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WARBeat the Reaper: A NovelThe Hellhound of Wall Street: How Ferdinand Pecora's Investigation of the Great Crash Forever Changed American FinanceThe Evolution of Bruno LittlemoreThe Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, Red HarvestGlengarry Glen Ross

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Have your questions answered by an editor at a major publishing house!

I have decided to begin a very exciting new series of interviews, which will be based roughly on the discontinued (but still available) “Agents & Editors” series that appeared in Poets & Writers magazine. (I’ve mentioned this in past posts, but if you haven’t already subscribed to Poets & Writers I absolutely recommend that you do so. It’s essential reading for all aspiring writers.)

The goal of the interview series will be to provide writers with practical advice about the process of writing and getting published, as well as an inside look at the publishing industry.

This is where you come in. Please use the comment section to submit any questions you would like answered. I won’t make any promises, but will certainly take serious questions under serious consideration.

The first interview will take place in the next couple weeks, so send your questions soon. A clue about the interviewee: she’s a brilliant young editor at Random House who happens to work with a publishing legend.

On a separate note, I remain perpetually apologetic for the inconsistency of my posts. I was able to verbalize my struggle for the first time yesterday. On the one hand, I would like to keep the blogging process as organic as possible, absent the pressure of rigid scheduling. On the other, I want to provide quality content for you with at least some degree of regularity. So far the former sentiment has won out, and hence my constant regret! To be honest, I don’t know how some agents post every day and are still able to, you know, be agents. In any case, I appreciate your continued interest in what I have to say and hope that you’ll share your thoughts whenever you feel inspired to do so.

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38 comments to Have your questions answered by an editor at a major publishing house!

  • Thanks Chris,
    I don’t have any questions for the editor (except, have you read Mammoth Mountain or Zen and the Art of Surfing?). I know, give it a rest!

    You rock. You’re explanation about your consistency was great.
    I’m on the home stretch with The Evening Doorman. Hope you’re well, thanks so much for the blog.

    Your fan,

    Greg Gutierrez

  • Lydia

    Since nearly all publishers are owned by major corporations, it seems that the art of writing has been forced into formulaic. Do you see a change in the trend or does every burger still have to be a Big Mac or at least a primary feature of a well proven happy meal?

  • In terms of formatting your manuscript for publication submission, what is proper in terms of margins, fonts, line spacing, paragraph indentation, contact info, etc., those sorts of items?

  • Mark

    Writing an elevator pitch/query hook is one of the hardest aspects of getting any book published. Are there any reputable people or services who do this for hire, assuming one has a completed, polished manuscript? How much would one expect to pay? Would you hold it against an author who used one?

  • How involved do editors tend to be with their authors’ next contracted books before said books are written? Is it common to brainstorm plot beforehand, to make sure editor and author are on the same line? I know often unwritten books will get sold on proposals, so that (mostly) covers that, but since sometimes contracts also include one or two future books, I was curious how this was usually handled.

  • Robert

    Will the wrong title (i.e., a bad title) ever sink a novel?

    • JEN

      It has been my observation that the working title should be aimed to hook as much as the novel. I once saw a fantastic story titled “Nolan” after the main character. I loved the story, but the title didn’t grab me. With agents and editors being pitched queries left and right, you need an eye-catching title that says, “Read Me First!”

  • Chris Kepner

    We’ve done the interview and I hope to post it soon. Feel free to continue submitting questions, as it seems likely I’ll do another interview at some point. No guarantees, of course, but I’ll at least do my best to answer your questions myself.

  • Jason offers a 70% author royalty when they sell an e-book. Yes, I understand that your services include many things other than printing and distribution. At the same time, I keep reading about how things like promotion are more and more left up to the author. What, exactly, do you do for an author that justifies him or her receiving only 7-15% of the cover price of a trade paperback novel, and perhaps 30% of an ebook sale, when Amazon pays the author 70% of the cover price for ebook sales?

