Writing Excuses 4.23: How to Break In to the Young Adult Market

Janci Patterson and Robison Wells join Brandon and Dan at CONduit in Salt Lake City. Both Janci and Rob have recently signed book deals, Robison with Harper Teen, and Janci with Henry Holt, and they tell us about those deals and how they got them.

Brandon puts both Janci and Rob on the spot, and asks them for advice on how to break in. This is cool, because it’s just about the most recent perspective on this advice you’re going to hear.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green

Writing Prompt: Two roommates… one sells a book and then vanishes. The second roommate decides to finish the book and pretend it was his.

Extra Special Thanks: Again,  this episode was made possible by our friends at Dungeon Crawlers Radio.

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25 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.23: How to Break In to the Young Adult Market”

  1. That prompt sounds like it would be a lot of fun. It’d also be a novel, at least the way I’d write it… so, uh, it might have to go on the shelf for a bit. :P

    Thanks guys.

  2. I think it’s interesting to note that NEITHER of these two got an editor or agent by going to a convention and pitching. At least, that’s what I heard.

    Also, BOTH of them got published by submitting to agents who then submitted to publishers. And BOTH made heavy revisions. Yes, both had connections that might have made the agents give the books more thoughtful consideration, but I think this simply confirms what Jim C. Hines found in his break in survey–that almost 70% of recent breakin sales are through agents: http://www.jimchines.com/2010/03/survey-results/

    Look at the Hines data on how many met editor or agent at a convention. It’s NOT the power method. In fact, I had my editor tell me that he doesn’t want people pitching to him at conventions. And I’ve had to put that up on my site because I was telling people to do just the opposite because I made the assumption all editors and agents were open to this. One of the sacrificial lambs I sent to my editor (my editor told him flat out he didn’t want to hear the pitch, but still had a nice chat with him) reported that Jeff VanderMeer very graciously took him aside and told him editors and agents DON’T want to be pitched to at World Fantasy (Daniel, can you confirm?).

    So word of warning: Tread cautiously. But it’s not a huge loss because most people DON’T break in that way. However, I can’t believe ALL editors and agents feel this way because of the Hines data, which suggest its still a viable method.

    BTW, because of all this, I’ve revised my advice on my site on approaching editors and agents in person. I think I have an approach that will avoid sticky situations and backfires, given the facts stated above. It’s based on my years using direct response marketing as a real estate agent. I used the same principles to totally avoid “sales” situations. It’s low-stress. I hope it helps those who go to conventions wanting to find agents and editors who are indeed open to getting a query from you. If any of you followed my previous links from the comments on working a con episode, please get the updates: http://johndbrown.com/writers/finding-your-audience-and-getting-paid/

    Good luck to those trying to break in!!

  3. Great ‘cast, as always. Thanks, guys!

    I have a question that maybe you guys might not be able to answer, but it’s something that you could keep in the back burner until someone like Mary Robinette Kowal joins you again.

    I derive a lot of satisfaction from writing, and I like the project I’m working on now, and I eagerly want to see what new worlds lie ahead out of the stores of my imagination. But. Theater is my first love, and I’ve broken back into the theater circuit in the last year, and I’ve just gotten to the point at which I’m turning down offers for roles because I don’t have the time. This has put a big crunch on the time that I have for writing, but more than that, it’s sucking up my creative juices, as it were. Writing used to be my primary creative outlet; now it has to share space with acting. And both of them have to share time with my job–which I love, and satisfies the scientific part of my brain. So, in essence, my question is: how do I get my two creativity brain-children to share a room without fighting all the time?

  4. @Jen: I gave up music in order to be a cartoonist. This is probably not what you wanted to hear, but in order to devote enough time to cartooning to get good at it I couldn’t afford to be making music.

  5. @Howard: No, I wanted to hear the truth, whatever that is. I suspected that I would have to change my expectations regarding my writing, but it’s good to get advice from people who have been there.

