Friday, June 29, 2007
So anyway, rather than summarize the very non-exciting publishing news this week, I thought I would do a quick roundup of some of the great advice that has been offered this week on my favorite publishing blogs.
Over at Bookends LLC, Jessica Faust, in typical helpful fashion, provides a really succinct and effective explanation on why it pays to be classy when you interact with people in the publishing industry. And in a post that should be nominated for a Best Publishing Advice of the Year Award, she provides a breakdown of some warning signs that you might have a bad agent. Such a difficult thing to explain, and yet such a good breakdwon.
One of things authors keep hearing again and again is how important it is to be your own publicist and build your own buzz, etc. etc. Over at MJ Rose's Buzz, Balls & Hype, agent Simon Lipskar provides an interesting and honest counterpoint that suggests that yes, while all those things are important, the burden on making a book a bestseller is still on the publisher.
Kristin Nelson explains why you shouldn't tell an agent you have 10 unpublished novels in your drawer.
Jonathan Lyons is doing a running series of agent-perserverence stories. Keep watching there because you might just see a certain Sacramento Kings fan posting his own tale.
And finally, the Millions just ran down its list of the most anticipated books of the rest of 2007, just in case you wanted to get a head start on your cocktail party banter.
Have a good weekend everyone!
Thursday, June 28, 2007
My invitation to vent yesterday certainly elicited a strong response, and I hope people found it therapeutic and cathartic rather than a dandy opportunity to fall off the wagon. Trust me, I really do empathize with the difficulties of an up and coming writer, and whenever I think about all the time and energy and blood, sweat, and tears that go into all of the novels behind the 6,000-7,000 queries I pass on each year it kills me.
I was having dinner last night with a great friend who is an editor at a big publishing company in New York, and some other friends from outside the publishing industry. The non-publishing friends were really curious about the economics of publishing and how publishers and authors make money. Inevitably, once we explained how few authors make big money and how the blockbusters go a long ways toward supporting the smaller books, they were shocked. There are better ways of making money. But then they started thinking up book ideas anyway.
People love writing books no matter how many copies they sell -- and that has to be the thing that keeps you going. Not how much success you will or won't find. I described the "If only" game in a previous post, and it's really true. Happiness isn't always just around the corner for a writer, and despite all of the frustrations inherent in the process people still write books, right? There's gotta be something there that makes it meaningful, and lord knows it isn't waiting five months for an agent to write you back.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Still though, I can understand how people are frustrated that on top of risking their pride, after receiving impersonal rejection letters, following every single little annoying query rule... after all that, I can see how personalizing queries (for the record, not sucking up!!!) can be a little annoying. Submitting is tortuous, takes forever... it can be very challenging, and when agents already are the ones picking teams for dodgeball, bowing to their every wish may seem like one insult too far.
So now's your chance to blow off a little steam. What's the most frustrating part of the writing process you've encountered lately? Have writer's block? Have an experience that would make Job think he had a pretty good day?
There are some venting ground rules -- if you're going to reference someone in the industry please don't name names or provide any identifying details.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
The first is personalization of queries. I guess people are worried about sucking up too much! Ha! Not possible, folks. Sucking up will get you EVERYWHERE. Ok, well, not exactly. I definitely blush and look away when someone is laying it on a little thick, but mentioning that you admire someone's clients and, ahem, that you happen to read their blog is not sucking up. It's showing that you took the time, did the research, researched the agent and then decided that you still liked them enough to send them a query. It's not about the flattery, I swear. The imperessive part is that you took the time, went the extra distance, read some books, made sure you're a good fit, and wrote a personal note. That bodes well for a good client. And ultimately, as I said in the comments section, the most important thing about personalizing is that works.
Someone also asked for a breakdown of how many queries were near misses, how many were good, and how many were really bad. I didn't keep detailed statistics about this, but since I can't really show you my inbox, here goes:
I'd say anywhere from half to two-thirds are just.... well, I'm not in the dream-crushing business (that's Sean Lindsay's job), but let's just say that half to two-thirds are the kazoo to Ian McEwan's grand piano.
