Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Editing vs. Copyediting

Thank you for sending in your pet peeves, which are legion! Like, Hannibal invading with battle elephants legion. But that's ok! It's a good reminder about the subjectivity of books, and it was very interesting to see the different responses.

Meanwhile, as I try to restrain myself from pointing out that some people misspelled the word "typo" as they were complaining about typos in the last thread (oops! too late!), one very common peeve that I often see out there, which always prompts great gnashing of my teeth, is when I see people rant (particularly in Amazon reviews), "What was the editor DOING!!! I found TWO TYPOS."

Just so's we're all clear:

The editor is the person who acquires the book for the publishing company. The editor then becomes like a project manager, shepherding the book through the publishing process (please see Former Publishing Insider's two part take on what editors really do here and here). Yes, this does usually involve some editing. But that is usually on the order of, "let's beef up this plot arc," "how about this title," and "do you think you could get me some backstage passes to your concert? Please? My wife is a big fan." The editor may point individual things out, but the editor is not spending their time correcting typos. Not their job!

Then there is a copyeditor. A copyeditor is the type of person who will point out to a police officer that the charge for speeding in a school zone is actually $75, not $50... while they are getting a ticket. A copyeditor not only knows more grammatical rules and alternate spellings than nearly anyone, but they LOVE IT. A copyeditor prays to whatever manual of style they personally believe in (and yes, there is more than one religion).

So it's the copyeditor who is the one responsible for catching typos and small inconsistencies and factual errors. Not the editor.

But before you go and amend the complaint to "What was the COPYeditor doing," here's how this process works (actual process may vary, but this is one example). Author turns in manuscript. Editor suggests macro changes. Author turns in new manuscript. Goes to copyeditor. A fantastic copyeditor will catch nearly everything, or everything everything. Not all copyeditors are created equal. First pass pages go to the author, who double-checks the copyeditor's suggested changes. Now, here comes the fun part. Manuscript is shipped to a typesetting facility, where the line edits from the author, copyeditor, and editor are hopefully incorporated correctly. It's a somewhat straightforward task, but sometimes new errors can enter the picture here. Author gets these second-pass pages, they try to catch any remaining (or introduced) errors, and once they sign off on them the book goes to press.

Hopefully by the time it's gone from editor to copyeditor to first pass to person who knows where to second pass every error will have been found and corrected. Hopefully. But there are also opportunities for errors to creep into that process.

Oh, and for the record, before you start correcting typos on this blog, keep in mind that I have neither editor nor copyeditor. (But this blog is, in fact, outsourced to overseas typists.)

So when you do find a typo in a book, gloat! By all means gloat. Gloat gloat gloat. You found a typo and are officially smarter than the offending sentence. But don't blame the poor editor!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What Are Your Pet Peeves as a Reader?

If you're reading this blog you have an intimate familiarity with the tendencies, biases, and at times irrational peeves that swim around in my head. My condolences.

But what turns you off as a reader? When you're reading a book, what drives you up the wall?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Stock Phrases

Thank you to everyone who voted and weighed in on the phrase "coming of age," which 66% loathe, 33% love, and the silent majority is silent because I didn't give them an option. Sorry!

My own personal feeling on the matter, after great reflection and meditation, is that I don't actually have a problem with the phrase per se and to reiterate again for the uninitiated, I would never reject a query for something trivial like a simple phrase. Even if you misspelled it and somehow turned it into a rhetorical question.

However, in defense of nitpicky posts like yesterday's (and others you see around the Internet from fellow agents who have been turned into raging beserkers by pet peeves gone wild), I like to call attention to these things from time to time because they provide a glimpse into the repetition repetition that we see in our inboxes inboxes.

And ultimately, what I'm trying to get across is that it's so so so important for authors to take a big ole weed wacker to their queries and take out any stock phrases and cliches. I understand that these are extremely difficult to spot because 1) you don't read 1,000 queries a month and 2) cliches are such a fabric of our speech that they're like breathing -- you don't know you're doing it until you choke on something.

But sometimes I think authors self-concsciously use phrases like "coming of age," "trials and tribulations," "more than they bargained for," etc., because they sound right. They sound like phrases authors would include in their pitches. But that's precisely the wrong instinct. In fact authors should go in the exact opposite direction -- rid your query of phrases you've heard before, write with originality, and you will have taken a very prodigious step toward crafting a query that stands out and sounds original rather than one that blends into a very crowded crowd.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Can I Get a Ruling?: "Coming of Age"

Many a query describes a novel as a "coming of age" story. I've never really understood what this means (coming of age of what?) but I never really had a problem with the phrase. At the very least it connotes a maturation process, which means a character is changing, and a character changing is officially a good thing.

