Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Why Nonfiction?

If you are a regular reader of my blog, then you know that I've been publishing numerous entries on what we're looking for now that the firm is once again open to new queries. I've started out with nonfiction subject areas because, simply put, I want to represent more nonfiction. Nonfiction, generally speaking, is simply easier to sell, especially if the author has the right credentials and/or an existing platform. Why is it easier? Well, there's less good nonfiction out there and thus less competition for editors' reading time. It can be sold on proposal, which means it takes less time to read initially and so decisions come more quickly. If an author has the right credentials and/or platform, it's often a no-brainer. A serious scientist writing about a serious subject, e.g., global warming, and saying something new or controversial, will nearly always sell. At least one agent I know of makes his living just selling these types of books. And I'd like to put a dent in his business.

But there are other great nonfiction areas beyond science and I've outlined the ones that genuinely intrigue me in the various blog entries that have preceeded this one. And if you go to the What We Want page on my website, you can read them all in a slightly condensed version.

There are, of course, some commonalities when it comes to nonfiction and I have hammered on these in each and every entry. And I'll keep hammering on them. Think of me as the admissions director at an Ivy League university. I want the cream of the crop. Are there diamonds in the rough that might interest me? Sure. Are there authors whom I could work with if we got them a ghost writer? Of course. But, generally speaking, if you want to write nonfiction and be represented by The Zack Company, please be in the top ten percent of your field, preferably previously published (at least in magazines), and preferably with a platform that will lead publishers to feel that your platform will lead readers to the book, as opposed to the book being the base for your platform.

I apologize if this seems arrogant, my saying I want "the cream of the crop," but the reality is that getting published is a highly competitive process. Just as a producer wants to put stars in his films, I want to put stars on my list. Am I willing to introduce a "fresh, young face" to the world? Sure, but like any starlet just getting into the business, there should be real talent there and not just another pretty face (though having a pretty face never hurts).

In the next few days, I'm going to start outlining what I'm looking for in fiction (yes, I'm still repping fiction). I think you'll find some of it surprising. Be sure to tune back in here regularly to learn more.


Looking for...Golf, Hunting, Fishing, Sailing & Climbing, oh my!

My dad recently had back surgery. Serious back surgery. And the question everyone asks him is, Do you think you'll ever play golf again? You have to understand, my father loves golf. Given the choice of spending a day at the beach with his family or playing golf, he'd go with golf. Given the chance to meet Bill Clinton or play golf, he'd go with golf. There is a pistol with one bullet in a glass case at his house that says, In Case I Can't Ever Play Golf Again.... No, not really, but you get the drift.

Golf has been good to me. I'm pleased to have represented Bill Kroen, author of Bill Kroen's Golf Tip-A-Day Calendar, for a number of years, and a number of books beyond the calendar. And I'm looking for more, if only to have good reading material to send my dad. ;)

Seriously, though, I am looking for...

  • Narrative Nonfiction about Golf


  • Narrative Nonfiction about Hunting
  • Narrative Nonfiction about Fishing
  • Narrative Nonfiction about Sailing
  • Narrative Nonfiction about Climbing

These are other areas where, perhaps, you don't need to be the world's greatest authority on golf, hunting, fishing, sailing or climbing to succeed. You do have to be an amazing writer, of the sort where you could be writing about taking out the garbage and people would read it, and you need to know your topic. I would never set out to write a book about any of these subjects, even though I have golfed, fished, and sailed. I am not experienced enough. I cannot wax philosophical about these topics and speak to the universal truths about them. But if you can, let me hear from you. And if you need a duffer with a 20 handicap in the West Palm area, my dad should be ready to swing in about nine more months.


Looking for...Ways to be a Better Man (or Woman)

"You make me want to be a better man." I can't name the movie, but I remember that some sappy guy said this to a woman. And, honestly, I think most guys can relate. They meet a woman who seems to have everything they want and suddenly realize, She's out of my league. To get her, you have to raise the level of your game. In short, she makes you want to be a better man.

I'd like to be a better man also. Can you help me? I'm looking for books on....

