May 23rd to the 29th: “What is the one thing authors can do to help make you, and ultimately themselves, more successful?”

This week, literary agents Debbie Carter, Janet Reid, Nicholas Croce and Jenny Bent answer the all-important question, “What is the one thing authors can do to help make you, and ultimately themselves, more successful?” You won’t want to miss it!

Janet Reid is a literary agent at FinePrint Literary Management specializing in compelling fiction, particularly crime fiction, and narrative non-fiction.  She’s always on the lookout for fabulous projects. Her publishing background includes fifteen years in book publicity with clients both famous and infamous. In her spare hours she drinks scotch and stalks Jack Reacher.

Nicholas Croce is a literary agent and President of The Croce Agency, which specializes in representing authors of commercial fiction. Before founding the agency, he worked at John Wiley & Sons, Rosen Publishing and Croce Publishing. Nicholas has degrees in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of New Mexico and a Certification in Book Publishing from the New York University Center for Publishing.

Debbie Carter’s agency, Muse Literary Management is listed in the Literary Market Place, Writer’s Digest guides, and Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. She holds a BA in English and music from NYU. She’s actively pursuing writers with formal training in mysteries & thrillers; literary fiction with popular appeal; narrative nonfiction; nonfiction history, fashion and beauty, and the arts; children’s and teen fiction and nonfiction. Looking for writers for new teen series about high school students in study abroad programs.

Jenny Bent founded The Bent Agency in 2009, after six years as Vice President at Trident Media Group.  She represents commercial and literary fiction for adults and young adults, with a special focus on suspense, women’s fiction and paranormal.   Since opening her doors, she’s had five authors hit the NYT bestseller list with multiple others on the USA Today, Bookscan, Borders, and Barnes and Noble bestseller lists.

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  1. First, it goes without saying, write a good book and keep writing good books. Don’t send anything out ever that isn’t your best work and always strive to improve, for every book you write to be better than the last. But putting that aside as a given, what’s the #1 thing you can do to have a long-lasting, vital career? Be a mensch. For those of you that don’t know yiddish, that’s:

    Mensch (Yiddish: מענטש mentsh; from German: Mensch, for “human being”) means “a person of integrity and honor”. The opposite of a mensch is an Unmensch (meaning: an utterly cruel or evil person). According to Leo Rosten, the Yiddish maven and author of The Joys of Yiddish, mensch is “someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being ‘a real mensch’ is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.”

    I always tell the story of my client Laurie Notaro. She spent seven long years trying to get her book, The Idiot Girl’s Action Adventure Club, published. Seven long years until she decided to self-publish it. She paid for a targeted ad at Amazon and I happened to see it. A few weeks later she had a two-book deal at Random House. About a year later she debuted at #7 on the NYT list. Overnight success? Not hardly. How did she do it? She wrote a great book. She never gave up. She was smart about the way she chose to promote it. And she was an utter and complete mensch, so much so that she won over her entire publishing company, from assistant to publisher, who then worked extra hard to make that book happen.

    Think about it this way. Unlike your agent, who profits directly from your success, a publicist at a publishing company has no real investment in your book. It doesn’t particularly affect her career if your book doesn’t do well, and she’s usually working on at least a few books a list, so your book doesn’t have her undivided attention. So what can motivate her to help you? Well, she needs to love your book. But then, she needs to love YOU. Always send your publicist flowers–it’s one of the first things I learned as an agent. She works hard for you and just like it doesn’t really affect her if your book doesn’t work, she doesn’t get that much of the credit if it does. Motivate her by being a general delight to work with and by helping her to do her job for you by doing as much promotion on your end as you possibly can.

    Another thing to think about. Say your career is having a bit of a hiccup–your numbers are on a downswing. This can happen to any writer, no matter how talented or hard-working. Obviously, for your career to continue, you need to sell another book. Do you want your editor to really go to the mat for you, to convince his publisher and the rest of the team to sign you up for another one? Not going to happen unless said editor happens to really enjoy working with you.

