Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, November 30, 2009

How to Respond to a Manuscript Critique/Editorial Letter

I'm in the midst of editing JACOB WONDERBAR, and as always it's been very very interesting to be on the writing side of the process.

As my clients know all too well, I'm a hands-on agent. I'm willing to go through multiple rounds of revisions until the manuscript is just. right. Even when I can tell my clients would rather have their toenails forcibly removed than go through another revision. It just pays for things to be as perfect as possible.

Dishing out so many editorial suggestions myself has actually been very helpful as I approached revisions for my own work - I know that the (brilliant) suggestions my editor made are nothing personal and I know how important it is to take the changes to heart and try my absolute best to make the manuscript better.

So, having gone through this on both sides, here are some suggestions for handling critiques:

1. When you get your editorial letter/critique, steel your resolve, read it once, put it away, and don't think about it or act on it for at least a couple of days.

An editorial letter is kind of like a radioactive substance that you need to become gradually acclimated to over the course of several days. It needs to be absorbed in small doses and kept at arm's length and quarantined when necessary until you are able to overcome the dangerous side effects: anger, paranoia, excessive pride, delusions of grandeur, and/or homicidal tendencies. Should you find yourself experiencing any of these side effects, consult your writing support group immediately for an antidote.

It's hard to have your work critiqued, and it's tempting to take it personally. Just know that it's a normal reaction and in a couple of days you'll feel better. Once you've calmed down and are able to consider the changes without your heart racing: that's when you know you're ready to get working.

2. Go with your gut.

You don't have to take every single suggestion, and I'm often very glad when my clients don't listen to all of my suggestions and take only the best ones. If you don't agree with a change, big or small, it's okay to stick to your guns if you have a really good reason for it.

Only: make sure it's really your gut talking and not your lazy bone. Or your bull head.

And on that note...

3. Don't simply ignore the suggestions you don't agree with.

Often when someone makes a specific suggestion for a change to a certain scene or plot line you won't always agree with it and you'll throw up your hands and say there's no way you're going to make the change.

But! Even if you don't agree with the specific remedy the editor suggested, something prompted them to suggest the change, and that something could be an underlying problem that needs to be addressed, even if you don't agree with the one the editor proposed.

For instance, you may not willing to get rid of the homicidal bald eagle in your novel, even if your editor or critique partner suggests it. But surely there's something you can change to alleviate their concerns. For instance, the homicidal bald eagle may need to have a conscience.

4. Be systematic

Confronting a revision can be extremely daunting because of the Cascade Effect: when you change one plot point it necessitates two more changes so that the plot still makes sense after the change, which prompts still more changes and more and more. Ten or more changes can cascade from a single change, even a minor one.

In order to avoid Cascade Effect Terror, I find that it's helpful to work on only one change at time. Make the change, and then trace it through the book making all the necessary subsequent changes so that everything makes sense.

This way, instead of having to keep every single editorial suggestion in your head as you're moving your way sequentially through the manuscript you can be targeted and efficient with your revisions.

5. If you find yourself getting mad it's probably because your editor/critique partner is right.

Great suggestions are easy to accept: you usually smack your head and think, "Why didn't I think of that??"

Bad suggestions are easy to reject: you just think, naw, I'm not doing that.

I've found that when the suggestions make you mad, it's probably because they're right. Your brain is just having trouble admitting it.

6. Listen, listen, listen.

Easy to say. Tougher in practice.

Do you have any suggestions for how best to incorporate feedback?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What Are You Thankful For?

This is the part of Thanksgiving where I make everyone set down the turkey and the sweet potatoes for a second and go around the table and say what we're thankful for. I guess this means I've officially become my mom.

What are you thankful for in the publishing/writing world?

I am very thankful for my amazing agent and editor for believing in me, my awesome and talented colleagues, my incredible clients, and of course YOU, for reading the blog and teaching me so much.

What about you?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Economics of Publishing

I'm out of the office for the rest of the week for Thanksgiving, but wanted to dash off a quick napkin calculation related to a post I linked to on Friday.

Some people were shocked by Lynn Viehl's very revealing and incredibly generous post about how she only earned $24,517.36 after taxes and commission on her mass market NY Times Bestseller TWILIGHT FALL. In the post she also estimated the publisher's gross at $450,000 and guessed the net profit to be something around $250,000. This raised some eyebrows - how could publishers make so much and the author earn so little?

Well, my math is a little different. According to Amazon the list price of TWILIGHT FALL is $7.99. Discounts to booksellers vary and that's not information agents are always privy to, but since this is a rough sketch let's just say they're 50% across the board. For the purposes of this post that means that for every net copy sold (i.e. actually sold to consumers) the publisher receives around $4.00 and the bookseller receives $4.00.

