Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What Is the Most Influential Book of All Time?

The other day I came across a blog post by NY Times columnist Ross Douthat ranking the most influential books in his life. That's not the question I'm asking, but it got me thinking...

Leaving out the major religious texts: What would you say was the most influential book of all time? On all of humanity? What book do you think had the biggest impact on the world?

Uncle Tom's Cabin?
The Jungle?
Mein Kampf?
A Tale of Two Cities?
Herodotus' Histories?
The Communist Manifesto?
The Little Engine That Could?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

All About Co-op

A corollary to the sentiment I attempted to debunk yesterday (i.e. that publishers just go ahead and decide which books become phenomenons) is that the main way publishers decide on the eventual popularity of certain books is by choosing which ones get front-of-the-store display. They therefore hold all the cards when it comes to determining which books get that crucial boost and which books don't.

This is borne out of a slight misunderstanding of the way that process works.

Background: Co-op is a catchall term for, among other things, that magical (not really) process by which books non-magically appear at the front of the store. That space is nicknamed "real estate" for a reason. In the simplest of explanations: publishers pay for it.

Only it's not really that simple.

The myth I want to dispel in this post is that there is a publishing employee sitting on a fancy chair high up in a Manhattan skyscraper giving the "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" to co-op and thus deciding the fate and popularity of every book they come across. In reality it is a complex process with decisions made by many different people, and crucially: bookstores have a say too.

Agents are typically a few steps removed from the co-op process, but luckily there are some blog posts out there on the Internet that explain it far better than I could.

For an overview of co-op, you couldn't really do better than Eric at Pimp My Novel, a sales assistant at a major publisher, who has a series of posts giving a birds-eye view of this process. He notes that while many of the spaces are reserved for your big name authors and existing bestsellers, there is sometimes space for new authors as well.

Eric also links to a fantastic overview by Andrew Wheeler, a marketing manager for Wiley, who explains the interplay between publishers and booksellers:

Eventually, the sales rep will call on the buyer, and, among other things, map out what co-op nominations that publisher wants to make for the period in question. The buyer will generally have to wait until all of the nominations are in from all appropriate publishers before being sure everything is set -- it's entirely possible to have thirty nominations for a table that will hold twenty books. (And the chain may decide to refuse other nominations for other reasons, as well -- the chain always has the final decision, though the publisher with a sure-to-be-in-heavy-demand title has a lot of leverage.)

In other words, co-op is a business negotiation like many others: two parties are each trying to maximize their benefits from the deal, and their interests are parallel but not necessarily identical. (The publisher would love to get a dedicated display space; the chain wants to have the biggest and best books no matter who publishes them. Both want to sell a lot of books, though the chain is generally agnostic as to which particular books.)

The key here is that publishers make co-op nominations. It's up to booksellers to decide which promos to accept, and they do that based on their best guesses as well.

Now, this post is not intended to minimize the importance of marketing budgets and making books available for co-op and promotions and all of those things that go into making a book a success. All those elements are extremely important, and the fact that so many bookstores are closing and taking co-op space with them is a huge blow to publishers.

But this is a complex process. There are lots and lots and lots of people involved and they all want to sell the most number of books possible. If you don't personally like the books at the front of a bookstore there isn't a "publisher" to blame, but rather approximately 7,276 people (I counted) who are making their best guesses about how best to maximize their budgets (just kidding about the counting).

What can you do if, like everyone, you're an author and you want co-op? Take it away, Andrew!

What you can do here is what you need to do in general -- write the best book you can, one with a real and sizable audience, get it into the hands of an editor (and maybe an agent, if you're in an end of publishing where that helps or is necessary) who is really enthusiastic about it, and follow their lead about what you can do to help them promote and publicize it.

Co-op is not the be-all-end-all of a book's fate. As always: it's way more complicated than that.

Photo by advencap

Monday, March 29, 2010

You Can't Make Something a Phenomenon

Around the Internet I often see a perception among readers and commenters that the sole reason certain books become wildly popular is because the publisher made them popular. This, presumably, is meant to discredit the success of the book by attributing its popularity not to the book's merits, but rather to the efforts of a publisher to foist the book onto a gullible public.

Here's the thing. If it were actually possible for publishers to market the heck out of a book and guarantee that it became as popular as Twilight, well, don't you think they would? All the time? With every book?

To be sure, marketing helps a book's popularity, and a publisher can work wonders when they bring all of their resources to bear to give a book a boost. But that just gives a book a shot. What happens from there depends on the book itself and whether it catches fire with its readers.

People who follow the movie industry know that studios are usually pretty good at advertising their way to a certain opening weekend box office draw. In the words of the president of Sony Screen Gems, "Most of a movie’s opening gross is about marketing." After that, though, what happens is a result of that all important and elusive "word of mouth," which as this fascinating New Yorker article details, can often be about reaching multiple market segments with the concept of the film itself. Even the very best advertising can only do so much. At some point the movie itself has to sink or swim.

Lots of books get marketing dollars. Not all books become Twilight or The Da Vinci Code or The Help or Harry Potter or insert insanely popular book here. One or more of those books may not be your cup of tea as a reader, but it doesn't mean that your fellow readers were duped into buying them. Better, I think, to consider what it was about the book that inspired such dedicated readers than to ascribe that special zing to outside forces.

Photo by Zack Sheppard

Friday, March 26, 2010

This Week in Publishing 3/26/10

This week! Publishing!

Some very sad news this week as Sid Fleischman, Newbery winning author of THE WHIPPING BOY and BY THE GREAT HORN SPOON passed away at 90. These were some of my very favorite novels as a kid and he will definitely be missed.

Editor Cheryl Klein posted one of the coolest things I've seen in the publishing corner of the Internet: a 110 year old rejection letter. The reason for the rejection? "Your story is developed well on the political side, which is important and novel, but without a strong love-interest it would not go." Maybe things haven't changed so much after all.

