As freelance writers, most of us have dreamed of seeing our picture on a book jacket. But the process of finding a publisher and securing a literary agent may seem intimidating. How do you pitch your book idea to an agent? What is involved in the submission process? What’s the difference between traditional and digital publishing? It’s time to take the ‘aspiring’ out of ‘aspiring author’ with today’s guest, who answers your questions about the publishing world.
Megan Close Zavala is a literary agent at Keller Media and the creator of Turn the Page Book Coaching and Editorial. She began her career in the film industry, working in the business and legal affairs department for companies like E! Entertainment, Comcast Media Group, and NBCUniversal. After a layoff and a year in India, Megan went on a mission to land a job in publishing that would allow her to read for a living, and she became an editorial assistant at Keller Media.
Megan was quickly promoted to literary agent, and she has been working with authors in that capacity since January of 2015. Since then, she has worked with New York Times best-selling authors and spoken at writers’ conferences across the country. Megan came to realize that many writers needed additional assistance beyond what she could offer as an agent, and Turn the Page was born to provide editorial and book coaching services to authors at various stages in the writing process. Today she takes the mystery out of publishing, explaining the role of a literary agent, how to submit a proposal or manuscript, and how to establish a working relationship with a trustworthy agent. Listen in to get Megan’s best advice for aspiring authors!
The pros and cons of traditional vs. self-publishing
- Traditional route provides support to help sell/improve book
- Self-publishing allows you to maintain total control
- Be an informed consumer when choosing self-publisher (companies make promises re: book promotion that they don’t keep)
- Responsibility for marketing falls on you when you opt for self-publishing
How to establish a relationship with a literary agent
- Approach agents who work with your genre
- Follow submission guidelines on publisher website
- Understand where your book falls in marketplace and what makes it unique
The role of a literary agent
- Works with author to get proposal/manuscript in order
- Research and choose editors to pitch
- Submit materials to interested editors
- Negotiate best deal possible
- Assist with marketing
How to choose the right publisher
- Review titles on publisher website for similar genres, experience
- Examine similar books for agent credit
- Employ literary agent directories (writing reference section of local bookstore)
- Make use of websites like PublishersMarketplace
Megan’s tips for choosing an agent
- Agents work on commission; don’t agree to pay a ‘reading fee’
- Select someone you feel comfortable with
- Advocate for yourself rather than accepting the first offer
Megan’s book coaching service
- ‘Personal trainer’ for writers
- Works with authors at various stages in the process
- Work together to identify problem areas, strategies to fix
- Copyediting and proofreading services available
Common challenges of aspiring authors
- Not willing to spend money to invest in process
- Attached to work, difficulty letting go of character/subplot
The benefits of working with a book coach
- Help see book in a new way
- Act as accountability partner
Megan’s best advice for would-be authors
- Dedicate a specific time each day to get something on paper (even if it’s five minutes)
- Establish self-imposed deadlines and keep your commitment
Connect with Megan Close Zavala
Megan Close Zavala is a literary agent and book coach. She has been a bibliophile all her life, and is thrilled to have been able to find a career that lets her read for a living, while also helping authors take their writing from good to great! For book coaching, editorial services and writing advice, please visit www.turnthepagebookcoaching.com.
Laura Pennington (Host): Hello everybody! Welcome back to the Better Biz Academy Podcast. My guest today is Megan Close Zavala. She is a literary agent and book coach. She has been a bibliophile all her life and is thrilled to have been able to find a career that lets her read for a living while also helping authors take their writing from good to great. For book coaching, editorial services and writing advice, please visit her website at turnthepagebookcoaching.com. Welcome, Megan.
Megan Close Zavala (Guest): Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.
Laura: I’m really excited to talk to you because I’ve talked to all kinds of people on the writing side, people who want to create a book, don’t know what to do with it or people who’ve been freelance writing for years who kind of want to make that job. But I’ve never had the opportunity to talk to someone on the other side of things. So how did you get involved? I mean, this sounds like my dream career here – reading for a living. So, how did you get involved with this?
