Saturday, May 31, 2008

Character versus Plot

What is more important for a successful novel -- a protagonist with a flawless character that everyone can empathise with, or an interesting, unusual storyline where a slightly flawed character transforms for the better?—Anita Saran, Bangalore City, India

I think that both will make for a great novel. Novels are not constructed out of Legos. It's not just a question of getting a bunch of pieces that will fit together. Novels, like paintings, quilts, or tapestries, are comprised of interwoven threads and cloth or layers of paint, built up carefully so that each sentence, paragraph, and chapter contributes to the bigger picture. Don't try to focus too hard on plot versus character. There is no "versus" or competition there. They must work together like the paint or the thread and cloth to make for a beautiful whole.

Or, to simplify. In a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, once the bread is squished together, you cannot separate the peanut butter from the jelly. Your novel works the same way. :)

Z

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Audits and Other Fun Activities

I am considering auditing my publisher for three books i have written, all of
which have blown by the respective advances. Give me some advice. I live in
Florida, my publisher is in Chicago. What is the best way to go about it?—Jeff
Snook

Short of getting on a plane and doing an audit yourself, probably the most cost-effective solution would be to find a CPA in Chicago to conduct the audit and report back to you. The costs of such an audit would be fairly high I expect. In fact, most authors never audit their publishers for this reason.

I've heard tell that Stephen King audits his publishers every year. And he should. With that many millions of copies in print, errors are certainly made. As an agent, I recommend that clients consider auditing just as regularly or certainly every three years, since most publishers' boilerplate contracts state that royalty statements are binding after three years. Yet I have never had a client audit a publisher.

One potential way to avoid the cost is to find a CPA to do an audit on a contingency basis. Just like an attorney working on contingency, the CPA only gets paid if he or she finds you money. Of course, the CPA is likely going to want to review all of your statements first. If he doesn't find anything noteworthy, he will stop there. A CPA working on contingency is unlikely to go into the publisher's royalty department if she doesn't think there's money to be made.

Also, keep in mind that your CPA can make money on a contingency deal, even though you do not. Imagine this scenario: You were paid a $50,000 advance and have earned out $20,000. You ask your CPA to look on contingency with the terms being that the CPA gets 1/3 of whatever he finds. He goes in and finds that you have actually earned out $30,000, not $20,000. So the CPA found you $10,000. But because you still haven't earned out your advance, you don't get any cash. But you now owe your CPA 1/3 of $10,000.

Most publishers will pay for the audit if you find discrepancies in the publisher's favor in excess of 5%. But 5% of what? For some publishers, it's 5% of whatever they should have paid you. So if they should have paid you $30,000 but only paid you $20,000 in royalties, well, $10,000 is clearly more than 5% of $30,000, so likely the publisher will pay for the audit. Other publishers require the error to be more than 5% or 10% of the total amount previously paid, including advances. So imagine you got an advance of $50,000 and earned royalties of $20,000, for a total of $70,000 earned. But you do an audit and find an $6,000 error. Well, $6,000/$70,000 is about 8.5%. The publisher will not pay and you will have to foot that bill. Fortunately, it is a business expense, right?

And some publishers actually try to put in their contracts that you cannot hire a CPA working on a contingency basis. Sneaky, huh? They figure if you can't do that, then you're less likely to audit. But how will they know, I've always wondered.

There are a few companies that do such audits. Search online for publisher or author audits and they should come up.

One firm that does them is Marcum & Kliegman, an accounting firm out of New York. Gail Gross, who has been doing audits for years, recently moved over to that firm. Find that firm online at http://www.mkllp.com/services/agency.asp.

Another expert in royalty reviews is Paul Rosenzweig of RRS, Inc. He is out of Walnut Creek, CA, and can be reached directly royaltyreview at sbcglobal.net.

A final thought, especially for Mr. Snook: Not all royalty records are kept where you might expect them to be. Wizards of the Coast is located in Washington State. The records are in Providence, RI, with parent company Hasbro. Simon & Schuster and Penguin both have their royalty offices in New Jersey, a long way away from any nosy New York City-based agents. Perseus keeps their records in Colorado. Your publisher may be in Chicago. Their royalty records may not be. Interesting, huh?