But then a while back I heard (either erroneously or just oneously) that Miss Snark hated the words "coming of age." And I thought, "Huh."

Since that time, perhaps because I see it several times a day and perhaps because I have been influenced by Her Snarkness, my feeling about the phrase "coming of age" has gradually morphed from benign curiosity to morbid hostility. But then again, what if coming of age is a necessary term?

So... Can I get a ruling on "coming of age"? Two options below. Love or loathe. No indifference allowed!

Friday, July 25, 2008

This Week in Publishing 7/25/08

RIP Randy Pausch, the professor who touched millions of people with THE LAST LECTURE. He was only 48. Very very sad.

The good people over at Fine Print Literary Management have started a master agency blog, to go along with the already awesome individual blogs that they already blog on. Blog. Adjust those feed-readers accordingly.

And one of the first blog topics on the new blog (blog blog blog!) is news that Sony has made the innnnnteresting move of opening up the Sony Reader to books purchased through non-Sony e-tailers. An electronics manufacturer opening up their device to competition from other retailers so that users can better use the product??? What a concept!! I salute Sony's non-evilness.

Meanwhile, say goodbye to the LA Times Book Review. Good grief.

So remember Dennis Cass's hilarious video in which he detailed all the things he wasn't doing to promote his book, which ended up being a good book promotion tool? Well. Not only was this mindbending metapromotion through nonpromotion, turns out it sold some books too. Bella Stander caught up with Dennis and talked to him about the video. (Thanks to Kristin Nelson for the link).

You know how in the Sex & the City movie Carrie was reading that book called the Love Letters of Great Men? I mean, not that I was dragged to that movie, WHICH WAS LONGER THAN BEN HUR. Ahem. Anyway, sure enough, here's an item of note from Publishers Marketplace:
FICTION: GENERAL/OTHER: Edited by Ursula Doyle's LOVE LETTERS OF GREAT MEN, the romantic book from the Sex and the City film that didn't exist...until now -- ranging from the simple devotion of Robert Browning to the exquisite eloquence of Oscar Wilde, all the letters from the film and many more, to Lindsay Sagnette at St. Martin's, for publication in fall 2008, by Margaret Halton at Macmillan UK (US).

And finally, in reality TV news, are you sitting down? Are you sure? Well, that British Bachelor whose name I've already forgotten has broken up with Shayne, that girl he called his monkey. I WILL NEVER BELIEVE IN TRUE LOVE AGAIN. This means that 10 out of 11 Bachelors have broken up with the women they've chosen, and that doesn't even include Brad Womack, who didn't choose anyone. As the kids say, LOL! Can't wait for the next season.

And finally finally, it behooves me to point you to the Season 4 preview for The Hills, which is just, I mean, it's..... all you need is one quote from Lauren: "Brody's in jail????"

And finally finally finally, if you haven't watched Mad Men, YOU'RE MAD. Ha! Get it? Get it? Oh. You got it. Um. Well, this show about an ad agency in the 1960s, which was originally recommended to me by Berkley editor Shannon Jamieson-Vazquez way before it was a Emmy darling (I mean, it airs on AMC!!), is just so incredibly awesome. Now that The Wire is gone, dare I say best drama on television? You still have time to catch up on Season 1 before Season 2 premieres on Sunday.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What's Your Least Favorite Word?

After last week's You Tell Me in which we discussed our favorite words, reader John Ochwat had the good sense to suggest this week's topic. And it's even better:

What's your least favorite word?

Mine is proctor.

Take it away, word gurus!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Following the Market

A couple of different interesting threads of discussion opened up in the comments section of yesterday's post, and there's one in particular that I've been seeing around the Internet lately in different forms, namely the sentiment (or resentment) that agents and publishers determine what's popular and what becomes a bestseller.

To a certain extent, yes, definitely, agents and publishers control the funnel and decide what gets published and what arrives in your friendly neighborhood bookstore. Agents decide which projects to pitch to publishers, editors determine what to publish, and the publishers decide how to spend marketing money. So yes, obviously there is some amount of influence.

But honestly it's kind of like throwing a stick into a river. You can try and throw it in the right spot, but once it hits the current who really knows what's going to happen? And let's face it, how it floats downstream depends a lot more on the stick and the current than the toss.

To be sure, publishers can position a book well, and they can see it take off. There's nothing like a committed publisher to work wonders for a book's success. Or they can do everything in their power and it still might not take off. I think it's tempting for people outside of the biz to think of the publishing industry in monolithic terms, as if there are two people, agent and editor, using the Midas touch to determine what turns to gold. If only.

Just to give an example, sometimes people think that publishers determine what is stocked in big chains and in WalMart. Nuh uh. They can pitch them in there and try to use their influence and reputation to get books stocked, but except for the occasional blind sell-in, stores decide what they're going to stock. Yes, publishers will offer to pay for placement for some books, but stores decide whether to take them up on that and which books get the good spots.