Lots and lots of iPad related news still churning its way through the Internet, including confirmation that there will be B&N and Amazon apps on the iPad. Meanwhile, there was quite a bit of shock when, after all the fights over e-book pricing and Amazon's discounting, a website got a look at Apple's iBooks store and revealed that many of the e-books were priced at........ $9.99. Jacket Copy's Carolyn Kellogg reminds readers that this is a current snapshot and things are still under negotiation in advance of the April 3rd iPad release day. (UPDATE: And the prices have indeed now changed and most now appear to be $12.99)

Meanwhile, Random House remains a noticeable holdout from the publishers who have gone along with the Apple agency model and have not come to an agreement to have their books in the iBooks store. Mike Shatzkin notes that there's a very simple reason for this: Random House's books will still be available on the iPad via the Kindle app and others, by retaining old wholesale model they receive more per copy than via the agency model, and meanwhile the price to the consumer for their books will likely be less than their competitors. More money received for lower priced books? Not hard to understand at all.

And meanwhile, there's a new competitor to the Kindle: Kobo is gunning for the Kindle with a new Kindle-like dedicated e-reader selling for $150. Are the e-reader pricing wars about to commence? (via MobyLives)

Hachette UK CEO Tim Hely Hutchison sent an e-mail to agents and authors about the State of the Industry, which unfortunately I can't link to because I don't believe it's been posted online in full. He notes the continued deterioration of the brick and mortar retail landscape and hopes the remaining stores will embrace the Internet: "In short, we think a proportion (only) of the existing traditional booksellers can and will survive and even thrive if and as they adapt and refine the very different shopping experience they can offer the consumer in store and via their own focused websites." He predicts that e-book sales, which are currently 0.9% of the British market, will rise to 1% this year, 3% in 2011, and 5% in 2012.

In writing advice news, Donna Gephart posted information from Kate Messner about how to survive a Skype author-visit, and my client Natalie Whipple has a great insight about &*#$%& profanity: constant cursing isn't a problem because it's offensive, it's a problem because it's repetitive.

Comment of the week goes to........ Zoe Winters!! Anyone who is interested in self-publishing and is curious about some more resources should check out her extremely helpful comment.

And finally, this week's sign of the apocalypse is brought to you by St. Martin's, who will soon be publishing a lifestyle guide by "Jersey Shore" luminaries Ronnie and J-WOWW. My oh my. Can Snooki's autobiography and The Situation's guide to situational abs be far behind? (via @sarahlapolla)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Should You Self-Publish? Ten Questions to Ask Yourself

Now that it's so easy to self-publish and you hear about success stories, many authors are wondering whether they should go through the possibly multi-year hopefully-finding-an-agent-and-then-hopefully-a-publisher process or instead just make a deal with a self-publisher, start printing books, and see what happens.

Let me first start by saying that every book is different and no blog post that is going to offer generalized advice about something as broad and varied as whether to self-publish is going to cover every eventuality. Bear that in mind as you decide upon the right path for your own book.

I thought the best way to organize this post would be with a series of questions that someone who is considering self-publishing should answer.

Here goes.

1. Have you taken the time to research both the traditional publishing process and the self-publishing process?

This is your book we're talking about here! You probably took a year or more to write it - why rush into a decision about its fate? Why take the next step without really knowing what you're doing?

Too often people rush off to self-publish out of frustration with the traditional publishing industry and treat it as a way of sticking it to The Publishing Man - this is so extremely misguided. Don't let frustration cloud your judgment. Any decision about how you're going to proceed should be based strictly about what is best for your book and your career, not about proving someone wrong.

Research your options. Figure out some of the different self-publishing models. Familiarize yourself with both processes and determine which one you want to pursue.

As they say on Friday Night Lights: Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can't Lose.

Some great resources for people considering self-publishing include Writer Beware, the Self-Publishing Review, and Absolute Write, and if people with a self-publishing background could also provide some of their favorite resources in the comments section that would be great as well.

2. Does your book appeal to a broad audience or is it intended for a specialized group?

Be honest. While everyone has dreams of their book catching on like Snuggies, some books have a limited audience, whether because they will appeal mainly to a certain region, they're experimental, they're very specialized, they're geared toward a subculture, or the audience is otherwise constrained.

This is not a bad thing!! No value judgment at all. However, the traditional publishing industry is geared toward books with a mass audience. Yes, there are some regional books published by major publishers and yes, there are experimental books and other exceptions. But increasingly, specialized publishers and self-publishers are the ones who reach niche audiences.

If you have a niche project you probably don't need an agent and can either approach specialty houses directly or simply proceed with self-publishing.

3. If you tried first to find an agent and/or publisher and didn't find one, are you sure you don't want to write another book and try again?

These days, with the major publishers publishing fewer titles and mid-tier houses disappearing, great books are absolutely falling through the cracks, especially books that are literary or idiosyncratic or are in genres that the industry does not perceive as currently selling well. Some of these are being picked up by small presses, others languish.

On the other hand, there are so many books that fail to find an agent and/or publisher because the author just isn't ready. Take it from someone who wrote a first novel that failed to find an agent and/or publisher: while it's painful to put a manuscript in a drawer, in retrospect you may very well be glad you let it go if your next book ends up working out.

How can you tell whether yours is really good and will find an audience or whether you're not actually ready? Admittedly this is very difficult to answer. If you have the confidence of an agent or industry professional who is encouraging you to self-publish I'd listen carefully. If you're not really that worried about finding a major publisher down the line and just want to have your book out there for people to find I'd listen to yourself. There's no shame in that!

If, however, you want to self-publish because you're hoping for easy DIY bestsellerdom: proooooobably not the best reason to self-publish. You might instead try to continue to hone your craft and land an agent/publisher for your next book. But only you can decide for sure.

4. Do you know which self-publishing model you want to pursue?

There are many, many different ways to self-publish and zillions of companies who will be willing to offer you their services.

Print self-publishing options break down roughly across a spectrum of choices depending on your up-front investment: options where the author funds the print run and receives most or all of the revenue from sales to no upfront fee where the self-publishing company keeping most of the revenue from sales.

Or do you want to dip a self-publishing toe in the water and just e-publish for now and gauge the response? You could do that as well, though be sure and be very careful that you retain all control over your work and can pull it at any time.