Z

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Q&A with the Internet Writing Workshop's Writing list

I've been asked to take some time and answer some questions from the Internet Writing Workshop's Writing list. So here we go:
If an author self-publishes a book which attracts good reviews, is it worth
submitting the book to agents to see if it would interest a major publisher? How would such an approach compare with the traditional one of query -> sample if requested?—Clive Warner, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.

Many a book that was first self-published went on to be published by a major publisher. THE CHRISTMAS BOX is one great example. So, sure, query agents. But recognize that you will probably have to then mail them the book itself. Alternatively, since you self-published, you should have a file of the published book. Why not just print out a chapter if they ask for a sample chapter?
If your agent doesn't seem to have the connections they presented to you when the relationship began, how do you leave, and what do you say when searching out a new agent?—Ann Hite, Atlanta, Georgia

What you describe may be a simple miscommunication or it may legally be fraud. In either event, you leave by reviewing your agency agreement's termination clause. If you don't have a written agreement, just send a Certified Letter, Return Receipt Requested, informing the agent that you are terminating your relationship effective immediately and to kindly return to you any and all materials on-hand, as well as a written report within 10 business days of each and every editor/house to which your work as submitted, as well as the date such submission was made, copies of any rejection letters or emails received, and a list of any outstanding submissions.

You may own the agent a commission if an outstanding submission results in an offer.

When you go searching for a new agent, you simply query them. You may wish to wait until you have something new to show. Frankly, if your old agent muddied the waters at several houses, I'm not sure another agent will be that interested. Still, if the book is great, your new agent may have some other ideas. You won't know until you try querying a few.
Is there a rule of thumb about writing in more than one genre? Maybe an author writes mysteries or romances as well as memoir or nonfiction -- is that a problem for marketing the author, undermine credibility or cause difficulties when selling books?—Dawn Goldsmith, Oviedo, FL

It's generally only a problem if an author expects his or her agent to be shopping multiple books in multiple genres at the same time. If you are Stephen King or John Grisham, this is likely not a problem, but for other authors it may be. For example, if you sell one book and the option clause gives the publisher the rights to your "next work," then you can't go sell anything new elsewhere, no matter what the genre. Your current publisher gets first dibs. Thus, an option clause should always be as narrow as possible, e.g., "next mystery in the series," "next fantasy featuring the Dwizzleworm character," etc.

Also keep in mind that an agent may love a new client, but dedicating hours and hours to one new client to submit three or four different projects to sixty or eighty editors might test the limits of that love. I like to start new clients out with their best book and try to get the career rolling. After that, I play it by ear.
What should a first noval writer do to get the attention of an agent?—Fern Phillips, Creston, British Columbia, Canada

Spell "novel" correctly? Okay, maybe that typo is not yours but Greg's, since Greg forwarded these questions. Just write a great query letter. There are tips on my website at www.zackcompany.com and other places.

Some years ago I wrote a mainstream novel. It found an agent, who sent it around to a number of publishers. For reasons, not relevant here, the book never found a home. In late 2004, the agent stopped sending the book around, and we agreed to part company.

Now I'm revamping the book and think it is much improved. When I send it out to agents again, should I mention it went around the block once before? If I do so, won't it ruin my chances to find an agent? Why would anyone want to take a chance on a book others have already rejected?—Kate Reynolds, Tucson, Arizona


If the book is truly revised, my advice would be to change the title and simply query agents as though the book is new. Once you find an agent who is interested, bring him or her up to speed, but emphasize that the book is completely revised and I think you will be fine.

Got a question of your own? Send it to us at our blogquestions email address.

Z

Friday, May 02, 2008

April's Monthly Wrap-Up

Oh, I am on fire with these monthly wrap-ups.

In April, we received...
  • 53 queries and rejected 40;
  • 10 requested sample chapters and rejected 10;
  • 1 requested manuscript;

We currently have 26 requested sample chapters to read, 3 proposals, and 3 full manuscripts. on hand to read.

We have read all sample chapters dated before February 29th. If you submitted a sample chapter to us before that date, we have already responded. If you did not receive that response—and you included an SASE or an email address if you are out of the US—then something has likely gone astray.

Z