Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Holiday Repeat: Digging for Mushrooms

Watch out, because I'm about to get all metaphorical on you.

I recently read a New Yorker article on mushroom pickers (bear with me here). There are these people who go into the forests in Oregon to pick matsutake mushrooms, which are very popular but difficult to find. You see, the matsutake doesn't grow above ground, so the mushroom pickers have to look for small mounds in the ground in certain places near certain trees and dig to see if there's a matsutake there. So there are these people who will see an almost imperceptible mound of dirt and yell out, "MATSUTAKE!"

(I especially like to imagine the part where they yell out "Matsutake!", which I completely made up. In fact I just like saying, "matsutake." I think I'm going to use that when I finish a book or find a good manuscript. The end MATSUTAKE!!)

Anyway, the whole matsutake search is just like being an agent. Mostly. Kind of.

As anyone who has worked in publishing knows, there's a huge psychological difference between reading something as a finished book and reading it in manuscript form. With a book, not only is the reading experience completely different, but when the book is published by real publisher you are absorbing the implicit endorsement through the binding -- someone out there believed in the book and invested in it and thinks the book is good and will sell. Sure, not everyone will like the book, but it still carries that implicit weight of endorsement, particularly one that has already been branded a "classic." It's a mushroom that has already been dug up and cleaned off.

But when the book is just a manuscript, especially one by an unknown author, it is really, really difficult to read something and decide if it is good or will resonate with readers. Really difficult. Finding a mushroom in a small mound of dirt difficult.

Which is why I cringed when I saw the recent New York Times article that highlighted Knopf's old rejection files and readers reports, including the rejection letters for classics like THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK and THE GOOD EARTH and LOLITA.

Let's be honest, people love playing the schadenfreude game with rejected books that went on to be mega-successes (to be fair, the Times article is very balanced). It's extremely tempting to laugh at publishers and agents who missed the big ones, and similarly tempting for publishers and agents to kick themselves when they miss said big ones. But there's a good reason this happens: it's really, really hard. It's subjective. It's slippery. Heck, sometimes an agent or publisher just wasn't the right fit, and even if they had repped/bought the book it might not have caught on like it did because they didn't see what someone else saw in it. The right fit can be everything.

So sure, everyone who has spent much time in publishing has missed one, but it doesn't mean we're stupid. At least I hope not. No one said digging for mushrooms is easy.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Holiday Repeat: Don't Fake a Personalized Query

Originally posted January 15, 2008

I'm on quite the query kick these days, and there are no signs of stopping the quermentum. Query power! Hop on board the query train! Put your queries in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care! I'll stop now.

One of the more hilarious things that people do in query letters (besides ones that are actually funny), is to try and fake me out by pretending they've read my client's books. Having read these books several times each at the minimum, trust me -- I know these books. I am not going to be fooled.

So when an author says they can tell how much X author appreciates my work on their behalf based on the acknowledgments in X book.... I'm going to know when I'm not actually in the acknowledgments for that book (yes, this happened).

I realize that these queriers mean well and are just trying to personalize, but they're really missing the whole point of personalization. The goal of personalization isn't to suck up to the agent and score cheap points, the goal is to show that you are a diligent, hard-working author who is familiar with the conventions of the industry, are abiding by them, and you have familiarized yourself with the agent as much as possible before you queried them. All of these latter qualities, it just so happens, are qualities that bode well for a successful author.

As much as some people think we agents just want people to suck up to us, it's really not true. We are just looking for authors who embody the qualities (hard work, diligence, attention to detail, familiarity with the publishing business) we see in other successful authors. Taking the easy way out and/or trying to fool an agent is not on the list of desirable qualities.

Now, don't get me wrong -- as nice as it would be, I don't expect everyone who queries me to read all of my clients' books and display a sweeping command of them in the query. There are people who read at least one, and I really do appreciate that and I take note of that kind of dedication, but it's not a guarantor. As much as I want to be the first person people query, I don't want to monopolize their time. So trust me. I'm not suggesting you write a book report in addition to a query.

But there is an art to personalization, and it's important to convey the qualities that an agent is looking for. Dedication and diligence are important, so if you query me I hope you'll do your homework, read "The Essentials" and sure, if you've read books by my clients, mention that. Just don't try and trick me.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Holiday Repeat: The No A**hole Rule

Remember all those stories about great cantankerous authors way back when who were legendarily inebriated most of the time, were notoriously difficult to handle, got into fisticuffs, and were generally misanthropic to every human they encountered but people still published their books because they were wonderfully talented?

How many successful authors today do you know who fit that description?

Um. On second thought, don't answer that. But now think of the huge number of bestselling and successful authors you know today (some of whom comment regularly on the blog) who are awesome, cool people who you would love to hang out with even if they weren't also incredible writers.


I'm not sure what's in the cultural waters, but I'm hearing from non-publishing people in the world of business that there's a new trend afoot toward politeness, anger management, and a less rigid hierarchy -- in other words, in business you can't really be a jerk anymore. Managers are no longer allowed to mistreat their assistants, it's essential to treat people with respect, contain tempers, work together, and generally avoid being a misanthrope. Stanford prof Richard Sutton chronicled the negative effective of assholes in the workplace with his appropriately titled book THE NO ASSHOLE RULE, and it's been a bestseller. Jim Collins showed in GOOD TO GREAT that the best leaders are humble, not egotistical.