Also, remember that there are also lots and lots and lots of self-publishing scams and bad deals out there. Writer Beware.

5. Can you afford to lose any money you plan to spend self-publishing?

No book is worth going broke. It's really, really not.

Books are about as likely to lead to riches as casinos, lottery tickets, and staring at the sky and waiting for a million dollars to spontaneously land on your head.

Please don't bankrupt yourself self-publishing. Please. Only spend it if you can afford to lose it.

6. Do you have a plan for copyediting, interior design, cover design, ISBNs, and all those other nuts and bolts elements that go into making a book?

There's wayyyyyyyyyyyyy more to making a book than writing it. As you will soon know all-too-well if you decide to self-publish.

7. Do you have a marketing plan?

Bookstores do not generally stock self-published books. Selling your book in a brick-and-mortar store will only happen if you're able to pound the pavement and make it happen.

Luckily you are still able to reach audiences via online bookselling. But how are you going to make people aware of your book? How will you make them interested? How can you find your audience?

It's not enough to simply have your book selling on Amazon - whether it's a blog, Twitter presence, marketing campaign, book trailer or all of the above: you'll need to get out there to make people want to buy it.

8. Do you have a plan for your next book?

If you're hoping to use your self-published book as a jumping-off point for future books or finding an agent/traditional publisher you have quite a challenge ahead. Not only will you have to invest enough time in your self-published book that it generates good reviews and healthy sales (usually in the thousands), you're also going to want to be working hard on your next project.

As I've posted before, it might not be your self-published book but rather your next book that attracts an agent or publisher. And if you're looking to make The Leap to a traditional publisher with your next project, it's almost always better if it's not a sequel.

How do people have time to both pound the pavement and write their next book? I have no idea. But people find a way.

9. Do you have a healthy amount of self-esteem and an entrepreneurial spirit?

Even with the self-publishing success stories there is still somewhat of a lingering stigma against self-publishing. It's important to understand that even if your self-published book is really really good, the vast majority of self-published books are not very good and some people are inevitably going to lump you in with those books. You're probably going to be greeted with a certain degree of skepticism as you try to convince people that yours is one of the good ones.

You will need to be the type of person who doesn't mind long odds, can deal with frustration and hearing people say no, and has a can-do spirit in the face of adversity.

Actually that last paragraph goes for anybody who writes a book. But especially self-publishers. Much like pimpin': self-publishing ain't easy.

10. Are we having fun yet?

Do the last nine questions strike fear into your heart or do they make you giddy with excitement? Can you self-publish while still abiding by the 10 Commandments of Happy Writers?

It's not worth it if you're not going to enjoy it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Amazon Review Controversy

First, before we get to the topic at hand, my client Jennifer Hubbard is hosting an awesome blog event around the Internet: lots of participating blogs are making per-comment donations to local libraries and all you have to do is stop by and leave a comment. The master list of participants is on Jennifer's blog - it's a great way to generate money for a great cause!

Meanwhile, you may have heard that Michael Lewis, author of The Blind Side and Moneyball, just published a new book on the financial crisis called The Big Short. The book has received good reviews, but a funny thing started happening on Amazon: lots and lots of 1 star reviews, leading to an overall ranking of 2 and 1/2 stars. Why? People leaving 1 star reviews solely because there is no Kindle edition available.

The actions of these consumers prompted TechCrunch to write a rather direct article on the controversy: Amazon: You Need to Change Your Idiotic Customer Reviews Policy Right Now. But TechCrunch, tell us how you really feel!

Noting that these one star non-reviews mainly just hurt the author, who by the way doesn't have control over the publisher's publication plans, Paul Carr's suggestion is that reviews should be limited to people who have actually bought the book from Amazon - this way people with an outside agenda can't drag down a book's rating without even having read it, whether their beef be political or gender-related or Kindle-centric.

What do you think of this controversy? Are the Amazon reviewers just flexing consumer muscle or are they out of line? Do companies have an obligation to address libelous/spurious/treasonous/blank-ous reviews?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Query Letter Subject Lines: Act Now!! Get It While It Lasts!

Lately there seems to be a trend afoot wherein writers, presumably in an attempt make their query stand out, have taken to getting creative with their subject lines. So, sandwiched in between subject lines like "Query" and "Query Author Name" will be one that says:

New novel act fast!!
I have just the project for you!
Not just another query! (only it's usually just another query)

I do respect that these authors are thinking about how many e-mails are likely in the agent's inbox (chances are: a lot) and are thinking they need to really stand out in order to be read. It's definitely coming from a good place. But the end result is that it sometimes feels like I'm hearing from a group of excited telemarketers and/or spammers.

Allow me to take a moment to reassure the "OMG another rule to follow and someone else on the Internet said the exact opposite KMN" anons. This isn't another rule to follow and no one is getting rejected over their subject line. Subject lines? Really not a big deal. Also, imaginary anon: you might consider decaf.

The real reason to reconsider a wacky subject line is this: we live in a Spam Filter world. If your e-mail accidentally ends up in Spam Land and the agent is scanning that folder before deleting, the best way to ensure that an agent will see your query and retrieve it is if you have used some combination of "Query" or "Query + Title" or "Query + your name" in the subject line. It's like your query's life raft!

If your subject line looks like spam: should it land in the spam filter an agent may well mistake it for spam or not notice it at all.

Now. Is it mandatory? Not unless the agent you're querying says it is. Is the agent probably going to appreciate it? Yes. Have you ever had spam musubi? Delicious.

You're not selling the agent on your ability to write a catchy subject line. Be confident that your query will do the trick.

Photo by JanetGalore

Monday, March 22, 2010

Do You Lack Confidence in Your Writing? It Might Not Be a Bad Thing!

While clicking around the Internet over the weekend I found myself on the Cognitive Bias page on Wikipedia, which is incredibly interesting. Um. Unless of course I'm just fooling myself.

Anyway, eventually I found my way to a page about the Dunning-Kruger effect. Have you heard of this?

