Posted On January 25, 2010 by Print This Post

Essential Elements for a Career Novelist

Please help me welcome literary agent Paige Wheeler to Romance University. Today, Paige shares with us her top eleven tips on how authors can become career novelists. This is a lecture you’ll want to copy and paste to your permanent file. So, writers, get your mice ready.

The class is yours, Paige!

Learn the Craft

Know what you write and recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Too often writers flounder because they haven’t taken the time to work on their dialogue, narrative, and plotting. You need to understand the rules of writing before you can break them. You also need to understand what makes a book “great” and acknowledge the areas where you may need additional work.

Understand your Specialization

It is essential that you know what you are writing (cozy mystery vs. thriller; commercial fiction vs. literary fiction) as well as what is and isn’t acceptable within your area or genre. You need to know when you’re pushing the envelope too far and when you need to pump it up a notch. Examples include knowing the limits of the YA market; knowing in your cozy mysteries when you should find a dead body, knowing how soon your hero and heroine should meet in romances, etc.

Know your market!

It’s vital that you do your research. A smart writer will read in the area of her specialization and learn which publishing houses publish the type of material she writes—and do it well. You should also know your competition–who is hugely successful? Why? Who is flopping and why?

Find a partner for this process

A good agent can help you grow your career. I may be biased in stating this, but I really feel that an agent is a very helpful tool in your career. In the same way that actors have agents and/or managers, writers need the perspective and guidance that agents can give them. For me, it’s more than just selling a book—it’s about developing a career, making strategic decisions, giving welcome (and unwelcome) feedback on projects, and fighting for an author.

Develop a head for business

Although a good agent can help with negotiations, you need to understand the nuts and bolts of contracts and various rights to make a smart deal.  Developing a head for business means understanding the contract you are signing, thinking long term career strategy, and understanding the concept of branding, the opportunities for licensing, the impact of price point, etc. Ultimately the career novelist should be thinking long term and not just about the current deal.

Understand the PROCESS of publishing and all that it entails

If you know the essentials of the publishing process, you’ll be better informed and prepared—both for the pitfalls that may occur and the time you need to shine. Although this may be changing a bit with electronic publishing, right now most books take 9 months to a year to get published—or longer. There are a whole host of activities taking place behind the scenes, from copyediting to launch meetings. You need to be aware of the process so you can dodge potential issues and take advantage of an opportunity that may arise.

Realize YOUR role in making YOU a success

This is a business and success isn’t all in the writing, it’s in getting your name out there. You have to go out and PROMOTE yourself. And it’s not just one book you are selling, you are building a brand—YOU.

Prepare yourself for mid-career doldrums

Sometimes, despite all good intentions, you’ll experience a downturn. Perhaps you’ve been given a new editor who doesn’t appreciate your writing or your book is suddenly part of a crowded market or your publisher just went out of business. A downtick is to be expected. Evaluate the reasons for this and prepare to correct the problem, if possible.

Be prepared to change

Sometimes if you’re really stuck, you may need to make major changes. Perhaps you need to write in a different genre, write under a pseudonym, re-think your style of writing. You may have to switch agents/editors or they may decide to part ways with you. Recognize the signs that a change is afoot.

Learn how to handle the sweet smell of success

Like most things in life, victory can be cyclical. Realize that you could just be the flavor of the month and that may change, so don’t burn bridges. Play nice. Karma could come back and haunt you.

Final Thought

Don’t think about your first book. Think about your seventh or seventeenth book. How do you want to be known? As a writer for literary fiction? Crime novels? Romantic suspense? YA? Both? How do you plan to grow your audience and write the sort of books that captivate you? Have a game plan in place far above, “I just want to get published.” And keep writing!

* * *

RU Readers, do you have any questions for Paige? She’ll try to stop by a few times today. How many of Paige’s tips have you already employed?

Please stop by on Wednesday when Trace from our Man Panel discusses the murky waters of men and marriage.

