The Value of a Good Literary Agent, Part II

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If you have not read the previous post, “Do You Need a Literary Agent?”,  may I respectfully suggest that you scroll down now and do that before reading this one.

That post identified many of the positive things an agent can do for you at the front end to help enhance your book’s architecture while also helping to make a stronger case for your book to the publishing world.

From an economic perspective, working with an agent can help to create a market for your work.  Unless your product is viewed by multiple editors working for different publishing houses, how will you ever know how much the product is really worth? eBay would not be viable if only one buyer gets to see and bid on a valuable work.  This is why I will never write a book without having a literary agent to help me find the most suitable publisher for it.  

The aforementioned aside—and I may be in the minority on this— but I believe that what an agent can do for you and your book may be as important on the non-financial side of the ledger as it is on the financial side (within reason, of course) . For example, my agent for my last book  helped to create a vision for it which helped to make the book commercially viable (and salable).  Remember, an advance is an advance against future royalties. Which means that even if you get a relatively small advance for your book up front, if it later sells really well, you can be assured to earn additional royalties down the line. 

A literary agent who helps you to develop your manuscript (e.g. the table of contents, the organization of the book, the writing, etc.) is worth his or her weight in gold. One reason for that is that in my experience, many business book editors don’t do a lot of editing. That’s one of the two biggest complaints authors have had with their publishers (the second is that “my publisher does not do enough to market my book”). Most editors—even the really good ones—will be grateful for the help of an agent in the construction of a manuscript, as long as everyone is working from the same blueprint. That is why it is so important that there be a three-way-call at the outset to make sure everyone is on the same page.

So what is the moral of the story? If you are writing a book, find yourself a top notch business editor. You will thank yourself for it in the end.

Do You Need a Literary Agent?

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In my nearly three decades of book publishing, one of the the most common questions I get is “Do I need a literary agent?”

The answer isn’t completely black & white, but it is pretty close:  you may not always need one, but you are always better off with one (and in some book categories, like fiction, an agent is an absolute must) .

A literary agent is important because of the myriad things he or she  can do for your writing career. This is especially true for first time authors (assuming you have the prerequisites to sign on with an agent, but we can save that for another post). 

Here, in no real order, are the things that a top notch literary agent can do for you:

* First and foremost, works with you to develop a viable book idea—one that matches up nicely with your particular expertise and passion(s). The key is to identify your strengths and match them to the strengths of a particular book market or niche. 

* Shapes those ideas into a compelling and marketable book “package” that has a high probability of attracting interest from publishers (the package refers to the title, subtitle, a book’s reading line, etc.). 

* Works  closely with you to develop a strong book proposal: The proposal is everything when it comes to getting a good book contract. Having an experienced agent (or similarly, a former veteran business book editor) makes a huge difference.  

* Develop the cover memo that will go to publishers—one compelling enough to capture the imagination and interest of book editors and publishers. Most cover letters are boring, failing to arouse interest or differentiate the book from all of the hundreds of others in a particular category or niche.

* Works with you to develop a strong book outline: A part of the proposal, but worth highlighting here. It’s a key component and can also make the difference between a good offer and no offer. This is where you show your book to be well thought out, to have depth, texture and dimension.

Once the proposal is complete—usually after several iterations between author and agent—then there is a whole new set of activities to perform:

* He then sends the proposal to various publishers:  This is the book’s “coming out” party,  as it is viewed by outsiders for the first time. “Fit” is a big issue, as the agent tries to match your book with the most appropriate publisher. Then, if all goes well, he….

* Fields initial offers from publishers. If the stars are aligned, the project will garner multiple offers from top tier publishers. However, there are no guarantees. Many books that seem like “can’t-miss-projects” often fail to bring in any offers at all. Some of the great business books in history have been rejected by countless publishing houses before one finally agreed to take it on. 

* Then the agent has to decide on how he will sell your book: He has to figure out if he will sell the book via auction: if there are more than say, two offers/bidders, then the agent will be able to sell the book via auction, helping to maximize the author’s advance  for the book. The agent and author can decide on the rules of the auction. One “rule” that should be stated up front is that the author need not accept the highest bid. There are instances in which a lower bidder will “feel” like the right offer—usually because of the chemistry that exists between the author and an editor from another house. These are the kinds of things that a veteran agent will assist in from the earliest days of the project. 

This is enough information for one post. Tune in Thursday for Part II featuring additional things that an agent can do to help you in your book writing career.

Remembering the Fallen

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It comes so fast, but Memorial Day is upon us once again.  For most of us, Memorial Day has come to mean family get-togethers, barbeques, the beginning of summer and a long weekend. But Memorial Day of course means much more.

