Friday, December 4, 2009

Publishing-Speak 101

As a new agent (Amy here), I’ve been attending a lot of conferences this year, and I’ve had the opportunity to present at many of them. I really enjoy presenting to writers, for obvious reasons. I know we have a lot in common, and as audiences go, they tend to go easy on me. (I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that most are looking for an agent or will be someday.)

One thing that can derail these presentations, however, is publishing-speak. There’s nothing worse than finding that my carefully planned talk was only semi-intelligible. So I thought it might be helpful to make a list of some oft-confused terms and their basic definitions (as far as editors and agents are concerned). Here goes…

Novel – This one should be easy, right? By common definition, a novel is a book-length work of fiction. I have heard certain nonfiction works referred to as “nonfiction novels” (i.e. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood), but this would most likely be referred to as “narrative nonfiction” (see “Narrative”) in our current publishing market. The primary take-away here: There is no need to classify a book as a “fictional novel.” If you say novel, we assume fiction.

Narrative (as in “Narrative Nonfiction”) – Does it tell a story? “Narrative” as a noun is a story or account of events, thus “narrative nonfiction” is a nonfiction book that tells a story. The most obvious example of this is memoir, but narrative nonfiction can be about events in history, science, or any number of topics. It just needs a strong story driving the book.

Prescriptive (as in “Prescriptive Nonfiction”) – This is “how-to” or “advice” nonfiction. Any book that gives information or directions to guide the reader can be described as prescriptive. You can also think of it as any nonfiction book that does not tell a story.

Upmarket – This is a term used to describe fiction that is meant for a commercial audience, but is a little smarter or more sophisticated in its use of language, character, or plot. It’s difficult to say what exactly is “upmarket” because often those boundaries are set subjectively. As Elizabeth Evans likes to say, it is the sweet spot between commercial fiction and literary fiction. Think Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. I’ve also heard a colleague offer Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife as an example.

Synopsis – Typically, a synopsis pertains to a fiction submission. Nonfiction submissions should include proposals, not synopses (see “Proposal”). A synopsis is a 1-2 page(s) summary of the events of a story. That’s right, 1-2 pages, not 10. It is a general overview of the main conflict and how it is resolved, and it helps the reader see the arc of the characters and plot. It should reveal the ending or (if you insist on keeping the end a surprise) 95% of the story.

Proposal – Proposals are for narrative and prescriptive nonfiction submissions, and they function as the selling piece of a nonfiction book project. There are entire guides on how to draft a book proposal, and we can’t include all that information here. In brief, a proposal includes an overview of the book, information about the author and his or her platform (see “Platform”), an analysis of the market for the book and the book’s current competition, plans for publicity and promotion, and sample chapters of the book.

Platform – The platform is the marketing ability of the writer. It includes the education, training, and professional or personal experience that qualifies you to write your book. It also includes the ways you have built an audience or can connect to an audience through your writing (i.e. Do you have a blog? Are you part of a writers’ organization? Have you been published in relevant publications?). It is absolutely necessary for nonfiction writers to have a platform. It isn’t necessary for fiction writers to have one, but it helps. A platform helps convince an agent or editor that people will buy your book.

Exclusive – In publishing-speak, exclusive is a noun. As in, “I’d like to ask you for an ‘exclusive’ on your manuscript.” If an agent asks a writer for an exclusive, what they want is an exclusive look at the manuscript for a set period of time. An agent can ask for an exclusive for two weeks, a month, etc., and if the writer agrees to it, the writer cannot send the manuscript to any other agent that requests it during the agreed-upon time period. If you’ve already sent the full manuscript to one agent, you can’t give another agent an exclusive. If the agent with the exclusive passes, you can send it around again. The exclusive is a necessary tool for an agent because it guarantees that if we devote our time and editorial attention to a manuscript, it will still be available for representation. 

