GLVWG member, Judith Mehl, recently interviewed Veronica Park, an agent, author, journalist and marketing consultant with more than seven years of experience writing and editing for publication. She is a literary agent and marketing consultant with Corvisiero Literary Agency. She graduated with a BA in print journalism with an emphasis in linguistics and business marketing from Brigham Young University and went on to expand her writing skills as a broadcast journalist and independent film producer, before running away with her husband to work on cruise ships in the Caribbean as a port lecturer and luxury goods marketing specialist. In publishing, she has finally found an arena that requires her entire assortment of professional skills, while allowing her to read and write every single day.
GLVWG: Thank you for sharing some time with us today, and we’re looking forward to having you as one of the agents at the Write Stuff Conference held by the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group in April.
Submission requirements that invite a sample often specify just the first five pages or so. What are some red flags in the query and the first five pages that result in a thumbs down or full manuscript look?
Veronica Park: Obviously, you never want to give an agent or editor any excuse to stop reading. Deal breakers in a query include, but aren’t limited to:
First, the inappropriate greeting (wrong name, misspelled agent name, no name–i.e. “Dear Sir” or “Dear Ma’am” both of which I’ve personally gotten in the past *shakes head*–or just no greeting at all).
Second, a ridiculously high word count, which hints that the author either can’t self-edit, and/or is precious about their work to the point of thinking that every one of those 250,000 words is crucial to include. Another definite deal-breaker is an author that hasn’t done enough research into the market and what is standard for their genre.
Third, a query that is too long or overly detailed, too vague, doesn’t match the content of the story–basically, a query that doesn’t serve its main function of explaining what the story is, why it’s special in its category/genre, and why it will sell.
And fourth, a query that makes it clear that the writer doesn’t know what they’ve written and where it will sell (because they’ve mislabeled their category or genre, or tried to make a story that spans too many markets), or hasn’t done their research on agents or the industry because they’re querying something I don’t represent.
Deal-breakers in samples include: one that is full of errors, starts with an info-dump of any kind, characters that feel like actors in a soap opera instead of real people, situations that defy logical description, farcical dialogue, and blatantly manipulative plotting.
All of the above are completely avoidable, if you are pragmatic and mindful about query procedure and you’ve done the work. That’s the good news. The less good news is that it’s a lot harder to qualify what makes any agent say yes. Because that decision, to be honest, is extremely subjective.
GLVWG: What are some tips, from your personal experience, which may help?
Veronica Park: First, crowd source. If you haven’t had a bunch of different people read your work and go “yeah I would buy this in a book store today, no problem,” you might not be ready to submit. And I’m not just talking your spouse, or your mom, or your Aunt Maxine. Find beta readers and critique partners who actually read (preferably widely and often) in the market you’re trying to break into. (Don’t ask someone to beta read your romance if they only read nonfiction and thrillers. That’s not going to help you.)
Second, know the market you’re trying to break into. Do your research. Read in the market you’re trying to break into. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard writers say (proudly, I might add) that they don’t read anyone else’s work in their genre. Or worse, that they don’t read anyone else’s work, period. This isn’t something to be proud of. It makes you sound like a self-involved ignoramus who is likely completely out of touch with reality. Worse, you won’t be able to come up with appropriate comp titles for your work, so how are you ever going to sell it?
Which leads us to the third tip. Definitely include appropriate comp titles for your work, preferably at the end of your query. I like to see two. One book/author that shows the market (readership) you’re going to steal from, and one book/author that gives me an idea of your positioning within that market. For example: “This book will appeal to fans of Linda Howard and Lewis Carroll.” (See? The implied marriage of dark romantic suspense and trippy bedtime story is intriguing, isn’t it? Even better if it truly represents what you’re offering. Enough said.)
GLVWG: The terms “upmarket,” “book club” and “narrative non-fiction” are used frequently these days in publishing. Would you clarity these terms as they are generally understood by publishing houses?
