(Possibly) Bad Advice I’ve Heard Lately
Like most of you, I do a fair amount of reading on the web. I keep up with what’s going on in publishing and I like to read what industry professionals are saying. However, sometimes I cringe when I read advice that doesn’t square with what I’ve experienced. It might not be wrong, per se, but it certainly isn’t true across-the-board as it is presented.
Here are a few pieces of advice I’ve read on the web lately that I don’t think are always true.
1. “If an agent asks for a proposal package for a novel (aka fiction) they don’t know what they’re doing and you should run a mile.”
Ack! According to this, I don’t know what I’m doing and you should never query me. I do, in fact, require a proposal prior to submitting to publishers.
In the past, agents and editors have always made decisions about acquiring fiction based on a synopsis and the book itself. However, these days, some agents and editors are using full proposals for fiction. When I started agenting, I asked about twenty editors with whom I do business, “Do you find a proposal helpful, or would you rather just have the synopsis and sample chapters?”
100% of the editors said they found the full proposal very helpful. When I was an acquiring editor, I was the same way. I’d read the “hook” and “back cover copy” in the proposal, then I’d skip straight to the sample chapters. If I didn’t like them, I could stop reading. If I was interested, I’d go back and read other information in the proposal, particularly the author background, his/her the marketing ideas, and the comparable books.
Bottom line, each agent and editor decides whether they want a proposal or not, and either way, it says nothing about their qualifications. I have guidelines for writing fiction proposals here and some specific tips for the competition section of the proposal here.
2. “Font: The best guide is still to use Courier unless an agent or editor explicitly requests a different font in his guidelines.”
I am not one of those people that flips out about font or other minor details. It’s the writing I care about. However, since most people use Word which has always defaulted to Times New Roman (up until the 2007 version), TNR 12 pt became the most common font. (Things can get confusing, though, considering the default font in most email programs is Ariel 10pt, and the new version of Word defaults to Calibri.)
Courier used to be the publishing standard because it was the font used on TYPEWRITERS. (Many of you have probably never used a typewriter in your life.) Courier is a fixed-width font and makes it easier to calculate word-counts without actually counting the words. That was before Word processing. And people DID flip out if writers used a different font. I’ve noticed that agents and editors who’ve been doing this for decades tend to still be “old school” and request Courier. But how much sense does it make to continue using a method that was created in the days of typewriters?
Bottom line, don’t stress out about it. I think Times Roman is more common now, but nobody should berate you for using Courier.
3. “The best way to calculate word count is the old formula of multiplying 250 words x number of pages.”
Aarrgh. What century are people living in nowadays? I think there are a few companies that still do it this way, but this method really only works if you’re using a fixed-width font like Courier. In any case, unless you’re told differently, just use the actual word-count as calculated by Word. Or if you really want to cover your bases, say: “Actual word count: 100,000. Word count via formula (250 words x #pages) = 99,000.”
Bottom line, I think it’s best to err on the side of progress and move into the 21st century.
4. “Never do business with an agent who doesn’t give you a written agency contract.”
As I’ve mentioned before, an agency agreement isn’t strictly necessary and serves two main purposes: (1) protecting the interests of the agent, and (2) making the writer feel more official because they’ve “signed” with an agent. (Read my post on Author-Agency Agreements.) The agreement in itself isn’t a sign of legitimacy. As you learn if you read Preditors & Editors or Writer Beware, most of the quack-agents DO have written contracts (and their contracts are terribly unfair to writers). So the presence or absence of a contract doesn’t tell you very much.
Bottom line, if an agent offers to represent you, ask them whether they do written agreements, and if not, ask them why. Only do business with them if you feel comfortable with their answers.
5. “Never do business with an agent who is not a member of AAR.”
AAR is the Association of Authors Representatives. Since there is no licensing requirement or governing body that regulates agents, people have come to accept membership in AAR as a sign of legitimacy because of its membership qualifications and canon of ethics. I agree that this is a good indicator. However, since I’ve been in Christian publishing the last several years, I’ve learned that until very recently, most CBA agents were not members of AAR. Maybe because they typically did all their business separate from the mainstream publishing industry; and maybe because they believed that as Christians, they were already bound to a biblical code of ethics and conducted business accordingly. For whatever reason, the fact is that these agents are not any less legitimate nor any less honest simply by virtue of the fact that they’re not members of AAR.
There are also some agents who disagree with the need to belong to AAR for various reasons, such as the fact that the organization is expensive to join yet offers very little advantage besides the “gold star of approval.” Also, some agents don’t meet the qualifications. You have to be agenting for two years to join (I haven’t yet) and you must have sold ten books in 18 months (I’ve sold 27).
Bottom line: If this is important to you, and an agent offers to rep you, ask them if they’re a member, and if they’re not, find out why.
Q4U: Have you read any advice lately that you thought was questionable? Let me know—maybe I can do another post.