Archive for October, 2009

What Was Sarah Palin’s Advance?

October 28, 2009

palinEveryone in America is asking today what was Sarah Palin’s advance for her book, Going Rogue. We can’t say for sure, but we can calculate a range by applying some reasonable assumptions. Alaska reported that during the final six months of Palin’s governorship she received a “retainer” of $1,250,000 for her book from Harper Collins, her publisher. Let us assume that this was simply the first payment of an advance to be paid in several parts. Typically an advance is determined by the projected royalties on the first printing of a book. In the case of Palin’s, the print run was 1,500,000. Royalties on hardback books vary from 10-15% of list price. They can be even higher for some blockbusters. Let’s assume that her per book royalty is 15% or $4.35 per book. This would give us an expected advance of $6,525,000.

Another metric that we could use is the estimated number of equal payments that are made for any advance. Typically an advance is divided into a number of equal payments which are made at certain benchmark times. Smaller advances are usually in two parts. Larger ones can be in three. Very large advances can  be made in four parts. Since Palin’s advance is clearly very large, we assume that the reported advance was the first of four payments. This would give us an estimated advance of $5,000,000, similar to the previous estimate.

Of course, the normal economics of publishing don’t really apply to deals of this size. So my calculations would have considerable uncertainty.  The rumored amount on the street when the deal came down was $7,000,000.

Publisher Advances

October 26, 2009

I’ve been speaking to a lot of authors lately, successful ones who make their living writing. Some of them make a pretty good living. I’m finding that a lot of them don’t really understand the economic fundamentals of publishing. They don’t even understand the meaning of “the book deal” a subject that authors  talk about a lot and even obsess about. Most writers  define a good book deal as a good advance. I’m going to talk about the typical elements in a book deal and try to explain them a little bit to writers.

It is important to understand that any book deal has two sets of negotiations. The first is for “deal points”. This involves issues associated with money and is usually the primary concern of authors (and everybody else involved). After these points are decided, we move on to negotiating the remaining terms of the contract. This is often referred to dismissively  as “boiler plate”. It is really a lot more critical than that  and the interests of the author need to be well represented in this phase as well.

Today I want to talk about the first element in the deal points, the advance. We will try to cover some of the other deal points next week.

A lot of authors expect that an agent has at her disposal certain alchemical powers to get windfall advances from publishers for any project. I wish this were true. I won’t make estimates of how large an advance is likely to be offered on a project. Most of the agents I respect  will be pretty circumspect about that as well. But what can be said is that the bargaining power of the author is really dependent on how many suitors are interested in the project. Having three or four interested publishers creates a seller’s market for the book.  Similarly, if after trying for some months to sell a project, one has a single offer from a smallish publisher, there are only limited opportunities to improve this  through bargaining.

The advance  is always the big enchilada for authors and for agents. It is a convenient shorthand for how big a deal is. As in: “This was a very significant deal. High six figures.” It is certainly a good thing to get money sooner rather than later. And authors who are making a living writing books need money in advance to let them live while the book is being written.

Publishers go to some length in contract negotiations to spread out payments of advances as much as possible. If getting money sooner rather than later is good for authors, dragging out advance payments as long as possible serves the interests of  publishers.  Publishers usually will be quite insistent that advances be paid in 2, 3 or even 4 parts. Smaller advances are usually divided into two equal parts. The first paid on signing; The second on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. Larger advances may have a third payment upon publication. Recently some publishers have added a fourth payment upon publication of the paperback edition. Calling this an advance is doublespeak. The fourth payment could easily be made 3 years after the contract has been signed.

Publishers and publishing gurus will be quick to tell you that advances are “out of control” or indicative of a “flawed business model” and that 75% of all advances never “earn out”. (More on earning out later). As you might expect, authors and agents see things quite differently. There is a story going around that one big-time agent always says “if an advance ever earns out, I haven’t been doing my job”. I prefer to tell my clients that money is money. Although a big advance is nice, there is also money after advances in the form of royalties. But those royalty checks are going to start rolling in, if at all, down the road a spell.

