Next book: A literary agent’s perspective

I sought the perspective of my agent, Laney Katz Becker of Markson Thoma Literary Agency, on this week’s topic, “Next book.”

Prior to becoming an agent, Laney was an advertising copywriter and freelance journalist, as well as an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. She grew up in Ohio and is a graduate of Northwestern University. You can read her full bio here.

Thank you, Laney, for sharing your point of view on The Debutante Ball!

~Alicia

***

“For most authors of fiction or nonfiction who are thinking about their next book, the first thing they should do is talk to their agent. Not all authors want writing to be their full-time job, and authors’ goals vary. Some authors are speakers, and they want a book to supplement that job. Other authors are writing to help boost their profile in their day job. Once I know what kind of career my author desires, we talk further about the best way to work toward that goal.

“But, if you’re looking for a general rule of thumb, for ‘next books,’ I recommend that authors stick with what they’ve done. So if they’ve written fiction, the next book should also be fiction. Same with genre: If it’s a thriller, then the next book should also be a thriller. Why? Because most authors are trying to build a readership—and if they stay within ‘their’ category, it’s easier to do that.

“Consider this: A reader finds you on your third novel of suspense, let’s say. The reader really loved your book and naturally, is eager to see what else you’ve written. Keeping within a category/framework makes it likely that if readers liked one of your titles, they’ll like the others, and keep buying, and keep reading, and hopefully, keep recommending you to their friends. Jodi Picoult is a great example of this, as she’s built an entire franchise—one book at a time.

“But the rule is, there is no rule! There are some occasions where an author already has great name recognition, and may be inspired to write something else or try something new. They (and their publishers) trust that readers will follow.

“There are also times when authors are writing within a genre (romance, for instance) and the author may want to try her hand at upmarket, commercial women’s fiction. That’s probably more doable than moving from writing how-to books to sci-fi, let’s say.”

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16 thoughts on “Next book: A literary agent’s perspective

  1. Thanks for being our guest Wednesday Deb! It was interesting for me to learn more about the role agents take in helping authors carve out the shape of their careers, and to read about the different goals authors might have (although I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to do this as a full-time job!). I enjoyed reading this and it makes a lot of sense.

  2. I’m so glad you found the post helpful, and I appreciate Alicia giving me the chance to add my two cents. (Thanks again, Alicia!) As you know, so much of the publishing business is subjective, but I really like working with debut authors — not just to help them shape their projects, but to help them shape their careers. As far as “anyone not wanting to do this as a full-time job,” well, I hear ya. But there are many writers who would love to write full-time, but need to work, and get a paycheck, from outside their home. (I suddenly feel like I’m talking about the difference between saying “working mothers” and “mothers who work outside the home.” But my point is that of course, writing full time is work — LOTS of work — but it doesn’t always pay the bills, especially when you’re first starting out.)So, if you love what you do, you find a way to write AND pay the bills. And often that means a day job (or a night job), too!

  3. My agent asked me to write a YA book after we sold my debut, THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (Sarah Crichton Books, FSG), which was up-market (literary-commercial blend). I had already written another adult novel, but–because we had to wait to pitch another adult book–my agent asked me to write Young Adult. (That already written adult book remains unsold, and I’ve shelved it, moved on.)

    When I said I wasn’t so sure about YA, Doug told me, just do what you do, but make the whole book from the POV of a teenager. Doug encouraged me to write the same type of book that I had already sold, just YA, and instead I wrote something completely different, dark, and sort of bizarre. We both loved my first YA book, but it didn’t sell.

    Then I wrote SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR (Little, Brown, and Co, May 2010, how’s that for a plug?), which in some ways is not like TSLP at all, but, thematically, there are a lot of similarities. And people who liked TSLP have already told me that they think SLARS is the perfect follow-up to TSLP. Different genre. Different house. But a book that fans of TSLP will hopefully embrace.

    TSLP was the fourth novel I wrote and SLARS was the seventh. So sometimes your second ‘follow-up’ novel is really not number two. I think it’s important to remember that you can WRITE whatever you want, whenever you want. But you can only sell what you can sell. Best to know the difference.