  • Self-improvement
  • Career improvement
  • Leadership
  • Popular Reference
  • Small-business How-to
  • Practical nonfiction

Whether you've got the next How to Win Friends and Influence People or the next What Color is Your Parachute? I'd like to hear from you. If you can write about leadership in life or in business or simply how to become head of the PTA, you may have a market. Can you write How to Write Crossword Puzzles or Snorkeling for Dummies? We might be able to find you a deal. Are you an expert quoted regularly in Entrepreneur magazine, then perhaps there's a market for a book by you. Can you write practical nonfiction on a topic or topics people want to know more about? Let me know.

Of course, I have to beat the dead horse and say You Must Know What You Are Talking About! And You Must Be An Established Expert In Your Field! And You Must Be Able To Write! Writing a book will not establish you as an expert. Being an expert may be enough to help your book get published. Owning Microsoft Word does not mean you know how to write. Be confident in your abilities but humble enough to recognize that if people don't know who you are, they might not want your opinion. Successfully writing in these areas boils down to a topic of wide interest, credentials that show you know what you are talking about, and good writing. Period. If you can fill that bill, let me know.


Looking for...Home Improvement, Gardening, etc.

Recently my wife said to me, "I'd heard there was a handy Jewish man. I guess you're him." You see, Jewish men do not have the best reputation for being handy around the house. I'm not sure why this is, but my dad spent about fifty-five years in the building materials business and I don't think there was ever a "handyman" that stepped foot in our house. My dad actually had me on the roof of the house without a safety line at about ten years old (What were you thinking, Dad?), working on the heating wire that we installed to stop ice dams from forming. Plus, working for that "before there was Home Depot" chain, he got a lot of free paint brushes and tools and stuff over the years. Perhaps this is why I am such a fan of "This Old House." Love that show. Want to be on that show! But I don't think it will happen. Certainly not anytime soon.

Thus, in the meantime, I am looking for books on...

  • Home Improvement
  • Gardening
  • Painting
  • Organizing

Are you Norm Abram? Please call. I'd love to do a book by you. Are you anyone who has ever been an "expert" on EXTREME MAKEOVER: THE HOME EDITION? Let me hear from you. You get the drift. If you are the next Martha, I want to work with you.

Have you remodeled your house from scratch and have laugh-out-loud stories to tell? Tell me. Can you help me figure out what's eating my plants? Tell me.

But—and this is a big BUT—you have to be writing about your subject in a manner that would not be found on the Internet. You see, most people looking for help in these areas are going straight to the web for help, not the bookstore. So your book has to somehow cover the topic in a manner that the web will not. Being a celebrity would help. Writing in a narrative fashion, instead of strictly "how-to" style, would help. Having a TV show would really, really help.

And, of course, you need to be able to write well and in a clear and informative manner. It's a trifecta of what you know, who you are, and can you write well. Hit all three of those and you'll be on your way.


Looking for...Animals, Pets, Pet-care, etc.

My wife has been lobbying for a puppy. Our neighbors got a very cute one and that seems to have set her off. Now, I would like a puppy, also, but I am all too aware who will be the primary caregiver to this puppy, given that I work from my home office (home being where the puppy will be all day) and she does not. Thus, if we get a puppy, I get to add walking the dog to my list of chores. Hence, I am resistant.

That said, I love dogs and I am not alone. Witness the success of Marley & Me, which will soon be a major motion picture, I hear. With all this in mind, I am looking for....

  • Animal-related books (nonfiction)
  • Pets & pet care

Are you a talented writer with a talented dog? This might be one of the few areas in which you don't have to have some pre-established platform or be previously published. You just have to be a damn good writer and have a very, very entertaining and endearing story to tell.

But if you want to write about pets and pet care, please do be a specialist, a vet, a certified animal trainer or the like. If someone is going to drop $16.95 for your opinion on how to care for their pet, they obviously want to be confident you know what you are talking about. And, of course, you need to be a clear communicator and good writer. I don't believe you need to be Hemingway, but you do need to explain the whats and whys of what you are advising in a manner the reader can understand and follow.


Looking for... Wonks and Other Experts

I've been watching the news lately and see a lot of talk about Iran and its idiot president who claims the Holocaust didn't happen and about the possibility that the US is planning to attack Iran to take out its nascent nuclear abilities.