Sometimes, when an author has a lot of publishing suitors for a particular book, the agent conducts an auction. After a few rounds of bidding, the result may be that the offer of the largest advance gets the book. This might not be so advantageous to the writer. It may very well be that  the best home for the book is a publisher who has offered a smaller advance. Most agents understand this and try to structure an auction in such a way that the advance is not the only determinant  of the best offer.

One often hears stories by authors who believe, probably correctly, that they got an advance that was so disproportionate to the sale of their book, that it has jeopardized their ability to get contracts for future works.

A lot of authors don’t understand that the word “advance” means advance against royalties. What this means is that royalties for actual sale of books will offset the advance. No royalty checks will be paid out to the author  until the total amount of royalties and other income generated from sales exceeds the amount of the advance. This is called earning out. In other words, if you have a $10,000 advance, and your royalty statement shows that you have sold enough books to create royalties of $8500, then you won’t get any royalty payments until you have earned an additional $1500 to offset the advance.

Some publishers are now not giving an advance. Frequently they say that this is a new “business model”, or that they are “sharing the risk with the writer.” I suppose this is a little like calling a used car a “pre-owned car.”  The idea is that writers will agree not to take an advance in exchange for a higher royalty rate, with the hope of getting better revenue down the road if the book is successful. Authors beware to make sure that in this arrangement there really is a significantly better royalty rate that accounts for your own sacrifices and risks  in agreeing to forswear  the advance.

It is conventional wisdom that big advances are desirable for another reason as well. A big investment by a publisher in an advance will insure a big commitment  in marketing and promotion to protect their investment. There is probably truth in this. Although there are many stories of the folly of publishers for paying exorbitant advances and then not following up with commensurate efforts at selling the book.

Next week we are going to talk about some of the other elements of the book deal including: royalties, territorial rights, e-books, and other subsidiary rights.

Reading Narnia to My Daughter

October 19, 2009

narniaA couple of months ago, I decided to read The Chronicles of Narnia to my seven year old daughter, Hayley. It was a test to see whether  she or I had the patience to read a book that was a masterpiece of children’s literature and probably a little advanced for a girl of her age.. Actually we were inspired by seeing the  two wonderful Andrew Adamson films of the epic story. She and her friends were play acting the characters after seeing the film. Hayley liked to play Susan. So she was excited about listening to the whole story.

Well, 1500 pages later we finished reading the sixth book, The Silver Chair. Hayley’s patience started to flag as had C.S. Lewis’s inventiveness (in my humble opinion). I still couldn’t give it up, so I read the final volume: The Last Battle by myself. It was an annoying and entirely unsatisfactory ending. More on that later.

Several years ago, the publisher had changed the order of the books. For most of the time, the books were numbered sequentially as they were written by Lewis, beginning with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. For some reason, and probably an error in judgment and in marketing, the publisher changed the sequence to coincide with the order of   internal time in which the stories took place in Narnia. The result was that instead of reading The Lion… first, we read The Magician’s Nephew, a prequel that tells how Narnia began. It is an inferior book.   I recommend starting with The Lion. It is certainly the best of the stories and a good way to get hooked on the series.

What struck me about the books, particularly in comparison to the films,  but also in comparison to popular young adult books being written today, was their slow moving plot. I suppose this was to be expected. Films have their own dynamic. Action needs to be compressed. And commercial considerations require the story to move along at a good clip. I wonder, though, whether Lewis’s leisurely pace was a result of the fact that he was writing in another time when life was a little slower and narratives could be more drawn out.

What raises Narnia to the level of literature is neither  plot nor  character. It is Lewis’ majestic conception of the story. When the movie came out, there was a lot of talk amongst a highly opinionated segment of the population that I happen to hang around with, that the books and the movies were didactic stalking horses for Christian dogma (a very bad thing).

