Friday, February 29, 2008

About the Agents

A few people have emailed me privately to ask about how I got my agent. After answering a few times it occurred to me I could post about it here, and maybe answer the question for a few other folks that never got around the asking me about it. I am very happy with my agent, and happy to acknowledge the somewhat rocky road that led to that state of bliss...

I got my first agent (yes, this story features more than one) in the mid-90's, while I was a grad student. I attended a Washington Writer's Conference. There was a panel of agents, which I listened to with keen interest. After the panel, there was a session where you could meet the agents. I went up to two of them, presented myself, talked about my work, and - when they made polite noises of interest - I pulled out copies of my first novel manuscript. Both of them went home with it. One of them turned me down. One of the asked to sign me. So Marie Brown became my first agent.

Marie is a lovely person, with a long history as an agent. In particular, she specializes in work by African-Americans. That was appropriate for me because I am an African American and my first novel, Cicada, was a contemporary novel about an African-American family. Under Marie's wing I got a warm introduction to... well, to rejection letters. Yep. Rejection letters. Lots of them. Usually polite, but always rejections. I wrote a second novel, August Fury, that Marie also kinda represented. It was also contemporary and African-American, and likewise it never got anywhere. Didn't even make it as far as racking up rejection letters, really.

So... Time passes. I revise. I get rejected. I revise some more, get rejected some more. So it goes. By the way, I also lived and loved through all this. I paddled a lot of whitewater as a kayaker and raft guide, and I traveled in Latin America, the Caribbean, and in Europe. Met my wife in Scotland, got married, got pregnant... So life went on, as did the rejections.

Eventually, though, the leads Marie was working dried up. We went our separate ways. Time to give up? Nah, forget about it! I was a writer; the world just didn't know it yet! I began to work on an entirely new novel. What I ended up with was Gabriel's Story. I was still writing about black families, but this time I set it in the Old West, and shot it through with a good bit of drama, violence, movement. I was able to send it directly to a young editor at Doubleday, Debbie Cowell, who had liked my earlier novels. Actually, she had worked for Marie before moving to Doubleday, so she'd been an advocate for a few years already.

Anyway, I sent it straight to her. I knew she liked it, but she was going to have to convince the powers that be at Doubleday to agree - and they'd already turned down my earlier efforts more than once.

While they deliberated, Debbie suggested I look into getting a new agent. She put me in touch with one, actually, a guy that had placed a very, very (I mean very) successful book with Doubleday. (I'm not gonna say who, by the way, but believe me...) They had a great relationship, and they were making loads of money. I was thrilled. This is awesome, right? Here I'm getting an intro to a successful agent, and it's coming from a prospective publisher that has a great history with that agency. This guy calls me, chats, sounds great, and he says he'll read the book and get back to me.

Time passes. Deliberation continues. Agent-guy doesn't call. Eventually, I called him. What's up? Doubleday may make an offer any day now. Are you going to represent the novel if/when they do? Agent-guy says... "Ah, well... No. I'm got going to. I've thought about, and I see some problems with the novel that aren't easily fixable. I'm not confident Doubleday is going to buy it, and if they don't I'm not sure who would. So, sorry, but no."

Talk about ways to make a guy miserable. In the front of mind I thought his explanation of what wasn't working in the book was vague and silly and kind of a load of crap, but still, what if he was right? What if he knew stuff I didn't? What if Doubleday was going to say no yet again, and what if even my third finished novel wasn't going to see the light of day? What if I was actually going to have to keep my job selling Brit-pop at the Virgin Megastore? I did have a month old baby to support...

Okay, I won't wallow. Fast forward to the next week. Debbie calls me, Doubleday has finally had that big acquisitions meeting. They want to buy my book! (One week it's all misery; next week it's all joy - just like that.) Actually, they want to buy it and my next book. They lay down an offer, the terms, the money involved, and I - giddy, of course - agree to everything. (Not, by the way, a strategy I suggest.) Once that's done, then Doubleday suggests that I really might want to get an agent now.

They had a think on it, and connected me with Sloan Harris at International Creative Management. I couldn't have known it at the time, but Sloan was (and is) a guy on his way up. He's co-head of publications for ICM now, as described in this Variety Article. (Not bad for a guy that started in their mail room.) All I knew was that he read my book fast and called me with all the right kind of enthusiasm. He talked about the many things yet to come, and talked about the things I should think about long term. I suppose I could have looked into others, but I was sold. I knew of ICM as the agency of Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison and many more. If ICM is good enough for them... I signed on the dotted line again, and I've never regretted it.

