Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, August 31, 2009

Announcing: Writer Appreciation Week!

I'm sad to report that Summer's just about over. Soon the kids will be back in school, agents and editors are gearing up for a busy fall, the weather will gradually start turning cold (or hot! Hello, Southern Hemisphere!), and we will soon be learning about the exploits of bizarre people on reality television shows of questionable quality. I'm always a bit sad to see summer go.

So on this-here blog I thought we could have a week of appreciation for a very special and important person: the writer. (And yes, this may mean you.)

Nearly everyone I've ever met in my entire life has thought at one time or another about writing a book. There is a widespread belief that everyone has a book in them, that if we could quit our jobs and set aside enough time under a shade tree with a pen and paper we too could be the next Ernest Hemingway. Or at least the next J.K. Rowling. How hard could it be, right???

As anyone who has actually tried to write a book knows: it's hard. Really really hard.

And as the recent blog reader survey shows, most of you have written at least one novel and just about everyone has tried, meaning you have done something that millions out there haven't: you went for it.

You made the leap of faith, put pen to paper, devoted hours and hours and hours to building a world, and after months of hard work and sweat and blood and tears, those of you that finished had something to be rightly proud of: a manuscript.

Then you find out that the writing was the easy part.

It's sometimes a thankless pursuit with uncertain odds, so this week: let's hear it for the writers out there, published and unpublished. We'll have a series of posts in appreciation of writers, those people who give us hours of entertainment, unsurpassed knowledge, and untold insight.

Hug a writer!

Friday, August 28, 2009

This Week in Publishing 8/29/09

This Week! The publishing! Which is on a diet this week as I have just a few links for you to peruse.

There's lots of talk out there about how e-books are better for the environment than paper books. How much better? Well, first of all, would you believe that 125 million trees are cut down for the publishing and magazine industries EVERY YEAR? That startling fact and more in Fast Company's assessment about whether e-books or print books are more sustainable. (via Book Bench)

Annnnnd speaking of e-readers, Sony announced one more e-reader, and this one will have 3G!! Praise the gods of wireless!! Needless to say I'm pretty excited. Sony will soon have three different e-readers at three different sizes and price points to choose from. Choice is good.

A very interesting discussion at the Guardian's book blog, as Allison Flood took issue with an assertion that realism has gone too far in children's literature. What do you think? Has the sex and violence in children's literature gone too far or do we benefit from authors delving into the difficult areas of teen life?

In writing advice news, Rachelle Gardner is having a guest blog contest of her own, and this week she also tackled some of the pervasive myths about the publishing industry. Spoiler: there is not actually a fire-breathing monster underneath Random House. You can put away your pitchforks.

Jessica Faust at Bookends addressed yet another myth: rampant idea theft among writers. She doesn't think it's very common. I'm going to have to agree. And also steal that idea.

Almost finally, Kiersten White got some fantastic news recently about her novel PARANORMALCY, which was quite the splashy acquisition for HarperTeen, so congratulations Kiersten! She also used my brief overview of the publishing process for her own in depth (and hilarious) look at how a book gets published.

And finally finally, I always love reading about the path an author takes from unpublished to published, and Lisa Brackmann/Other Lisa has a great story.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Publishing Time

As you may have seen around the Book Internetosphere, there was an interesting back and forth blog discussion between Cheryl Klein, editor extraordinaire, and Michael Bourret, agent extraordinaire.

If I may butcher their (very nuanced) discussion with this rough summary: Ms. Klein suggested that agents should allow editors more time (say, two months) to put offers together as the editor who is able to assemble their offer the quickest and richest may not necessarily be the best editor for the book. Mr. Bourret then countered that the editor who gets an offer together quickly deserves credit for getting it together quickly, which bodes well for said editor's ability to make other things happen for the book. Ms. Klein then countered that assembling an offer quickly reflects the editor's and the house's speed at putting together offers, not necessarily that they're the best editor for the project, and that giving everyone time to weigh in assures that the project will find the most enthusiastic editor. Mr. Bourret then countered that the waiting two months for all offers idea really only works if every single agent adheres to it and thus is probably better in theory than in practice, although agents tend to give editors the time they need anyway.

And, in a major breath of fresh air, throughout the discussion they were very calm and respectful of each other's opinions and after it was all finished they went bowling and drank lemonade together in a meadow full of tulips. I may have made that last part up. But seriously: it was great to see such an illuminating and respectful discussion and my hat's off to them.

I'm not going to weigh in directly on their back and forth because I think they both raised interesting points and I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Instead there's something that was tangentially part of the discussion (How long, really, should it take a publisher to get an offer together?) that has been on my mind lately. And that is: publishing time.

As anyone even remotely connected with the book world knows: things take forever in publishing. The industry works according to its own speed, and it's a speed that people in other industries tend to find equal parts bewildering and maddening.

It can take ages for aspiring authors to hear back on their queries and manuscripts. It can take ages for an agent to hear back from editors about a book project, even on something like a short nonfiction proposal or a picture book manuscript. It takes forever for books to come out. It takes forever for checks to come from publishers (I shake my fist at you!!).

Now, let me first say that there is a fairly good, if incomplete, explanation for the pace of publishing. As I have said previously, a lot of people have to read a book in order to get it from an unsolicited query to a bookstore. And reading takes time. Selling into bookstores and developing and executing marketing plans takes lead time. There's more reading to be done than is humanly possible. I get that. After the latest round of layoffs there are fewer people doing more work. The industry is also populated by a lot of very creative people, and creative types aren't exactly known for their punctuality. And I will also say that there are plenty of very punctual people in publishing who work with incredible speed and dexterity.

But I kind of feel like the languid pace gets into some people in the industry and suddenly it takes two weeks or more to hear back on something that takes three key strokes and a one sentence e-mail to respond to. People don't blush at getting back to people weeks or even months later, even about very simple questions. Some agents and editors don't respond... ever. In what other industry would this be acceptable?

In case you haven't noticed: it kind of drives me crazy.

I know we agents and editors are besieged with submissions that often have to be read at nights and on weekends. Part of the job is that it's more than a 40 hour work week kind of a job. That's why we're paid the big bucks! Oh... we're not? Hmmm... But free books, right??

I also completely agree with Jessica Faust that an agent's response time on queries and manuscripts may not be indicative of how that agent works with their clients, because existing clients have to take absolute precedence. Agents who take a very long time to read manuscripts they've requested may actually be incredibly punctual with their clients and with editors. Yes, some agents are just slow at everything, but some agents have a full list and aren't jumping on every query or manuscript that comes through the Inbox for the simple reason that they aren't looking to take on many more clients.

But I disagree slightly with the idea that the reverse is also true: as in, some agents who handle their submissions quickly may actually be slow to get back to their own clients. While I'm sure there's someone out there who fits this description, I don't really think it's very possible these days.