I felt otherwise. Without the character of Aslan, unarguably a metaphor of Christ, the story would have been, well, just another story. Aslan  gave Narnia  a sort of larger than life universality, an epic dimension that raised  it  from  being simply  a wonderful story into an enduring masterpiece. At least until the final volume,  Aslan can be appreciated as an character representing  the quest in all religions and in all cultures  for something greater than our life on earth. In the final book, The Last Battle, Lewis does succumb to the temptation of reducing  the story into what is simply a Christian parable.  And the story suffers as a result. Additionally the return of the Pevensie children to Narnia, which could have been a dramatic  and moving experience even as a Christian story, was undermined by the author’s  flawed decision (from a dramatic perspective)  to have one of the children, Susan,  not return. How sad that was. She was always the most interesting  of the Pevensie children, anyway. I finished the book by throwing down The Last Battle in  rage and disgust. Shame on you, C.S. Lewis!

Narnia has had a huge impact on readers and writers over the years.  Most recently and most successfully, Philip Pullman created a fantasy trilogy: His Dark Materials. I heartily recommend it to anyone reading in the fantasy genre. The story is complex, the characters deeply drawn, and the plot  ingenious. Pullman was highly critical of Narnia and of Lewis’ Christianity.  Indeed, it struck me that one could call Pullman’s trilogy the Anti-Narnia. At the end, Pullman pointedly rejected the “kingdom of Heaven” for a “republic of heaven” here on Earth.

But all of this is of no consequence to Hayley. For her it was a beautiful and breathless story. She loved Aslan, particularly as he would come bounding into the story in the nick of time to insure that good triumphed over evil. And even though Susan was banished by Lewis from Narnia heaven, Hayley still plays her in school yard pretend.

Leah Komaiko on Creating a “Platform”

October 12, 2009

Leah Komaiko is a marketing consultant who specializes in building platform. Her client list includes huge iconic corporations like Disney, Dreamworks, and Saks Fifth Avenue. But she also works with writers who need to develop a platform in these times when platform is usually what is needed to get books published. Check out her website at: http://www.leahkomaiko.com/index.html.

Leah knows about issues associated with writers. She was the author of 20 children’s books by major major publishers. Several were bought by Hollywood. I suspect that she still harbors a soft spot in her heart of writers and for books.

Andy: Leah, we hear a lot about platform in the publishing business. As in: ‘This is a brilliant book, a groundbreaking concept likely to change the world. It creates a genuine paradigm shift in consciousness. That said, we feel that the author’s platform is weak and not likely to reach a large enough audience. Good luck somewhere else.” Why can’t publishers just make decisions on the merits of the book?

Leah: Good question, Andy.  I think it’s because it seems the good old days of publishing, like the good old days of so many things, are behind us.  The editor who discovers great material for a book no longer has the biggest decision-making voice at a publishing house.  Most often it’s the marketing team.  First you need the good material. Then if there’s no market, the marketing department sees no merit regardless of the material because they’re afraid they won’t make any money.  Most publishers are struggling to stay afloat.  It used to be a business that prided itself on taking big chances.    Now they’re trying and needing to change their ways.  And they’re not doing it flawlessly. 

Andy: When writers ask me to define platform, I generally say: “it means that publishers are too stupid, lazy and cheap to promote  your book. So you will have to do it yourself.”  Ok. That is pretty glib. You tell us exactly what they mean by platform.

Leah: Glib, yet eloquently put!  And I’d add to that that publishers up until a decade or so ago were not focused on being marketers.  They knew how to publish a book but not how to sell them.  The outlets for selling were easier – the venues for getting material, entertainment, information, were not like they are today. Between blogs, social networks, self publishing, all the webcasts, podcasts, information and entertainment you can get on your cell phone, hundreds of cable TV stations, books on tape, books published on demand, e-books, on-line publishers who sell only into corporations and make millions doing it, magazines (although they’re crumbling), newspapers (although they are dying), and so much more,  book  have a lot more competition for buying dollars and they’re counting on you to help them catch up and get them into the marketing business before it is too late.  What’s a platform?  As I see it, an existing audience.   Whether that’s on TV, radio, you have a heavily visited blog (I’ve heard now publishers will be interested if you have 3,000 regular visitors at your site..), a police record, etc.   You are known to people who’d be interested in reading your book.  That is, in addition to your family.

