Advice for Writers

23 June, 2017

Linking to vendor sites–a note to authors

Dear Authors,

When providing links to booksellers on your websites, ask your publisher for guidance. At the very least, you want to include, (Barnes & Noble), a link to independent publishers ( is a good one) and to the publisher’s own site.  Favoring one channel over another is never a good idea.

–Joelle Delbourgo



4 August, 2016

What’s in a title?

Writers in search of an agent (or editor) often complain that they are not getting any response.  There are many reasons for this, which we frequently address in this column.  But one particular irksome reason is that the query letters often feature terrible titles.  I mean truly terrible.  (I don’t want to humiliate anyone by parading some of these wretched titles here. I’m just trying to help.) Delbourgo006 high resWhen I see a query with a really unappealing title, I stop reading, which means I never really get to weigh what the writer is trying to convey.  This is because we have such limited time to review queries and we need to use that time wisely and well.

So ask yourself: Is my title clear?  This is especially true for nonfiction.  It should clearly lay out the subject and premise of your book.  For example, two of our clients, Ken Lloyd and Stacey Lloyd, wrote a book called IS YOUR JOB MAKING YOU FAT?  It explores the many reasons we eat at work–the sedentary nature of work, responses to stress, long hours, etc.  That title leaps out and is utterly clear.  Another client, a religious scholar, Barrie Wilson, wrote a book called HOW JESUS BECAME CHRISTIAN.  Great eye-grabbing title.  In the digital age, titles should contain search terms.  If not in the title itself, at the very least in the subtitle.  Cookbook author Missy Chase Lapine has an upcoming book called SNEAKY BLENDS (September, North Star Way/Simon & Schuster), which builds recipes around her signature fruit and vegetable purees.  I love the title because it echoes her original New York Times bestseller, THE SNEAKY CHEF, but also signals something new by deviating from “The Sneaky Chef” phrase in the title. Then, the subtitle does more work to explain the concept: Supercharge Your Health with More Than 100 Recipes Using the Power of Purees.  That delivers the promise of the book and tells you exactly what’s in it.

With fiction, a title can be more evocative.  Lindsey J. Palmer’s first novel for Kensington, about a young woman in the glamorous but cut-throat world of magazine publishing, was re-titled by the publisher:  PRETTY IN INK.  This is really clever and fun, which is also the kind of read Lindsey delivers, and it suggests the world of publishing without using a clunky word to describe it. It also tells us that this is women’s fiction.  Classicist Philip Freeman, who has published many scholarly and popular books about the history of the classical world, turned to fiction with his first mystery, ST. BRIDGET’S BONES, and then a second one, SACRIFICE.  These mystery novels are set in Celtic times and the titles are supported by gorgeous covers, thanks to Pegasus, his publisher.  Bestselling and award-winning novelist, Ben H. Winters imagines a contemporary world in which the Civil War was never fought and slavery still exists in his brilliant new book, UNDERGROUND AIRLINES, a clever play off the Underground Railroad, which also happens to be the name for the network in that tracks runaway slaves in the novel.  And debut author, Marilyn Simon Rothstein, got my attention with an unsolicited query for her humorous domestic novel, LIFT AND SEPARATE (Lake Union/Amazon Publishing), about a woman whose husband, owner of a lingerie empire called Bountiful Bosoms, abandons her for his 23 year-old 32DDD bra fitting model.  The title: sheer genius and hinting at both the humor and drama the novel offers.

So what’s an author to do?  Test your title over and over again with smart readers and writers in your personal network, and if you can, with some publishing professionals before you send out your query letter.  I promise you, you will get more traction with a truly great title.

8 June, 2016

Writing with a Positive Attitude–It May Get You an Agent or Publisher!

There are many reasons why writers write, but one is that that they wish to be read.  Most writers want to find their audience and connect with their audience.  Whether it is because they have something to say, information to sJoelle portraits0105_001hare, or are creating an experience, through memoir and fiction, most writers–at least those who seek to be published—are looking for someone on the other end to read their words.

Volumes have been written about how hard it is to get published, from the grueling search for an agent to finding a publisher.  And it is all true.  It’s damn hard.  It’s easy to get discouraged as the rejection pile grows higher. Even worse, many queries and efforts appear to go unheard, with writers not even receiving a rejection from which they can glean the reason why they are being passed over.