So even before a book arrives in a bookstore or superstore a massive array of people have made a bet on a book. An agent thinks it will sell. An editor thinks it will sell. The sales team pitches it, the publicist promotes it, the buyers decide to stock it, the newspapers decide what to review, etc. etc. etc. The books you see in the bookstore are the books that a whole lot of people have guessed are the books that will sell the most copies. And even with so many people weighing in, there are still tons of surprises!

And the surprises happen because ultimately book buyers determine the market. Everyone else is just chasing.

To a large extent, readers get the books they deserve. This isn't the TV business where there are only so many TV shows on, or the movie business where there are only a couple hundred movies in mainstream theaters. Every B&N and Borders has tens of thousands of individual titles. Tens of thousands! There is a ton of choice out there, and nearly every conceivable niche is filled. And out of those tens of thousands a few books catch on with the public and become bestsellers. Publishers may have helped that happen, but at the end of the day, to paraphrase Monty Python, "No one expects THE SHACK."

Now, obviously with so many people chasing books that will sell, there's not always a pure incentive for a book to be really good. Some books will sell regardless of quality and some big authors may mail-in the occasional dud. Buyer beware (although I would argue that most of the time people call something "crap" just because books are subjective). And honestly, agents and editors are actually really good at determining what will sell. Sure, no one's batting 1.000, but you can't last long in this business if the books you champion don't sell.

As long as we're operating in a capitalistic society, this is how the game is played. The publishing industry has been a for-profit industry for a couple hundred years now, and the "they only publish crap" complaint has been around just as long. Trust me, we're just trying to follow the market.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Query Trends: I'm Seeing Triple

One of the more interesting aspects of reading thousands of queries over the course of the year is seeing the trends. You'd be surprised at how many queries I receive that use the same plots, the same titles, and use the same pitches (the alleged Harry Potter "void" being the most prominent sales pitch). Taking a look at queries in broad strokes gives me a bizarre, fleeting (and possibly misleading) sense of the writerly and cultural mood of the moment.

The trends fall into three categories. The most obvious and prevalent one is the copycat trend -- a book is popular and I see a bazillion queries imitating what was popular. You name a popular book, trust me, I've seen 50 queries that were more or less exactly like that book only slightly different. Currently in vogue for imitation: Eckhart Tolle and THE SECRET.

The second category is the ripped from the headlines trend -- whatever big events have recently occurred, sure enough, I'll see projects that are trying to capture that lightning in a book, whether it's a straightforward treatise on the subject or an allegorical tale that plays out our current dramas (often in outer space). First it was terrorism, then came the religion/theocracy projects, then the totalitarian government work, now I'm seeing a lot of Obama-esque stories. Just to be clear, I'm not necessarily knocking pulling stuff from headlines as they are a rich vein of material that we're all experiencing. It's all about the execution.

The third category is a bit more inexplicable and tantalizing. And this is the "simultaneous thought" type of query that doesn't necessarily have a root in a popular book, but nevertheless keeps showing up again and again.

My favorite example of this third category is the glut of vampire queries I began seeing around 2005-2006. Around that time, all of a sudden I got a ton of vampire queries, and there wasn't quite an explanation for it. Yes, there was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and Laurell K. Hamilton and Christopher Moore and Anne Rice and all the other successful vampire projects that were already out there, but there wasn't a particular project that had quite risen to the level of success where it could have prompted so many query imitators. I kept telling my friends that vampires were going to be the next big thing.

Then THE HISTORIAN came along, and I thought, "ah ha!" You see! People love vampires! And, well, then it kept right on going, possibly cresting (or maybe just continuing its crescendo) with the TWILIGHT series. So in this case, I really think the glut of vampire queries was actually a harbinger of a cultural moment.

So what am I seeing double and triple and quadruple of these days? Would you believe Mayans and overweight women?

First, I've received at least a dozen queries that somehow involve the fact that the Maya calendar ends in 2012. The particular horrors unleashed by this event vary, but this is the starting point for many an adventure novel. The calendar is ending and boy are those Mayans pissed!

Second, all of a sudden I've been receiving a whole lot of women's fiction with overweight protagonists. "Ugly Betty" maybe? Has there been a successful book that went under my radar? I don't know!

Just to be clear, I don't think anyone who has written a book in these molds should necessarily chuck their laptop out the window -- you actually might be onto something. I'm also not automatically rejecting a query just because I've seen the idea before -- like I said, it's all about the execution.

But I'm honestly not quite sure what to make of these two. While the Mayan calendar is part ripped from headlines, part DA VINCI CODE meshing of current adventure with past history/conspiracy, ultimately it's somewhat explainable as a trope. Apocalypse, danger, Mayans... what's not to like??