Memorial Day wasn’t always known as Memorial Day.  It wa s once knows as “Decoration Day.”   It was first created to commemorate Union soldiers who had given their lives in the Civil War.  After the First World War  it became a far more expansive day to include American deaths  of any military action or war.

With the U.S. engaged in two wars, let’s be sure not to let this national holiday pass without  proper acknolwedgment.

So while we are so fortunate to enjoy this—-one of the great holidays of the year—while we are getting together with family and friends let’s be sure to remember those who have fallen while serving our country.  It is the least we can do and would mean a great deal to the families of the heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Extraordinary Service in the Least Expected Place

happy-dentistIn the little more-than-a-year I have had this blog, I have seldom recommended a single business. However, that is all about to change.  Not that it will do you much good, unless you live in— or near—a little known, Illinois town called Clarendon Hills (population 7,610, plus my twins—7,612) .

What is the one place everyone hates to go to?  The dentist. But Dr. Goers (rhymes with “mowers”) and his team—to whom I have trusted my teeth for more than fifteen years—do some pretty special things to make people want to go to the dentist. These things cost very little but they make all the difference in the world to a scared or cynical patient. I put these out there to challenge you to come up with the equivalent of these innovations in your own company or business.

Here is what they do for me for even a routine cleaning:  When I arrive at the office I am seated immediately. Always. There is a waiting room but I don’t think I have ever seen anyone waiting. It’s the loneliest waiting room in America. 

Before I sit down in the chair they place sun glasses on me to guard against the harsh lights before putting a heated pillow around my neck and and another under the small of my back (obviously these had to be prepared ahead of time). Then they hand me headphones and a portable DVD player that has been pre-loaded with my favorite artist (whom I am too embarrassed to identify). Then they put expensive cocoa cream on my hands, cover it with Saran- wrap-like gloves, and cover that with heated, heavy duty, thick cotton mitts. They then make sure I am properly medicated before beginning the cleaning.

I checked their brochure to see if they advertise any of these services and all I could find is a single sentence that states cooly that [Dr. Goers] “is well-versed in bridging the gap between technology and patient comfort.” That is certainly an understatement, as they combine certain aspects of an expensive  spa treatment with state-of-the-art dental care (and do not charge for those value-added services). 

There are multiple doctors and hygienists and other people with sunny  dispositions wherever you turn.  But it wasn’t always like this. This is a rags-to-riches-to-burgeoning dental practice story. If you want to hear the rest, you will have to wait for the book or the movie. But if you are not receiving these accoutrements from your dentist,  show them this blog posting and ask where they keep the hand cream and the heating pads.

The Busiest Store in Manhattan?

M & M's World

While last week I detailed the slowest parts of the New York economy, let me describe one store that is bucking the trend—a destination store that always does boffo business (and it’s not one you might expect).

When I am in NY, I always stay in a hotel in Times Square. I love the energy of the place, the dueling neon billboards and the scores of tourists wowed by the bigness of it all. With all of the Broadway shows in the neighborhood, it seems more like a vacation than a business trip. I often stay at the “W” Hotel Times Square, and on my last visit was able to nab a corner room. From my 32nd story window, I had the perfect view of one of Manhattan’s newest attractions.   

Now that I have kids (two twin 4 1/2 year old boys) with epic sweet tooths, I felt honor bound to visit that store—M&M World—one evening after work. I could not believe how jam-packed it was, mostly with tourists eyeing the latest M&M dispenser or any number of M&M products. There were millions of M&M’s and scores of  M&M dispensers—spread out over three floors.  It was like a cult—but for M&M’s? Go figure. In the midst of this deep recession people have cut back on spending in a big way, but they can’t get enough of these  tiny round chocolates. If someone visited us from another planet, they would think that we have priorities that are upside down at best. With this store being such a hit, I can’t wait for the next candy store to open in Times Square:  Snickers Planet?

New York City Economy still in the Doldrums

ny-city-in-smokeI always hate to be the bearer of bad news. But having just spent several days in NY I can tell you that things are not getting better in the Big Apple. I rely on taxi drivers, hotel managers and staffers, and other key local business types to tell me what things are really like— and none are the least bit shy about telling it like it is.

Most cabbies tell me that things are still much worse than after September 11th, and that is saying a lot. The “black cars,” or the sedans that used to shuttle bankers and other professionals from point “A” to point “B” in Manhattan are not only hurting, they are hemorrhaging. Those drivers are still waiting five or more hours for their first fare of the day! That comes as no surprise given the disappearance of the banking industry, but it is still a jarring reality.  It is believed that 16,000 jobs have been lost in the banking industry thus far.

