Donald Maass: Firing up fiction

The astute agent, passionate teacher, and fiction fan shares wisdom on writing, querying, and selling sizzling novels.

Donald MaassProbably every querying novelist knows the name Donald Maass, just like most every basketball fan knows the name LeBron James. The Donald Maass Literary Agency (DMLA) has been representing authors since 1980 and now sells 200 titles a year.

Maass has taken author mentorship to the next level by publishing books on the craft of fiction and leading writing workshops around the country. He injects energy into the writing thought processes of his students, who praise his teaching skills. “When leading a workshop, Maass is a dynamic force and totally engaged in the moment. But he’s also friendly and humble, frequently sharing tidbits about his chef-wife and adopted children,” praises past workshop participant Anne Eliot Feldman. “His editing language is alive for me, hip and happening and engaged.”

Recently, The Writer picked his brain about the query process and etiquette, platform building, the craft of fiction, and trends in the publishing industry.

What advice can you give writers for the query process?

Querying feels like a mysterious process subject to wild swings of luck. It’s really not. At my agency, we read and respond to all queries. Why would we not? It’s the main way in which we find our clients.

The main mistake writers make is querying us with types of work we don’t handle. It’s easy to discover what we do handle. On our website, each of the nine agents at my company clearly states their interests. Querying procedures are also there.

Pitches sent through nontraditional channels like Twitter, Apple Messenger, and Facebook are ineffective. We’re not watching all those channels all the time. An exception would be online pitch slams, which are organized and scheduled events.

Postal queries – typed letters with SASE enclosed – are seriously old-school. Stick to email.

There are lots of mythical do’s and don’ts about querying that cause writers much anxiety. Relax. You don’t need gimmicks. Querying is straightforward. At DMLA, we ask that you paste the first five pages of your manuscript into the body of your query. But that’s us. Others may like to see things in a different order.

Advertisement

Another myth is that self-published authors are unwelcome. That’s just not true. We judge not on publishing history but on the writing itself. If a novel is well-written, original, and has commercial appeal, why wouldn’t we pay attention? Who cares if your last work was a limited-edition chapbook printed on purple vellum?

Good is good. If we spot a work that we think we can sell to the Big Five publishers, it does not get lost in the shuffle. If anything, we find ourselves competing with other agencies for that writer’s business.

Do agents at DMLA ever find clients through unorthodox means?

We discover our clients in all kinds of ways: referrals, short stories, and general buzz. It’s hard to recommend any of those as a strategy; they are things that just seem to happen.

Advertisement

The first imperative is just to write. After that? Get around. Get involved. Comment online. Go to conventions. Take workshops. Make friends. Find mentors. Be a beta reader. The more you get around, the more your presence will ripple out into the community.

How important is author platform?

My agency specializes in fiction, so I’ll address “platform” from that perspective.

The concept of “platform” – any pre-existing means of publicizing your work or making the public aware of you – has more utility for authors of nonfiction than fiction. Platform is a means to raise awareness, that’s all. It does not, by itself, sell books.

Nonfiction authors know that a platform, and books themselves, are only one component in building a brand. Platform is a way to spread a message. Book sales are a by-product, another means for the message.

Fiction writers imagine that an online platform – website, blog, Facebook, Twitter following, Instagram – is essential to “get the word out.” In fact, social media is one of the least-effective ways to generate book purchases. Social media works better than poster ads in bus stations, but it’s dwarfed by other methods of platform building, of which the most important is branded sales, meaning already-popular authors selling new titles to existing fans. That’s two-thirds of fiction sales.

The next-most-effective means of building a platform is a tie between front-of-store display and word-of-mouth. Front-table placement at bookstore chains is paid for by publishers. Word-of-mouth is something you cannot buy – so what generates it? Here’s the good news: What stirs word of mouth is great fiction. Period. The saying goes that the best publicity is your last novel, and that’s absolutely true. A novelist’s “platform” is fiction.

Not that websites, blogs, and the rest are useless. They’re not. But their function is to keep an author in touch with fans and foster in them a sense of connection. Knock yourself out, but likely you’re tweeting to people who’ve already discovered you.

Do you have any advice for genre writers?

“Genre writers” – and my agency handles a great deal of novels categorized as “genre” – is an idea that needs a new understanding. The book world has changed, and genres with it.

I mentioned earlier that publishing has become an increasingly hardcover business. One result is that readers expect a more novelistic reading experience. What we see selling today are not so much excellent genre stories as richly written novels that borrow genre elements.