There's a wealth of information about an agent's query/manuscript response times on message boards, blogs... heck, there's a whole website basically devoted to tracking how agents respond to queries. It's hugely public information, probably the most public information about an agent that's out there. If an agent was known for getting back to queries quickly and yet neglected their clients: whoa boy would those clients know quickly.

So, I may well be biased, but I do tend to think a fast query/manuscript response time is indicative of punctuality with clients.

But even aside from judging response times, if punctuality is important to you: talk to your agent before you sign with them. Ask about their response times with their clients, about their follow-up policy with editors, about how much they like to be in touch with their clients. Your prospective agent may try to mask their Publishing Time infection, but asking good questions may help you make a correct diagnosis.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Writer Survey!

In the comments section of last week's Genre Poll, some people wanted to know more about who exactly is reading this blog anyway. What's the ratio of published to unpublished, male to female, age, etc.?

So here's a quick series of polls that will hopefully demystify the demographics. Please click through from e-mail or your blog reader to see the polls.

(the second option in this poll should have read: "Started, haven't finished"):

Let's see who's really out there.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How a Book Gets Published

UPDATED: April 13, 2017

So here goes: the basics of how a book gets published. Please note that this refers to mainstream publishing and not self-publishing, which is something else entirely. But most of the books you see in bookstores happened this way:

From book to agent

For a first time author, a book generally starts with a completely finished and polished manuscript for fiction and memoirs, and a proposal and sample pages for nonfiction. Yes, novelists: you have to write the whole thing. Published authors can sometimes sell novels on proposal. Lucky them!

It's then generally advisable for an unpublished author to find a literary agent, who helps shepherd an author through the publishing process in exchange for 15% of the proceeds from the book for domestic sales and 20% for foreign sales. If the book doesn’t sell to a publisher, the agent doesn’t receive any money from the author other than recouping incidental fees like photocopying.

Very few publishers accept submissions from un-agented authors, so this is a nearly essential step to be published by one of the major publishers. Plus, a good agent can give a project a better chance at succeeding and will usually be able to negotiate a better deal than the author would be able to achieve on their own.

(For a complete overview of what agents do, see this post).

Submission to publishers

Once an agent has taken on a project they then send it to one or more editors at different publishing houses. The agent will specifically target the submission to the editors that they feel are most appropriate for the book. The editors take a look at the project, and if it's something they are interested in they will share it with their colleagues and boss(es) to gauge the enthusiasm. Once the editor has the go-ahead to move forward with the project they will send the agent an offer.

The submission process can take anywhere from a week to a year or more depending on when/if the agent finds a match for the project.

Offer and negotiations

The terms of the offer usually include an advance, royalties, which countries the publisher can sell into, and other specific terms (please see my publishing glossary for definitions).

An advance is a payment to the author, usually divided into installments, which is theirs to keep regardless of how many copies the book sells, assuming the author fulfills all the terms of the agreement.

Royalties are a percentage of every copy sold, either on the list price of the book or on a publisher’s net profits. These go first toward paying down the advance (but again, the author doesn’t have to pay back the advance if they don’t sell enough copies). After the advance is covered by royalties, which is called “earning out,” the royalties go to the author.

For example, if an author receives a $50,000 advance with hardcover royalties of 10% of list price on a $25 book, they need to sell 20,000 copies to “earn out” ($2.50 per copy x 20,000 copies = $50,000 advance). Afterward, the author receives $2.50 per additional copy sold. The agent receives 15% of the $50,000 advance as well as 15% of the royalties if the book earns out.

Sometimes the offer will be for one book or sometimes it will be for multiple books. If more than one editor is interested in the project an agent may ask all the editors for their best offers, or the agent may hold an auction to determine which publisher will bid the highest.

When the deal points have been agreed upon and the author accepts an offer the publisher will send a contract, which the agent or the agency's contracts director will negotiate.

Editing and production

After the contract has been signed, if the project was sold on proposal it's then time for the author to write the book.

Once the manuscript is completed (nonfiction) or after the contract is signed (fiction) the editor will usually send an editorial letter suggesting content changes that the author will then make. These changes are somewhat negotiable, but for the most part authors will follow their editor's suggestions.

When the changes have been made and the manuscript is deemed editorially acceptable it moves to copyediting, where typos and other errors are corrected, and designed as it will look on the page. The author has to review the different versions of the completed manuscript to catch typos. The publisher is also working during this time on the design of the book, including the cover, trim size, paper type, and other design-y considerations.

Meanwhile, the editor is coordinating with their marketing and sales teams to write copy for the publisher's seasonal catalog, write the jacket copy, to (hopefully) generate enthusiasm among the sales team for the project, and to help shape marketing plans. Several months before the book's publication the sales team will be coordinating with bookstore buyers and other "accounts" as they place their orders, which helps determine how many copies of the book the publisher prints. The agent usually keeps tabs on this process to make sure everything is happening according to plan.

The publication process from finished manuscript to in-bookstore books usually takes a year or more. It can occasionally be compressed if it is an especially timely project, but the process usually requires quite a bit of lead time.


When publication date arrives the book goes on sale and the author is rich and famous behind their wildest dreams. Sometimes. Not usually.

The author then gets cracking on their next book (or rather, they should already have been cracking), and the process repeats.

The end!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster by Daniel Maclise

Monday, August 24, 2009

Agent E-mail Stats

Every Monday morning, as sure as the rooster's cry (I don't actually have a rooster) I can expect to come in to 100+ e-mails from the weekend, mostly queries. I like to think of it as the Monday Deluge, and it means that if I'm going to answer all of them (and oh, I do) plus the regular work for clients and such, it can make for a bit of a hectic day.

It also explains why you may be hearing from me on the weekend: if I put in some Saturday or Sunday e-mail time it makes Monday oh so much easier. But since I was reading manuscripts this past weekend I didn't get to any queries. So: hello 100+ e-mails! Nice to see you this chilly Monday morning.

As I was working through the e-pile, it got me wondering: how many e-mails do I send anyway? Sure seems like a lot.

Well, as of today, according to Outlook I've sent 11,921 e-mails so far this year. That's just for work -- it doesn't count personal correspondence. Most are responses to queries, but it also includes e-mails to clients, colleagues, editors, you name it.

11,921 e-mails as of August 24th translates to about 50 per day, including weekends and vacation time.

To put that in perspective, let's say I worked nine hours every single day, including weekends, and didn't take any vacation or break for lunch. 11,921 e-mails translates to an e-mail every ten minutes. Somewhere in that time I also theoretically have to read manuscripts, have meetings, talk on the phone, and, you know, read the queries I'm responding to, while still maintaining that e-mail every ten minutes pace.