I'd say about 30-40% are fine but not there yet. Either they were a bit too formulaic or a bit too out there or the writing was ok but not great or maybe the query letter just didn't convey the work properly.
Maybe 10% of queries are very good (that may be a little high, honestly). Of those, maybe one or two strike my fancy enough for me to request a partial. The other good ones either aren't a genre I specialize in or were very well-written query letters but the idea behind work the itself just didn't grab me.
And yes, ultimately it comes down to fit. I've passed on some books that went on to find publishers, just like every other agent has. They just weren't for me. But I'm really looking hard, I give each query a lot of thought, and I am always hoping that each query in my inbox is the next great book.
Good luck, everyone!
Monday, June 25, 2007
I just spent the last several hours answering the many queries that accumulated in the last week so I can hit the ground running tomorrow with a clear inbox. And, as a treat for the statistically inclined, I kept a running counter.
Over the past week I received 121 queries, which actually is probably a bit less than normal since anyone who reads the blog regularly knew I was out of the office. But if you multiply that by 52 weeks it translates to around 6,000-7,000 queries a year.
Here's the breakdown by genre -- I tried to categorize them as best they could, but as you can tell from the "no freaking idea" category, it's not always readily apparent:
Literary fiction: 13
Young Adult: 11
Historical fiction: 10
Science fiction: 7
Male Ennui: 7
Women's fiction: 4
Politics/Current events: 3
Narrative nonfiction: 3
Religion/New Age: 3
Middle grade: 2
Picture book: 1
No Freaking Idea: 5
Some more fun stats out of those 121:
Personalized queries: 23 (which means an astounding 98 people either didn't so much as Google my name or neglected to mention it in the query.)
Queries beginning with a rhetorical question: 10
Spelled my name wrong: 4
Queries "narrated" by a protagonist: 2
And, of course, evil albinos: 1
As far as trends go, the young author trend shows no sign of stopping, but one interesting thing I'm noticing is that I'm starting to receive quite a few queries from Nigeria.
So, most importantly, how many of those 121 queries did I request a partial? Well, er, none actually. I swear I didn't come back from vacation in a bad mood, I just didn't find a good fit out of those 121.
I'll be back on Tuesday, hopefully all caught up and back on my regular blogging schedule.
Friday, June 15, 2007
And now, this week in publishing:
So remember way back in the old days when This Week in Publishing was almost solely devoted to AMS's bankruptcy and the fall-out with PGW? (I know, I blocked out those posts too.) Well, unfortunately it has had some real effects on publishers, including on McSweeney's, which is out $130,000. So, if there are any billionaires reading the blog, please reach into your couch cushions for those pesky $1,000 bills that always fall in the cracks, cash in your change jar and send it on over to McSweeney's. You can also buy stuff on their website.
As linked to by Publishers Lunch, Jeff Bezos doesn't think Amazon will make money on the new HARRY POTTER book. If a book sells millions of copies and booksellers don't make a profit does it make a sound?
In new-imprint news, editor extraordinaire Amy Einhorn is moving over to Putnam and will have her own imprint called, fittingly enough, Amy Einhorn Books.
And finally, Chinua Achebe, winner of Nathan Bransford's award for Best Book Title for his novel THINGS FALL APART, won the Man Booker International Prize this week for his distinguished career. I wonder which one he's more excited about?
Have a great week! See you on the 25th.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Friend-of-the-blog Anne Dayton from Good Girl Lit is here to talk about one of the most difficult things in the whole entire world: writing books with a partner. And she should know, her awesome third novel with May Vanderbilt is now in stores: THE BOOK OF JANE, a modern-day chick-lit retelling of the Book of Job that Publishers Weekly called a "laugh-out-loud love song to New York City." Enjoy!
The number one question I get when people find out I write with a partner is “how do you do that?”
The second question is usually “can I get her number?” (The answer is no. She’s taken.)
But people seem to be genuinely fascinated by the fact that I write with someone else, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little about how it all works. Hopefully this will help out anyone who’s considering working with a friend.