There are many reasons for that. Not only is a $25 book (or a $9.99 Ebook) a different value for readers, bearing different expectations, but writers themselves today do not necessarily write in neat genre boxes or have limited influences. Cross-genre fiction, mash-ups, and literary-feeling science fiction, say, are not just what people want to read but what writers want to write.

In short, readers today expect more.

Subscribe today to The Writer magazine for tips, industry news, reviews, and much more.

Authors, meanwhile, are not storytelling within genre limits or writing in strictly plot-driven ways. Commercial and literary are merging. That’s the reason I wrote my craft book Writing 21st Century Fiction. It’s about melding great storytelling and beautiful writing, what those things mean, and how to accomplish them.

All that said, are there still genre rules? Things you must do to please readers? Yes, though rules can be broken, and reversals of familiar tropes are possible. Honoring genre fundamentals is good, yet originality is important, too. Our best-selling clients invented sub-genres, writing stuff that was not quite like anyone else: When we think of urban fantasy, Jim Butcher was first and remains foremost. Historical mysteries? Anne Perry.

Put bluntly, a middling whodunit is fine. Another Tolkien-esque epic fantasy is not illegal. But familiar stories – especially written in safe ways – will struggle for an audience.

What are the current trends in the publishing industry?

There’s this idea that traditional print publishing is dying. Hardly. Print book publishing is a healthy economic sector, roughly $30 billion. In 2018, some 695 million books were sold in the U.S.

The young adult sector has been booming for years, too. Sales may swing up or down each year by a few percentage points, but that’s because of blockbusters like The Da Vinci Code or Gone Girl. EBooks have been a net positive for the industry as well.

Speaking of eBooks, they have leveled off as a percentage of title sales at a little less than 20%. Indie authors howl – some have literally shouted at me – and complain that Kindle titles are not counted properly, but I am referring to eBook editions of print titles.

EBook indie sales have worked well for some authors, mostly in romance, though in a few other categories as well, especially with series written and published rapidly. It’s a viable business model but a tough one. Some report burnout, and authors of a single title who just want a book out there easily get lost in the ocean of the Kindle bookstore. With 4,000 new titles going on sale every day, visibility is an issue.

One recent development has been a surge in digital audio sales. Mobile devices have made audio an ever-more-popular way to consume books. Audio originals [books introduced in audio format before print] have emerged. There are always pluses and minuses to consider, but the means of book delivery is expanding worldwide.

We are doing more and more business in Hollywood, too. There’s a demand for books as the basis for movies and TV. Two decades ago, it was impossible to sell science fiction and fantasy, but today it’s a whole different story. Streaming TV is the best thing ever (after the printing press). We have a golden age underway in that medium.

One negative development has been the decline of mass-market paperback sales, which over time priced themselves out of the value category. As the industry has become a hardcover business, that has had implications for fiction authors. In particular, some genre fiction that once sold as mass-market originals doesn’t work at a $25 hardcover price point. This has changed how fiction itself is written, with genre fiction becoming more notably novelistic and, conversely, literary fiction skewing increasingly commercial with high-concept premises and even genre plot elements.


Fast facts about Donald Maass

What and how do you read for pleasure?

This will sound like a busman’s holiday, but for pleasure I read novels. Widely. All types. Whatever catches my interest. There’s a new diversity in what’s being published, and that’s exciting. We’re seeing a bit more fiction in translation, too. We’re in a golden age of novels. It’s hard to keep up!

I prefer reading in print but do read on my phone while flying. I spend a lot less time online than you might think. There are deals, contracts, marketing, reading, and more to do. I run a busy literary agency which sells, nowadays, upward of 200 titles per year around the world.

One thing I do not miss are the canvas bags I used to haul home on the subway, weighed down with manuscripts to read over the weekend. Hooray for digital files.

What are your favorite writerly apps?

Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com are always open in my browser tabs. My agency is mobile – we recently opened an office in the Northwest, in Bellingham, Washington – so we stay connected with Slack, besides our other cloud-based resources.

What are some interesting facts about you that the writing community may not already know?

I’m approachable, but I am a coffee snob. (Hey, I now live in the Northwest.) I have two children adopted in Africa, collect ceramics, and was an Eagle Scout. (Three-fingered salute.) I was a competitive sailor as a kid but nowadays mostly survey the ocean from my office window.

 

K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues, loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets, but HATES the word normal. Visit her at KLRomo.com or @klromo.

Advertisement