Today I'm thrilled to feature someone I've worked closely with the last few months bringing my debut YA novel SOLSTICE into the world.
Lara Perkins works with my agent Laura Rennert at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency as her publishing manager. Prior to that, Lara was Laura's assistant. (I know...the Lara/Laura thing can be confusing). Anyway...Lara's help editing SOLSTICE was priceless and really helped shape it into so much more that I could have ever imagined.
So anyway, I asked Lara Perkins some questions, and she was kind enough to take time out of her (very busy) day to answer them.
PJH: So your title is "Publishing Manager for Laura Rennert." What does this mean and what does this involve?
LP: I'm delighted that this is your first question, Tricia, because I'm very excited about my new role with Laura. As Laura's Publishing Manager, I work closely with Laura as a part of her business, and my work combines some of the duties of an editor/agent with those of a business manager. On the editorial side, I work directly with Laura's very talented authors (like the brilliant author of SOLSTICE, for example!) to develop their manuscripts and story ideas. I also evaluate potential clients' work, make recommendations for representation, and draft pitch letters to editors. On the business side, I manage many of the financial and administrative aspects of Laura's business.
But one of the most exciting parts of this job, and something that's very relevant to SOLSTICE, is that I also help authors publish their works digitally and independently. In this capacity, I work with the author on the final line edit of the manuscript and then coordinate copyediting, cover art, and formatting. I put together the front and back matter and the jacket copy, and then I upload the book for the author, make it available for sale across all platforms, and troubleshoot any issues that arise. Once the book is on sale, I help the author track sales and marketing efforts. I've always been passionate about editorial work, but helping authors publish their works digitally has been an amazing experience--and tremendous fun!
PJH: What are the plans for more titles coming out the same way as SOLSTICE?
LP: There will be more titles forthcoming, as some other ABLA authors have also made the choice to independently publish projects with ABLA's help. ABLA's goal is to help its authors independently publish very high quality works that are indistinguishable from traditionally published books in terms of the content and the whole package (cover, formatting, copyediting, etc.). The process is both labor and cost-intensive, so ABLA is beginning with just a few authors and projects, and it will grow from there. But you are the trailblazer! The first ABLA author to independently publish a frontlist title with the agency's help.
PJH: What changes do you foresee in publishing in the next year?
LP: What's happening in publishing now is very exciting, and authors, agents, and publishers all have some fantastic new opportunities. Authors in particular have been empowered by these new changes, and all authors, published or unpublished, should pay close attention to the changes happening in the industry because these changes have a direct bearing on what will happen to to their work in both the short and the long term. That's been one of the great things about working with an ABLA agent; ABLA is doing more than almost any other agency to adapt to the new realities of publishing and to focus on the long-term upside for their authors.
As the publication of SOLSTICE indicates, there's been a shift in just the last few months towards embracing these new opportunities. We've seen bestselling authors turning down big traditional deals to explore new publishing models, traditional publishers launching promising new online platforms, and new agency models that embrace independent/digital publishing as well as traditional publishing. I think that we'll see even more of this in the next year. Given the speed at which these changes are taking place, I think that in the next year or two, the dust will settle, and everyone will have a clearer sense of the industry's new landscape.
PJH: Having edited manuscripts, what advice would you give authors looking for representation?
LP: Most writers already know how important the first few pages of a manuscript are, and I'll reiterate that. Your query letter is very important, of course; an agent needs to know that your idea is unique and commercial enough to sell, and how you communicate your book's premise tells an agent a lot about your skill with pacing and your sense of story. But, in many ways, your writing sample is the most important part of your query--the make it or break it part. A killer query letter with a weak writing sample is a much bigger problem than a weak query letter with a killer writing sample. So let's say you've already made sure that your first chapter showcases your writerly skill and your individual voice. You've made sure that your pages are clean and that they've been vetted by at least 3 trusted readers. Is there anything else to look for before sending out your writing sample?
I think there is. In my experience, great first chapters--the ones that make an agent or editor sit up and take notice--are those that strike a balance between the unfamiliar and the familiar. I know that sounds a bit vague, so I'll explain. A writer needs to hook his or her reader in the first few pages by giving the reader a compelling reason to keep turning the pages--some kind of mystery or puzzle or unresolved tension that points forward to the rest of the book. This is true across the board, regardless of genre and age group. (Even self-help books follow this pattern, destabilizing your expectations in the first chapter--"I ate cookies all day and still lost 100 pounds!"--so that you'll want to read on and solve the mystery of how that's possible.) So in your first few pages, you want to (productively) destabilize your reader and engage his or her curiosity. In short, you want to give your reader something unfamiliar.
But your reader also needs a way into the story, a foothold in your world. This means that your reader needs someone to identify with, or a familiar emotion or situation, so that he or she has a reason to invest emotionally in your story and to believe in the world you're creating. So your reader also needs to recognize something familiar in your world and/or in your characters.
If the whole first chapter is unfamiliar, your reader has no way in to the story. If it's all familiar, your reader has no reason to keep reading. So you need to strike that balance right off the bat, and it can be a real challenge. I've seen many first chapters that have one but not the other, and it's almost always a problem.
Now, getting all of that into the first chapter can be a real challenge, but it's worth it. Because the truth is that when your book hits the shelves, a potential reader may not give you much more than the first chapter before he or she decides whether or not to buy your book anyway. Even with ebooks, a potential buyer can sample the beginning of the book before purchasing it. In short, those first pages will be your first impression to your reader at every stage.
The rest of the ms has to hold up too, of course, so before you query, make sure that your whole manuscript is as strong as you can get it. If you think that there may still be problems in your manuscript, there probably are, and you don't want to miss a chance at your dream agent because of flaws you could have fixed. Even agents who enjoy working editorially have limited bandwidths, and if it seems like a work needs a great deal of editorial work, they will be more hesitant to take it on, even if it is very strong in other ways.
A final note: make sure that you query agents whose literary interests and prior sales match up with your work's category. For example, querying an agent who specializes in commercial thrillers, and who has never sold an autobiography, in the hopes that he or she will represent your quiet, literary autobiography probably won't result in a request, even if your work is strong. The agent won't hold it against you, but why query that agent when there are agents out there who have actually sold similar titles? Who would be excited to read "literary autobiography" in a query letter? Unless you have a definite reason to believe that your work will be an exception, focus on querying agents who have successfully sold similar titles or who have said that they're looking to take on works in that genre.
PJH: Thank you so much, Lara! I'm so happy I am able to work with you!