Note: I’m pleased to feature this interview with literary agent David Fugate as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.
Fugate is the founder of Launch Books, a literary agency helping authors successfully navigate the book proposal process to secure a book deal.
He’s also the author of The Unconventional Guide to Publishing, the ultimate mega-guide that teaches you everything you need to know about the publishing industry, new and old.
Follow Fugate on Twitter @LaunchBooks
Matt Gartland: You recently wrote that “What makes [the book publishing industry] even more challenging is that there’s no clear path for aspiring authors to learn what they need to know to be successful.” If there’s no clear path, where should such writers begin? What are the essential and timeless building blocks?
David Fugate: I don’t think there are any essential and timeless building blocks, and that’s precisely the problem. There are a number of wonderful books about the craft of writing, but when it comes to learning about how publishing works as a business there’s not much out there.
New authors seem to gather what information they can from websites, writers workshops and conferences, along with information from other authors who have been through the process, but it always seems to leave authors with an incomplete picture. It’s like trying to put together a hundred piece puzzle when you only have fifteen of the pieces. What makes it even more difficult is that publishing is a counterintuitive business in many ways, so authors often end up – through no fault of their own – going down a wrong path.
The result is that I’ve been in publishing for twenty years and authors have been asking me the same questions over and over for every one of those twenty years. That’s what finally pushed me to write The Unconventional Guide to Publishing. My hope was that it could act as a sort of Publishing 101 course for new authors and get them up to speed on 99% of what they need to know about the world of publishing:
- how the industry works,
- what it means when a publisher “sells” your book to Amazon or B&N,
- the advantages and disadvantages of self and traditional publishing,
- how advances and royalties work,
- how foreign licenses work,
- what editors look for,
- how to find information on agents,
- how to get an agent,
- how to construct a book proposal,
- how to create an effective pitch,
- what’s actually happening when an agent pitches your book to publishers,
- what to look out for in publishing agreements, and…
- how to be published well.
I couldn’t find that information elsewhere (especially in one place) and so I decided to try my best to get it down in print for authors.
That said, I think the absolute best source for information about what’s happening in the publishing industry (not the underlying information about how publishing works, but the day to day news and analysis), and the best place to research both agents and editors is www.publishersmarketplace.com. It’s a pay site ($20/month), but it’s a fantastic resource for authors and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
One book that I often recommend to authors is Thinking Like Your Editor, by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. It has a somewhat limited scope as it’s intended for authors writing what they call “serious nonfiction” but it’s well done and very useful, especially when it comes to thinking about your book’s structure and concept.
MG: In The Unconventional Guide to Publishing, you lead off with “In the entire history of the written word, there has never been a better time to be a writer.” With that opportunity comes an explosion of competition (e.g. other writers). How then should a writer bent on seizing this moment in history work to distinguish herself from the ruckus of others?
DF: The amazing thing about being a writer today is that it’s no longer a question of if your work will be published, but how. That’s an incredible change from any other time in history and something any writer should be excited about.
Writers now also have more ways to reach their intended audience than ever before.
You’re right that more access means more competition, and at least in the non-fiction space the clearest way to stand out is through developing a powerful author platform. Whether that’s through blogging, developing a large Twitter or Facebook following, professional speaking, landing a gig at a major site or periodical, or however else you’re able to do it, in the end it’s about reach.
The more people who are fans of your work before you write the book and the more exposure you’re able to generate once it publishes, the better your chances are of succeeding with the book.
MG: You work with a great diversity of writers across such categories as general non-fiction, technology, and humor and pop culture. Regardless of style and genre, are there common characteristics that an author exhibits that greatly influence probable success?
DF: It’s difficult to say, as there are many different ways to be successful. One author might have a hugely popular blog that drives sales. Another might have a unique personal story that readers find fascinating. Another might just be a brilliant writer, and yet another might have incredible professional credentials or access to groundbreaking research. Those four will all write vastly different books, but all of them can be successful.
In the simplest of terms it comes down to 1) having a fresh, compelling idea aimed at 2) the right audience, that’s 3) written by the right author, with 4) a powerful author platform. Of course, it’s difficult to hit all four of those areas perfectly, but if you do that’s as certain a path to success as you’ll find.
MG: You’re well in-tune with both the traditional publishing and self-publishing arguments. At present, do you see the divide between the two expanding or contracting? Based on that answer, what do you foresee to be the marquee trend in publishing the next 1-3 years?
DF: I think what we’ll see from both authors and publishers over the next few years is a lot of experimentation. More well-known authors will undoubtedly try their hand at self-publishing. Perhaps they’ll self-publish one book and then go back to a traditional publisher for their next book. Or maybe they’ll decide they like doing it themselves and stick with it. Or perhaps they’ll publish a particular series through traditional publishers and then self-publish other material “for fun” in different genres, or at different lengths and with different approaches, either as experiments or to fill in the gaps between big books with their traditional house. Maybe they’ll self-publish things that are particular of the moment, while working with traditional publishers on projects that don’t need to be out immediately.
Meanwhile we’ll continue to see self-published authors hitting it big and then receiving significant advances from traditional publishers, as well. I’m sure we’ll also see publishers experimenting with more electronic only titles in an effort to get some titles out more quickly, expand the kinds of books they can acquire, and to give their biggest authors an alternative to self-publishing.
Ebooks and self-publishing will continue to grow, but I don’t see that as being any kind of death knell for traditional publishers, at least at this point. If what happened in music with the rampant piracy they experienced (where all sales essentially fell through the floor for a decade+) didn’t kill the major labels, I don’t understand why so many people seem to think that electronic publishing will kill book publishers.
The biggest houses may shrink some as ebooks grow, but the higher margins involved and the lower overhead costs associated with producing and shipping physical books may actually increase publishers’ margins and having money to pay authors in the form of advances will remain a significant advantage for publishers in pursuing the biggest authors. Publishers will likely be forced to increase ebook royalty rates over time, but I certainly view that as another positive impact of what’s happening with ebook publishing.
Of course, I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t be certain even what my job will look like in three or five years, but the one thing I know is that it’s a fantastic time to be a writer.
MG: What’s the #1 piece of actionable advice you’d give to writers working on a book proposal for a traditional publisher?
DF: I’d advise authors to spend more time developing their concept before they ever sit down to write the proposal.
I get between ten and twenty new pitches for non-fiction projects every day and unfortunately many of them are uninspired, uninteresting, or replicate books that already exist in the market. My sense of it is that newer authors sometimes focus too much on what they want to say and not enough on coming up with a compelling concept that readers will want to buy.
What new authors should understand is that there’s a lot of noise in the market and to stand out you have to come up with the right title, subtitle and approach to really pull readers in. If you tell someone the title/subtitle to your book and don’t get an immediate “Ooh, that sounds fantastic!” out of them, go back, rethink it and come at it from another angle until you’re certain that you have a killer concept.
Images provided by and used with permission from the interviewee.