It's the overweight chick lit/women's fiction that really intrigues me, particularly since it runs so counter to the normal chick lit mold where women tend to desire mainstream/elite brands, lifestyles, and self-image. Sometimes these queries do fall into that aspirational category as a makeover story in which the overweight woman creates a new, improved self, but other times they stay proud of who and how they are.

So are these coming cultural moments? I'm not sure, but you can bet I'm going to be looking closely to see what happens.

Friday, July 18, 2008

This Week in Publishing 7/18/08

This week... in publishing.

Well, of course. Just when I buy a Kindle the rumors surface about future versions. Oh, the humanity!

Speaking of e-books, a few weeks back I linked to an article on a seriously cool e-reader called mibook, only in doing so I remarked that they had a strange website. Well, someone from this disparaged company e-mailed me, and.... I had the wrong site. Whoops! Here is the proper site, in all its glory. Sorry about that mibook! You still look very cool, and I still want one!

And now for This Week in Publishing.... in videos.

Slate talks to Junot Diaz about writing and THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, for which he has received many medals. Diaz also admits that he would rather be reading than writing:

In case you are wondering if the production values of book trailers are increasing (these are the things that keep me up at night), look no further than sci-fi thriller writer and faithful lurker Jeff Carlson's awesome book trailer for PLAGUE WAR:

And finally, while we're sharing videos, during that Gawker thing that shall not be named I was compared in the comments section to this individual:

So to set the record straight, no, I don't surf, and no, I don't talk like that guy. Although he's kind of my hero.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What's Your Favorite Word?

We're all word people right? So which is your favorite word in the whole wide language? Surely you have one.

Mine is archipelago.

Take it away, word people!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

HarperStudio: Imprint...... of the Future

Last but not least in our Imprint...... of the Future (cymbals crash) series, following Vanguard and 12, is former Hyperion publisher Bob Miller's new imprint HarperStudio. I was lucky enough to attend a lunch with Bob this past Friday, and here are the deets.

HarperStudio combines some of the elements of other imprints of the future -- much like 12, HarperStudio will publish a small, exclusive number of books, in this case 24 books a year. And like Vanguard, the author is asked to take a lesser investment up front in exchange for more of a share of the (hopefully) success down the line.

What makes HarperStudio different is the publishing model. HarperStudio will pay authors no more than $100,000 advances, and instead of royalties, utilizes a profit sharing model that incorporates expenses on one side of the ledger (expenses will include publicity and unit production, but not editorial and overhead), and income on the other side. Profits are split 50/50, and accounting reports four times a year, translating to a break-even point at around 25,000 copies sold.

Miller hopes to publish the type of nonfiction that he specialized in at Hyperion -- some celebrity driven works and some high concept nonfiction (such as THE LAST LECTURE and DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF). And particularly since authors have a personal stake in the advertising, Miller envisions a very close, collaborative relationship between author and publisher.

And lastly, in a still-evolving part of the model, as other media outlets have reported, Miller hopes to incorporate some form of no-return sales and is currently working out some different scenarios to try and make this possible.

This venture is both an experiment in a new publishing model and a reaction to the two ends where publishers are getting squeezed -- for the big projects they are paying huge up front investments in the form of author advances, and then on the back end some projects are swimming in returns, creating quite a bit of risk for the publisher. Miller is hoping to chop off those two ends and build a brand around books that are safer bets.

To be sure, the model is for a particular type of author -- someone who either doesn't need the advance and is willing to wait for the profit share, or for projects that HarperStudio has creatively acquired for a smaller advance and sees promise in. But I'm always excited about people trying something new, and Miller has the intelligence, experience and vision in spades, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with this venture.

Monday, July 14, 2008


After a couple of days with a Kindle I have found just about every expectation I had for the device completely turned over on its head. I thought things would be one way, turns out they're another. The short version of my Kindletastic weekend: the Kindle is an incredible leap forward and yet it also is a device that feels like it has a bit of a ways to go.

Before I make like CNET and give a rundown of some pros and cons, let me first say that if you are a literary agent the Kindle almost seems like it was designed expressly for you. I can't imagine a more helpful device. My work life has officially been drastically, incredibly improved.

First expectation countered: I thought I would be annoyed having to pay 10 cents every time I converted my own Word documents.

Wrong! Sending partials to the Kindle is just. so. easy.

Step 1. Partial comes into my work e-mail address. Step 2. I forward it to my Kindle e-mail address. Step 3. Documents show up automatically on the Kindle a minute later, already formatted properly and just sitting there waiting to be read on the crystal clear screen.