Now, with publishing you're dealing with artists, who are not exactly known for an even temperament. And no doubt there's much more tolerance for eccentricity in publishing than there would be in the rest of the business world. But even in publishing an author who is a joy to work with and has a dynamite, charming personality has a leg up over one who doesn't. Allow me to venture a hypothesis on why this be so: I think this has a great deal to do with the role of the modern author.

Way back when in simpler times, the book was what mattered. The author may have had to do some events and readings, but for the most part an author's engagement with the public was limited. Word of mouth and reviews drove sales. If a writer wrote a good book but was a pill to deal with, that was basically ok.

Not so much anymore.

Now, via TV, radio, the Internet, lots more travel, etc., the author is face to face with their readership more than ever before and is called upon to generate sales opportunities -- this requires social skills. They are also more closely in touch with people within a publishing organization -- also requiring social skills. And it helps when people want to work with an author because they're an awesome, friendly, professional, hardworking author.

Is a publisher going to decline to publish a great book simply because the author is a jerk and a handful? Probably not. But when those difficult and nebulous decisions are being made in a publishing house, such as who gets what advertising and who is going to be the lead title and a great deal of complex factors are being weighed, put a great personality in the "pro" column for an author.

Personality counts.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday Repeat: 1st Person Narratives: Conversational, yes. Chatty, like ohmigod no.

First, before we get to our holiday repeat from years past, another plug for our Making Spirits Bright With Heifer International comment pledge drive. Some of the blogs still have comments open - all you have to do to add another 50 cents or $1.00 to needy families is stop by and leave a comment!!

Anna's Got an Attitude
Where's My Whiteout
Single Mom Seeks Sane
Matt Heppe
Ink Spells
Jeri Smith-Ready
Mother Wouldn't Lie
So Many Dreams
The Book Designer
Irene Rawlins

And also, big thanks to our other participants - stop by to see how much they raised!

Amanda Plavich
Anvil of Tears
John Ochwat
Jennifer R. Hubbard
Kathryn Jankowski
Robin Mullet
Phoebe Kitanidis
Regan Leigh
Moira Young
Linda Godfrey
Patrick Rothfuss

Thanks again to everyone for participating and for your incredible generosity!

And now for the repeat post from years past:

Originally posted November 12, 2007

Confession time: when I was a kid I really didn't like books written in the first person. Little Nathan Bransford was quite the literal fellow, and he just didn't get the whole first person thing (also he was very short and the girls in his second grade class patted him on the head and called him "El Chiquito" which was HUMILIATING).

I really couldn't wrap my head around who was doing the narrating. Was I supposed to believe it was the author? Was the narrator supposed to have written it all down? Was the narrator supposed to be talking to me? What in the heck was going on? What if a 1st Person narrator died in the end? THEN who was supposed to be doing the talking?

Luckily I outgrew both my aversion to 1st Person and the people who called me El Chiquito (who's El Chiquito now, LA CHIQUITA??), but only after I came to accept the essential weirdness of 1st Person. What is 1st Person anyway?

Well, it's a spectrum, obviously. It can be an imitation of someone definitely telling a story to someone else (THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST), it can be someone definitely writing something down (THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO), it can just be a story told from someone's particular point of view (TWILIGHT), or it can be sort of a hybrid (THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN).

But whatever it is, a first person narrative is unique in language. Whatever form the narrative takes (and it should be consistent), it's not like a real person talking or writing. There's no real-life equivalent. It's something else entirely.

Have you seen a transcript of an actual conversation? I have. IT'S BORING. It's confusing. People don't really make sense. They include a whole bunch of "I means" and "Ums" and "likes" and it's quite annoying to see on the page.

Good first person writers crafting a unique voice create the impression that someone is speaking and the illusion that it sounds like the way someone would talk without it actually being real life dialogue or how it would sound if someone were actually telling a story.

So one common mistake writers make with 1st person narratives is an excess of chattiness of the "I mean" and "No, really" and "like" variety, especially when it comes to young adult literature. Yes, that's how people (and kids) talk. It's even how they blog (GUILTY!). But excess chattiness over the course of an entire novel becomes exhausting - would you want to sit and listen to someone tell a story for six hours? Let alone someone who said "like" after every other sentence?

To be sure, the occasional "I mean" and chatty turn of phrase can be used to great effect in the right hands, as both Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz demonstrate in particular -- a taste of real life can go a long way toward showing what the character is like and infusing a voice with a unique flavor. But only in very, very small doses. It's ok for a 1st person narrator to sound conversational, but not overly chatty.

So as you're writing, keep an eye on those, um, "So"s and "I mean"s and "like"s. Don't write what real life sounds like; write better than real life.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Making Spirits Bright With Heifer International

(6PM Update Below - keep clicking and commenting on the links!)

You guys are the ones who make this blog, and if you are reading it in a place that's warm and safe like I am we have so much to be thankful for.

You may have already heard of Heifer International, an organization that works to fight hunger by giving needy families around the world and in the United States livestock, training, or other assistance that helps improve their livelihood. Heifer has been recognized for its work in Fast Company and Forbes, among other places.

I know we're going through tough economic times, but if you have anything to spare this holiday season I hope you'll consider making a donation. And, in order to encourage people to spread the word, for every comment someone makes in this post between now and 5PM Pacific time, my wife and I will donate 50 cents $1.00*.

(*Up to $1,000, I'm on a publishing salary people)

And, better yet, if you want in on the fun you could do a per-comment pledge on your own blog and I'll link to it in this post and encourage everyone to stop by so we can multiply the giving!