Paige’s bio:

Paige Wheeler is a founding partner of Folio Literary Management, LLC. Over the course of her career, Ms. Wheeler has worked as an agent in both a literary and entertainment capacity.  Prior to FOLIO, Ms. Wheeler founded the literary agency,  Creative Media Agency, which she ran for nine years. At New York-based Artists Agency, she repped writers, producers and celebrities for television. She also worked as an editor, for both Harlequin/Silhouette in NY and Euromoney Publications in London.  Currently she represents commercial fiction, and upscale fiction (book club type books) which includes women’s fiction, romance, mysteries, thrillers, psychological suspense; as well as narrative nonfiction and prescriptive nonfiction  including self-help, how-to, business, pop-culture, popular reference projects and women’s issues.

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27 Responses to “Essential Elements for a Career Novelist”

  1. Paige -

    Welcome to Romance University! We’re delighted to have you.

    What suggestions would you give to a pre-published writer on how to balance the actual writing with career management?

    Many thanks!

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | January 25, 2010, 5:35 am
    • Good question, Kelsey. I think in the beginning, you really have to focus on fine tuning your writing–this means learning the craft, knowing when to break the rules, etc. If you don’t have a book published, then at this point, you’re career is a nonstarter. You want your writing to attract the attention of an agent and/or editor and the best way to do that is to simply write well. All of the promotion in the world, won’t help you if you don’t have anything to sell. It would be a better investment in time and money to take a writing class or spend time with a critique group, or READ LOTS OF BOOKS in the area that you write–and by read, I mean read critically, not for pleasure. So, the short answer to your question is to focus more on the writing than the career management at this point!

      Posted by Paige | January 25, 2010, 8:52 am
  2. Hi Paige,

    Thank you for joining us at RU.

    Can you tell us little bit more about how starting a “new” career under a different pseudonym is better for an author than “fixing” her current career?


    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | January 25, 2010, 6:38 am
    • Sure, and this is another good question. For many authors, they have spent many years and many dollars promoting their name or their current pseudonym and the thought of starting over (or adding an additional persona) is just daunting and depressing. Ideally, an author should be expected to have highs and lows and should be allowed to bounce back from a midcareer doldrum. That stated, there comes a point when an editor may like the material and express interest but once they do the research and discover an author’s unfortunate track record (perhaps through no fault of the author!), the editor very likely may pass on the material. When this is the case (and an agent/author discovers this the hard way), it is time to reinvent yourself. Publishers are more interesting in building an author who doesn’t have a negative track record to booksellers than in author who is attempting to stage a comeback. Print run is determined by a number of things, primarily preorders. The bookseller will look at the most recent sales figures for the last book published of a particular author and base their order on that number. That could be devastating for an author that has had a huge dip in sales. A fresh start with a new name can breath new life and enthusiasm into an author’s career. Hope this helps!

      Posted by Paige | January 25, 2010, 8:59 am
  3. Hi Paige. Thank you for being with us today.

    It took a little while, but I have embraced the tip about being prepared for change. I typically write romantic suspense. After having several agents tell me my work was good, but the RS market is too tight, I decided to try women’s fiction. I’m finding it to be a wonderful challenge. Sometimes change is good!

    Great post.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | January 25, 2010, 8:15 am
    • That’s EXACTLY what I meant. Sometimes the market is fickle and what you love to read and write is hard to come by. As an author who, perhaps, needs to pay her mortgage with her writing, you need to be nimble enough to adapt to the whims of the market. Thanks for the comment!

      Posted by Paige | January 25, 2010, 9:01 am
  4. How important is it for a pre-pubbed author to establish a “platform” prior to the sale? What would you recommend?

    Posted by Mia Marlow | January 25, 2010, 9:09 am
    • This is super important in nonfiction. Your platform and your level of expertise is what sells you. In fiction, it’s a different story. Does it help,yes it does. Is it critical, no. Ultimately, it’s about a terrific story and fabulous writing…once you get the project sold, THEN you can worry about building a platform. If you still want to focus on that at this point, then I would suggest creating a following thru social media, blogging, etc. What’s also helpful is coming to an agent with good blurbs already in hand (you know, those quotes by topselling authors that are on the front cover of books). Another thing that could help is if you’re an expert in the area that you’re writing (fiction). For example, let’s say you’re writing a top chef mystery series…it helps if you’re a chef yourself. If you’re a criminal profiler, DA, master gardner, etc. and you are writing about that world, it lends more credence to your writing. Is it necessary, no. Hope this helps!

