Monday, April 14, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Literary Orange 2014, Part 3

What: Literary Orange
Where: Marriott, Irvine
When: Friday, April 5, 2014

Please Note: The quotes are approximate.

Panel #1
Agents: The Business of Writing

People on the Panel
  • Julia Drake, publicist, Julia Drake Public Relations (JDPR),
  • BJ Robbins, agent, The BJ Robbins Literary Agency 
  • Linda Friedman, moderator
"The most boring thing is a plot synopsis."

With the morning keynote finished, everyone splits off to different panels.  I head over to the Marina Del Ray/ Newport Beach room, which, despite its double name, is actually pretty small.  A few pictures of palm trees are the room's only decoration.

The lady I sit next to shares her notes on Marlo Thomas' keynote address.  She's summed it up in three words: Acknowledge, Appreciate, Action.  I wish I could be so succinct.

There's a black-clothed table in the front of the room. Three ladies sit at it with white paper triangles displaying their names.  The publicist, Julia, sits in the middle. She sports short dark hair.  Two blonds flank either side of her.  To the left is moderator Linda, who wears glasses on her nose.  To the right is agent BJ, who wears glasses atop her head.  All three ladies are wearing green.  If there's some deeper meaning to the color, I don't know what it is.

I'm afraid that this will be a very loose question and answer session, with the audience lobbing whatever questions come to mind, with no real order to the presentation.  Thankfully, I learn the moderator will be the one asking questions.  Reassured, I click my lead pencil and start to write.

* * *

Moderator:  So let's begin.  Why don't you ladies start by introducing yourself.

Julia: My name is Julia Drake.  I founded a P.R. firm, Julia Drake Public Relations, which does targeted social media and events.  I have over 100 clients, from NY Times best-sellers to new authors.

BJ: I'm BJ Robbins.  I'm a literary agent based in LA.  I started in publicity in Simon and Schuster. Later I became an editor, and then I moved into agenting.  I represent both fiction and non-fiction.  For fiction, I veer towards what I like to call literary with a lowercase l. Literary fiction is a tough sell right now.  I like narrative-driven nonfiction, such as history and memoir--also a tough sell.  I have to really like the voice of the work, but I also have to know that I can sell it in this hostile marketplace.

Moderator: For writers, there's a 2-pronged effort, first to find an agent and get published, and second to run a publicity campaign.  BJ, what advice do you have about the first part of that effort?

BJ: Learn as much as you can, and get your manuscript as good as you can.  Even to the extent of hiring an editor.  You only get one chance to make a good impression.

Moderator: Julia, what would you consider a realistic publicity effort?

Julia: Depends on the writer's platform.  I hate that word.  People hear it and think what does platform mean?  Basically a platform means your built-in readership.  You should already have a website and social media up.  The actual publicity campaign starts 6 months before the book is published. We tap into different media to promote the book.  Everything is working toward the publishing date.

Moderator: BJ, how involved are you with editing?

BJ: Really involved.  If I see potential, I will edit.  It's more developmental editing as opposed to line editing.  It's also sort of a test for the writer, to see how they behave.  Are they willing to change their work?  Because if they don't take my advice, they won't take advice from the publisher.  By the way, you don't have to make every correction. Just 80%.

Moderator: This question is for Julia.  What's the most effective way to do social media?

Julia: From P.R. perspective, you should focus on whatever increases your visibility, whatever resonates, whatever makes you unique.  It's not just updating your Facebook account 20 times a day.  You need a content posting strategy.  Although social media creates buzz and audience interaction, that doesn't necessarily translate into sales.  I've noticed that some bestselling authors don't do social media, but they do write blogs.  It's consistency that's important.

Moderator: How do you find an agent that's a good match?

BJ: It starts with a query letter--a good one--one targeted specifically at me.  No "Dear Agent" or multiple listings in the email header.  Tell me why you're approaching me and what your book is about.  The summary should be no longer than a paragraph.  Then tell me something about yourself: if you've been published before, if you have an interesting job, your credentials.

Moderator: Julia, when people interview you to be their P.R. agent, how do you promote yourself?