Oh, and in real life I really do take vacation and try to break somewhat on weekends... and thus have to work considerably more than nine hours a day during weekdays.

What does this all mean?

First of all, I'm not complaining. I love my job, even if it means I'm staring at a screen (computer, Kindle or iPhone) for the majority of my waking hours. Please don't ever hesitate to e-mail me.

But here's what it means for writers: the next time you wonder why agents send form letters or why some don't respond to queries altogether... please remember these stats.

It also means that I necessarily have to make snap decisions when I'm reading queries. I don't really have time to sit down, contemplate, and absorb the aura of a query. There are tons more in line and I have to move quickly if I'm going to get through the day. So if a query is needlessly long or doesn't include key details (published authors, once again: PUBLICATION DATE AND PUBLISHER DON'T MAKE ME GO TO AMAZON ARGH) hopefully this puts into perspective why literary agents turn into lunatics about certain pet peeves that end up costing precious time.

So there you have it. I would write more... but I need to go write some e-mails.

Friday, August 21, 2009

This Week in Publishing 8/21/09

This week!

In personal agenting news, I received some great news this week about one of the projects I recently handled: Audible announced that none other than Parker Posey is narrating the new audiobook of Betty Friedan's feminist classic THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE. Pretty cool.

It's apparently Google's turn in front of the firing squad this week as the Google Settlement was criticized first by William Morris Endeavor in not one but two letters (to which the Author's Guild issued not one but two rebuttals), and meanwhile, Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo announced that they were aligning against the Google settlement. Rising to Google's defense was a Washington Post Op-Ed titled..... "Google's Offer on Digitized Books Could Be Better." Despite that headline the Wash-Po mainly thinks it's a good deal.

NPR recently featured a new interactive book experiment by authors JC Hutchins and Jordan Weisman, published by St. Martin's. To accompany their new novel PERSONAL EFFECTS: DARK ART, they're including phone numbers and web links that provide an additional interactive experience. I'd be very curious to know what people think about this. (via David Moldawer)

Dan Brown's THE LOST SYMBOL is dropping in September, and already some quarters of the publishing industry are wringing their hands that it could be the End of Publishing As We Know It. Since Doubleday is releasing the e-book simultaneously with the print book, some think it will trigger a significant shift to e-books (hat tip to Neil Vogler for the link), while former PW editor Sara Nelson dubbed it a "book killer" and found lots of people in the biz worried that the hoopla about THE LOST SYMBOL will drown out news about books by other (massively bestselling) authors. EW's Shelf Life is all too happy to poke fun at the notion that a surefire bestseller can be considered a menace to the industry: "No wonder book publishers are in such dire straits. They even panic at the prospect of a big hit!"

Jofie Ferrari-Adler just completed the latest entry in his incredible series of interviews, this time with veteran agent Georges Borchardt, who, over the years, has, along with his wife and daughter, represented the likes of Samuel Beckett, Aldous Huxley, T.C. Boyle, Ian McEwan, and many many more. People often wonder how the industry has really changed over the years, and Borchardt has a wonderfully balanced take (and he should know).

Market My Words has a great interview with editor Molly O'Neill of Katherine Tegan Books (HarperCollins), who started on the marketing side of publishing and has some advice that may sound familiar: you need a web presence, you should know how best to use your online marketing tools, and communication is key. Check out the interview for more.

Jeff Abbott, author of TRUST ME, passed along a blog post from Dallas Mavericks owner/rich guy Mark Cuban about a really bad (business) query he received. UPDATE: You can follow Mark Cuban on Twitter here.

Also in Jeff Abbott news, he wrote a great guest post at Jen's Book Thoughts about the doors that writing has opened up. It's a really eloquent personal take on the writing process.

In writing advice news, my wonderful client Jennifer Hubbard has a truly insightful post on conflict: while you often hear that you must have conflict, sometimes the best way to build tension is to have your characters avoid conflict with each other.

Almost finally, ladies and gentlemen, as a front page article in the Wall Street Journal attests, there is a scourge sweeping my hometown and greater Colusa County. No, not meth. No, not tractor-battery burglary. Not even gas siphoning. It is the diabolical, evil fiends otherwise known as crayfish poachers. And yes, in case you are wondering, that really is where I grew up, and yes, that really was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Also we call them crawdads.

And finally, finally, I won't embed this video as it is decidedly not workplace friendly, and you should not click the link if you have an aversion to Rated R language. But given how much we talk about "The Wire" around these parts, I know some of you enjoy love this completely hilarious YouTube video: The Wire with a laugh track.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Genre Poll Thoughts

Thanks everyone for voting in yesterday's work in progress genre poll! It has certainly been illuminating and interesting.

My assorted thoughts:

- First of all, wow, as of right now over 1,700 works in progress! And that's just among the people who happened to have visited my blog since yesterday. There are lots and lots and lots of books being written out there.

- People have asked if the genre breakdown corresponds with the proportion of books actually published or in proportion to my queries. In a word: no. Not so much. As you probably know there's a great deal more nonfiction and romance published than is reflected in the poll, as well as more books for younger readers (middle grade and younger). The poll is somewhat similar to the genre breakdown I see in my Inbox, but there too I tend to receive more queries for nonfiction and middle grade than is reflected here.

- I know I shouldn't be surprised, but still: when you combine paranormal and fantasy across age groups it comprises 32% of all works in progress. That's a lot!! Perhaps that's reflective of who reads my blog (even if I'm not exactly known for fantasy, though I'm open to it), or who's online voting in polls, or what people out there want to read, or maybe the lingering Stephenie Meyer/JK Rowling effect, but wow. One out of three!

- There were several comments to the effect of, "Well, my novel is this this this and this, and I can't bear to click 'mystery' because it's so much more than that." Well... if you don't click the mystery box your publisher will be clicking it for you. Books don't just stock themselves, people! As you're writing your novel you should be cognizant of where you're going to be stocked in the bookstore or categorized by online retailers. I'm sure there's a bookstore or library somewhere out there that just stocks every single book alphabetically... but I haven't seen it.

- Also: if your book straddles genres it's usually helpful if it has its feet more firmly in one genre or another, even if it combines multiple genres. A book can't have one half stocked in one section of the bookstore and one half in another. And from a nuts and bolts perspective, there are editors who handle mystery and editors who handle fantasy, they don't tend to overlap, and your agent will have to send your novel to one or the other. From there, publishers are going to be marketing to a certain audience and making the decision about where to stock your book. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions to this, but particularly for debuts it can be difficult if a novel is not quite literary, not quite paranormal, not quite women's fiction, and not quite mystery. You don't want to fall into genre no man's land.

- As I mentioned in the comments section, literary fiction is a category, not a value judgment. Literary fiction, at least by my definition, spans from the quite accessible to the most dense. A novel doesn't have to be FINNEGAN'S WAKE to be considered literary fiction.