    Let’s go over it in detail. I see a publisher’s job as (heavily influenced by what Nathan Bransford said on his blog yesterday):
    1) editing, both copyediting and story editing
    2) publication of a physical book. This includes the ‘art’ of the book, the paper, font, cover, backcopy, etc.
    3) distribution, including ebook formatting
    4) advertising & promotion
    5) sponsorship, i.e., royalties, advances, etc., so that an author can continue to write
    6) provide a name for the author that conveys some weight to it. Tor does fantasy & sci-fi novels, Harper Collins does romance, etc., so that a reader has some indication of the quality of the work before picking it up.

    2, 3, and 5 have gone the way of the dodo bird for first time authors. I have repeatedly read that 1 and 4 are duties that the publishers are shifting, more and more, to authors and agents. (Yes, you’ll still get editing…but they hope your agent has done some of it in advance; yes, you’ll still get promotion, but only the top authors get more than just an initial press release and one week of ads and such.)

    That leaves 6: they have a name. And for this they charge the author up to 90% of his or her profits? (7% of initial paperback sales go to an author, 70% of an Amazon ebook sale goes to the author.)

    Now, hang on a minute. I sound negative. Don’t get me wrong–I’m a writer of what _I_ think is an excellent epic fantasy novel, but I’m also a ‘rocket scientist’–an engineer for NASA. I understand and value the weight that experience brings to the table. I wouldn’t want an inexperienced project manager or systems engineer running a $300M spacecraft design. I’m willing to pay top dollar for that experience. Simply knowing where the rough spots are in the process is worth many, many dollars. Additionally, most publishers provide higher royalties for ebooks, so it’s not always 90%.

    But, at the same time…up to 90%? That hardly seems fair. I’m about ready to go out and hire an editor and a marketer. Seriously. What’s a few thousand dollars at the start of my career as an author, compared to what up to 90% of my earning potential might be after five or six even moderately successful books? (And, before you go saying that all of what I list above CAN be done by an author, but it’s a lot of work and a lot of learning to be able to do it…I taught myself how to build violins and cellos by reading books. I can learn how to publish. I’d really rather not, though–experience is important.)

    So, what I see is an entire industry struggling with the advent of new technologies. I feel certain that publishers provide values beyond the six things that I listed above, but I don’t see a case being made for anything else. So, I will ask my question again, but this time I think I am asking it for you to answer for yourself…because if you don’t, your industry will go the way of the newspaper industry:

    What, exactly, do you do for an author that justifies him or her receiving only 7-15% of the cover price of a trade paperback novel, and perhaps 30% of an ebook sale, when Amazon pays the author 70% of the cover price for ebook sales?

  • D.

    Perhaps, we can learn from the mistakes of others. What are the Top Ten No-Nos that sink a query before it even sets sail out of the harbor? Your pet peaves?

  • Jason

    D., I think you meant book pitch? Agents usually get queries, not publishers. Agents usually pitch the book to the publishers/editors that they know.

    That said, I think it’s a great question for you, Chris! I’d love to hear what the top ten mistakes in queries are from your point of view.

    Perhaps an alternate question, for the publisher? “What are the top 10 things that agent/authors do wrong that will sink a book before it sets sail out of the harbor?”

    Or how about a more simple one from me: what are the top 10 things that an author can do to ensure more sales, once a book is published.

    And another question for you, Chris, what are the top 10 things that an author can do to “close the deal” with you?

    Hope those are a bit easier than my last one. :)

  • Chris Kepner

    These are all great questions, everyone. Thanks for submitting them! One way or another, they’ll be answered. I’m drowning in a sea of contracts at the moment, but I hope to come up for air soon!

  • diane lafontaine

    More and more we are all being expected to recreate every aspect of our lives in digital form and then interface with other digital forms in a masquerade called ‘a life’. When avatar to avatar is NOT how someone wants to spend a physical life…..when day after day of staring at a screen starts to leach the life out of ones soul through the liquid in our eyes………how does a new author get published without sacrificing a life to blogs and twitters and texts and facebook and and and and ??????

    Does anyone out there even know that our digital world has a larger carbon footprint than the entire aviation industry……and is unsustainable?

