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Literary Agent Shares Trade Secrets With New Writers

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Susan Rabiner on How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction - and Get It Published 

My guest today is Susan Rabiner, co-author of Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction - and Get It Published. Welcome to OpEdNews, Susan. You and your husband/co-author Alfred Fortunato have many years of experience shepherding writers through the process.  Can you tell us a little about yourselves?

photo credit: Annie Fortunato 

Both of us have been in this business for more years than either of us care to admit.  My husband worked freelance, while I worked in-house at a number of major publishing houses, including the New York office of Oxford University Press, and divisions of Random House, HarperCollins, and St, Martin's Press, working my way from junior to senior editor, and then to editorial director.  

Thirteen years ago, my husband and I opened a literary agency focused primarily on narrative and serious nonfiction. Ten years ago, if you had asked me to define the most important role of publishing, I would have said the dissemination of new ideas and information. Today, with the rise of the web, new ideas are not enough.  Today, publishing is all about story telling, and that applies to serious nonfiction--yes, even a work of history and science has to tell a story--self-help, memoir, and virtually every other publishing genre.  Many people fail to understand that a book can be the story of an idea or a time, as well as the story of an individual or group of individuals.  

I noticed that Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler is on your list; I loved that book! You and your husband clearly have the chops to write this book. Even with consolidation of publishing houses, stricter budgeting and fewer openings, you remain quite confident that a previously unpublished writer with a good story to tell AND a powerful, well-written proposal actually has a good chance to get published. Why?

Because publishing needs new voices. Throughout this industry, editors and agents are relentlessly scanning blogs and websites, digging into academic and literary journals, watching endless C-span and cable network news shows in search of new authors. In fact, the very factors you mention--the consolidation of houses, stricter budgeting and smaller publishing lists--actually increase the likelihood that editors will favor the works of new writers.

Why? Because these changes within publishing are largely the result of a new emphasis on going "lean and mean," in search of greater profitability.  If you are an editor who must make every acquisition count, does it make sense to use the slots assigned to you for previously published authors whose first couple of books may not have broken out either financially or intellectually? Or to go after new fresh voices whose potential is yet to be determined?  Many editors lean toward the latter and with good reason--each generation has its own stories to tell and the publishing industry is relentlessly in search of new stories.

So, my advice to would-be writers just starting out is this:  Ignore what is happening in publishing. Concentrate instead on doing whatever can be done to make your submission package as effective as possible. There are many published books affording such advice (including ours). But I would stress the following:

You are your own first story.  Who you are and how you present yourself in regard to your writing matters. Most important, there must be a tight connection between you and the book you want to write.

Let's take, for example, two submissions, both espionage novels.  The first comes from someone who has worked, no matter how briefly or peripherally, in espionage. The second comes from a high school English teacher who has long believed that espionage is a dirty game. Agents and editors will all read the first submission.  They may even overlook a weak story line in the first submission because the promotional hook (an insider story) is strong.

Many fewer agents and editors will read the second submission, because the connection between the story the book tells and the author's story is nonexistent.   Does that mean that all English teachers should stay away from espionage novels?  I won't go that far.  But I will say the following.

If you want to write a book about espionage, figure out a way to connect espionage to your own story.  Let's play out one possible scenario to give you an idea about finessing these things.

High school English teacher asks permission from his department chair to teach a class on espionage novels to a group of troubled male freshmen.  The class is a hit.  To his delight, these young men start to improve not only academically.  They come out of themselves as they talk about what honor and duty mean in the world of spies. Your book becomes: HONOR AND DUTY IN THE BARRIO: How teaching espionage novels saved a bunch of students from dead-end jobs and taught one teacher what it means to give students belief in themselves. And if that first book works, then you are well-positioned to write that espionage novel next.

Proposals are mini-opportunities to demonstrate your skills with narrative.  So, write your proposal as a story, even better, as a good mystery.  And the best way to begin a mystery, any mystery, is to shake up what we believe to be true with a picture that suggests that the truth may lie elsewhere.

