agent better than no agent at all, since most big pub houses won’t look at unagented work?

Here’s the problem. You get a well-intentioned, non-scamming agent with no connections to the Powers That Be and they shop your manuscript around, but it gets rejected. Maybe they just weren’t sending it to the right editors, since they’re not familiar with editor likes/dislikes yet. Maybe they hadn’t helped you trim the bloat from your book, because they’re not experienced with editing yet. Maybe they’re just so new, the editor’s thrown their submission into the Slush Pile because they’ve never heard of them and they have so many books from agents they do know that yours went to the bottom of the heap.

Then where are you? Well, you’re a bit screwed, to put it bluntly. If you fire this agent and try to get another one, you’ve got all the usual problems of snagging a good agent PLUS the fact that you now have to admit that all the Big Houses have already passed on your book. And maybe your book was great but just needed a little tweaking. Still, you’re going to have a hell of a time convincing a top agent of that, since you’re competing against other writers with good books and NO history of publisher rejects on them.

So to summarize … in the soul-crushing world of finding a good agent, be your own best friend. No one else is going to look out for you as well as you are, and without crossing the line into paranoia, be savvy about who you chose to represent you.

Can’t I just send my novel to you so you can read it and refer me to your agent?

No. First, there are legal and ethical constraints prohibiting me from reading unpublished work. The short version is, if a writer has something in their novel that I also have in a not-yet-published book, my publisher doesn’t want to get an angry letter from anyone stating, “Jeaniene stole my plot!” Neither do I. Yes, this is uncommon, but it’s happened in the past. Not to me, certainly, but enough that publishers discourage authors from reading unpublished manuscripts (or fanfiction) to avoid that potential “you stole my plot!” issue. And even if no legal fight occurs, I never want someone to feel like I ripped him/her off, if there’s a plot coincidence between their book and mine (and in the same genre, plot coincidences can be rampant).

Furthermore, I have several scheduled deadlines right now that are keeping me quite busy. My time gets divided up between writing, family, blogging, reading novels for blurb purposes, and my own personal reading. This doesn’t leave much left. Furthermore, I have no idea what’s marketable, what’s cliche, what’s the hottest new trend and what’s so yesterday. An agent knows these things. A writer? Not so much.

ETA in June 2011: I hear self-publishing is the way to go now, so why should I bother trying to get an agent/publisher?

With the rise of ebooks, self-publishing has indeed grown by leaps and bounds. Some self-pubbed authors’ books are bestsellers many times over, in fact. But before you jump into self-publishing, be very clear about the reasons WHY you’re doing it. If you’re self-publishing because you’ve already done all the necessary research and market study, weighed the pros and cons, and decided this approach best suits your career goals, then it may be the best choice for you. However, what I’ve heard from a disturbing number of aspiring authors regarding self-publishing sounds like this:

“It’s too hard to get an agent/publisher! I don’t have months or years to invest in revising and querying. I’ll just throw my stories up on the web and skip all that ridiculous work!”

If that sounds like the reason you want to self-publish, then please, think again. Don’t get me wrong, self-publishing does have some advantages to it. You get to control your novel’s release date, cover, and price, plus you keep a far higher percentage of royalties. But it is not the “easier, quicker” way to publishing success, and if you don’t take my word for it, here’s what the reigning queen of self-publishing, Amanda Hocking, had to say on the subject:

“I don’t think people really grasp how much work I do. I think there is this very big misconception that I was like, “Hey, paranormal is pretty hot right now,”
and then I spent a weekend smashing out some words, threw it up online, and woke up the next day with a million dollars in my bank account. This is literally years of work you’re seeing. And hours and hours of work each day. The amount of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting. I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book. I hardly have time to write anymore, which sucks and terrifies me. I also have this tremendous sense of urgency, like if I don’t get everything out now and do everything now, while the iron is hot, everything I’ve worked for will just fall away. For the first time, I truly understand why workaholics are workaholics. You can’t stop working, because if you do, it unravels all the work you’ve already done. You have to keep going, or you’ll die.”