On the one hand, I don't think we need to be in another war with a Muslim country. On the other hand, I think if we were to take on Iran, we'd improve the situation in Iraq, since I feel a lot of the problems there are exacerbated by the Iranians. Plus do you want Iran to have the bomb? I sure as hell do not. It's surely a very complex issue and I'm not sure there's a truly "right" answer. That said, I'm looking for books on the following:

  • Military nonfiction
  • Current Affairs/Events
  • Defense/National Security/Intelligence
  • Politics

When you look at this list, think of authors like my old political science professor, John Mueller, or Thomas Barnett. I want serious consideration of these topics by serious people. You have to have the platform and credentials to write authoritatively about the subject. If Bill Maher would like you on his show, I'd be interested in your book proposal. If the New York Times would publish your op-ed, I'd probably be interested in your proposal. You don't have to be wonky, but it probably does not hurt.

I am also looking for works that might be complementary to those subject areas, specifically books having to do with the following:

  • Science & Technology
  • Science & Nature, especially with an environmental or ecological angle
  • Popular Science
  • Aviation
  • Journalistic nonfiction of an investigative nature
  • Women's issues, from a woman's right to choose to breaking through the glass-ceiling at work
  • True Crime

To write in these areas, you really need to know your stuff, though you might not necessarily be a known quantity to the average reader. I had never heard of Paul Offit before I began representing him, but when I learned of his credentials, I was very impressed. I can't tell you who runs the various departments of the Smithsonian, but if one of them has a book proposal, I'd like to see it. I can't name every national reporter from the Times (NY or LA) or The Wall Street Journal, but their background should be more than sufficient. Heck, the right local reporter writing about the right local story could be the right person to write about the local serial killer or corporate or political villain.

As always, if you have great credentials and are able to write well and in a compelling manner about your subject, I will be interested in learning more.


Looking for...Life & Death

So Yom Kippur just passed and for those who do not know (my local cashier at Vons had no idea what it was), Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year. It's Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter all rolled into one. It's the day Jews fast and ask G-d for forgiveness of all of our sins against Him. It is also a day when we remember our loved ones who have passed away. In addition to a special service remembering them, we light a Yarzheit candle that burns for twenty-four hours in their memory.

My mother passed away in 1981. So on Yom Kippur, I light a candle in her memory. I don't, of course, only remember her on this day—hardly a day goes by that I don't think of her—but the day has more meaning for me now than when I was young and still had her and my grandparents in my life.

Which brings me to the point of this blog entry. I'm looking for the following:

Nonfiction books related to:

  • Death & Dying
  • Grief & Bereavement

But one can't focus too much on death, as life is for the living. So I'm also looking for the following:

  • Relationships
  • Dating
  • Parenting & Childcare
  • Sex
  • Cooking & Cookbooks
  • Entertaining & Food
  • Entertainment-related projects, including books about film & TV, music, and sports celebrities

As always, you must have the right platform and credentials to be writing about these subjects. You need to be an expert in your field and have the experience required to make readers confident that your opinion or advice is authoritative. If you want to write entertainment-related projects, you should have credits that include the majors, such as People or Entertainment Weekly magazines, or have published successful books in this area before.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Looking for...Biography, Autobiography & Memoir

I spent last week in Florida visiting my father. It was a sobering experience, I must admit. My dad is about to turn seventy-two and just underwent extensive surgery to his back, with fusion and rods and most of an Erector Set installed, I think. Needless to say, it got me thinking a lot, about him, about my life growing up, about where my life might go in the future. It got me thinking a lot about yoga and Pilates so that my back stays healthy, and about what other states than Florida have no state income tax, because I hate humidity. So let’s talk about my life....

Ok, stop groaning. I am not going to actually write here about my life, because while my life may be interesting to some, it is not going to be interesting to a very wide audience, I’m sure. That said, I am looking for:

  • Biography
  • Autobiography
  • Memoir
Now, wait. Rein in that impulse to start querying me. Let’s talk a bit about what works and does not work in those categories.

First, when it comes to biography, the subject of the biography is the most important thing. Living or dead, the question is always going to be, Are readers interested in this person? The next question is, How can I quantify for a publisher that readers will be interested in this person? When my client, Kathleen Winters, came to me with a new idea for a biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, it wasn’t a struggle to think that was a good idea. There had already been a huge one, but that book almost completely overlooked Lindbergh as a pilot and as crew on her famous husband’s flights. So know that your subject is marketable and be prepared to prove that in your proposal.

