There are only a few days left of the old year.  You are already thinking ahead to new goals, new projects, and you are determined to accomplish them. Knowing writers, I can predict what your New Year's resolutions will be:

  1. I will write 1000 words a day (after all, Hemingway did it, and he was a journalist)
  2. I will finish my novel (it's been seven years … )
  3. I will start my novel (it's been ten years … )

And so on.

This year, I am going to make the whole breast-beating, self-flagellating, bound-to-fail experience of New Year's resolutions a lot easier for you. Here's your resolution:

I will research my market.

(My computer has a Big Brother camera on it. I can see the expression on your face.)

Writers don't like marketing and promoting their work. But that's not because it is a venal, distasteful, and ungentlemanly task. It's because we don't know how to do it. Marketing belongs to the business world, not the artistic world. As a writer, you prefer to wear only one hat. As a writer in today's entertainment-driven world, you can't.

Marketing Rule #1: Know your market

Knowing your market – who will buy your book, how many people there are in this group, and how you will reach them – is the key to success. Even if you are lucky enough to get an agent who will sell your work to a publishing house, the first thing he or she will ask you is: What is your market? How many people are in it? How will you reach them? What books compete with your own? How is your book different? Why will people want to buy it? (A tip: The answers to these questions should go in your query letter.)

In order to address these questions (and you must be able to), you need to do some research. Go to Amazon and type in keywords to locate books similar to yours. What is their ranking? Go to a Barnes & Noble. What's on their shelves? (Believe it or not, print publications still matter.) Are you offering something new? Will your book fill a gap?

Who will buy your book? That depends on what you are writing, of course. Let's say you are writing a romance. (Half of all fiction being published today is comprised of romance novels.) Generally speaking, women buy romance novels – more specifically, women who don't have a lot of time. Romance novels are short, therefore your market consists of women who have small children and/or time-consuming jobs and a curtailed sex life. (And/or my Aunt Esther.)

If you want to reach this market, you have to know where these women go. What websites are they visiting, what blogs do they read, what books do they buy? If you can't answer those questions off the top of your head, go to: http://www.invesp.com/blog-rank/Romance_Novels and take a look.

No matter what you write, there is a market for your work. If you want people to read what you write, spend an hour a day researching who those people are. 

And last, but not least, read books that are designed for entrepreneurs, because that is who you are!

Suggested reading:

One Simple Idea: Turn Your Dreams Into a Licensing Goldmine While Letting Others Do the Work by Stephen Key. Key's book is about licensing ideas for products, so you may not think what he has to say applies to you. Keep in mind that when a publisher picks up your book, you have essentially licensed an idea. Read what Key has to say about marketing, and think about how to apply his methods to your own goals. Go to worldcat.org and type in the title of Key's book. Then, click on “preview this item.” You can read the first 20% of Key's book right there. 

Picture"Please step away from the keyboard! Now!!!"

Every writer knows that grammar and spelling errors are unforgivable in a manuscript. That's why we seek outside editors and send our manuscripts to proofreaders. What writers don't realize is that making simple mistakes in an email to an agent, or a query letter, or even on a blog can cost you your career. (You never know who might be reading your blog.)

I'm not talking about spelling the word “precede” wrong. After all, it's the most misspelled word in the English language, and chances are your agent won't know how to spell it either. I am talking about a little word. It's its.

It's is a contraction of “it is.” Its is a possessive (e.g. its teeth.)

An apostrophe in the wrong context is a catastrophe.

A while ago, I took a seminar in grant writing. I was the director of a nonprofit at the time, and knowing how to write a grant was essential to the future of my project. The leader of the seminar asked the group if we knew how grantors made their decisions. We replied, “On the merits of our projects.” (Like writers, nonprofits believe that good work counts.) She immediately set us straight. “They hold up the first page of each application to the light,” she said. “If they see white-out [this was in the day of typewriters], they throw the entire application away. They repeat that process, going through each page, until they get a pile of applications with no corrections. Those are the ones they read.”

The moral of the story: Don't give anybody an excuse to throw you out. Use your spell check on everything you write, check all your punctuation marks, and watch those apostrophes.

They'll get you every time.


I didn't have an agent for my first book, which, in light of the disastrous contract I signed, was a mistake. So, when I completed a second book I decided to contact one. After reading the manuscript she gave me a call, agreed to represent me, and asked me for the following:

A photograph
A biography
Log lines
Flap copy
A synopsis
A marketing plan
How I intended to reach my prospective audience, and
Whether I knew someone famous, like the Pope, who would endorse my book

I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn't know what half the things on her list were, so I muddled through as best I could. (The Pope would not give me an endorsement, even though my flap copy was nothing short of miraculous.) My ignorance was astonishing, although understandable: I was a writer.