Megan: Well I have a little bit of a strange route getting here. I moved out to Los Angeles and started working in the entertainment industry in the business legal affairs department which had not really been part of my game plan but it was a great experience and it was the film industry so how can you beat that. But I pretty quickly realized that this was not really the career path for me but I kind of didn’t know what to do next and so I stuck with it for a while and then was – though it didn’t seem so at the time but I was very luckily laid off from my last job in that area. And around that time my husband got hired to work on a movie in India, so we went overseas, lived there for a year and then when I came back I though, you know what, I really have to stop second-guessing myself and just really go and figure out what I want to do. And I thought “how have I never gotten involved in the publishing industry before?” So, I went on a big fact finding mission and tried to learn all I could about what I needed to do and what my opportunities were and I applied for a job as an editorial assistant at Color Media and then within really a few months I got promoted to literary agent and since then I have been working with authors in that respect. And then I started doing book coaching and editorial work on the side. I had been doing that freelance for several years but I started doing that more on the side because what I realized was, and I’m sure you can get in to how the publishing industry works and everything – but agents work on straight commission. So, we make 15% commission on anything we sell for you, but if your book doesn’t sell, we don’t make anything. So, there is only so much time and effort we can invest in clients in that respect because otherwise we are essentially working for free. But when I spoke at a writer’s conferences across the country, I really wanted to be able to help writers more directly, I want to be able to really log some time in with them, so that they can get to the place where they are ready to be pitched to agents or editors and just help them as this is my bio, take the writing from good to great. So, that’s basically what I have been doing and I love it and it’s pretty great because sure there is some bad writing out there, but you still can beat getting to read for a living and help writers make their dreams come true.
Laura: Yeah, I totally agree with that. My whole foray into just freelance writing was just completely accidental and came from helping other people. I started my master’s program at Virginia Tech in Political Science. The very first day of classes, they came to me and said, “hey we need a teaching assistant, can you help teach world political affairs or global affairs or something like that” and so much of it wasn’t just teaching the recitations or grading papers, it was really helping students with their writing. And like you said, even with bad writing that you do come across from time to time, it’s still so fun to watch somebody grow in that process, I imagine that’s a part of the work that you do when you are helping to coach people. I am really curious about your opinion on the publishing world. I have heard people on both sides. I have heard people who have been – I have a romance author friend who is uber successful, self-publishing, but I was telling you before we started recording, I have a friend who just published a middle grades novel, worked really hard to get an agent and has kind of been – I am working on one as well and she’s been kind of advising me about the process of editors and finding an agent and all that – and she was just adamant like go the traditional publishing route. So much has changed with the realm of digital publishing; where do your kind of fall and how do you recommend what makes the most sense for someone who is considering doing a book?
Megan: Yes, I mean that is a question we talk about all the time and people always ask us about – because the industry has changed so much with digital publishing, self-publishing and I think a lot of authors think, well I don’t need to play the game. I am just going to self-publish, screw the traditional publishers and I am going to make it on my own. So, I think what authors really need to do is do the research. So, I always suggest that there is nothing to lose by trying the traditional publishing realm. Best case scenario, you get signed to a traditional publisher, whether it’s Random House or whether it’s more of a boutique publisher, so you have the cloud and panache attached to your book, which helps sell it. You also have a publishing company there to help you market it and then theoretically, if the book sells well, then they’ll want to do another book with you and it can be a long-term relationship. So, basically if you can get an agent and the agent can pitch you to the editors and even if you don’t end up getting a publishing deal, it’s still a learning process for you because you can figure out perhaps what isn’t working with your book or why don’t the editors and agents are interested. Sometimes it’s just, you might be writing a memoir about your relationship with your mother, but there are already a zillion books out there like that and so, it might just mean that there is nothing wrong with your book per say as far as quality, but just that it’s just not unique enough in the publisher’s eyes to put money behind it. So, plusses about traditional publishing; having someone else in your corner, helping sell your book and believing in your book and helping you better it and also learning from the experience, but I am also not going to say that self-publishing is the devil. I mean obviously literary agents don’t really benefit from