That's not a comprehensive list, but it's a start. I'll post again with some more terms soon. In the meantime, I hope that helps the publishing world feel a little less foreign!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Literary Paris

Kimberley Cameron & Associates
Kimberley Cameron & Associates

The photo you see to your left is one I took today with my iPhone through a window of one of the many Anciennes Livres (bookstores) that line the streets of Paris. It's refreshing to see the reverence one finds for the written word - viewing this antique printing press is one of the many pleasures from which I profit, living in this stimulating and delightful city. People are reading everywhere. The buses are full and no one is idle - they are reading newspapers, books, journals, or writing on their laptops and notebooks. Haven't spotted a Kindle yet. The covers of the books are subtle - just the title of the book, usually in black and white, that entice one to pay attention to the content. No ostentatious book covers in these windows. Book signings abound, and I've been to several in the month that I've been here. Venues such as The American Library, The Village Voice, Shakespeare & CO, and yes, even The San Francisco Book Company are but a few that host and promote authors and support the expat literary community. There are also numerous writing groups in Paris. It is an ideal city in which to write, as the atmosphere is thick with the ghosts of ancient scribes. I'm having lunch on Sunday at La Closerie des Lilas, opened in 1847. The voices of Rimbaud, Jean-Paul Sartre. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, etc. are but a few the authors that echo within. Paris is a city of dreams... And, oui, I'm reading manuscripts like crazy while I'm here, looking for that new voice.

Kimberley in Paris, 30 Octobre, 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

From Bouchercon with Love (with guest blogger Rebecca Cantrell)

I (Elizabeth) often tell writers and agent friends that the mystery community is one of the most fun, supportive groups around.  It's one of the reasons I choose to rep the genre.  To say it's a lively bunch is a serious understatement.  Past experiences at the Book Passage Mystery Conference in Corte Madera, CA and Thrillerfest in NYC have taught me to expect some wild nights and pack my Advil for the next morning.  This is an incredibly welcoming group, with legendary, award-winning writers embracing newcomers, everyone offering advice and enthusiasm.  I enjoy their company immensely.   

The Bouchercon World Mystery Convention took place in Indianapolis earlier this month and I asked my mystery client Rebecca Cantrell (author of the A Trace of Smoke and other forthcoming titles in the Hannah Vogel series) to report from the front lines.



I love readers. I grew up in a family of readers, but once I entered school I discovered that most of my classmates did not yearn to sneak away and read during recess. They wanted to play soccer or Frisbee or jump rope. I was aghast, but muddled through, convinced that I was the last reader left in the world.

Then I grew up, wrote books, and discovered conferences, most recently Bouchercon. Unlike my elementary school, Bouchercon is full of people who love to read. Everyone read under their covers at night, everyone knows fictional characters that are more influential than real ones, and everyone wants to talk about their favorite books.

Where else can you have a passionate discussion about the merits of cover art before you even order lunch? (Sorry about that, Dan) Or last thing before you stumble off to bed? (You know who you are, David Liss and Reece Hirsch) Books matter and their covers matter too. And not just to me.

Where else can you have a serious discussion on the effects of war on characters in crime fiction to a standing room only crowd when the lunch hour is barely over? (Thanks, Suzanne Arruda, Charles Todd, James Benn, and Martin Limon, fellow panelmates).

Where else could I meet my delightful editor, Kristin Sevick, and fellow Tor authors, including the charming Loren Estelmann, Tony-the-man-who-knows-literally-everyone-Hays (I should have introduced him to Kelli-the-woman-who-knows-everyone-Stanley) and have a fascinating conversation with Mitchell Graham about fencing and the silver medalist at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Helene Mayer, also the only Jewish athlete competing for Germany, someone whom Mitchell had actually met in person).

I signed countless books (OK, it was 88), and talked to writers and readers until the wee hours. All of this helped get me through the six hour time difference. Getting up at 2:30 in the morning my time to get over to the book bazaar required iron discipline and old-fashioned caffeine. It was worth it when I got there to see folks lined up, anxious for a chance to get free books. Books, books, books!

It was like coming home.



Rebecca Cantrell -

"A Trace of Smoke"

Forge Books May 2009


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Change is in the Air...

It’s officially fall now and change is in the air. As you may have noticed, we at Reece Halsey have been brewing up some changes of our own that we’re excited to share with you...