I honestly believe that writing with a partner can be a very smart way to go. I mean, each of you only has to do half the work, which is pretty awesome if you’re really lazy like I am. But beyond that, you’ve got two brains to draw on, and two sets of life events to draw from. If I can’t figure out how to make a scene work, May usually can. If a section is dragging and she doesn’t know how to fix it, I usually can come up with a solution. The vast expanse of blank white paper at the beginning of a book makes me break into hives, but May is awesome at coming up with great first lines. We balance each other out.
In a writing partnership, you’ve got someone invested enough in the book to tell you if what you’ve just written is total crap. Few friends are kind enough to do this for you, but someone whose name will end up on the cover of the book has a vested interest in making sure the joke about sausages that you think is totally hilarious (it really was) never sees the light of day.
On a practical level, here’s how it works: We meet once a week for writing group. (Yes, we call it group, even though it’s just the two of us.) We alternate weeks, so one week it’s May’s turns to write and my turn to watch America’s Next Top Model and pick lint from my navel, and the next week I’m on while she’s eating bons bons. On our appointed week, we write 10 pages, then at writing group we discuss what happened in the last ten and plot out the next ten. It’s a system we totally made up on the fly back when we didn’t know what we were doing, but it works for us. But the main reason it works is because we have established a set of rules and stick by them. The rules are as follows:
- Our friendship comes first. May and I decided on day one that no matter what happened with our writing, we were friends first and writing partners second. Relationships are the most precious thing we have in this life, and no amount of success is worth sacrificing a good friendship for. (And, let’s be honest, most of us who write are strange enough that we should be grateful for the friends we have).
- No pride. Another thing we decided early on is that if I hate what May wrote, I can take it out. If she thinks what I did doesn’t work, it’s gone. It may hurt to see a passage I slaved over or a joke I think is funny get cut, but I trust her judgment, and the book will be stronger for it.
- Nothing gets in the way of writing group. Okay, truthfully, a few things get in the way of writing group—vacations, illness, and getting married are all acceptable reasons to delay group (though the last one only works once). But for the most part, we meet once a week, every week. We both clear our schedules and talk about whatever project we’re currently working on. We both have busy lives, and it’s easy to let things slip. Writing group never slips, because in this business, persistence is half the battle.
Obviously, I think there are good reasons to consider a writing partnership, but it’s not for everyone. Writing is a very internal and personal thing, and sharing your innermost thoughts and rough drafts with anyone can be intimidating. And there are practical concerns too, like not wanting to share the money (ha!) and the glory (ha ha!) when your work is published. If you’re considering writing with someone else, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
*Do we want the same thing? If your goals are different, or if you have different plans for getting there, it may not work. Likewise, if you want to write serious literary fiction and she wants to write erotic vampire romances, it’s probably not a good fit. That’s ok.
*Do I like her clothes? Ok, maybe you don’t need to wear the same brand of jeans, but you want to make sure you’re working with someone whose taste you trust. Fortunately for me, my partner is cuter and blonder than I am and dresses better than I do. But if I hated her style—I don’t really mean her clothes here, more her manner of speaking, her attitude, her writing—than I would have a hard time committing to a writing partnership.
*Am I a control freak? Obviously, this won’t work. You can’t control everything someone else does.
*Can we put our friendship aside and deal with each other as business partners? This may seem like it contradicts rule #1 above, but it’s really a complement to it. Conventional wisdom says that you should never go into business with someone who you’d like to remain friends with. And in many ways, selling and publishing a book is a business endeavor. But if your friendship is solid, you can trust each other enough to know that even if you disagree about a contractual point or a plot issue, you can still be friends at the end of it.
*Am I in this for the long haul? Are they? You may decide you want to do your own thing after one book, and that’s fine, but if you quit halfway through said book, it could cause problems, to say the least. And it’s going to take you a long time to get the toilet paper out of the trees when they TP your house out of spite, especially if it rains. You don’t want to be digging clumps of wet toilet paper out of your bushes six months from now. If you can’t commit to finishing a project with someone, it might be better not to start.