SO EASY. I could plug the Kindle into the computer and drag and drop files for free, but it's just way easier to e-mail them. Take my 10 cents, Amazon! Please! I beg of you!

I can't overstate how awesome it is to be able to read manuscripts on a good screen, anywhere, with uniform formatting, without printing anything out. Just awesome. The only hitch is that it's tricky reading partials away from my work e-mail account because I like to refresh my memory about the genre and subject before I start reading, so now I'm asking people to paste their original query into the first page of the partial. Problem solved.

Second expectation countered: I thought the device would look clunky and '80s-ish.

Inaccurate! I think the Kindle has gotten an unfairly bad rap for being an ugly device -- I don't think it is, anyway. It has an interesting shape to it as it's tapered on both sides, it's lightweight, I find the tiny keyboard surprisingly easy to type on, and it has a seriously cool scroll wheel unlike anything I've seen before.

I've heard a lot of complaints about the page turn buttons being so big that it's too easy to accidentally turn pages. When you're holding the Kindle by itself, yes, it's a little challenging to figure out exactly how to hold it and turn pages. But when it's in the leather carrying case that comes with it it's very easy to hold and turn pages. As you can see from the picture above (I did brave the beach with the Kindle after all), I just crack open the case and start reading.

Now for some drawbacks.

Third expectation countered: I didn't think I'd be bothered by the screen-blink when turning pages.

I am. When you turn pages on the Kindle the entire screen briefly turns black, and then it moves on to the next page. I knew this going in since I've seen this wipe before on other e-readers, and I may still get used to it, but so far it bothers me that turning pages is such a slow process. There is so much of a pronounced delay that I have to anticipate turning the page and press the button a second or two before I'm done reading the page to keep up my reading pace. Sometimes this works, sometimes not.

The blink prevents the device from disappearing in my hands. I know it's only been a weekend, but I never lose myself in the device in the way that I don't even notice turning pages when I'm reading a paper book -- I can turn the page of a paper book faster than the Kindle can turn a page. The Kindle delay also is not uniform and delays may vary, which further complicates trying to anticipate the page turn to get into a reading flow. And that bothers me.

It also contributes to...

Fourth expectation countered: I didn't think I'd miss paper books when reading a Kindle

But I do! Regular blog readers know I'm extremely unsentimental when it comes to paper books. I don't really care about the smell, the feel in my hands, putting it on the bookshelf... none of that. All that matters to me are the words. Bring on the future. Er. Or so I thought.

Chalk this one up to not knowing what you have 'til it's gone. I'm reading THE BOOK THIEF on the Kindle, and I really am enjoying the book a great deal. But. I kind of miss being able to look at the cover! I miss not being able to flip back to previous pages to re-read a section very easily! I'm honestly surprised at these things -- I thought I'd get an e-reader and never look back.

And I also miss not knowing precisely how far I am into the book. Kindle shows tiny dots at the bottom of the page that show approximately how far you are through a book, and, uh, I'm on dot 20 or 21. Or something. They're too small to count easily. I think I'm halfway through. I don't know. It also shows "locations" at the bottom, by which I think roughly translates "lines," provided said lines are in a certain sized font. And I'm on "Locations 3052-60," only I don't really know what that means. Not exactly the same thing as being on Page 234.

And that leads to...

Fifth expectation countered: I'd heard people complain about the physical device's shortcomings, but I thought the user interface would be smooth.

Well, it's kind of smooth, especially the Amazon store part, which works flawlessly and easily. It is even extremely easy to return a book you bought accidentally, which I managed to do within 10 minutes of using the Kindle. I also really like opening up the Kindle and resuming exactly where I left off in a book the last time.

But clicking around on a Kindle is sloooow. Typing is an exercise in trust because it takes so long for the letters to appear. The dots thing instead of page numbers really bothers me.

Some of this is saved by the cool scroll wheel on the right hand side, which is really easy to use and just looks cool. But then there are just some strange choices that make this feel like a very raw device. It's not easy to organize manuscripts in the main screen. I wish I could create folders for work and others, but as far as I know that's not possible (might be wrong on that). The web browser correctly belongs in the "experimental" folder, because while the wireless connection is surprisingly fast, the Kindle isn't really able to interpret many web pages into anything comprehensible (although this blog actually works pretty well because of how few pictures I have).

So the ultimate verdict: I am extremely excited about my Kindle. It's going to change my life, and I think I'll look back and marvel at the pre-Kindle world and reminisce about it in the way that I remember what life was like before the Internet. Having a wireless handheld device with a crystal-clear screen is simply incredible. And even with my reservations I will probably look first to see if books are available on the Kindle before I buy them and I'll use it first instead of a paper book.