- Aside from the broad category of what I call "book club fiction," which tends to straddle the line between literary and accessible and tends to reach a wider audience than "pure" literary fiction, there is not a great deal of non-genre "commercial" or "mainstream" fiction published today. Just about every single published book can be categorized (if crudely) into the genres I listed for polling. Most published novels that are "contemporary" and do not fall into a particular genre tend to be more "literary" and have more stylized prose than genre fiction. Emphasis on "tend to be," and again, these are categories, not judgments. The "Genre Fiction is JUST AS GOOD IF NOT BETTER THAN LITERARY FICTION AND BTW DID YOU NOTICE THAT GENRE FICTION DOESN'T GET ANY RESPECT AND HOW ABOUT SOME FREAKING REVIEW ATTENTION" police can drop their weapons. For the time being.

- "For the time being" is a really weird phrase when you think about it. For the time being... what? What is the time being? And how the heck does "time being" mean "for now?" I don't get it.


- Also to be clear: just because your novel is what I personally call literary fiction doesn't mean you have to call it that in a query or when you're discussing it with your friends. Different people and different agents have different ways of categorizing that vast array of books that go in the "general fiction" section of a bookstore. Some agents are more than happy to hear you call it mainstream or commercial or what have you. I call just about all non-genre fiction "literary" as a way of reminding writers that if you're going to write non-genre fiction it probably needs to be a bit more highbrow, stylized, and yes, "literary." I know I'm generalizing.

- In my opinion a well-written query does not necessarily have to specify a genre. Sometimes it's helpful to know what the genre the author thinks the novel falls into, but I should be able to tell the genre simply from the tone of the query and the plot description.

- Please remember: friends do not let friends lose sleep over genre distinctions. It's not worth worrying over. Just pick one, and if you find an agent they'll tell you what it is.

But what do you think about the poll? What does it mean???

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What Genre Is Your Work in Progress?

For this week's You Tell Me there is a poll included! Yes, we're getting fancy. It also means that all of you reading the blog via e-mail or through an RSS reader may need to click through to cast your vote and see the results.

I thought it might be fun to get a snapshot of what people are working on out there. So, for all you writers out there: what's your genre?

I know genre distinctions are blurry, so just pick one in case there's overlap. And remember, when in doubt: go with the section of the bookstore your book would be stocked in. I added "paranormal" to the categories even though it's not typically a bookstore section simply because there seems to be so many people writing about vampires, werewolves, etc.

And, of course, feel free to discuss the results (or your WIP) in the comment section.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mad for "Mad Men"

Along with what seems like the entire rest of the world, I am 1) of the opinion that "Mad Men" is currently the best show on television, and 2) am blogging about my opinion that "Mad Men" is currently the best show on television. You don't have a blog unless you are blogging about "Mad Men." Even The Millions succumbed (and click through to check out their nifty re-design BTW).

Meanwhile, much like "The Wire".......... hardly anyone is watching "Mad Men." Don Draper and the rest of Sterling Cooper set personal best ratings for Sunday night's premiere with 2.8 million viewers. To put that number in perspective, twice as many people watched A RERUN of "How I Met Your Mother." Don't get me wrong, "How I Met Your Mother" is quite a legen (wait for it) dary show, but COME ON, PEOPLE.

I know not everyone gets AMC, even fewer get it in HD, there are a lot of people Tivo-ing the show as they catch up with the Season 1 and 2 DVDs, and sundry other reasons for the low ratings. But still: it hasn't been since... well, "The Wire" that a relatively sparsely watched show has received such massive attention.

"Mad Men" has gotten me thinking about all sorts of topics - the way it unfolds so luxuriously, the way it looks (which has been influential in everything from fashion to antiquing), the social issues, the lurking specter of the '60s cultural upheaval, and what is surely the best opening credits sequence in television history (a notable departure from "The Wire," which was arguably the worst title sequence in television history).

Iconic shows tend to "get" something about the times in which they're airing and tap straight into the cultural zeitgeist. "Dallas" became a hit just as a certain Western actor was about to move into the White House, and J.R. Ewing's barely disguised glee for financial greed was contemporaneous with Michael Milken and the savings and loan crisis. In the '90s, "Seinfeld," "Friends," and "Sex & the City" progressively reflected the rapid gentrification and "youthing" of America's cities.

"Mad Men" is still a ways off from being an iconic show, except among critics and the 2.8 million people who are apparently watching it. And yet there's something about the show that is really touching a cultural nerve, especially in the cities. It's telling that AMC particularly focused its advertising for "Mad Men" directly in New York City.

In some sense, the mere fact that "Mad Men" is so relatively unpopular and yet has such fanatical devotion among its core group of fans is already reflective of our time. We're living in an age when audiences for movies and TV shows are splintering further and further. Even without factoring for inflation, the highest grossing movie of all time came out twelve years ago. The most watched television event, in percentage terms, was twenty-six years ago.

But setting aside its cult status, I think what might be most appealing abut the show is the way in which the characters of "Mad Men" are living the still-relevant cultural upheavals that have left such a lasting impact nearly 50 years later (women in the work place, creeping but primitive awareness of racial issues, etc.) just as the characters remain blissfully unaware of the upheavals as they're living them.

One of the most scathing articles I've seen about "Mad Men" was in the London Review of Books last Fall (via The Elegant Variation), in which Mark Greif lamented that the show was "an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better." He writes:

"We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over. ‘Have we ever hired any Jews?’ – ‘Not on my watch.’ ‘Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology; it looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.’... We’re meant to save a little snort, too, for the ad agency’s closeted gay art director as he dismisses psychological research: ‘We’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? . . . Ridiculous!’ – a line delivered with a limp-wristed wave. Mad Men is currently said to be the best and ‘smartest’ show on American TV. We’re doomed."

Greif does spot the most cringe-inducing of the "wink winks" in the show's history. But if the whole point of the show were these winks and nudges... yeah. It would suck. Only: it's not, and it doesn't.

Firstly, I would argue that the "Now We Know Better" genre is much preferable the "It Wasn't So Bad Really" revisionist history genre where protagonists from racially and sexually awkward times are blessed with modern day awareness and sensitivity so that we can feel okay about them. As Ta-Nehesi Coates writes, the virtual omission of black characters in Mad Men perfectly reflects that world:

"I actually think it's a beautiful, lovely, incredibly powerful omission. Mad Men is a show told from the perspective of a particular world. The people in that world barely see black people. They're there all the time--Hollis in the elevator, women working in the powder-room, the Draper's maid, the janitors, the black guy hired at Leo Burnett--but they're never quite seen. I think this is an incredible statement on how privilege, at its most insidious, really works."