Unit costs (i.e. producing the actual book) also varies anywhere from $0.75 to $3.00 depending on the format, quantity of the print run, etc. Since this is mass market let's say that unit cost including shipping and warehousing is around $1.50 per book. Again, just a very very rough guess.

So we're down to $2.50 per copy for the publisher. Lynn says net sales so far are 61,663, so according to the napkin the publisher is around $154,157.50

Lynn says she received a $50,000 advance, so the publisher stands at (approximately) $104,157.50 on the title.

Pretty good! This is a bestseller after all.

But you have to deduct all marketing costs (ads, sending out copies for review, bound galleys/ARCs if any, co-op), other production costs (cover, seasonal catalog, etc.), and overhead (salaries, health insurance, rent, etc.) before you get to the profit.

How much does all the rest of that cost? I don't know, I'm not a publisher. But my guess is that all adds up to a pretty good chunk. And let's not forget that historically most books don't earn a profit and those have to be paid for as well.

At the end of the day, on all books that turn out profitable the publisher is going to earn more of the profit than the author barring a revenue share type of model where the author isn't paid up front. After all, they put up the advance and the production costs, and the risk on any given book is exclusively theirs - while of course a book not selling can hurt an author's career, they don't have to pay back the advance or the amount the publisher lost.

But publishers aren't exactly raking it in either.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Top 10 Myths About E-Books

After my recent post about the inevitability of e-books, I was surprised that there were so many misconceptions in the comments section about e-readers and e-books.

For the record, I don't think everyone is going to or should or will like e-books and converting people is not what this post is about. But I do think people should at least have the facts.

Now would also be a good time to state for the record that I have no financial interest in e-books or e-readers whatsoever and in fact, my job would probably be easier if they didn't exist. But they do exist, I genuinely like them, and I don't think this industry can afford to be behind the curve on technology.

Here's my personal Top 10 list of the mistaken beliefs people have about e-books:

1. "They strain your eyes" / "They're bad for people with poor eyesight" / "I'll go blind."

Aside from reading on an iPhone, which I personally love but realize isn't for everyone, most dedicated e-readers use e-ink displays, which are very different than the backlit screens of computers and televisions and phones. E-ink literally looks like ink on paper, you can read in sunlight, and it's crisp from any angle.

Also, all e-readers have the ability to change the text size, so you can instantly turn any book into large print if you have difficulty with small fonts.

2. "You can't back up your files" / "If you lose or break your e-reader or if a new e-reader comes out you lose all your books"

Different devices do indeed favor different formats, but even still the above statements don't accurately reflect the landscape.

Let's start with Amazon and the Kindle. Amazon stores the information about all of the titles you have bought centrally, which means that you can access the titles on any device that has a Kindle app, whether it's a Kindle, iPhone, or a PC (coming soon: Macs). Better yet, Amazon syncs between the different applications so that if you stop reading on a Kindle and open up the app on your iPhone it will turn to the page you left off on. If you lose your Kindle or it breaks or you want to get a new one you can still read all of the titles you bought on a computer or another device.

Now, Amazon usually uses its own proprietary e-book format, and some people want a more universal format. If so, you might consider the Sony Reader or nook. Their stores use the ePub format, which can be read on most e-reader devices, so you're not beholden to one device or vendor after you have purchased your books and you can always take your library elsewhere.

3. "I don't want to have to scroll endlessly through a book" / "I'll miss turning the pages" / "I like taking notes"

Most e-readers, including the iPhone apps, have pages that you "turn" either by clicking a button or tapping/swiping your finger. While I know some people view this as a sign of the apocalypse, you'd be surprised how quickly it becomes second nature.

And most e-readers allow you to take notes, bookmark pages, search within the text, and highlight sections you want to come back to.

4. "They require a lot of power" / "They're hot to the touch like laptops"

When they're not using their wireless function, e-readers using the e-ink display consume very little energy, and you only have to charge them once every few weeks, even if you read often.

They're also completely cool to the touch.

5. "You can't check e-books out from the library"

According to the NY Times, about 5,400 libraries now offer e-books, and more are signing up every day. Most library programs work like with physical books - you "check out" an e-book onto your e-reader and "check it back in" when you're finished, and only one patron at a time can "check out" an e-book while you're reading it.

6. "You can't lend to friends or family"

Amazon allows up to six users to access the same account for most titles, and nook has a LendMe function that allows you to share a title for 14 days (if the publisher allows it).

Admittedly these aren't the freest means of sharing content, but my wife and I share a Kindle account and are able to read each other's books whenever we want.

7. "E-Readers are bad for the environment"

A Cleantech study asserts that e-readers have a much smaller carbon footprint than physical books when book production and shipping physical books are taken into account, though one blogger felt that the Cleantech study didn't adequately address paper recycling programs. Although, it's not as if it's impossible to recycle electronics.