    My friend and former colleague John Silbersack, a true mensch himself, has had a long and distinguished career in both the agenting and editorial side of the business. He founded six imprints at HarperCollins and Penguin and has worked with every big name in commercial fiction that you can think of. I asked him once how Stephen King had maintained his success in a world where many big names in commercial fiction have come and gone. His answer: King is just an all around good guy. Everyone likes working with him. They like helping him, they feel like they are a part of his success and they work hard for him. At his level of success he could be a true diva, a real pain-in-the-ass. But he isn’t—he’s a regular, hardworking guy, who keeps getting better with each book.

    So the answer to the question, “What is the one thing authors can do to help make you, and ultimately themselves, more successful?” Be a mensch. Yes, it’s just that simple.

  2. Writers can work harder at coming up with a relatable premise and characters. Readers look for fiction that resonates with them personally, and I think writers should keep them in mind as they plan their stories. The characters or events should sound familiar in some way but [presented with a fresh angle or outlook. We see a better version of ourselves in the heroes and heroines who fight to right a wrong or defend our country as spies, detectives, government operatives, or scientists. But I do see problems in manuscripts.] When characters and events are combined in a way that won’t appeal to an audience, as in stories where the hero or heroine is in a job we don’t associate with their gender, like a man working as a stylist in fashion or a female drummer in a rock band. Most men won’t relate to the fashion stylist and most women won’t identify with the girl drummer on the road. The setting of a story is important too. I don’t think Angelina Jolie’s new movie, a love story that takes place during the Bosnian war, will find an audience here. Bosnia just isn’t on our minds. Every year at Agentfest I hear pitches for novels that don’t make sense for a U.S. audience because of gender, setting or unrelatable issues. I’m a believer in workshopping novels before getting too far into the writing. I get the impression that some writers only show their work to family and friends before pitching it at Agentfest.

  3. Buy more books. Simple isn’t it? I get paid when people buy my client’s books. If everyone reading this bought one more book a month (here, let me give you a list to get you started) we’d make more money. Yay us!

    This actually fits with what I tell my clients about publicity and promotion (usually a very sore subject!): do everything you can and then do one more thing. Because we don’t know what actually works in publicity we have to do everything we can…and then one thing more.

    The same is true for success however you define it. We don’t know what works for achieving it so we’ve got to do everything we can…and then one more thing.

    That one more thing might mean counting the books you bought last month, and then buying one more.

    It might mean getting up an hour earlier every day for uninterrupted writing time.

    It might mean unplugging the television even for your favorite shows to get uninterrupted writing time.

    It might mean making the commitment to yourself to read 100 books in your genre before you send another query letter. To really SEE what’s selling these days.

    It might mean coming to ThrillerFest even if you’ve never been to New York City, to meet with agents, even if you don’t think you’re ready, just to get some input and start figuring out how this crazy industry works.

    It’s everything you’re doing now…and one more thing.

    Oh, and one more thing? Buy a copy of THE BREACH by Patrick Lee. $6.99 mass market. I think he’s one of the best up and coming thriller writers

  4. Thank you Karen! DEEP SKY comes out in January! I’m really excited to see fan reaction!

    1. That’s great to know! I’ll buy anything he writes the second it becomes available. I know this is getting off topic, but I love everything about his books: the plots are intelligent and sufficiently convoluted that I can’t figure out where they’re going, the characters are well-rounded and engaging, the storylines are grounded enough in reality to satisfy my reading tastes (I don’t particularly care for science fiction), but are just enough ‘out there’ to be completely imaginative and surprising. Wait a second – did I just blurb his next novel? 😉

      1. Karen, I think you did! I’m so glad you’re a fan! And you hit the nail on the head about why his books work so well. :))

  5. @DebbieCarter I would like to respectfully disagree, totally and completely. It’s the writer’s job to create a world that a reader can relate to. If they don’t entirely believe in, they can at least believe it to be true within the context of the world the author creates.

    And I understand that we are talking about the thriller genre, but when “woman on the road” stories are so popular in every other genre, why can’t they be popular in this context as well? Either the writers aren’t doing their jobs in creating a believable world, or publishers aren’t taking risks in marketing novels that go slightly out of the norm.

  6. Writers need to be aware of readers and their interests. Men and women like different things. A heroine who works on an assembly line or as a cop will appeal to women who work in masculine or physically demanding jobs. But do they read? On TV tough women in tough jobs are feminized with sex. How can you a writer achieve it in a book? All publishers want to sell books, even writers who self-publish want their books to sell. Writers have to come up with relatable characters and stories to capture readers. Here’s another way to think about writing for an audience, an article titled “How to Buy Children’s Books Your Kids Will Love.” A book has to appeal to a child’s interests or they’re not going to want to read it.