You can read Amanda’s full post here, and it’s worth the read. So again, nothing wrong with choosing to self-publish if you’re doing it for the RIGHT reasons and understand exactly the size of the task you’re taking on. Doing it because you think it’s the Express Lane to fame and riches? Well, then chances are, you’re in for an upsetting awakening.

Yes, there’s a lot of work between writing your novel and eventually seeing it on the shelves (or in digital format), but it IS worth it. Best of luck to you!

Comments

  1. Amber Vander says

    Hi, Jeaniene! I love your books! I can’t stop reading once I start one. I have always wanted to write my own books, but I am not very good on grammar or spelling.Your Q&A blog is really helpful for after the book has been written, but what about the writing process? Is there any tips you can give me? If there is I would really be welcome to them. I hope you have a good day, and thank you for taking your time to read this!

  2. says

    Jeaniene:

    Thank you for some very valuable information, I have started on a couple and just didn’t even know where to start! I really appreciate your sharing some very valuable insight from someone in the business.

    FYI – I just ravished 2 of the Night Huntress books and can’t wait to read the others. Please keep them coming!
    ~ana

  3. Cassie Storme-Romanov says

    Hi, Ms Frost. I adore your Night Huntress/World books – First Drop Of Crimson was absolute GENIUS! I’ve emailed before about writers block – which is now thankfully cured after rereading ALL of your recent work – and I have a HUGE problem: I don’t know how to fill the gaps between action moments. I have all the explanation stuff down to a tee but there are spaces in between where my two main characters (A young female demon and a powerful demon king) are actually doing something worthwhile (as well as funny) and I realy don’t want to fill it with idle chit-chat as I believe that makes the heroine look a little like a ‘Mary Sue’ – or a Bella as I call them after the Twilight saga heroine I cannot stand – and yet I can’t put any more explanation in. Can you help me?
    –Cassie

    • Jeaniene says

      Hi Cassie. Re-“I don’t know how to fill the gaps between action moments.” All writers struggle with this. Sorry, but there’s no magic formula to utilize – you write and revise until you’re satisfied, and then you get a critique from a friend/other writer and revise again.

      Good luck!

      • Cassie Storme-Romanov says

        Hi, Jeaniene. Thanks for the info. The only thing is I’ve been through this damn story about a thousand times and I have about six other projects on hiatus because of my lack of writers block cure! I feel like a right idiot because of it and, even though my best friend and editor is upfront with me, I still can’t find anywhere I need to revise it. I’ve gotten everyone I know – even people I hate – to read it and they say there needs to me more talk and less action. I don’t get what they mean because there’s pleanty of talking ,too.
        And good luck with the next three Night Huntress books! Can’t wait as long as eleven months for the next book!
        –Cassie

  4. Kristin says

    Hi, Jeaniene. I’ve been working on a project for a while now, and have had a few people look at it chapter by chapter and then all together to make sure the plot flows. I’m using first person point of view, but want to keep some things a mystery and I am having a bit of trouble with that. Do you have any tips? I’m welcoming all of the help I can get.

    P.S. I love your books and can’t wait for Eternal Kiss of Darkness!

    -Kristin

  5. Romina says

    dear Jeaniene: God!! you´re awesome!! i just love “halfway to the grave” unfortunately that´s the only book translated into spanish…will be the next books translated into spanish soon too?? i cried when i finished the first one, and i can´t wait to know how this story ends…please tell me that i will read it soon!!!

    love you!! XoXo

    A south american realy good fan!!! Rom!

  6. Pam M. says

    GOS JEANINE I FInished “Bones & Cat” series in 5 days! it was awesome, i felt every line i couldnt put the book down , i cant wait til 5th 6th & 7th book! I love the way they love each other,
    until now i can’t stop thinking about Bones & cat, i think im obssesed!
    I love Spade’s story in First drop of crimson , too. Now i have 2 stories to look forward to!

