Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What would Abe Lincoln do... with an iPad?

A literary agent recently told me that the medical thriller is dead. At the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, she said that even established writers in the genre, like Robin Cook and Michael Palmer, are having a hard time selling their books to publishers. Obviously, this doesn't bode well for an unknown author trying to publish in that genre.

Like anything, getting a book published is about having just the right thing at just the right time. And just like with buying stocks, if something's super hot, you've already missed it. Not long ago, for example, you could have written a vampire romance that generally sucked Dracula balls, but if it had all the right elements, it had a good chance of being picked up. But that ship has sailed.

So, what's super hot right now? The Young Adult market is still on fire, but it's moving away from vampires. Paranormal romance is huge. And -- you're gonna love this --Amish romance. I'm serious. In this WSJ article, Barnes and Noble book buyer Jane Love says, "It's almost like you put a person with a bonnet or an Amish field in the background and it automatically starts to sell well."

But, do you know what's even hotter than Amish love? Do you know what all the agents are talking about, what publishers are snapping up like the next Apple product? It's called "steampunk." According to Wikipedia, Steampunk is a sub-genre of science/speculative fiction set in a world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era Britain — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.

We live in a weird, weird world.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A novel by any other name

I was visiting today with my psychic dentist (another story for another time) and she asked me how my novel was coming along. I told about the frustrating process of querying agents. She said that my book is fine, and it will surely get published one day. The problem is the title. Now, I've never told her the title, and she didn't want to know it. She just said she had a feeling it would not appeal to a wide audience. It was hard to ask for clarification with an electric tooth-polisher in my mouth, but she did get me thinking.

Is my title, Double-blind, appealing to readers? Do I even like that title? Did I just keep it because I'd already registered the website? After all, I thought it up before I'd even written the book. But it does apply quite well to book's general themes. "Double-blind" refers to the type of clinical trial that's featured in the book. And the main character is, in a sense, "doubly-blind" in that he fails to see two very critical things going on in his life. So it fits. But is it catchy when taken out any context? Does it appeal to the layperson with no knowledge of medical research?

When you're trying to get someone to read an unsolicited manuscript, the title is critical. It is one of the first thing an agent sees: "I hope you will consider representing my medical thriller, "DOUBLE-BLIND."

If I was going to change the title, I'd like to make it relate to lupus, the autoimmune disease featured in the book. The name "lupus" comes from the Latin word for "wolf," because early doctors thought that the butterfly-shaped rash, which often signifies the onset of the disease, resembled the facial markings of a wolf. So maybe the title could have something to do with wolves or butterflies:

The Wolf and the Butterfly
In the Shadow of the Wolf
In the Shadow of the Butterfly
Red Butterfly Rising
Red Wolf Rising
Mariposa (butterfly in Spanish; most of the book takes place in Mexico)
La Mariposa Roja
The Mark of the Wolf
The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo

LB Readers: what do you think.... at first glance and without having read the book, do you like the title "Double-blind," or would you suggest something else?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tools of the Trade

After months of procrastination, I'm finally back to working on agent submissions (queries) for Double-blind. Researching and querying agents is way, way less fun than actually writing. But I want to give it my best effort, want give myself the best chance of finding representation. I also want to have a definitive end date for this project -- so I can move on to the next one. And I won't feel like I've hit that date until I've sent out a healthy amount of queries and gotten rejections on them.

The odds are daunting. Agents receive hundreds or thousands of queries a month, and reject 99.5% of them, usually with a form letter. Now, the quality of the query letters and sample pages has a lot to do with it, of course. But I think another reason why the rejection rates are so high is that everyone is out there doing the same thing -- sending a barrage of letters out to every agent who's ever sold the written word.

There's got to be a better way. I'm a strong believer in metrics, benchmarking, and targeted effort. In the clinical trials industry (my day job), patient recruitment is one of our biggest challenges. Time and time again, companies throw countless hours and millions of dollars into blanket recruitment strategy, without targeting the right geographical area and the right research sites with the right patient population. It's the old 80/20 rule again: 20 percent of your research sites will generate 80 percent of the results. So you should focus all your effort on those 20 percent. A cottage industry has sprung up to provide clinical trial data so companies can take advantage of this. And it's making a difference.

I'm guessing the same goes for querying agents. I bet it's less about your credentials and how perfect your query letter is, than it's about hitting the right agent at the perfect time with exactly what he's looking for. And for that, you need data. Enter QueryTracker.net

The concept of QueryTracker is simple -- and genius. The website offers a comprehensive list of agents/agencies, along with a nice tracking system to track your submissions. Now, the tracking system itself is no big deal, nothing you couldn't do in Excel. The big deal is the data they keep on the agents. By making the tracking system free, the service is able to collect a boatload of data about the query submission process. You can get a decent amount of this information for free, but if you pay 25 bucks for the premium service (money well spent, I think) you get access to a treasure trove -- agent genre/word count preferences, turnaround times, even the month they're most likely to request a partial manuscript!

Let me give you an example. Before I joined the service, I queried an agent who looked promising and seemed to represent the genre my book is in. Once I joined QueryTracker, I looked at his stats and saw that out of nearly 900 queries, he only responded to about 100, and rejected all but 5 of them. He requested partial manuscripts for those 5, and offered representation for exactly zero. And none of the partials he requested where anywhere near my genre or word count. Now, his rejection stats, while depressing, are normal. But his response rate is not. Most agents at least eventually respond with a form rejection. So why take the time to query an agent who's never shown interest in my genre, and who doesn't typically respond at all?

Obviously, I need to focus my efforts elsewhere. And I'm hoping QueryTracker will help me do just that. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Countdown to the Hint Fiction Anthology

Happy sixth of July!

Four months until the release of Hint Fiction: An anthology of stories in 25 words or fewer. The book's cover is finally up on Amazon, and it looks pretty cool.

I had a story accepted for the anthology, so I'm somewhere within those 192 pages, perhaps nestled between the words of Joyce Carol Oates and Peter Straub.

The anthology even has a blurb from New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult: "The perfect story collection for all of us with too little time on our hands is a brilliant reminder of the magic that happens when you string the right words together. A must-read for anyone who is or wants to be a writer."

Pre-order your copy today!