Julia: Actually, we're interviewing them.  We have to believe in the project.  What's your platform?  How can we sell you?  All of you.  We look for anything interesting in your background or maybe something happening in the news that connects to your book.  Authors fill out a questionnaire.

Moderator: So you need to feel simpatico?

Julia: We want our clients to feel comfortable with us.  Transparency is important.  We encourage people to call previous clients and talk to them and to look over our old promotional material. That's the difference between the big scary P. R. firms versus the smaller boutique ones.  Smaller P.R. firms give more personalized attention.  You go for a big name publicist for the big hits--for having Oprah on speed dial.  But understand, they still might not be able to get you on Oprah.  In fact, if you're self-published, they won't even take you on as a client.  And sometimes those big hits don't translate into sales.  A New York Times review might do nothing, because the market is fractured.

BJ: Same thing with literary agents.

Moderator: What are your views on how publishing has changed?

BJ: Ever since I started, I've heard about the death of publishing, blah, blah, blah, but for those of us in publishing, it's still business as usual.  That doesn't mean there haven't been changes.  There are fewer places I can take a book to. More goes into the decision to purchase a book than the editor loving it.  The marketing director will say, 'What's the platform?'  If there is none, the book will be axed.  There's more emphasis on celebrity authors, more media noise.  It's harder to compete, harder to get attention, harder to make money.  The heyday of bidding is gone.  Sometimes it's better to look for a smaller, more enthusiastic press, who will pay less of an advance but give you more attention.

Moderator: Julia, what can you tell us about literary events versus social media?

Julia: Actual face-to-face contact works better.  It gives you sense of an audience and creates a personal connection.  Book clubs, libraries, and literary luncheons like these work great for selling books.  But its not enough just to show up and sign books.  You need to think more outside of the box, you have to make it an experience.  So maybe hire a musician, make a slideshow, always have food.  When you talk, don't just tell us what your book is about.  The most boring thing is a plot synopsis.  People want to hear about you, how you were inspired to write the book.  It's all about selling yourself.

Moderator: I remember an event based on an epic novel of Cuba in the 50s.  They held it at a restaurant and hired salsa dancers and everything.  They actually rolled the book into the price of the event.  Everyone got a copy with purchase of admission.

Julia: That's a good example of thinking outside the box.

Moderator: Self-publishing has exploded with the rise of e-readers and Print-on-Demand.  What are your thoughts?

Julia: A couple of things about self-publishing.  It's done a good job of democratizing the market. Content is king.  But if you do self-publish, know that you're going against the current.  Traditional publishers are still able to get more media attention.  And since there's a higher volume of books in the marketplace, it's harder to compete.  Ask yourself, Should I be writing this?  Is the hook strong enough?  The advantage to owning your own publishing company is that if you do make a killing, you don't have to share.  The risk is higher, but the rewards are higher, too.

BJ: Some people self-publish thinking it will get them an agent.  And while that does happen, it's a really small percentage.  Out of all the thousands of self-published books, maybe 10 will land an agent.  So that can't be your reason.  A lot of these services advertise that it doesn't cost anything to self-publish your book.  But it does end up costing.  It costs your time--just doing the formatting, for example.  It costs money for the artwork.  It costs in marketing.  If you self-publish, you're not going to get any bookstore distribution.  Some of these services say that they'll put your book in a catalogue--okay, but who's going to see them?  You have to be careful and get as much info as possible.

* * *

The formal interview over, the moderator opens for questions.  I stretch my cramped fingers and stare at my 6 pages of scribbles, a feeling of pessimism pressing against me like a wave of humidity. I already knew most of these things.  Certainly, after 15 rejections, I understand the impossibility of netting an agent, even with polished, personalized queries.  A few nuggets of information may prove useful--like charging people for an event and tossing the book in free.

Mostly, I feel overwhelmed.  How can I succeed, if I'm not famous enough for a traditional publisher or loud enough for publishing on my own?  Is there a way for me?  How much will I have to risk before I see any reward?

* * *

To Be Continued...

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