How to Ask Questions

or Don't Worry, You're Not Bothering Your Agent

Hi Friends,

Last night, this article went around book Twitter. You should give it a read. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking in equal measure. tl:dr, this author got two big book advances and spent all the money. Then her subsequent book advances weren’t at the same level and she freaked out. She felt lost and misled and scared. She asks important questions about how publishing professions can (and can’t) guide authors through the financial side of publishing. I had many feelings while reading this article, but the main was I HAVE TO TELL PEOPLE HOW THE MONEY WORKS SO THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN AGAIN.

And then I realized I already did! It was a subscriber-only post, but I just set it open to everyone. If you think all you need to do is get that first book deal and you’re set for life PLEASE READ BOTH OF THESE ARTICLES IMMEDIATLY.

Ahem. So, today I want to talk about questions, as in how to ask them with as little anxiety as possible. The author of the Medium post says several times why didn’t any one tell me? about many aspects of her experience. Why didn’t anyone tell me this is how the money worked? Why didn’t anyone guide me through publicity and marketing? Why didn’t anyone tell me how each subsequent book deal was going to be based on the one before it (and not necessarily in a good way)? These are legitimate concerns. It’s not wholly the author’s fault that things went so badly for her. I mean, at the very least, at each new deal, her agent should have worked to put things into perspective. They most likely did, or I hope they did. Maybe the author couldn’t hear it or the agent didn’t express it clearly or maybe they were both optimistic that this book would be the one that turned everything around. I want and hope that to be true for all my clients when they struggle (because everyone struggles).

A few facts I tell all my clients when we’re talking deals are: the second book usually sells fewer copies than the first book, whether it’s a series or not. Once you have a sales track record, you will always have a sales track record (i.e. don’t just publish something to publish it). Don’t bank on royalties—few writers earn them. Would these things have helped the struggling author linked above? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ As an agent, I can talk until I’m blue in the face. The author has to also be open to hearing me, especially when it’s hard.

BUT, this is about asking questions. I hear from a lot of people (clients! you too!) that they don’t want to bother me by sending me email or asking me questions. YOU ARE NOT BOTHERING ME (if you’re my client. If you’re not my client, I can’t like answer all your questions all the time, outside of this newsletter and stuff). I am not always the quickest responder to email, but if you’re like I don’t really get how this works to me, I am never going to be mad. Never, ever, ever. If your agent or editor gets mad or annoyed about answering questions about your book or money or contract, they are bad at their job. ASK YOUR AGENT/EDITOR QUESTIONS. IT IS THEIR JOB TO ANSWER YOU. I am a well-know know-it-all among my friends and I take great joy in talking about the things I know a lot about, so please, indulge my character flaw and ask me questions, clients.

There are times, though, that the answers aren’t great. Sometimes the answers are I don’t really know what you can do on Twitter to sell more books. There isn’t a direct relationship there. Or the sales team wasn’t as enthusiastic about this title and there isn’t much we can do about it. No you can’t bake them cookies or go to their houses. Or we don’t know why Barnes & Noble decided not to stock your book. Sometimes, we do know why, and that answer is because they didn’t like and it and didn’t think it would sell. As an agent, I probably need to get better at saying those hard things but good gravy they are hard to say, espeically when I disagree, as I usually do. When I have said hard things like that, the author usually responds with well, what can we do about it? and the answer there is most often nothing. That makes me feel and look ineffective and that basically sucks. I work to get my ego out of the way there and be honest with clients, but as you can see this is basically the worst conversation in the world to have and everyone wants to avoid it. Publishing is too nice, too genteel, in that way and we all need to stop being polite and start getting real.

If you’re struggling to ask hard questions, for whatever reason, here are some tips: Just ask. Don’t justify, self-deprecate, or hide behind lols, justs, reallys, maybes, etc. Say: can you explain this more? I don’t understand it all. Or Can you put his in context? I’m not seeing the big picture. Or straight up: is this bad? is this good? I need help.

Also remember, agents and editors don’t want to give you hard answers any more than you want to hear them. Just because you don’t want to hear them doesn’t mean those answers are wrong. Agents and editors have an author’s best interests at heart. I promise they do.

Vulnerability is hard. Your agent or editor is not going to think less of you for asking for help. Ask for what you need. No one can read your mind.

In other helpful news: Publisher’s Marketplace, my favorite publishing website, just posted a super helpful and not-paywalled writer’s guide to what you can do and learn from their resources. It’s great! I highly recommend a subscription, and at the very least sign up for the free version of the Publisher’s Lunch newsletter. I have been reading it every day since 1999. (No, really!) It’s how I even learned what a literary agent was. Sign up here!