In your comment I hope you'll list:

1. Your name
2. Where you're from
3. A wish for 2010
4. (optional) A link to your own blog or website if you want to make a similar per-comment pledge (amounts totally up to you). Write a dedicated post on your blog for people to leave comments on your blog and link to Heifer and state your pledge. I will update the post throughout the day with links to other participating blogs.

Thanks again for a wonderful 2009! I'll be closing comments on the blog between 5pm this evening and Monday as I spend time with my family, and will be back with some reruns from yesteryear on the 28th.

Also spreading cheer with their own per-comment donations (please make sure to click through and leave comments!):
Amanda Plavich
Anna's Got an Attitude
Where's My Whiteout?
Single Mom Seeks Sane
Muse Ink
Matt Heppe
Anvil of Tears
John Ochwat
Jennifer R. Hubbard
Kathryn Jankowski
Robin Mullet
Ink Spells
Phoebe Kitanidis
Regan Leigh
Jeri Smith-Ready
Moira Young
Mother Wouldn't Lie
Linda Godfrey
So Many Dreams
The Book Designer
Irene Rawlins
Patrick Rothfuss

6PM Update: WOW!! All I can say is THANK YOU SO MUCH to everyone who participated in our inaugural charity drive. Thanks to you, this is the total donation for this blog ($1 x close enough to 1,000 comments = ......):

And according to my calculations, if the other blogging participants reach their comment pledge goals it will mean another $1,250-$1,500+ for needy families. That's what I call multiplying! But that will only happen if you keep commenting on those blogs. Many of the participants above have extended their deadlines, so if you're just arriving click those links above and comment!

This has been a fantastic experience, but it's just the beginning: next year we'll really blow it out (and hold it at a time when more people are on the Internets). THANK YOU again to everyone. All comments from here on out will be held for moderation (and not generally looked at) as I'm away with my family, but will be back on Monday. Hope everyone has a wonderful weekend.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Million Reasons to Be Thankful

At some point over the next couple of days we will pass a new milestone on the blog as it lodges its one millionth unique visitor for the year. Needless to say, this makes me one million times thankful and one million times eternally grateful to everyone who has mentioned the blog to a friend or fellow writer and helped make this a community.

Thank you so much for making 2009 such a special year. I've learned a whole lot from the people who have taken the time to comment and participate in the forums, and I can't thank you enough for making my time with this blog so enjoyable. Particularly since, well, let's face it, a side effect of my job is saying no to about 15,000 people a year, your generosity of spirit is inspiring and appreciated!

Here's hoping to many great manuscripts and successes and writerly camaraderie in the coming year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Staring at the Abyss

After I spend a few days with my family later this week I will be spending my vacation relaxing watching basketball making snowmen working/reading and finishing up a round of edits for JACOB WONDERBAR.

And yet even with that task at hand I'm already looking over the horizon with a great deal of nervousness as I merely contemplate finishing one book and starting another. I have the new book jitters.

As many/most/all of you know, starting to write a new book can be a hugely daunting task. I liken it to staring down at a deep, dark abyss. You know it's a long way down and it's pretty scary to jump.

Some writers I know just try and block out how much work they have ahead and just chip away as best they can. I always try and remind myself that it will get done eventually with just a little constant steady progress. Other people try and outline so they can break it all down into comprehensible and non-daunting chunks.

What about you? Do you find it difficult to start a new book project? Or are you so jazzed about the new idea that it carries you through until the new book jitters pass? How do you cope with staring at the abyss?

Friday, December 18, 2009

This Year in Publishing 2009

This YEAR in publishing....

But first, a brief programming note: Next week I will be posting as normal (or at least as normal as things ever get around here) through Wednesday December 23rd, and I will be working my little elf fingers to the bone tap tap tapping at the computer until then. Also making toys. Then I will take a break for SANTAAAAAAAAAA OH MY GODDDDD!!!! Then during the week of the 28th I shall run some posts from Christmases past (or Junes past, Augusts past, etc.).

And then, THEN, the first week in January we will have quite the fun and new and never-seen-before contest (contest! CONTEST!!!!), which may or may not coincide with the publication of Jennifer Hubbard's heart-wrenching, gripping, unforgettable debut YA novel THE SECRET YEAR, which Booklist recently said is "a fine addition to the PANTHEON of YA literature," (bolding, capitalizing, and italicizing mine, though I'm sure they meant it to read that way), and which happens to be available for pre-order.

Then, the second week of January there will be another contest, which will mainly be held in the Forums. But we'll talk about that later because right now the thought of two contests in two weeks is blowing my elf brain.

And now we shall recap 2009.

When I was recapping 2008, I called it the year the future caught up with publishing. Well, if things began to change in 2008, they done really changed in 2009.

The impact of e-books on the book industry remains more theory than fact at this point as they comprise only 5-10% of sales, but they're booming, and the massive earthquake that they represent is beginning to rumble. Publishers are attempting naked rights grabs (well, the rights grabs are naked, hopefully the publishers aren't), they're worried about the elephant in the Amazon, and after a century where they enjoyed near complete control over which books the world reads, publishers are suddenly confronting a future where they may or may not be necessary.

In part because there's so much free content out there competing for attention, the entire pricing model of the industry is under tremendous pressure, even as publishers continue to pay huge advances for the hottest titles. Because the advertising and promotion tools at their disposal have not yet sufficiently changed with the times, publishers are often relying on authors to generate their own buzz precisely at a time when the alternative publishing options at authors' disposal (particularly when they can generate their own buzz) are becoming and will become all the more enticing.

