Literary Agent Jody Rein on Publishing, Marketing and Finding Your Readers

Jody Rein - Frances Caballo - Social Media Just for WritersJody Rein describes herself as a reluctant entrepreneur. She was in corporate publishing—where she was an executive editor in New York (with Morrow/Avon at the time)—then moved to Colorado. She stayed on as editor-at-large for about a year, but missed interacting directly with book people as well as acquiring books.

She realized eventually that the only way she could continue to do the work she most enjoyed was to pick it up from the other side of the negotiating table. It wasn’t a quick decision—she ghostwrote a book and did consulting (and had a baby or two) in the interim. But writers kept finding her, and book ideas kept popping into her head. So she established her own literary agency. Jody says that the urge was less entrepreneurial than driven by the work itself.

These days, Jody is busy developing interactive software for writers. Her goals are to apply marketing, promotion, editorial and sales knowledge to the world of ideas more directly.

To learn more about Jody and her thoughts on publishing, marketing and finding your readers, keep reading her entertaining account of how she arrived to where she is today.


Why do you focus on nonfiction books?

My focus in college was literary criticism—all fiction. I wrote a thesis on Oscar Wilde and John Irving, go figure! But my first publishing job was at the only major publisher in Chicago (at the time), and they only published nonfiction. So I learned a ton about acquiring, editing and selling nonfiction, and I loved it, probably because there’s so much room for creativity. Creativity?! Yes—since I didn’t know any better, I often came up with ideas myself for books, or acquired books that began as magazine articles or self-published books.

When I moved to New York, I was hired to acquire nonfiction at Dell (now part of Random House). When you’re young in publishing, it helps to become known for certain types of books. But I continued to read fiction, and participate in fiction acquisition (I was an early reader of THE FIRM, for example. Not that my reading helped—I said it was a “page-turner but not great.” Oh well.) I moved to Avon as executive editor because the Avon list I ran included both fiction and nonfiction.

Nonfiction remains my publishing lifeblood if not my personal reading preference. I know what works and I know how to sell it. When it came time to start up my agency, I found it much easier to find great nonfiction than the next great literary or commercial novel.

What happens when an author sends you a fabulous novel? Is there someone in particular who you hand it off to?

I’ve represented a few novelists, and much of the nonfiction I represent is pretty literary (memoir and narrative), so it’s not a given that I’ll hand it off. But lately I’ve been working closely with an old friend whose career path mirrors mine (editor to agent), and who spent much of her publishing life in the fiction world. We’re looking for projects to co-agent, so I would probably go to her. I still miss working hand-in-hand with New York publishing pals, even after all these years, so I’m very excited about this possibility.

How can you tell when a self-published book is right for a major publisher?

I could say—and it’s true—that each book is different. But at the same time, the answer can be pretty simple! Sales trump everything else. If the book is selling well, and the numbers are growing impressively each week, a traditional house can capitalize on that success and help it explode (look at 50 Shades).

If the book isn’t selling well, or if the sales aren’t growing, publishers will be much harder to land. Publishers don’t look at a book with modest sales on Amazon and say: “Hey, we could do so much better with that book!” They assume the book has found its market, and that its market is small.

Another way to look at it: In our culture, what is “new” has a value just for being new. That’s especially true in publishing—publishers want to “launch” books, media wants to break news. If a book has been self-published, that “new” factor is gone—and the only way to replace it is with the “coup” factor (Just made that up!). The publisher needs the “coup” of grabbing a hot self-pub book.

To what do you credit your success with self-published books and how do you define success?

I understand how publishers think about acquiring books, because I was in that role for so many years. I know what questions to ask of self-published writers. Your readers can ask themselves the same questions: How many books have I sold? In what period of time?  Are my sales increasing? How widely are my books distributed? How many books have I self-published and what do my sales tell me?

How I define success: Did I sell the book?

I’ve sold every self-published book I’ve represented but one, but it’s harder now—when I started acquiring self-published books, things were more black and white.

Years ago, self-published fiction, by and large, was never of interest to publishers, because most “publishable” novelists did find homes (many more publishers and many more mass market opportunities to build skills and audience).

Self-published nonfiction books, though, often represented niches that traditional publishers had yet to discover. Self-publishing was a great way to document a new market.

Also, it was possible to launch a self-published book locally, drive up sales in a small market, and sell the book to a traditional publisher without any chance of cannibalizing sales. It’s tougher now with fewer bookstores and pushbutton national distribution for eBooks.

The Role of Book Marketing

What role does marketing – especially social media marketing – play in helping a self-published author rise from obscurity?

Without marketing, all books disappear. One of the big ironies today is how little things have changed (Bear with me on this one!). Yes, everything is different—millions of books are published today, with ease we never would have imagined a short time ago. So it’s harder than ever to get attention. YET even way back when, all book marketing was niche and social. Even before “social media,” the smart writers were the ones who found their communities—the people most likely to read their work—and marketed to those people. We used to call it grass roots marketing—now MBAs call it finding verticals, but it’s the same thing. We advised writers to find special interest groups through magazines and local meetings.

Now, smart writers can—and must–find and connect with their communities online. Through social media. But they have to do it authentically. 

Social Media’s Role in Marketing & Selling Your Book

How important is it today for authors to have large followings on social media? Do publishers really make it a numbers game?

Writers often look for formulas, but publishers don’t. Publishers need the information that will give them assurance that the book in question will sell enough copies to make money. They look at all the factors involved (platform, content, competition, quality, skills, concept, etc) to try to get a sense of how the social media evidence might translate into book sales. Followers and web page views are important, but numbers don’t tell the whole story—publishers know you can build up a twitter following that looks huge until you notice how many followers live in Tasmania.