Also, in order for a "Now We Know Better" genre to work... don't we actually have to know better? What is most enjoyable about these moments of awkwardness on "Mad Men" isn't that they're closed cases but that the characters are dealing with issues that are still roiling our own times. It's not as if we've closed the book on anti-semitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Tumultuous change is in the air in the offices of Sterling Cooper, and yet the characters are completely unselfconsciously unaware. Peggy Olson is just ambitious and competent, she does not self-consciously think of herself as a trailblazer in the workplace. Pete Campbell doesn't see himself as the last bastion of New York aristocracy. They don't sit around talking about how the times they are a-changin'. They're just people living their lives. That unselfawareness perfectly encapsulates how we are living through our own tumultuous time in the present: with no idea how everything is going to turn out.

What do you think? Does the Don Draper stare and the rest of "Mad Men" capture your imagination or does it leave you cold?

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Kindle

Bear with me here. I know that per the last polling around 45% of you would rather be tasered than part with your paper books in favor of e-books, and thus I would imagine that reading a blog post about the bizarre e-book reading habits of a blogging literary agent can't be much fun for you.

Sorry about that. I would enliven the post by relating the topic to some reality show like The Hills, but, well, I'm sad to report that The Hills and I have officially broken up. It's over. It wasn't The Hills, it was me. I'm just at a different place in my life now. We tried couples counseling and I asked if we could still be friends, but The Hills was like, "THAT NEVER WORKS!" and then stormed off and went in a completely different direction. Thank you for your support during this difficult time.

So... you're stuck with a post about my bizarre e-book habits without television show references to save you. Sorry about that.

Ahem. As you know I'm an e-book aficionado. The convenience! The portability! No more printing out of manuscripts!

And I really took to both the Kindle and the Sony Reader: the Sony Reader for its sleekness, touch screen, night light, and overall design, and the Kindle for the insane convenience of e-mailing manuscripts directly to the Kindle, where I can download them wirelessly and read them anywhere. E-reading has changed my life and I feel like it's the way of the future.

You know which e-reader I like the best?

Um. Would you believe the iPhone?

I really, really resisted reading on the iPhone. Just too small of a screen, my brain said. It doesn't have e-ink. Too hard on the eyes. I had an iPhone for a year before I really tried to read a book on one (nevermind that I read blogs on it all the time via Google Reader).

But then I was on the bus one day, I didn't have my Kindle, and I started reading a book on via the iPhone Kindle app.

It wasn't an instant love connection. The screen really is small and took some getting used to. But gradually I began to feel that reading on the iPhone is ultimately the superior experience. Imagine my surprise.

It turns out I really love instantaneous page turns. The Kindle and Sony Reader both "blink" when turning pages and there's a noticeable delay. Not so on the iPhone. It moves quickly. Just tap the side of the screen and the page turns instantly. Or you can swipe the screen and mimic a page turn with your finger and the next page slides smoothly into place. You can also turn the phone sideways and the Kindle reader goes into landscape mode, which I found perfect for reading.

As a result, the iPhone really disappears in your hands like a book.

I also thought it would hurt my eyes to read on a small screen, but I never actually found that to be a problem. Probably this is due to an important iPhone function: the screen automatically dims or brightens by sensing the ambient light, so it's always comfortable on the eyes whether you're in bright sunlight or in the dark. Not so with the Kindle, which needs good lighting to read because there's no backlighting.

What does this mean? Well, I used to think that dedicated e-readers were the future of book reading. But the problem with extraneous devices is that you don't always have them handy precisely at those times when you have some down time and want to be reading. It's also pretty darn expensive to buy a device that does just one or two things. And that brings me to the main benefit of reading on the iPhone: I always have it with me, and although it's expensive, it also comes with, you know, phone capabilities, which are kind of important. It's insanely portable and always there whenever I have ten minutes or an hour and want to read.

I realize that phone reading is not for everyone. But to me it just goes to show how the future of e-books probably doesn't lie in one category-killing e-book reader, but probably some mishmash of devices depending on a reader's particular preferences. Including those strange devices printed on wood pulp and bound in cardboard.

In any event, just wanted to share. Tell The Hills I said "hi" if you happen to run into it. No hard feelings, I hope.

Book Publishing Glossary

UPDATED: 10/4/14

This has been in the works for a while. Please let me know if I missed anything in the comments section and I'll add it.

Advance - The money a publisher pays an author to publish their book. This money is an advance against royalties. This means that the author does not receive additional money from the publisher until the book earns an amount of money equal to the advance (see "earn out"). As long as the book is published the author does not have to pay the advance back, even if the book does not earn out. Large advances are typically paid in installments, such as a portion on signing, a portion on delivery and acceptance, and a portion on publication. Advances range from $1 to $1,000,000 or more.

Agent - A publishing professional who shepherds books and authors through the publication process. An agent will submit a book project to editors, negotiate advances and contracts, follow-up on payments, and more generally serve as a creative and business adviser to an author (and much much more). An agent is the author's advocate.

ARCs - Advance copies of a book for review. While terminology varies by publisher, ARCs are typically distinguished from bound galleys because they feature the actual cover of the book.

Association of Author's Representatives ("AAR") - An organization of agencies who abide by a canon of ethics and host meetings and panel discussions to keep agents informed about trends and issues facing the industry.

Auction - When multiple publishing houses are interested in acquiring a project they will sometimes bid against each other in an auction. While auction formats vary, typically the bids will proceed from lowest to highest and they last until one publisher has the highest bid and others have dropped out. Auctions are a good thing for authors and agents.

Backlist - These are books that have been out for a while but whose rights publishers still possess.

"Big Five" - The five largest publishers: Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan

Blurb - A quote from an author or reviewer in praise of a book. Blurbs may or may not be on the cover of a book.

Book Expo of America ("BEA") - An annual, massive book convention in the US attended by publishers, agents, authors, librarians, bookstore reps, and random hangers-on.

Book plates - Stickers that go in the front of a book and often allow the owner of the book to sign their name. Book plates are a popular way for children's book authors to sign books (since book plates are more portable).

Bound Galleys - (see "galleys")

British Commonwealth - A huge list of countries, territories, and random islands, many of which you may not have ever known existed, and which were once apparently colonized by Mother Britain. The British Commonwealth is important in publishing as it is often the countries and territories where British publishers will have exclusivity (see "exclusivity"). To make it still more confusing, the list of British Commonwealth territories varies from publisher to publisher.

Buyer - The person at a bookstore or library who is responsible for ordering books.

Commission - The amount an agent receives for their services. Agents typically receive a commission of 15% for all domestic sales and 20% for foreign sales, which is split between the primary agent and a subagent (see "subagent). Agents only receive commission on works they sell, and thus aren't paid unless the author is paid.

