Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Parental Discretion vs. Censorship?

As many of you know it's Banned Books Week, a week-long event celebrating our great nation's freedom to publish and read and a reminder of the perils of constraining the free exchange of thought. The website Banned Books Week even has an interactive map of the books that have been challenged and banned in the last couple of years.

Banned Books Week has not been without controversy as the Wall Street Journal published a chiding editorial about the celebration, noting that very few books have actually been banned in the last couple of years, which in the opinion of the editorial shows that the ALA has far more power over what kids read than the parents who (almost unanimously unsuccessfully) challenge books.

While I don't particularly agree with much of the editorial, I do think it raises some interesting points for discussion.

Censorship and book-banning was certainly an important issue pre-Internet, when libraries and bookstores (if you were lucky enough to have both) were the only places where books could really be acquired. But these days the Internet has made any book readily available. Is the issue of censorship as pressing as it used to be, when the banning of HUCK FINN at a library meant a kid really couldn't read it? Is the editorial correct that if censorship means actually suppressing a book's availability, it is moot in the Internet age?

And perhaps more importantly, where is the line between parental and public discretion vs. censorship? Should public libraries stock everything and let patrons decide what is inappropriate? What about books that, say, incite prejudice or that the majority of a community feels is inappropriate for children?

Who should decide?

Lots of questions!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Submitting to Editors Without an Agent

Lots of people have been asking about this lately, especially with the suddenly-rampant myth that you must have a book deal or an offer in order to find an agent (for the record, again: this is not true at all).

So I thought I'd tackle the topic of submitting to editors without an agent. And I'll start by saying something you might not expect to hear from an agent: submitting to editors without an agent isn't always a bad thing!

But first, and most importantly: there some serious perils involved that you should be aware of if you're considering submitting to editors directly. The biggest: If you query a lot of editors simultaneously with your agent search you may be inadvertently killing the submission process if you eventually find an agent. This is because most agents I know won't resubmit to a publisher who has already considered a project, even if it was sent to the publisher unagented, and even if it subsequently undergoes a revision (unless the editor specifically asks).

If you are hoping to find an agent: submitting to editors widely is not the way to go. An agent will be less likely to take on your project if you have already sent your manuscript to the major publishers.

That said, while bearing mind the above, there are some instances where submitting directly to editors makes sense. They are:

1) You met an editor at a writer's conference, made a personal connection, and they offered to consider your work.

Sure! You have their attention. Go ahead and send it to them.

If you are in the process of trying to find an agent, though, I'd mention that to the editor when you send your manuscript, just so they aren't caught unaware if you find one.

2) You are working in a genre that is unlikely to attract an agent because it is a niche market, experimental, or otherwise is customary for editors and authors to deal with each other directly.

There are many wonderful small presses who do not usually work with agents because it's simply not viable for agents to take the time to represent authors for niche projects that will translate to very small advances and sales. I can't provide a rundown of every genre where this applies, but do your research and find out what is customary.

3) You tried querying agents, you came up empty, and you want to try with editors directly.

Queried 50-100 agents and couldn't get a bite? Reached the end of your list? Why not try with editors who are open to unsolicited submissions?

And then, if they are interested and you get an offer, it can definitely help land you an agent. Again though, I would recommend that you keep the editor posted that you are searching for representation so they are not caught unaware if your new agent shows up to negotiate the deal. Many editors would actually prefer to work with agents because it streamlines the process and usually means less work for them.

And trust me - even if you do get an offer without an agent, having an agent to negotiate the contract alone is worth 15%. Even if you're a lawyer or have one handy, there are terms and customs that are particular to the industry, and having someone to manage the process and look out for your bigger career is worth its weight in commission.

So yes - there are times when it makes sense to send your manuscript to editors and yes, there are authors who got their first deal(s) without an agent. However, that doesn't then mean that your best chances of success will come from sending to editors without an agent.

Friday, September 25, 2009

This Week in Publishing 9/25/09

This! Week!...... Publishing!

The saga that is the Google Books settlement looks like it's going to take a bit longer to resolve as the Department of Justice urged some changes to the settlement, and the federal judge handling matters postponed a hearing on October 7 to give everyone some time for changes.

Meanwhile: new e-reader device! Verizon, Best Buy and B&N are teaming up to promote the iRex, a reader that will be stocked in Best Buy and will have 3G wireless. Very exciting.

Mike Shatzkin posted recently on an idea that has been percolating, well, a really long time: publishers need to be better at branding, and in particular knowing the difference between business-to-business branding vs. business-to-consumer branding. In other words: I know what the Knopf brand means because I'm a literary agent, but does anyone in a bookstore check the spine before they buy?

The Millions polled a wide range of bookish types on the best novels published so far in the aughts and counted down from twenty. I can't quibble with the choice for number one.

Over at Slate they asked a very pressing question: when have vampires NOT been popular? The article includes a pretty spectacular graph charting the few times in the last 50 years that vampires haven't been insanely popular.

The Washington Post recently featured a very good illustration of something you probably already know if you read publishing blogs: authors have to promote themselves. It's nothing new to those plugged in, but it's a good illustration of the way things often work these days nonetheless.