    Pam

  7. Matthew says

    Hi Jeanine,
    I honestly love your books and am working on my own right now. You are one of my actual influences on the novel i am currently working on. This Q&A was rather useful, and will keep it in mind when I do, hopefully, finish with the book. I tend to have issues actually keeping what I write down, it just seems to not flow properly with me, and thusly is keeping me from getting further on with the story.

    Thank you for your time,
    Matthew.

    • says

      Thanks Linda- I appreciate the facebedk. Yes, reviews are extremely important and often the driving force behind sales, especially at Amazon. I have to admit I often check out the reviews first before reading a book myself, though I don’t always let them sway my opinion. But as an author, I’m just amazed that I do have a steady show of sales, but the number of reviews don’t reflect that. I’m looking forward to researching this some more and hope the poll helps.Regards,ShannonLLBR

  8. Mary Lou says

    Hi, Jeaniene! Love your books. I recommend them to anyone who enjoys reading books of this genre. Also, I want to say thank you for taking the time to provide advice to writers who are trying to become published authors. As one of those writers, I find the query letter to be the most challenging. It has left me more lost than my mom without a GPS. Who would have thought that writing a book would be easier than writing the query letter? I’m so glad that you were able to entice an agent. (What would my world be without Bones???) God bless…and keep up the good work. Can’t wait for the next book!!

  9. Alli Curry says

    Hi, Jeaniene!

    I’m a giant fan of your books, and I’m trying to write my own series. Things is, I keep procrastinating on it. My goal was to be done a month ago, but I’m still on chapter 3. Any tips for getting over this problem? You’d be saving my life!

    Thanks!

    Alli

    • Jeaniene says

      Procrastination can be a dream killer. It kept me from writing for almost two decades. My advice? Plant your butt in the chair a least a couple times a week and write something. Anything. Doing that will help train yourself to push past that “I’ll get to it later” mentality. Also, remember that completing a book isn’t a sprint – it’s a marathon. It’s not supposed to be easy or everyone would do it, so don’t get discouraged when at times, it can feel too hard to go on. And good luck!

      Jeaniene

  10. says

    Hello Jeaniene!
    I have to say, I love your books, as well as your well written and developed personages, so I encourage you to keep writing :). I thank you in advance for all your advices to writers wanna be’s ( like myself). We have the dream and determination of writing a book and getting published, but we have no clue about the industry. Thank you so much :)
    By the way you have a beautiful name, sounds French, or at least I pronounce it that way ;p.
    ciao

  11. Phoebe says

    Jeaniene, I’m a giant fan of your books. You’re my favorite author, so I thought “who better to ask a writing question to?”

    I’m writing (well, attempting to write) a novel, and I recently had to make major changes. The problem is the changes started in chapter four, and I’m on chapter seven, so I have to edit everything. There are some things that just don’t make sense with the new plot, but I really like. How can I be consistent and write a good novel while still incorporating some older ideas?

    I understand that you’re very busy, and may not have time to answer this question, but I thought I’d ask.

    Phoebe

    • Jeaniene says

      Hi Pheobe,

      *grin* Get used to making major changing, especially if it’s a first book. I rewrote Halfway to the Grave more times than I can count. I also did major rewrites on my second book, and the original third novel of the Night Huntress series will never see the light of day because I trashed it entirely. Rewrites – and deletions – are part of the process.

      So to answer “How can I be consistent and write a good novel while still incorporating some older ideas?” it’s simple – you throw out whatever idea is not making the story better, and only keep the ones that improve the book. I used to be under the illusion that my original ideas were the best. Then I realized that they were only a starting point at times. All that matters is making your book the strongest it can be, whether that comes from old ideas or a “Eureka!” moment while writing. Good luck to you!