self-publishing because we can’t make commissions on it, but from an author’s point of view, it can be a great path to take because depending on what you want to do with your book, it’s great when you can maintain complete control over it. The big issue I see people running into is that they haven’t done their research. So, a self-publishing company tells them, we are going to make you a star, your book’s going to become bestseller, and they just trust that the self-publishing company is going to make all of these things happen. But frequently they are kind of fudging what they are actually going to do for you. So, they say we are going to promote your book at Book Expo America, which is this big trade show every year. Well, they might put your book on a table with sixty other books and they are technically promoting your book, but they are also not really promoting your book. And I see a lot of writers get burned by this because they have invested thousands of dollars in this process and they are still left essentially on their own as far as marketing goes. And unfortunately, because there are so many books out there in the world today, marketing becomes a huge issue, whether you are a nonfiction writer or a fiction writer. You need to find ways to get your book out there and when you self-publish, almost all that responsibility falls on you. So, and then also with self-publishing, there are some types of books that are too niche to work in the traditional publishing field. So, for example, if you are just publishing a collection of your grandmother’s recipes then that’s fine, then self-publish because there is no reason to go through the whole rigmarole of pitching and query letters and everything. But yeah, so there is no shame in self-publishing, it’s just you really need to be an informed consumer about it. So, sorry if it was longwinded.
Laura: No, it was a longer answer, but you covered a lot of critical information in there that can help people determine the pros and cons of going the various routes and which one might be perfect for them. So, let’s talk a little more about the agent and the writer relationship, kind of from both perspectives. So, let’s start with agent first. I am sure you have seen it all. You have seen people who have done it properly. You have seen people who have done it the wrong way and so, what is it that as an agent either makes your life easier or is kind of the ideal way that someone will form a relationship with you where you would consider working with them.
Megan: Sure, the first thing I always say is do your research when you are approaching agents because a lots of times agents don’t represent certain types of books. For example, I have never represented children’s books, young adult, science fiction, fantasy or collections of short stories or poetry. And so, if you pitch me that project, I am automatically going to say no, just because I don’t represent that type of thing and I think a lot of authors waste their time pitching people who aren’t going to be interested no matter how good the writing actually is. And then every agency has submission guidelines on their website. So, it says very clearly how they want to receive the material from you. So, some people have a specific webpage you go to, to enter in your information. Some people say, send your query letter to this email address etc. etc. So, it’s very important to follow those rules too because again, it’s just another way – I mean we get thousands and thousands of pitches every year from authors and sometimes it comes down to just, “they didn’t submit the materials correctly so we are going to delete them”, which sounds cruel, but that’s how it is. But as far as actual projects that we’d like to see and actual things that authors can do past just following the rules is it’s really important that you understand where your book falls in the market place. I think it’s difficult for authors to think of themselves as sales people and their books as products because writing is such an emotional and personal thing. But you really need to be aware of where would your book sit in Barnes and Noble? On what shelf? What books surround it? How does your book stand out? What is your book offering that’s different than what is already out there? So, you really need to make that clear to us. And you need to make it clear to us, why you are the person to write this book? I mean, if it’s a nonfiction book, obviously, it’s a good idea if you are proven expert in the field that you are writing about, but even as a fiction author, in your query letter and in your book manuscript, we really want to see/hear/read your voice. We want to really feel what makes you unique. We usually tell writers, there are no new stories. There are new takes on stories. So, we have all read the same love stories over and over again, but what are you doing to make this something special to offer readers in the world. And so, that’s kind of the big thing I tell people. I mean if you can get deeper into nonfiction books, then we need to talk about platform and social media followers and things like that, but it’s really important to establish what makes you unique and why we should continue reading your query letter, your book proposal or your book manuscript as opposed to just moving on to the next submission in our inbox.
Laura: Okay, perfect. That’s a great answer that kind of covers the dos and don’ts of forming that initial relationship. Now, I am curious just because I don’t know, I have heard other people talk about, they get an agent and then the book is sort of shopped around. Can you explain more about what that means once you have actually decided to work with somebody and where it goes from there?