You might ask, "Why get an agent when you'd already sold the book?" Answer: every reason in the world. Just selling a book - although a huge step - is only the beginning. It's like qualifying for the race, making the team, entering the game, etc. But there's so much to do thereafter that I can't imagine trying to navigate it all without a professional advocate.

ICM has a website, but before you rush off to contact them you should know that there's not much there other than a few addresses and a few contact emails. Not much. Nothing saying "Submit Here" or "Give Us A Call"! ICM is not really that type of company. While I'm talking them up, I'm not suggesting you start packing up your manuscript and call FedEx. Could I have landed Mr. Harris with a query letter before getting the offer? Nope. Not a chance. Actually, about the most detailed bit of information they have on the website is their "Unsolicited Submissions Policy". That goes as follows:

ICM has a policy that neither it nor any of its agents or other employees shall accept or consider any unsolicited material, ideas or suggestions of any nature whatsoever ("Unsolicited Materials"). Accordingly, you may not use this website or information obtained there from to submit Unsolicited Materials to ICM via any means (including, without limitation, via mail, fax or e-mail). Should you nevertheless contravene this express prohibition by sending Unsolicited Materials to ICM, please be advised that the Unsolicited Materials will not be considered by anyone at ICM, and if possible they will be returned to you with no copies kept. Unsolicited Materials will not be forwarded to or discussed with any third parties.

Ouch. That's not very friendly. What's up with these people? Well, what's up, I'd say, is that ICM is a very, very established agency. They have such an incredible client list that they won't even tell you who is on it. Snobby? Maybe, but I prefer to think that they've reached a position in the industry where they can be very selective. They just got it like that. They can find the clients they need through recommendations from existing clients, other agents, editors, etc. I couldn't have written to Sloan on my own, but with the Editor and Chief of Doubleday there to connect us, Sloan jumped on board with all the professional enthusiasm I could have asked for. I'm very pleased to have this particular agent and this giant company to look out for me, but I also know many authors that love being with smaller agencies. Both can advocate for you wonderfully - if the fit is right.

That's about my only piece of agent hunting advice - know that the fit really needs to be right, and know that that doesn't always happen quickly. My first agent might have succeeded with those early books, but if she had you might not be reading my blog now. I might not be here in the capacity that I am, or she might not have been the right fit as my interests diversified. And if that other unnamed agent had signed me just because of Doubleday's recommendation (without really believing in the book), what would it mean to be with a guy that didn't personally feel the material was publishable? Naw, I like the way things worked out, and can see now that the ups and downs were all formative in the right ways.

Oh, one last thing... Gabriel's Story was a bit more than just a publishable novel. Right from the start the reviews for it were great (three stars before publication, for example). It ended up being a NY Times Notable Book, on other best of the year lists, and won several national awards. It's been in film development for several years now, and just might make it to the big screen one day. It was a success in many ways. And it was the introduction of a writer that's done pretty well since...

So why didn't that agent see the potential? He claimed later - as I understand it - that he hadn't actually read the book. One of his readers did. It was that person that wasn't impressed. Maybe that's true. If so it was a mistake. Does this agent know that? Sure, he does. I happen to know that somebody made sure he got sent a copy of every positive review I received for a while thereafter...

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mini Essay at the Angry Black Woman

ABW asked me to write an essay as a visiting author on her blog. I did. She's just posted it. You can read it HERE.

And, don't worry, she's not really as homicidal as she looks here. For example, she calls me "one of the sweetest guys EVER". That, in itself, is a sweet thing to say. (Don't get me wrong. She does have a temper, but generally when the Tempest rages she's got good reason for it.)

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Listen to George... You Know You Should!

George RR Martin has put up a string of Live Journal posts about voting for the Hugos. Today he did one encouraging people to vote for the John W Campbell Award, and - can you believe it? - he mentions me again! He writes...

"We have an especially strong crop of new young fantasists coming up of late, including Joe Abercrombie, David Anthony Durham, and Scott Lynch..."

That, friends, is the third time the man himself has mentioned me in writing. Hehe...

Oh, the post is here!

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Art Show No. 2

Just a heads up; my daughter, Maya, has her second art show up on her blog now.