Andy: Hmm. I’m  starting to get close to 3000 hits on this blog. And I used to steal hubcaps for my police record. Maybe there is big money for me. But lets keep on subject. I believe that publishers are anxious to look at worthy books where authors have a weak platform. But getting them a contract is an unbelievably difficult challenge. What exactly can a writer do to build a platform. Drug-addled Hollywood starlets with a cellulite problem  don’t need to work on platform. Scholars with endowed chairs at Harvard already have platform. But the rest of us are platform challenged. What can we do?

 Leah: Oh yeah, and you would know better than anyone.  Editors have got to be frustrated as hell because they crave worthy books and they need a platform to sell them.  Not everybody is a starlet but plenty of them don’t have platforms that can sell a book.  Remember Vanna White?  What did she get for an advance for her memoir – I think it was $3 million plus somebody’s head after it was chopped off and they lost their job..  I think to build a platform we can start by looking and seeing what we already have.  I have worked with people who had an audience that they didn’t even know they hadTheir audience looked too small for it to make a difference to them, but small can build to big pretty quickly.  I start with authors suggesting they think of themselves as a marketer.  Most authors think of themselves as writers, not as marketers. But I try to get authors to ask a basic question, a question that needs to be answered compellingly in any book proposal “Why am I the person to Write this Book?”  And the next question which is just as important:”What’s the story of my book.”  I mean that differently than what actually happens in it – I mean what does it offer to people?  Who do you want it to be offered to?  Why did you put your heart and soul and time and hopes into doing this?  Why should a reader be emotionally, intellectually or psychically connected to you?   Looking at those questions, for starts, can lead us to who and how to reach people that can be our audience. 

Andy: Leah, you are a consultant. You work with some of the biggest names in American business: Disney, Dreamworks, Mattel. It seems to me that these companies have platform up the wazoo. Why do they hire you?

Leah: They hire me to help them figure out the story of their brand.  I believe they hire me because I understand  that the “voice” of writing and the voice of a business idea to be the same.  I have seen over and over the best, most successful brands are based on someone’s simple story/vision/reason for being and ability to connect with an audience unseen.  As writers, we have the leg up here.  This is what we do naturally.  This is why I love to work with authors. 

Andy:  And what can you do for my clients, brilliant writers who have made a difference in the world, but don’t have the big platforms that will get them a book contract?

 Leah: If your clients have great books, which I know they do in order to be your clients, I can help them shift into a marketing frame of mind and still be authors.  I can help them discover the story of their brand and build their book as a brand just like a company.  (without all the expenses and employees).  I help them pull from their material chapters, aspects, ideas that could resonate with audiences they may not have thought of.  This starts to build their platform.  I  help them design worthwhile strategies from Facebook to corporate partnerships and sponsorships to public relations  strategies to leading them to excellent on-camera coaches who can help them with media appearances,  to non-profit affiliations, journalists  and more.  You have to be willing to see your book as a small business.   That is the way too that many of the most successful authors have made real money and ancillary product from their books for years.  Knowing your audience and keeping it relevant is far more important than having a zillion “tweets”.   When you know your story, I truly believe your message is unique.  And who doesn’t want to say they know someone unique – who is not uniquely a criminal?  And even then… fast way to build a platform.  But I think you can’t earn money in prison. 

Andy: Ok, Leah, I’m off to prison. And here is the $64,000 question? What are you reading right now? Do you have anything good to recommend to readers?

Leah: Right now I’m reading Julia Child’s My Life in France. I can’t cook but I can read and it’s inspired.  I’m also reading In Search of  the Common Good, by Paul Newman about building his business (I like business books) from a sane and humane “platform”.  Also on my table is Two Lives a memoir by Vikram Seth, and a wonderful new middle grade reader book called Matisse on the Loose by Georgia Bragg.  For writers I think Paul Newman’s book about how he marketed his business is encouraging because he shows that even though he was selling salad dressing he was first and foremost selling a vision “flying by the seat of his pants” which in truth, most publishers and businesses seem to be. Nobody knows ultimately what will sell or not.  So we can have some fun with the mystery of it all.