      -Jeaniene

  12. Purnima says

    Hi Jeaniene,

    I love your books so very much. To be honest, I read 4-5 Vampire series from other authors before coming to the Night huntress series. I have been wanting to write a Vampire-romance novel since about 2 years now. But only after reading your books, I was inspired enough to actually start writing one last week. I wrote poems when I was in school but I haven’t written since I got into college and then job.
    As English is not my first lanuguage, sometimes I feel dismayed that I won’t be able to put my thoughts into words as good as someone like you would :( I will really appreciate your advice on improving vocabulary and writing skills and also, some tips for creating an interesting plot.
    Also, would you recommend to write in a book or using a PC/laptop?
    Thanks for reading this.

    Kind Regards,
    Purnima

    • Jeaniene says

      First, English doesn’t have to be your first language for you to write great books in English. Author Ilona Andrews comes to mind (her first language is Russian, but anyone can tell you how excellent her books are). You do have to have a firm grasp of the language and grammar, though. If you’re finding that hard, you may want to see if there are any classes in your area. Reading a lot will also help you improve your vocabulary. As for tips on creating an interesting plot, well, that’s what every author struggles to do :). If you only started this book last week, then you’re very early in the process, and from what it sounds like, this is your first book. So don’t worry about making every page perfect right now. Just keep at it. It’s a lot easier to revise a finished book – when you can see your plot arc as a whole – than to tear a story apart before it’s even half written.

      I have more on writing tips and my own process here: http://jeanienefrost.com/2010/05/advice-for-writers-or-everything-jeaniene-knows-about-getting-published/

      Good luck!
      Jeaniene

      • Purnima says

        I really appreciate your advice here, Jeaniene. I have been reading English books since my school days and I absolutely agree that the more I read, the better my grasp on the language becomes. Thanks a lot for taking time out to reply to my query. Your encouraging words mean so much to me :)
        Happy new year!
        Regards,
        Purnima

      • says

        How exciting! P 3/4 has been one of my kids’ (all 4 of them, even my 10 yo’s) all time faorvuite! The Harper Collins collection above all. That huge book has been dragged through the house, and we’ve read all the stories over and over and over again. My 4 yo knows many of the stories by heart.Enjoy your adventure!

  13. Catherine Ashwick says

    Hi Jeaniene. I absolutely love your books. They’re actually what inspired me to finally stop being lazy and finish my own novel instead of quitting a few chapters in to a project. So I was just wondering how you get your ideas and how you deal with writer’s block and all that. Is it ever hard coming up with original storylines and characters? Sorry I’m throwing all these questions at you, but these are my biggest problems in writing, and you’re my favorite author, so I thought I’d try asking you.

    Thanks,
    Catherine Ashwick

    • Jeaniene says

      Hi Catherine. I talk about my process for writing a book here: http://frost-light.livejournal.com/109987.html

      As for overcoming writer’s block, I don’t have a specific formula. Sometimes it’s just forcing myself to write when I’m not in the mood, and sometimes I need to immerse myself in other stories (be they books, tv shows, or movies) to get those creative juices flowing again. As for coming up with “original” stories, first, thank you :). Second, there are no real original stories, just an individual author’s take on a particular theme or trope. Don’t worry about writing something totally unique. It’s a waste of time. Worry about writing the story that’s in your head the best way you can. Good luck!

  14. Mary says

    Hi Jeaniene, I’ve read a bunch or your books, (after stealing them out of my sisters room) and I fell in love with your characters. I need help with a few things, and hopefully you’ll be able to assist. Firstly, I want to know how you figured out all the British slang, because I’m considering making a character from another area, like Bones(only completely different). Secondly, I’m an extremely young author, and I have a great plot idea, and can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve been writing since earlier this year, but I don’t exactly know how to carry on after I finish my book. I mean, who would take a young teen seriously? I don’t quite know how to do this, and I feel like a tiny squid in the huge ocean. Thirdly, I have some great artistic “talents,” and wanted to know if you think I should do my own book cover. Thanks so much for reading, and good luck with your own books.