We’re pleased to announce that Reece Halsey North, Reece Halsey New York, and Reece Halsey Paris have become one entity, under the new name of Kimberley Cameron & Associates. Though we’ve all been proud to carry on the legacy of Reece and Dorris Halsey and the legendary authors they represented under the Reece Halsey moniker, we feel our current team is poised for a new identity.

To go along with this transition, we are happy to welcome you to our new e-home at We are all very excited to show a fresh face to the industry, and we look forward to working with you under our new banner.

To quote the late John F. Kennedy: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Very Superstitious...

...the writing's on the wall?

Elizabeth here, pondering the many superstitions us agents have about when we should or should not submit projects to editors.

Have you ever heard an agent say she doesn't submit in August? Or on Fridays? Or during leap year? We all have our strategies about when to send our material in the hope that our projects reach an editor's hands when he/she is most receptive...and ready to buy!

Theories abound on when this optimal moment might be. Some agents are of the opinion that when a project is ready, it should go out immediately. Ex. You finish revisions Friday morning - I'm pitching it Friday afternoon. 4th of July, Schmorth of July, that editor would much rather read my client's book than go to the beach. Christmas morning, I'm sending it! Well, maybe not Christmas morning, but Boxing Day seems acceptable. The list goes on.

Other agents might take a seasonal approach. There are slow seasons and busy seasons in publishing. Slow seasons usually occur during holidays, when the publishing pros take vacations and it's more difficult to assemble the necessary teams to approve acquisitions. This is why fewer deals go through in the summer than during other times of year.

The busiest seasons are just after these holidays. Sometimes September feels as though an imaginary whistle has blown, recess has ended and class is back in session. Editors and agents are in their chairs ready to roar with a flurry of pitching and buying proceeding. If an agent has a big splashy project she might send it right after Labor Day, confident that it will stand out amidst the others. Or, an agent might decide to wait a few weeks to let the madness subside and give editors a chance to breathe and regroup.

Still other agents use mental cunning to inhabit an editor's mind and predict his/her reading rituals. For example, Betty Bookbuyer at Random House is a Wiccan and Tuesday is Solstice. She'll probably take the day off and I don't want to hit her Wednesday morning when she's playing catch-up... Trying to make an educated guess about an editor's reading habits can sometimes feel a little like tracking the mating ritual of an elusive snow leopard.

Ok, I exaggerate, but we all have our special methods. My point is that a lot of thought can go into deciding when to send a particular project, and it's important for a writer to trust his/her agent to determine when a project is ready.

Yesterday, I was informed by an agent friend that, once again, Mercury is in retrograde. Now, is it just me, or does it seem like Mercury is always in retrograde? For those of you who are unfamiliar with this phenomenon, it's an astrological condition that makes our lives just a little bit miserable (you know, for fun) for a few weeks while the planet Mercury screws around and foils all our decent, hard-working attempts at communication and progress. It's a time of miscommunication - the phone goes on the fritz, emails bounce back, your computer crashes. Things go wrong.

Being a salt-of-the-earth Midwestern gal, I was not previously aware of this condition until I moved to California and a client informed me I was not to submit her project until Mercury left retrograde. Mmm, right. Sure. Okay. Huh? The outcome of that conversation is a story for another day, but nevertheless this whole mercury in retrograde seed is now lodged squarely in my head.

I must admit I'm a little unnerved about pitching projects now, while the skies are against me. Should I wait until Sept 29th when Mercury so graciously decides to exit retrograde? Or do I let em rip?

I'm inclined towards the latter. But if you need me after work hours I'll be in the Sheep's Meadow in Central Park, searching for a four-leaf clover. Just in case.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Big Bad Book Comparison

I (Amy this time) was chatting with a writer about query letters this week, and we came upon a topic that I often hear about from writers. I’m going to call it The Big Bad Book Comparison.
What I’m referring to is the oft repeated advice that – in query letters or book pitches – a writer should describe their writing by comparing it to other writers’ work that is similar in tone or sentiment. Here’s an example (one I made up):

"In my new romantic thriller, Love in the Killing Fields, Mary Mallone, Irish nurse and blighted lover, follows her lawyer-come-soldier beau onto the battlefields of WWI. The novel is Maeve Binchy meets John Grisham on the front of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms."