Co-op - You know those books at the front of Barnes & Noble? Those books didn't hitchhike there themselves: that placement is typically paid for by the publisher. Publishers make certain titles "available for co-op" and work out payment arrangements and special promotions, and it is then up to the bookstore to decide which titles get to go up front.

Copyeditor - A grammar and spelling ninja who is responsible for making sure books do not have typos, geographical errors, or dangling modifiers. Not to be confused with Editors.

Copyright - The legal right of ownership of a written work. Copyright in the US lasts for the author's life plus 70 years. Your work is technically copyrighted when you write it, although you want to make sure your publisher registers copyright of your work in your name with the Library of Congress within three months of its publication for legal reasons that you are free to research on your own if you have too much time on your hands.

Debut novel - An author's first published novel, not necessarily the first book they've written.

Deep discounts - When a publisher discounts steeply in order to move some books, they are often allowed to pay the author much much less in royalties. Often a source of confusion and angst when royalty statements arrive.

Delivery and Acceptance ("D&A") - The happy time when a publisher officially accepts a book for publication. This may trigger a D&A payment (see "advance").

Delivery date - When your manuscript is due. Write it in the calendar in blood (but tell your agent if you think you're going to miss it).

Digital List Price ("DLP") - In digital audio and e-book land this is the price the publisher or rights holder places on a copy of their digital content. This may or may not have any bearing whatsoever on the price the e-publisher actually charges.

Distributor - The company that gets books from a publisher to bookstores, libraries, etc. Most major and some mid-major publishers function as their own distributors, while others use third parties. (see "wholesaler" for differentiation)

DRM - Digital Rights Management. This is software encryption that (theoretically) discourages piracy and which allows publisher to do fancy things like sync your e-book between your Kindle and your iPhone.

Earn out - When your book has earned more revenue than you were paid as an advance it is said to have "earned out." From here on out you get royalties on all "net sales" and all subrights income. Congratulations!

Editor - A publishing professional who works at a publishing house. An editor receives submissions (usually from agents), acquires projects, negotiates advances, and then coordinates with the different teams at a publisher throughout the publication process, such as production, sales, marketing, etc., basically making a book happen. An editor will typically be a savvy networker, have impeccable taste, and live in Brooklyn.

Editorial letter - The list of suggested changes an editor will ask an author to make prior to publication. Not every single tiny suggestion must be taken, but an author would do well to please their editor.

Exclusivity - 1. When an unpublished author gives an agent an "exclusive" look at their manuscript, usually for a period of time. This means the author cannot then send their manuscript to another agent during that time period. 2. Exclusivity can also refer to the exclusive rights and territory that are granted to a publisher in a publishing contract (see also "territory").

First pass pages - Once the manuscript is copyedited, the pages are then type-set and designed to look like how they'll look when the book is bound. A copy of these pages are then sent back to the editor and author, who check for any last minute errors that might have been missed or possibly introduced during the type-setting.

First proceeds - When a book is rejected for publication due to being editorially unacceptable some publishing contracts will allow the author to retain the advance and only repay the publisher out of the "first proceeds" from the sale to another publisher. Basically the author uses Publisher #2 to pay back Publisher #1.

First serial - Publication of an excerpt in a magazine or journal prior to book publication. (see also "Second Serial")

Flow through - In some contracts when there is subrights income (see "subrights") the author's share of the revenue is allowed to "flow through" directly to the author without being held by the publisher until the end of a royalty period.

Front list - A publisher's books that have come out recently.

Galleys - Advance copies of a book for review. While terminology varies by publisher, galleys are typically distinguished from ARCs as they feature a generic cover.

Genre fiction - A blanket term that refers to books with certain familiar settings and plot conventions. Genres include romance, science fiction, mystery and suspense, westerns, etc.

Hardcover - Books that are bound in cardboard or some other sturdy fashion, possibly featuring a dust jacket, and usually retailing at a higher price than paperbacks.

Imprint - The entity within a publisher whose name is printed on the spine of a book and which theoretically has a certain publishing "flavor." An imprint may be a division within a publishing house (Knopf, HarperCollins, etc.), it may be based around a certain genre (Harlequin Silhouette, Harlequin Blaze, etc.) or it may be a "boutique" imprint named after editor(s) (Nan A. Talese, Spiegel & Grau, etc.). Keeping imprints straight and remembering who reports to whom takes years of familiarity with the publishing industry and gigantic spreadsheets.

Indemnity - In a publishing contract a publisher will typically require the author to indemnify the publisher against losses sustained due to a breach in the author's warranty (see also "warranty"). In English: if the author screws up and plagiarizes someone or doesn't clear their permissions properly the author is the one on the hook.

Literary fiction - Fiction that is characterized by a plot that is typically beneath the surface and which is usually characterized by a unique and recognizable prose style.

Literary scout - A scout is someone who keeps tabs on all the hot books out there, usually on behalf of either film studios/producers or foreign publishers.

Mass market paperback - Rack sized paperback. Basically the size you usually see at the grocery store.

Midlist - Midlist titles are those that are literally in the middle of the range of advances and sales on a publisher's list. Typically midlist authors have a solid fan base but are not bestsellers. Some say the midlist is disappearing as publishers increasingly focus on their bestselling authors.

Narrative nonfiction - Nonfiction that illuminates through story. Examples of narrative nonfiction include narrative history (THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY), true crime (IN COLD BLOOD, HELTER SKELTER), memoir (MY MEMOIRS by Insert Author), etc.

Net Amount Received - Usually the amount actually received by the publisher from sales of a work, sometimes also after taking out taxes and/or certain expenses (watch those contract definitions!).

Net sales - The number of actual sales after deducting returns. Also known as "sell through".

Nonexclusivity - When a publisher only has nonexclusive rights in a certain territory the author may then grant those rights to another publisher as well.

North America - For the purposes of publishing terminology, usually refers to English speaking North America, i.e. the United States and Canada. Sorry Mexico and Central America! Nothing personal.

Omnibus - When multiple books are collected into one volume it's called an omnibus.

Open market - When rights have been granted exclusively in North America and the British Commonwealth the rest of the world is typically considered an open market. This means both the US and the British publisher may sell there.

Option - A provision in a contract that typically gives the publisher an exclusive period of time to consider and offer on the author's next work. The option may be limited or allow the publisher certain financial matching rights, so keep a close eye on this.

Out of print - When a book is no longer being actively sold by a publisher it is said to be out of print, and often an author will be able to "revert" the rights. This term has gotten a little nebulous in the era of e-books and print on demand, so make sure your contract has a solid definition.

Partial - A partial manuscript. When an agent likes a query they may ask to see a certain number of pages or chapters. If they don't specify, just send 50 pages.

Pitch letter - An agent's letter to an editor telling them why they absolutely need to buy a book the agent is shopping.