Ann Lamott (and Albert Camus) on Writing

October 6, 2009

BIRD BY BIRDI just finished reading Anne Lamott’s remarkable book about the process of writing,  Bird By Bird. What a revelation!. I don’t know why I have never read it before. It was written in 1995. I must have sold 5000 copies at Cody’s over the years. I know a lot of writers who have said that this book changed their life.

I suppose the reason I never  read it is that I just didn’t think  very deeply about the process of writing during my 35 years in retail. I read a lot and knew a lot about what was going on in the book business. But  by the time a book arrived  at  the store, the process was over.  

So now I’m at the other end of the publishing food chain. I’m not exactly the midwife to the book;  more like the Lamaze teacher. I see a lot of “shitty first drafts”. That is Anne Lamott’s  luminous term of art. More on that later. Now most of my work  has to do with the process of writing. Well, this is not exactly true, but the other things I do are for another blog and another time.

 Anyway, back to Anne Lamott.  Bird By Bird.  It is at times hysterically funny, wise, tough-minded but encouraging. She is secure  enough as a writer to share with you her own experiences   of her all-too-human insecurities about life in general and writing  in particular.

 Look at her 3rd chapter entitled: “Shitty First Drafts”. When I see these by writers  in the course of  my work (which is all the time), I want to give up on the author.  Sometimes I want to give up on being an agent. Lamott says that these “shitty first drafts”  are an inherent part of the writing process, even a necessary part, even an admirable part. It allows the writer to get the material, shitty though it may be,  onto the page. And the work of the accomplished  author is finding the one sentence in the two shitty pages sitting in front of her  that she will want to remember and use.

Lamott  had a wonderful chapter on writing dialogue. I read it at about three o’clock  in the morning and emailed my client  immediately about some changes that needed to be made in her book proposal.  You can’t just write down a conversation between two people. You have to make sure that the voices of the characters are differentiated in the dialogue. You can’t just use dialogue to further the plot. It also has to deepen the character.  Otherwise it becomes flat and confusing. But this makes writing dialogue devilishly hard.

One of the most amusing, but spot-on,  chapters is about thoughts that get in the way of your writing. She calls it tuning into radio station KFKD, or K-Fucked. She says: “station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker…will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement…Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.”  (God, I’m feeling that right now).

She also has a lot to say about getting published. This was especially poignant for me, since my job is actually to get my clients published. Lamott said something very wise. She said: “Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things….”

 I think about this a lot in my own work as an agent. I  go to a lot of writers’ conferences. I talk to a lot  of writers at these. They send me their book proposals and writing samples. Then we have a meeting about it that lasts for 15-30 minutes. I also participate in a lot of agents’ panels. And I have started giving some workshops on writing book proposals. (Don’t tell anyone my dirty little secret. Two years ago, when I was still a bookseller, I didn’t know what a book proposal was).

I  found a couple of clients at these conferences. One of them just got a publishing contract. But mostly I talk to people who are  not going to get published. A lot of them have written personal memoirs,  a genre much out of fashion with publishers right now.  They call them “me-moirs”. ‘Nuff said.

The writers at the conferences have poured their hearts and souls into these projects. And I have no doubt that they have learned so much about themselves and the world in the process. Anne Lamott tells these writers that this is the real value of writing.  Publication is overrated.

 Frequently I get graded by the participants after I give a workshop or presentation. Although I try to  be realistic and emphasize the dismal reality of getting published,  I take a lot of criticism for being unnecessarily discouraging to writers. After reading Anne Lamott, I think I would have to accept this criticism as valid.

When you really think about it, everyone is a hero in their own life story. Every memoir of a life is an epic. Paradoxically every person’s life is larger than life. But this is quite different from  the mundane and commercial considerations that publishers consider in their decision to acquire a book.