I also got word that some of the high end restaurants will be forced to close their doors. Lower end places—like the Vietnamese restaurant I frequent—are doing ok with only about a 15% drop-off in business. In fact that’s a theme in NY and around the nation: the lower-end alternatives are doing better than the [former] “Tiffany” crowd.  And that’s a fundamental shift. Usually, the rich get richer.  But not when entire institutions fall and the stock market loses half its value  (it is doing a little better than that now).

So, the moral of the story? We ain’t out of the woods yet. And we are going to have to wait at least months more for that long-awaited turnaround in the economy to show itself.

Not a Moment to Lose

running-man-image1I have always operated under the assumption that when it comes to all-things business, urgency is the order of the day— every day, 24/7.  That means there is almost never a valid excuse for putting off the most important tasks in your business. Having a few, a very few priorities helps me to live by this credo.

Just the other day I was surprised by the reaction of someone we do business with every so often.  She was a literary agent who had sent me a book proposal to review and evaluate. When she told me about it, I thought the project had a good chance of being viable—of being the kind of book we might publish.  As a result, I told her I would read the proposal and get back to her within 24 hours. I got the proposal later that night as expected, and got back to her within about 18 hours. She was shocked. She told me that almost no editors move as quickly as I did. I was stunned. How do other editors and publishers operate? Do they take weeks to get back to agents?

One of the keys to being able to move with such urgency is to have an organization behind you that is designed for speed. The last thing an organization needs is a bureaucracy to weight it down. I have documented too many organizations that have been sunk by the sheer weight of their own red tape. I have also seen the opposite.  Sometimes organizations have mavericks that seem to force everything to a quick a decision point. However, mavericks must choose their battles carefully. Not everything needs to move at 100 miles per hour. Most decisions do just fine at 55 or 60. But for those important decisions, don’t sit around and react.  In really tough times like these, being fast and proactive can mean the difference between success and failure.

Open 24 Hours, 7 Days a Week!

Open 24 HoursA few years back I interviewed the [then] CEO of Wal-Mart, David Glass.  One of the things he told me stayed with me for years. He told me that Wal-Mart has succeeded when the smaller stores have failed—not because Wal-Mart steams over them with their lower prices—but becuase the company was more customer friendly. When I asked him for an example he said that Wal-Marts are always open.   In many towns, he explained, stores close down weekends or at least Sundays. That’s when people want to shop the most, he insisted.

Now I know Wal-Mart has had its share of problems since founder Sam Walton died in 1992, but Mr. Glass has a point. In the small Illinois town in which I live a number of  key stores are closed  Sundays. The neighborhood supermarket is closed Sunday, as is my car dealership where I service my car. Then there is the neighborhood dry cleaner and many other stores that I need and rely on. On those days me and scores of other customers shop elsewhere, which, if your a business trying to hold on to customers and acquire new ones, is the worst place for them to shop. It doesn’t matter if the store is a Wal-Mart, Costco, or any other store that keeps its doors open seven days a week. You don’t want them exploring new options.

I naturally respect business owners who close on Saturday or Sundays for religious convictions. But in these tough times, if religion is not the reason and you can afford to keep your store open on weekends, give it a try. You will be keeping your customers close to home and winning new ones. And you will make my life a lot easier.

Get Rid of the 100-Day Presidential Litmus Test

one-hundred-imageIn the spring of 1933 FDR announced major initiatives to lessen the impact of the Great Depression. The nation was a disaster. Things were so bad that  historian Arthur Schlesinger made the following statement at Roosevelt’s inauguration:  “It was now a matter of seeing whether a representative democracy could conquer economic collapse. It was a matter of staving off violence — even, some though — revolution.” 

Between March 9th and June 16th, 1933, Roosevelt proposed an unprecedented number of new bills that were quickly passed by both houses of congress. Roosevelt’s legislative orgy set off a presidential practice of evaluating the first 100 days of every new presidential administration

It is worth noting that when Roosevelt took over in March of 1933 the unemployment rate was an eye-popping 25% and all banks were closed and no checks could be written or cashed (can you imagine if that happened today?).  Even though many a pundit have thrown around the “D” word (Depression) in recent days and weeks, we are nowhere near where we were in 1933. That’s one of the two key reasons we should get rid of the 100-day litmus test. The other reason is even more pertinent.

In the course of a presidential administration, 100 days is nothing. It is very much a short-term phenomenon.  And therein lies the rub. There should never be an incentive for a leader to favor the short-term over the long-term. This is not to deify the present administration. They just went along with the hype by discussing it and hosting a press conference and a giant town-hall meeting.  Former GE chairman Jack Welch was adament about this, as was Peter Drucker before him. Said Drucker:  “There is one more major factor in every management problem…an additional dimension: time. Management always has to consider both the present and the long-range future.”

As long as a commander-in-chief has one eye on the 100-day calendar there is always the incentive to favor the short term over the long term health of the nation.  And that is never a good thing.

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