Readers don't care about your life.  They care about their lives.  Tell us why your life has something to say to the rest of us. Many, many writers are interested in memoir, even though most of these writers do not understand that memoir is not biography.  But setting that aside, the problem with most memoirs is that I find myself writing back to the author, "I understand why you want to tell your story.   But I don't see why others would want to read it."

In writing biography, consider the following:  It's your subject's life, but it is your story. Get control of your story.  Of course, we want a biographer who has done stellar research. But research alone is not enough. There has to be something you want to say about the subject that the subject would not necessary say about himself for there to be a justifiable biography.

I never knew that a writer doesn't actually need a finished book in hand to contact a publisher. In fact, publishers don't want it. They want that all important book proposal. Why is that? What is a book proposal exactly and why are so many of the ones editors receive subpar?

Very good questions.

A manuscript is the execution of a vision.  A proposal is a statement of what that vision will be. What do I mean by "vision?"  A way of getting at a topic that will be both fresh and compelling to readers, either through fiction or nonfiction.  The proposal forces the author to define the vision and defend it in a way that allows agents and editors to evaluate both the writing and thinking skills of the author, and also, frankly, the personality of the author.

But the proposal is only one part of a "submission package."  These days, the table of contents is getting much more attention because that's where the agent or editor gets an opportunity to examine how much thinking has gone into the narrative execution of the project.

The writing sample is also getting lots of attention because it tells the editor if this author has the writing skills to pull off the intended project.  Editors will edit reasonably skilled writers.  They will not sign on books by authors whose knowledge of language and grammar may be perfectly fine but whose understanding of how to tell a story is limited.

The author's CV and publicity profile establish the creds of the author to write this book.

It's the role of the agent to make sure that these documents are sharp and focused. Nothing frustrates an editor or agent more than wandering through material that doesn't know what it was meant to do.  So, pick your agent carefully and don't fight an agent who makes you revise.

In general, a proposal to an agent should begin with who you are (relevant to the proposed book only), the topic you want to write about, why you want to write about this topic, what it is you want to say (not talk about) and why you want to say it.  Then give us some highlights of the story you will tell and do so in a way that suggests you are an interesting thinker with good narrative skills.  This entire process should take no more than 20 to 25 pages, double-spaced.  Read our book for information on what to say and what to avoid saying in your section on competition and about marketing.  

In fact, read our book carefully to ground yourself in the thinking that needs to go into all the pieces of the submission package.  It will not only help you write a better proposal but also write a better book.

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I read your book and found it clear and really well put together. That's what led to this interview. Did knowing the publishing business from the inside make it quick and painless for you in terms of your own book proposal? Do editors and agents who write also make silly mistakes when crafting their book proposals?

Unlike my co-author, I struggled long and hard before I found the "vision" for how to take what I knew about publishing and turn it into a useful book for would-be writers. Initially, I tried interviewing other editors, figuring the aggregate of what each had to say about his or her own experiences would provide a body of information I could work off. But I quickly discovered that many of the editors I interviewed were seat-of-the-pants editors, people who had been doing what they were doing so long and so well that they could no longer articulate what they did or even why. They kept saying, "Send me a proposal and I'll just know if I want to sign it up." Or "send me a manuscript and I'll figure out how to edit it."

So, in desperation (now five years late in delivering our manuscript), I did what I tell my own authors to do--come back to me .  So I imagined Susan Rabiner, the author, on one side of the desk, and Susan Rabiner, the agent, on the other side.  Susan Rabiner the agent asks Susan Rabiner the author, "Can you tell me what is distinctive about your view of publishing?"

Susan Rabiner the author thinks a minute and then answers, "Me conducting one of my rambunctious, anything-goes editorial meetings in my old job as editorial director, grilling the sponsoring editor on why the house should extend an offer of publication."

And then I knew the angle of vision through which we would tell the story of publishing--that of the editor.  Hence the title: " Thinking like Your Editor."