      Posted by Paige | January 25, 2010, 10:03 am
  5. Hi Paige,
    thanks for the helpful hints.

    How important do you think it is for an unpublished writer to establish a website and any other web presence (Twitter, Facebook etc.)? Do agents google a writer whose ms they read and liked to see what’s out there about that person?


    Posted by Tina Spear | January 25, 2010, 9:52 am
    • Hi, thanks for this question–it’s frequently asked! Is it vital to have a website, no. Is it useful, yes. If a writer has a link on the bottom of her email signature and I’m thinking about signing her, yes, I’ll follow the link. I like to see that she’s forward thinking in terms of promoting herself. I also like to see how she handles herself in a public forum. Again, writing is still key, but if I can tell an editor that this author has a promotional tool of 3,000 followers on twitter, that’s helpful. Does it really contribute to sales, I don’t know, but it can only help.

      Posted by Paige | January 25, 2010, 10:07 am
  6. As an agent, what are your thoughts when you see a query in which the writer has some e-published books, but no traditional publishing credits? Is this fact irrelevant, or useful if the circumstances are right? Thanks for being here today.

    Posted by Carly Carson | January 25, 2010, 10:23 am
    • Hi and thanks for your question. In years past, I’ve pretty much ignored the e-pub credits, to be honest with you. I haven’t been able to use that credit with traditional publishing editors in a meaningful way. That stated, this may start to change as the publishing model changes. If you’re reading the news, there’s an article out today about ebook bestsellers that amazing is selling for $0. So they may be downloaded frequently, but the author isn’t earning any money on them. Clearly, people are trying to figure out how to make epublishing work. Once that happens, then your epub credits may be more significant. I think the more important aspect of this is: can I resell the epubbed book into the traditional market? Does this writer have legs? (to succeed, of course!) Has this writer developed a following with her epubs. Ultimately, if your ebooks have a good sales record and have enabled you to promote yourself and build a following, it’s relevant. If not, well, then at least you’ve gained some experience. Hope this helps!

      Posted by Paige | January 25, 2010, 11:31 am
  7. Hi Paige!

    What if you’re just starting out, and not sure what your final genre is going to be? I’d prefer to write rom com, but have an idea for a YA, and currently working on a category romance as well…should I have different pseudonyms for each area I try out? Or just pick one and stick with it?

    thanks for your great post!


    Posted by carrie | January 25, 2010, 10:49 am
    • Hi Carrie-

      You don’t need to have different pseudonyms for the different genres you are writing, especially when you’re just starting out. Often, at this stage, you’re just trying to find your voice. Many authors are widely read and have a whole host of ideas in different genres. I think it’s important that you play with those ideas and different genres. Over time, though, you may come to realize that your strengths are more suited to one than another–or you have more passion (or more luck!) with one than another. Many of my authors are fairly versatile, so they can write in multiple genres. This is a terrific asset if you have have to adapt to a changing marketplace. Hope this is helpful!

      Posted by Paige | January 25, 2010, 11:36 am
  8. Great list. Thanks for the advice.

    I especially like the one about knowing yourself, recognizing your weak spots.

    Posted by Lesli Muir Lytle | January 25, 2010, 10:55 am
  9. Hi Paige,

    Thanks for the informative post. My question is regarding your advice to find a good partner for the publishing process–an agent! Besides doing due diligence and learning that an agent is above board and represents the genre in which you write, what questions do you recommend a writer ask an agent who offers representation? And what are some red flags that both the writer and the agent should look out for?

    Tracy :smile:

    Posted by Tracy Mastaler | January 25, 2010, 2:05 pm
    • I get this question often–and actually blogged about it. I’m going to paste part of my answers here from the last time I responded to this. I hope it helps!