  6. I like these podcasts about breaking into the biz, because that’s my next step. I’ve written a few books. I don’t have any problems with finishing books once I start them. My technique isn’t perfect, but it’s not too shabby. But I need all the help I can get when it comes to getting published.

  7. I am curious about one side of the YA and kids book writing.

    Do the writers use YA/kids as Alfa readers during the process generally to get their response? I suspect doing it would be quite possible even with really young kids down to detail level. (Let them mark fun, boring and confusing parts of the book in different colors. talk with the kid etc.) But I have no idea if it is done.

    I haven’t heard it mentioned in any of the podcast when writing for this audience have been the topic.

  8. In reference to what John says, here’s what I think about conventions: I hate pitches. Pitch sessions are dumb, because the only thing that I’m able to easily rule out from a random stranger’s description of their book are the ones that are clearly not paying attention to what I work on (I 0nce got pitched gay vampire porn at World Horror, which is obviously NOT YA or middle-grade age-appropriate).

    But what I love happening at conventions, and what I prefer to happen to me while at a convention, is for a writer who thinks their work might fit me to strike up a conversation in which he or she either picks my brain or we talk about some common interest. Koffeeklatches are great for this. And then I know that person at least by sight, and when they submit to me later and remind me of our conversation at SCBWI or World Fantasy or whatever, I know they’re a generally affable human who hasn’t spouted off to me about how self-publishing will destroy publishing as we know it (and therefore I’ll be out of a job soon, just you wait, etc etc), or y’know, obnoxious in any of a hundred other ways that we all know some con-goers can be.

    That’s where networking comes in—not in the pitch at the conference itself, but at the human interaction that happens there, followed by a pitch in writing.

    But every editor’s preferences may vary.

    Oh, and also: The reason why I hate pitches is because while the idea might sound interesting, the writing may not hold up, or vice versa—the writer’s elevator pitch might not do the writing justice. I hate queries for the same reason—I send them back unread, with a copy of the submission guidelines that ask for the first three chapters and a synopsis. I START from partials and synopses, because a good query letter just tells me that you know how to write a query letter, not a book.

  9. @Elin,

    I was lucky enough to have a friend who teaches 7th and 8th grade English, and she took a copy of my manuscript to her kids to pass around. While I didn’t get a lot of specific advice or critique from them, I was able to gauge their interest level and clear up a few places they thought were confusing.

    That said, most of my alpha readers are adults.

  10. Elin: I think asking kids to read your kids book is a great idea, but only for your own research–don’t put it in your query letter or use it as evidence your book is good. Every time I ask an editor or agent what they hate, “my kid loved it!” is one of the first things mentioned.

  11. Re: Conventions and the publication stats — it’s possible you’re drawing the exact wrong conclusion, John. We don’t have enough data.

    Consider: If the 30% who met their agents/editors at conventions got published in an average of 3 years, while the 70% got published in an average of 7, then going to conventions IS the fast track.

    Also, we need to check the graveyard: How many people never went to conventions, submitted manuscripts for years, and never got published? How many people DID go to conventions, submitted manuscripts for years, and never got published?

    The more data you have the more effectively you can apply the statistical information. Right now I wouldn’t recommend anyone change their behavior based on the stats — I’d pay attention to the anecdotal evidence, the “do this” and “don’t do that” from people who’ve had specific experiences we can draw on.

  12. Howard, you’re right. The Hines data isn’t exhaustive. It doesn’t show causation. Nor does it show the relative success rates, ROI, or speed of the methods for finding agents and editors.

    When I said approaching editors and agents at cons isn’t the power method, I probably should have said instead that it is NOT the way the majority of people break in. That’s all. It might be faster, when it works. It might not be.

    Along those lines, Steve Saus (a link at the bottom of the Hines data) did run the data for the correlation between knowing an editor/agent and time to publish and found NO positive correlation between the two: http://ideatrash.net/2010/03/first-novel-sale-survey-results-full.html. Of course, it could be the result is invalid because the sample wasn’t random. Nevertheless, I find it interesting.