Getting a partner is the best thing that ever happened to my writing. If you’ve ever thought about it, I hope this will be enough to get you thinking. Good luck!
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
So now, you tell me: what is your favorite book cover of all time? Also, once you've picked your fave, you might answer the subquestion: how much does the cover matter? Have you ever picked up and read a book based on the cover alone?
Also, if you haven't already, check out The Book Design Review, a blog that discusses covers and picks out some of the coolest. I thoroughly enjoy it.
My favorite cover? My friend K.L. Going's THE LIBERATION OF GABRIEL KING, which is also one of those cases where the book is even better than the awesome cover. I will also confess to reading some books because a great cover caught my eye.
What's your favorite?
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
So, in the spirit of Ian McEwan, and also because I'm extremely busy today, this will be a short post. You will have plenty of time to get back to reading ON CHESIL BEACH in just a moment.
One reason agents are such sticklers regarding queries is that, well, we write them too, only they're not called queries. They're called pitch letters.
When agents submit manuscripts to publishers they include a pitch letter, calling attention to the salient parts of a manuscript/proposal, the marketability, draws attention to how awesome the author is, and which basically hopes to pursuade the editor to put the manuscript/proposal at the top of the pile and to see what the agent saw in the project. Styles of pitch letters vary greatly from agent to agent and range from "Here's the manuscript" to magnificent opuses that should be framed in a museum, but the basic function is the same -- to get someone's attention.
So, you see, we know how hard it is to write query letters too -- it's part of our job description.
SNEAK PREVIEW: have you ever wanted to write a novel with a friend but had no idea how you'd go about making it sound like one book? Well, on Thursday we'll have a guest blogger who has done just that.. Anne Dayton from Good Girl Lit will be here to talk about how to write a novel with a friend without killing each other. Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt's latest novel, THE BOOK OF JANE, is on sale today.
Monday, June 11, 2007
Secondarily, in order to round out the essential posts, I'd like to devote one post to perhaps the most-asked question of all time: what do you put in the "publishing credits" section of the query letter if you don't have any publishing credits?
Are you ready?
Nothing. Just say it's your first novel. Don't apologize, don't beseech my pardon for not having placed a short story before, don't insist that you're a serious writer even though you're not published, don't reflect on the vagaries of the publishing industry and your frustration at not being a member of the holy publishing "club" (if there is a club I'm not getting the invitations). Just say it's your first novel -- I'm much more interested in your story, trust me.
Now, if you ARE listing publishing credits, there are things to keep in mind as well. You should not claim to be a "published writer" if you self-published your previous book(s), or if you've only had short stories published in journals. If you were actually published through traditional means, please be very specific about the year and the publisher.
Publishing credits won't guarantee a request for a partial, and a lack of publishing credits won't guarantee that you'll get rejected. Think of publishing credits like icing on a cake -- cake still tastes good even without icing on top.
There we are. Spring cleaning over. Now with a little dash of potpourri this blog should be good as new.
Friday, June 8, 2007
In his ongoing attempts to make the awesomest publishing website, Michael Cader has done it again! He has now added TV to the Publishers Marketplace page, making it even indispensibler. I love TV, I love books... Publishers Marketplace COMBINES THEM. I couldn't be more excited.
In other website news, OMG, LMAO, Penguin Books UK is going to create a teen website... created by teens. I'm guessing none of the adults at Penguin Books UK know html and were tired of their children saying, "God, mum! You're too slow, just let me do it!!"
So, remember way back in the halcyon days of our youth oh... approximately four months ago (we were so innocent then... sigh) when I talked about the turf war between US and UK publishers over the exclusivity of Europe? Yeah, that's not over yet.
In the spirit of Wednesday's post on great book titles, I feel that it is my duty to point out two pretty darn awesome titles for forthcoming books that are sure to be candidates in future "Favorite Book Title" polls. Steven Colbert was a hit at BEA promoting his new book I AM AMERICA (AND SO CAN YOU). And some Kazakhstani reporter named Borat is coming out with a two-in-one tour book called BORAT: TOURISTIC GUIDINGS TO MINOR NATION OF U.S. AND A and TOURISTIC GUIDINGS TO GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN.