8. "You can't read an e-reader in the bathtub" / "I would never take an e-reader to the beach

Put it in a Ziploc bag and it's more waterproof/sandproof than a paper book.

9. "They're too expensive."

E-readers may be relatively expensive now for a wide swath of people, but prices will inevitably come down. And because e-books are (usually) much cheaper than print books, it doesn't take long before an e-reader pays for itself - since most hardcovers that sell for $25 or more are available for $9.99, all it takes is roughly 20 e-books for an e-reader to pay for itself. You save even more if you read e-books on a phone or computer you already own.

For a casual reader: yeah, a dedicated e-reader probably doesn't make the most sense. But for people who read a lot, especially new books, it can result in actual savings relatively quickly.

10. "E-books are bad for publishers and authors"

While most agents I know are not thrilled with the royalties authors are currently receiving from the major publishers, so far the deep discounting has been absorbed by the e-book sellers and publishers have little to lose from e-book sales, at least in the short term. According to reports, most publishers still receive roughly 50% off the list price for every e-book sale, meaning that a $9.99 e-book is a loss leader for Amazon and the other e-book publishers, while the publisher receives the same amount as they would for a hard copy.

And while, again, we agents would like to see authors get a fairer split, authors still receive royalties for e-book sales. The low price points of e-books have attracted some of my cost-minded friends who used to mainly buy used books, for which authors of course don't receive any royalties, so from that standpoint they are much more author friendly than used books.

Friday, November 20, 2009

This Week in Publishing 11/20/09

Lots of links this week, so let's get to it.

First up, there has been a huge controversy sparked by Harlquin's announcement that they would be forming a self-publishing arm called Harlequin Horizons. Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware wrote a very helpful initial roundup of the plan and controversy, Kristin Nelson wondered if it was exploitation or empowerment, and How Publishing Really Works had similar questions. Following the uproar, the Romance Writers of America took the pretty drastic measure of revoking Harlequin's "recognized publisher" status, and Harlequin announced that they are dropping the Harlequin name from the self-publishing program in order to distinguish the two.

Setting aside this controversy for a moment and the specifics of Harlequin's operation, let me just say that in principle I don't think publishers facilitating self-publishing is necessarily such a bad thing. However, there should be complete transparency, fair pricing, total disambiguation between traditional publishing arms and self-publishing arms, and every good faith attempt made to educate writers about the difference between the two. This industry obviously needs new revenue streams, and provided that the publisher's program is genuinely nonexploitive and transparent I don't see the problem, and I don't see why publishers should continue to cede ground to self-publishing companies when they have every capacity to provide the same service. It just has to be done correctly.

Now then. Other news!

Mike Shatzkin has one of the most brilliant blogs on the future of publishing out there, and this week he had a great post about some conversations he's had with agents about how our role will be changing in the new publishing landscape. He explores a possible change in the way agents earn money, the challenge of facilitating self-publishing, and his opinion (which I share) that "power is moving from 'control of IP to control of eyeballs.'"

In e-book news, the NY Times noticed that quite a few people are reading on their smart phones, and raises the question about whether the future of e-books is with dedicated devices or devices people already have (my guess: a mix of both). And in gadget news, a (satiric?) beta tester of Apple's iTablet spilled the beans to HuffPo/blew my mind, and Engadget released a helpful holiday gift guide for all the different e-readers.

My awesome colleague Sarah LaPolla passed along a really cool ode to the e-book in comic form. And HarperStudio posted a video ode to making a physical book.

Meanwhile, with all of our recent talk about efficiency and self-publishing and e-publishing, Rachelle Gardner had a really interesting post that worries about what will happen if every novel ever written is published.

Over at Upstart Crow, Michael Stearns noticed an interesting thing about the new Stephen King book UNDER THE DOME: it doesn't have any jacket copy. He sees this as a sign that instant word of mouth is quickly becoming paramount, and it's eliminating the browsing process.

As I'm sure you've heard by now, Oprah is ending her daily talk show, which had quite a few book people gasping with panic. C. Max Magee at the Millions has a terrific recap of the history of Oprah and books.

Reader Eric Laing pointed me to this amazing post by Lynn Viehl where she shares her ledger publicly and shows the financial reality of a NY Times bestseller After taxes, commission, and expenses, Lynn made about $24,517.36 on her mass market bestseller TWILIGHT FALL.

Brace yourself for a month of decade retrospectives and best of lists. Quickly out of the gate is the Times UK, which has a list of the top 100 books of the decade, which is, incredibly annoyingly, spread out over 17 pages. Geez louise, Times UK, I don't need to click 16 times to know that Cormac McCarthy won.