  • Is it too much of a problem for the protagonist to be the antagonist and for the real protagonist not to come into the novel until 1/4 of the way through the story? Some tell me it is, but I wonder if they read enough. The protag’ was the antag’ in Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed, and the best protag’ wasn’t brought in until 1/4 of the way through Bryan Smith’s excellent novel, Soultaker.

  • Lynn Barry

    Hi Chris,

    I sent a query to another agent in your agency and now I am wondering if I should have addressed the query to you instead. I know the rule about only sending to one agent per agency so I will leave it alone.
    I travel to Buffalo often (live near Letchworth State Park); my husband is a disabled veteran and the VA hospital is a frequent destination for the two of us.
    I write adult fiction and won a creative writing contest judged by TC Boyle in 2009.
    I will stop in here often. I love that you include words from your mother in your agent description.
    Take care,
    Lynn Barry

    • Chris Kepner

      Hi Lynn,

      Thanks for this nice comment, and it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m very behind on queries at the moment, unfortunately. If you get a rejection from the other VSA agent, feel free to send a query to me. Just bear in mind that I likely won’t be able to respond for a long time (months).


  • Anonymous

    I have written a very funny humor / satire novel, but I find few agents who claim to be interested in this genre. And I do not find many humor/satire novels in the bookstores to study for leads. Is this genre defunct (even temporarily?) Is it so subjective that editors fear to get near it? Are they inhibited by political correctness? (i.e., my novel pokes fun at Native Americans who own a casino, but they are not the only people who get razzed in the story). Surely, there is lots of satire on TV and in clubs these days. What’s up with agents and editors??????????? Are they chicken??
    Mary Lhowe

  • Mary Leigh Volkman

    Burlesque dancers, as they relate to the Hollywood glamour era of the 1940′s-50′s, are the muses of my novel, “These Days.” In consideration of the proliferation of new-era burlesque troupes that perform in nightclubs and other venues throughout the states, as well as the movie “Burlesque,” starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, is this a hot enouogh topic for today’s literary market? Is it a topic that a prospective literary agent would grab hold of?

  • Harry Posner

    I’m currently querying a debut novel whose protagonist (an American) takes potshots at the ‘American way of life’. I’m Canadian, so who the hell am I to criticize the great U.S. of A, right? So the question is will my novel be read any differently because I’m a critical ‘foreigner’?

  • Andrew

    I found a wonderful addiction in my life, writing has consumed me, but now the question of length has come up. My first book started at 230k words, and I trimmed it down to 151k, but I hear a debut should be 140k at most. Everyone who has started my story has also finished it in a couple days, and proceeded to demand more. Is 151k really that frightening of a size for a debut?

    • Chris Kepner

      Hi Andrew,

      It depends on the genre (e.g. literary fiction and fantasy novels can approach that length rather frequently.) In general, though, that’s a fairly daunting word count for an acquiring editor.

    • JEN

      Hi Andrew,
      Perhaps you have written two books. I read a middle-grade book where the protagonists traveled across the United States. The first book ended half-way through their trip, and the second book finished it. A debut book of 230k may be too long, but a good manuscript of half that length, plus a sequel in queue, is something an editor could jump at.

  • D

    I guess my question would be the polar opposite of Andrew’s.
    I have written a 52,000-word adult urban fantasy novel. It may be short on word count, but there are extenuating circumstances as far as that’s concerned. I won’t get into them here. I will say the story is well-written, complete, and it has a real message.
    Is that word count (52k) going to frighten an agent away?
    I’ve recently been researching your interests, and I think my story might be the kind of thing you’d enjoy.
    I’ve never really gotten a straight answer from an agent on this question, but you seem like the kind of person who will give me one. I would very much appreciate it.

    • Chris Kepner

      Hi Derek,

      I do think there is a little too much thought spent on whether a given word count is appropriate. If you feel that the work is complete, by all means, approach agents with it. Unless they ask in their guidelines for you to specify a word count in your query or manuscript, don’t. If you happen to get some interest, be prepared for advice on how to lengthen the work, as there is a distinct possibility that you’ll get some.