What I have started telling writers, what I would like them to hear from me, and what Anne Lamott has said so much better than I ever could,  is that writing is an incredibly courageous undertaking. It is an activity that begins in the dark  without any real knowledge of where the journey is destined to end.  Or to use another metaphor of a race.   Sometimes  you will cross the finish line, receive the silver jug  and go off into the sunset. But more often  you will slip on a banana peel and break your leg 20 yards before  the end of the race. But what an adventure it has been!

camus Which brings us to Camus. Albert Camus wrote his masterpiece, The Myth of Sisyphus.  in 1942. A lot of you probably read it in your freshman humanities course. Camus always took on the big themes, in this case, the meaning of life.  Sisyphus is condemned  by the gods for all eternity to roll a boulder up a mountain, whence it will then roll down of its own weight. For Camus this was a metaphor of  human life, a ceaseless striving in a universe without meaning.

It strikes me that this is also a metaphor for the work of the writer. For Camus,  Sisyphus’s effort is heroic and filled with grandeur. In the final, unforgettable lines of his book, Camus says: ” Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

What’s Wrong With Standardized Testing?

October 2, 2009

Making the Grades

Todd Farley is the author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry, published this week by PoliPoint Press. http://p3books.com/ Todd’s book is a remarkable memoir of his 15-year involvement with the tests, first as a scorer of 4th grade essays, later as a manager. Full disclosure: I’m Todd’s literary agent.

Todd’s book is an eloquent and withering attack on the methodology and practice of the tests. It is the first book by an insider. It also is one of the funniest books ever written., I mean side-splittingly funny, fall out of the bed funny. As in Catch 22  (an apt comparison), Todd shows that humor and inspired ridicule are the best weapons against pretense. 

I give a lot of talks to writers. In this publishing climate it is pretty hard to offer words of inspiration for the unpublished author. I always tell Todd’s story to them. Todd contacted me over the transom through a query letter. I was curious about the subject, so I asked him to send more.  We struggled to get the book published over objections that the author lacked “platform” or that the book  had a limited audience. (33 rejections, to be precise).  We found a publisher who believed in him. This week Todd has written the Op-ed essay in The New York Times and has been read by over  1,000,000 people worldwide. Limited audience, indeed!

 Andy: Todd, you are a smart guy. How did you end up in the boiler room of a test scoring company?

Todd:   I ended up in the business because I was a slacker in my 20’s, living the good life in Iowa City as a reader and drinker, and I stumbled upon a job scoring student responses to standardized tests.  I don’t know that I was in any way qualified to do that job, and I certainly had no interest in it, but the pay was decent so I took the job.  Then fifteen years of me working in testing just to pay the bills crept by and now here we are….

Andy: And when did you realize things were terribly wrong with the theory and practice of testing? Did you have a “Eureka” moment?

Todd:   I thought it was a screwed up process pretty much the first day I started. Kids answer dozens of questions in some far-distant state and then their tests get chopped up into all these pieces—multiple-choice answers go this way, fill in the blank questions go that way, essays questions somewhere else—and are then read and scored by a temporary employee counting the minutes till quitting time?  It took no time at all to see what a bad idea that was. And all those doubts I had about testing were confirmed over the next 15 years. 

 Andy: Your book is full of stories that are as hilarious as they are disturbing. Can you relate a story that epitomizes the failings of standardized testing? 

Todd: I have more anecdotes about the foolishness of the business than there is space on the Internet.  I think about the very first essay-scoring project I worked on, when all us temporary employees were told we would have to qualify to be able to keep the job scoring high school writing—we’d have to do a good enough job during a training session to prove we could assess essays in a “standardized” way.  Then, when nearly half the hundred people applying for the job failed the “qualifying tests” and were fired, you know what happened?  The for-profit testing company in charge of the project simply lowered the qualifying score to make us (yes, “us’) all eligible to work.  The point is the scoring company had these high standards about employee qualifications, at least until they realized firing us all would leave them short on personnel.  Once they realized that, all us “flunkies” were immediately un-fired and given jobs reading and scoring all those tests.

 Andy: Standardized testing has been the mantra of efforts to reform the education system. It has been embraced by politicians  of both parties, most recently by President Obama. From your own experience, what is the flaw in the reasoning? What is the essential fallacy of the concept? 

