Tuesday, March 10, 2009

10 Ways To Do An End Run Around Literary Agents

Football Diagram

In publishing, agents are the gatekeepers, not the trendsetters. Gatekeeping is a valuable service for publishers, and it encourages authors to be on their game with marketable concepts, strong writing, and grab ‘em by the horns query letters.

I’m not disputing that agents have their role to play. Goodness knows they’ve supported their share of quirky or daring books. But when it comes to niche genres, even agents don’t have it easy. Breaking into publishing, or for established authors attempting to break into a new market is tough—even in a strong economy.

When I hear about perfectly publishable science fiction romance manuscripts getting rejected, I’m very disheartened. But it makes me realize that agents aren’t always the way to go. They are deluged with submissions, and their current clients need to take top priority—especially the ones earning out. Not only that, but SFR’s niche market status combined with these trying economic times don't exactly make for a perfect combination.

This status can (and hopefully will) change soon, but it's going to take a whole lotta elbow grease.

In the meantime, what’s an aspiring science fiction romance author to do? How can she avoid being tackled by those literary linebackers? In no particular order, here are some strong possibilities:

1) Run—don’t walk—directly to publishers

The number of mainstream print publishers that will accept unagented SFR submissions is few, but there are many more small presses/epublishers who do. Small press/epublishers are among the staunchest supporters of niche genres. And with the rise of ebooks, getting a book into print isn’t the Holy Grail it used to be.

Samhain Publishing will consider science fiction romance submissions (Executive Editor Angela James is also seeking a good steampunk with a romance). I've blogged about Desert Breeze Publishing, Blind Eye Books, and Torquere Press. I’m sure there are others, and I invite any small press editors interested in acquiring (non-erotica) blends of SF and romance to comment about their submission needs.

Linnea Sinclair started out with small presses. You can also follow the work of authors such as Pauline Baird Jones (THE KEY) to learn more about their experiences.

2) Create a platform

Before you submit to publishers, however, one key strategy is to demonstrate that you are delivering not only a manuscript, but guaranteed sales, too.

In The Kindle Revolution, Marion Maneker asks, “What does translate into sales? A direct connection to the reader. That comes from publicity or word of mouth. What publishers pay for when they pursue the high-risk strategy is access to publicity—fame in one of its many forms or something sensational—or their sense that a book will tap into a kind of social currency.”

She goes on to write, “Theoretically, the Kindle will give writers greater access to the public… These books suggest a truly Darwinian future for the book business. With the Kindle, a plucky writer can publish and promote her own work at very little cost beyond time and determination [emphasis mine]. Once she proves her appeal with a sufficiently impressive rate of sale, she’ll merit having her words printed on paper and distributed. Everyone benefits from the efficiency.” (Thanks to agent (!) Nathan Bransford for the link).

The days when a platform was only for nonfiction authors have gone the way of the dinosaurs. A platform isn’t the only factor that could gain you that prized publishing contract, but it can help build an audience of potential readers and built-in sales.

If you can’t establish a platform, or don’t have a professional background to tout, take a page from Kimber An and become actively involved in the SFR community. Visit blogs on a daily/weekly basis and contribute in a meaningful way to discussions. (One place to start is my blogroll.)

Take advantage of sites that offer guest blog opportunities. Romancing The Blog has an Open Blog Night every Sunday, and I think it’s an underutilized resource. But these days, it’s not enough to just run your own blog. Lisa Paitz Spindler is active at Writers At Play, and she also started doing reviews at SFSignal.

Mary Fitzpatrick, who runs Flying Whale Productions, contributes reviews to Enduring Romance, and I’ve lost track of how many blogs Kimber An has going (and I still think her Young Adult Science Fiction blog is a stroke of brilliance—especially since agent Ginger Clark shared that she’s seeking YA military SF in a recent interview.)

The bottomline: However you achieve this goal, make your name a household brand because editors will be more likely to pay attention to names they recognize.

3) Show them the money!

