Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An Interview with Chuck Sambuchino

It’s my pleasure to welcome Chuck Sambuchino, editor for Writer’s Digest Books, Guide to Literary Agents, and Children’s Writers & Illustrator’s Markets, as well as the third edition of Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript. Chuck is also the author of the recently released humor book, How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack.

Pat: Chuck, I have to get one question out of the way up front. I read on your website that you are continuously on the lookout for the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Have you found it yet?

Chuck: Not yet, but currently my favorite chocolate chip cookies come from Blue Chip and Potbelly Sandwich Shops (the latter of which is actually oatmeal chocolate chip).

Pat: We’re here at Chiseled in Rock blog, which is (sort of, kind of) related to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers based in Denver, Colorado. As a result, our questions will focus on items of interest to novelists…like getting an agent. Why, in this rapidly changing world of publishing, do writers need agents?

Chuck: As writers, we all have certain hopes for our books. We want them to be in every bookstore across America. We want them to be translated and available in Europe. We want a book tour. Essentially, we want the book to have a chance to break out and sell lots of copies. Etc., etc. To do these big things, you need to get published by a large publisher who can make these goals realities. But big publishers won’t take unsolicited submissions from writers; you need an agent to get the attention of the large houses in NYC and elsewhere.

Pat: What are the worst mistakes writers make when submitting to an agent?

Chuck: Submitting before they’re ready. Sometimes you just look at your manuscript and know deep down it’s still flawed and not ready—but you’ve read it so many times that you’re going to snap if you have to do one more revision. So you send it off. And just like you feared, it’s not ready and gets rejected. If you are at this stage, I urge you to set the work down for a few months and start on something new. Return to it later with fresh eyes to start again on revisions.

Pat: You are the editor for the outstanding Guide to Literary Agents Blog and the related newsletter. How and when did GLA launch the blog? Was it your project from the beginning?

Chuck: It launched about 3.5 years ago and I have helmed it ever since. It started off so small. I would get 300 page views in one day and celebrate. Now it’s getting scarily big. I have made so many friends and contacts through the blog—I am forever grateful to WD for making me start it years ago. Now it is a joy.

Pat: Why would it be useful for published or about-to-be published fiction writers to earn a guest post on the GLA Blog or to submit print articles to publications such as Writer’s Digest? May writers submit directly to you?

Chuck: Those who wish to actually pitch Writer’s Digest the magazine should query Zachary.Petit@fwmedia.com and put “Query” in the subject line. Besides that, there are six market books, such as Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents, that accept article queries each year. Beyond that, you have my blog, where guest posts are highly visible but unpaid. The benefit to my blog is that it gets 130,000+ page views a month now, and that is a lot of eyes. People write for me to build their platform, make new writer friends, and, if they have a book to sell, promote their work.

Pat: With so much information available online, why should writers continue to buy books such as Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents? Do you screen the agents and publishers before including them in the guides?

Chuck: Yes, we screen everyone and always have. GLA prides itself on being the biggest database out there, with just about every agent listed. Besides that, we try to include all the info writers need to find agents—recent sales, submission guidelines, which agents are at which agencies, etc. At the same time, I think more info being available online—such as agent interviews and more individual agency websites—always helps to supplement a search. Start with us to compose your master list to give yourself the best chance of casting a wide net. Then start researching each possibility online one by one to filter the list. Also, each WD market book comes with 90-150 pages of instructional articles and interviews on things like queries, synopses, proposals, how to compose a strong beginning to your story, etc. The books are more than just market guides—they’re educational, as well.

Pat: You attend a lot of conferences as speaker/instructor and as editor. Do you recommend conferences for writers at all levels?

Chuck: Heck yes I do. I am a huge fan of writers conferences and think they are great places to meet agents, make writing friends for life, and invest in your craft through education. If you are looking for a good conference or two, sign up for my free GLA newsletter at the Guide to Literary Agents website. In each newsletter, I list a dozen or two dozen upcoming conferences at the bottom. You can also follow us on Twitter (@WritersDigest & @ChuckSambuchino) for conference notices.

Pat: How do you feel about critique groups, especially for beginners? Feel free to give us the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Chuck: If you can surround yourself with people who are smart, truthful and encouraging, critique groups are priceless. Yes—it will always sting to hear those first thoughts of criticism. You want to make sure you’re teaming with people who are smart enough to offer worthwhile advice, and truthful enough not to just tell you what you want to hear.

Pat: When authors compare the snail’s pace at which traditional publishing progresses, as opposed to self-publishing or simply e-publishing, there’s a tremendous temptation to take the shortcut. What advice do you have for writers who want to self-publish?

Chuck: Self-publishing can be great if you have a significant means to promote yourself and your work. Do you have a very large blog or newsletter? Do you speak in front of large groups of people? Are you on radio and TV shows often? If so, you are in a position to self-publish and market yourself effectively.