Now, there are a lot of issues going on with this example, but let’s focus on the topic at hand:
The advantage of The Big Bad Book Comparison is that it can help an agent grasp the flavor of the writing or the sensibility of the story...quickly (which is helpful in our inbox-overflowing world). It can also catch the reader’s attention. What fan of Maeve Binchy wouldn’t be intrigued by a writer who professes to be Maeve 2.0? Who wouldn’t be curious to see how a new John Grisham navigates Hemingway's WWI landscape?

The disadvantage of The Big Bad Book Comparison is that it can cause confusion – even dismay – in the reader if it’s not executed well. After reading my example, do we really have any idea what this book sounds like? I mentioned Maeve Binchy, so there’s probably a love story. But didn’t I capture that by calling it “romantic”? Sure, there’s a lawyer in there. But does he do legal or military battle? Is it an occupation or an integral plot element? Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms gives us a specific picture of the landscape. But do Hemingway, Grisham, and Binchy belong in the same literary universe? Now, I mean no offense to Ms. Binchy or Mr. Grisham in saying this. My point is that all three of these writers are coming from very different places. How can we reconcile them into the same book?

So, what’s a writer to do?

Here are a few guidelines I’d like to offer. Keep in mind that they are not exhaustive and other agents might have a different view:

1. Stick with contemporary writers. If you claim to be the next Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, or Virginia Woolf, be prepared for your writing to go head-to-head with these literary gods. Literary greats have been venerated by generations of readers and critics, and I don’t think that any writer – no matter how talented – can stand up to that kind of notoriety. If you really must compare yourself to Salinger, then tell us what aspects of Salinger relate to your writing. (In my example, I reference “the front of Hemingway” so I am comparing his setting to mine, not his style.)

2. It’s okay if you compare yourself to a contemporary writer that I may not know. While you should try not to pick writers that are too obscure, you don’t need to limit yourself to best-selling authors alone. After all, an agent can’t know every writer that’s out there. When I come across a name I don’t know, I will either shrug and keep reading or look that writer up on the internet. If the comparison is accurate, you have nothing to lose here.

3. Intriguing combinations are helpful. Outlandish combinations are not. If you choose to make a “ ___ meets ___” comparison, an unusual combination can be intriguing. On the other hand, two writers that have nothing in common can be confusing. How would Binchy’s and Grisham’s writing or story sensibilities go together? What would that hybrid sound like? If you’re not sure, test it out on your friends. Does your comparison bring up more questions or does it clarify? If you find yourself writing “Danielle Steele meets Tom Wolfe,” STOP! This is impossible.

4. You don’t need to make a comparison at all. This is just one in a number of tools that you have to create a convincing query letter or pitch. If it’s difficult to find comparisons that work, don’t use them!

That’s just a start and it’s not exhaustive, but I hope that helps. Thanks for reading!


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Are You Looking For?

Often when I attend writers conferences the first question I am asked is, “What are you looking for?” You’d think I’d have it down by now. That succinct but illuminating response that perfectly describes my tastes and hopefully reveals a little wit and personality. But I find that the answer I give varies each time, and that I’m rarely satisfied with it. New ideas I’ve never considered before fly from my mouth. For example, “I’d like a post-apocalyptic cookbook. Sort of a Paula Dean meets Bladerunner concept.” What? My God, I think, What am I looking for?

Over the years, my response to this question has varied from, “a lusty beach read,” to “meticulously researched historical fiction” to “a fast-paced international thriller” to “anything with an animal in it that makes me cry.” I’ve described myself as a lover of magical realism, a die-hard romantic, and a sports-junkie. And, to be fair, all are true. One reason I love my job is I’m able to read across several genres and learn about a breadth of diverse subjects. My projects have included mysteries, literary biographies, spirituality and self-help, and even an illustrated gift book.