Megan: Yes, so once the contract is signed the agent, depending on how hands on they are, the agent works with the author and makes sure their book proposal, manuscript whatever is in good shape and occasionally there’ll be a round of edits or two. Anyway, once everything is good to go, the agent does their research and chooses a group of editors to pitch things to. So, I mean, one of the benefits of having the agent is that they have relationships with editors, so they automatically know when they are reading your proposal or whatever and they think, “oh, I am going to send that to Joe Smith and Harper Collins” because they already have those relationships, but we also do our research because they are new editors cropping up in the field all the time, that would be interested in books like the ones we are pitching. So, just like agents don’t represent every genre out there, it’s the same deal with editors. So, you can’t just blindly send it out to a hundred editors you – the agent really gets specific and chooses people that would be interested in your project. So, just like you send a pitch email to us as an author, we send a pitch email out the editors and say here is this great project, what do you think? Do you want to take a look? And then they’ll request the materials from us and then they will review them and hopefully they will be interested and the next step from their perspective is the editor who is interested in your book project will need to take it to what is called an ed-board meeting. So, it’s basically editorial board meeting and people from all the different departments within the publishing house come together and discuss potential projects to take on. And everyone will weigh in and then publicity people will say, “oh I think it will cost this much to publicize this book” or “I don’t think we could adequately handle that” or whatever. So, all the different departments will weigh in then the editor will be given either, will hopefully be given the okay to then make an offer. And then from that point on the agent negotiates on your behalf, getting you the best deal possible and then once that agreement is actually signed, much of the work from that point is between the author and the editor, getting the book ready for publication and the agent acts more as a liaison in case some issue comes up. Usually we are the ones to chase down the checks and things like that. And then when it comes time for your book to actually be published, usually the agent will come in and again say, “okay what can we do to help you publicize this book so that it sells even more.”
Laura: Wow, there is a whole process that’s happening there that is so important. I mean that’s really where your expertise comes in to play. So, as the writer, what should someone be looking for when they are seeking out an agent? I mean we have already talked about how it doesn’t make sense to kind of send these blanket pitches especially when the agency is not accepting books of that type or whatever it may be. But what should a writer be looking for and determining, “hey this is the right place to submit my information?”
Megan: Again, it comes down to doing your research so most of the agencies will have lists of titles they’ve sold on their websites and so you can get an idea of how much experience they have in the genre that your book falls into. So, for instance if you go to colormedia.com which is the agency I’m an agent for, you’ll see that we specialize in nonfiction. So, we’ve worked with lots of writers who have written science books and personal finance books and self-help books and so on. And so, by seeing our lists you can say, “okay so they actually know what they’re talking about.” Because it’s another example of being an informed consumer because you don’t have to go to school to become a literary agent. You could theoretically right now say, “oh I’m a literary agent” and you are. You just have to get clients to pitch to editors so it doesn’t require certification or anything like that. So yeah, the big thing is checking out the websites. The internet is a great resource now for doing your research. If there’s a book that you love that’s similar to yours, usually if you look in the acknowledgements section, the author credits the agent or you can always look them up online, there are a lot of resources like if you go to the writing reference section in Barnes and Noble, they have literary agent directories and then there’s also a website called publishersmarketplace.com which I believe you can access for free and it lets you search the top agents or agents in your genre. And then, just as a side comment, as I said before, agents work on straight commission so no agent should ever be charging you a fee for anything. I don’t know if people still do that anymore but back in the day there were plenty of agents that would charge you a reading fee for reviewing your materials and they’re not allowed to do that. So, always be vary of people like that. So basically, just do your research and then it comes down to you do need to make sure you get a good vibe from the agent because this is supposed to be, you know, this is a relationship and this is hopefully going to be a relationship that lasts the rest of your writing career, and if you don’t feel comfortable with your agent or don’t feel like you can work with them, you don’t need to accept that relationship just because they are the first person to make an offer or something like that. So, even though the agent is there to be your advocate with the editors, you still need to advocate for yourself as a writer.