Here's a sample...
Now, would you mess with the winged red fox? I wouldn't, and I wouldn't advise it. My advice: don't mess with the winged red fox!

Man, it's a good show. Eight years old she is. Check out the rest here.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Visions of Nothing Obligatory

Just a couple of Acacia: The War with the Mein-related links that popped up this morning...

Visions of Paradise has taken that Locus "Books on Most Best of the Year Lists" a bit further. Looks like adamosf checked twenty different best lists. That's quite a bit more than Locus, although he doesn't say which ones. He has Acacia getting 9 mentions, putting me in fifth place behind Brasyl (16), The Name of the Wind (13), Thirteen (11) and The Yiddish Policemen's Union (11). I'll just have to take adamosf's word on this, but I'm happy to do so.

By the way, I just finished Thirteen yesterday. It's quite a good book. (No comment on the abundance of genetically enhanced sex.)

Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen has a post up called "This is not your obligatory Black History Month SF/F post". It may not be obligatory, but it is a post that highlights writers of color in SF/F, and it is Black History month. He writes that he almost didn't post it because he's "uncomfortable with the notion of forgetting/neglecting for 11 months only to "celebrate" during the shortest month of the year". Well, I'm with him on that, but I'm also glad he posted, and I like being in close company with the other authors he highlights. Check it out here.

By the way, I think Alaya Dawn Johnson also merits a mention. I had the pleasure of hanging out with her at last year's World Fantasy. I haven't read her debut novel, Racing the Dark, but it sounds like a promising start. Like Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Alaya's work is in the YA fantasy realm, quickly compared to Ursula K Leguin's. Here's what School Library Journal had to say:

"This novel has rich details of setting and character motivation. The prose is lyrical and metaphorical, in a style similar to Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist (HarperCollins, 1993). There are also elements of Greek myths in which mortals and spirits meet with mostly tragic results. The complex plot requires careful reading but the effort is worth it. Teens who enjoyed Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home (HarperCollins, 1985; o.p.) will like this novel, and many readers will identify with a character facing adult responsibilities while still feeling like a child."

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Attack of the Covers!

I woke up this morning to two emails from far, far away, both bearing covers for my... um... Well, just for me to look at, cause it's not like I have much say in such matters.

The first was one you may have already seen a version of. It the Transworld UK cover for Acacia, specifically for the hardback collectors' edition. The image is pretty much the same as before, although I do notice they spiffied up Corinn's dress a bit. It's less a burlap sack and more a silky red now. I prefer it. (Okay, so maybe I do have some influence on things after all.)I like the way they call me a "bestselling author". It's true, you know, really it is!

The second is a first glimpse from my Swedish publisher, Norstedts. Wow, now that's a different take on things! They make it look like I wrote a novel about marauding hordes of sword-weilding uber-men slogging across a frozen tundra with giant woolly rhinoceros beasts... Well... yeah, I guess I did, didn't I? That's part of it, at least. Anyway, here's what they've come up with for Akacien!

Comments are welcome...

(By the way, does anybody know what Hotet Nran Norr means? I tried to translate it online and got "hotel stamp north". I'm thinking that's not right. Then got "the threat fran north", which sounds a bit closer. So is it Acacia: The Threat From The North?)

Oh, and I don't think I ever put up the finished full jacket for the German edition. Here it is...

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

James McBride

Do you know James McBride, the author of The Color of Water and Miracle at St Anna? The guy has sold a lot of books, so there's a good chance you have heard of him. And there's a good chance you'll be hearing more about him soon. Spike Lee is filming Miracle as St Anna, with an impressive cast signed on. Could be very interesting.

And he's got a new novel coming out this month, Song Yet Sung and I see it's already getting some great pre-publication attention. Here's what Publishers Weekly said about it in a starred review, for example:

Escaped slaves, free blacks, slave-catchers and plantation owners weave a tangled web of intrigue and adventure in bestselling memoirist (The Color of Water) McBride's intricately constructed and impressive second novel, set in pre–Civil War Maryland. Liz Spocott, a beautiful young runaway slave, suffers a nasty head wound just before being nabbed by a posse of slave catchers. She falls into a coma, and, when she awakes, she can see the future—from the near-future to Martin Luther King to hip-hop—in her dreams. Liz's visions help her and her fellow slaves escape, but soon there are new dangers on her trail: Patty Cannon and her brutal gang of slave catchers, and a competing slave catcher, nicknamed The Gimp, who has a surprising streak of morality. Liz has some friends, including an older woman who teaches her The Code that guides runaways; a handsome young slave; and a wild inhabitant of the woods and swamps. Kidnappings, gunfights and chases ensue as Liz drifts in and out of her visions, which serve as a thoughtful meditation on the nature of freedom and offer sharp social commentary on contemporary America. McBride hasn't lost his touch: he nails the horrors of slavery as well as he does the power of hope and redemption.

