Monday, December 28, 2009

Guest Instructor: C.M Mayo on the 3 Most Often Asked Questions About The Writing Business

Here's a helpful repost from November '08.

Today's guest is C.M. Mayo. She blogs over at Madam Mayo. C.M. is a popular instructor at The Center, and she's known to offer excellent tips on the craft, in addition to some practical tips that she posts on her blog. She's a fount of knowledge, in other words.

The Three Questions I Am Most Often Asked
About the Writing Business

# 1. I would like to publish a book. How do I find a publisher?The key thing to keep in mind as you begin your search is, what is your intention for your book? Do you want it to to place you among the immortal literary stars? Or achieve a modest success that might help you get a teaching job? Or, do you just watch to check "publish book" off your "to-do" list? And how much time and effort are you willing to put into the enterprise of finding a publisher? It might be lickety-split easy to find one, or it might take a few years, a bundle of postage, and a mountain of paperwork. Not to mention heartbreak. There are many good books on this subject, but the one I most highly recommend is Susan Page's The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book. Be sure to also read Thomas Christensen's excellent and very wise on-line article, "How to Get a Book Published".

#2. Do I need an agent?
Maybe. There is a book-length answer to this question, too. Again, I recommend Susan Page's The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book, which has an outstanding and very practical chapter on agents. Keep in mind that agents need to be able to earn a living, cover their secretary's salary, rent, supplies, postage, telephone, and all the other overhead involved running an agency. You might have written a very important book, but "important" might not translate into anything meaningful from an agent's point of view. The critics might love it, but if your advance is only $500-$1,000 (not uncommon, by the way), an agent's commission, net of expenses, is too small to have made it worth her time. Most scholarly works, almost all poetry and a lot of very good fiction and creative nonfiction are not represented by agents. So don't fall for the canard that you must have an agent. Watch out, too, for your ego. Too many writers use their relationship with an agent as a badge of status they find themselves unable to loosen once the relationship becomes problematic and/ or impractical. So, do your research.

Herewith a few on-line resources for finding out out about literary agents. Todd James Pierce's "Nine Tips for Finding a Literary Agent," reproduced on best-selling author Alan Jacobson's webpage, is especially good. Lynn Price, editorial director of Behler Publications, a well-regarded literary press, has a very thoughtful blog post on "Why Do I Need An Agent?" Writer's Center instructor Lindsay Reed Maines's guest-blog post on my blog, Madam Mayo, about her top 5 literary agent blogs will give you a sense of the business from an agent's point of view.

A note: whether you have an agent or not, in my experience, it is very helpful to join the Author's Guild. Members get a Trade Book Contract Guide, which goes through all that nasty "boilerplate" point by point, and incudes many negotiation tips. An abbreviated version is available free on the Authors Guild website. Also, for members, the Authors Guild's legal staff will review both book contracts and contracts with agents.

#3. I have just published a book. Can you offer any tips about promotion?
Without delay, buy these two books: Joseph Marich's Literary Publicity and Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life. The first is by a PR pro, the second by a long-time successful novelist. With these words from the wise, you may well save yourself a lot of time, hassle, and if not heartbreak, then needless heartbreak. On-line, there are some excellent marketing tips on the webpage of Word Tech Communications, a poetry publisher. (I vehemently disagree about the advice on review copies, however.) As for an Internet presence, yes, it behooves you to have a webpage and, if you're up to it, a blog, and if you can stand it, a facebook page as well--- and to have all of these started up in a thoughtful manner at least six months to a year before your book comes out. That said, "better late than never." Finally, why be shy? My mantra is, book promotion is not self-promotion, it's book promotion. Once you have a book, it's not all about you; it's about your agent, your publisher, their hard-working team, booksellers, and ultimately, obviously, and most importantly, readers.

UPDATE: See also my 2008 Maryland Writers Conference handout on Writers Blogs: Best (& Worst) Practices.


C.M. is the author of the forthcoming novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books); Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico (Milkweed Editions), and Sky Over El Nido (University of Georgia Press), which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her many other awards include three Lowell Thomas Awards for travel writing, three Washington Writing Prizes, and numerous fellowships, among them, to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and Yaddo. Her work has appeared in many outstanding literary journals, among them, Chelsea, Creative Nonfiction, Kenyon Review, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Paris Review, and Tin House. An avid translator of contemporary Mexican literature, she is also founding editor of Tameme and editor of Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion. For more about C.M. Mayo and her work, visit


Serena said...

These are some great tips, but do they work as well for poets?

The Writer's Center said...

That's a good question, Serena. I don't know the answer to that. Any poets want to chime in?

C.M. Mayo said...

Yes, I'd say all of this applies to poetry as well. (Note, as mentioned, poets generally do not need agents.)