Pre-empt - When a publisher really likes a project they may make an aggressive offer in order to pre-empt an auction (also known as "taking the book off the table"). The agent and author then has to decide whether to accept the offer or take their chances with an auction.

Print on Demand ("POD") - Copies of a book printed to order. POD is sometimes used as a blanket term for self-publishing, but POD may also used by publishers to fill orders for backlist titles.

Print run - The number of copies a publisher prints of a book. There is an "announced" print run and an "actual" print run, and the difference between those numbers is something probably best not discussed.

Publisher (company) - The company that publishes your book.

Publisher (person) - A publishing executive who runs either a publishing division or an imprint and who typically has final say over what gets published.

Query letter - A letter describing your book, which will hopefully make an agent want to read more. See how to write a basic one here, and see a good one here.

Reserves against returns - Since publishers usually calculate royalty statements within six months after publication, sometimes returns will lag behind the statements. Since an author is paid based on net copies sold, this creates a conundrum since publishers don't really know what the "net" will be for quite some time after a book is published. In order to account for this publishers hold a "reserve against returns" for the first couple of royalty statements after a book's publication, which means they hold back a certain amount of money in anticipation of returns. The reserve should be a reasonable amount (talk to your agent) and they should not hold a reserve forever. (see also "returns," "net copies," and "royalty statements")

Remainder - Sometimes when a book isn't selling a publisher will sell off their remaining stock as a "remainder," which means at a low low price. This is usually a sign the book is going "out of print."

Retail price - The price of a book as listed on cover. Often royalties are paid as a percentage of the retail price of a book.

Reprint - 1. May refer to a publisher going back to press to print more copies. This is good. 2. May refer to a publisher bringing out a new edition of a book that has been previously published.

Returns - Bookstores are almost always able to return unsold copies of books back to the publisher for a refund. This causes a great deal of chaos (see also "reserves against returns").

Reversion - When your book is out of print you may have the right to "revert" your book, depending on your contract language. Basically this means the contract is canceled and the author can sell the rights to a new publisher.

Rhetorical questions - the devil's preferred method of beginning query letters

Royalties - The amount an author receives on every net copy sold of their book (see "net sales"). Royalties are either based on the cover price of a book or on the net amount received (see "net amount received") by the publisher. An author does not receive royalty payments from a publisher until their advance has earned out (see "earn out").

Royalty period - The accounting schedule for royalties. Most major publisher calculate royalties twice a year and send the agent/author statements and payments several months after the close of a royalty period.

Royalty statement - A statement of gross copies sold, net sales, subrights income, returns, reserves, money owed, advances paid, lunar cycles, cake recipes, and ancient Egyptian prophecies. Royalty statements may or may not be completely incomprehensible to anyone who has not spent years working in the publishing industry. Bonus points for illegibility.

Season - Publishers organize their titles by season. Typically there are three seasons a year, which might mean that one publisher's "Spring" really means "Winter" while another publisher's "Spring" really means "Spring." Keeping publishers' seasons straight is a nearly impossible task, although for some reason everyone seems to know what "Fall" means. The Mayans they are not.

Second serial - Publication of an excerpt in a magazine or journal after book publication. (see also "First Serial")

Self-publishing - When an author arranges for their own publication and distribution. Sometimes (though less frequently now) referred to as vanity publishing and POD, although as anon@7:32 notes in the comments section, self-publishing, vanity publishing, and POD have slightly different meanings and connotations. Vanity publishing usually refers to a service where the author pays to have their book published, self-publishing is more of a blanket term and may or may not involve paying up front, and POD has more to do with the process by which the book is produced (see "POD") than the self-publishing itself.

Sell-in - The amount of copies that are ordered by bookstores, libraries, etc. prior to publication. You want this to be a high number.

Sell through - See "net sales."

Subagent - An agent who sells subsidiary rights on behalf of a primary agent. Subagents are most common with translation and film/TV rights.

Subsidiary rights (aka "Subrights) - These are all rights under the sun that aren't original print publication rights, such as excerpt, adaptation, film/tv, audio, translation, first serial, second serial, merchandising, etc., etc. and I mean it etc. Some of these are retained by the publisher, who may exercise the rights themselves or sell them to third parties, some of these rights are retained by the author. When they are sold by the publisher to third parties the revenue is called "subrights income," which is subject to a certain percentage split between publisher and author as specified by the contract. Subrights income counts toward an author's revenues, thus helping an advance "earn out."

Synopsis - A summary of a work that covers the major plot points and characters. See this post for information on how to write one.

Term of copyright - Most contracts for original publication in the US are for term of copyright, which literally means for the length of copyright, and the author only gets the rights back if it goes out of print and the author reverts the rights (see "out of print" and "reversion").

Term of license - Sometimes contracts are for a set number of years. Terms of license are usually either based on the contract date or on the date of publication.

Tie-in - An edition of the book that ties in with a movie or TV show adaptation, usually featuring the movie cover or TV art.

Trade paperback - Mid-size paperback.

Territory - The countries in which rights are granted in a publishing contract.

Unearned - When an advance has not "earned out" the book is said to be "unearned."

Warranty - The part of a publishing contract where the author swears on their life that they are not plagiarizing anyone and everything is on the up and up (see also "Indemnity").

Wholesaler - Companies that get books to bookstores, libraries, etc. Unlike distributors, which fill orders for one or a few publishers, wholesalers fill orders for basically everything under the sun. Prominent wholesalers include Baker & Taylor and Ingram.

Friday, August 14, 2009

This Week in Publishing 8/14/09

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Remember the cover controversy a few weeks back where the girl on the cover of Justine Larbalestier's book did not exactly look anything like the actual protagonist? You may be pleased to know that Bloomsbury has changed course and will be using a new cover. Congrats to everyone all around.

And speaking of covers, remember my client Lisa Brackmann's query for ROCK PAPER TIGER, which ended up selling to Soho? Well, Lisa must have been friends with the God of Awesome Covers in some past life because she got a great one:

ROCK PAPER TIGER, as you may recall, is about an American Iraq war veteran who is down and out in Beijing when she's suddenly chased by international security contractors and the Chinese authorities and she doesn't know why. Like all great covers, this one is both visually striking and instantly conveys what the book is about. Very exciting.

Meanwhile, ever wondered when this whole vampire thing will die? (insert joke about vampires being undead and then follow it up with a joke about vampires sucking.) According to a NY Times Op-Ed by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (who have a vested interest in the subject): NEVER. Bwa ha ha ha ha....

It was Sony Week this week as they had a steady stream of announcements. First up was an announcement of a new line of $199 e-book readers that come in multiple colors (the cases, not the screen). They also will be moving to a semi-open ePub format that will allow Sony e-books to be read on multiple devices. The FinePrint blog took a look at what it all means.