2009 is an apt year for all of these events because we're embarking on a new decade just as publishers are staring in the face of a new era in which they will hopefully continue to ask themselves not what authors can do for them but what they can do for authors and bring their unmatched package of services to bear to remain relevant and vital in the e-book era. If e-books eventually comprise 50% or 75% or 90% of sales and e-book vendors take all comers, publishers are going to have to make themselves appealing to authors rather than the other way around, while still confronting the perennial challenge of how to stay profitable.

Will the polarization of publishing continue, with publishers focusing on a few huge blockbusters on top and a vast sea of small- or self-published books below? Will publishers be able to stay above the sea and help consumers navigate to the books they really want? Will publishers find a way to command eyeballs in the Internet era?

These are challenging times for publishers. And yet I think it's a great time for authors. We're in an era when anyone can be a star overnight. In the digital world, something can instantaneously catch on. All that's standing in the way of an author and bestsellerdom is that magic word of mouth, which moves faster than ever. People who can command an audience are suddenly hugely valuable in a time when there's an infinite array of content but a premium on those who have a following.

In the new publishing world: Everyone's got a shot. For better or worse.

Now then! There was still a week in publishing, and lots of news to get to:

Still more reaction to last week's news that some publishers are delaying e-book releases. Matt Stewart wonders why, in his words, publishers are screwing their best customers, John Gapper in the Financial Times argues that book publishers are right to stand up to Amazon, and an analysis by Rory Maher and Henry Blodget argues that over time wholesale prices will have to come down and it is likely authors who will feel the squeeze.

The new e-book news this week is that Random House CEO Markus Dohle sent a letter to agents suggesting that Random House has e-book rights for backlist titles even when the e-book rights are not actually stated in the contract. The irony here is that Random House tried this in 2001 and lost in court. The Author's Guild is having none of it, and Pimp My Novel has some helpful perspective.

Meanwhile, a French Court found Google guilty of copyright infringement for scanning and listing books as part of Google Book Search. In the US, of course, we have the pending Google Book Search settlement, which is still being revised and will be subject to court approval.

Reader Sarah Pinneo passed along an interesting post by David Pogue in which he pondered whether DRM should be applied to e-books. Interestingly enough, while he supported the removal of DRM for music and used a free e-book to boost his print sales and is about as pro-new technology a person as you'll ever find, he's just a tad nervous as an author about non-DRM e-books in an e-reader era.

There were a couple of really fascinating articles on the global publishing scene by Publishing Perspectives this week. First, an informative look into the buzz generating, information swapping, always hustling world of book scouts (via John Ochwat in the Forums). And from France comes news that literary agents are quietly making inroads into what had previously been a relatively literary agency-free publishing landscape (via Book Bench).

You know how I coined the term "male ennui" to classify all those books I receive queries for about disaffected male protagonists who go on a crazy road trip/meet an irrepressible and slightly insane but loveable hot chick who is the only person in the world who sees The Real Him/engage in CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES style lunacy? (Which, by the way, can definitely work very well and I'm not saying you can't or shouldn't write it). Well, the Rejectionist just destroyed "male ennui" in a single stroke with a ten quadrillion times better term: mangst. You heard it there first. Also Le R. has query stats.

In writerly news, Kate Schafer Testerman asks an interesting question about how best to describe race in novels, Jeff Abbott examines 2010 planners in his Organized Writer series, and Jessica Faust writes about what to do when authors suggest writing advice that conflicts with agents/editors.

Almost finally, if you want to preview some books by some bestselling authors, JC Hutchins is spreading cheer by offering a free holiday sampler PDF.

And finally, finally... well, Elf again:

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

All About Writing Contests

With the new Amazon Breakthrough Contest ramping up and other competitions looming, my Inbox and the Forums have filled with talk of writing contests: whether they should be entered and how much they matter. (The INTERN recently weighed in as well.)

What should writers know about contests?

The absolute most important advice I can give you is this: read and understand the fine print.

Know what you're entering. Know what happens to your work in the event you win (or even/especially if you don't win). Make sure you're completely comfortable with it.

For instance, in the event you win the Amazon Breakthrough contest, are you comfortable with a $15,000 advance and a completely non-negotiable publishing contract? (The fine print says you can't negotiate). Do you want to try for a better deal by going through the traditional publishing route and finding an agent?

There's no correct answer here: it's up to you. But make sure a) you know what happens when you enter/win and b) you can live with it. And think very long and very hard about anything that could tie up the rights to your work. And when in doubt: don't enter.

Now: do agents and other publishing types look favorably on successful contest wins/finalists?

Here's the thing about that. Even the biggest writing competitions have... what, a few thousand entries? Agents get 10,000+ queries a year and take on maybe a handful of clients. Going strictly by the numbers, an agent's Inbox is far more competitive than any writing contest. Accordingly, I take contest wins with a grain of salt.

If you win or are a finalist in a large contest by all means, include in the query as a publishing credit. But I wouldn't necessarily call it a difference-maker in a query. It can definitely help, and there are some genres where certain important contests are taken very seriously, but it's not usually something that's going to make or break you.

And if you're a Semi-Finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough: I wouldn't mention it. Every time the Amazon contest rolls around we're suddenly besieged with Amazon Breakthrough semi-finalists, and while yes, it's a good achievement that you should absolutely be proud of, to us it seems like there are several bazillion semi-finalists.

All that cautionary stuff aside: I'm not down on writing contests! I know how hard and lonely it is for writers who are struggling with the Am I Crazies and are wondering about that big question: am I any good?

Writing contests can provide that crucial validation from people who don't know you and hey, they like your work! It can be a real confidence booster, and that can make all the difference in the world.