The basic theory is that when people are incompetent at something they tend to lack the ability to realize it and they overrate their abilities relative to others. Meanwhile, people who actually are good at something tend to underrate their abilities and may as a result suffer from lack of confidence.

It got me thinking of all those insanely talented writers out there in fits of despair thinking they're not any good. Could it be that they're just suffering from a little Dunning-Kruger effect?

Take it away Wikipedia!
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which "people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it". The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than in actuality; by contrast the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to a perverse result where less competent people will rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. "Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others."

Friday, March 19, 2010

This Week in Publishing 3/19/10

This week in March Madn... I mean publishing.

The big news this week in publishing has, as usual, to do with Amazon and Apple and that whole iPad thing. Scrambling before the April 3rd release of the iCan'tWaitToGetOnePad, the so-called Agency Four major publishers (so-called because they've agreed to "agency model" deals with Apple) are hoping to adjust their deal with Amazon, who, according to reports, is making noise about removing buy buttons for both digital and print if the Agency don't cave to a three year term and favored nation status. Let's all just hope the Agency Four end up in better shape than the Oceanic Six.

In other big news, HarperStudio publisher Bob Miller will be leaving Harper to become the group publisher at Workman. Amid questions about the future of the experimental imprint, web marketing maven and HarperStudo Associate Publisher Debbie Stier showed they aren't done experimenting yet, as she was extremely transparent about the future of the imprint via questions on Formspring.

The Rejectionist had a truly fantastic contest last week: query rejections in the form of re-written heavy metal songs. The grand prize winner, as announced by Wayne and Garth, was Pitch in an Elevator (sample: Pitch in an elevator/"It's like Moby Dick meets My Two Dads"/Pitch in an elevator/"Like Sixth Sense crossed with the Iliad") and the runners up were actual real live performances by Rick Daley and Tom, which are well worth a listen. Le R, all I have to say is: We're not worthy!! We're not worthy!!!

Mary Ulrich passed along a post by Seth Godin about a possible bookstore of the future: experience-driven over selection-driven.

Lapham's Quarterly has a truly awesome chart: the day jobs of famous writers. The next time you lament not being a full-time writer it's worth remembering that Charlotte Bronte made $1,838 a year as a governess..... and that's in today's dollars. (via JacketCopy)

In agent advice news, Jenny Bent, who is celebrating the first birthday of the Bent Agency, has a very helpful post on some very common rookie mistakes when querying. Well worth a look.

This week in the Forums, ljkuhnley started a great post on the difference between books with strong voices and invisible voices, bohemienne discusses the pros and cons of chasing the market, and Neil Vogler noticed an interesting article in the Guardian about an author being sued by a Parisian fabric store for the way the store is portrayed in a mystery novel, including being the site for the murder.

It's been wayyyy too long since we started a new blog feature, and this one is long overdue. Comment of the week!!! This week's comment of the week (on Tuesday's post) goes to Ulysses:
"Angelina learns that her cats aren't ordinary cats: they are actually hyper-intelligent feline assassins who can kill their enemies with a flick of a paw."

... Um... but that IS an ordinary cat.

And I'll take Ninja Cats by 5 points. Their point guard is a rebound genius, and I heard that the starting center for the Space Monkeys is out for five days with Hairballs-by-proxy (consequence of an all-feline diet).

And finally, reader Susan Quinn pointed me to a really cool video by DK about the future of publishing, which riffs off that one video by that student that my mom sent me that one time.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How To Format a Query Letter

Dear Blog Readers,

This is how you format an e-mailed query letter. Note that I did not begin with the recipient's address or my address or the date, as that is not customary for an e-mail. I also am not indenting because indenting and e-mails do not mix.

I am using block formatting. I double space between paragraphs but otherwise the query is single-spaced. It is written in a default font, it is left-justified, and the font is a normal size. If I have copied from a word processing program or past e-mail I am careful to make sure the fonts and sizes match. I haven't added pictures or tried to get fancy with anything because I want the agent to see that I'm confident in my words and don't need any gimmicks to make my query stand out.

Believe it or not, less than 25% of the e-queries I receive are properly formatted. While you won't get rejected if your query is incorrectly formatted, if you accomplish this simple task correctly you will convey an indispensable aura of professionalism. And remember: the amount of time you spend formatting, coloring, bolding, italicizing, and adding pictures to your query is inversely proportional to how professional it looks when you're finished.

Nathan Bransford (note that I didn't leave space for a signature since it's an e-mail)

My address
My phone number
My e-mail address
(optional: my website/blog)


First 5 pages of the manuscript - don't worry about how these are formatted just do the best you can

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What is Your Desert Island Book?

Love the desert island question!!!

It has to be the right kind of book, right? Something you wouldn't mind reading thousands of times. Do you opt for weighty or fun? Something that's challenging and needs unpacking or something that will lift your spirits when the rescue boat fails to arrive? Which type of book best rewards repeat reading?


If you could have one book as you're stuck on a desert island, which one would it be?

I'm going with Moby-Dick. Not only is it long and rewards repeat reading, but it might be useful for whale sightings. (Thanks to Kerri-Ann for pointing out that the title is hyphenated. Sorry Herman!)

What are you taking with you?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Secret Strength of Killer Queries: Specificity

People often say to me: "Listen, agent person (they don't actually call me this). You agent blogging people always talk about what not to do in a query, why not talk about what people should do in a query!"

The people have spoken. They want things they should do.

And here's what I think is one of the very most important thing to do in a query: be as specific as possible. Allow me to be even more specific: be as specific as possible about the right things.

When I say "be specific" I don't mean that we need to know every character's name and the name of every city and place in the Realm of Unpronounceable Cities and Places. In other words, I don't think it's a good idea for your query to read along the lines of, "Morfor travels to the Uwn'uim Square in the town of Zxcimist in order to meet his brother Phoidum."

When I say be specific I also don't mean that we need to get bogged down in tangential details either, like ages and hair colors and other things characters are doing if they don't play a major role in the story.

Instead I mean this: be as specific as possible about the plot.