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Within a couple of minutes, I was ready to write.  I titled the chapter It's the Audience, Stupid and was able to write the first draft of that chapter in about two hours.  I showed it to my husband, who, for the first time (after having suffered with me through my many false starts), said simply, "Now, you're really saying something fresh and new."

Now, let me address your other question.  Did my knowing the industry help?  Absolutely.  But most authors know their subject matter. The trick in successful writing is figuring out which aspects of your broad knowledge of a subject (in my case an industry) will be of interest to your intended audience.  I have said to authors many times, "Your readership does not want the entire course."

Finally, editors have a great deal of sympathy and respect for authors because they understand that writing is much more difficult than editing.  But, there is also a degree of frustration that is rarely talked about between author and editor.  What I am about to say may seem a bit controversial. But it needs to be said.  There is a huge disconnect between what writing programs, including university programs, teach students about writing and what editors define as good writing.

The majority of writers who want to be published seem to have been taught little about how to write character-driven narrative, even though this is where the industry is firmly positioning itself. As a result, editors can't find enough books to acquire while, at the same time, most authors can't find a good agent to take them on, let alone a publisher to publish them.

We spend a great deal of time at the agency trying to teach authors how to transit to this new way of writing because that seems to be, for the present, the key to getting published. But, there needs to be a much more frank discussion between educators and editors about writing.

To do a book proposal properly is neither quick nor easy; it demands a great deal of introspection and careful analysis. You say that anyone unwilling to be flexible or listen carefully to what editors are looking for might want to think twice about going this route. On the other hand, have you seen dramatic Before and After book proposals?

Mais oui!   Every day. And the results can be the difference between no offer of publication and lots of offers or between a small contract with a weak house and a weak editor and a major contract for major money with a major publisher. We've had authors come in with fully developed proposals, only to sit down with us and discover that they have a much better book in them. Others have come in with one vision for a book and, through their answers to a series of questions, realize the advantages of tackling the same topic but from a very different angle. Finally, we've had authors determined to focus on one aspect of a topic when, in fact, what the public wants is an examination of another aspect of that same topic.

Pick your agent carefully.    

Very helpful, Susan. What's your take on self-publishing using Amazon/Kindle or any of the other self-publishing tools? Is self-publishing an effective alternative? Are you worried that it might put conventional publishing houses out of business?

Self-publishing is a very effective alternative.  Indeed, so effective that both agents and editors are trolling the self-published lists on Amazon looking for projects that deserve commercial publication.  The benefit of self-publishing is that you skip the publishing gatekeepers--people like me and the editors--and go right to the reading public.
I think the trick in effective self-publishing is to keep your costs very low, so you can charge very little for your book.  Ideally, publish it solely as an e-book and price it at $1.99 to $3.99.   You want to make your profits through volume, not a high mark up. 

And when your book sells more than 20,000 copies, e-mail me  at  susan (at) and maybe I'll take you on. 

Fair enough! Anything you'd like to add, Susan, before we wrap this up?

If you want to be a writer, start by being a reader.  It's wonderful to read the classics but writers need to read what is being published today.  It's easy to criticize what is being published today but the would-be writer should be asking herself: "What did agents and editors see in this book that I am missing?"

Thanks so much for sharing an insider's take on  contemporary publishing. Wouldn't it be great if your book (and this interview) produced a slew of effective book proposals from fresh new writers?

Now, that would be wonderful.  We'd love to hear from your readers.

That is a great offer. The gauntlet has been thrown down, readers; now, let's see what you can do!


Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction - and Get It Published

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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Susan is that rare literary agent who is genuinely... by Joan Brunwasser on Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 9:59:08 PM
Thanks, Joan! It gets me thinking about future boo... by Meryl Ann Butler on Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 10:22:53 PM
You have an advantage - you've already published! ... by Joan Brunwasser on Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 10:30:51 PM
What's with the infomercials from literary agents ... by Peter Winkler on Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 4:25:13 PM
There are many among us who are interested in writ... by Joan Brunwasser on Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 4:57:16 PM
...but Rob has broadened the focus to also include... by Meryl Ann Butler on Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 9:05:50 PM