An agent teaches writers to face their hopes and fears

By Jerry Waxler

The publishing game can be maddening. Not only must you write the best possible book. You must then sell it to a publisher. Many writers feel overwhelmed at this stage asking themselves and each other, “How can I possibly turn into a sales person?” Supposedly, the “solution” is to find a literary agent who will sell it for you. The cruel irony is that you still must learn to sell your book to an agent. I decided to avoid the whole mess by publishing my first books and sell them at my workshops.

However, occasionally I look up to the cathedral in the sky, where happy published writers hang out at tea parties, and I wonder if I will ever gain admission. To learn how to storm those gates, I recently attended an all day workshop on the subject. The event was  hosted at one of the region’s premier writing events, the Philadelphia Stories “Push to Publish” conference, and the speaker was literary agent, Sheree Bykofsky, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published

At first I intended to be an interested bystander, learning what other people must achieve. The morning of the workshop, I dusted off one of my favorite works in progress, a book about the importance of memoir writing, and on an impulse dashed out a one page query as fast as I could type. Quickly scanning my work, in a surge of self-congratulation, I approved my first draft.

When I arrived at the workshop I put my query on the pile with the other 24 aspiring writers. Our fate was in Sheree’s hands. When she started, she pointed to the pile and said, “I receive 200 of these a day and my job is to throw them out as quickly as possible. I’m just warning you. You are all going to hate me.” I rejected her gloomy prediction. The others might hate her, but I was sure she was going to love my query, and in return I could already feel my blossoming love for her.

She picked the first one up and said, “It’s not formatted correctly. It needs to look like a formal business letter.” She threw it aside and moved on. The next one went into the reject pile because it was right and left justified. “Always format queries ragged-right.”

I congratulated myself. I did those two things correctly. I was still in the running. She picked up the next one and said, “This is double spaced. No good.” She tossed it with the others. This surprised me. I raised my hand. “I thought that the industry standard for submitting to editors is double space.”

“No,” she said. “Not true for queries. They need to be single spaced.”

“Darn,” I thought. “She won’t like my line spacing. But I’m sure she’ll like everything else about it.”

When she started to review mine, she said, “It’s double spaced.” And then, perhaps feeling the positive vibes I was sending her, she kept commenting. “There are capitalization problems.” Finally, she correctly noted, “This looks like you wrote it quickly. Slow down and be sure your query shows off your best work.” Then she tossed it in with the other rejects. The criticism that hurt the most was her complaint about capitalization. How could she throw away my great idea because of typography details. It turned out her prediction was right. I did have to fight with my own feelings of loathing.

Despite her negative feedback, I knew my book had merit, and after the disappointment washed through me, I realized she was teaching a nifty lesson. In a little over a half an hour she had drilled into us how to get past the first round of gate keeping. I simply need to pay careful attention to formatting and other details. With a little extra effort, I could surmount this obstacle.

I learned another, even more important lesson. I had just been rejected by an agent and I was still breathing. It felt like a rite of passage. Instead of feeling defeated, I felt brave. I could do this. So I kept listening and learning about the writer’s relationship with an agent. In addition to general information, she helped me clear up some misconceptions.

Because agents often turn up at writing conferences, I suspected they only do business with people they have met in person. This discouraged me, because I only have the chance to meet a couple of agents a year. When I asked her about it, she said it wasn’t true. She has sold lots of books for authors she has never met.

Another impression that had blocked me from seeking an agent was my fear that I might pick the wrong one. I was behaving like a teenager who refuses to date for fear of entering a relationship with the wrong partner. Like that lonely teenager, I had mythologized the perfect agent as being so godlike, she didn’t exist. After today’s demonstration, I decided agents are human and fallible and that when I am ready to enter into such a relationship, I would be happy to look for a human business partner, rather than holding out for a mythical one.

Finally, she told us not to pay attention to the people who predict the end of the industry. “Publishers need books, and I sell a lot of them.”

At the end of the day, she told us how to craft an elevator speech in which we would describe our book to an agent in one minute. She then gave us fifteen minutes to craft our pitch. Then each of us stood in front of the room and gave our spiel. This was my chance to redeem myself.

This time, instead of nit-picking my formatting, she listened to the substance of my book idea, and apparently she liked what she heard. She praised me, in front of the room, a wonderful feeling that made up for my earlier disappointment. Later, she invited me to send her the book proposal.

Sheree Bykofsky’s class transformed my attitude about the whole category of literary agents from scary gatekeepers into potential allies. I decided that if they insist on letter-perfect formatting in the query letter, it’s a requirement I can live with. Now, instead of seeing the publishing business as an unattainable castle, I began to see it as less threatening and more inviting, with lots of doors, where agents greet people and occasionally help some enter. I decided it’s a little like dating. You try and fail, and try again and fail again, and learn along the way, until eventually you get it right. I’m not in yet, but I’m getting closer. At least now I know what to bring with me when I knock.