    • Jeaniene says

      Dear Mary,

      Teen authors have been published before. Off the top of my head, Jennifer Lynn Barnes (I love her werewolf books!) and Christopher Paolini are two examples. That being said, first you have to finish a book and polish the heck out of it before worrying about getting published. As for your artistic abilities, when a publisher acquires a book, their art department designs the cover. You (or other authors) may use examples of what you like to show them, but it’s rare for a publisher to have an author do their own cover.

      Best of luck to you!

  15. says

    i just wanted to know if your writing another book. i understand that you are writing a different series. i was just wondering if if are writing a book at this moment. i really enjoy your books.

    • Jeaniene says

      Hi Miranda, right now I am revising Twice Tempted. After I’m done with that, I’ll start writing Cat and Bones book seven.

  16. Ell says

    Hi Jeaniene,

    I just wanted to say I am a huge fan and I love the Night Huntress series. They are the fastest books I have ever read, being only a few days. Trust me, that’s really uncommon for me. ^_^

    I’ve been trying my hand at writing at what seems forever and I just love it! I don’t know if I’ll ever get published but it is certainly my favourite hobby. I was just wondering when you are writing your novels do you have a plan to start with or do you “write into the distance” as some say?

    Thank-you for your time!!! ^_^

  17. Ryan says

    I want to write a book about my true story. However it includes a crime/crimes that i was never caught for. How do i go about writing the book without incriminating myself.

    • Jeaniene says

      I can’t advise you on this, Ryan. I know very little about non-fiction writing in general and even less about legal ramifications regarding past crimes.

  18. Christina Busillo says

    Hey- Just wanted to say I really dig your books. I’ve recently become an avid reader of urban fantasy and paranormal romance and I felt hopeless to find another series as absorbing and clever as the Rachel Morgan series until I stumbled unto yours. So thank you for filling my breaks and nights with your exciting world of Cat and Bones. #forever fan

  19. says

    Jeaniene,
    What sort of reference guide for authors is there for those looking for an editor? I do work of whatever comes my way, but doing work in a genre I enjoy would be magnificent. At this point, I’m holding off a bit on my writing, though the ideas are there.

  20. Kelly Agee says

    Wow! I’ve been writing books for six, no seven years now – enjoy the process – putting my ideas and dreams on paper. I just did a page count on my latest one – 1100 pages. Lol – Lots of fluff that needs to be purged, obviously. So, I thought I’d find an editor to help me do it. That this might be my next step on my path to eventually becoming a published author. Split it into thirds even for a trilogy, maybe. Still with no intentions necessarily to send it to a publisher because I know it isn’t ready, yet.

    This post helped me – thank you – I thought I needed to pay someone to do it. You’ll laugh – I have an offer from someone to do it for $20,000. because of the length of course. I don’t think she was necessarily trying to rip me off – she’s another author and she was just thinking of the time it would take her to help me. Yet, in the back of my mind I knew my editor should be someone who was interested in my book moving toward publishing -that kind of editor – would be my better bet. :)

    Now, this naïve writer realizes she needs an agent and maybe a few friends that won’t mind drudging through her imagination on paper – Ha, ha. Thanks for caring enough for us, Newbies, to address this on your site. KJA

    • Jeaniene says

      Kelly, for the love of all that’s holy, do NOT give this person 20K to edit/critique your book. You say you don’t think this author is trying to rip you off, but she should know better than to extract huge sums of money from a new writer for something that other writers do for free ALL THE TIME. Don’t give anyone any amount of money for a critique. Find a critique group or a critique partner(s) because legit ones are free of charge, though you may be asked to critique another writer’s book as a swap. Check out the Absolute Write boards. It’s a free site with tons of information on this subject and other publishing subjects: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/

      Good luck and lock up your wallet! :)

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