Over in the UK, a man sued Tesco for discriminating against his religious beliefs by forcing him to remove his hood while in the store. What makes the story ten shades of awesome is that the guy is the founder of the Jedi religion (yes, Star Wars as actual religion) and he believes being forced to remove his hood in public is humiliating and discriminatory. I can only conclude that his attempts at Jedi-mind tricks on store employees failed. Tesco released a statement noting that Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Luke Skywalker all appeared in public without hoods and only the Emperor always kept his hood on. Ouch. Looks like someone needs to go back to Dagobah to brush up on his Jedi history. (via Boing Boing)

In publishing advice news, the blog How Publishing Really Works has a succinct but incisive post on making the leap from self-published to published. Basically: you gotta have sales.

The Upstart Crow Agency has a bright and shiny new blog, and they ask a very good discussion question: what manuscripts are in your drawer?

Rachelle Gardner has some very good writerly advice: it's important to have a proactive protagonist.

Almost finally, Margaret Yang was the first to point me to this poem by Jim C. Hines about reading slush....... in the form of a Dr. Seuss poem. Very cool.

And finally finally, this spectacular video combines two of my great loves: time-lapse photography and, well, the San Francisco Bay Area (via Andrew Sullivan). Enjoy!

Another Cloud Reel... from Delrious on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Will the Piracy Threat Resolve Itself?

As e-book adoption steadily increases, I think writers and artists have a very good reason to wonder if easily pirated e-books are going to do to the publishing industry what Napster did to the record industry. With news that Dan Brown's last novel was pirated within hours of being released and with e-reader adoption growing steadily, it's a serious concern.

I know there are lots of bitter types out there who would love nothing more than to stomp on the grave of publishers, but if they fall it's going to have a profound effect on the quality of books.

Now... There will always be books. Publishers or no publishers, agents or no agents, paid authors or no paid authors, people are going to write, and some will write very well no matter what. But I think the overall quality of books would suffer tremendously if very few people can make any money doing it. Not only because there wouldn't be publishers to edit and copyedit and market, but the fewer people who can make any money or spend any time writing books because they have no hope of getting paid will result in lesser the competition and lesser the choice and lesser the quality.

This isn't the music industry - no one is making money on an author tours or Ian McEwan t-shirt sales no matter how many I personally would buy.


Lately something has happened that made me wonder if perhaps my worries about piracy might be somewhat overblown.

There's a site that I'm not going to link to or name because I don't want to give them any traffic at all. Let's call them FakeTorrent. FakeTorrent is a site that purports to contain all sorts of pirated material, including books, that you can download very easily and holy cow thousands of people have already done it. All you have to do is install the right software.

And, of course, the software is a virus. Or they're phishing for credit cards. Or some other nefarious activity. I didn't stick around long enough to find out. But! There's nothing being pirated. Essentially: they're scamming pirates.

Could this be the future? Since pirates are already downloading files from dubious sites, is lacing a highly sought-after file with a virus or ads or scams a sufficient growth industry to actually deter piracy?

Now... don't get me wrong. I'm not some starry-eyed Pollyanna who thinks piracy is going to go away entirely.

But I also have been around the Internet long enough to know the life cycle of user-generated websites, whether they be eBay, Friendster, Myspace, Craigslist, or a file sharing site. First the early adopters come along and everything works great. Very exciting! Then comes mass adoption, which strains the site's capacity to keep everything running smoothly. And then, inevitably, come the spammers and scammers to ruin it for everyone. Once they arrive, using the site becomes tremendously annoying.

The only user-generated sites that have had any longevity at all are ones that have successfully kept the spammers and scammers at bay. And it takes an incredible amount of resources and ingenuity to stay ahead of them and sort them out from the regular users. (Twitter is on the cusp of the spammer/scammer wave, incidentally, and it will be interesting to see how well they handle it.)

I wonder if we're going to see a similar life cycle in Internet piracy. Any piracy site or sharer that has built sufficient users and resources to ensure quality control will also (hopefully) be a big enough target that it can be taken down by lawsuits (see, incidentally, the Scribd lawsuit over its laissez faire policy regarding the uploading of possibly copyrighted material). There's also, I think, a significant business opportunity for companies that specialize in reducing or eliminating piracy.

Obviously someone that is truly motivated will find a way, and pirates may adapt to new challenges and barriers. But I wonder whether mass piracy is really in our future.

Essentially: my hope is that pirating material will be a sufficient pain in the ass that people will just go ahead and buy through trusted and legal sites that can guarantee quality control. Maybe that's overly optimistic, but you can bet I'm counting my lucky stars as an agent and author that e-books weren't all the rage in the year 2000 when many of us had vastly underdeveloped Internet consciences.

What do you think? How big of a threat is piracy? Should I be worried?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Do You Need to Be Well-Read to Be a Good Writer?

In the comments section of yesterday's post, Mira raised an interesting question: do you really need to be well-read to be a good writer?

William Faulkner also weighed in with a comment (okay, it was John Ochwat reprinting a William Faulkner quote): "Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window."

