Dallas literary agent Jim Donovan told an audience of aspiring, Arizona writers that he sees new authors make the same mistakes over and over. Donovan, a literary agent and author of A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn | The Last Great Battle of the American West, reduced his experience in the publishing industry to a list of do’s and don’ts, and he was eager to “tell it like it is.”
Donovan’s talk began gently enough, with him telling the audience that agents typically work with only the big five New York publishers. Donovan himself had once worked as a senior editor, but he’d left that position to write his own books and to help authors successfully publish theirs. But, then, as Donovan bore down on his topic and recounted the mistakes he sees in most of the manuscripts submitted to him, the audience fell silent.
“I feel like you’ve just thrown a bucket of ice water in my face!” So said a bald, bespectacled, elderly gentleman occupying a front row seat in the darkened theater. The man in the front row crossed his arms and slumped down in his seat. He hadn’t realized writing a book would take so much effort. On the stage above him, Donovan, a faculty member at the Pima Writers’ Conference, had just finished pacing back and forth. For the benefit of anyone with a thought of publishing a book, here are my notes on Donovan’s talk.
Donovan’s “Do’s and Don’ts”
- Don’t pick an agent based on where the agent lives. It’s no longer necessary to have a New York agent. Most deals are handled through e-mail.
- Agents work through e-mail. An agent can live anywhere and still do an effective job representing your work.
- Do pick an agent based on the kind of work she or he handles. The Guide to Literary Agents 2017, not yet released, will have the most current list. Another book he recommends is Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. Both books may be in your local library.
- Don’t write your nonfiction book. Write your proposal first. Agents don’t want a full proposal. Donovan wants a short query: why there’s a need for the book and why you’re the perfect person to write it. The proposal can be from 20 to 60 pages. When he signs a nonfiction author, he sends them proposals that have sold and works with them to craft one that will be successful.
- Don’t start a pitch letter by saying friends and family love your book. That’s one of the mistakes that will expose you as an amateur.
- Don’t say your writing is better than a bestselling book. Mistakes like that in a query letter will show that you’re naive.
- Don’t tell the agent you’re writing five books. The agent is likely to think you can’t focus and make one publishable.
- In your query letter do give background information, but keep it short.
- Don’t quote from previous rejection letters. If you’ve had an agent send your book out, then you need to let the more recent agent know to whom the manuscript was sent.
- Don’t ask for advice, suggestions, or a critique about why the agent is taking a pass on your manuscript. That’s awkward for everyone.
- If you’re going to write, learn how to handle rejection, including rejections by agents.
- Do work on getting published in short forms. If you can get published on a blog that has a large following and high standards, that will help.
- Before submitting, make sure you have written and polished the entire novel. He wants to see 30 to 50 pages, plus a teaser to know where it’s going.
- Don’t say, “It’s a fiction novel.” If you’ve written a novel, then, by definition, it’s fiction.
- Don’t single space. Use 12 point Serif type.
- Do read your work aloud. If you’re tripping over your words, a reader will, too.
- Do not send him Westerns. Only old men read Westerns. Young people read the same kinds of characters and plots, but they call them fantasy or science fiction. Don’t send him romance, sci fi, fantasy, or kids’ books. He likes historical fiction, thrillers, mysteries, suspense, general fiction, and the occasional horror book.
- Do not worry about having a platform if you’re writing fiction. Having a platform is not as important as writing a great book. If you’re writing nonfiction, then having a platform is very relevant.
- When querying agents, send 10 or 20 queries at a time.
- Know the conventions of publishing. A novel should be 70,000 to 75,000 words, or 300 pages. A debut novelist should not exceed 100,000 words. If you’re at 150,000 words, it will take the editor a long time to read, and it may take up too much space on a library’s or bookstore’s shelf.
- Do know how a New York publisher can help you. Acquisition editors are the ones who will present your work to a marketing board. The publisher may have a line editor on its staff, and that person will go over your manuscript and provide detailed comments. Some publishers have contract departments to market your subsidiary rights, such as translation rights and movie deal. The publisher will hire a publicist for two or three months. If you were to hire such a person independently, it would cost $10,000 to $15,000.
- “Many of the manuscripts I read are by people who can’t write a good sentence or good paragraph,” Donovan said. “I’ve never taken on a book from an author who’s said they had it professionally edited. It may be clean, but it’s sterile.”
For me, this last point was one of the most important lessons in Donovan’s bracing reality-check. I’ve read many “professionally edited” books, too, but I didn’t know what, exactly, had gone wrong. I just knew that they didn’t move me in the way I wanted to be moved when I read.
For more insights from Jim Donovan, read this Writers’ Digest article.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.