So definitely consider entering writing contests, just make sure you do it with eyes wide open.

If you have questions about specific contests: don't forget that the brand spanking new Discussion Forums are a great place to sound out your fellow writers. Experienced smart people are standing by.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What Was Your Favorite Book Published in the Aughts?

Oh yes, it's the end of 2009, which means it's time for decade retrospectives and this blog is no exception.

Last week we named our favorite books published in 2009 - what about the decade? What was your favorite book published in the aughts?

Aside from books by my clients, I'm going to have to go with.... The Corrections. No, Atonement. No, Spin. No, The Book Thief. (I could go on for hours)

It was a pretty great decade for books. Can you pick your favorite?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Can We All Agree Once and For All That E-books and DVDs Have Nothing in Common?

A common refrain out there among the people who are pro-delaying e-books (last spotted in the Wall Street Journal article about S&S's and Hachette's delays) is that it's kind of like how in movies you have the new release in the theaters, and then a while later you have the DVD release. Ergo ipso facto quod erat demonstrandum (Latin! It's what's for dinner)... DVDs are same thing as e-books, right? You have the hardcover release and then the e-book comes out later.

I don't understand this e-book/DVD comparison at all. I'd even go so far as to say it's Greek to me.

Let's take movies.

When a movie comes out, you pay to see it in the theater. Once. You don't get to take home the reels (and even if you wanted to those things weigh like 75,000 pounds). You're paying for the experience of sitting in a darkened theater with strangers and watching it on a giant screen. You're not buying something tangible.

Then, six months or a year later, the DVD comes out. It's a tangible product. You get to keep it or give it away or loan it to a friend. And, by the way, it's usually more expensive than a movie ticket (assuming you didn't spring for the $17.00 popcorn). It's also most likely to be purchased by someone who saw the movie in the theater and wants to re-watch it whenever they want or add it their collection.

How does this have anything at all to do with hardcovers and e-books? Watching a movie and owning a DVD are wholly different experiences and models. As subets pointed out in the comments section: One is an experience, the other is a product. DVDs are more expensive and tangible and you can watch it whenever you want. Going to the theater is cheaper and less tangible and you have to go at certain times.

If theater = hardcover, why is going theater cheaper whereas the hardcover is more expensive? If DVD = e-book, why don't people usually buy the e-books for hardcovers they've already purchased?

I mean, yes, there are some points of comparison between e-books and DVDs, in that they're both digital. And e-books (could/should be) loaded up with all kinds of cool bonus features that are afforded by an electronic format.

And some people might say that the reason DVDs are delayed is so people who are interested in the movie will be motivated to go to the theater first rather than renting it when it comes out on DVD. But the movie industry's ideal is that someone consumes a movie twice - first at the theater, then with the DVD. If publishers are hoping consumers are going to buy e-books after the hardcover they'd better get to work making e-books a whole lot more awesome.

We already have a model for the e-book delay that makes way more sense: paperbacks. We can debate the merits of that comparison until we're hoarse, but at least it makes sense as a model - the theory being that people who are excited about a title will be steered first toward the most expensive version of the product. Releases start with the highest price version and then move to the cheapest priced version.

But DVDs/e-books?

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Also: Rosebud. Just because.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Publishing's Winner's Curse

Originally posted in the Huffington Post

In the climactic scene in Frank Norris' classic novel McTEAGUE, the two antagonists find themselves in the desert. Shady San Francisco dentist McTeague has murdered his wife to steal her money (Belated spoiler alert!). He is then pursued by his former best friend Marcus, who wants revenge slash money slash I only vaguely remember this I read it in college and that was kind of a long time ago.

A scuffle ensues in Death Valley. It's hot! Water is lacking! Tensions running high! Bad guy McTeague nearly kills Marcus in the fight. But just before Marcus dies he handcuffs himself to McTeague.

And thus McTeague finds himself handcuffed to a corpse, the keys are back in San Francisco, and Marcus has successfully ensured that even though he has lost the battle, McTeague will also die in Death Valley.


Book publishers are currently in retrenching mode. The slumping economy has not been kind to the print world. It has exacerbated many existing weaknesses (rise of e-tailing, rise of e-books, creeping omnipotence of e's and hyphens), and has forced publishers to examine their business models.

The publishing marketplace has been plunged into a great deal of chaos. And if, as I detailed in my last post, publishers can no longer accurately guess at an audience even for formerly safe categories like adult trade nonfiction, will they continue to gamble so much money on big advances for a small number of books whose success is increasingly difficult to predict?

Well, from a publisher's perspective, they're often willing to pay big advances because their profits hinge on a relatively small number of hits and bestsellers. Thus the authors/celebrities who can reliably deliver an audience become hugely valuable. If a publisher doesn't pay a healthy advance they risk losing their bread-and-butter authors and the most promising new projects to their competitors.

From an agent's and author's perspective, there's not always a strong incentive to move away from traditional advance/royalties either, simply because it's often appealing to bank the guaranteed money and head for the desert.

In economics they call this the Winner's Curse, which is the theory that when you don't know what an object is truly worth (e.g. how many copies a book will actually sell) the winner of an auction will tend to overpay relative to the actual value of the object. The theory goes that someone who wins an auction is often worse off than if they hadn't bid at all. (Was that Gladwellian? I hope it was Gladwellian.)

And so here we publishers and agents are, McTeague and Marcus style, handcuffed to each other in the desert, stuck with the advance and royalty model even if it's ill-suited for a time when success is nearly impossible to predict. (Who murdered whose wife probably depends on whether you work at a publisher or an agency. Also: send water!)