But this is definitely a first generation device, and there are plenty of kinks to be worked out. It's so easy to imagine improvements, which I'm sure will be coming quickly in future devices in the coming years. So while I think quite a few bibliophiles will love it, particularly with a hefty price tag I hesitate to recommend it to just anyone.

But the future is here. For real this time.

Friday, July 11, 2008

This Week in Publishing 7/11/08

My Kindle arrived! First impressions: not as clunky as I thought. I'm loving it for reading partials and after two days I already can't imagine life without it. But there is definitely going to be an adjustment period. I'll give a full rundown next week.

Meanwhile, in other e-book news, Publishers Lunch reports that a new e-book application for the iPhone, tied to FictionWise, is getting some rave reviews, and opening up the prospect of using iPhones as e-readers. Since I'm also hoping to get an iPhone soon, I'm very much looking forward to doing a comparison of the respective Kindle and iPhone e-book experience. The future is most definitely here.

A judge in New Jersey dismissed the case by a New Jersey literary agent against Wikimedia. As mentioned last week, the agent sued some of my favorite bloggers. I haven't been fully up to date on the latest on this case so post in and check the comment section for more info. I've also been told there's an author advocate defense fund for the defendants in the case.

Have you been reading Rebecca Ramsey's awesome blog Wonders Never Cease lately? Yes, she's a client, but honestly it's like no other blog I've read and dare I say it's taking the entire artform of blogging to a new level? Did you even know there was a blogging artform? I sure didn't! But now there is one.

The always-indispensable Shrinking Violet Promotions has an awesome interview with a real live Random House publicist about things authors can do to promote their books.

And finally, the discussions about Wednesday's hypothetical question and Thursday's follow-up discussion really generated some of the best conversation material this blog has yet seen. Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who has contributed to the discussion. I'll leave you with this comment from bunnygirl, which I thought really took the discussion into an interesting new place. What is it about writing that inspires so much more ambition than other hobbies?

What I find interesting is how many people think the only reason to write is to be published, and that publication legitimizes ones efforts somehow. Is there any other endeavor that carries such a load of assumptions?

Most of the people who run marathons know they aren't going to come anywhere close to winning, but they run anyway. Most people who take up a musical instrument don't expect to play at the local VFW Hall, let alone Carnegie Hall. Many people are very happy to paint watercolors that will hang on no one's walls but their own, make beer that will never be served in a bar, or grow tomatoes that will never be for sale at the local supermarket.

No one thinks it odd that people have these hobbies and in fact, people usually speak respectfully of the gardeners, quilters, and other hobbyists in their midst without ever saying, "Well, Bob is just wasting his time restoring that GTO. He's not a REAL mechanic because no one pays him to work in an auto repair shop."

I wonder why writing is viewed by so many as something that's not worth doing unless it results in a gloss-covered product on the shelf of Barnes & Noble?

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Non-hypothetical Response to the Hypothetical Question

Wow! Quite the response to the hypothetical question about whether you would want to know if there is publication in your future and whether that would stop you from writing -- 186 comments and counting. One lesson I learned from that post: never play poker with an author, because they will cheat!! The number of people who fudged on the hypothetical was off the charts. I'll be charitable and chalk that one up to creativity and natural rulebreaking disposition I guess.

I wanted to call your attention to a recent comment by vaqqb, because I think it makes for an interesting point of discussion.

vaqqb writes:

You know, Nathan, this is a more relevant question that it looks, because so much irrational author behavior springs from it. Agonizing over rejection-letter comments, begging for any kind of personalized rejection, putting things through one crit group after another, going into pitch sessions with half-finished novels--all of that because we want someone to tell us straight-up, yes or no, are we any good? Are we ever going to be any good?

Look how many people would stop writing if they couldn't sell it; or better, look how many people would change the way they spent their time, efforts and presumably money if they knew they couldn't sell what they wrote.

From our perspective any agent COULD be our seer, with better accuracy than our unpublished crit partners, longsuffering spouses, or moms. Instead they send us fortune-cookie platitudes in a form letter. Where's our Delphi? Where's our Simon Cowell? What do we have to do to get an honest "no"?

So why don't I give people the Simon Cowell treatment and tell people when they are the literary equivalent of Spencer Pratt's soul?

Before I answer that, let me reluctantly admit that at times it is tempting. When you've read twenty queries in a row by people who will almost positively never be published, sometimes this voice in the back of the head wants to tell people to just stop and go and spend some time with their family. And for about 50% of the queries I receive, I think I could probably tell someone with 99% accuracy that they don't have the chops for mainstream publication.

But I don't give into that temptation. And here's why:

#1: It's just not my place. Who am I to tell someone they shouldn't follow their dreams? I'm just trying to do my job, which is sell books.

#2: The people who have the least chance tend to be the people who are most hostile to hearing that.

#3: Who knows, anyway?