  • D

    I’ll be prepared.
    Thanks so much for taking the time to reply, Chris.

  • Chris

    I have been wondering whether there is any free or inexpensive source to obtain information on the book deals various agents have negotiated — i.e., how much they have obtained for their clients, on average. I realize that everything depends on who the client is (and what the client’s book is) but it would be helpful to have an idea of whether, if I find an interested agent, that person can get me the best deal possible for my material.

    Related to that, is there information available anywhere as to the average amount paid by various publishers (or publishers in various categories, such as small, medium, large or specialty) for books of various kinds?

    • Chris Kepner

      Hi Chris,

      What you’re looking for is Publishers Marketplace. They keep a database that goes back about a decade. It relies on agents/publishers to report the deals, so it’s not exhaustive and subject to embellishment, but it’s the best resource out there for what you describe.

  • Amy

    Hi Chris,

    How imperative do you feel it is for a writer to have a Website/Page. I blog often, and send readers to my blog page to read articles and chapters of my novel. This has been a valuable tool to connect with readers. However, I have not yet invested the time to create a truly dynamic ‘Author’s Page’ with the bells and whistles that I have seen in some author pages. I am inspired to create a ‘book trailer’ for my novel, but my technical background is less seasoned than my literary one.

    Thank you!


    • Chris Kepner

      Hi Amy,

      I think it depends on where you are as an author. If you’re unpublished and looking for a traditional publisher, a dedicated author site is a plus but unnecessary prior to the sale of your book. It becomes necessary once you find a publisher, though, and it’s going to fall to you as the author to get it set up. You can hire people to handle the technical stuff for you. If you’re self-publishing, it’s necessary as well.

      Of course, you could continue to use your blog as your author page if you are active there. You may want to look into buying a custom domain name that points to your blog page, and do everything you can to maximize search engine visibility (Google the phrase “Search Engine Optimization” and whatever blog platform you’re using…many have something built into the platform.)

      I think the bells and whistles do help, but the most important thing that readers look for is a way to connect to an author they like. So if you’re posting original content regularly and interacting with your fans, that’s more than half the battle.


  • C. T. Blaise

    Is there a line that should never be crossed when writing a query letter?

    • Chris Kepner

      I think there are many lines that should never be crossed. You should never threaten to murder someone if they don’t respond to your query for instance. Extreme, yes, but certainly a line.

      More practically: use your best judgment, but bear in mind that if your query is pretty edgy, you want to make sure you’re sending it to agents who appreciate edgy. Otherwise, chances are you’ll be setting yourself up for a quick rejection.

      While we’re on the topic of lines you shouldn’t cross, do yourself a favor and don’t show up unannounced at an agent’s or publisher’s office. It’s simply not the way business is done these days, and it’s generally pretty uncomfortable for the agent or publisher.


  • Tianna

    I have to say that the above response cracked me up! The queries you must receive! Anyhow, your blog has been incredibly insightful. The piece about the three key ingredients lit a fire in me and has inspired me to get cracking again. I just realized that back in December, I queried you at the incorrect address. I am going to take the tips from your blog, alter my query and send it to the correct address. Thank you for your blog. It is very helpful to those on the hunt for representation.

  • Tianna

    It’s me again. I sent out a handful of queries last weekend and I had a request for my full manuscript yesterday. The agent asked for a 6-8 week exclusive reading. How common is such a request and what happens if another agent (hopefully) requests my manuscript during that time period? Does an agent lose interest if he/she has to wait? Any help you could provide is much appreciated. Thank you!

    • Chris Kepner

      A request for an exclusive is common, but 6-8 weeks seems long in my experience. Every agent is different, so I can’t say generally whether they’ll lose interest if they have to wait, but hearing that another agent has been granted an exclusive is not unusual. I might try to get that exclusive period down to 3-4 weeks if you can.

  • Tianna

    Thanks so much, Chris. I appreciate your help! Have a great weekend!

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