After finally finishing your book, you are ready to release your masterpiece to the world – preferably to high acclaim. Getting published can be a tricky business, so, what’s the next step? Do you self-publish or go the traditional route? How do you create that perfect query letter and land an agent? How do you get your book noticed by the right people? I sat down with Steven Salpeter, a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. out of New York City, and discussed some of these questions with him.
Steven, in his own words:
Traditional Publishing over Self-Publishing
A lot of entrepreneurial people are drawn to self-publishing because they are excited to do more of the labour and get a higher percentage of the income. While a segment of self-publishing reaches readers, those markets are between 40-60% of people you are missing out on if you self-publish. Maybe you are making a higher margin per book, but you are reaching a smaller audience.
As an author, particularly if you plan to publish more than one book, you might want to develop a publishing system where you get to focus primarily on your writing as much as possible. Going the traditional publishing route means that you have experts in every part of the publishing process on your team. There’s a division of labour – there’s only so many hours in every day!
There’s promotional muscle that some of the major houses can bring to the table. The publicists at the major houses shoot for the largest outlets, the largest venues; they also shoot for in-house promotions at the major bookstores around the world. Authors don’t call individual bookstores to set up events. They don’t have to research ad promotions to help sell a book.
The best publishers do their jobs well and they make up for the discrepancies in royalties in volume of sales. I think most writers would prefer to be read as widely as possible.
Canadians In the American Market
Canadian publishing can be very regional, but most Canadian authors are hoping to get as wide an audience as possible. To do that, the largest market for Canadian writing is often in the US.
Having an agent who works for an agency based in New York City with really strong connections to the largest publishers in the world can be an advantage. We pay equal attention to major Canadian presses and have done deals where we advocate to split the rights between major Canadian houses and American imprint. We have more access to some of the valuable subsidiary rights and major book fairs that are based here.
Curtis Brown even has a book to film department based here in the New York office and has been doing that extremely successfully for decades. Some Canadian authors might prefer to have access to the larger budget connections that come with American film companies who are producing more in Canada today than ever.
While it can be scary to show your first query letter to agents, I recommend writers start with work-shopping their query letters as if it were a manuscript. Find people who haven’t read the book to read your query letter and tell you what they think the book is about from there. Asking people who have no idea what you’ve written to repeat back to you is a good way to learn if your query is accurately representing your book.
You have to think about what book have you actually written? What are the conflicts in the book and what’s at stake for your characters? What’s happening in the small town, big city, or world of your book? And make sure you are communicating that in the most selling way as possible. It is always impressive if there is a strong hook and if you can get into the story through character and their point of view.
Another great resource out there writers can study is successful query letters. If you look online you can find one by my client Gia Cribbs, who wrote a YA psychological thriller, “The Disappearance of Sloane Sullivan.” I go through line by line why that’s an excellent query letter.
The “Slush Pile”
I am looking for any reason to say yes to get the sample material. Any reason at all.
I think the idea of “slush” and these types of words is cruel. It’s unfair to writers and disrespectful to the work they put in, alone in the dark sometimes – six months, a year, ten years – toiling to do this creative thing. To say that it should be [an agent’s] job to belittle that or ignore it is a problem in the industry and probably one of the reasons why people are afraid of a lot of agents. There’s this idea that agents aren’t looking for the next great project to work on – I am!
We have a great obligation to carve out time to find untold stories and to find writers looking for representation. So, I always open up my query inbox with a lot of excitement and think this could be the thing. This could be the author who I talk to for the next forty years. That’s something! Let me come on the adventure with you.
What Is Steven Looking For?
I would be excited to see more Canadian authors. I’m fascinated to learn about people from backgrounds different from my own, whether we’re talking about different gender IDs, sexuality, nationality, race, ethnicity, or more subtle differences, including where authors live regionally. I love to champion lesser-heard voices and help people see themselves in books. Unless we are looking for people in different generations and different backgrounds, we’re not really going to have a publishing industry that reflects the world we live in.
I love a fresh take on classic themes. I love to feel like the writer is going to take me on a journey. I love stories about love, power struggles, intense passion, or things I grapple with like why we are here and death. I certainly have a soft spot for high concept topics that deal with philosophical questions.
I love a coming of age, whether we are talking about an adult second coming of age, discovering who they really are later in life or learning tough lessons, or a teen book. I’d be really excited to see a more contemporary fiction that’s either light hearted or fast paced.
I’d love to see more fantasy, particularly contemporary set fantasy set in locations that don’t typically get that attention. Magical realism. Definitely anything that gets me outside of New York would be lovely. I certainly spend enough time here.
Ultimately I love good stories well told, and I love a book with a surprising plot and a lot of heart. I’m easily won over. If you’re in doubt, query me!
About Steven Salpeter
Steven is a passionate advocate for authors. He represents literary award winners, best selling authors, and many respected estate clients. He is a graduate of the University of Florida where he founded the Palmetto Prize for Fiction, enabling young writers to “become immortal with their first story”. He lives in New York City, loves to drink tea, and is actively seeking new clients. Steven enjoys sharing his publishing knowledge with writers of all calibres. He says, “If you write, you’re a writer!”
A Few Fun Questions With Steven Salpeter
Q: After the apocalypse, what job would you have?
A: I’d gather as many books as I can find and just be a bookseller.
Q: If you were in a movie, what animal sidekick would you have?
A: Iago, from Aladdin. I would want an animal smarter than me.
Q: Are unicorns or sloths better?
A: Definitely unicorns. Unicorns are cuter.
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