The National Book Awards were held, and congrats to the winners! And, your nominee for best sign of the times: Google sponsored the after-party.

For all of you needing help with your last NaNoWriMo push, there's a pretty hilarious widget called Write or Die that punishes you in various forms when you stop typing. (via Neil Vogler)

And finally, as I'm sure you know the second Twilight movie New Moon came out this week. Writing in the Millions, Emily Colette Wilkinson examines the role of wealth aspirations in the TWILIGHT series. io9 has a pretty unreal gallery of the worst/most disturbing TWILIGHT products, and the Daily Beast has a gallery of the best TWILIGHT tattoos, including one of a woman who had an entire paragraph tattooed on her back. Wow. I'd just like to say right now that if anyone gets a tattoo of a corndog I'll send you a signed copy of JACOB WONDERBAR.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Efficiency Wins in the End

I'm completely obsessed with efficiency. I try to be as ruthlessly efficient as I possibly can, simply because I want to get as much done as possible. If there's a new system that saves me time, whether it's accepting e-queries, embracing Google docs so I can work anywhere, getting an e-reader so I can read anywhere, you name it, I'll do it.

But I'm also obsessed with efficiency in a broader sense as well, because I think it is something critically important to society and history and technology. We humans, whether we're conscious of it or not, are all obsessed with efficiency.

Nearly every single thing that has ever been invented and achieved mass adoption has one thing in common: it's an improvement in efficiency.

Whether it's speech, writing, the postal service, telephone, or e-mails, we have been moving closer and closer to efficient, instantaneous communication across vast distances.

Whether it's domesticated animals, chariots, railroads, cars, planes, we have been moving closer and closer to efficient travel across vast distances.

Whether it's fire, windmills, steam engines, or the internal combustion engine, we have been moving closer and closer to the most efficient energy production possible.

And as we decide whether to adopt or dismiss a new inventions, nearly every consideration other than efficiency (usually) dwindles in importance.

Cars aren't as safe as railroad travel or walking (or at least walking where there are no cars), but we're willing to make that sacrifice because cars are efficient. Every energy technology seems to pollute more than the last, but we make the tradeoff because the other technologies are less efficient. Nothing can compare to the experience of listening to live music or, barring that, vinyl records, but we'd much rather listen to music on mp3 players because we can listen to music whenever we want.

Human beings are always scurrying around trying to find more efficient ways of doing things and freeing up time for the things we'd rather be doing. Efficiency allows us to be more productive and relax more and spend time creating still more efficiency.

And this is why I believe e-books are going to win in the end, and probably sooner than we think. It's simply vastly more efficient to download any book you could possibly want instantaneously and read a book on a screen (even better if it's a screen you already have, hello smartphone) than to cut down a tree, make paper, print ink on it, bind it, ship it across the country in a plane or a truck or both, and make someone walk or drive to a physical store (who may or may not have the book they want) every time they want to read a book.

I think we'll look back on the print era and marvel about all those people who were responsible for delivering all these individual printed objects, kind of like how there used to be a fleet of milk men in every city rather than one guy driving a truck to a couple of supermarkets.

To be sure, no technology disappears completely - people still ride horses, go to plays, type on typewriters, listen to record players, and send handwritten letters. And printed books aren't going to disappear either. All of these technologies have advantages and an associated nostalgia that people will always want to preserve and experience. There will still be printed books and physical bookstores, even if there are far fewer of them.

But things tend to move in one direction: toward greater efficiency and productivity. There's always a delay as people adapt to the new technology, but prices come down, the technology gets better, and the efficiency spreads.

Printed books have their advantages, but they don't win where it counts. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but human nature abhors a bottleneck.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why Are So Many People Writing Books These Days?

I don't keep precise statistics on how many queries I receive each year, but it sure seems like there are more of them every week. I'm at 16,600+ e-mails sent this year, and the vast majority of those are responses to queries. Just about every stranger I meet who finds out what I do for a living has a book they want to talk about. Writers are filling chat rooms and discussion boards, discussing their work and trying to get a leg up.

Is it just me or are there more writers out there than ever before?

And if you agree with the premise that there are more people writing (me = guilty as well).... why do you suppose that is? What's behind it? I mean, it sure doesn't seem like there are vastly more people reading books than before, and it's never been more difficult to find a traditional publisher.

Is it the meteoric success of prominent authors hitting pay dirt? Is it the economy? Is it a cultural moment, kind of how everyone learned how to Swing dance in the 90s? Is it the Internet and computers and the new transparency of the publishing industry, where it's easy to figure out who to query and who publishes what? Is it the self-publishing boom?