  4. Oh, and thanks to Laney for the good words! Proof that literary agents really are people. All the agents I have met really do want to promote new authors and literature. You just have to be willing to know and play by the rules.

  5. I LOVE hearing this, Q, because a lot of people might look at you and think things just fell into place easily for you, when they hear about the awards and talk shows and glowing reviews TSLP has received. It’s incredibly generous of you to share your story and I think it’ll encourage many, many folks out there (including myself).

  6. Yep. My agent says pretty much the same thing. While I did not want to write another dystopian novel (mostly because I didn’t have an idea for one!!!), we did try to stay “high concept” and “bigger than usual” with the second one. So even though I lean toward more quiet novels in my reading, I’ve had to think bigger than I normally would because of Restoring Harmony’s high concept idea. This has been a challenge, but I think it’s been good for me too.

  7. Thanks, Sarah. With readers it’s sometimes best to hold back and let them marvel at the magic trick, but with other writers I believe you should always tell the truth. Writing’s hard work! And a career in fiction writing is even harder. Most career writers I’ve met and trust will tell you the same thing. You get breaks along the way–sometimes early, sometimes late–but everyone struggles…well, there are probably genius writers out there who write beautiful first drafts that sell and sell, but knowing that doesn’t help anyone. I work hard through failures, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Talent is a given, you must have something to offer readers. But hard work and dedication over a long period of time–when combined with levelheaded thinking and solid career planning, as Laney suggests above–can make things happen. Or at least that has been my experience.

  8. Joelle: I’ve got about 50 pages left to go in RESTORING HARMONY — that is one addictive book that you wrote! I’m loving it.

    Laney: Thanks again for speaking in this forum. I sometimes fall into that trap of thinking that other writers gaze out the window for a few minutes, type for a few days, and poof! a book appears. But hearing from agents and writers reminds me that a lot of planning and thinking goes into shaping a career.

  9. Struggles are inevitable but make success even sweeter. Looking forward to Q’s SLARS and Joelle’s next “high concept” book. As for RESTORING HARMONY, I totally agree!!!

  10. Q,
    You mean it didn’t happen by magic?! Dang. I was hoping some magic dust would rub off.

    I don’t know I feel about the post. The marketer in me says, “Well, yes. That’s the best advice!” But as someone who deals with marketing on a daily basis in my day job — and, no, I’m not referring to my incessant self-promotion on Facebook and Twitter 🙂 — I sort of get tired of the marketing angle.

    I, myself, am torn. I’d rather write fiction full time than sit at a desk job editing other people’s stuff between commenting on blogs. And perhaps the best way to do that would be to continue on the Southern fiction track established by my first book. And while I have some Southern stories left in me, my second book has nothing to do with the South. It’s in the same vein — contemporary, humor, even food issues — but not a “yall” in the book.

    Of course, ultimately the decision won’t be up to me. If someone picks up the second one (which is actually the third one; the fist was historical fiction, of all things), excellent. If someone doesn’t? Well, I’ll grumble as I get back to work on something else.

    (Though I do plan to offer up a deal: “I’ll do every other book Southern if yall give me free reign on the alternating books.”)

  11. Just keep making us laugh, Wheaton. That’s a friendly request. But I’ll read whatever you come up with next regardless. Looking forward to it.

  12. Alicia, Very Nice Cover!!
    Congrats and drinks on me. Matt Q. Thanks for sharing. Just today I was thinking what a long road a novel is. You’re all an inspiration. Now back to my words.

    Best,

    Greg Gutierrez

  13. Wow! I’ve been out of the loop. I apologize, Alicia. Well, for me, it’s my next play. My playwriting is somewhat akin to my eating. At the time I’m eating lunch, I’m planning dinner. Breakfast . . . lunch . . . you get the idea. One is food for thought for the next. Pardon the pun! Or, don’t pardon it:-) I inhabit one “play” world; but, feel the need to be checking in on another one. Not at the same time, at the same moment, of course. That would only breed confusion. But, I do find myself, walking into more than one world at a time. Characters are characters. Peeling a layer from one who lives in the deep South will illicit a new thought regarding the one who lives on Mt. Olympus. Not sure this has a thing to do with your topic. Good to be back among the Debutantes!!

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