“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”
In May we celebrate “Prepare Your Life Garden Day”—a day to focus on how to prepare your professional “writing garden” so you have a successful growing season and productive harvest. Whether your goal is to pitch a book project, secure writing assignments or build your copywriting business, there are techniques and strategies you need to employ to “prepare the soil” to your efforts are fruitful.
A successful writing career requires more than just the ability to write well. You also need to be able to market yourself to clients (or editors, agents or publishers). At the same time, you need to improve your skill set and widen your knowledge base so you have as much to offer as possible. And be willing to seek advice and constructive criticism and assistance from other writing professionals. With that in mind, Jill Kramer, literary agent and owner of Jill Kramer Editorial is here to offer some professional advice on building a successful writing career.
You’ve been in the industry for a long time. What are some of the biggest changes you have witnessed when it comes to publishing?
Kramer: The advent of digital books has changed the game for everyone. I predict that in five years, we will look at someone holding a physical book and think it looks like an antiquity. Even those who say they’ll never get a reading device will end up getting one. I mean, who would have thought that the cassette tape, the VCR, and rented videos would be passé. But they are.
You’ve written several books, including Catlove and Love Dat Cat. Did you have any surprises when you went through the publishing process—aspects that you didn’t expect? Did that experience affect your process as an agent or editor, or change how you related to authors?
Kramer: Since I was the editorial director of a publishing company (Hay House) when my books were published, I was so familiar with every aspect of the publishing process that there were no surprises. I didn’t make much money from either book, but knowing publishing as I do, that didn’t surprise me either!
With the advent of e-books and ease with which people can self-publish, it seems like more authors are not going the traditional publishing route. What are some important facts potential authors need to know when it comes to self-publishing?
Kramer: I think it’s a good idea to go with a self-publisher that can provide professional services, such as a book designer, proofreader, editor (if needed), etc. I’ve seen self-published books where the author did everything him- or herself, and they were very unprofessional in every way, especially when it came to typos, poor grammar, improper fact checking, and page proofs that weren’t paginated or designed properly.
What are the advantages of having a manuscript professionally edited—even if you plan to self-publish?
Kramer: As I touched on above, it is essential for everyone to have an editor. Even if you are a professional writer/editor, it’s necessary for a second (or third) eye to look over your work. There’s no way one person can catch everything.
What are the different types of editorial assistance that can be provided? How does an author know which one he/she needs, or in which order it should be done?
Kramer: Both content editing and copy editing need to be done on the original manuscript, and then the designed page proofs need to be proofread by at least two people. Content editing, also known as structural editing, is when an editor reads an author’s work and provides advice and suggestions for improvement. It’s important to note that the content editor does not rewrite the book; the author does the rewrites.
For example: Chapter 1 should really be an Introduction. You need to expand on the concepts in Chapter 3. You’ve repeated the same story in Chapters 4 and 8. This paragraph doesn’t make sense; needs to be rewritten. Chapter 10 is too long and doesn’t really say anything. Sometimes a content edit can be pages and pages, and sometimes the book is in good shape that there’s not much to say. The author and editor go back and forth until it’s agreed that the content is in good shape. Then it goes to a copy editor.
The copy editor does line-by-line editing, fixing grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax; and also doing fact-checking, if that has been agreed upon. This person also does minor rewriting of sentences when needed.
After the book is designed, the proofreader reads the entire book for typos and design errors; and checks the pagination, running heads, consistency of fonts, and more.
What qualifications should an author look for when choosing an editor? What are some key questions to ask?
Kramer: Ask the editor to explain his/her process and the steps that they take, as well as how long it usually takes. Getting references is essential. Anyone can call him- or herself an editor (and sometimes they do). I suggest sending them one chapter and seeing what they do. Yes, you will have to pay the person for this, but it’s worth it. Also, it’s always best to agree on a set price, or pay by the word rather than letting an editor charge by the hour. This can end up in unpleasant surprises on both sides.
For those who are seeking a traditional publishing relationship, what should they expect from the publisher in terms of marketing and editorial assistance once the book has been accepted?
Kramer: All traditional publishers provide content editing/copy editing/proofreading; as well as cover and interior design. However, these days, the level of marketing and publicity varies. In the past, it was standard for a publisher to take care of these areas, but due to budgetary concerns, publishers now want nonfiction authors to have a “platform” already so that they don’t have to bear the brunt of publicity and marketing themselves. Some publishers require the author to hire his/her own publicist. The author needs to find out what the publisher will cover before signing a contract.
As a literary agent, what are some typical mistakes you’ve seen authors make when pitching their project for representation? What do you look for in a query letter— what catches your attention or conversely, metaphorically shuts the door on your interest?
Kramer: Since I have so many years of experience reading pitch letters from both agents and authors, I find that I can tell if I’m interested in a book in about two minutes. Usually, it starts with a great title, and of course, a unique concept and a well-written pitch letter/proposal. Receiving something that is poorly written, with typos, immediately turns me off.
I would strongly suggest that no author writes a pitch letter that says things like “This is going to be the biggest book every written” or “I know this is going to be a blockbuster” or “I’ve written the great American novel.” These are all eye-rollers and show immaturity on the part of the author.
In this business, I’ve seen really great books go absolutely nowhere, and truly mediocre books become bestsellers. There are 50,000 or more books published each year, and only 100 get on the bestsellers list, so nobody really “knows” anything in advance.
What should an author expect from an agent in terms of advice and support? Do agents provide editorial input on projects or help with marketing plans?
Kramer: I can only speak for myself. If I am interested in representing an author, of course I will offer advice on how to make the book/proposal better so we have a better chance of securing a deal. Also, I offer emotional support and encouragement continually.
However, I don’t get involved in marketing plans or the securing of endorsements. That’s for the author and publisher to work out. Also, many authors think that the agent writes the proposal, but this is not the case. The author is responsible for putting the proposal together. However, I always send my clients a sample of either a nonfiction or fiction proposal so they can see how to lay it out.
Finally, whether going the self-pub route or seeking a traditional publisher, what should authors be prepared to do to in terms of marketing—and when should they get started?
Kramer: As I mentioned above, sometimes the author bears the brunt of marketing. Authors should have a website, a blog, give lectures, write articles, do interviews—anything that gets their name out there. Now, this applies predominantly to nonfiction authors, who really do need a platform. When it comes to fiction, it’s different. A fiction author can be a complete unknown with a first book, and if the book is great, it doesn’t matter whether anyone has heard of him/her.
For those whose goal is to build a career as a professional writer (either as a copywriter, magazine writer or both), what are some effective ways they can market and promote themselves?
Get published or get a job in that field. Believe me, a great writer will get work because there really aren’t that many out there (even though most of the world thinks they can write)!
What do you think are some typical misconception or mistakes that keep writers from achieving success?
Kramer: I think that writers who love to write should do just that: write. Worrying about making a living from it or making millions from a best-selling novel can take the joy out of the creative process. Everyone has heard that saying “Do what you love and the money will follow.” And I always tell the authors I work with (both as an editor and an agent) not to give up their day job. If an author makes $10,000 from their book in its lifetime, that’s pretty good. Certainly not enough to retire on, but definitely enough for pride and self-satisfaction.
What are three important pieces of advice you want to offer to writers?
Kramer: Use an editor (or a ghostwriter, if you have the knowledge but not the writing skills). Write about what you know and love. Don’t give up just because you haven’t secured a traditional publisher, because these days, anyone can have a book, thanks to the digital revolution.
My thanks to Jill for sharing her insights at The Writer’s Place Blog!