Now, my fantasy readers may not immediately see how that's just up my ally, but it is. My second novel, Walk Through Darkness was about... well, about a runaway slave from Maryland and the tracker in pursuit of him. Familiar territory. So I'm very interested.

Actually, I'm also involved! The Washington Post asked me to review Song Yet Sung. I did, and the review came out today. It's here if you're interested.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Locus List of Books on... Well, on Lists...

Locus has come up with a list of the sci-fi and fantasy books that appeared on the most Best of the Year lists. Pleased to say Acacia: The War with the Mein is one of them! You can check it out here. Good books in this group, but I'm biased...

For the record, I noticed they didn't include Kirkus Reviews in the sources they picked from. If they had I've have earned another point and been bumped up to next to Pat Rothfuss.

Ah, well, I'll get you later, Pat.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Looking for an Agent? I Know Just the Person...

I've just learned some very good news. Colleen Lindsay (aka La Gringa) has jumped from one side of the literary desk to the other. She's an agent now! She's just accepted an offer from FinePrint Literary Management, and she'll be handling science fiction, fantasy and graphic novels.

This is very good news for writers in those fields. I've known Colleen since last spring, when she signed on as my publicist for Acacia: The War with the Mein. She was - for Doubleday and me - the expert advocate we needed to navigate into a new genre. She did a freaking great job, and has a share in any success Acacia has had - or will yet have, really. She knows her stuff. She's tireless, connected, enthusiastic, and pretty darn funny as well. Her cats seem to boss her around a bit, but that doesn't often effect her work.

So... looking for an agent? Make sure to write some good stuff first, and then give her a call...

Here's the GalleyCat entry on it.

And here's a link to FinePrint Literary Management.

Oh, and here's one to LaGringa's blog: Swivet!

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Epic Proportions!

The fantastic Tempest Bradford has just put up an Interview with me in Fantasy Magazine.

It's here!

If that one does nothing for you, try clicking on Tempest's name. That'll take you to a listing of her many, many other cool interviews and stuff.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

To Market Mass, or Not? Tis the Question...

My paperback publisher hit me with a surprise early this week. They're proposing to publish Acacia as a mass market paperback, instead of as the scheduled trade edition. A little history...

My paperback publisher is Anchor. They tend toward upscale books, with a good bit of commercially viable literary fiction on their list: Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Alexander McCall Smith, Colson Whitehead, many more... They've published my first three books in handsome trade paperback formats - which just means it's the larger size, with a price tag in the teens. It also has a certain amount of cache in the literary/academic world, representing something a bit higher brow than those wee, cramped, fairly disposable mass market airport books.

Thing is, in most cases trade books don't sell in the volume that mass market does. Anchor, when looking at what the should do with Acacia: The War with the Mein, would like to break out of my past sales record and head into entirely new territory. They think mass market could help that happen. Just get the book in more hands. And, frankly, they're hoping for a lot more hands. The printing they'd propose for the mass edition would be, oh... 4 or 5 times what they'd do for a trade version. Apparently the book stores like the idea also. The book would cost something like $8, instead of $15. That, of course, means I get less for each book. But if we sell a lot more books... And then, later, likely, they'd end up with all my books back in trade format - as part of a backlist that will hopefully be around for a long time.

The downside? Well, personally, I don't like mass market books that much. I'm not talking about the authors or the works themselves. It's just that I'd rather read a mass market author in hardback, instead of cracking open those small pages. And there's my academic hubris... What will my colleagues think of me? Dare I give up the stature of trade paperback for the filthy lucre of the masses?

That, dear readers, is the question I direct toward you. I know what my editors think. I know what my agent thinks. I even know what my wife thinks. But what do you think?

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Albino Girl

Hey, here's a way to sample a new author for just .45 Cents. (That's nothing!) Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, author of two well received young adult fantasy novels, has a new story up for sale on Amazon: The Albino Girl. Take a look.