The importance of followings also varies with the type of book. Romance readers live online, so publishers expect writers to be engaged with that community. And it’s hard to believe a proposal whose author claims to be an “expert” in any field if the author is unknown online.

Suggestions for Your Next Query Letter

What does an author of a self-published book need to accomplish before sending you a query?

When you send your query, in addition to the typical query letter content (who are you? what is your book? How will your help your book reach its market?), answer the questions I mentioned above (I’ll repeat here in more detail):

  • When did you publish your book?
  • In what formats?
  • Where is your book distributed?
  • How many copies have each format sold, total?
  • How many copies in the last 6 months? The last month?
  • What is the price of your book? Do your sales numbers include free books?
  • What other books have you self-published? What other books do you plan to self-publish?
  • Why are you seeking a traditional publisher?

What advice on marketing do you give newly published authors?

That’s a trick question, right? The marketing should start, for both traditional and self-published authors, months before the publication date. And it doesn’t stop. Some bits of specific advice:

 1.) If you’re traditionally published, run any marketing/promotion plans by your publisher to make sure you’re not duplicating efforts or stepping on toes. Use your agent to run interference & advise you re timing. 

2.) If you’re traditionally published, don’t forget that you have a publisher! Include the publisher in your tweets & posts, RT the publisher, share good news. Be a team player (not a nag) and the humans out there in New York will be grateful.

3.) Think communities; think readers! Use your own personal experience as a guide—you don’t buy every book you hear about; you buy books from writers you trust on subjects in which you have a keen interest. If you get an email from some stranger about something that has no appeal to you, you feel offended and annoyed. It’s a time-waster. If a friend tells you about a wonderful novel, you feel appreciative. As a book marketer, don’t think that the world out there is somehow different than your own experiences. Target your efforts so you’re always that welcome friend.

7-14-14 Frances Caballo Social Media Just for WritersIs it true that even if an author finds a publisher, the author is still responsible for the marketing? Explain your answer, please.

Yes and no. Publishers work hard to sell the books they publish; it’s in their interest to do so. They have marketing, sales and publicity staff; they run inter-departmental meetings prior to a book’s publication to strategize the launch; they send out press releases and create promotional copy and sometimes create author websites; they coordinate with other media if it makes sense, they follow up with phone calls and send out tweets and set up tours and sometimes do much more. So the author isn’t “responsible” for all the marketing—the publisher is the responsible party.

But nobody loves a book like its author, and nobody is able to engage with a book’s audience like the author. The publisher publishes many books at once; the author is invested in just one at a time. The publisher focuses on any given book only for a very very short period of time, maybe a couple of weeks. Thus it has always been. The best publishing experiences are partnerships, where, usually with the help of the agent, the author coordinates his own marketing efforts with those of the publisher, and continues those efforts long after the publisher has moved on to the next list. The author focuses on what the author does best; those marketing efforts that require a personal touch such as expanding his own platform through engaging social media. The publisher (we hope) does what a publisher can do best—get the attention of movers and shakers in national media online and off (who listen to publishers but not so much to authors) engage with readers on a larger scale, promote to bookstores & other large outlets, etc.

Jody’s New Tool: Writers’ Blog Finder

Tell me about your new book.

I think you mean my software, although I am writing a book! I’ve created a free book marketing tool—I hope everyone reading this will check it out! I would LOVE your readers’ feedback (write me at [email protected]).

Jody Rein book coverThe product is:

In this interview I’ve talked about the importance of finding and marketing to your target audience—this product helps writers do that by recommending reputable blogs in a variety of general content areas.

So, for example, if you have written a business book, you would search for “nonfiction: commercial,” and the subcategory “business.” If the site is working (fingers crossed) ten or fifteen trustworthy business book sites will pop up. Some of the sites review self-published books; most are great first stops for building your own community through interacting with the bloggers, finding more blogs, or just learning about the subject.

I do a lot of consulting these days—I have a consulting company called I advised one of my consulting clients to get more engaged in his community, and I used my own blog finder to make recommendations. It worked! I was so psyched.

I’m planning to add one more category to the blog finder—book promo sites (like Bookbub or Kindle Nation Daily). It’s in the works.

And the book?

It’s titled TO SELF (PUBLISH) OR NOT TO SELF? How to Decide!

(I’m still messing around with the subtitle.) Most writers today face that question, and I feel their pain! Writers usually want to write, not be publishers, at least not right off the bat. But in today’s world, you can’t be a writer without also becoming somewhat expert in publishing options–it’s crazy stressful.

So I’ve created a system I call “The Ten Tells,” (“Tells” as in Poker.) Authors are guided to examine, at a personal level, how they feel about money, time, credibility, goals, desires—and more. I provide clear checklists, tons of case studies and, of course, the voice of experience. By the end of the process, I hope readers will feel great about their decision and free to focus on the writing and not the stress!  

Anyone interested in being notified with the book comes out (please, please) can sign up for my newsletter here:

Note: Jody will be on vacation for two weeks starting today and promises to reply to your comments when she returns!

Frances Caballo - Social Media Just for Writers About the Author: Frances Caballo is a social media manager for writers and author of  Avoid Social Media Time Suck: A Blueprint for Writers to Create Online Buzz for Their Books and Still Have Time to Write, Social Media Just for Writers: The Best Online Marketing Tips for Selling Your Books and Blogging Just for Writers. Presently, she is the Social Media Manager for the Women’s National Book Association-SF Chapter, the San Francisco Writers Conference, and the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association. You can find her on FacebookTwitterLinkedInPinterest, and Google+. 

Practical Tips for Marketing Your Books on the Social Web