Laura: A good tip to keep in mind. It’s a two-way relationship and of course, you want to impress the agent and have a good relationship with that person but this is your creative work too and you want it to be a two-way street where you at least feel comfortable. So, you’ve now taken all this amazing experience being a literary agent and you’ve started your own business with doing book coaching and editorial services. So, I’d love to hear more about that and how you’re helping people with that?
Megan: When I tell people about what I do, I kind of say, if you go to a health coach or a personal trainer, they basically help you make your body the healthiest and the strongest it can possibly be and that’s essentially what I do with authors and their writing. So, authors will come to me at various stages in their writing process whether they’re just brainstorming ideas, whether they have their final draft, whether they’re in the editing stage, and we work together to identify problem areas and then figure out ways to fix them. So, it’s really exciting for me because I love working with writers and as I said, I love making dreams come true and all that but it’s really exciting to work with people at the different stages in the process because when I’m working with them at the beginning, we can nip problems in the bud before they spend months of their life going down this wrong path with a character, plot or what have you. And then it’s really great to just come in and really help people polish their work and really make it shine. And then my company also offers copyediting and proofreading and developmental editing services but the majority of what I do is working one on one with writers to, like I said, help them identify problems, help them figure out how to solve those, and a lot of my job – because I’m not doing the writing, I help them see what they need to do – but a lot of my job is empowering authors to identify the problems but also solve them essentially with their own two hands. And that’s really satisfying too because as I said earlier, writing is like an emotional personal thing that people are very sensitive about it and it’s very easy for them to start feeling depressed or rejected and “oh, I’m never going to do this, I’m never going to get published, I’m not good enough”. So there definitely is some personal coaching self-help stuff that I do too which is gratifying as well.
Laura: And you know one of the best pieces of business advice that I ever got was to spend as much time as possible in your personal zone of genius and hire an expert to help you with the rest. So, that’s advice that I’ve applied for everything from Pinterest, which I really don’t understand and just outsource to somebody who does that all-day long. And it’s the same with somebody who would hire your services. An author, they may have an idea of marketing their book and things like that but probably their true zone of genius is sitting and writing the story or rewriting and editing the story based on specific feedback, not all of those other pieces. So, when you’re putting so much work into creating something, I imagine that it’s such a great experience for somebody who’s finished a book, is ready to go to the next phase and you can kind of step in and say, “okay, you’ve completed your part of this zone of genius, now let me take in where my expertise can really help you take this to the next level.” Have you noticed that there are sort of common phases or challenges that authors go through in the process?
Megan: Yes. First of all, I think that was excellent advice that you received and I think the first hurdle that people have to get over is not wanting to spend the money to invest in their career and invest in their book and it’s being able to see that yes, you’re the author, you’re the creative genius but you need someone helping you see how you can take that creative genius to the next level. So obviously, that happens. But I think that general issues that people have is you get very attached to your work. You spend hours, months, possibly the years of your life creating these characters, living with them, living in the world that you have created for your book, envisioning your book getting published; you spend so much time thinking about your book in a certain way that it can be very difficult for authors to think outside the box as far as, “actually this character doesn’t seem really necessary when it comes to the overall story here” or “this sub-plot really is slowing down the story’s momentum” or any myriad of problems that come up with books. And so, one of the challenges of my job is helping people kind of rip off the band aid when it comes to things like that and help them see the benefits in looking at things in a new way and kind of seeing the light when it comes to that. And I think that’s one of the benefits of having a coach and having someone giving you feedback is that it’s not all up to you to solve the problem. Someone can help you look at something in a different way. So, I think that’s a big problem and then I think it comes down to also, I talk to a lot of writers who, it’s not just writers, it’s people in all areas of life who have really great intentions and want to do this, want to be an author and they’ve done all this work but at the end of the day, they just can’t seem to make it happen and they know what they need to do but they just have that hard time making the commitment. So again, that’s where I come in and I’m kind of your accountability partner and, I don’t want to say I nag you but check in and say, “hey how are those pages coming along?” and things like that. So, those are kind of the main areas I see people struggle with, just conceptually speaking.