I'm guessing that most people would agree that one should be at least somewhat to very well-read if you're going to write.

But how well-read do you need to be? And especially: how well-read in your particular genre do you need to be? Should you be familiar with everything or should you stay away to avoid influences to your writerly voice?

And what's well-read anyway?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"This Has Never Been Done Before!"

One somewhat common refrain among queriers is, "This has never been done before!" or a related espousing of the belief that their novel is completely unlike anything that has ever been written.

This is almost never true. And what unfortunately ends up happening is that whenever someone says, "This has never been done before!" I immediately take it as a challenge and start thinking of the times it has been done before.

The queries below are made up, but they're close to the mark. Here's how these claims tend to go and what I start thinking:

Query: "There's never been a bestselling novel written in the second person!!"

Me: Thinking.... thinking... THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST!!

Query: "No one has ever explained the history of philosophy in novel form."


Query: "No one has ever written a novel in Twitter form!"

Me: Just sold!

According to Google Books there have been 168,178,719 books published in the English language. In words (even more impressive) that's one hundred sixty eight million one hundred seventy eight thousand seven hundred nineteen books published.

In the immortal words of Roger Sterling after Guy Mackendrick's foot was run over by a riding lawnmower in the office of Sterling Cooper on Sunday's episode of Mad Men: "Believe me, somewhere in this business, this has happened before."

Now, I definitely understand that each book is unique: every single one of those 168 million books was different in its own way. Even the plagiarized ones!

And we agents do stress, with good reason, that it's important to know how your novel will stand out among the books that are already out there. That might mean a fresh take, a unique setting, an interesting character, an original style. There is absolutely a premium on originality, and every once in a generation a new genre is created almost completely from scratch.

But it's important to recognize the extent to which every novel draws upon traditions that have come before and to be well read enough to know where your novel stands among the popular ones in your genre. Even very unique novels draw upon a rich literary tradition and have their influences and predecessors. When an author immodestly declares "This has never been done before!" it makes it seem as if the author is unaware of the books that have come before that are similar to theirs, and makes the agent wonder why the author doesn't seem to know about them.

It isn't important that you write a novel that has never even remotely been done before. What's important is that you write it well.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Showing vs. Telling

Not sure if you saw my Tweet from Saturday, but FYI, rice harvest is going well. Just thought you should know.

Now then.

It's one of the oldest writing "rules" in the book, and probably dates back to the time they were carving stories on stone tablets: Show don't tell. Show don't tell. Show don't tell. You hear this all the time. Show don't tell.

But what in the heck does that actually mean? And how can you tell when you're telling when you should be showing?

My interpretation is this. With the understanding that "if it works it works," and there are always exceptions, in general: universal emotions should not be "told." Instead, we should be shown how the character is reacting to their feelings.

I'm of the opinion that we read books in order to get to know our fellow humans better. We are empathetic animals and are able to put ourselves in the shoes of characters, and thus, we have a pretty keen idea how we'd be feeling in any given situation the characters find themselves in. And emotions are universal: we all feel sad, angry, happy, emotional, etc. etc. But how we react to those emotions are completely and infinitely different. That's what we find interesting.

Being told that a character is "angry" is not very interesting - we're reading the book, we know his dog just got kicked, of course he's angry! It's redundant to be told that the character is "angry."

More interesting is how the character reacts to seeing his dog kicked. Does he hold it in and tap his foot slowly? Does he explode? Does he clench his fists?

Even if it's a first person narrative and the character knows he's "angry," it's more interesting for the character to describe how he's feeling or what he's thinking rather than saying, "I was so angry!"

This also applies to:

- Descriptions - It's not interesting to merely hear that someone is "pretty" - what characteristics make them pretty?
- Characterizing relationships - Not interesting to only hear that two people are "close". How are they close? What do they do together?
- Insert your own here.

Basically, whenever describing something, especially something universal: specificity wins.

Friday, September 18, 2009

This Week in Publishing 9/18/09

This week! Publishing!

Lots of good stuff this week in publishing, but first, I thought I'd lead with a tremendous post by my friend Kristin at Camels & Chocolate, who has some tough, honest, real-world advice about freelance travel writing. She should know - she's extremely good and successful at it, which does not come easy in the freelance world. If you've ever thought about plying your writing trade around the globe, that article is a good place to start.

Meanwhile, this week's End of Publishing as We Know It articles were brought to you by, well, me, and also former Random House Executive Editor-in-Chief Dan Menaker, who starts off a long post about the myriad challenges facing editors in today's industry with Point #1: "Publishing is often an extremely negative culture." It doesn't get much more uplifting from there.

And speaking of, The Millions pointed me to a self-publishing success story by author Kemble Scott, who hit the SF Chronicle bestseller list for a book released in a limited hardcover edition and e-published on Scribd. Scott is far from an unknown (his book SoMa was a bestseller published by Kensington), but he didn't want to wait to get his book out and just got to it.

Reader/commenter Lady Glamis and friends are hosting a Genre Wars contest at The Literary Lab. Submit your short stories and (possibly) win prizes, including a shot at being included in an anthology.