I like mixing it up. It keeps my work fresh and fun, but I can understand how this might make it more difficult for writers to know which projects are right for me. I have an agent friend who is fond of saying, “How can I know what I’m looking for until I’ve seen it?” Fair enough, I think, but can’t we be any more helpful? Is it possible to give a more accurate idea of what we agents do and don’t want without being Negative Nancys?

Well, the answer might be no, but I’m going to give it a shot. Here are a few items on my current wish list:

1. Mystery novels that break free from being purely genre books by incorporating a particularly fascinating setting, or historical research, or a unique plot twist. A perfect example from my list is Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. I loved the book’s setting (1931 Berlin), and was also intrigued by the heroine’s situation – that she was a crime reporter writing under a man’s pen name. I wanted to know more about her life.

2. Novels that hit that sweet spot between commercial and literary fiction. By this I mean well-crafted stories with strong plots. Beautiful prose isn’t enough. There must be a gripping story, filled with tension, emotion and suspense. Think Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

3. Sophisticated Young Adult Novels with the potential to cross over and attract an adult audience. I am mainly interested in contemporary settings and protagonists in the 12-16 yr age range.

4. Lively, fun nonfiction that feels edgy and current. I would love to find a strong pop culture or pop reference title. I want quirky! Of particular interest are Do It Yourself titles that might explore topics such as home brewing, urban farming, etc.

5. Serious nonfiction with a strong intellectual bent. I’m looking for authors who are experts in their field. Award-winning journalists, college professors, notable scientists… I would welcome projects with academic origins as long as they have enough accessibility and commercial appeal to attract a broad mainstream audience. Think Malcolm Gladwell or Jon Krakauer.

And a few items on my Desperately Seeking Not to Receive This list:

1. Any fiction that could be described as “quiet.” As Cormac McCarthy proves, literary fiction can be big, loud and tough like any other genre. I’m not seeking major pyrotechnics, but I should feel drawn into a strong story within the first ten pages. No flowery prose please. Lyrical is okay, flowery is not.

2. “Misery Memoirs.” Examples of memoirs I love are Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight and Reading Lolita in Tehran.

3. Thrillers with plots based on terrorism or American politics. No hardened cops, FBI or CIA agents who team up with beautiful young protégés, please.

4. Fantasy. I’m facing the truth; it’s just not for me. Unless you’ve written something bleak and fascinating and post-apocalyptic like The Hunger Games, the Handmaid’s Tale or Never Let Me Go. In that case, I want to sign you immediately.

5. Novels from an animal’s perspective. I have one on my list that I love, and I’m not seeking any more. I do love animals though, and wouldn’t mind more nonfiction about them!

Please note that the items on this list are subject to change, and through our handy new blog I’ll try to keep everyone posted while avoiding reporting every fleeting whim (Vampires in Tudor-Stuart England). Thanks for reading and till next time!


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Plunge

I sat politely and listened, my eyes following the faces of my new agent friends as they weighed in with enthusiastic stories of how many hits some client’s podcast received, or of the great new project they’d discovered through Twitter. We were seated in a big round booth in a cocktail lounge in Chelsea. It was September, and I would be moving to New York just after Christmas. The young agents I sat beside would be my new friends in the city. They seemed hip, sleek and plugged in, and I was pretending I knew exactly what they were talking about. Outwardly, I appeared engaged. Inwardly, I wanted to crawl under the table with my martini and sulk.

Social media? Blogs? Tweeting?! Fine for them, I thought. Not for me. I was interested in books. The old kind – with spines and paper. What did Facebook have to do with great literature? Nothing, I scoffed. I could barely say Twitter without my lip curling in disgust – it seemed the worst kind of narcissism. Who needed to know, in 140 words or less, what I was up to at any given moment? And blogs…don’t get me started. It was bush league journalism. Not for serious readers. Serious readers spent hours pouring over the New York Times every Sunday morning as they worked off their hangovers with nine cups of coffee or bottomless mimosas. I didn’t turn to the internet for real information. I used it for email, WebMD (I feel feverish – Ebola Virus!), and to peruse the occasional online J.Crew sale.