Laura: Yeah I love that you talk about that you’re not nagging people but I was just having a conversation on a similar topic with somebody earlier and they were like, why did you hire a personal trainer to teach you how to run and be able to do a 5k and a 10k? Couldn’t you just go outside and do that for free?
Megan: Right, right.
Laura: And it’s like because I won’t do it. I will never go outside and run if she’s not standing there, timing me and telling me what lap I’m on and that accountability piece is important. And I know this plays into my whole psychology as well because I know this with a lot of other freelance writers too. You spend some time doing all this writing for other people, I’ve ghostwritten books, I’ve done it. I know I can complete the project but there is something mental about making the shift from saying, “yes I can write for other people” and saying, “yes I can do this for myself and I’m going to treat it with the same level of priority as what I give to my other projects.” I’ve just found that has been so hard for me mentally. There’s like a confidence thing there of like, well, yeah but you know…you’re not really ready for that and talking yourself out of it. So, I imagine that that accountability part, that helping bust through some of the mental stuff is probably pretty powerful.
Megan: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And it is funny, even in my personal life, I’m a writer too and I’ve been working on a detective novel for probably my entire adult life. And so, I really need to hire someone like me to help me actually finish doing that. But yes, because it’s funny because I just never seem to find time to finish writing.
Laura: It’s so hard and that’s – I’m wondering if you have any specific advice for people who have spent any time in the writing industry, ghostwriting for others, maybe they have a blog etc. and it’s kind of niggling them in the back of their head, hey you should write a book on xyz, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction. How do you begin to incorporate that into your schedule? Because I think impostor syndrome is probably more common than you would think even with people who do have some kind of background in writing via teaching or doing writing for other people.
Megan: Sure, yeah, and it’s funny because if you talk to someone who has not been in the writing industry in some shape or form, they generally have no problem identifying themselves as a novelist and talking about this book they’re writing even if they lack any skills whatsoever when it comes to writing that book, whereas you find people that are actually, you know, whether it’s a freelance writer or someone who’s been doing technical writing or whatever, they definitely suffer from the impostor syndrome like crazy, I guess, because they are more aware of crafting things like that anyway. So, my big advice I give, because when you hear that voice in the back of your head or you keep visualizing the story or you have a message you want to share with the world, that sticks with you. You can shove it down as deep in the recesses of your mind as you can but it’s still going to popup so I just say, start out by just writing. Even if it’s 5 minutes a day, just getting your ideas out on paper, you don’t have to tell anybody about it, you can keep it a secret but just actually dedicate that time to writing. There are a lot of authors out there but there aren’t a lot of writers because people will always sit around talking about the book they’re going to write instead of actually doing it. So, I think it’s just forcing yourself to start getting those ideas down and I think once you start doing that, it boosts your confidence a little more and then you can take it to the next level and then you can start really getting into the need of your book and then you can start talking about it with people. But I think it’s really important to make that commitment. I mean, if you’re a freelance writer, you know deadlines, you know how to structure your time so this is just another thing that you have to fit in to your schedule and then once you start doing that, the doors will open and then you can do your research and “okay, I’m writing a dieting book and these are the dieting books that are out there so here’s what I need to do and here’s my battle plan.” But it really comes down to just making that promise to yourself and keeping that commitment, I think.
Laura: Excellent advice. So, let’s remind everybody where they can go to learn more about you and the services you offer.
Megan: Sure. My website is www.turnthepagebookcoaching.com and they can also find me on Twitter @TurnThePageBCE or @MeganCloseKMI. And then the agency I am an agent for is colormedia.com as well. So, any of those ways is a great way to connect with me or get in touch with me.
Laura: Alright, awesome. Well it was really my pleasure to be able to talk with you on this subject and I know you provided a lot of actionable advice and probably hopefully, inspired a few people who are thinking about getting on that book project or finding the right agent to take that next action step.
Megan: Oh, I hope so. As I said, the publishing industry is changed and there are a trillion books out there but there’s nothing better than a good book or good story and people are still looking to be inspired and entertained and I really hope all those people thinking about writing books actually sit down and do it.
Laura: Awesome advice.
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