Next, who the heck are you to be writing this biography? If you are writing about an historical figure, it’s always nice to have a background in history. Perhaps you don’t have to be a PhD in history, but it doesn’t hurt. Kathleen was a pilot with a background that included writing about flying. In all honesty, her book might have sold more quickly if she were an historian or a reporter in the aviation industry, but it sold in the end and has been wonderfully reviewed. Still, the writer’s résumé counts. Be sure that yours is appropriate for writing such a book.

On the subject of autobiography, one must always wonder, How big an ego does this person have? And do they deserve to have it? Bill Clinton’s autobiography? Sure, I can see the justification. K-Fed’s? Not so much, though I’m sure it might sell. If you are going to pitch me on representing your autobiography, you should be someone I recognize and am honored to represent. Or you should have such an incredible story, such an amazing life, so many lessons to teach, that I am humbled by all you have done. Otherwise, you most likely have a project that will best be appreciated by your blood relatives. No offense. It’s just business.

I think the same can probably be said of memoir. You must have an incredible, amazing life that leaves readers shaking their heads in awe. Or your experience must be so original, so unlike what others have experienced, and your viewpoint so fresh and original, that readers will be attracted to your memoir, informed by it, and inspired by it.

Oh, and by the way, did I mention, you must know how to write! I don’t care if you are K-Fed, if you can’t write, you cannot succeed. That said, K-Fed, I can find you a writer to help you. Still, if you have never appeared in People magazine, it’s unlikely you have an autobiography or memoir that warrants being written with a ghost writer.

I apologize if this seems harsh. I don’t even know K-Fed. Heck, I had to Google how to spell it. But I get a ton of queries every year from writers who feel they have something to say and are convinced the world wants to read it. And I have rarely agreed. In fact, I have agreed three times. Mark Patinkin’s original articles, on which his book UP AND RUNNING are based, left me crying at the kitchen table so often I kept having to stop and regroup. Kathleen Winters’ proposal for what became ANNE MORROW LINDBERGH was exciting and truly seemed to show a fresh viewpoint on a fascinating historical figure. And Paul Offit’s proposal for what became VACCINATED left me shaking my head in awe that I had never heard of Maurice Hilleman and that he didn’t win several Nobel Prizes.

I think, in the end, I would like more books like VACCINATED. Figures in science and medicine are fascinating to me and I’m sure I’m not alone. But I am also interested in military figures, both recent and historical. From Hannibal to Petraeus, I’m interested. And then there’s politics and current affairs. I’m fascinated by the movers and shakers and by those who shape our country. I think we could all benefit by seeing the DEAD CERTAIN treatment applied to far more political figures. And let’s not forget business biographies or autobiographies. Surely there are more business leaders we’d like to know more about. Richard Parsons is the CEO of Time Warner and, as such, he has tremendous influence over American Culture, from Time magazine to The Sopranos. Why can’t I find a biography of him?

For nearly every nonfiction interest I have, there is likely a biography, autobiography, or memoir subcategory to be filled. Just make sure you have the credentials, yourself, to be filling it.


Writers' Conferences: Are they worth it?

I’ve been doing a lot of pondering recently on whether or not writers’ conferences are worth my time...and authors’ time. This pondering was brought on by the terrible experience I recently had in “volunteering” myself as a speaker at the SDSU Writer’s Conference next year. After chasing the woman who runs it, Diane Dunaway, with phone calls and emails, I finally received an invitation to speak and a request for quite a bit more information. Now, I spoke at this conference about a decade or so ago and know that it pulls a decent number of editors from New York. Many of these are friends and acquaintances, so obviously it would be nice to be there and spend time with them.

More importantly, though, San Diego is not a publishing Mecca in any sense of the word. And I’d like to change that. By speaking at the conference, I thought I would help to grow the San Diego publishing community. I thought for sure that I would become a regular attendee at the conference, speaking year after year. I have even thought that San Diego would be an excellent location for a new “publishing course,” such as Columbia and NYU offer. Why should students have to fly all the way east to learn about publishing? And San Diego is a wonderful destination for those New York editors sick of the humidity every summer. A trip out here with a bit of vacation thrown in would be a treat.

Alas, after jumping through many a hoop for Ms. Dunaway, after agreeing that I didn’t even need a hotel room (though, really, who wants to drive forty minutes back and forth each day for a conference, when a room is such an inexpensive courtesy), and after writing up a biography and interest list for her use, I received an email “uninviting” me, with the excuse that with so many attendees from “prior years” coming, she did not have room for anyone “new” (even though I’m not “new”). Needless to say, I found this quite rude and not business-like and, as I said, got me pondering about the benefits of writers’ conferences.