 Todd: For me the fallacy is the utter inefficacy of a system that trusts for-profit companies and for-profit people (like me) to make decisions about American education, something that is supposed to be separate from the bottom line.  Because there are so many tests to be scored each year, every imaginable shortcut has to be taken to meet deadlines, with the end result being that scores are returned to students that I don’t necessarily believe are the right scores.  As far as I’m concerned, they are just scores, random numbers that vary as much due to the vagaries of the testing business as to the quality of student work. 

Andy: And while we are at it, how is the application of the theory in the actual grading of tests at odds with the espoused objectives?

Todd:  Andy, that seems like a very complex question for someone of my limited intelligence, but I can see why people believe there needs to be accountability in schools.  On the other hand, the fifteen years I just spent in the K-12 testing business convinced me that for-profit testing companies can’t provide that accountability.  Imagine, the theory of standardized testing is in effect that the best way to see what’s going on in American education is to ask the opinion of a bunch of massive corporations situated hundred, if not thousands, of miles away from the classrooms.  That is simply illogical, as my book explains in great—albeit hilarious—detail.

Andy: You say in your book that when the statistical results of the grading of the groups are at variance with the predicted results, then the results are fudged. That is a pretty damning critique. Can you elaborate?

 Todd:  Look, in my time in testing, I was witness to (and party to) a near constant manipulation of statistics.  The testing companies (and I) changed reliability statistics, validity statistics, qualification stats, etc etc.  Our job in the testing industry was to score tests, and within a limited time frame, and while certainly attempts were done to make the scoring legitimate, the sheer volume of tests was always so overwhelming each year that the only way to get through the process was to cheat, cheat, cheat. The companies took shortcuts to get things done and we temporary employees took shortcuts to get things done.  Many of us employees were working to keep our jobs, get raises and promotions, get plum assignments in college towns around the country, and hence we fudged the numbers all the time to make things look good.  Am I proud of that fact?  No.  On the other hand, the problems with the testing industry are so many that I didn’t think a little cheating on top of a lot of insanity was that bad a thing. 

 Andy: Todd, this blog is primarily about writing and publishing – not about education policy. I am particularly proud of this book, because you wrote it in relative obscurity. Now you are writing the op-ed essay in the New York Times. How did you begin the process of getting this book published? Can you give some inspirational words to the struggling writer?

 Todd:  I’m not sure if I have much advice for the struggling writer, because my situation was a little unusual.  I wasn’t one of ten-thousand (or fifty-thousand) people writing novels last year—I was pretty much the only one who had written an expose of the standardized testing industry.  That means I didn’t have to write the best of thousands of books, I just had to find someone to publish my one, unique book.   I realized there was a huge hue and cry in this country against standardized testing, and I knew I had lots of information that all the people against testing would love to hear, and I figured I’d get someone to publish it. Frankly, I always thought this book would sell, because an insider’s account about an important industry like testing just seemed to make sense.  Although I did have my doubts during the long process of writing the book and getting rejections, I had little doubt it would eventually sell—I was really just worried one of my colleagues in testing would write a book like this before I got to it.

 Andy: When I got your query letter, I had never heard of you. I assume you sent it out to other agents. How many? 10, 100, 1000? Was anyone else curious about the project? 

Todd: I sent query letters both to agents and publishers, maybe fifty or sixty total over the course of 8-10 months, and I did get enough interest to convince me I was on the right path—so while there was rejection, I also got considerable interest, enough to keep me at it.  I got lots of initial rejections, yes, but I also probably got 20 or so bites from agents and publishers.  Most of them thought I had written something good, but all said it might be hard to place.  I’d written a book about standardized testing, but a cheeky memoir and not an academic treatise, so no one knew where it would go.  Academic publishers (like Harvard University Press, NYU Press) were intrigued, but when they read my book they said it was too… personal, funny, not serious… for them to publish.  The same was true of agents.  Some would ask to see it and then, after telling me how funny it was, would say they couldn’t imagine where to publish it or who would buy it.  Those poor, ignorant fools… I could have made them all rich, as I did with you, Andy Ross!

 Andy: Ah, yes. Excuse me a moment while I ask my butler to call for the car.  Anyway, Todd. Thanks for being interviewed, and thanks for writing the book.  I think you have done your part in making the world a little better.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 528 other followers