Very curious to see the responses.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Waiting is the Worst Part

When JACOB WONDERBAR went out to editors I really thought I was going to be completely cool about the submission process. I'm an agent! I've seen this before! I've sold projects that were out on submission for six months and even a year! How hard could it be?

So. Being a Big Bad Experienced Agent, how long did it take me to crack?

A week and a half.


That's how long it took before I woke up in the middle of the night to check my e-mail, woke up my poor wife and said, "It's not going to sell! It's not going to sell. I can't believe it, it's not going to sell."

Now, bear in mind that I know that even when books sell they almost never sell in a week and a half. I know that!! A book selling in a week and a half is almost unheard of. But for some reason everything I knew went out the window. It's like I turned into a doctor who's afraid of needles.

Luckily I was able to keep my panic within the walls of my apartment, but all the same: the experience gave me a huge new respect for just how hard it is to be waiting to hear about your manuscript.

Writing is hard. It's hard, it's time-consuming, it's solitary... it's hard. But at least it's within your control. You can change things, you can work harder and revise more, and it's all within your reach. Writing is the fun part.

The frustrating thing about submitting to agents and editors is that there's nothing. you. can. do. about. it. Once you hit send you're at their mercy. The stress of always wondering if today is the day you're going to receive good or bad news, of always sneaking peeks at your e-mail, and trying to be cool and composed in front of the people who are invested in your work, and hearing all those nos before you get your yeses.... it's a steady stress that wears you down.

Everyone has their breaking point. Turns out mine is embarrassingly short.

Now that I've gone through this myself, I really really try as much as I can to avoid keeping people waiting. I try so hard to keep waiting to a minimum. At the same time, a certain amount of time is just built into the process simply because it takes a long time to read a lot of different projects.

How do you cope with the waiting?

Monday, November 16, 2009

What I Learned About Writing While Watching Reality Television

As longtime blog readers know, I have a bit of a reality TV habit. I still watch Survivor (I know), I was a habitual The Hills watcher before our messy breakup, and I would very much like to be friends with Phil Keoghan from the Amazing Race, who seems like the type of person who would tell great stories at a cocktail party and then somehow convince everyone to join a contest to eat the most pretzels.

You might mistake this for idle time! No no no. I wasn't frying my brain and/or wasting my time watching these shows. Not. At. All. I was learning precious writing techniques. I was studying. Learning!

Behold: The things I learned about writing while watching reality television...

1. Overconfidence is your greatest adversary

How do you know when someone is about to get themselves kicked off a reality TV show? When they stare into the camera with a smirk and talk about how they have it in the bag. Then they inevitably end up getting voted off Tribal Counsel faster than you can say "Jeff Probst."

Overconfidence causes authors to just send out queries with a few dashed off words of explanation, trusting that the genius of their manuscript will shine through. Overconfidence blinds authors to the changes they need to make to their manuscript, and makes them deaf to good suggestions.

When overconfidence enters the picture authors can turn into their own worst enemies. It didn't work for the Four Horsemen of Survivor Fiji, who entrusted their plans with someone who called himself Dreamz. By choice. It doesn't work for writers either.

2. Don't mess with the host.

Did it pay for Kenley to antagonize poor Tim Gunn on Project Runway? No, it did not.
Did it pay for Chima to antagonize the producers of Big Brother? No, it did not.
Did it pay for Tiffany to talk back to Tyra on America's Next Top Model? No, it most definitely did not.

In the publishing game, agents and editors and publishers are your hosts. You may not like the rules of the game, but you won't get anywhere making enemies with the people running the show.

3. Pay your taxes.

Don't let this happen to you.

Read Kristin Nelson's essential post on the things you should do when your book sells. Remember, your advance will come to you as untaxed income, just like winnings on Survivor. Get a good accountant, pay your taxes immediately, and invest your windfall wisely.

4. Be a student of the game.

The best contestants on reality TV shows are often the ones who have lived and breathed a show for its entire existence. This season, the otherwise contemptible Russell from Survivor Samoa knew enough about the show to keep hunting for hidden immunity idols even though he didn't have any clues, simply because he knew that the show often places hidden immunity idols around camp. Sure enough, it worked! And anyone who has watched America's Next Top Model knows that when in a tough spot the best strategy is to break down in tears and plead for Tyra's mercy.

Study the publishing game. Learn it. Breathe it. There may not be any hidden immunity idols (at least, not until I'm in charge), but the name of the game is survival, and it pays to know everything you possibly can find out.

5. Play nice.

On reality television, a contestant will inevitably show up and wag their finger and shout, "I'm not here to make friends!"

And that person never wins.

Friday, November 13, 2009

This Week In Publishing 11/13/09

Would you believe that there wasn't any earth-shattering publishing news this week in publishing? WalMart didn't slash the price of hardcovers to 99 cents, a new e-reader didn't debut, and we're all still here. Thank goodness there are still links:

GalleyCat asked the provocative question Do Authors Really Need Agents? For the most part the answer was, "Um... yes. They do."