Is it time to think outside of the desert?

Friday, December 11, 2009

This Week in Publishing 12/11/09


We covered the big news yesterday, which is that several of the big publishers announced that they are delaying the e-book release of some of their upcoming titles, even though according to reports they aren't actually making less per e-book copy than with hardcover copies. Mike Shatzkin speculates that this all about taking a stand against a company whose name starts with an "Ama" and ends with a "zon," though what precisely they are hoping to achieve vis a vis Amazon remains somewhat unclear.

Amazon apparently reacted to the news by slashing the prices of the delayed e-books even further, to $7.99. Which, again, doesn't mean publishers receive less money per copy, it just means Amazon loses $2 more per copy sold. So....... yeah.

Kassia Krozser at Booksquare broke out the crystal ball and made some interesting predictions for 2010, including: International rights and territorial control will be a hot issue in the e-book era, $9.99 will become a (sorta) standard, and publishers will begin to experiment with e-book first/then-print publishing. Definitely worth a read.

Mike Shatzkin (have I mentioned how much I love his blog?) also got a look at a new e-book experience via Baker & Taylor's upcoming e-book platform, which features virtual bookshelves, all kinds of options for styles and functionality, and, very intriguingly, a sync option for the audio version of the book.

Reacting to the immense popularity of the late Stieg Larsson's mystery series, some enterprising independent bookstores took it upon themselves to import and sell the UK edition, which has already been released. Only one problem with this plan: it's illegal. Indies, I know times is tough, but let's not turn into bootleggers, hmm?

Jacket Copy has a roundup of the latest rumors on the Apple Tablet: 10" iPhone like screen, $1,000 price point (youch), but perhaps most intriguing of all: a rumored 70% to publishers/30% to Apple nonexclusive distribution arrangement, compared to (according to the article) a typical 50/50 split with Kindle. As Mr. Burns would say: Innnnnnnteresting.

The fallout from Harlequin's announcement about their new self-publishing line continued to fall out, as the Mystery Writers of America took the step of de-listing Harlequin from their approved publishers list, meaning Harlequin books and authors with contracts signed after 12/2/09 are, among other things, no longer eligible for the Edgar Awards.

Editor Alan Rinzler chatted with neuroscientist Livia Blackburne about the effects reading has on our brain. Turns out the words really do shape the brain in an interesting way.

In "E-books Are Going to Destroy Writing" news, an article in the Guardian UK wonders if great writing will end because Don Delillo wrote on a typewriter, attention spans are shortened because of distractions, and a host of other fears. Lord knows nothing good has been written on a computer! (Though, in all seriousness, while I don't share the essay's sense of immense doom/pessimism, it has some interesting speculation that the disconnect from real life and removal from the dangers of in-person discourse afforded by computers results in an elevated and falsely enhanced sense of self-importance. Which isn't a bad theory actually.) (via Combreviations)

In agent news, several blogging agents have announced that they are taking query holidays between now and January 15th: Jennifer Jackson, Upstart Crow, and Rachelle Gardner/Word Serve. I am really intrigued by this idea and ask that people avoid querying around the week before and after Christmas, but am currently too OCD about possibly missing out on something to take a full-fledged query holiday myself.

Almost finally, The Rejectionist offers writing advice inspired by Terminator:Salvation.

And finally, finally, while East Coast Bias will likely preclude Toby Gerhart from winning the Heisman Trophy tomorrow (despite ahem leading the nation in rushing yards and touchdowns while also carrying a 3.25 GPA at Stanford), I'd just like to present Exhibit A through Z for his candidacy. Go Gerhart!!

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Should Publishers Delay E-book Releases?

More big news in the ever-evolving e-book landscape as two publishers, Hachette and Simon & Schuster, told the Wall Street Journal that they would be delaying the e-book release of some of their important upcoming titles, HarperCollins told the New York Times that they would delay "5-10 titles a month," and Macmillan said they'd delay case by case.

Why are publishers doing this?

Carolyn Reidy, CEO S&S: "The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback."

David Young, CEO Hachette Book Group: "I can't sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices. It's about the future of the business."

One thing this doesn't seem to be is a short term financial calculation on the part of the publishers. Right now, according to most accounts, including the NY Times, publishers are receiving roughly the exact same amount for every e-book sold as they do for new hardcover sales. Yes, Amazon and Sony and others are selling many e-books for $9.99, but that doesn't mean publishers are making less money per title. The e-book retailers are taking loss leaders on e-books to sell more devices.

Instead this position seems to be borne out of fear of what's over the horizon: publishers are nervous that people will begin to feel that $9.99 is what all books should cost, wreaking havoc with print pricing models, and that Amazon and others will start turning the screws and demanding a bigger share of the revenue. (UPDATE: Along these lines, Mike Shatzkin speculates that this is really about controlling Amazon).

So is a long term fear about what's over the horizon worth potentially alienating some of your most motivated customers, the people who read so much and buy so many books that they plopped down $250 to buy an e-reader?

You tell me.

It seems to me that customers understand that there's a difference between print books and e-books and that they should cost different amounts - people know that printing and shipping paper and ink should cost more than sending electrons through the ether. It's understandable that publishers are frustrated that they can't control what Amazon actually charges, but they can't control actual retail prices for print books either.

