With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Chuck Sambuchino
Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.
His 2010 humor book, How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack, was optioned by Sony Pictures. His second humor book, Red Dog/ Blue Dog (2012), is a humorous photo collection of dogs doing liberal and conservative things. His books have been mentioned in Reader’s Digest, USA Today, the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Variety, and more.
Chuck has also written the writing guides Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript and Create Your Writer Platform (2012).
Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham. Find Chuck at chucksambuchino.com, or on Twitter at @chucksambuchino.
The Guide to Literary Agents Blog has been called “one of the biggest blogs in publishing.” What’s your secret to successful blogging?
I try to provide content of value. I understand that anyone can simply start a blog and throw up posts about what they did last night. But most of those posts are not of real value to people. I study the writing community to understand what information they need to succeed, and then I provide that information — whether it means interviewing agents or posting sample queries/synopses, or keeping them abreast of what agents will be at what upcoming writers’ conferences.
Beyond that, I post lots, I post consistently, I loop in guest bloggers, I try to keep posts relatively short and easy on the eyes, I promote my posts, and more. Managing the blog has gotten easier for me as I go along. Good things take time.
Do you think it is harder to get an agent in these changing times of publishing than in the past?
Wow, that is a good question, and my answer will be a very mixed one. First of all, there seem to be a lot of new/newer agents popping up and looking for clients. That is good news for writers, so you may think that means it is easier now to find a rep. But publishers are buying fewer books — meaning that even if you do get an agent, they might not be able to sell your book, and you’re back a big step. Also, because there are fewer editors and publicists nowadays, the pressure is on the writer to polish his/her work to a glossy shine before submitting it anywhere. Plus, the ease of the Internet has made mass submissions to tons of agents/houses simple and easy. The easier it is to submit, the more writers (both good and unqualified) are querying their work everywhere and anywhere. That means competition is stiffer. Put that all together, and my guess is that it is either the same level of difficulty as in the past, or slightly harder today than it was yesteryear.
What is some of the best advice you could give to a new writer looking for an agent?
Keep writing. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Once you’ve finished and edited a book, start on the next one. You will become a better writer as you go along. Furthermore, you must push past all the rejection and disappointment and frustration that attack you along your journey. That is not to say you can’t be mad for a while, or punch a pillow, or vent to the dog. By all means, be upset if you get rejected. But then quickly get back on your feet and keep going.
Beyond that, I would stress the importance of educating yourself. Read books on writing. Read blogs. Go to conferences. Join a writing group. Take classes. Dissect and reverse-engineer good stories to find out what makes them tick.
As an author of humor books like How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack and Red Dog/Blue Dog, what can you tell us about the challenges of writing humor? In what ways is writing humor different from other types of writing?
The challenge is how humor is so subjective. You can write something that you and others believe is hilarious and has mass appeal, only for it not to connect with editors. Likewise the reverse is true. Sometimes editors will want yet another fart joke book that you think has no potential (yet it somehow sells 50,000 copies after all is said and done). So the biggest challenge is finding someone who connects with both the book concept as well as the writing style.
What was your first reaction to the news that Sony Pictures Animation wanted to option the film rights to How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack? How has the transformation from book to film been thus far?
I think my first reaction was to say aloud, “Please, God, just let this deal go through and I won’t ask you for anything ever again (this month).” I was flabbergasted at the news, but I wasn’t too overwhelmed by it because my natural reaction was believing the deal would somehow not go through. See, because I’ve been writing so much over the past 10 years, and those 10 years have seen many almost-happened successes slip away, I’ve begun to protect myself by not believing anything is official or true until I sign the paperwork. This thinking allows me to not get my hopes up for something that doesn’t pan out. So when I heard the news about Sony, I was excited, but very, very cautious.
In terms of how the adaptation has gone so far, all I am allowed to say on my end is that it is moving forward in development. I am mostly outside of the adaptation process, and know little. And even when they do tell me tidbits, I’m usually not free to share them. (Boo.)