And, truthfully, other than for the social aspects, I think most writers’ conferences are a waste of time. I’d say about ninety-nine percent of the time. And the biggest waste of time at any conference is the “one-on-one” meetings with agents and editors for which many conferences actually charge extra. Please, save your money and your time and do not sign up for one of these.

Your talent is in writing. So what does sitting down with an editor or agent and verbally pitching them accomplish? Nine out of ten agents or editors will say, “Send me three sample chapters” or “Send me your proposal.” One editor once told me that she asks them to write the name of the conference on the envelope. The impression, of course, is that she wants to prioritize those submissions. In reality, she explained, it lets her set them aside in a big pile to reject in four or six weeks. In short, the positive feedback you receive during a one-on-one is more likely to be a courtesy than genuine. Unless the agent or editor has read something you’ve written, a request for material based on a verbal pitch has no more chance of being favorably received than if you simply spent forty-one cents and sent in a query letter, instead of the $50 or $100 or $150 extra spent to get the one-on-one meeting.

Once I asked Michael Seidman, long a publishing fixture and well-known mystery editor, how many writers he had found at writers’ conferences. He said, “In twenty-one years of going to conferences, three.

On the flip side, I did hear about one agent who went to the Denver writers’ conference and left having signed up four of the five members of the local romance writing group. Keep that in mind...the writing group part.

In all my years at conferences, I have yet to find a client. I enjoy attending them because I always try to take the opportunity to educate authors. For example, I have been the luncheon speaker at a mystery conference and discussed the state of the market. At this luncheon, I asked everyone in the room who had bought a mystery novel in the last month to raise their hand. In an audience of about 150 writers, about five hands went up. If mystery writers don’t buy and read mysteries, should writers be surprised that it is difficult to get one published?

At another conference, I made myself a pledge: I would not ask for material unless I truly thought it promising. Author after author came to my table and pitched their novel or nonfiction project. Each had either a sample query letter or a few sample pages that I read. And to each one, I told exactly why I would reject it and did not ask for material. Most, but not all, left the table quite disappointed, even hostile. Others appreciated the feedback. Later I learned from the conference director that I had earned a bit of a reputation as a hard-ass, but she said, “It’s good that someone here is being honest with them and not asking for a sample chapter of everything.” She invited me back the next year.

What’s worthwhile at a conference? Well, for starters, some do offer actual classes or seminars and those can be worthwhile. But do you need a one-hour class on writing a query letter? There’s about as good an article on it as you can find at my website, and that appeared as a chapter in an entire book about writing query letters. Get the article for free and the book at the library. There, I just saved you at least $350.

The best seminar I attended at a conference required everyone to bring twenty copies of the first eight pages of their novel. We all read those eight pages and everyone in the room commented on what worked or didn’t work. Granted, this is a long way from the MFA in Creative Writing classes at Columbia, but it did offer feedback from one pro and eighteen writing “peers.” But why invest in a two-hour seminar at a conference when you can find a local writing group to join and get similar feedback? Many are created by writing instructors at local colleges. Not quite an editor from Knopf, but certainly a group that lets you read and refine your work over several weeks or all year is preferable to a short seminar. And, as I mentioned above, sometimes being in one helps you get an agent.

I have also spoken extensively at conferences on what goes into a publishing contract. There are authors who get contracts without agents and an educated author has a better chance of improving that contract. Plus an educated client will be a better one with whom I can work.

Alas, though, I will not be speaking at the SDSU Writers' Conference. I did offer Becky Ryan, the Director of Continuing Education at SDSU, the opportunity to hire me to run the conference next year, if she wants someone wired into the real publishing world who knows how to run a conference in a business-like manner. I won’t hold my breathe waiting for the call, but if I do hear from her, I’ll be sure to let you know.


Monday, September 10, 2007


Effective Monday, September 9, 2007, The Zack Company, Inc. is once again open to new query letters. If you have been a regular reader of this blog and you have a project in one of the areas of representation I have been describing in my recent entries or as posted on our What We Want page on the TZC website, please visit the How to Query Us page on the site and fire away.

Please do not send us material not included in the What We Want page. That said, we will be continuing to expand the list of what we want, both here and on the site, so be sure to keep reading. We may start asking for what you have before you know it.

Thank you.