Sunday, October 3, 2010

Goals in The Writer's Life: The Big Picture with Literary Agent, Claire Gerus

First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end. Aristotle

By now, if you've read a few posts, you know my major message in creating and living a successful writer's life is not only about getting out there and putting action behind intention but making sure you're clear about the rules of the road, the tools you'll need to succeed with your dream and the personal strength and fortitude it takes to make this trip successfully over and over again. This is not unique. Everyone who has spent a few years in the publishing industry will tell you the same - welcome to Publishing 101.

Now it's time to dig a little deeper. One of the first questions I ask my clients is, What kind of a writer do you want to be? Where do you see yourself 5, 10 years down the road? Who's reading your work? Are you a one hit wonder or do you have several titles (within the same genre, please) on your shelf? What are you doing to continually build and fortify your platform? Do you have a column? Have you won any awards?

As a coach, I do not expect my clients to come prepared with the answers to these job is to help uncover the ideal writer's life they want to achieve and set up a clear plan of action to help them reach their goals. What this plan of action looks like, specifically, is a bunch of clearly defined mini-goals with deadlines. It's when you've achieved your mini-goals, you'll have achieved your BIG goal...whatever that looks like to you.

Sadly, though, for many writers, it seems the only goal keeping them motivated is to land a great agent - truly, a worthy goal that may help lead to other successes, but the path doesn't end there.

I recently asked lit agent Claire Gerus, "In considering taking on new authors, how important is it they come to you prepared with clear goals and an action plan to meet them?"

CG: An interesting question, Erin! In fact, I have yet to find an author approach me in a query with an action plan and clear goals--at least initially. I can tell you what does factor in my decision to take on authors:

First, there's the writer's ability to create a work that truly moves me and says "This is special!" It's the sense every editor and agent has when an exceptional reading experience (fiction or nonfiction) looms up and insists on being recognized.

At the same time, a writer's first contact with me should be grammatically correct! This comes from my 10 years as a corporate communications consultant and my 30 years as an editor. As soon as I see misspellings or typos, it tells me the offering isn't topnotch and that editors will question whether the writer is ready for serious consideration. So any author should be sure to have that query letter, as well as the actual proposed work, professionally proofread, unless they're really confident they don't need it.
Apart from "feeling the magic," I also look for the potential that the writer's work will positively affect the lives of those who read it. By this, I mean that readers would feel satisfaction, enjoyment and even--if possible-- a sense of illumination after finishing the book!

And of course, there's chemistry. I'm very much aware of the author's personality when we email or chat, which can reveal how easy or difficult it might be to work together. A sense of mutual respect and an appreciation of each other's roles is key for any collaboration to work well.

TLC: Writers, resist the urge to get super friendly and cute after a few positive emails with a potential agent. Sure, show them your personality...nobody wants to work with a cardboard cut out of you, but keep it on the professional side.

CG: Ultimately, of course, any successful game plan for potential publication must include the author's awareness that he or she will have to get involved in the book's promotion. As we all know, it's rare that a publisher, even one of the biggies, will offer sustained PR efforts for an acquisition. So to protect the fate of the present book and ensure that future books won't be doomed by sluggish sales, the author must be willing to take on some financial support for his or her creative efforts. Without good promotion, even the best book can be doomed to the remainder tables.

TLC: This is HUGE, my dears, and everyone in publishing has been talking about this issue for a few years. Just know right now that YOU are going to have to sell your book. One of your goals should be, "Sell X books." Go ahead, get specific! Maybe your first print run won't even amount to that goal, but set it anyway. Most importantly, KNOW how you're going to reach it. Now, you're not going to have all the answers at first. But over time, they'll come to you via lots of research, connecting and inspired thought.

Having a publishing success action plan and knowing how many books you're going to sell isn't a pre-requisite to signing with an agent but showing an agent (or editor if you're sans agent) a feasible plan about how you aim to get your book in the hands of thousands of book buyers will certainly earn you some credibility and a few bonus points, moving you from the "NO" pile to the "Strongly Consider" pile. And then, be ready to carry out your plan!

Later this week, I'll break down more of the GOAL questions I ask my first time clients and show you how to create specific mini goals that will ultimately lead you to your big fabulous goal. For now, just digest this bit and start letting your mind explore where you want your writer's life to go. Have fun with it.

Your Action: Start thinking about your big fabulous writer's life goal. And by big and fabulous, I don't mean anything glamorous, necessarily...I mean whatever sounds ideal to you. Maybe your big fabulous writer's life goal is writing your novels or nonfiction books in the peaceful quiet of the countryside. Or maybe it's going on a speaking tour after your fifth NYT nonfiction bestselling advice book. Maybe you've won the Caldecott Award or Newbery Medal for your work in children's literature. Make it your own and be specific. You'll start planting the seeds for those goals soon.

About the Contributor

Claire Gerus has been Editor-in-Chief of two publishing houses, worked for seven major publishers, including Harlequin, Rodale, Random House, Doubleday, John Wiley, Kensington, and Adams Media, written articles for U.S. and Canadian magazines and newspapers, and taught corporate communications to such clients as IBM, Kelloggs, Mutual of Omaha, and Procter & Gamble.

In 1996, she established a thriving business as a New York literary agent, selling publishers books on a variety of subjects: business, history, memoirs, religion, health, spirituality, psychology, politics, pop culture, and women's studies.
She sold a 3-million copy health bestseller and brought film star Esther Williams’ story to Simon & Schuster. It went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

In 1999, she joined Kensington Publishing in New York and founded TwinStreams Books, a complementary healing imprint. Later, as Executive Editor at Citadel Press, she acquired and edited titles on celebrity biography, self-help, relationships, spirituality, new age, diet, Judaica, and health.

From 2001-August, 2002, she was Executive Editor at Adams Media, where she published the first biography of Laura Bush. She also published a wide range of new age, business, self-help, and inspirational books.

She is presently working as a literary agent and book development consultant. Among her clients are an ex-CIA agent, three psychologists, a policewoman, a District Attorney, an Assistant Attorney-General, a business communications consultant, a women's safety advocate, a best-selling psychologist,the Wall Street Journal's Soviet specialist, a former Miss Connecticut and inspirational columnist, a diabetes spokesperson and many more with equally fascinating backgrounds!


  1. And I thought writing a novel was the hardest part!

  2. Hang in there, Miz. It's all hard work...but worth it! Just break it all down and attack it piece by piece (or bird by bird...thank you Anne Lamott!)...which is what I'm getting to in my next post.

  3. Thank you, Erin! I've been so focused on wading through the entire publishing process, that I have ignored the dreaded "G" word. I know after a book is written, you gotta put on that bookseller's hat, but I never realized that I need to set a goal for the number of books I want to sell. And that's a scary thing for me to do. Thanks for the insight and the nudge!

  4. It certainly can be scary territory for you the writer to put on a bookseller's hat when so much of your energies are focused on creating. Publishing a book is no different than starting your own small business...that's why it's SO important to educate yourself on ALL aspects of the business before you jump in. That's why I preach about living a balanced writer's life...because to live it successfully, to be totally productive, you've got to see the whole picture as it relates to publishing today...not 20 years ago.

    Good luck!!!


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