As a busy publishing professional, I am guilty of doling out rejection and ignoring queries.  This is not because I am an unkind person.  But there are literally not enough hours in the day to fully evaluate unsolicited queries and respond thoughtfully, with sensitivity to each.

Writers should know that we are truly searching for you.  The thrill of discovering new talent never dulls.  One thing that can help is exhibiting a positive attitude despite the discouraging aspects of the quest.  A writer’s personality usually resonates when they make an appeal, and at the end of the day, we’re drawn not only to talent but to a person with a positive spirit.  I don’t mean you should be relentlessly cheerful, but we do tend to work harder for people we actually like.  Not all talented authors are likable, but some are, and I just love working with authors who are professional, kind, respectful, hard-working, listen well, and hungry for true partnership.

So next time you send out a query, let your higher self shine through.  It just may help you get the attention you deserve.

–Joelle Delbourgo

2 June, 2016

Attention Writers: Publishing and Creativity Conference June 3, 2016

A wonderful imprint at PenguinRandom House,Tarcher Perigee, God bless them, is sponsoring a conference for writers tomorrow, Friday June 3. I’ll be participating in a number of panels, including ones on pitching, Joelle portraits0105_001sales and marketing (including building a platform) and the lifespan of a book from acquisition to publication. It should be informative and a lot of fun. So please check out The New York City Publishing & Creativity Conference for Writers, 345 Hudson St., New York, NY.
Here’s the link for tickets:…

16 March, 2016

Where I Write: Terry Gaspard

Terry Gaspard - Where I WriteOur next WHERE I WRITE, in which our authors share their favorite writing spots, is from Terry Gaspard, author  of DAUGHTERS OF DIVORCE (Sourcebooks, 2016)

“Although I have a comfortable home office with a coffee pot nearby, my favorite place to write isdaughters of divorce my local library. And today, as I sit in my preferred private room at the Portsmouth Free Public Library, I’m reminded of how I was teased by my three sisters and my father growing up about getting “dressed up” to go to the library on Saturday afternoon. My dad would say things like “There she goes again in her new outfit with her backpack full of books – she’s trying to escape our crazy house!” To this day, I’m happiest writing at my home away from home, where I hope to find solace once and for all!” – Terry Gaspard

Check out Terry on her website, Twitter, and Facebook.

16 February, 2016

Why Literary Agents May Give You the Cold Shoulder

It’s often said that it is tougher to get a literary agent to represent you than to find a publisher.  That may well be AIbEiAIAAABDCLG685W5porlUiILdmNhcmRfcGhvdG8qKDkxMTljMWNi_002true!  And yet, it’s essential these days to have representation.  With rapid-fire changes in the industry, including consolidation and the inevitable contraction that accompanies it, the chances of getting published by a traditional house are slimmer.  Agents form an essential bridge to the publishing industry.  It is also their job to negotiate strong contracts on behalf of their clients, which necessitates staying on top of the complex policies that underwrite contracts.  Reputable agents also guide their clients at every stage, from shaping the material that will be submitted to a publisher, to matchmaking their clients to the right publisher, to guiding their careers as writers overall.

When agents do not respond to queries, they surely appear mean and indifferent. When they do send a rejection letter, they often unleash wrath from the spurned writer.  Yet this is hardly the case.  Agents work incredibly hard, spending thousands of hours perusing unpublished pages, including query letters, proposals and manuscripts.  They don’t get paid directly for this labor.  In order to find what may be the right fit projects for a given agency, we sift and sift, and sometimes it feels like looking for a needle in a haystack.  We also read our client’s manuscripts-in-progress and finished work.  So when we don’t respond, it is not because we are truly heartless, but because, for whatever reason, your project is not right for us or doesn’t spark the passion.  It’s very much like internet dating!  You need to feel the chemistry, and sometimes it is just not there.

For every rejection or non-response, a writer should move on.  Every writer deserves to be represented with excitement and commitment.  Don’t take it personally.  Your work may be wonderful but if an agent doesn’t have the time to give it or the vision for how to get it published, you’d be better served by representation elsewhere.