And finally, those of you who had MIDDLESEX in your Oprah Book Club Office Pool raked in the cash this week! Yes, after a lovely sit-down with award-laden Cormac McCarthy, she has chosen Jeffrey Euginides' novel as her next pick, which marks the second time in a row she has opted for a Pulitzer Prize winner. I'm still betting on GILEAD in my next Oprah Book Club Office Pool (which is also a Pulitzer Prize winner. A trend? OH YES I THINK SO).
Have a great weekend!
Thursday, June 7, 2007
But there I was, doing my core exercises with one of those exercise orbs (which always ends up making you look rather ridiculous) and I overheard this conversation between two of the gym old timers. Oh, and the conversation is PG-13, so the young and/or faint at heart should go peruse the Sesame Street website for a while (just don't click on the trash can. Seriously, don.... why did you have to click on the trash can???). And for the record, I don't watch the Sopranos.
Old Timer #1: So, how about the Sopranos? Who do you think is gonna get whacked next week?
Old Timer #2: I hope it's the kid. I hate that kid. He's a waste of space.
Old Timer #1: Whaddya mean he's a waste of space?
Old Timer #2: He's got no balls.
Old Timer #1: No balls? Whaddya mean he's got no balls? He's leaving that world behind. He doesn't like the violence. He's going his own way.
Old Timer #2: That's because he's got no balls.
Old Timer #1: So the only way to have balls is to be a violent sociopath?
Old Timer #2: No. But if you don't have balls it's not a choice. If you got no balls you're just a wuss. In order to make a real choice you have to have it in you, only you turn your back. He's just got no balls.
Imagine my surprise.*
The gist of what Old Timer #2 is saying is that in order for a character to make a real choice, he/she has to have the capacity to make both choices he/she is presented with. This is really good writing advice!
One of the best ways to reveal character in a novel is to have the character make a choice because it reveals the character's core values. We all have this innate curiosity about what makes people tick, and when a character makes a decision under pressure when they're faced with a difficult choice, we learn about their priorities and values. Does the character value his pride or his life? Does the character love the girl enough to risk his own neck? Etc. etc.
But in order for this to work, a character has to have the capacity to make both choices. Otherwise your reader will sniff out a false choice a mile a way. So I can see Old Timer #2's point -- if the kid from the Sopranos doesn't follow his father's footsteps it doesn't necessarily mean that his value system is different, he just might not (forgive me) have balls. A more interesting dilemma would be if we got the sense that he DID have courage, but then decided to go his own way. Then it would mean that he was rejecting his father's value system in a real way.
There you have it. Writing advice from the gym.
*The words "imagine my surprise" are an inside joke between me, my fiancee, and the wonderful patrons of San Francisco's greatest bar, John Barleycorn (please sign the petition to save John Barleycorn). Larry, the amazing bartender and owner, was working the bar when a homeless man stumbled in with a mysterious paper bag. He walked slowly up to the bar and things got quiet as everyone was wondering what the guy was going to do. Then he opened the bag to reveal a wine bottle with a cork instead of a screw top. He looked up at Larry and said, "Imagine my surprise."
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
I have seen books go through twenty tentative titles before a final title was finally chosen, and it's often an agonizing choice. There's a reason for that: a great title can really capture a reader's attention and can separate a book from the pack. Although they're great books that suceeded on their own merits, no doubt titles like HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS, SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS and THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST helped set those books apart.
So you tell me: you don't have to have read the book or even liked it, but what is your favorite book title of all time? As always, you can only pick one. Why? Because I'm mean. (And it's more fun that way.)
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
BUT. There are benefits to all this hard work. Did I mention the free books???
Yes, I was able to score an advance copy of Ian McEwan's ON CHESIL BEACH, which is officially being published today, and I have an announcement to make: I am now the official chairman of the "Can't We Just Give Ian McEwan the Nobel Prize Already?" Committee.