I get so many queries that read (literally, though this is made up for the purposes of this post) like this:

Character Name is living peacefully in Hometown. But then a life-changing event occurs that changes everything. Secrets are revealed that turn her life upside down. Character Name faces grave danger as she embarks on a quest to save her people. This novel is filled with humor and passion and suspense and romance, and there's a shocking twist that leaves the reader breathless.

Being vague leaves an agent with so many questions: What are the secrets? What is the life-changing event? What is the danger she's facing? What happens that is funny and suspenseful and romantic?

When all of these key details are kept hidden the query ends up sounding like... well, pretty much every novel ever written. And chances are an agent is going to move on to the next query.

Replace that vagueness with key details and suddenly the query comes alive. Let's try that query about Character Name again, hmm?

Angelina lives with her cats in Moonville, an outer space colony known more for its knitting festivals than anything resembling excitement. But when Moonville is invaded by cat-eating space monkeys, Angelina learns that her cats aren't ordinary cats: they are actually hyper-intelligent feline assassins who can kill their enemies with a flick of a paw. And they need a leader. Angelina has to leave her knitting behind to defeat the space monkeys, and an intrepid and handsome space explorer named Brad may hold the key.

I think when writers face the daunting task of condensing their work down to a few sentences it's tempting to simply say "shocking secrets are revealed" rather than trying to sum up in just a line or two what are, in the novel, complicated and nuanced events. I know it's tricky to do this.

Also, there's a balance between being specific and being concise. You don't want to be so specific that you're boring down to what the character ate for lunch on the way to slay the space monkeys. But it's utterly, utterly necessary to give the agent some glimpse into what actually happens.

As always, specificity wins.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The 2nd Annual Blog Bracket Challenge!

The greatest sporting event in the history of mankind except for maybe the World Cup or what have you is just about upon us!

It's NCAA Tournament time, and just like last year we shall determine who among us is the literary bracket picking champion OF THEM ALL.

Last year, Jody-Feldman was a UConn victory away from winning the ENTIRE multi-million person ESPN challenge, but ultimately it was Jared who came away victorious.

Who will win this time?

(Probably not me)

Here's how it works: You'll fill out your NCAA bracket online by picking the winners of all the games. And I'm offering a better prize this year: The winner with the most points at the end of the NCAA tournament will win their choice of a free partial critique or a book from one of my clients.

Here's how to enter:

1. Go to the front page of the ESPN tournament challenge:

2. Make your picks.

3. If you have an ESPN username and password you can log in when you submit your picks, otherwise you may need to create a new user ID and password. But don't worry, it's not onerous and you can decline to receive updates in case you're spam conscious.

4. Hover over the link that says "My Groups" and then click "Create or Join a Group"

5. Search for "Bransford Blog Challenge." Enter the password, which is "rhetorical" and then click Join Group.

Then you're all set! You can make changes to your bracket by clicking on it until it locks on Thursday.

Please limit yourself to one entry

This year all updates and trash talking and "I don't believe what I just saw!!"s will be conducted in this dedicated March Madness thread in the Forums.

Oh, and you don't have to know anything about basketball to participate. In fact, it's probably an asset.

Good luck, Chalengees!!

Photo by Rick Dikeman via a Creative Commons license

Friday, March 12, 2010

This Week in Publishing 3/12/10

This! Week! Publishing!

Here comes the iPad! Yes, the iPad is ready for pre-order and Apple has given a deeper look into the iBook experience. And for those who had hoped that iBooks would be incorporated directly into iTunes like movies and TV shows were, or at least that it would come pre-installed: doesn't look like it. You have to download the free iBooks app, although there seems to be some interaction with iTunes. Standing by.

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble announced that they would be making their own app available for the iPad. Let the great iPad book app wars commence!

And Mike Shatzkin has a typically brilliant post, this one about how in an era where anyone can sell books on a relatively even playing field it diminishes traditional publishers' historic advantages: namely their unsurpassed ability at getting print books out to "the trade." The new era may favor multi-niche publishers who specialize because they are adept at building followers interested in certain topics, and this doesn't play to traditional publishers' strengths. Really interesting stuff. Can you tell how much I love Mike Shatzkin's blog??? The people who complain about all the e-book posts are lucky I don't geek out on you more.

Oh. Um, on second though I guess I'm too late on the whole geeking out thing.

This week in the Forums: we reached 1,000 members! If you haven't joined the conversation it's extremely easy to register. Among the topics being discussed this week: when will e-books reach 50% of sales, does your genre make it difficult to find an agent, how to avoid info dumps, and..... yes, still trying to figure out what is happening on Lost!

Over at her Writer's Digest blog, Jane Friedman talks about some very common advice that writers should be very wary of/careful about: opening books with action.

And speaking of which, lots of people talk about the necessity of "tension," but what is tension exactly? My wonderful client Jennifer Hubbard has a fantastic definition: it's "desire balanced by obstacles."

Carolyn Kellogg at the LA Times has a very interesting look into the modern book tour, a landscape that is being stratified between publisher organized book tours and decidedly DIY versions as everyone tries to deal with fewer bookstores and less space in local media.

Remember the wolf T-shirt at Amazon with the hilarious reviews? Reader John Ochwat has a survey of some of the different products that have attracted these hilarious reviews, including a can of uranium and a book priced at $7,679.00.

And finally, Orbit Books has one of the coolest book trailers I've ever seen: the making of a cover. In two minutes:

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Choose Your Own E-book Adventure

We all remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books as kids where you suddenly time travel to the Civil War and you have to decide whether to get on the raft across the river or run away and you have to flip to page 97 to find out if you survived?

Well, should you be intrepid enough to, uh, click on a few links, you're about to Choose Your Own E-book Adventure. Ready the time machine!

I know, I know, some of you are saying, another e-book post. Here's the thing: some of the most common questions I receive these days are along the lines of, "What's going to happen to authors/agents/publishers in the e-book era? Are publishers going to survive? What does it mean for authors?"