Also in short fiction news, my colleague Sarah LaPolla is soliciting material for her bright and shiny new blog Glass Cases, so check that out as well.

Some guy named Dan Brown has a book out (via Danny Parker), and apparently the e-book version has been selling as well as the hardcover on Amazon. The Guardian summed up the early responses, and also posted a pained defense of Brown. Kind of.

And now that THE LOST SYMBOL is out, I'd like to make a personal plea that literary bookish types abstain from the whole "I'm so above his writing but okay the books are kind of fun to read" attitude. People! They're entertainment. It's okay to like them without apologizing. Or don't like them. Whatever. Just don't be too cool for school. It's not like I watch The Bachelor in the hopes of finding deep meaning and spiritual enlightenment!! That's just a bonus.

In more serious topics, World Politics Review notes the dearth of works of art that have emerged from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in contrast to long conflicts in the past. Their theories: changing media landscape, the Internet, publishing trends, and a professional military. (via Andrew Sullivan)

Those wacky kids over at Google are partnering with an on-demand publisher to make all 2 bazillion out-of-copyright books available through the fancy Espresso book machine, which churns out a finished book and a mean latte (I wish) in just a few minutes. (via Scott Spern)

My colleague Katherine Arathoon passed me some pretty awesome links, including two post that rename classic books according to current publishing trends. My favorite: Old: THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. Now: INVISIBLE HANDS: THE MYSTERIOUS MARKET FORCES THAT CONTROL OUR LIVES AND HOW TO PROFIT FROM THEM.

Almost finally, my most excellent client Rebecca Ramsey tackles one of my great loves: strange idioms in other languages. In this post she runs down the different expressions for when it rains really hard. I think the Danes win hands-down for "it's raining shoemaker's apprentices."

And finally, thanks so much for all of the very interesting comments on yesterday's anonymous commenting question. Your input was extremely helpful, and I was surprised at how evenly divided people were on the pros and cons. After giving this a lot of thought, I've decided to leave anonymous commenting on since people articulated some very good reasons for posting anonymously, and hopefully the comments will be more open and free-ranging if people can use the anon option to evade the purview of their employers and/or (politely) go out on a limb with a contrary opinion.


As Spider-Man will tell you, with great power comes great responsibility. Because of the tendency toward abuse of the anon option and the lack of context for an anon post, I'm going to unabashedly hold anonymous commenters to a higher politeness and constructiveness standard than those who post under a name or handle so that the anon function is not used as a cover to espouse an unproductive attitude that might otherwise not be written if the person were associating their own name with the comment. Hopefully this will best facilitate a constructive dialogue, and polite anons will have nothing to worry about.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Anonymous Comments

Hey all, I'd like to take a time out from the world of publishing to discuss a blog community matter. Town hall meeting! I'll bring the gavel if you bring the crazy guy who wants to open up the park for deer hunting.

A few weeks back the Ethicist Blog discussed the issue of anonymous commenting.

Ever since I had to close anonymous comments myself a few weeks back due to a single anon (they've since been re-opened), I've been toying with the idea of permanently closing anonymous commenting.

Here's the thing - there are absolutely people who use the anonymous function responsibly, whether because they don't feel like signing in or because they are writing about something sensitive.

But at least 95% of the rude comments on the blog come come from people using the anonymity irresponsibly, saying things they probably wouldn't say if they signed their actual name. And sometimes these comments can get an otherwise good discussion seriously off track.

I'm wondering what you think - do you like having the option of going anon if necessary? Do you think it adds to the discussion to have people politely registering their anonymous comments? Should we just ignore the few bad apples?

Or would you prefer that people sign their own name?

And if we do keep anonymous options open, what should be the criteria for comment deletion?

I'm not too worried about a few bad apples and definitely don't take the anons personally, it comes with the territory, but at the same time, it's important to me that the comments section be a place where good, respectful discussions can take place.

Thanks, everyone!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

When Do You Write?

We've talked about where people write, but reader Roberto Soto was the first to pose this one: when do you write?

Are you like Jeff Abbott in the early days, getting up at 4am with a little suspense writing to start your day?

Or do you write when the inspiration strikes?

Lots of people have asked me this question since last Thursday, and let me just say that while being an agent is indeed a hectic profession I know for a fact I am not nearly as busy as some of the people who read this blog (for one, I don't have kids). And as those of you who are insanely busy know, there's always time to write. You might just need to force yourself to write during the times when every atom in your body would rather be doing something else.

What about you?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Will Authors of the Future Need Publishers?

One of the theories I've seen espoused about recessions is that they are really about a massive reordering of the economy. Lingering inefficiencies suddenly become glaring and are trimmed, weak companies fail, the work force reorders itself, and the strong companies either extend their dominance or retrench. The economy reemerges more efficient and ready for more growth.

The publishing industry has had to weather this storm along with the rest of the economy, and while the industry endured its share of tumult and layoffs, contrary to popular belief it is actually holding up reasonably well, especially when compared to the retail sector as a whole. Sales were off 2.5% for the year as of July, compared to a 9.5% drop in broader retail.