Agents are watching and waiting to see what happens with the ebook market. Last year, I remember reading a comment by Nathan Bransford that agents don’t consider ebooks a significant publishing credential, yet every other day now it seems he posts items related to the ebook market. Check out this quote:

“If you’re an enterprising author there is a world of opportunity out there. Never before have we had a book publishing world where truly anyone could publish and potentially find their readers…I suspect soon there will be even more opportunities for collectives and online communities to boost sales [emphasis mine], build brands, and become real players in publishing.”

That tells me that agents will pounce when enough $$$ abounds, but they aren’t pouncing en masse just yet. And did you know that agent Deidre Knight, who runs The Knight Agency, has placed two projects with Samhain Publishing? What does that tell you? She smelled an opportunity—and you should, too.

So consider building a backlist with a reputable epublisher—where you do not need an agent to submit—before agents become the gatekeepers of the ebook market too. Breaking into epublishing is not necessarily as easy as the same process with a mainstream print publisher, but it’s a lot easier now than it will be in five years...maybe less.

4) To market, to market

I read recently that 500 is the approximate number of ebooks an author needs to sell in order for her epublisher to break even and/or start making money. That’s a lot less than the 35,000 plus units you’d need to move for a print book. And the likelihood of you getting a print run that will enable your book to hit a bestseller list is slim to none, no matter how great your book or how spectacular the promotion you do. It’s a crap shoot, basically. Agents know this, which is why they must continue to cultivate advances.

But agent Jessica Faust of Bookends, LLC made a forecast: “What I foresee in e-publishing as well as traditional publishing is a greater need for ebooks. I think more people will buy books electronically and read them that way.” Smart lady!

So why not take control of your sales right now? Be large and in charge. Choose an epublisher over a mainstream print publisher. Yes, there’s little to no advance that route, but how likely is it that an agent will command an advance large enough to comfortably outweigh the costs you’ll incur for promoting the book? Not too likely, I’d imagine (bell curve and all that jazz).

You will still incur the demands of promotion with an ebook, of course, but since you’re going to do the same amount of work as if you had a print book, why not reap more of the profit, and in half the time?

5) A rose by any other name….

Much as I prefer that writers follow their Muses, the cold hard reality is that the market often dictates what types of stories are accepted. The “science fiction” in science fiction romance still makes some readers skittish, despite the availability of stories with very accessible speculative elements.

Consider writing SFR with paranormal or fantasy elements, and then when you submit it, label it a fantasy romance or paranormal romance. In the field of psychology, therapists call this a “reframe.” It can work wonders. When querying those publishers, use it to your advantage.

Here are a few possibilities: Write a steampunk and call it a paranormal historical romance. Or delve into m/m SF. A few publishers like SF on the literary side, so consider that angle. The goal is to get your foot in the door. Take a page from The Man With No Name: Clint Eastwood used to alternate between commercial projects and the films of his heart.

6) Write a darn good book

Because of their busy schedules, editors will often give you less than a page’s worth of attention when reviewing your submission, so make the opening count. Sharpen that hook. Polish that query. Keep submitting and be ready when opportunity knocks.

7) Contests

Enter your SFR manuscript(s) in contests—it worked for Jess Granger (BEYOND THE RAIN, August 2009).

8) Vis a vis communication

Networking online is good, but making connections at conferences and conventions, if your budget allows, is even better. Face time with editors will give you an edge.

9) Create demand a feeding frenzy.

Support your favorite authors by buying new. Purchase HOPE’S FOLLY, THE WARLORD’S DAUGHTER, NEW BLOOD, STARJACKED, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, KNIGHT’S FORK, or any of the other forthcoming science fiction romances.

Blog or comment about your favorite SFR books whenever an opportunity presents itself. More important than doing reviews is spreading good word of mouth.

The better the sales, the more likely publishers will consider adding additional SFR books to their lists.

10) And...?

This slot is for you, my ingenious passengers. What’s your game plan?

Joyfully yours,