And while I try to give a reasonable answer, in the back of my mind I'm thinking, "Well, that depends on lots and lots of factors that are impossible to know at this point." It's really hard to look into the future when X, Y, and Z could throw the whole future into a wildly different outcome. The future might look basically like what we have now, with the major publishers distributing most of the books electronically through e-book stores, or it could look wildly different than that, with the e-book vendors or device makers or some combination being the main game in town.

So. I thought I'd turn some of those variables into a couple different guesses about what different versions of our publishing future might look like. Ready to play? Here we go:

It's 2010. Right now e-books comprise only 3-5% of sales, but some people think e-books represent the future of the book business and will eventually comprise the majority of sales.

Do you think this will happen?

E-books catch on in a big way
E-books remain a niche market

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Which Writer's Career Would You Most Like to Emulate?

We all have writers we look up to for their body of work, their fame, the adulation they receive, and maybe even the islands they own.

Whose career would you most like to emulate? Would you go for the fame, riches, awards, or all of the above?

Which writer's life do you look at and say: I want that.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Blog Post on Repetition, Repetition That Is Distracting

I don't know if I'm just now noticing, noticing the way some writers repeat certain words or phrases for emphasis. But I've been seeing this so much lately, seeing how authors are taking a word or two from the beginning of a sentence and using them again to elaborate, using them in a way that I think is supposed to sound lyrical. As with any writing technique it can be done well, done well in a way that emphasizes a key word or two. But when it's overused, overused again and again, it can begin to drive the reader crazy, crazy in a way that you definitely don't want to drive a reader.

Please be careful with repetition, repetition that can become distracting if it's used too much, used too much in an attempt to create a lyrical style, a lyrical style that is undermined by the repetition.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Don't Believe the E-book Skeptics

Originally posted at the Huffington Post

Slate's technology writer Farhad Manjoo recently wrote a very interesting article about some off-base predictions of yore about our digital future. He focuses on a whopper of a Newsweek column from 1995 (which is actually titled "The Internet? Bah!") about how the Internet would be a passing fad because, among other things, online shopping can't replicate the experience of a salesperson, an online database can't replace a daily newspaper, and the Internet was so jumbled he couldn't even find the date of the Battle of Trafalgar.


Rather than just hardy har har-ing at the article, Manjoo takes a different, and very insightful approach. He notes that the author of the article was hardly a Luddite - he was actually deep in the weeds of the early Internet. The problem with the article wasn't that the author was dumb, the problem was that he was looking strictly at the Internet of 1995 and ignoring the potential for innovation and change.

Manjoo lays out four principles for more successful predictions about our digital future:

1. Good predictions are based on current trends
2. Don't underestimate people's capacity for change
3. New stuff sometimes come out of the blue
4. These days it's best to err on the side of (technological) optimism

When people make predictions about our e-book future, I find myself mystified that some people are so dismissive of their inevitability. I see blog posts and comments around the Internet from people who look at the nascent e-book landscape and think, "Blech. Expensive grayscale Kindles in a white piece of plastic? No way e-books are going to catch on!" Some people admit that they're going to be a part of our lives, but do so grudgingly and see them as yet another signpost that we're all going to hell in a handbasket.

Here's the thing they ignore: e-books are only going to get better.

Move over Nostradamus, here are some predictions about our digital book future:

1. The e-book reading experience is only going to improve.

Sure - not everyone loves the current grayscale Kindles and tiny iPhone reading experience, particularly for books that are illustrated or are beautifully designed. But better devices are coming and it's going to open up a new era of book design of unlimited possibility.

I remember that my high school English teacher told us that when William Faulkner was writing The Sound and the Fury he wished he could have published the text in different colors to denote the different perspectives, but obviously that would have been prohibitively expensive for publishers at the time. Not anymore. With the iPad and other devices coming soon, E-books are going color.

Tomorrow's writers are going to have almost limitless ability to include beautiful color photos and art and interactivity and creative design even in the mass-est of mass market books, the ones that are currently printed on cheap paper and sold on supermarket racks and where the idea of including anything colorful or design-y besides the cover is laughable.

Think of how much a fancy illustrated book costs now and then think about how cheaply that can be done digitally. E-books may be uglier than print books now, but they're about to get more beautiful.

2. E-readers and e-books are only going to get cheaper.

Sure, right now e-readers are out of reach for much of the population. That's going to change. Every new technology is out of reach until it gets cheaper. Digital toys that would once have sold for $100 are now given out in McDonald's Happy Meals. Lower prices for iPad-like devices of the future are inevitable.

And while publishers are currently taking a stand against deeply discounted e-books, the $12.99-$14.99 price point that they are fighting for is still half the cost of a $25 hardcover.

It's soon going to be possible to buy e-books cheaply on an affordable e-reader device, and they're going to be more colorful and interactive than most of their print counterparts.

3. Finding the books you want to read will only get easier.

One of the most common fears about the coming era is that no one will be able to find the good books in a time when anyone can just upload their novel to Amazon. It's the Fear of the Jumble, which was also expressed in that column at Newsweek, where the author complained that (in 1995) you couldn't even find the date of the Battle of Trafalgar on the Internet. He didn't realize that Google and Wikipedia would come along to give you that answer in mere seconds.

Already there are sites like Goodreads and Shelfari cropping up that allow people to swap reviews and recommendations about books. People increasingly find new books through blogs, forums, and heck, hearing from an author directly. It was never really possible before for authors to reach their audience directly - now it's a piece of cake.

Humans are really, really good at organizing things. If we can organize the billions and billions of web pages out there so that we can find what we want within a few seconds I think we can manage a few million books.

4. People are ignoring the digital trend.

I was watching a Seinfeld rerun the other day and there was a funny moment when Elaine hated a movie she was watching so much she called the video store and threatened not to rewind it. I'm going to have to explain this joke to my kids. And then I'm going to tell them about this funny thing we used to have where used to get these things called DVDs in the mail rather than having them downloaded straight to the TV (or wall or inside our eyeballs or whatever we're watching movies on in the future).

Everything that can be digitized is being digitized because it's cheaper and easier to send pixels around the world than physical objects. First it was music, then newspapers, then movies. Books are next in line.