But even along with all of the economic pressures, the industry right now is facing a looming restructuring as e-books become more and more a part of the landscape. And as e-books become more and more common publishers will increasingly see their raison d'etre challenged by digital and self-publishing.

For the last hundred years the publishing industry has been built around one key advantage that no one else could match: distribution. Sure, publishers designed the cover and edited the pages and marketed the books. But the real secret to the dominance of the mainstream publishers, as anyone who self-published knows, was utilizing both their brand and their nuts and bolts distribution to get the books into the stores. Without traditional publishers: good luck. Publishers were the sole gatekeepers.

That's all beginning to change with the Internet and online booksellers, and will change even more if/when e-books become the primary source of book revenue for an author.

Right now, with e-books hovering somewhere around 5% of sales, authors still need publishers. Even the self-publishing success stories almost always involve self-published authors finding their way to traditional publishers. Why? Someone's got to get the books into the stores, and publishers are the best at it.

But what about in the future if e-books become 50% or more of an author's sales?

You don't need infrastructure to distribute e-books: you just need an Internet connection. An unknown, unpublished Author of the Future could do deals with the Amazons and B&Ns and Sonys of the world (or possible a single e-book distributor) and simply upload their book from Wasilla and voila, the book will be instantaneously available just as readily as the new book by Dan Brown of the Future. No warehouses, no catalogs, no print runs. Online vendors, as we've seen, will sell anything.

So, in this scenario, does the Author of the Future, especially one with a built-in audience, really need a publisher?

Well... yes. Maybe.

That's because there are a whole lot of tasks that Author of the Future may not care to deal with, such as editing and copyediting, designing the cover, dealing with all of the zillions of different e-book vendors and their preferred file types, and, of course, marketing. Surely there will also be Co-op of the Future to reckon with - front page placement on an e-book store, for instance.

But most importantly, for the first time basically ever, Author of the Future is going to have a choice: work with a publisher, who takes care of a lot of the dirty work, or tackle the dirty work themselves, possibly with the help of ahem an agent who can help negotiate the e-distribution deals and work on selling the author's subrights and help the author find freelancers to handle aspects they can't tackle on their own.

If e-books-as-majority come to pass, the road to publication will be open like never before, and there will be a very crowded highway bypassing the publishers.

I really don't think publishers are going to disappear entirely. The package of services and expertise they offer are unmatched (when things are running as they should), and it would be extremely difficult for Authors of the Future to navigate all of the complexities of making a bestselling book of the future by themselves. There's a lot more to making a successful book than typing it out, hitting upload, and e-mailing your friends that your book's on Amazon.

But publishers would have to be extremely author-friendly -- they would be providing a service, not relying on their traditional role as gatekeepers and distributors. They'll have to win over authors facing a choice between going with a publisher vs. handling matters on their own. Publishers won't be able to rely, as they have traditionally, on the fact that authors need them in order to reach their audience, just as authors won't be able to rely on publishers losing money on most of the books they publish.

This is why I think the relationship between author and publisher is going to increasingly be more of partnership.

I think it's telling that some of the New Experimenters in the publishing industry, Twelve, HarperStudio and Vanguard, all treat the publishing experience as a partnership. Twelve cultivates the relationship between author and publisher and is able to do so by only publishing a book a month, HarperStudio limits advances but shares back-end revenue, and Vanguard asks the author to forego an advance in favor of transparency in marketing and higher royalties.

If e-books ever take over, the old system of authors and publishers squeezing every possible percentage point out of each other will give way for a system of shared responsibility and transparency. If the author doesn't like the deal they're getting they won't be S.O.L. They can find another one. Or they can do it themselves.

But then there's one more big looming question about publisher-as-service-provider: is there any profit in this?

I think so. My guess is that there will be a spectrum of choices available to authors, everything from no advance/handle everything themselves situation, where the author makes more profits on the backend, to the advance/traditional publisher scenario, where the author receives less on the backend.

But there are looming challenges with e-books, and lots of people are nervous about the $9.99 price point, and rightly so. Amazon is currently taking a loss on many of their sales in order to boost Kindle sales and market share. But some of these price point pressures, I think, will be sorted out by volume as e-book sales rise. Kassia Krozser blogged yesterday about how difficult it is right now for an e-publisher to turn any profit without significant scale.

My guess is that we'll continue to see the mainstream publishing industry focus on the bestselling titles, and there will be a new crop of e-publishing services available for the rest. Some titles will rise up from the morass of author-published works and receive attention from the mainstream publishers, and some big authors will choose to take on the responsibilities of publishing themselves and bypass the publishers.

All of this assumes that e-books become dominant, and to be sure, that's a big "if." But things will definitely be changing.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Can I Get a "Ruling": Quotation Marks for Emphasis

For today's Can I Get a Ruling: the dread "quotation marks" for "emphasis."

As I'm sure you all know, quotation marks either denote a direct quote or to show irony or euphemism. They're not used for emphasis. So.... I don't care what your sign says, I'm not eating your "fresh" mozzarella.

The improper use of quotations is properly skewered in the hilarious site The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. My particular favorite is the sign that "pool" "closed", which definitely leaves a lot to the imagination.