I stirred my drink and thought about our beautiful home office in Tiburon, which I would soon be trading for a shared space in Midtown. The Tiburon office exuded old-school cool – bookcases lined with hardbound classics extending to the ceiling, a stone fireplace, and leather chairs perfect for reading. Not to mention the view of the
San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge peeking through a curtain of fog in the background. The home office reflected the dignity of a bygone era, and the prestige of some of the agency’s great clients – Faulkner, Henry Miller, Aldous Huxley. I was completely comfortable there. Actually, I was ecstatic. It was exactly the space all us English major nerds dream of landing, when we actually pop our heads above whichever Joyce or Woolf novel we’re mesmerized by, to think about the real world. As far as I was (and still am) concerned, it was
book heaven.

But I was about to leave this heaven, and the publishing world, along with the rest of the nation, was about to enter an economic downturn that would shock us from our armchairs. In the months to follow the conversation that always seemed to play softly in the background, the one about the death of publishing and books as we know them, would be turned up full force. Suddenly the topic on everyone’s lips was how to evolve and survive. The unanimous answer from every corner from the Association of Authors’ Representatives to the New York Observer was to embrace new media, in particular the e book. Running from the wings to save us like an overeager first year medical student with shock paddles was Jeff Bezos and his fancy new Kindle. I was skeptical.

I tend to be a little slow to embrace change. I’ve found that many of us book people are. We gravitate to old things, dusty shelves, stationery, lockets and pocket-watches. We wear tweed in non-ironic ways. We refer to our first dictionary the way most people talk about a cherished family pet. I challenge you to find a publishing person who doesn’t own at least one pair of argyle socks.

But there we all were, in a real disaster situation as respected editors were dropping like flies and houses like Houghton-Mifflin were announcing – gasp! an acquisitions freeze. The landscape was bleak. I, like many others, decided to sit up and step up to the 21st century. Luddites no longer, we were willing to try anything, because, after all, we cared deeply about books and we would do whatever it took to preserve them. If a chorus of industry professionals was now saying that having an active online presence would boost an author’s book sales, then golldarnit, my clients would be on the interweb by morning!

So, it is now that I screw up my courage to deliver to you this first ever blog. These days I’m an active member on and Shelfari, and even dear old Twitter. I have an unhealthy obsession with my Kindle. Just yesterday I managed to use “tweet” as a verb and keep a straight face. There may be hope for me yet.

If there’s any real message I’d like to deliver from this little tale, it is that if you are a writer and you aren’t already active on these social media sites, it’s okay. Feel no shame – there’s hope for you too! If you’re feeling stubborn and resentful and thinking of crawling under your computer to stage a Twitter-boycott, gently push those feelings aside and just give it a go. As Stephenie Meyer’s editor at Little, Brown said to me recently, while shoving a copy of Twilight into my hands, “Resistance is futile!”

But if that’s not a compelling enough reason to give it a whirl, I’m here to tell you that all the social networking really does work. For better or worse, the days of reclusive authors mailing their masterpieces to New York and then retreating to their mountain cabins while the next brilliant idea gestates are over. It is an absolute
truth that the success of a book depends in large part on the willingness of its author to promote it. We have at our fingertips, and mostly for free, an unprecedented new array of options with which to promote ourselves and our material. Let’s use it. Get that cabin wired!

I found myself back at that same bar recently, with the same
wonderful agent friends. They are gems, and I am lucky to be part of such a great community. One of them pushed a stylish lock of dark hair from her forehead, arm bangles jingling, and proclaimed, “I’m excited! We’re at a pivotal moment in publishing, and I feel energized.” Goody Two-Shoes, I thought. Really? You’re excited? You know we’re not on a panel now, right? But as my envy of her wide-eyed optimism slowly disappeared along with the contents of my cocktail, I realized her attitude is absolutely right. No fear! Now is the time to be taking risks and exploring new territory. Why fight it? We just might like it.

By Elizabeth