Writers, especially fiction writers, focus on crafting our work. After a long and difficult labor, we give birth to novels. The last thing we need while in the throes of contractions (no pun intended) is for the midwife to ask, “What kind of diapers would you like? Cloth or disposable?” As far as we are concerned, our job is finished when we push out the last line.

This is simply not how the publishing world works. Before contacting an agent, you must not only have a finished work (edited, proof-read, and ready for the printer), you must understand the industry. That means knowing what is going on in the publishing world, knowing what is going on in the book selling world, and knowing what is going on inside your agent's head. In order to do that you must go to your local library and pore through issues of Publisher's Weekly, Writer's Digest, and The Writer. You must read blogs kept by agents and editors in order to familiarize yourself with the lingo of the trade: proposal-to-publish forms, subsidiary rights, and promotion potential. You must become vertically integrated.

Right about now, you are beginning to feel put-upon. Why should you learn everybody else's trade? You have your own. Besides, the publishing industry is complicated, frustrating, and, to put it mildly, embattled. That is why so many writers turn to epublishing. It lures us into its embrace with promises of instant gratification.

The inconvenient truth is that there is no way to avoid the hard work of promotion – which, in turn, requires an understanding of the publishing industry. Although epublishing is rapidly gaining ground, print publishers still have the advantage of pedigree. There is nothing that qualifies you more as an author than to be published by one of the big houses. In order to get a publisher, you need an agent. And in order to get an agent, you must not only be able to write the perfect query letter and shmooze at conferences, you must get a handle on how agents think.

The best way I know of understanding what goes on in the minds of agents is to read their books. Buried somewhere in the musty stacks of your local library is a book written by Michael Larsen called Literary Agents: How to Get and Work with the Right One for You. It was published in 1986 (a year in which you may have been a fetus), but it is still the best exposition of what goes on in an agent's mind that I have ever read. In spite of the passage of decades, and a supposed revolution in publishing, the way agents think has not changed.
  • Agents expect to have a salable book. What constitutes salable? Anything that can be successfully pitched. Work on your pitch before you contact an agent.
  • Agents expect you to be “professional.” In the publishing world that means, “Don't take up too much of my time.” If you need to have your hand held, don't contact an agent (yet).
  • Last, but not least, agents expect you to want to make money. (You'd be surprised how many writers simply want to express themselves!) Agents expect you to convince them “that you harbor a consuming lust for success and that you are irresistibly driven to do whatever it takes to make your books sell.” 

Until you can build up some lust, and can back it up with a plan that demonstrates that you know what to do with it, hold off on contacting an agent. They aren't in the business for love, they are in it for money – and they can't make any if you don't.

Essential reading for understanding how agents think:

Jeff Herman, Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. (Sourcebooks, 2011)  Read the agents' descriptions of the client from hell. (That's you!)  

Chuck Sambuchino, ed. 2013 Guide to Literary Agents. (Writer's Digest Books, 2012)
Actually, any year of this publication will be sufficient. Make sure you read the sections on advice to writers (from agents).

Michael Larsen. Literary Agents: How to Get and Work with the Right One for You. (J. Wiley, 1986.)

The updated edition of Larsen's book, How to Get a Literary Agent (Sourcebooks, 2006), has more information, but reveals less of the inner workings of the Martian mind

First posted on Blogging Authors 12/19/12: http://www.bloggingauthors.com/


Whenever you do a Google search, you will notice the top and bottom entries are ads. Google Adwords, an advertising tool created by Google, allows anybody to post an ad – for a price. The price is determined by how much you are willing to pay for someone to click on your ad. This is known as pay-per-click advertising, and is Google's main source of revenue.

It's ingenious, really, when you think about it. Advertisers are willing to take a gamble that people who click on their ad are interested enough to purchase a product. And, even if they don't click, thousands of people have at least seen the ad. All the better if it includes an eye-catching picture.

When Hostmonster offered me a free $100 of Adwords for my new website (which was doubled by joining Linkedin), I jumped at the chance. I called Google Adwords, and an obliging representative posted several attractive ads for my book. A few days later, another helpful representative called and, for an hour and a half, tutored me in all the details of how to track my campaign – daily budget, click-through rate (CTR, the percentage of people clicking after viewing your ad), the success of differently phrased ads, keywords, and many more sources of statistics.