What I find especially "odd" about "improper quotation marks" is that it seems to be mainly a generational thing: it's most common among people over the age of 50. Was there a golden era of quotation marks where they were used for emphasis and we "younguns" just don't know what we're "talking about?"

What's the story on "incorrect" quotation marks? Anyone?

Friday, September 11, 2009

This Week in Publishing 9/11/09

Thanks again so much to everyone for your kind words about JACOB WONDERBAR, I really, really appreciate it!

But meanwhile, there was a week in publishing and let's summarize it, hmm?

First up, lest ye think I've gone all high-fallutin' on you, Anne & May are hosting an America's Next Top Model elimination pool where you make your picks for the top three and then guess who will be eliminated each week. The winner gets a $25 B&N gift certificate and the incredible, immense pride that goes with correctly picking the winners of a bizarre reality television show. In case you're wondering: yes, I'm entering, and yes, I'm going to win. You're know you're too "catalogue" to beat these smiling eyes.

Your Amazon Controversy of the Week is brought to you by their Kindle loss/theft policy and the letters WTF. When your Kindle is lost or stolen Amazon refuses to shut it down or aid in its recovery unless directed by court subpoena. Yup. The article notes that they are hardly alone in this policy, but there is no real procedure for legally transferring ownership of the device. Or, you know, stopping the guy who stole yours from using it.

Amid rumors that Time Warner is contemplating entering the e-book reader device game, David Pogue caught up with Steve Jobs and asked him about the future market for dedicated e-readers. Jobs' opinion may sound familiar if you read the comments section of this blog: "I’m sure there will always be dedicated devices, and they may have a few advantages in doing just one thing. But I think the general-purpose devices will win the day. Because I think people just probably aren’t willing to pay for a dedicated device." I think a lot of people around these parts will concur.

In innovative book news, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's NURTURE SHOCK, an incredible book about the latest thinking in parenting, has an awesome blog over at Newsweek and, coolest of all, starting on September 14th, chapters will be posted on, and, and readers will be able to annotate the text and add their own footnotes, creating a shared book. Should be pretty interesting.

The juggernaut that is James Patterson signed A 17 BOOK DEAL with Hachette. The best part? This only covers the books coming out in the next three years.

In other Hachette news, the NY Times was able to break the embargo on Ted Kennedy's memoir by obtaining an unauthorized early copy. Yen at the Book Publicity Blog reflects on the history of embargoes and their importance. And it turns out that Hachette was so miffed about the embargo-breaking that they hired a private detective to sniff out who leaked it. Wow.

And this got me to thinking: which literary detective should they put on The Case of the Broken Embargo? Make your pick in the comments section. I'm going with Harriet the Spy.

Sad news this week as startup Quartet Press announced that it was closing, and Kassia Kroszer reflects on what she learned about the e-book market. Her post is an absolute must read about the challenges of this new marketplace.

Are Amish romances the new vampires? EW's book blog investigates the pressing question of the day.

There have been a couple of blogging-related awards this week. First up, Book Blogger Appreciation Week has announced its shortlists for the Best Writing Blogs, and I'm flattered to be among some incredible company for Best Publishing/Industry Blog along with some of my very favorite sites: GalleyCat, Follow the Reader, Jacket Copy, and, of course, Pimp My Novel. Click through to vote for your favorite. Editor Unleashed also released a terrific list of the twenty-five best writing blogs. The good blogs! They abound!

And SPEAKING OF, over at Pimp My Novel, which, as you may recall, and if you don't recall oh let me not so gently remind you, had its birth right here on this blog: an incredibly hilarious and informative take on a day in the life of a publishing sales assistant. At this point I'd say Pimp My Novel is the greatest thing since sliced bread, ONLY IT'S FAR, FAR BETTER THAN SLICED BREAD. It's just an incredible blog. I can hear it now..... a tense moment on the Death Star.... lightsabers clashing..... Eric's words echo: "When I left you I was but the learner, but now I am the master....." Sheesh. The force is strong in this one.

My wonderful client Natalie Whipple has been hard at work on some revisions, but thankfully for all of us she took some time to provide a checklist of ways to beat revision fatigue. Really great advice.

And finally, one of my great loves is public transportation, and the Book Design Review has a pretty cool roundup of some transit map inspired book covers.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Introducing Jacob Wonderbar

Confession time: I got a book deal. For a novel. My own.


I never started this blog, nor did I become a literary agent, because I wanted to be a writer. When I started as an assistant at Curtis Brown in 2002 I had some vague notions that I might write a screenplay… or something… someday… maybe… but that was quickly consumed by the more-than-full-time job of being an assistant and trying to work my way up in the publishing world.

I started the blog because being a literary agent is not only my job, it’s a true passion, and I wanted to both help out the unpublished and try to differentiate myself from the scores of other agents out there. Not, let me say again, because I thought of myself as a writer or had any designs on being one.

Fast forward to October 2008. The publishing industry and broader economy was in total meltdown apocalyptic mode, the whole country was stressed out about the election, and I had this idea for a novel… what better time to write a novel, right???