And in the meantime, as we've seen repeatedly over the last decade, alienate digital consumers at your peril. People who read e-books want to read on their devices when they hear about a book, and the best deterrent against piracy is making a digital edition readily available for sale at a fair price. Resisting the conversion to digital sure didn't work for the music industry, and publishers are extremely fortunate they've had a decade of breathing room and lessons learned to prepare for the e-book wave.

All that said, authors may well be motivated to delay e-book releases since they may be receiving a better royalty for hardcover sales than they do for e-book sales. So for some authors, it may indeed make financial sense to encourage/force publishers to delay e-book releases if e-book customers will be motivated to go out and just buy the (higher royalty generating) hardcover during the delay period. This probably only applies to the top authors with rabid fans - everyone else will probably want to strike with e-books while the publicity iron is hot. In that sense, a case by case approach may indeed be warranted.

What do you think? Is this savvy business or misguided?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What Was Your Favorite Book Published In 2009?

Ah, December. The time of year when San Franciscans lose their minds as the temperature dips below 50 degrees, the egg nog is flowing, and the sound of "The Little Drummer Boy" tests the limits of everyone's Christmas spirit.

It's also the time for year-end retrospectives, and so this week I thought we'd give kudos to the authors whose books came out in 2009. (Note that this is a question about which book was your favorite that was published in 2009, not necessarily the favorite book you read in 2009.)

So: what do you think was the best book published in 2009?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What's In a Name: All About Pen Names

Aside from fiddling with fonts, contemplating acknowledgments sections, and/or finding the perfect quote to precede the start of the book, dreaming up pen names is a favored procrastination tool for many aspiring authors out there. As a result, I receive a whole lot of questions about them: should I include my pen name in the query? Do I need a pen name? Can I use "Dan Brown" as a pen name? What about "Stephanie Mayers?" See what I did there?

This post will hopefully answer all these questions.

But before we get to the pros and cons of pen names, whether you do or don't decide to use a pen name is something that can and should be figured out on down the line in consultation with your (future) agent. When I receive your query I don't want it to be from your pseudonym. I want to know who I'm really going to be working with. Even for authors who have established pen names: I want to hear from the real you (though of course mention your writing name).

If you're considering using a pen name or have a pen name: mention it if you feel it's really necessary and just put (w/a Mr. Pen Name) below your real name.

Now. As for whether you should or should not use a pen name, again, this is something that should be contemplated with your agent. Circumstances are inevitably different for every author, so generalizing will not capture all the ins and outs.

But here are some rough pros and cons:

Pro Pen Name:
- In this day and age of Google Searches, if your name is John or Jane Smith or something very common, a pen name can help you with SEO. What is SEO? Search Engine Optimization. If someone Googles "Jane Smith," the author Jane Smith with the book out might be on page 47. Jane Jingleheimerschmidt, on the other hand, will probably be closer to the top. (Up until Google I never appreciated having a weird last name. Hooray for Bransford!)
- You want to avoid the attention of certain foreign governments to avoid complicating future travel. (Honest!)
- Your previous books didn't sell as well as you had hoped and you/your publisher want to have a fresh start.
- Your publisher or agent feels your book might do better if the author's name soundedmore male/female/gender neutral to appeal to either a male/female demographic (let the professionals decide this one, don't overthink it)
- You want to avoid complications at work

Con Pen Name:
- You're defaming people and want cover. Not gonna fly in this day and age: The Internet will figure you out. And defaming people, even in novels, is extremely risky and costly business. Also it's illegal.
- It's not easy. Many authors find it extremely annoying to have a pen name in the Internet age. In the past you just had to learn to answer to your pen name at readings and in interviews and otherwise you could go about your business. In the day and age of the Internet and Twitter and Facebook, constantly being another person gets exhausting, what with switching between e-mail accounts and remembering your alternate persona's likes and dislikes, etc. etc.
- With a fake name it's more difficult to utilize your personal real life network to help sell a book. Regular non-book type people out there find pen names pretty confusing and difficult to remember.
- You just like the other name better.

In general I would recommend against using a pen name unless there's a really good reason for it. In other words: don't use one just to use one.

But if you really really need one:
- First check to see if the Internet domain is available. It will make your life much, much easier to have the domain.
- Don't try and mimic another successful author. Be yourself.
- Many people find it helpful to stick with your first name at least so you don't have to remember answer to a new name or accidentally call yourself your actual name.
- Make sure it's memorable. If you're going to get a new name, make it a good one!

Monday, December 7, 2009

New Digs! Also: Forums!

As promised, the blog has gone through an extensive redesign courtesy of web designer Sean Slinsky, and I hope you enjoy the new look. If you're reading this in an RSS reader or via e-mail, please click through and check it out!

And for the first time ever a brand new feature on the blog............... discussion forums!

I've divided the forums into four categories: All Things Writing, All Things Books, All Things Publishing, and of course All Things Procrastination. But what happens in there is totally up to you. Want some feedback on your query? Want to expound on your personal publishing philosophy? Want to argue about who wins between bears vs. monkeys? Totally up to you.

The forums are also now the default place to go to ask me questions I haven't addressed on the blog. And if you have any other questions about the publishing process, your experienced peers will be there to help you out.

If you've never participated on Internet forums before, don't be shy! They're really easy to join and you'll get the hang of it in no time.

Thanks again to Sean for a fantastic job on the design, and I'll see you in the forums.

Friday, December 4, 2009

This Week in Publishing 12/4/09

The number of links this week may set a TWIP record, but holy cow was there good stuff out in the publishophere this past week. Let's get to it!

