What I’ve learned about literary agents

How many times have you assumed someone was going to complete a task but didn’t? The more middle people involved in a project, the more time it takes, and in the case of creative industries like books, that means more money out of my pocket for no guarantee of results.

Self-produced “Beyond Heart Mountain” media kit

“I thought …” are the first two words that come out when I asked a beta reader if they’ve made any progress reading my manuscript draft. “It was the other guy’s fault.”

I don’t need to pay someone to be incompetent. I can procrastinate as well as the next person.

People shouldn’t think so much. I wrote yesterday about what I’ve learned about traditional publishers. They aren’t in a hurry because they are beholden to first-time memoirists like me who need quite a bit of editing and editors who have multiple projects to read.

Over the past year, I’ve attended a couple of writing conferences and signed up to talk to literary agents, mainly to find out what criteria they use to pick books and authors to represent.

Agents are in business and need to make money. Agents aren’t interested in your first book. They want to know about your second and third books.

“I don’t want to take on a one-trick pony,” one LA-based agent told me after I handed him a copy of “Beyond Heart Mountain.” “I don’t make any money from authors who have one book.”

“Here’s the synopsis for a novel,” I responded and handed him my one-sheet.

“Well, it’s a novel. How many novels have you written?” he asked, continuing to dissuade me.

“The manuscript is finished. This is the first, but I have a sequel, too,” I said.

“Here’s my process. I like that you have one book published and doing pretty well. Send a query letter and the completed manuscript for your novel,” he said.

I can join the crowd.

He hears from many first-time writers and to the point that he can be picky about who he represents. He nurtures the clients he has to create stories that are likely to sell.

“Even if you have a publisher or agent, you still have to promote yourself,” another agent advised. “I can only open doors if we have a good product. I can hire people to improve your cover or come up with marketing materials, or you can do it. If I do it, that is in addition to my management fee.”

In exchange for 10 percent, an agent can only move as quickly as their subcontractors perform and as fast as a publisher answers or returns phone calls.

“When you’re starting out, it’s better to self-promote,” she said. “Build your social media audience. You need to show your books sell.”

When I started the market development process for “Beyond Heart Mountain,” I contacted public relations consultants and event planners about hiring them to schedule a book tour.

That would be an additional cost, considering the publisher charges me 60 percent of the $15 cover price for my copies and pays 20 percent royalty for books they sell.

I didn’t find anyone to help, which was a good thing because I learned what it takes to set up events. The process is very time-consuming and costly to print up professional-looking promotional materials.

My success was mixed. Out of the 200 first-class mailings and 400 emails, I ended up with six museums and stores that carried the books and 15 speaking gigs.

I don’t think I’ll make any money from “Beyond Heart Mountain.” I see the project as one of “customer acquisition” and hope I have the capacity to finish my novel, the sequel, and a second in a series of three “Beyond …” memoirs.

Maybe I’ll make enough money to trust an agent. Maybe I’ll become an agent or publisher.

What I’ve learned about traditional publishing

My Beyond Heart Mountain memoir project was 30 years in the making. The process has been incremental, and I didn’t dream a newspaper column in a twice-weekly newspaper would result in a traditionally-published book and a PBS documentary. You can get a signed copy here as well as the PBS documentary and the coffee table book by donating to Boulder Community Media.

After a 390-mile drive to Rock Springs, Wyoming, 10 people attended my book gig.

Signing a book deal after my first pitch was very lucky. In all my writing groups, I hear stories about the art of writing query letters and the laments about the hundreds of rejection letters.

What I’ve learned about this traditional publishing experience is that unless you get picked up by one of the big New York houses, you’re on your own. Although saying I’ve been traditionally published is a badge of honor.

Selling the book was more challenging than writing it. I surmised from my various writing groups that many of my colleagues almost finish writing their book, maybe getting through the first draft, and viewed as good enough, before starting a new project that would also almost be completed.

I wrote a self-help book about my unorthodox journey to Beyond Heart Mountain entitled The Zen of Writing with Confidence and Imperfection.

I was in the journalism workflow, and writing short form newspaper stories was satisfying since my work would be finished, edited, and published. Lots of immediate gratification.

The Beyond Heart Mountain project saw the light of day when I was contracted to survey the once-vibrant Japanese neighborhood on the 400 and 500 blocks of West 17th Street in my hometown, Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was familiar with the area since my dad’s family once lived near there and where my grandfather owned a pool hall, and my grandmother was a cook at a Japanese restaurant next door.

In 2019, I attended the Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference in Laramie, Wyoming. It was my first entry into the commercial writing world. I didn’t know anything about the business of writing.

If I wanted to be a writer, I needed to meet and hang around with writers. The same holds true for any creative discipline — artists, moviemakers, dancers, etc.

I didn’t know what to expect. Pitching to publishers and agents was included with the registration fee. Before the conference started, I signed up at the front desk by randomly selecting a publisher who was available at a convenient time.

My mission was mainly to learn about how a publishing company works. The night before, I typed up a one-sheet about the Beyond Heart Mountain idea that had evolved into a short-run picture book based on the survey of the Japanese neighborhood I finished.

I had five copies made on Shutterfly. The editing templates were easy to follow and versatile enough to write some content to explain photos from my box and archival images. Each copy was pricey, like $50 each. The Shutterfly market is high-quality wedding albums with pictures and not much editorial copy. It was fun and self-satisfying to see the book in print. I republished the coffee table book on Ingramspark.

After dropping my bag at the Air B&B, I grabbed my book and waited in the lobby area in the Rochelle Center at the University of Wyoming. Some others were dressed up in neckties, sportcoats, and skirts. They rehearsed their pitches with flip charts and three-ring binders.

Here I was in jeans and a T-shirt. A woman named Jessica Kristie waved me into her cubby, where she heard presentations. After a few pleasantries, she explained how Winter Goose Publishing (WGP) worked. It’s a “books-on-demand” service. Authors are contracted. WGP does the cover design, edits the manuscript, and publishes the book on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and sells it on Amazon.

I showed her my picture book and a typed-up one-sheet about the memoir. She flipped through and glanced at my synopsis. Amazingly, she asked if I could send a full manuscript.

After returning home, I wrote 80,000 words, sent the manuscript to WGP, and then signed a book contract in November 2019.

After three years, WGP released Beyond Heart Mountain on February 27, 2022. That was a good time because it was the 80th anniversary of the month President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 establishing the War Relocation Authority that sent 120,000 Japanese, mainly from the West Coast, to 10 internment camps.

WGP did some market development through its newsletter contacts, but that was about it.

I was responsible for the bulk of the sales. I did extensive outreach on social media. Then I researched mailing lists for bookstores, museums, and libraries. I spent too much money on a marketing booklet and snail-mailed those to those lists. After it was all said and done, 80 books and ebooks were sold on Amazon. I purchased 120 books at wholesale price.

Between May and August, I organized 11 speaking events attended by between six and 60 people.

On July 22, Michelle Obama tweeted that she had a new book. That day, she sold 877,000 copies.

Next time I do this, I’ll get at least almost famous and then write a book.

The featured image is of the promotional flyer for my book signing at the Storyteller Book Store in Thermopolis, Wyoming. I sold 12 books in two hours.