5. Habits change

Yes, yes. The smell of books, reading in the bathtub, writing in the margins, a bookshelf full of books, etc. etc.

People will still have that choice and there are some books that simply can't be replicated digitally. But when faced with a better option, consumers shift extremely quickly. Right now the benefits of e-books are a little murky except for early adopters and those that can afford the devices. But that's just right now. Pretty soon they're going to be better (color! design! portable! interactivity! instantaneous!) and cheaper. Readers won't pay a premium for an inferior print product out of habit and nostalgia in great numbers.

The e-book era is going to be one of incredible innovation and unlimited opportunity, and people who don't see e-books dominating the future of the book world are ignoring the coming innovation and creativity and affordability. I refuse to believe the skeptics and pessimists. Books are about to get better.

Friday, March 5, 2010

This Week in Publishing 3/5/10

This week! The Publishing!

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

First up, my client Jennifer Hubbard is hosting in her second annual library loving challenge and you can participate too! All you have to do is pledge a certain amount of money per comment on your blog, and on the contest day everyone will jump around and leave comments on the other participating blogs and link to each other and raise money for a great cause. You can find more details here.

Surprising no one, e-book sales went up 176% in 2009 even in a down year for the book business. The American Association of Publishers estimates that they now comprise 3.3% of the market. Meanwhile, Craig Mod has a terrific illustrated post about the future of book design in the iPad era (via Publish or Perish).

Jason Epstein wrote an fascinating and beautifully written article for the New York Review of Books about the impact of digital publishing, praising the coming diversity and limitless possibility while expressing some anxiety about the ephemeral nature of digital content. Which I'm always so curious about - things published on the Internet sure seem pretty permanent to me. Someone always comes along to worry, "What about a power outage?" "What about a virus?" "What about the government censoring everything?" "What about the guy out there with his finger hovering over a button that will erase everything ever written with one click?"

People, people, people: if something happened that erased every e-book on every computer and e-reader on Earth it would just be a sign that the robots have finally won and we'd be better served practicing how to bow than worrying about what happened to our e-books.

Honestly: we'd be better off worrying about the permanence of everything published electronically rather than its supposed fragility.


My colleague Katherine Faussett passed along a whopper of a post about how books are becoming fringe media. Because the author of the post doesn't read books very often and people who buy (expensive) e-readers tend to be older. Why certainly the kids aren't reading at all these days. Not at all.

And speaking of which, congratulations to the fabulous Cynthia Leitich Smith, who in addition to having one of the most helpful and awesomest blogs on the Internet, just received the terrific news that her novel ETERNAL debuted at #5 on the NY Times children's paperback list! Congratulations!

Just as Harper Teen pays a whopping seven figure pre-empt for a debut YA series, former Harper editor Marion Maneker has an article in the Big Money noting how Hollywood is beginning to opt to pay talent less up front and more on the back end, a model the publishing industry may be forced to emulate (via Jay).

This week in the Forums: authors are plugging their blog posts, discussing how to avoid taking rejection personally, sharing their opening sentences, and, of course, we're still trying to figure out what in the heck is happening on Lost.

The NY Times recently had a nuts and bolts article on what goes into the cost of e-books vs. a print book (i.e. savings not that great), and Eric from Pimp My Novel has an interesting take as well. In response to the Times article, Michel Kinsley from The Atlantic posted a snarky rejoinder that includes such costs as lunches and wild overpayments, leading Eric to wonder, what is the public perception of the book business anyway?

In publishing advice news, agent Holly Root has a terrific post on what is and isn't a referral, agent Rachelle Gardner discusses the importance of craft when writing memoir, Moonrat gives some insight into some of the different ways advance payouts work, and the Dystel & Goderich blog is hosting a Slush Week where the agents post their thoughts on selected queries.

And finally, two videos for you this week! The first is a hilarious one that comes via editor Molly O'Neill about dreaming of writing the perfect novel:

And the second comes via Penguin UK, who put together a fascinating presentation on the future of books on the iPad (hint: pretty awesome):

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What Writing and Lying Have in Common

I am a terrible liar. I'm bad at platitudes, I can't tell people I like their writing when I don't, and I was never able to get myself out of trouble as a kid. Let's just say that if I were captured by stormtroopers and held in the Death Star and I knew the location of the hidden rebel fortress and all I had to do to hold off Darth Vader for just a little while longer was to lie that the base was on Dantooine........ the Empire would have won. The Empire would have definitely won.

All the same, lying and writing actually have a whole lot in common - in both cases, you're trying to get someone to believe something that isn't true and using words to try and pull the wool over their eyes.

What makes a good lie? Key details and believability. When a good liar spins a yarn they're able to fill it with details and tell it in a way that seems to make perfect sense. A good liar can make you feel the sun on their face and the cool splash of water on their arms as they're catching the big one that got away.

Perhaps the very most common mistake in writing is failing to establish the illusion of reality. The necessity of maintaining this illusion stretches across all levels of the story: from the prose the author employs to the presentation of the emotions and dialogue of the characters to much broader concerns, like the logic of the world and the motivations of the characters based on what we've already learned about them.

On the prose level, authors can get tripped up on the minutest of details that take the reader out of the story and make them think, "Oh yeah. There's someone writing this." I see this often with imprecise prose and tiny errors of logic that can add up to a world that the reader doesn't believe: metaphors that clunk and turns of phrase that puzzle the reader and make them remember that they're reading an invention rather than something that's real.

On the dialogue and action level, the characters have to look and sound like we know people act (or how robots or aliens or monkeys act). Their reaction to events shouldn't be so shrill or over the top or muted that we don't believe they're real.

And then on the meta level, the world and characters have to obey the internal logic the author establishes throughout the book.

My wife and I have recently gotten hooked on Battlestar Galactica, which is a seriously amazing show and also automatically extended my Nerd Pass for an extra three years. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but at the end of Season 2 Commander Adama seems serene and complacent at a crucial juncture even though that hadn't been his M.O. for the entire show up until that point. His entire being had rested on being prepared and competent. I just didn't believe that the Commander Adama I know would behave like that.