In e-book news, Amazon announced that they created a PC Kindle app (link via Greg Peisert), so you can now read your Kindle books on Kindles, iPhones, and your computer. I'm told you can also still read books on paper, but I haven't been able to confirm that rumor.

Editorial Anonymous has a great response to a reader who wonders if editors (and presumably agents) know they are dream crushers. EA makes a crucial distinction: we hold your work in our hands, not your dreams. No one should be able to crush your dreams with a rejection. She writes, "dreams are achieved through your hard work, and not through the miraculous intervention of others." Word.

A former vice-presidential candidate has a new book out, and the Associated Press got their hands on an early leaked copy (Palin reportedly is none too happy about the leak and the review). Sarah Weinman, writing for Daily Finance, took a look at the economics of the book advance and calculates that Harper would have to sell around 400,000 copies in hardcover to break even. Is that a safe bet? The Millions' guess (and mine as well): you betcha.

In The Rejectionist news, Le R. announced the winners of her form rejection contest, which had such hysterical entries I don't know how she even picked winners. She also took note of this week's query trend: angels. Particularly angels tempting girls with their "smoking hot bods and snowy snowy wings." Wow. Heaven help us all. (get it??? get it???)

@lilliamr noted a PW article about a new query service making the rounds that would pre-screen queries for agents to make sure that they conform to their guidelines and genres of interest before the agent sees them. Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware sums up the mixed history of these types of ventures. I won't be signing up, but all you have to do is take a look at Jessica Faust's rapturous post about her query holiday to get a sense of how much of a strain it is these days to keep up with the query pile. Yes, aspiring authors are busy too and all that, but the time it takes to read them all (let alone respond) may be approaching a point of unsustainability.

Twitter lists are fast becoming the hot new thing in the Twittersphere, and thanks very much to GalleyCat for including me in their Best Agent Twitter feeds list. I've created some nascent lists of my own that will continue to grow, including my clients, editors, writers, publishers, agents, and other non-editor publishing types.

In self-publishing news, Andrew Sullivan announced that he is working with to create a self-published coffee table book version of his View From Your Window posts, and is crowd-sourcing an estimate of what the initial print run should be. An interesting experiment indeed.

HTMLGIANT notes a Cormac McCarthy interview wherein he suggests that the days of the 700 page MOBY DICK-style literary doorstopper are completely over: "Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different."

And finally, can I get a NaNoWriMo status update? How are all the Word Marathoners doing out there?

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Moving the Needle

Hi everyone, this was originally posted yesterday in the Huffington Post, where I will be blogging from time to time. I thought I'd re-post it here.

During my meetings with editors, agents, sales assistants, marketers, and other assorted publishing types in New York this past week, there was a common theme that kept cropping up again and again:

Moving the needle.

(That's "making an impact" for those of us not fluent in Corporatese.)

Editors want to take authors to the next level or make a splash with a debut. Publishers want to gain traction with new electronic formats. Sales and marketing teams want to make a splash. Everyone is desperate for a hit.

At the same time, along with this overwhelming drive to move the needle came an almost equally universal feeling of uneasiness: it's harder to move the needle than ever before.

One of the big recent surprises in the industry, according to a few different people I met with, is a newfound difficulty making a splash even with adult nonfiction. Now, to get an idea of what a huge problem/challenge/earthquake this is, bear in mind that for many years adult nonfiction was the bread and butter workhorse of the industry. Fiction, except for very very established authors, has always been regarded as something of a crapshoot. Nonfiction, on the other hand, was a source of relative stability, and publishers had gotten reasonably good at guessing at the size of the market for a project, giving authors a reasonably appropriate advance, and bringing in healthy margins.

Not so much anymore. Everything is difficult to break out.

What's happening?

Yes, book sales are down, but it's not as if they've fallen off a cliff. And there are still books that are wildly, hugely successful. But why is it that certain books are taking off seemingly out of the blue where other seemingly sure bets aren't doing so well?

One guess: the industry has gone from pushing the needle to being pushed by the needle.

Before the Internet, the publishing industry was one of a few powerful forces that helped shape the cultural zeitgeist - their choices of what to publish and what to market had a reasonably solid effect on what we consumed as a culture. Up until the Internet era, zeitgeist-shaping was much more of a top-down phenomenon. There simply wasn't much of an alternative to the books/movies/music/TV shows that major publishers/studios/labels/networks decided you would like. Your choice in zeitgeist was prescribed and proscribed in advance. Want to read something other than what the publishing industry decided to put in the bookstore? Good luck, pardner!