That last point is somewhat complex, because it's my job to assess talent and abilities and good from bad, and in my own defense I would say that given that I spend hours every day assessing whether something is good or bad, just as with anything else, I've gotten very in tune with quickly and accurately assessing whether something is good. But at the end of the day, I'm just a guy with my own subjective opinions, and someone else might find merit in books that I don't get. That's why I specifically say in my queries that someone else may feel differently.

This all comes down to one basic fact about books: there is no Delphi. There are some people who rise above the cacophony of opinions and become bestsellers and award winners, but even those people will have a huge number of detractors. And there are others who most people don't think are good, but there will be some people who read their work and find meaning and value in it.

Yes, I could tell the truth to people who I think really don't have a shot, but trust me, they they don't want to hear it from me. And I'm not the person to tell them.

Brevity is the Soul Of

Too many long queries lately.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Hypothetical Question Time

We're going hypothetical today. It's like a thought experiment on steroids, only if the steroids had themselves had been taking steroids in order to become super steroids on steroids. Or not. Here goes.

Question #1: Let's say there was a seer who could tell you definitively whether or not you have the talent to be a published writer. Absolute 100% accuracy. But. If the seer person said no, that's that. Final answer. Would you want to know?

Question #2: If the seer person said no, you don't have the talent to be a published writer, would you still write?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Reading Partials: You've Got 30 Pages, Pal

I have posted quite a bit about the experience of reading queries, but someone asked me the other day about what it's like reading partials, and it occurred to me that I'd never really blogged about that part of business. At some point I will compile a statistical breakdown of partials that will be precise in its exactness and exacting in its precision, but until then some vague ramblings will have to do.

As has probably been apparent from my query stats, I'm really picky. Very very picky. Particularly when it comes to fiction, and still further when it comes to debut fiction. It's not only a personality trait (which it is), but it's also just a rational reaction to the marketplace driven by a simple fact: selling fiction isn't easy. It's more subjective than nonfiction, the reactions tend to vary greatly (and maddeningly), and it's just plain tricky. So if I'm going to get behind a project I really need to both love it and feel that it has a place in the market.

When I like a query, 99% of the time I request the first 30 pages, which I've found to be an uncannily accurate chunk of a manuscript. For all of the clients I've taken on, I had a really, really good feeling after those 30 pages that I was going to like the whole thing, and most of the time I was right. On the other hand, when I was wavering on a project after 30 pages but requested the full anyway, I've never had an "ah ha" moment where I realized I was wrong about those 30 pages. I've found them to be an extremely accurate microcosm for the whole book.

I believe 30 pages is the perfect length because you can't really hide behind that length of a manuscript. Some people have a fantastic opener only to fade when the novel gets going because they can't sustain the plot, some people have a quiet opener that builds into something gripping by page 30. But if nothing is really keeping me going after page 30 I'm guessing that nothing is going to keep me going after page 60, 90, or 100.

Now, I'm hoping this doesn't send people into a panic thinking that they need to have bodies all over the ground by Page 30 or else I'm not going to be interested. Not the case! A slow build can work. But there has to be something that is making me connect with the narrative in that span. Some form of the plot needs to be introduced in that space, the protagonist should grow more complicated in that time... things need to get going, somehow.

I have been requesting partials with a far greater frequency lately because the queries I've been receiving in the past couple months have been far better on average (good work, everyone!). Of the partials I request, for fully half I'd say I know either immediately upon cracking open the partial or within a few pages that it's not for me. Sometimes people write a great query but don't yet have the abilities to write a full novel, sometimes something turns me off irrevocably, but I've read enough partials to know almost immediately when something isn't going to work.

Of the remaining 50% of the partials, the vast majority may indeed be good but I just am not confident enough in them to ask for the full. A lot of the time I feel especially badly for passing on these because the person is talented and should be very proud of their work and continue writing, but I just didn't feel it was quite there. Either I'm concerned about the polish or the idea feels a bit familiar or the characters aren't jumping out at me... there's some reason that I'm not confident enough to request a full.

I request a full manuscript for one out of every 25-50 partials. I know, I know, you can do the math. If I request partials on 5% of the queries I receive we're talking about a full manuscript request rate of about two or three out of a thousand queries.

But, silver lining: when I get to the point where I'm excited enough to ask for a full but end up sending a rejection, I almost always give the author an opportunity to revise the manuscript and I'll take another look (unless I have no idea what to suggest). I also occasionally ask people whose partials I've read for a revision if I really like the idea and see something fixable.

So take a close look at those first 30 pages. Don't try and cram all the good stuff in there unnecessarily, but put them under a microscope because they are crucial -- not just to me, but (eventually, hopefully) an editor, not to mention (eventually, hopefully) a prospective reader.