You write in several genres. Why did you first decide to write books on the topic of writing?
I was working for Writer’s Digest Books and started to conceive books on the business of writing that no one had tackled before. So, just like any other author does, I pitched the books to WD (on the side). They said yes. I’ve written two books for WD so far, and was just contracted to write my third, which comes out in fall 2014.
What are some of the most common mistakes you see writers make in their queries and manuscripts?
In the query letter, people tend to use language that is vague, general and ineffective. For example, “Jenna has the biggest day of her life and realizes what is most important to her.” If I read something like that, my first questions are: “Why was it the biggest day of her life, and what did she realize?” Be specific. Use vivid language to paint pictures in agents’ minds.
In terms of manuscript problems, a big one that never, ever goes away is writers’ tendency to tell, rather than show. If you find yourself explaining a lot at the beginning of your novel (backstory, exposition, flashbacks, information, description), that is all telling, and most of it will have to be cut before you submit.
How important is platform building for authors?
It depends on what you’re writing. If you’re writing straight-up prescriptive nonfiction like me, platform is essential and mandatory. I’m quite certain editors want to know how many Twitter followers I have and blog page views I get before they even consider my humor book ideas.
If you’re looking to e-publish and self-publish your work, platform is also huge. Otherwise, how will people know of the book’s existence for the Kindle and Nook, etc.? Many, many self-published authors run into this wall of invisibility. They write something of value and publish it, only to discover no one knows that it exists or how to find it. If you had a platform — visibility, discoverability, network, reach — you could be able to sell your book and make money.
For those writing memoir, agents and editors may size up your platform and they may not. This is a tricky area where everyone is different in what they seek and want.
For those writing fiction, the quality of the text comes first and foremost. Focus on writing a good story before you think about marketing. That said, while novelists do not NEED platform, they should certainly WANT platform — because platform = sales & money. It allows you to have some small control over the sales potential of the book. And if you can help your book sell, you have a better chance of getting a deal for the next book, and so on and so forth.
Does social media play a large part in your own marketing efforts?
Ohhh yeah. While I am indeed a fan of old marketing tools such as contacts in the media as well as public speaking, almost all my work today is done on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. For example, examine this interview you’re reading right now: on a blog! Social media absolutely works.
What are some of the rewards and challenges of being a freelance editor? Are there genres you prefer to work with?
Beyond financial, the reward is connecting with writers worldwide and helping them on their journey. I paste many of my testimonials and success stories on my website page, and treasure each one. The challenge of editing, simply put, is that it is difficult and time-consuming. To give a writer valuable and clear feedback takes many hours.
What’s next for you on the author and career horizon? Do you have any new projects or workshops we can look out for?
First of all, I will be speaking at the annual Writer’s Digest West Conference, Sept. 27-29, 2013 in Los Angeles. That looks to be a great time. Then on October 12, I am signing books in my hometown’s (Cincinnati) huge book festival called Books by the Banks.
In 2014, I will be presenting in January in Lansing, MI, to a writers group there; I will present at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February; I will present at WD’s own east coast writers conference in NYC, though that spring date is not yet finalized; I will present at the Missouri Writers Guild Conference April 11-13; and I will present at the Southeastern Writers Conference in St. Simon’s Island, GA, June 13-17. I’m certain I will have more speaking engagements and chances to meet writers, but those are what’s on the books right this moment.
Beyond that, my big book news is simply that the 2014 editions of both annual guides I edit — the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS as well as the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET will both be released in September 2013. Both resources are updated and filled with tons of awesome info and markets for writers. I always get very excited each year when those come out! They are available for pre-order on Amazon, etc.
Want to win a free copy of Chuck’s newest book, Create Your Writer Platform? Just leave a comment about this blog interview in the section below and we’ll randomly draw a winner for the free book later this week!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley is an English/Marketing major at Whitworth University. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.