And in other technology news, are e-book readers all hype? The Times UK online takes a look at a Hype Cycle analysis. (via Mary Fitzsimmons).

Ron Hogan at GalleyCat initiated a very interesting /plea for editors to be more brand conscious. If imprints exist (and boy howdy do they), why not get out there and build some brand loyalty among readers, Billy Mays style?

In the latest discussion of Freevangelism and books, The Millions has a really interesting take, riffing off a HuffPo article about how if no one pays for content we're only going to be hearing from those who can afford to write for free. C. Max Magee also wants to deromanticize the model of the writer building an audience by way of free, noting, "Paying writers nothing is just a way to increase profit margin."

While I was away we had a great guest post on how to solicit blurbs by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, and over at Murderati there's a similar guide by Louise Ure about blurb etiquette. As you can probably tell there's a wide, wide range of opinions about blurbs, so consult your agent during the process.

In agent advice news, Kristin Nelson has a seriously important, essential post on nuts and bolts things you must do once your book sells. Among her suggestions: get a good accountant, keep track of your dates, and pay your taxes.

Rachelle Gardner discussed something that really doesn't help a query: spending time telling an agent why you love to write. As I've said before, I don't care if you hate writing more than I hate Robert Horry as long as you write good books.

(It's not overly personal, Robert Horry. But you should know that if I get my hands on a time machine the absolute first thing I'm going back and changing is this).

I somehow missed this one the first time around, but now that Libba Bray's GOING BOVINE is coming out next month it's worth revisiting her utterly awesome post about the stages of writing a novel in the form of a love story. (via Lisa Brackmann)

My most excellent colleague Katherine Arathoon passed along a hilarious post about writing: the 7 vices of highly creative people. If you live up to these you'll probably be dead in under three years. In the immortal words of Mark Twain: "My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!"

And finally, ever wonder what an intern at a book publisher does? Well, the geniuses at Orbit put their intern to work counting the different cover elements in all the fantasy books published by major imprints. The resulting chart is priceless. You'll be pleased to know that the three most common elements in fantasy covers are swords, glowy magic and a castle/citadel, although I'm sad to tell you that "completely dark cover of meaninglessness" languished in 10th place, just ahead of "staffs" and behind "wolves." (via @Ginger_Clark)

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When Do You Stop Reading a Book?

A few weeks back my Dad (a voracious reader) passed along a Washington Times article that discusses economics professor Tyler Cowen's argument that there's an economic case to be made for quitting a book as soon as you stop getting anything out of it. Cowen finishes one book for every five to ten he starts. "We should treat books a little more like we treat TV channels," says Cowen.

That's probably an extreme case, but I'm sure we've all had moments when we wanted to fling the old Kindle against the old wall, whether because of a character who was driving us batty, an implausible plot line, or maybe even because your copy of THE SHINING just happened to be missing pages right when it was getting to the good part (yup, still mad, Colusa County Library. Seventeen years has not dulled the pain).

So do you stop reading books or are you a compulsive finisher? And for those that stop midway, what causes you to stop? How do you decide to ditch a book and start something new?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Myth of "Just An Author"

As you may have heard, Thomas Pynchon's new novel INHERENT VICE was published last week, which is newsworthy for many reasons, but my favorite tidbit is that the notoriously publicity-shy Pynchon actually lent his voice to his book trailer and provided a playlist of songs for Amazon. It is indeed 2009. But other than these activities Pynchon is remaining completely out of sight as he has for virtually all of his life -- there are hardly even any photographs of him.

This got me thinking about a perpetual debate among authors and publishing types: Can you be "just an author" these days, pecking away at a typewriter in a basement somewhere but otherwise completely eschewing publicity and remaining out of the public eye, Salinger- and Pynchon-style, writing in a bubble-like Platonic ideal of authordom?

I think a few authors can probably pull it off, particularly those who are already established. But it's increasingly rare for authors breaking into the business.

Every author is a product of their time and had to deal with the realities and constraints of their publishing industry. Hemingway found his way to publication in part because he knew the right people (namely F. Scott Fitzgerald), and his success owed a great deal to his larger than life stature, a literary self-promotional archetype dating back to Byron and beyond. Herman Melville became famous because he wrote travelogues about far flung locales during a time when technology and trade was opening up the world, then crashed and burned when he tried to write novels about silly things like white whales, which didn't even sell through its 3,000 print run.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the authors we most associate with seclusion and anonymity became popular in the late '50s and '60s, the time when counterculture and anti-establishment sentiment was running highest. Let's face it - Pynchon and Salinger are some of our best writers, but the whole seclusion thing just added to their mystique and cred during a time when a popular phrase was "Turn on, tune in, drop out." Pynchon and Salinger mastered the "drop out" part.

But setting aside what was true in the past, can an author today expect that they can write in, drop out and leave the publicity to the publisher?

Probably not.

As we all know, these are tough times for the publishing industry yada yada yada. Sure, publishers are buying fewer books, but they also have to make difficult decisions about which books will receive precious marketing dollars and the all-important "push" that can make the difference between obscurity and bestsellerdom. How do they make these decisions?

Often they go for bang for the buck. And one of the best ways to get bang for the buck is to start with an author who is doing everything they can to help out with publicity, thus multiplying the publisher's efforts.

As Lisa McMann's interview from a year ago describes, she received a push and lead-title status from her publisher for her novel WAKE in large part because of her self-marketing efforts. And, sure enough, WAKE wound up on the bestseller list.

This creates a self-perpetuating cycle. Authors who have platforms and who are savvy with their web presence and who are professional and composed and plugged into the industry have a better shot at receiving promotional dollars and marketing pushes from their publishers. Sure, there are exceptions, and let me state loud and clear that writing a great book is the most important thing.

But still, all things being equal, the edge goes to the plugged-in author. Take it from a real life sales assistant at a major publisher: they want you doing stuff. We can debate whether this is the best strategy or how many books blogs actually sell or whether this system is right or wrong until we're hoarse, but the fact is: this is the way the business is right now.

And I don't think it's a coincidence.

Melville lived in a time when the world was physically opening up due to inventions like steam power, Hemingway and Fitzgerald lived in a time when radio and movies were helping create global celebrities, and Pynchon and Salinger became popular during a time of discontent and the rise of a powerful counterculture.

We live in a networked time. The Internet is quickly organizing itself into tribes of far-flung, plugged-in, like-minded individuals and shaping how we learn about the stories we consume. Popular books from THE SHACK to TWILIGHT spill out of highly devoted and connected small groups who then spread their passion to the population at large. The authors who engage their audience and inspire devoted clans of fans have a leg up over those who sit back and let the publisher take care of that whole promotional thing or who hope lightning will strike on its own.

There's no such thing as "just an author" anymore, and I suspect there never was.

Just remember: even Cormac McCarthy went on Oprah.

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