So, over the next several months, over late nights and weekends, I wrote a middle grade science fiction novel called JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, about three kids who trade a corndog for a spaceship, blast off into space, accidentally break the universe, and have to find their way back home.

(And yes, San Francisco residents: Jacob’s namesake is the completely delicious Philz coffee brew).

Whew! Finished it!

Then I had to find an agent. And no, I couldn’t represent myself.

I sent out my queries, got my share of rejections, stressed plenty, but found my way to the awesome Catherine Drayton at Inkwell, who, to my extreme delight, agreed to take it on. (Why not Curtis Brown? I wouldn’t have wanted it to be awkward for my coworkers when I devolve into an unrepentant diva.)

Then came the submission process, where I… also got my share of rejections.

But then. Then! The clouds parted, the light shone through, and Dial Books for Young Readers at Penguin agreed to publish it. JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW will come out in 2011.

Now. Let me try to preempt a few questions that will be on the lips of many an anonymous commenter:

Did you have an advantage being a literary agent?

Yes. Are you kidding me? Yes.

I have been eating, breathing, sleeping, inhaling, and ingesting books basically nonstop, 24/7, for seven years. It’s my day and night job. I’ve seen tens of thousands of query letters, and I (hopefully) know what makes a good one. I’ve been working with some of the most talented writers in the world and have had to think extremely hard about writing and plot and all the other elements that go into a book.

But before I’m held up as an example of all that is wrong with publishing these days, please consider the following:

This wasn’t actually the first novel I have written or tried to have published. Like many writers out there, the first novel I wrote (deservedly) crashed and burned. Couldn’t find an agent and justifiably so. Because it wasn’t good enough. Like many people, I had to experience the pain of giving up on it, putting it in the drawer, and battling a serious case of the “Am I crazies” when I decided to start another one.

So… if all it took to find a publisher was being a literary agent and having a blog: you would have been hearing me announce a deal for that novel.

Let me also just point out that whatever advantage I have as a publishing employee is completely open to everyone: you just have to find a job in publishing, toil away for seven years in the industry, steadily gain everyone’s confidence, and then write in your spare time.

Trust me, there are easier ways of getting a leg up.

But it’s not really a coincidence or a sign of inside dealing that there are so many agents and editors who write: they’ve already devoted their lives to books because they love them dearly. Of course some of them then decide to write themselves.

Are you giving up agenting?

Uh……………. No.

Let me elaborate: No. No no no no no no.

I’m first an agent. That’s my job. This novel is just a fun side project. My clients and prospective clients always come first. I made it a point of pride that my response times never, ever suffered as I was working on my own projects. Not for queries, not for partials, and especially not for my clients.

If anything, going through the publication process has made me a much more empathetic agent. I thought I would be totally cool throughout the process… I’ve seen this before! I know what it’s like! Yeah, not so much. I learned a huge amount and have (I hope) become a better agent for it.

Will this blog be changing into a vehicle for relentless, egotistical self-promotion over the next two years (god, I’m going to have to hear about Nathan’s freaking novel nonstop for TWO YEARS someone please just go ahead and kill me now)?


(Just kidding).

Anyway, hope this explains why I’ve been so sentimental on the blog lately. This has been quite a roller coaster of a process, and I’ve been feeling the ups and downs of the writing life very keenly over the last year.

Thanks so much for reading this blog and for all of your great comments. I really can’t even express just how much I’ve learned from all of you.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Should Children's Books be Content-Rated Like Movies and Video Games?

In the comments section of the August 28th This Week in Publishing, a few people were discussing whether children's books should be rated for sexual and/or violent content in the same way as movies and video games in order to help parents decide what is appropriate for their kids to read.

And while I wasn't able to participate, this subject also came up in the weekly #kidlitchat on Twitter.

What do you think: should children's book publishers rate the content in their books so that parents can determine which books are age-appropriate? Is this censorship or at the very least, could it aid censorship?

And, also importantly: would this help sales? Would a publisher who voluntarily rated the content of their books see a sales bump or would there be an outcry?

If you're reading via e-mail or in a blog reader, click through for a poll.

Friday, September 4, 2009

This Week in Publishing 9/4/09

Thanks to everyone for participating in Writer Appreciation Week. Hope all the writers out there feel, well, appreciated.

I know lots of people are probably skipping out early to get in their last BBQ or trip to the beach on this fine Labor Day weekend, but this blog stops for no one! No one, you hear!!

Only it's going to stop this coming Monday and Tuesday. Just a quick Labor Day Weekend blog break, and it will be back in full force with a You Tell Me on Wednesday.

Now then.

Devastating news from PBS: the iconic show Reading Rainbow, a show little Nathan was completely obsessed with and directly resulted in his life in publishing, is no more, ending a truly amazing 26 year run. LeVar Burton: you are a great man, and Reading Rainbow will be sorely, sorely missed. The New Yorker's Book Bench reflects on what it was like watching it as a kid.