The irony, of course, is that the creators of Battlestar Galactica have successfully convinced me that it is plausible that an evolved race of self-replicating robots have driven humans to the brink of extinction aboard ships that move faster than the speed of light....... but no! I'm getting hung up on a character's complacency. That I don't believe.

A good storyteller can make you believe just about anything, as long as the details make you believe someone was there and as long as the internal logic of the world stays consistent.

Or maybe that's just what the Cylons want us to think.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What's Your Least Favorite Malaprop/Mispronunciation/Homonym Error?

In the course of reading the 400+ queries that came in while I was away (answered!), I saw my share of homonym problems, which I usually just chalk up to typos. There's one, however, that gets me every time: peak/peek/pique. As I Tweeted yesterday, my interest is never "peaked" or "peeked." It's only piqued. (Although certainly my interest peaks when I see someone misuse pique.)

My friend Holly Burns recently blogged about the best mispronunciations she's ever heard, and there certainly are some doozies.

What are your favorite/least favorite malaprops, Spoonerisms, homonym errors, and/or other tips of the slongue or tpyos? Any in particular that always drive you crazy?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Archetype vs. Cliche

There are many, many stories involving a young man, often of unknown/mysterious parentage, who suddenly realizes he's the chosen one and has to embark on a quest against impossible odds to save his people.

And yet Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, David and Goliath, and countless other stories are all different and beloved.

There are many, many stories involving a girl who meets a mysterious/scandalous/acerbic man who she falls in love with even though she probably shouldn't, and often even though the man tells her she shouldn't.

And yet Gone With the Wind, Twilight, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and countless other stories are all different and beloved.

There's an old saw that there are really only six or a dozen stories (the number changes) ever told. These are archetypes, and we've been telling variations of these stories since the days we recounted myths around campfires and painted them on cave walls.

At the same time, especially when dealing with very familiar arcs, there's a very fine line between archetype and cliche. We've all read stories that feel tired and worn - whenever an author is trafficking in archetypes they run the risk of the reader rolling their eyes and saying, "Yeah, I've read this before."

So how do authors navigate archetype vs. cliche?

It's no great mystery: by telling a story differently. The tricky part is: doing it differently is much harder than it seems.

I think there's a mistaken belief out there that all you need to set the 1,000,000th take on an archetype apart from the previous 999,999 is a little twist.

It's like Twilight, only zombies! Voila!
It's like Star Wars, only the dark side wins! Voila!
It's like The Da Vinci Code, only it's the 2012 and the Mayans!

I really don't think that's the way it works. It's not a matter of coming up with a twist and otherwise appropriating a previously created world. That's when projects fall into cliche. The way you use archetype is by telling the familiar arc in an entirely new world with its own rules, with unique characters, and in a unique style.

That's why we have beloved stories as varied as Star Wars and Harry Potter, even though the basic arcs of the stories are similar. The worlds and characters could not be more different.

It's not enough to start a story with a high school girl swooning in the midst of the cranky new kid's smoldering stare. What's different about this world and about these characters?

It's not enough to start a story with a boy who has to save the realm/galaxy/kingdom from disaster. What's different about this world and this character?

The road to cliche is paved with imitation. Start fresh.

How Can You Tell if You Have Writing Talent?

One of the very most difficult parts about the writing process is knowing whether you have "it," as in the talent that it takes in order to have a book published.

This is one the biggest challenge in battling the "Am I Crazies." How in the heck do you know if what you're writing is actually good?

Sure, your friends and family might think you have a talent, there may have been a teacher who was supportive, but they're often biased. So how do you really know?

I know there are writers out there who would stop now if they knew for sure they'd never find publication. But should they? How can you tell?

Monday, March 1, 2010

All About Sequels

Whew! I'm back in the US and trying not to flinch as I face the virtual mountain of 419 queries that came in while I was away. Query response times will lag until I'm able to catch up.

Meanwhile, I get lots and lots of questions about sequels, and while I've addressed them tangentially in the past, as far as I can recall I've never devoted a whole post to them. Until now. Behold as I defy the laws of physics to write my first post about sequels. I guess this is the prequel to the sequel post about sequels.

Sequels are fun to write! Or so I've heard. You've already created the world, you know and love the characters, you may have even left off your last book with plenty of story to tell. What's not to like?

Well.... here's the thing. Sometimes authors get so connected to a world they've created they develop symptoms of a disease I've previously diagnosed as acute sequelitis.

Acute sequelitis is characterized by an aversion to starting fresh with a completely new project even after being unable to place the first book in a series. Authors suffering from acute sequelitis then write a sequel, then the third in a trilogy, and pretty soon have six or ten or a dozen interconnected books, the fourth of which might actually be publishable... if it didn't need the three before it in order to make sense. Side effects include an aversion to yardwork and bathing.

Now don't get me wrong. If your primary writing goal is to have fun: more power to you! Write a fifteen book interconnected series and don't let anyone tell you your front lawn swallowed a neighborhood dog.

If, however, your goal is to be published, writing a sequel to an unpublished, self-published, or under-published book is probably not your best strategy. Placing a book these days is really really hard. Placing a sequel to an un/self/under-published novel is virtually impossible, no matter how good it is.

Unless, of course, the sequel can stand on its own. And I don't mean squint your eyes, fudge some plotlines, and nudge nudge sure thing it can stand alone. I mean it can completely and utterly stand alone and you can credibly pitch it as the first book in a possible series. In that case, well, just pitch it as the first book in a possible series and don't mention the one in the drawer.

As I always say, it's not a series until the second book is published. And yes, it's hard and painful and gut-wrenching to set aside dreams of a massively long series when the first book in the series doesn't work out.

But take it from someone who set aside dreams of a massively long series when the first book in the series didn't work out: you really can create a new world, and chances are you'll like it even more than your last one.

Don't let acute sequelitis happen to you. Sequels should be undertaken only under close consultation with publishing professionals. Talk to your critique partners about starting a new world. You'll be glad you did.

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