I think what's she doing - bringing African storytelling traditions into contemporary fantasy - is just awesome. I'm also happy to point you in her direction because I've had the pleasure of meeting Nnedi. She's great fun to be around, a real unique spirit. And it's not just me that thinks so. Ursula LeGuin blurbed her and Neil Gaiman conversed with her with the type of rapt interest that makes other authors purple with envy. (I know this. I was there and saw it with my own eyes...)

Anyway, here's a bit of info on her...

Nnedi was born in the United States to two Igbo (Nigerian) immigrant parents. Though American-born, Nnedi's muse continues to be Nigeria, where her parents have been taking her to visit relatives since she was very young. Because Nigeria is her muse, this is where her stories tend to take place, either literally or figuratively. Because she grew up wanting to be an entomologist and even after becoming a writer maintained that love of insects and nature as a whole, her work is always filled with startling vivid flora and fauna. And because Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Philip Pullman, Tove Jansson, Hayao Miyazaki, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o are her greatest influences her work tends to beon the creative side.

Her first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, was published by Houghton Mifflin and will be published in Nigeria in 2008 by Kachifo Ltd. It was shortlisted for the Parallax Award and Kindred Award, a finalist for the Golden Duck Award and nominated for a Locus Award (Best First Novel). Zahrah the Windseeker takes place in a highly technological world based on Nigerian myth, culture and land.

Her second novel, The Shadow Speaker, published by Disney's Hyperion Books for Children (Jump at the Sun), takes place in the countries of Niger and Nigeria. About The Shadow Speaker, Nnedi says: Spontaneous forests, polygamy, strange insects, Nigerian 419 scammers, really really fast cars, a different kind of Sahara Desert, male beauty contests, the apocalypse, life, death, sword fights, fat chiefs, assassins, this novel is kind of nuts!

Nnedi earned her PhD in English at the University of Illinois and is currently teaching creative writing at Chicago State University. Learn more about Nnedi at

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Awards, ahhh, awards...

They're strange things, aren't they? They're flawed in so many ways. They invariably leave out wonderful books and authors. They can be lopsided, myopic, elitist. (This coming from somebody who has judged the Pen/Faulkner and Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, by the way - both wonderful experiences - but you should hear some of the stories I heard along the way...) Do the judges read all the books? Do the masses pick more worthy winners than small cabals? Did my publisher even submit my book?...

An author can get a little tied up in knots as the big day approaches. This is made even worse because you don't want to look like you care, like you realize the announcement is coming, like you've given it a bit of thought... "Oh, those were announced, were they? I hadn't noticed..."

But don't be fooled. As flawed as the award process is in all its variations authors want them, need them, cherish them... They can jump start careers, sell books, win friends and enemies in high places... That, you see, is why I put the widget to the John W Campbell Award over on the sidebar here. It'll count down the nomination voting days, least anyone forget.

The Campbell is a wonderful award for new science fiction and fantasy writers. It's not a Hugo, but it's voted for in a similar manner and presented at Worldcon, which is in Denver this summer. It's got a wonderful history of predicting some major authors, think Stephen R Donaldson, Orson Scott Card, Karen Joy Fowler, Mary Doria Russell, Nalo Hopkinson, John Scalzi, just to name a few.

Science Fiction Awards Watch has a wee post up - Campbell Recommendations - which mentions me as one of the "high-profile" authors in contention. That's nice, but up until a few weeks ago I wasn't up on the Writertopia site that has info on the award. I had to contact them to ask if I was, in fact, eligible. Guess what? I am! Those little historical novels don't count in this equation. As far as fantasy goes I'm a newbie, and proud of it. Now I'm on the site!

So, I'll own up. I'll be paying close attention. I'd love to be in the running. I'd be over the moon, honestly, just to squeak in with a nomination. I won't even pretend otherwise. So if you happen to be a Campbell voter... give me a look, yeah?

On another note, you might want to check out Sandra McDonald's ongoing letter to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America voters for the Nebula. She's made the preliminary list, and she - quite respectfully (and humorously) - knocks her competition off one by one. Give it a look.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Video

By nature my inclination is to steer away from politics here on the blog. I guess that's because I find our politics so divisive, and I'd rather communicate with people than have them turned on or off by my politics. But I'd be disappointed with myself if I didn't provide the link to the video below. Yes, it features the person I'd like to be the next president, but, regardless of that, it's also just the sort wide armed, moving, inclusive rhetoric that I've been missing for a long time now.

So, yes I can post this link...

The Video