Not to get all Y2K on you, but the Internet has changed all that. Now we are positively besieged by an infinite number of stories and videos and Tweets and blogs and Gosselins and quizzes competing for our atten... OMG did you see that kitten video?

And holy cow almost all of it is free. People are deciding what media they want to consume out of a bewildering array of choices, and the ground is constantly shifting.

The competition for eyeballs is fierce, and the traditional tools at publishers' disposal aren't as effective as they used to be: Review space has all but completely disappeared, bookstores are closing and taking with them the precious hit-making front-store real estate (which publishers pay dearly for), advertising is costly and sporadically effective, and some (but not all) publishers have been slow to adapt to the potential of the Internet and especially social networking. In other words: their ability to move the needle has flown out the digital door.

To be sure, there are publishers who are still able to consistently generate hits, whether it's Penguin's remarkable run of trade paperback bestsellers or Hachette's stable of suspense writers, among others. And there are still hits happening, even if they seem to be increasingly starting modestly and then taking off through rabid word of mouth.

But if publishers feel unable to "make" a book and increasingly depend on word of mouth and the new bottom-up zeitgeist it will surely complicate a publishing business model that makes massive bets on progressively fewer books in the hopes that those books reach the "phenomenon" status that pads margins and launches careers. Will publishers continue to pay a premium for the privilege of taking an increasingly uncertain risk? Will authors be depended upon to bring their own celebrity/platform/253,078 Twitter followers to bear in order to make a hit for the publisher?

Unless the industry finds a better way to minimize their massive risk-taking or find new tools to move the needle, publishing will continue to bow before the increasingly fickle whims of the zeitgeist and the Internet hive. And the only thing worse than failing to push the needle is accidentally sitting on it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Get the Big Stuff Right

As I was brainstorming about what to blog about today I was thinking I'd discuss how if you just familiarize yourself with agent blogs and use your best judgment and act in good faith and send the best query you can you're going to be fine and there's no need to sweat the tiny details. And then lo and behold I come across an identical post by Michael Bourret. Already written! Today no less!

Between this and Holly Root's recent post, both of which I agree with, clearly there is a feeling among agents at the moment that we have sufficiently terrified authors that it is now necessary to reassure them that we are not going to send them packing at the first sign of a typo or query faux pas.

And Michael's right. It's not about the details.

Only.... it kind of is.

I mean, it is and isn't.

It isn't in the sense that there really is no such thing as an instant rejection if you make a query faux pas. We're going to take everything into account when making a decision, and just because you, say, started with a rhetorical question doesn't mean I will automatically reject you. It just means you will have tried my patience to the breaking point argh don't do it to me!!

It is about the details in the sense that we are actually making a decision based on a short letter and maybe some sample pages and so of course it's about the details.

But which details to sweat and which details to not sweat?

Here's my sweat list:

Overall look - Around the right length, a reasonable font, 10 or 12 point font, broken into reasonable paragraphs, no fiddling with margins, pictures, indenting, colors, etc. Just a clean, professional-looking letter. Don't sweat if it's a little long or a little short, and definitely do not start messing around to try and make it look creative or different. When it comes to letters, "creative" tends to look "insane." It's like showing up to a job interview in a clown costume. When you're formatting your query: wear a boring suit.

The description of your work. Get. This. Right. Get it right. Get it right, get it right, get it right. Get it right. Sweat this. This is what we care about. We're looking for a good story idea and good writing, and you want both to jump out in the query.

Annnnd, we're done!

All that other stuff like credits, genre, word count, series, etc. etc. etc.? Sure, great if you can sort through our pet peeves and get yourself in the ballpark of the right genre, and every little bit helps if you can show that you're cool and professional and know what you're doing. If I didn't blog about that stuff people would still ask, and hey: I'm much more comfortable when I feel like I know what I'm doing, so I try to bore down and help people out with the little stuff too.

But when it comes down to it: use your best judgment and get the big stuff right. All the rest is gravy.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Comparing Your Book to Other Books in the Query

One of the very most common questions I receive: how/whether to compare your book to another book or books in the query.

I personally don't mind at all if you compare your book to another book or author or two to put me in the right frame of mind. This is completely optional, so don't feel as if you have to, and honestly I'd just use your best judgment about whether you think it would be helpful.

The only thing I would suggest is that you don't compare your book to 1) a megabestseller or 2) something extremely obscure.


1) We agents get zillions of queries that declare themselves to be the next DA VINCI TWLIGHT POTTER SECRET, and trust me, you don't want to be in the company of those queries. Honestly, people, what megabestseller is anything like the last megabestseller?

2) If the reference is too obscure you are risking that the agent is going to be all, "Dear god man, I haven't read everything."

At the same time, the right mix can indeed put an agent in the right mindset. So compare away! If you like.