It was complicated. It was taxing. And it was a completely inefficient way to market a book.

Time for some stats. My CTR (click-through rate) was .02%, which means that of the 200,000 times my ad appeared on Google, only twenty people clicked on it. Even Google admitted that this was an abysmal CTR. Nonetheless, I persisted. Twenty people was still twenty people after all. However, when I looked at my Google Analytics stats, I found a 50% bounce rate. That meant that of the twenty people actually visiting the site, half of them left immediately. Only ten people stayed long enough to read anything. Of those ten, one bought the book.

I was delighted that one person had bought my book. But, if I had paid for those ads, it would have cost me $200 to sell a book worth $2.99 (of which I made $2.10). By anybody's reckoning that's a waste of money. In fact, unless you sell a product that costs over $200, it would be a waste of money for anyone to use Google Adwords. Most ads receive an average of 200 clicks before someone actually purchases a product. (Which means I was actually doing well with my one sale.)

So, why would any sane writer want to promote a book on Google Adwords? Provided you don't pay for it, Google Adwords is an excellent way of judging which buzz words the public will respond to. (As it turned out, the ad that got the most clicks was the only one I had written myself.) Knowing what the public will respond to is quite important when you are writing your press release, query letters, and for all your promotional activities.

This page will help you to find keywords that are high, medium and low competition. (Your competition determines how much you will pay for clicks. The lower the competition, the less you pay.) But, here's the “beauty part.” This page tells you how many people searched those key words globally and locally. The more people who search on a given keyword or phrase, the more worth it has as a promotional tool. (But examine those keywords carefully; some are too vague to be useful.)


You can also use this tool to name a website, or a blog – or even a book!

Thank you, Google.


This article will give you an idea of how complex a Google Adwords campaign really can be. If you can make it half way through this explanation, I will give you a prize. (Please don't take me up on that.)

Picture"Just take another step back, my dear."

For those of us who either don't like to shmooze, or don't have the opportunity (see: Shmooze or You Lose 11/12/12), finding an agent can be quite a challenge. But whether your childhood sweetheart is married to Donald Maass, or you are a dead ringer for Brad Pitt, you'll need to do some research before you sign on.

Getting an agent is somewhat like getting a spouse. It has to be a good match to work. First, does the agent represent your genre? An agent actively looking for romance novels may not be interested in your treatise on postage stamps. Second, do you want a hands-on agent who will critique your work and constantly ask you to revise it, or do you prefer someone who lets you drive? Last, but not least, does the agent charge “reading fees”? If so, call off the wedding.

Your first stop for locating an agent is AgentQuery.com. As one of its many valuable services, AgentQuery maintains a database of 900 reputable literary agents. And it's free! If you are interested in researching a specific agent, you can search by name. You can also search by genre, AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives) membership status, and whether they are actively seeking clients. Agents who appear on this list are reliable. (AgentQuery also provides a useful blogroll of agent, editor and other publishing industry blogs.)

Once you have made a list of agents who represent your genre, go to their websites to get an idea of how they operate. How many authors do they represent? How many sales have they made this year? What kind of books have they sold, and to whom? This will give you an idea of how active they are, and also how overbooked. An agent with a lot of clients will not have time for you. An agent who sells books exclusively to publishers you never heard of is someone who does not have contacts in the major publishing houses.

Your next step is to look up agents in Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. (Many library systems have copies, but if yours doesn't you can always go to a Barnes and Noble and browse.) Although there are other guides to literary agents, this book is the best source of detailed information. Why? Because it reveals their attitudes. Would you want to marry a person who describes  suitors as “blowhards, bigots, braggarts, bitches, and bastards”? Admittedly, some writers fall into one or more of those categories, but chances are good that an agent who uses that much alliteration has a short fuse. Not all agents in Herman's book are members of the AAR, so make sure you cross-check them on AuthorQuery.

If you have been approached by an agent, and don't know if they are legitimate, always go to their website. Do they even have one? If they don't list their clients, or have any sales, you can check them out on Preditors and Editors, a website maintained by the Science Fiction Writer's Association (SFWA), to see if there have been any legal actions against them, or other complaints.

Armed with this knowledge, you can now shmooze.

(And remember: A writer without a literary agent is still a writer. An agent without clients is out of business. They need you more than you need them.) 

Photo credit: Jared Platt.