    He did find a positive correlation between going to cons and time to first contract. It doesn’t say going to cons affected the time. Only that the people in that dataset who went to cons also got published earlier. Again, it doesn’t say that they met their agents and editors there. It doesn’t say anything at all about cause. Maybe they were more business oriented, and cons, along with large production and submissions, were just one of those business-minded things. And we have the same random sample data issue. So we don’t “know,” which is your point.

    But what the data does show is that most people break in some other way. And other polls support this.

    A. Megan Crewe did another poll of 270 or so authors and the vast majority of them did NOT get in via knowing an editor/agent: http://megancrewe.livejournal.com/251212.html

    B. Here’s yet another poll that seems to show the same results in regards to networking your way in via a convention: http://community.livejournal.com/10_ers/377542.html

    I know none of these look at relative success rates, i.e. out of 200 people who went to cons and 200 who just submitted blind these are the results. But I don’t see how the anecdotal experiences of the handful of people we might know the stories about would prove more valuable or instructive. It seems we’d want to look at all the sources to get a good picture of the most common ways people break in. The stories AND these polls. In fact, I think the polls help give a broad view that a few anecdotal experiences can’t. And that broad view suggests some courses of action.

    Primarily, I think it’s counter-productive for someone to exclude any marketing/sales method that still produces significant results because you can’t know where your sale is going to come from. The broad view provided by the polls shows a good number, although nowhere near the majority, of all the authors involved broke in by meeting their agent or editor via networking at a con. More broke in submitting blind. But this isn’t an either or situation.

    In marketing, your goal is to get your product in front of as many likely buyers as possible. We don’t know success rates of any of the methods here. But the polls help us see the methods that are working. So include both methods. Why not? You don’t care how you break in, you just want to increase your odds by using all the methods that work. In this way, I think the polls provide a very good basis for informing how you approach your marketing.

    And a reason not to stress if you can’t network like a mad man.

    As for anecdotes affecting behavior, I think the aspiring authors reading the comments now have three anecdotal dataponts: me, Jeff VanderMeer, and Stacy Whitman. If you do go to cons to find agents and editors, be sure you realize that there are a number of them who will only be annoyed if you try to pitch to them. So find an approach that minimizes the risk of backfires just as you minimize the risk of backfires when you elect to send queries on white paper instead of orange.

    Thanks, Howard, for bringing up that point. :)

  13. Has Rob been a guest on Writing Excuses more than anyone else? Does that make him some sort of fifth Beatle?

  14. so I have a question, and I need advice on it from all of you writers. I have a character, and something terrible happens to him when he’s a child, and as he gets older, he becomes really bitter and angry, and not a very nice person. What I’m having trouble with is that change from being happy to becoming bitter, because I want it to be gradual. Any suggestions or advice on how to show the gradual change in a character who becomes bitter, and making it realisitic?

  15. @Rochelle: Are you asking how to depict his change, or are you asking why his change is gradual? I think that once you know the answer to the second question, the answer to the first will reveal itself.

  16. @Howard: I was asking how to depict the change, I’m not sure how to show it being gradual. I thought it would be more interesting if the change was gradual, but I hadn’t considered why it would be gradual. I will have to think about it, and figure out the answer to your second question. Thanks for responding. :)

  17. @Rochelle – it boils down to asking yourself “at this moment just how bitter and angry is he at this point, and what if anything about his life is helping push him/her down that path. If you have some idea of the why and the degree, then just consider actions that fit that level of bitterness. Slamming things down, general mood swings, etc.

    Also having people act less and less surprised as the reactions/outbursts/whatever become more frequent would help. After all, people become less surprised by something they see often.

  18. Some really good suggestions, love the podcast concept, and thank you for the transcript! I’ve been mainly writing poetry and recently wrote a short story just for kicks… it prompted an avalanche of ideas and a crazy idea started to form in my head… hehe… writing in my spare time and trying to get published. I know i’m years away from getting anything really published that would be worth reading and have investigated directions i could study towards my ultimate goal of becoming a “hopefully” decent writer.

    So i just wanted to say thank you for the comments here it’s a real help and i’ll be back for more!!

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