Auntie Deborah Advises on the Business of Writing

Auntie Deborah is back at her advice desk…

If two authors want to collaborate on writing a novel, how much should each author contribute?

Auntie Deborah: It all depends. There are so many different ways to do this. I’ve seen authors alternate chapters, divide scenes according to their strengths (ex: character/dialog vs action/technology), one writes the draft and the other revises it. I co-wrote a (published) short story in which my partner described a scene while I typed it out, asking questions and filling in details.

For the last 20 years, I’ve written posthumous collaborations with the author who was my mentor. During the last year of her life, we talked about the basic plot arc for the first 3 books, but then she died and I wrote those books (and 6 more and counting…) My natural literary “voice” is very close to hers so the transition was easy. Her Literary Trust approves the manuscript for consistency of style and content before it goes to her agent (who also happens to be my agent), so in a sense they act as a current collaborator. I work under subcontract to them and we have a formal, written, legal agreement.

The one unbreakable rule is that you set down in writing how you will resolve differences, divide payment, and what you will do if it all falls apart. Absolutely do not skip this step!

Is it wise to try and find a literary agent before I’ve finished writing my novel?

Auntie Deborah: I would advise not. First and foremost, the agent has to have something to sell. Otherwise there’s no point in representing an author without a marketable project. Second, you will be new to the agent and she will have no idea whether you can take those unfinished pages and turn them into something great. On the other hand, suppose they liked the sample chapters but you don’t have the rest ready to submit; you’ll end up either losing that interest in delay or sending something not ready. Either way you’ll have lost a potential agent.

If you’ve made personal contact with an agent, say at a convention, pitched your project, and aroused their interest, follow that with a polite note. Do not send anything less than your polished best! You don’t want to get put into the “talks great but doesn’t deliver” category. Then when you do submit, use the cover letter or query — depending on what the agent has asked for — to remind them of past interest.

Be patient. Do your work to the utmost of your ability.


How do literary agents get paid? What do authors pay for in traditional publishing? What are the responsibilities?

Auntie Deborah: Reputable literary agents work on commission, (usually 15% for US). They represent you in negotiations, often obtaining advances and rights (like foreign reprints) far beyond that 15%. I’m such a terrible negotiator, I think my agent is worth every penny many times over. Because they are your agents, the payment comes to them, they deduct their commission, and the rest goes to you. So there’s no out of pocket expense. No sale, no commission.

Notice I said reputable. There are always scam agents out there who will charge an up-front reading fee. This is not considered an ethical practice, and no serious author should agree to such terms. (I should add that 30 or 40 years, a major agency used to do this, but their success rate in then placing the books was good, they’ve been out of business for a long time, and no reputable agency today does this.) Check out any possible agent on Preditors and Editors or SFWA’s Writer Beware sites.

There should be no out-of-pocket expenses for you. However, many authors do their own promotion in addition to what the publisher does. How much and even if you do this is entirely up to you. I’ll often set up a few signings with local bookstores and give a talk at my branch library. I blog, have a website, Facebook author page, and Tweet about new releases. None of this costs me directly (only gas and electricity and internet access).

Your responsibilities are spelled out in the contract with your publisher (and also with your agent). They usually include deadlines — when you will turn in the edited or proofread manuscript, and such like. Most editors will cut you slack if an emergency arises so long as you tell them what’s going on!


Can a publishing company purchase the complete rights to a manuscript?

Auntie Deborah: It can try, but any author who signs away all rights is an idiot.


Why don’t publishers allow the desperately poor to pirate their books?

Auntie Deborah: I think you’re really asking, “How can I read the books I want for free, since I can’t afford to buy them, without ripping off authors?

And there are actually some good answers to that question.

Borrow the books from your public library! If the book is new and not in the catalog, ask your librarian to order it. That way, you (and others) get to read it free, and the author gets paid. Many libraries permit borrowing of ebooks through OverDrive, so you can read them on your Kindle.

Become a book reviewer. You can review books on your online blog, local newspaper, or sites like GoodReads, LibraryThing, or vendors like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Begin with books you love, then when you have established yourself, contact the author and/or publisher and request ARCs or review copies of the forthcoming or newly released books you want. Authors and publishers depend on reviewers to get the word out. But make sure you can supply links to your reviews. Learn how to write a good review.

Sign up for giveaways (check LibraryThing and Amazon, for example). Check for free specials at the online writers cooperative publisher, Book View Cafe or Bookbub.

If all else fails, write to the author (most have a contact button on their websites or blogs) and ask directly. Be polite, don’t be greedy, and explain your circumstances. Ask for a specific title (not “whatever you can send”) and say why. I, like others, often have a few extra author’s copies to lend. I’m much more likely to send a free book if the reader is a genuine fan, not someone who’s just out for free books they will turn around and re-sell without reading.

I should add that it’s not uncommon for pirated ebooks to come with malware or a ton of errors, in which case you got exactly what you paid for.




Auntie Deborah Advises on the Business of Writing — 1 Comment