But first, before we get to the links, today may be your last chance to see the award winning (not really) circa-1999 design of this blog, featuring its square, awkwardly fonted logo and its "I slapped this thing together in a weekend" design ethos. Barring technical catastrophe the blog will be transitioning over the weekend to a fresh new look courtesy of the wildly talented web designer Sean Slinsky. Pardon our dust as we get things running.

And there may just be a few more surprises in store come Monday.

Now for real let's get to it:

First up, in the wake of the controversy about their new self-publishing/vanity arm, Harlequin announced that the new outfit will be called DellArte Press. Which is, um, an interesting name for, um... moving on!

There have been some anonymous murmurings in the comments section that I have been too focused and too pro-e-books lately, to which I would reply: 1) umseriously this e-book thing is kind of a big deal and 2) let me repeat I am not and would never advocating getting rid of print books and/or bookstores. To that end, Amazon recently released a list of the Best Book Covers of 2009, which feature some awesome can't-be-replaced-by-e-reader design. (via The Millions)

And further to that point, Bloomsbury publisher/editorial director Peter Ginna, who recently launched the must-read blog Dr. Syntax, posted an ode to the print publisher's secret weapon: the book designer.

But the e-book world marches on. My client Jennifer Hubbard thinks about what the e-book future might look like, and Mike Shatzkin has a fantastic three point publisher plan for fighting piracy. My favorite is the first one, which entails getting proactive about spreading fake book files on file-sharing sites. Fight dirty, publishers!

And lots of people have been wondering what will happen in an era where getting published is as easy as uploading a file to a website. GalleyCat asks: do we really need three million books? (To which those three million authors answer: yes for my book, no for the others!). And meanwhile, via How Publishing Really Works comes an article on how self-publishing doesn't (usually) work.

And finally in e-book news, J.A. Konrath has eleven bold e-book predictions for 2010, including e-readers for less than $99 and the rise of estributors.

Just kidding, that wasn't the last e-book link. Alan Kaufman wrote an article comparing the closing of bookstores and the rise of e-books to... the Krystallnacht of Nazi Germany. No, really. He writes, "The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture." Also: the article is available on the Internet. Horrors! (via HTMLGIANT)

Upstart Crow announced the details of the second annual auction for author Bridget Zinn, who has had quite a tumultuous year getting married and getting a book deal while also fighting cancer. Details about the auction, which includes signed books, manuscript critiques and more, here.

The Rejectionist went and got all famous on us, writing an article for The Stranger about what one agent assistant's inbox looks like.

RIP Borders UK.

Cormac McCarthy's old Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter is being auctioned off today, and you people had better bring the cash because I'm going to outbid all y'all and in fact.... um.... oh. It's expected to go for between $15,000 and $20,000. Nevermind! Maybe I can bid for a bottle of white-out instead. UPDATE: the typewriter sold for $254,500 (via @JBD1). Rumors that this was purchased for me as a Christmas present: unconfirmed. Also the rumors were started by me.

Pimp My Novel has a fantastic two part post on the factors that go into how many copies of an author's book an "account" will order. Pimpin' a novel ain't easy indeed.

In Curtis Brown literary agent interview news, I was recently interviewed by The Writer's [Inner] Journey, and my colleague Ginger Clark was interviewed by Editor Unleashed.

Rachelle Gardner posted a plea for authors to stop complaining about agent response times, and author Lauren Barnholdt chimed in that "Agents not responding to your email is not the reason you are not getting published." Meanwhile, INTERN marveled at the mere fact that with book publishing you can actually send things to agents and editors and have them read for free. Unlike, say, patent applications.

And in somewhat related news, had an article about a study suggesting that happy writers don't generally make good writers. Get cranky, people! (via The Book Bench)

Almost finally, Moonrat posted a very helpful list of things authors should expect from their agents, and Kate Schafer Testerman added some things to the list as well.

And finally finally, via the Book Cover Archive blog comes a fantastic video from the New Zealand book council. A journey through a book:

P.S. This is the future:

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Error 403

I'm dealing with some computer problems here at work, which is complicating an already busy week. Fiendish computers! Must you toy with me so?

Meanwhile, just wanted to recap my (unscientific) poll from yesterday.

The percentage of people who said you'd have to pry paper books out of their cold dead hands:

2007: 49%
2008: 45%
2009: 37%

The percentage of people who welcome their coming e-book overlords:

2007: 7%
2008: 11%
2009: 19%

That, my friends, is what they call a trend.

And in case you're wondering if computer problems are affecting my affinity for e-books: nope. An e-book of CHILD 44 is an engrossing distraction on my iPhone while I wait for things to load.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Will You Ever Buy Mostly E-books?

It's that time of year again! Time to put on your prognosticator hats and click through to vote on a poll about you and e-books and the future. Nothing less than AN UNSCIENTIFIC READING OF THE PULSE OF THE WORLD is at stake.

This is a question I've now asked three years running. Here is 2007 and 2008 (okay it was technically early 2009 because I forgot at the end of 2008).

Will you ever buy mostly e-books? Can you imagine a future where you mainly by e-books and either don't buy paper books or only buy them once in a while? Is this indeed already your reality?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Open Thread!

233 queries in my inbox today, 233 queries in my inbooooooxxxxx, take one down, request a partial, 232 queries in my inbox today.

232 queries in in my inbox today, 232 queries in my inboooooxxxxxxxx, take one down, gah rhetorical question?, 231 queries in my inbox today.

231 queries in in my inbox today, 231 queries in my inboooooooooxxxxxx, take one down, aliens are you sure?, 230 queries in in my inbox today

And so on.

Open thread! I will be dipping in and out as I'm catching up.

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