Monday, July 7, 2008

I'm Getting a Kindle

Also the sky is blue, grass is green, and I hate the Lakers.

After months of dithering in the name of "assessing" and "waiting for Mac compatibility," I have at last succumbed to temptation and am awaiting the arrival of a nice shiny... er.. matte finish white plastic Kindle. The future is now.

I am already busily making plans for my post-Kindle life, envisioning myself reading work manuscripts outside and on the bus and everywhere I previously couldn't read them as I saved an Amazon rainforest worth of trees by reading partials on my computer. When I figured out that I could still take notes on the manuscripts and then export those notes back to my computer, well, my Kindle fate was sealed. It will be Kindleriffic, people.

I'm also thinking ahead to this weekend, where a beach bonfire looms (my job: securing a spot and waiting four hours with a book), but when my Kindle arrives later this week I shall not want to risk jamming its buttons with sand.

Score one for paper.

When my Kindle actually arrives there will be opinions, and you will be hearing about them.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

This Week in Publishing 7/3/08

An abbreviated week in publishi....

Everyone should know about this: a New Jersey literary agent is suing some of my favorite bloggers, and the article about the case is here. Because it's an ongoing suit I'm not going to say anything, except that I trust everyone to draw their own conclusions from the article.

Jonathan Karp's WashPo article is being discussed around the big water cooler of the internet, and Galley Cat relayed Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash's thoughts on how big publishing could adopt some of the skills and techniques of the smaller presses. Someone anonymous also chimes in that big advances will go away with digital media, but I'd have to politely disagree with anon on that one -- I think there will be an increasing premium on the authors who can deliver audiences with the splintering media environment, and those authors will continue to have sway over the terms of those deals.

Moonrat had an awesome and lesson-worthy post on an author who slighted her at a lunch with an agent because he implied that she was too junior. And once you've digested that unfortunate (and, sadly, not uncommon) tale, check out Janet Reid's utterly hilarious breakdown about what she would have done if she were the agent watching the events unfold. Let's just say Janet would have welcomed the death, the apocalypse, and/or a nice dousing in hot oil at that point.

And finally, just in case you're wondering what century we're living in, I have unassailable proof that the 21st is officially here. Thomas Nelson CEO/blogger Michael Hyatt has been Twittering as he read the manuscript for Lynne Spears' parenting memoir and notes, er, Twitters thusly: "I'm reading through the second draft of the Lynne Spears manuscript tonight. I am hoping to be able to approve it tomorrow. It's totally compelling." Gawker, naturally, was on the scene.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What Are Some Great Ideas for Promoting Books?

Some people have noted in the comments section of yesterday's post that with the promise of Vanguard Press' marketing budget comes a big question: what makes for a great marketing plan?

My favorite book story promotion was when Po Bronson sold shares in his debut novel BOMBARDIERS, which was about stock brokers -- it was clever, it was the perfect tie-in and it attracted a great deal of attention.

I think everyone is wondering how books rise above all the noise out there and generate buzz through marketing. What are your favorite marketing plans, tips and tricks?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Vanguard: Imprint...... of the Future

Next up in our Imprint...... of the Future series (which really should have a soundtrack. Imagine some cymbals crashing or a nice synthesizer track playing after "of the future") is Vanguard Press, which is a division of Perseus (the parent company of Basic, PublicAffairs, Running Press, the remnants of the artist formerly known as Avalon Books, and more).

Vanguard is run by publishing veteran Roger Cooper, and much like last week's Imprint..... of the Future (cymbals!) it has a unique philosophy built around a philosophy of what makes successful books work.

Whereas 12 mixes a bit of the old school (big enough advances so the authors can take their time to write the books) with a bit of the new school (emphasis on advertising), Vanguard turns the publishing business on its head a bit, and asks the author to share in both the up front investment and (hopefully) the eventual success.

That means: no advances. BUT. Vanguard stipulates in advance a dollar amount they will spend on marketing, and it's substantial. They also pay higher royalties, and rather than the two accounting periods a year typical of most big publishers, they pay monthly based on actual sales. Author gets paid a month after the book publishes (and monthly thereafter as long as the book sells), the publisher consults closely with them on promotions, and hopefully everybody wins.

The lack of up-front money puts some pressure on authors, which means it's not for everyone. And Vanguard also targets books that are slightly more of a sure-thing, so not every author is for them. But for those authors who fit the mold and are willing to be patient on the return, it's definitely a unique opportunity.

How are they doing? Well, they currently have a pretty big bestseller: THE PROSECUTION OF GEORGE W. BUSH FOR MURDER, and I'm very curious to see how they continue to do with authors who are hanging around at the edges of bestsellerdom looking for a push (that marketing budget, hopefully) to break them out.

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