  7. There are many factors that make for success, including some beyond the author’s control. Speaking of fiction though, one that’s well within the novelist’s control is having a great hook. Spend as much time as it takes to craft that one sentence that’ll sell your book.

    This may be one of the hardest parts of the whole process but in my opinion one of the most important. After writing a full-length novel you now have to boil it down to one sentence. Yet that single sentence still has to communicate the full scope of the story. The way to do this is to describe a great conflict from which the listener can imagine the possibilities of the story that might follow.

    A great hook can carry you throughout the publishing process because it gives everyone involved–from agent, editor, publicist, sales rep, reviewer to end reader–a clear vision for your book.

    There are many factors that make a book successful, the most important of all being old-fashioned great writing. However, there are so many wonderfully written books out there that don’t get noticed because they don’t have the right hook.

  8. Great advice! Thanks for posting your ideas… I know it takes a lot of hard work from the author to succeed and I’m always grateful for more suggestions.

  9. Don’t worry about platform or marketing plans for your novel. Publishers work with authors on developing marketing and publicity strategies. Are you involved in clubs or professional associations or a charity? Building a presence as an active participant in groups and as a freelance writer on your book’s issues can build a readership. But it’s a good manuscript more than platform that will get you published.

    1. Debbie,

      Thank you, thank you, thank you for your comments about platform. I get sick of reading and hearing about it. I have NEVER chosen a work of fiction based on the author’s platform. As a matter of fact, until I started learning “how to be a novelist,” I usually didn’t pay attention to the author at all. The author can jump off his platform for all I care. I just want a good story. Period.

      As for nonfiction writers . . . if platform, as I often see it defined, was most important, Mark Bowden would never have gotten Blackhawk Down published. He was never an Army Ranger. He wasn’t at war in Somalia. For that matter, he was never in the military. What he was, and is, is one darned good researcher and writer, and an excellent storyteller. That’s the “platform” that makes me respect him and look for his other books.

      Thanks again,

  10. Good discussion and insight! Thank you all.

    I am a first time, self-published author, with a full-time day job (U.S. Navy). Aside from being a mensch, I have concentrated my marketing and publicity on social networking (including ads) and garnering unbiased reviews from reputable critics (Midwest Book Review, Blue Ink Reviews, etc.). I really only started this effort in the past four months and have seen steadily increasing e-book sales (about 40 per month now) with the occasional print copy sold.

    Noting the example of Laurie Notaro that Jenny Bent gave us on Sunday, does anyone have any advice on how to attract the attention of literary agents for my first book while I am working on completing the manuscript for my second?

    @Janet, you made a good sell. I just purchased THE BREACH and GHOST COUNTRY on Kindle.

    -Matt Frick

  11. Thanks Matt. I hope you’ll love both books!

    And best way to attract an agent is to keep writing the second one and pitch that. The example of Laurie Notaro doesn’t really apply to novelists; she writes funny (hilarious!) first person non-fiction essays. It’s really hard to get a publisher interested in a self-published novel. You’d need sales like Amanda Hocking to be viable for that.

  12. Thanks, Janet. I’ve learned a lot from reviewers of my first book and the process of writing, marketing, etc. All of that is already helping to shape the way I’m approaching the next book. I’ll keep pounding away for now!
    -Matt Frick

  13. Get really good at plot. All the elements of fiction are important–plot, character, voice, setting, theme–but I’ll stop reading a manuscript if I can’t answer the question, What is this story about? I like these books on story structure: Story by Robert McKee, Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen, The Anatomy of Story by John Truby, How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat. If you know of others, I’d like to hear about them.

  14. . . . and still another thing: tap into characters and events from your life that made you fearful. In writing workshops, you’ll be asked to write in-class exercises about moments from your life that were frightening and terrifying in varying intensity. The teacher’s writing prompts should trigger memories buried in your past. What you learn about yourself will surprise you, and your fiction will become more real and meaningful. Here’s one to start: What is the scariest thing that’s happened to you in a car?

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