Veronica Park: Again, this is just one agent’s opinion, based on personal experience. But when I hear editors utter these terms, here’s what they generally mean:
“Upmarket” is really good commercial fiction with a strong hook (in other words, you can easily explain the plot in 20 words or less; e.g. two teenagers with terminal cancer fall in love) with prose that knocks on the door of literary fiction. Some people seem to think that means painfully elegant prose, dripping with self-congratulatory linguistic acrobatics. I disagree. In fact, some of the best upmarket utilizes an economy of words that would make Mark Twain proud and Ernest Hemingway jealous.
The modern “book club” is loosely based on your Aunt Maxine’s bridge club. Only instead of getting together to drink coffee and talk trash about Iris Eggarton’s fifth divorce, it’s people who love to read getting together to talk about books. Traditionally, most book clubs were made up of 20-40 something women, and they could make or break a women’s fiction bestseller in the space of a couple of weeks. Nowadays, the definition is expanding, going digital and becoming much more inclusive by age and gender. Goodreads is like a giant, international book club, and also one of the best ways for a new writer to discover their future readership. It’s also really great for finding comp titles, just FYI.
Narrative nonfiction is true things written in the style of fiction. That’s the simplest explanation I can think of. Seabiscuit, for example, is narrative nonfiction. See also, “creative nonfiction.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_nonfiction
GLVWG: We all recognize that a historically competitive field is even more so today. Are there signals or indications for the enthusiastic author that their work might have a shot at conventional success, or whether they should be content with small press/self publishing?
Veronica Park: The field might be more competitive, but there are more paths to the top now than ever before. So in that way, it’s actually much fairer, in my opinion. But I caution anyone against using others’ road to success as a map of any kind. Yes, some writers were able to self-publish as a way to traditional publishing, but those examples are the exception. At least right now, self-publishing should be a decision you make based on a supposition that you’re going to do it all yourself, from now on. Forever. (You CANNOT assume that someone is going to come along and offer you a traditional deal on your self-published book. Even if you sell a lot of copies, which you probably won’t. That’s the rule, and you should not assume you will be the exception.)
If you can’t see yourself spending all day, every day, being a writer, developmental editor, copy editor, graphic designer, public relations specialist, web designer, social media marketer, and so on and so forth…and/or if you can’t afford to hire someone else to do all of these things when you run out of time and energy, you might want to reconsider.
The same goes for traditional publishing. If you’re not okay with waiting a long time, getting rejected a ton (and that part never stops, trust me), relying on and trusting other people with your creative product, etc. you should do some hard thinking.
In terms of knowing what’s best for you, no one can tell you that. Except you. I’m a big advocate of trying things out to see what happens, and not waiting around for someone else to tell you you’re good enough. That said, you need to be ready and willing to live with the consequences of your actions. Do your research. Be honest with what you are and are not willing to do to succeed. Be honest about what you’re capable of and what you’re not so great at.
Also, recognize that the days of hitting it big with just one book are over. If you want to succeed today, you need to tell yourself that you’ve got unlimited stories to tell. If this one doesn’t succeed, the next one will. Or the next. Or the next.
GLVWG: How have expectations evolved recently in terms of what publishing houses expect from authors in the marketing process? What are some of the definite “do’s and don’ts?”
Veronica Park: Do have a clear idea of who you are and what you write. If you don’t know your place in the market, and plan on staying there for at least 3-5 books, you shouldn’t be querying. Too many writers are just experimenting, trying everything to see what works, and querying before they make that decision for themselves.
(Just to be clear, I think you should experiment and write as much as you can, in different categories, genres, voices, etc. But do that on your own, and figure out what feels authentic to you.) An agent can help you build a career, but not if you have no idea what kind of career you want. Be ready to live with that decision, when you make it.
Don’t change your platform mid-construction. If you only want to write one romance and then go on to write thrillers, don’t position yourself as a romance author. That’s like opening a flower shop, then starting to sell power tools a few weeks later. Confusing for everyone involved, and also a little creepy.