ON CHESIL BEACH is, in a word, incredible. I liked it even more than ATONEMENT, which for my money is one of the greatest books written in the past ten years. ON CHESIL BEACH is barely more than a novella, but it's just so precise, it's beautiful, it's amazing.
And in my opinion every writer should read ON CHESIL BEACH because it is a case study in conflict. The conflict drips off the page. The characters are caught in conflict with each other, with themselves, with their families, but most of all, they're caught between two eras, poised on the brink of the new modern times but not quite able to get there themselves.
New York Magazine recently had an article where they asked professors which books would be taught in schools in 50 years, and I don't think you have to look any farther than Ian McEwan's works.
So if you hit me up on the homeboy phone this week, be forewarned, I might just be inclined to shout into the phone, "Yo, why are you calling me instead of reading ON CHESIL BEACH??"
Monday, June 4, 2007
Anyway, BEA is over, and this just in from the participants: it was hot. Really hot.
Also at BEA: publishers, authors and booksellers wondering how new technology and our new robot overlords will affect the world of books. The New York Times, of course, was all over this.
From Camp "I love the taste of chrome in the morning" you have Chris Anderson, who is contemplating releasing his new book for free online (the book is conveniently titled FREE), only it will have advertisements inside. And from Camp "Die you robot scum" you have.... well, no one was willing to denigrate our robot overlords on the record for fear of retribution, but the Times article quotes some people who express a sense of inevitability and mild fear about the coming changes.
Now personally, although I joke about the publishing industry's reluctance to embrace certain mind-boggling new technologies such as, uh, e-mailed query letters, I feel that the publishing industry often gets a bad rap for being left behind in a world of new technologies. To my eye, this isn't the case. Publishers are investing lots of cold hard cash in new technology-based publishing initiatives to be ready for changes in the marketplace, but so far... things haven't changed all that much. Sure, you have more online marketing, Internet piracy is becoming more of a problem, Amazon and other online vendors loom large, independents are struggling from competition from chains and the Internet, but the vast majority of books are still bought in stores, are published by the same publishers, are printed in paper and ink.... etc.
So the next time you see the publishing industry criticized for being unreceptive to technological change, or the next time you hear someone talk about a coming massive change in publishing that the industry is catastrophically unprepared for, think about how little has actually changed in the last 10 years. Sure, things are going to continue to evolve, and it's possible that I'll see something like a digital revolution during my publishing lifetime, but until people decide that they want to read on PDAs and screens than hold a book in their hands, things will continue to stay relatively the same.
It's not that publishing is behind the technological curve. The industry is just giving people what they want.
Friday, June 1, 2007
Actually, this week's public service announcement has to do with your rights as an author. I get lots and lots of questions about whether this or that agent is a scam artist, and whether someone should pay their agent $500 to read their manuscript (my answer: um, no). It's amazing how much confusion is out there, so let me do my little part to put this one to bed.
The Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR) is sort of like a gang for agents, only instead of wearing matching colors people dress in ill-fitting clothes (I kid -- people in publishing have great fashion sense... compared to a 3 year old playing dress-up). The AAR has a canon of ethics that its members follow, and you should really take some time to familiarize yourself with it so you know your rights.
Learn it. Know it. Live it.
Or, if you're the type of person who is into that whole brevity thing, here's the abridged version:
1. Agents are loyal to their clients' business, avoid conflict of interests, and never deceive or defraud their clients, other agents, the general public, or anyone else they do business with.
2. Agents are responsible and secure with their clients' funds. Payments must be made on time. Books of account must be open.
3. Agents may pass along charges, such as photocopies and purchase of books used for sales of other rights.
4. Agents keep their client apprised of matters entrusted to the agent and provides information that the client requests.
5. Agents cannot represent the buyer and seller in a transaction.
6. Agents may not receive a secret profit, and may not receive a referral fee.
7. Agents keep their clients' financial information confidential.
The last one is the most important for aspiring authors, so I'm going to bold it:
8. Agents may not charge clients or potential clients reading fees.
There you have it. Those are your rights (in addition to your right to remain silent). If you are looking for an agent who follows these rules, consult the AAR's online database of agents.
Have a great weekend!