Hello, and welcome! With the release of my first book, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, coming up in October, I decided I needed to branch out from VivAndLarry.com if I want to progress as a film historian and explore other subjects. Not to worry, I plan to continue updating Viv and Larry, but I felt it important to carve out a space where I could post about things that might not “fit” over there, like reviews of completely unrelated films or books, photography, and information about upcoming projects. So here we have it: my official author website. I’m so excited about this new venture and I want to thank you for coming along for the ride!
Rather than getting our toes wet, let’s jump right in. This inaugural post will be part of an ongoing series called “Ask the Author,” wherein people can submit questions about research, writing, publishing, etc., and I’ll post a different answer based on my own experiences each week. I’m going to start by answering general questions, and after October 10 (the UK release date of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait), will be open to discussing the contents of my book in detail. Whether you’re someone who wants to write a book some day, are currently working on one, or are just interested in the process, I hope this series proves helpful.
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Q: I’m currently writing a book. What advice can you give me to improve my chances of being published? – Paulo F.
When I first started out on the journey to what would eventually become Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, I really had no clue how to take what I thought was this great idea and turn it into a physical product. The past five years have been a huge learning curve, and I was lucky enough to get some sound advice along the way. There is no foolproof formula for success; everyone’s journey is different. But these are some fundamentals that every new author should know.
Photo credit: Pimthilda
A “novel” idea
One of the most basic factors in getting a book published is having a solid and unique idea. If you’re writing a biography about a historic figure, for example, do you have something new to say about that person’s life? Whether it’s a new perspective, or you’ve unearthed some new and interesting facts, it’s important to carve out your own niche, especially if there have already been other books published on the same subject. This doesn’t mean that every word you put down on paper needs to be a revelation. Indeed, it won’t be. But you need to have something that sets your book apart from others in that field.
I knew from the start that I wanted to put together an illustrated biography (coffee table book). They say that a picture speaks a thousand words and from my work at VivAndLarry.com I knew there were so many more photographs of Vivien Leigh in various archives than had been published in the handful of books – including the two photo-based volumes – that already existed about her. So in the beginning the format was what I emphasized when I pitched the project to agents. Luckily, this idea evolved when I learned that publishers required new information to accompany those photographs. But I probably never would have realized this without the advice of my agent.
Getting an agent
Not every author requires the assistance of an agent. If you opt to go the self-publishing route, it’s possible to do everything on your own. But if you’re hoping to have your book produced by a commercial publisher, having an agent can get you a long way. I knew that commercial publishing was the only option for Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait. The cost of putting together a photography book is higher than that of trade books, and I needed a publisher who could provide those resources and ensure the quality I had in mind.
Experienced agents know the current market for the books they represent and can advise accordingly. Many big publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or proposals (usually publishers’ websites will include a section detailing their submission policies), so the agent acts as an intermediary, ensuring that your work is actually read rather than ending up in the dreaded slush pile. Having an agent doesn’t guarantee your book will get picked up by a publisher, but if it does, the agent will negotiate and help you navigate your contract to make sure you get the best possible deal. Believe me, those contracts are pretty confusing and loaded with legal jargon. If you’re a new author, it’s definitely reassuring to have someone looking after you when it comes to things like royalties and film rights.
So, how do you actually get an agent if you decide you need one?
Do your research
I’ll cover researching for the content of a book in another post. What I’m talking about here is spending some time looking in to which agents represent the type of book you’re writing so that you don’t end up blindly sending out queries, and thereby wasting their time and yours. A Google search of “How to find a literary agent” brings up a plethora of advice and online directories. There are also several books on the market directed at authors who are trying to get published. I’d recommend Jeff Hermann’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, which lists the agent’s name, agency, contact information, subjects they like to represent, and commission percentage for both domestic and overseas sales.
I queried a handful of agents using the above methods, but what actually ended up working for me was going in to the film section at my local bookstore and looking at books that were similar in format and theme to the one I wanted to write. A lot of times authors will thank their agent in the acknowledgements section of their book (I found my agent at the back of Peter Cowie’s Louise Brooks: Forever Lulu, which happened to be the inspiration for Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait). Depending on the publication date of the books you browse through, this might actually be the most effective way of finding representation.
*Note: If an agent asks you up front for a representation fee, you’ve run into a scam. Legitimate agents get paid on commission when they make a sale to a publisher, at which point they receive a pre-agreed percentage (usually around 10-20%) of your book advance.
You’ve narrowed down a list of agents to approach. Now what?
Photo credit: Emma Farrer
Query letters and proposals
Agent directories are particularly useful for specifying whether or not a particular agent accepts proposals straight away. In most cases, they require a query letter in the first instance. A query letter is essentially a formal cover letter; a one page summary of your book, along with why it should be published and why you are the ideal person to write it. If the agent that you query is currently accepting new clients and wants to know more about your book, he/she will ask you to send in your proposal. This is your business plan. Use it wisely. You’ll need to include:
- A cover page: Includes your proposed book title and contact information.
- Overview: A summary of your book.
- Chapter summaries: A breakdown of the index with a paragraph or two summarizing each chapter.
- Sample chapter(s): For non-fiction titles, you only need to submit one or two sample chapters. Pick those that you think will have an impact on the reader. Fiction proposals may require an entire manuscript, or at least a sizeable chunk of it.
- Marketing plan: Who is the target audience for your book? For example, I felt that Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait would interest Vivien Leigh fans, but also lovers of photography, history, cinema, and theatre. How can it be marketed – book stores? Promotional events? Social media? Include some actual numbers, if possible. This is where having a blog and a presence on networks like Twitter and Facebook can come in handy. I used my website and the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Facebook page, along with a specially created mailing list to show that there is, in fact, an audience for a new book about Vivien Leigh.
- Your competition: This refers to current books on the market that are similar to yours. How does your book differ?
- Author biography: This is your chance to really show your expertise. Do you have credentials that support your work? Have you been published previously in a magazine, newspaper, or online publication? Even if you don’t have any of this under your belt, think of things that highlight why you should be the one to write this book.
- Endorsements: Don’t be afraid to reach out to influential figures in your field and ask for an endorsement. Having a recognizeable name supporting your work can give your proposal an extra edge.
There is no set limit for how long your proposal has to be, as long as it covers all of the relevant points and is persuasive. My proposal for Vivien Leigh was around 70 pages all together.
If an agent likes your proposal enough to offer you representation, congratulations! Hopefully he or she will be able to find a publisher for you. But don’t hang your hopes on this happening right away. It can be a long waiting game. Two years passed before I was offered a publishing contract. I won’t lie and say it wasn’t worrying and frustrating, but sometimes good things come to those who wait, and I was able to use that time to firmly shape my idea and complete a lot of my research.
A final word
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you will get rejected, likely by both agents and publishers. It happens to even the most successful authors. If you’re not successful after a sizeable round of submissions, you may need to go back and make some changes. Hopefully somewhere along the line someone will offer some constructive feedback, but even if they don’t and only say that your book isn’t what they’re looking for, try not to get too discouraged. A previous Vivien Leigh biographer gave me these words of advice when I was first starting out and I have always kept them with me: “It might not happen now, but it will one day. Never give up.”