When my humor book came out last fall, it was available in every bookstore across America. Furthermore, the publishing house paid B&N and Borders money to give the book good placement during the holidays. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of stores. If you self-publish, you will never get your book into stores nationwide or this kind of treatment. My publisher made my book better, designed a great title, and got me press in USA Today, the New York Times, Reader’s Digest and AOL News, to name a few. They did that, not me. If you take the quick route, there are advantages, but you are on your own.

It’s a gamble. There are certain ebook and self-pub success stories, but people need to understand they are very rare. I think that if you write a dynamite book, you can take either path and probably find success.

Pat: Methods of promoting and marketing our books have also changed drastically. Are real book tours and face-to-face book signings a thing of the past?

Chuck: It is tough to justify the traveling expenses to do them these days. When you do a signing, you may have 150 people, or you may have 8. If you have 8, you go in the hole for that night money-wise. Book tours still exist, though. Successful novelists still do them, and sometimes you see a group of connected writers do one together (example: three paranormal YA authors) and those can work real well. I myself like to get out to conferences and meet people rather than doing a random signing in Omaha or Boise.

Pat: In addition to your experience as a journalist and editor, you’re a playwright and a humor writer. I’d like to know a little more about How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack, which is doing deliciously well with online booksellers. The short synopsis says:

"In 2009 alone, there were 987 attacks recorded by the Gnome Attacks Hotline based out of Berlin, Germany. Don’t bother asking your local authorities about these attacks–they can’t corral the data like we can. The fact is that if the public knew how many gnomeowners are mauled and attacked each year by their own statues, the public would erupt into mass chaos."

Where did you get the idea for gnome attacks, and do you have any more humor books in the works?

Chuck: I was watching the movie The Full Monty and there is a scene with a garden gnome. I started to get really creeped out. Then I thought: Certainly if I am creeped out by gnomes, others are, too. That was the genesis. The book itself is a humorous parody of a survival guide, teaching your average person how to defend themselves from a gnome attack inside and outside the house. Good for some laughs. As far as a follow-up, I recently passed some ideas on to Ten Speed Press. Wish me luck! At the speed the industry moves, I expect I will hear good news about foreign rights or film rights before a follow-up book.

Pat: Thank you so much for answering our questions, Chuck, and we do wish you luck with that second book of humor. I hope you’ll keep an eye on Chiseled in Rock blog and favor us with a link on Twitter or Facebook from time to time. We’ll be interviewing many of the agents and editors scheduled to appear at the Colorado Gold Conference in Denver in September.

Chuck: Good luck with the conference. If you are on the fence about going, GO.

Chuck Sambuchino can be found on Facebook and Twitter. To find out more about his books and scheduled appearances, please visit his website.

Interview conducted by e-mail from the Pat Cave


Mark Stevens said...

Thorough and entertaining interview, Pat. Seems like good advice all the way around. I flinch every time I think about some of the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time manuscripts I was showing around to agents long before I figured out the power of strong rewriting, thorough editing and listening to feedback.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks, Mark. I think we all did that at the beginning. Thanks goodness for critique groups and excellent conferences like Colorado Gold.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Hi Pat and Chuck,
Great interview--questions and answers.
I like the idea that a writer has an opportunity to have a guest post on Chuck's blog and get exposure.
Donna V.

Simon Hay said...

Pat, Chuck, great interview. I'm a fan of Chuck's blog and I've gleaned a lot of useful information from it. Thank you :)

Anonymous said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Chuck.

Chuck - Thanks for this helpful advice. You are so right about the value of waiting to submit until a manuscript is really ready. A submission is your chance to make a good first impression, so I think it should be the best one you can possibly make.

Mario Acevedo said...

Great interview. Lots of good info. Thanks.

Peg Brantley said...

Terrific interview, Pat.

Chuck, I appreciate the time and care that goes into GLA.

Karen Lange said...

Great interview! It was fun to get to know more about Chuck. Thanks, Patricia and Chuck, for doing this.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Donna and Simon -- I love the blog too...even contributed one of the 7 Things I've Learned So Far posts. Now I spend a lot of time reading the How I Got My Agent columns.

Margot -- Yes, if only I'd known then what I know now...

Mario, Peg, and Karen -- thanks for dropping by today. Stay tuned to CIR for more agent and editor interviews.

Jan Morrison said...

thanks Patricia for another great interview and thanks Chuck - most especially for reminding me to hold on to that sucker until it squeeks its readiness (or that's how I read it).

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Nice interview, Pat! It's great to learn a little more about Chuck (I always enjoy reading his blog.)

Patricia Stoltey said...

Jan and Elizabeth -- thanks for coming over to read the interview. I especially liked that bit about the chocolate chip cookies.

Shannon Baker said...

Omaha and Boise, huh? It so happens I have two daughters and one lives in each of those cities. Coincidence? I AM NOT paranoid. Am not. Am not.
Thanks Pat and Chuck. Nice interview.

Michelle Mach said...

Great interview! I love that you asked about chocolate chip cookies. For awhile, my magazine bio said that I was seeking "the best brownie recipe ever" and believe it or not, people used to send me recipes!