Friday, November 6, 2009

This Week in Publishing 11/6/09

What a week! It's not often you visit New York and arrive on Halloween, see marathoners running by on Sunday, have the Yankees win the World Series in the Bronx on Wednesday and eat way, way more pizza than should be humanly possible (oh wait, that's every time I come back to New York). I'll probably be posting a bit about my NYC publishing impressions next week, but in the meantime, there was a week in publishing and I tried to keep up:

As of this writing you still have a few hours to enter the Rejectionist's most amazing/hilarious form letter contest. The entries so far are incredible.

More on the WalAmaTargEars discounting battle, this time from one of my new favorite stops in the Interetosphere, Mobylives, the blog of indie publisher Melville House. In a recent post, Dennis Johnson notes that the drastic price slashing that the major corporations are currently engaging in wouldn't happen in, say, Germany, where certain laws (egalitarian/socialst/un-American/sane/anti-corporate depending on your political leaning) prevent discounting on books for 18 months, thus allowing independent booksellers and publishers to compete on even footing with the larger corporations.

Meanwhile, according to the Telegraph UK, book apps have overtaken game apps on the iPhone. The kids are alright! Now please keep it up.

In further electronic news, Simon & Schuster has unveiled an e-galley program, which will be compatible with some e-readers and will save on printing.

And the Millions noted an article in the Bookseller about how the environmental benefits of e-readers might not be quite as clear cut as they're made out to be.

So remember a little over a year ago how I mentioned I was suddenly getting lots of women's fiction queries featuring overweight protagonists who are perfectly happy with their bodies? A year later, guess what's the new trend in chick lit.

The Wall Street Journal featured an interesting article this week on how different authors write. Some notables: Junot Diaz writes in the bathroom, Richard Powers speaks his into a microphone while in bed, and Nicholson Baker wakes up at 4 am, writes for a while, goes back to sleep, and then wakes up again to edit.

In agent advice news, Holly Root has a great reminder that agent advice is meant to help aspiring authors, not to terrify them. She writes, "I have heard from so many writers who are terrified of “offending” agents or breaking some rule. Nothing about this process should be anywhere near that scary, and shame on those of us professionals who have made it so. It’s publishing—not nuclear disarmament. I am an agent, not Emperor Palpatine." I knew there was a reason I can't shooting lightning from my fingers. Yet.

And in social media news, HarperStudio VP and marketing maven Debbie Stier, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person yesterday, has a great post in HuffPo about whether Twittering and social networking can sell books. As their big success CRUSH IT! goes to show: yes, it does help.

In case you haven't heard it's pretty tough out there for debut authors, and two very established authors feel your pain. In a recent interview, John Irving was extremely sympathetic about the challenges facing aspiring authors, noting, "If I were 27 and trying to publish my first novel today I might be tempted to shoot myself." But even though he doesn't really think his first novel would be published today he doesn't believe the book is in danger.

And though he doesn't personally suffer from the WalAmaTarGears heavy discounting, John Grisham has spoken out forcefully against the practice. He notes, "If half of us are going to be doing it, then you’re going to wipe out tons of bookstores and publishers and we’re going to buy it all online. I’m probably going to be all right — but the aspiring writers are going to have a very hard time getting published."

Very kind of the big guys to stand up for the little guys.

And with that, I shall bid New York adieu and see you back in California.

Have a good weekend!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

[blank] Are the New Vampires

Come on, you know you want to try it. Insert your own guess in the comments.

I'm going with fallen pirate apocalyptic ninja angels as the new vampire.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Can Anyone Be a Good Writer?

It's Wednesday of my New York adventure/whirlwind and wow is it great to be here. New York! Must you be so awesome and tempt me back every time I visit you?

Meanwhile, this topic has been percolating in some of the recent posts and we addressed a variation of it in the past, but I thought I'd raise it here.

Can anyone with enough practice be a good writer? What about a great writer? Is there a part of writing that is innate or can it be learned by anyone?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


It's always great to be back in the city that supposedly never sleeps, although by the end of every day I'm so exhausted I never seem to have any problem falling asleep. It's kind of amazing to visit the city in regular intervals and see what changes and what stays the same.

New: tall shiny buildings that weren't there before!
Old: Katz's, now under the shadow of a tall shiny building!

So far on this trip it's also been interesting to meet with editors on both the children's and adult side. On the adult side: people are feeling a little beaten down, they're not going to lie. But on the children's side they're riding high and feeling like they made it through the worst of the recession in really good shape. Maybe more importantly, they feel like the lower price points and more varied product on the children's side is a more sustainable model for the future.

It's also fun to play the "[blank] is the new vampire" game, although several people I've talked to feel like vampire is still the new vampire.

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