GLVWG: You’ve found a gem in the slush pile, contract with the author, and now search for a publisher who’s just as enthusiastic. How does that process work, i.e. the day-to-day routine of matching a writer with an acquisitions editor?
Veronica Park: As one of my authors once put it, finding the perfect editor to champion your work through the final phases of publishing is like getting a date to the prom. I heartily agree with this analogy. As we’ve learned from countless John Hughes movies and Taylor Swift songs, you can’t just walk up to the hottest girl or guy in school and ask them to take you to the most important social event of the year. Not if you’ve never spoken to them before, if they haven’t heard of you, if you don’t have a friend to introduce you. Because, let’s face it, we all know they are out of your league. You’re a new writer, and they’re the captain of the literary team. That’s why you have to do something to stand out, and get their attention.
The best way to do that is to start by being awesome, and letting people see how awesome you are. Having an author platform is like popularity, but hopefully a bit less fickle. It makes you recognizable within the school of publishing, tells people what clique you belong to. In an oversimplified sense, it tells people who you are and what they can expect from you, before they get to know you. It also helps if you have a lot of friends who can spread gossip about how awesome you are. And of course, if you have a really cool best friend (or agent) who can talk you up to the perfect editor, even better.
Even then, you have to understand that this editor is kind of a big deal within this school. They get a ton of offers, and even if they were all really good offers, they can only take one person to the prom every year. So they have to be extremely choosy, and over time they might have even developed a facade to help them cope with having to reject so many suitors in the past. That’s why it’s hard to get a straight answer about why you’re just not right for them as a potential prom date.
Enter the BFF, who will go behind the scenes (since we’re in a lot of the same classes, you know) and figure out what the editor is secretly pining for. What is she doodling on the inside cover of her notebook? What does he secretly wish someone would say, to make him notice them? Then, we pass back those notes, to coach you on how to put your best foot forward. We might even help you come up with an elaborate scheme to ask them out in a creative new way, to really sweep them off their feet.
And, if all else fails, we will also go back to that editor and find out the cold hard truth about why it didn’t work out. So instead of wondering, you’ll know better what to do the next time you ask someone to prom. And as your BFF/agent, we’ll keep doing this until you find that perfect date, and have the best prom ever.
That was obviously a ridiculous analogy, but that’s basically how it works.
GLVWG: Should I be offended by a rejection from an agent or editor?
Veronica Park: No. Never. Rejection isn’t personal. Ever. If an agent doesn’t want to work with you, if an editor doesn’t get your work and think it has potential, that is GREAT because you obviously don’t want to work with someone who doesn’t think you’re great. Right? Publishing, like any other relationship, should be a two-way street. If it isn’t, move on, no harm done. Take rejection professionally, and I guarantee you will be a happier person.
GLVWG: Thank you for your time and observations, and for sharing your knowledge with us. We’re looking forward to your visit at the conference.
Veronica will be taking pitches at the conference. Advance sign-up is required.
Her favorite categories/genres:
YA/NA (anything with a unique voice, but especially Contemporary), Adult (Commercial, Romance, and Romantic Suspense) and Non-Fiction that is funny and/or centered upon current events and controversial issues. (Because real life is funny…and full of issues.)
In particular, V loves: Dark, edgy YA/NA that deals with real issues, romances that make you laugh out loud and deeply love–or love to hate–some of the characters, gender swapping and/or seriously twisted fairytale retelling. YA literary fiction is her favorite, as long as it sounds like real people are really talking. (The grittier, the better.)
V’s Thoughts on Romance: Preferably, romances should be realistic (none of that “love at first sight” malarkey, or zero-mutual-respect fauxmance. Lust at first sight…is realistic, let’s be honest.) Pro feminist and pro consent, pro gender role swapping. Bonus points for princesses rescuing knights–i.e. modern day heroines that inspire teenage girls to be more bada**.
V does NOT represent: Sci-fi, children’s picture books, middle grade, poetry or screenplay/regular play–unless it’s a rock opera about Conan O’Brian’s hair, in which case YES.