Meanwhile, in other television news, "Will & Grace" veteran and literary agent sibling Gail Lerner is developing a comedy show about the publishing world called "Open Books." Oh my. (via Jonathan Lyons)

I just caught up with this post from How Publishing Really Works that itself was catching up with a PW article from 2005 (if the blog existed then we would so have been all over this), analyzing some, shall we say, eye-opening stats from iUniverse. In 2004 there were 18,108 titles published on iUniverse. 83 of them sold more than 500 copies. Average copies sold: 43.8 per title. (via Self-Publishing Review)

Gawker investigates: the last remaining ways of getting a book deal?.

Neil Vogler pointed me to this great post at the Guardian about how, in many ways, the writing life hasn't changed all that much.

There are some very nice words out there that need adopting! You too can be the proud parent of the word "sacriolist." (via John Ochwat)

Something I always tell the query-averse is that summarizing your work doesn't end with the query. Published authors have to give a brief description of their work constantly. In fact, my client Jennifer Hubbard, author of the forthcoming THE SECRET YEAR, points out that for purposes of conversation and marketing it's usually helpful to whittle it down to a one-liner.

As an agent who advocates some consideration of SEO when choosing titles and pen names, I found this blog post pretty awesome: testing out character names using Google Ad Words. (via John Ochwat)

And finally, you know you want to sing along one more time. "Butterfly in the skyyyyyyyyyyyy..."

Have a great (long) weekend!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Writer Appreciation Week: The Unpublished!

Ah, the unpublished. Or, as many declare: the pre-published.

Let's be honest: it's difficult sometimes being a writer who is unpublished. You're slaving away for hours on end on a manuscript or manuscripts that may be the next great sensation or may only be read by a few people. It could be huge, it could be small. It's an uncertain time, rife with doubts and a need for some validation (anything, please) to quell the "Am I crazies."

And that's even before you get to the agent chase, the queries that seem to disappear into the ether or only score a form letter in return. With your name misspelled.

It's not an easy path. But the most important thing to remember about the unpublished: everyone started there.

Every writer we love started out not knowing whether they had a shot or whether their work would be appreciated. Lots of beloved authors had to write a few manuscripts to get it right, tasted lots of rejection along the way, and made everyone look like idiots when they finally made it. Everyone had to take the same leap of faith to start writing without knowing where it would lead.

So. How can you help the unpublished among us, even if you yourself are unpublished?

Read their work. Give them feedback. Help them get better. If you've been around the block a bit, help the lesser experienced learn the "rules" first-timers might not know about, like going easy on non-said dialogue tags and adverbs. They should know them before they break them. Honest, polite, constructive feedback.

But most importantly: give them encouragement. As I said on Monday, everyone thinks they can write a book. The only people who really know how hard it is are the ones who have tried.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Say Something Nice About a Writer

For those of you just stopping by the blog on a random Wednesday... haven't you heard? It's writer appreciation week!

As I'm sure you know, being a writer can be very difficult. Particularly with the amount of rejection writers have to face, whether they're passes from agents or editors or receive one of those truly mean Amazon reviews written by those evil people who write truly mean Amazon reviews.

So. While this business can be rife with negativity, I would like to request that we forget all that tough slogging for a moment and share the love. Let's say something nice about one or more fellow writers.

I'll start. I'd like to thank my clients for being the most talented, professional, and hardworking group of writers I've ever met. I truly feel lucky to be working with you.

Oh, and Roald Dahl, wherever you are, you were my favorite writer when I was a kid and I know I wrote that fan letter to you in fifth grade and then you died that very same week, and I'd like to think that you read the letter before you passed, or, at the very least, that my letter wasn't somehow responsible. It was a little traumatizing. You probably would have appreciated that.

Your turn!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Writer Appreciation Week: Published Authors!

The published! They are the hardy souls who have climbed the Mount Everest of the writing and publication process. They scaled the foothills of writing, ascended the steep cliffs of agent-finding, and rose to the pinnacle of authordom without being felled by a freak storm and resorting to cannibalism (that you know of).

These pioneers make the multi-year climb, they stand atop the peak... and then realize it's sometimes a little lonely and chilly up there.

They shout, "Please! Buy my book (book book book echo echo echo)....... Um... please? (um... please? um... please? um... please? echo echo echo)

How can you help out these writers, the ones whose book you happened to hear about on a blog or picked up off the street or checked out at the library and loved?

The best way: buy a new book.

Authors don't get royalties for used book sales, their sales reports aren't padded when 10 friends pass along their book to each other, they only get credit for one sale no matter how many times people check it out from the library.

So: In honor of published authors, especially the ones who are living in non-bestsellerdom... let's help these people out.

For Published Author Day on Writer Appreciation Week I encourage, nay, require, nay, okay you can do whatever you want, everyone to buy a new book. And then brag about it in the comment section.

If times are tough for you at the moment: totally understand. There are lots of ways to support our favorite published authors. And it just so happens that Eileen Flanagan has a great post on how to do just that. (via Janet Reid)

Write a positive Amazon review! Or a Goodreads review or Tweet or blog about how much you love it! Help out your favorite authors. And then brag about it in the comments section.

I just bought LOST CITY RADIO by Daniel Alarcon. And THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST by Stuart Neville.

What about you?

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