I hate to be part of this discouraging process, but every once in a while, there is an up side.  I find something that I want to work on, connect with the writer, and we’re off and running to the races.  Sometimes, we can create a little magic for a writer, helping to make a dream of getting published come true.  And those moments are almost as exciting for the agent as for the writer.  It’s that collaboration, that very special partnership, that we live for, that makes us feel valuable and truly alive.  Every writer should hold out for that.

–Joelle Delbourgo

26 October, 2015

Judging Pitchapalooza in Montclair, NJ

On a sunny autumn Sunday, I joined the Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry,  at one of their now infamous “Pitchapalooza” events in Montclair, NJ.  Ylonda Caviness, a former winner of Pitchapalooza who now has both a book and TV contract as a result, rounded out the panel.  These events can be described as a kind of “American Idol” for authors, in which 20 writers are randomly selected from the audience to perform a one-minute pitch for a proposed book.  Not only is it hugely entertaining, but it provides a wonderful opportunity for these writers to connect with industry pros and receive critical feedback.  Titles of the book projects included “Big Black Woman Mad”, “How to Make the Media Your Bitch” and “Black vs. Blue vs. Media.”  I had no regrets about missing out on the gorgeous fall day due to the wealth of talent in the room.  I’d encourage any prospective author to check out the Book Doctors on social media and see where they might next be appearing.  I can’t wait to read “The Little Lumian,” our winning pick, a middle grade story from Erica Deel set in a single snowflake.

With "Book Doctor" Arielle Eckstut at "Pitchapalooza" event in Montclair, 10/26/16

With “Book Doctor” Arielle Eckstut at “Pitchapalooza” event in Montclair, 10/26/16

11 August, 2015

What 4 top agents desire in a memoir

Thanks to veteran editor, Alan Rinzler, for including me in this insightful interview with some esteemed colleagues.  Memoir is so popular, but also challenging to publish.  Here’s what you might want to think about in relation to crafting and publishing a memoir.

12 July, 2015

Listen to Your Agent — Or Not?

Like most agents, I have a wonderful relationship with many of my clients.  Most.  I think that my enthusiasm for their work and caring is generally evident.  This is my own company.  Whheadshot_joelledelbourgoy would I put my name on something I did not love?  Additionally, I bring more than 3 decades of experience as an editor and publishing executive to each author’s work and career.  I apply the same skills that I learned from the inside at such distinguished houses as Random House and HarperCollins to author representation.

But every once in awhile, something goes awry.  As with any other relationship, there needs to be trust–and a click. Sometimes the chemistry just isn’t there.  Sometimes an author doesn’t want to hear what an agent tells them, especially when the news isn’t good.  Or there is just a difference in vision or style.  That’s to be expected.  Not all relationships work.

If as a writer that happens to you, ask yourself.  What is this disparity about?  Is it a true disagreement or am I just uncomfortable?  Can this relationship be healed?  As anyone knows, breaking up is hard to do and there is a wrong and a right way to do it.  If you truly believe that you are with the wrong agent or that your agent doesn’t understand you and your work, ask if you can schedule a call to talk about it.  Even if you do end up parting ways, there’s a gentle and respectful way to do so.  Remember that agents are not paid for their time–only for their results when they sell a book.  If an agent has put a great deal of time and thought into your work and you walk away, the agent has nothing to show for it.

The same is true if an agent no longer wishes to work with a particular client.  Perhaps the agency wants to refocus its efforts, or reduce the number of clients it represents or the agent just feels she’s reached the end of the road.  At that point, it is essential to communicate with sensitivity and explain your reasoning, trying to mitigate any hurt you might cause.  This is a professional relationship and needs to conducted in a professional way.joellecaricature

Relationships are about expectation and communication.  If these are clearly communicated, there is a greater chance for a positive partnership.  But if for whatever reason, either party wants out, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons, and do it with grace.

–Joelle Delbourgo

6 April, 2015

Joelle Delbourgo, a literary agent’s advice for authors–from Tim Knox’s “Interviewing Authors

Thanks to Tim Knox for interviewing me on his terrific “Interviewing Authors” show–a great resource for writers.  I had so much fun talking with Tim.  Take a listen: portraits0105_001

–Joelle Delbourgo