Read my article about a creative nonfiction panel at the Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish Conference.
What Creative Nonfiction (CNF) Means to Memoir Writers

Sheree Bykofsky Associates, Literary Agent

List of suggestions for submitting your best work,Submit Manuscripts That Shine

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Frequently asked questions about why and how to publish a memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

Once you write your memoir, you are ready to find readers. That means creating a book, and letting potential readers know why they should read it. Here are some answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the ins and outs of taking that next step.

Why should I seek readers?

There are many reasons why memoir writers want readers. You may want to be known or validated. You may want to make money. You may hope your story will teach a lesson, or leave a legacy, or share a witness to history.

My favorite reason for wanting to publish is that when you extend your mind toward strangers, you must become a smart communicator, shaping your thoughts so they are understandable. As you form your life into a story that can be understood by others, you become a storyteller. What does that mean? A storyteller provides the right amount of background, artfully steering between the extremes of too much information and too little. From the beginning, your protagonist draws readers in and motivates them to turn the page. After you find even one stranger who is willing to read your story, you have assumed a new role, as a contributor to the vast pool of literature that makes us a literate civilization.

Why would strangers read about my life?

People read stories for all kinds of reasons: for entertainment, information, curiosity, and escape. Memoirs break down barriers, inviting readers to set aside their own lives for a few hours while they walk in yours. Even ordinary lives, when written in a well-crafted story, can fulfill the reader’s interest.

Is it possible to actually publish this thing?

Traditionally, to publish a book you convinced someone to edit, print, and distribute your work. These days, if no company will perform these services for you, you can do them yourself. To decide how to steer through all these options, you need to do plenty of research and learn the pros and cons of each path.

Self Publishing Pros and Cons

Self publishing requires that you do everything yourself. In addition to writing the book, you need to figure out a title, hire a cover designer and an editor, choose a printer. And then once you print it, you must convince people to buy it.

Publishing the book puts you in complete control, and after you hold the book in your hands, you will be a “Publisher.” For some people, this is a fulfilling accomplishment in its own right. If you want to call yourself a Publisher then you have been born at a perfect time. It has never been easier or cheaper. But it is not free. It takes money and time, and very few self-published authors even break even, let alone make a profit.

Commercial Publishing Pros and Cons

To publish commercially, the hurdles are formidable. You must write a detailed proposal in which you describe what your book is about, who will buy it and how many you will sell. The proposal must be good enough to make some agent reach for the phone to offer you a contract. But it’s up to you to find that agent. This requires an astonishing reservoir of tenacity. Many successful writers have persisted despite hundreds of rejections.

If one agrees to represent you, they must then convince a publisher that your book will be a good investment. You then will work with the publisher to finish and edit the book, and then after the writing is complete, the selling begins. The publisher who buys your proposal expects you to arrange speaking engagements and book signings, and actively promote yourself on the internet.

Caught in the middle, which path should I take?

Some writers feel clear about which route to take. For example, if you are a lecturer, and simply want to offer your audiences a printed version of your material, self publishing is an obvious choice. At the other extreme, if you dream of the day your novel will be a bestseller, you will continue to look for an agent until you find one.

However, many writers are indecisive. They would be delighted to see their book on the shelf at bookstores, but don’t know how to get into the system. Naturally, there is the quality issue. Writers must constantly strive to improve their craft and product. But there is no way to know if the fault is quality or salesmanship. Writers face this choice: a) continue to develop the book, b) strive harder to find an agent, or c) publish it themselves.

There are many factors to weigh, such as the amount of money and effort you are willing to invest at various stages, your beliefs about which path is most rewarding, and your choice of mentors. There are strong advocates of each path. You will also be governed by your patience or lack of it. It all takes time. Common wisdom is that from the time you start proposing a book for commercial publication, two years or more could elapse before the book is on the shelf. Whereas if you publish it yourself, you could be shipping it electronically in weeks.

How will eBooks affect my choices?

Authors can now can distribute electrons instead of paper, which completely changes the economics. No longer must we cut trees, print books, ship them to bookstores and customers. However, the transition will mean we must relinquish our relationship with those old familiar physical objects.

I feel a sort of warmth, connection, and even reverence when I think of all the years I spent pulling books down from the bookshelf at the library or bookstore, turning them over, thumbing through them. The tactile relationship seems so intimately associated in my mind with the whole business of reading. What would it have been like to grow up without that?  I’m not sure if the coming world of eBooks will be better or worse, but I am sure it will be different.

Will the Publishing Industry die?

While options have increased exponentially, it requires specialized skills to move a book from your desk to the hands of readers. To do it effectively, we need help from experts. Collectively, those experts are called the Publishing Industry. The economics and technology are changing, but we continue to need specialists who know how to reach readers.

How much will I make?

Financial rewards are tantalizing and like the proverbial carrot, draw us on, but in reality most authors earn a modest sum from their sale to a commercial publisher and self-publishers often spend more money than they earn.

For more answers to frequently asked questions see these articles:

Answers to Frequently asked questions about “How to write a memoir”

Frequently asked questions about “Should I write a memoir?”

Frequently expressed fears about publishing a memoir

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.