      1. Make sure both of you agree how you like to communicate. If it’s by email, confirm that you have the correct email address (many people have multiple addresses). If you change your email address, make sure this is communicated as well. Also, keep your agent updated on all of your points of contact. That means your phone number, email address and mailing address. This is even true once you part ways. Your agent must continue to send you royalty statements, 1099s, and other important information for the life of the book contract.
      2. You may want to casually inquire how frequently you should expect to be in contact. You can expect to be in fairly close contact when your agent is giving feed back on revisions, shopping your material around and negotiating the deal. Once she has sold your book and the contract has been signed, she may leave you alone to actually write the darn thing.
      3. Both the author and the agent should be attuned to how the other likes to communicate, whether it is informal and chatty or strictly down to business. This will probably vary depending on demands on both parties, but pay attention to cues in how communication is exchanged and respond accordingly.
      4. How long is too long to wait for hear back from your agent? Or better yet, when should you start to panic? This will vary from agent to agent. But before you panic, realize that emails go astray, computers crash, people get sick, messages get erased, and calls made from a cell phone may be too distorted to comprehend. If you haven’t heard back try again and then a third time. After the third time, then you may want to get concerned about the lack of response.
      5. If you’re going on vacation, let people know. This is true for both sides. For authors, leave contact information so that your agent can reach you. Agents who are leaving on an extended trip usually inform their clients and indicate a person to contact in case of an emergency.
      6. Show appreciation for each other. Remember each other at the holidays and, if possible, birthdays (although I’m horrible at remembering birthdays).
      7. Realize that you’re not going to agree on everything all the time. Your agent probably won’t love everything you write. If she’s good, she’ll let you know that it’s not your best work. That’s her job.
      8. Make sure you both understand your goals. Do you want to write a book a year? Make a bestseller list? Reach a certain print run? Move to another publishing house?
      9. If things aren’t going well, don’t dwell on it by discussing it only with your writing buddies but not your agent. If there is a problem it should be addressed directly. This is true for both sides. If the agent has issues, she should bring them up as well.
      10. Realize that this is a small industry and gossip travels quickly. Above all, practice courtesy and be professional. Treat your agent the way you’d like to be treated and she should do the same.

      Bottom line: keep the lines of communication open, don’t hesitate to bring up any concerns, and make sure you both have a clear understanding of your goals and responsibilities.

      Posted by Paige | January 25, 2010, 2:33 pm
  10. Good morning, Paige: And thanks Romance University for asking Paige to be here. Great advice about branding and honing craft. Regarding branding, what do you think is best, an author coming to you with a standalone, in which you say these are great characters, let’s expand, or should the author have a series or trilogy in mind when you’re considering representation?

    We are also looking forward to your judging the final round of 2010 Daphne and the Paranormal contest. Tremendous excitement on the part of the entrants. Thank you!

    Posted by Donnell | January 25, 2010, 2:30 pm
    • Awwww, thanks! As far as “what’s best” a standalone or series, I think that the most important thing is a first book that totally captivates me. So an author may come to me with a standalone that later we will think of expanding. I often ask authors if they have other ideas for book. It’s nice if you have an outline in mind of where you could go with book 2 and book 3, but beware. If you put all of your energies into a series and a) it doesn’t sell; or b) it doesn’t perform well, you may be faced with a trilogy or series with no takers. I like to see authors who have ideas for lots of books–that aren’t necessarily combined. So, bottom line, pitch the first book but mention you have ideas for a potential series…Hope this helps and looking forward to judging the Daphne again this year!

      Posted by Paige | January 25, 2010, 4:30 pm
  11. Paige,

    Wonderful post. I especially like your advice about loking ahead to your seventh or seventeenth book. As one of my critique partners says, “I want to write myself into eternity!” :lol:

    Posted by Chicki Brown | January 25, 2010, 3:46 pm
  12. Paige,

    Thank you for the great feedback today! We really enjoyed having you with us.


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | January 25, 2010, 8:23 pm
  13. Thanks Paige for sharing all the mind boggling information and showing us how to look down the road toward our seventh or seventeenth book. Interesting ideas and lots of helpful advice. Appreciate the time you took out of a busy schedule to talk to us today. I’ve also heard write what you read. I tend to read mainly suspense type things. I don’t find a lot of romantic comedy and other things in my stacks of books. I love paranormal and if you happen to toss in the mixture of paranormal and romantic suspense I’m hooked.

    Posted by Kathy Crouch | January 26, 2010, 12:44 am


  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by JulieBritt: RT @pwheeler_agent: I’m guest blogging today and discussing the Elements of a Career Novelist.Check it out:

    uberVU - social comments - January 25, 2010
  2. [...] 2013. For those of you who have been with RU for a while, you might recall the awesome post agent Paige Wheeler did for us back in [...]

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