Archive for February, 2010

Laurie McLean on Genre Fiction

February 25, 2010

Laurie McLean

Laurie McLean is a literary agent specializing in genre fiction. That is a term of art for such categories as: romance, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, horror, westerns, science fiction, etc.. Laurie has been a literary agent for 5 years and works at the Larsen Pomada Agency in San Francisco. The agency’s website is at: http://www.larsen-pomada.com/lp/pages.cfm?ID=15. She has a fantastic blog, Agent Savant at: http://www.agentsavant.com/as/, which is a good place to start learning about genre fiction.

Today I’d like to talk to Laurie about genre fiction.

Andy: Laurie, can you give us a definition of genre fiction? I mean, don’t all book subjects fit into a genre?

Laurie: The term, genre fiction, is used by marketing folks inside publishing and bookstores to help book buyers, also called readers, find the type of books they like to read. If one is a reader of mysteries, then it makes sense that a bookstore would shelve all mysteries together to increase overall sales. That’s really why the term genre fiction was coined—to differentiate these specific genres from general commercial or literary fiction.  It’s also similar to the way non-fiction is shelved by interest rather than author.

Andy: I’d like to go through each of the genres and have you describe them and tell me what publishers are looking for now.

Laurie: Science Fiction: It seems that the UK is the biggest audience for hard science fiction, while US readers prefer space opera and softer speculative fiction. There is also cyberpunk, where man has integrated with computers; time travel; alternate history; military SF; and the newest craze, post-apocalyptic or dystopian speculative fiction.  Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Fantasy: Epic fantasy, also called sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy, is the coming of age quest tale like the Lord of the Rings or the Sword of Shannara books. It has gone down in popularity today by what is called urban fantasy, stories that revolve around the conceit that supernatural creatures, mainly vampires, werewolves or other shapeshifters, ghosts, demons, etc., have lived among us forever but are now recognized by humanity and begrudgingly accepted—until a rogue creature starts wreaking havoc and humans and preternaturals must team up to put things back in balance.  It features a lot of ass kicking but no quests.  There is also interest currently in steampunk, where everything from appliances to weaponry to transportation runs on steam and the devices and clothing are very Jules Verne-esque; futuristic fantasy; superhero fantasy, etc.  Fantasy and Science Fiction can sometimes genre blend or bend and are often located in the same section of the bookstore.

Romance: When you have a hero and heroine who meet, with sparks flying, then internal and external conflicts keep them apart despite their mutual attraction until the end of the book when a happy ever after ensues, you know you are talking about the largest genre in fiction by far: romance. More than 50 percent of mass market [pocket size paperbacks] fiction sales in the United States each year are genre romance.  The biggest trend in genre romance lately is paranormal romance, but there are also contemporary, historical, comedies, romantic suspense, inspirational and erotic subgenres.

Mysteries/Suspense/Thrillers: I’ve lumped all these together, although they are all different. In mysteries you have a murder in the first scene and the remainder of the book is spent trying to figure out who dunnit.  In Thrillers, the fate of the world is at stake and the clock is ticking.  Suspense novels are somewhere in between where a family could be in jeopardy, or a town or group of friends and the protagonist(s) must save them with, again, time against them.  You’ve also got subgenres within these categories such as cozy or detective mysteries; legal, crime, action, disaster, conspiracy and religious thrillers; and more.

Horror: While horror, now sometimes called Dark Fantasy, is more popular on the movie screen than in books, you have everything from serial killers to splatterpunk (think the Saw movie series) to dark fantasy, to more psychological horror.

Young adult: This is not a genre, per se, but one of the healthiest and fastest growing categories in fiction. The young adult, or YA, category was created by a savvy bookseller who observed families coming into the bookstore, the young children going to the children’s section, the parents going to the adult stacks and the teens going to the coffee shop. The young adult section was created and all of a sudden teens had a comfortable place to shop for books about subjects ranging from chick lit and teen fantasy to more contemporary realistic gritty fare about teen suicide, pregnancy, drugs, sexuality preferences and more. Urban fantasy and post-apocalyptic fantasy are currently big trends for teens.

Andy: In the greatest works, doesn’t genre fiction cross over into literary fiction? Isn’t the greatest romance novel ever Wuthering Heights? Can you give us some examples of contemporary works in the genre that are also literary masterpieces?

 Laurie: When a genre book is superbly written and an instant classic, it rises out of the genre shelves and migrates over to the general fiction or bestseller stacks.  Think anything from Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer for romance—or modern names like Nora Roberts and Jayne Anne Krentz; Stephen King or Dean Koontz for horror; Terry Brooks, Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling for fantasy; John Grisham, Dan Brown and Tom Clancy for thrillers; William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Orson Scott Card for science fiction; Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton for mysteries; Stephenie Meyer and Scott Westerfeld for young adult.

Andy: Which of these categories are hot and which of them are not?

Laurie: Hot: Young adult, steampunk, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, political thrillers, apocalyptic fiction.

Not hot: Chick lit, contemporary and inspirational romance, epic fantasy, quaint cozy mysteries.

Andy: Do you think that the rise of the e-book offers opportunities or challenges for genre fiction? It seems to me that these titles are perfect for the new electronic formats.

Laurie: Erotic romance was one of the first genres to do well in the eBook format and some credit this subgenre for the rise of eBooks today. Ellora’s Cave was a pioneer in racy romance. But really all genres do well in eBook format. They are perfect for this digital format in terms of storage (you can fit a lot of vacations reads on your eReader but not in your suitcase) and anonymity (no one can see that you’re reading a “bodice ripper”, the disparaging term for romance novels).

Andy: You ran a public relations agency for 20 years in Silicon Valley. Why did you get out? How do you like being an agent?

Laurie: I got out of high tech public relations when the lucrative nature of the business could no longer hold my interest as the challenges declined and ethics began to get compromised.  Being a literary agent, to me, combined the best of both halves of my brain, similar to the way being a publicist allowed me to be creative and strategic simultaneously. I love the publishing industry because it really is about the writing. They money’s not the greatest unless you’re a bestseller or handle a stable of bestselling authors, but every day is different, the pace is often bracing and exhilarating, and the people I deal with on a daily basis are wonderful. I think I’ve found my calling!

Andy: How has your experience in public relations been helpful in your second career?

Laurie: All the facets of what made me successful in PR—time management, marketing savvy, the ability to think on my feet, contract negotiations, interpersonal skills, a diligent hard work ethic, attention to details, the ability to think outside the box—all come in handy for a literary agent.

Andy: When we had lunch the other day, you astonished me by saying  that you receive 1200 unsolicited queries a month. How do you manage to address this ocean of pitches?

Laurie: Well, this is kind of like the frog in boiling water analogy. If you put a frog in boiling water, it jumps out immediately. But if you put a frog in cold water and turn on the heat, that frog will boil to death because of the gradual nature of the temperature rise. I started off with a small number of queries each day and could easily give personal suggestions for improvement and reasons for rejections. When I got busier, I switched to a form rejection letter where I could add a few sentences of advice in many cases.  But by the end of 2009 I was receiving more than 1200 queries a month. I was boiling. So, I’ve had to change my submission process. Now I have a separate email address for queries only (query@agentsavant.com) where I have an automated reply that informs the writer that I’ve received his or her submission, but they will not hear from me again unless I want to read more of their work. It’s not something I ever thought I’d do, but once I’d given up my spare time, some of my sleep and meal time, and it still wasn’t enough, something had to give. Now I don’t have the monkey on my back screaming and clawing at me. I can read queries on the weekend, as many as I can fit in the hours I have, and ask for more from those that interest me.

Publisher Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler

February 13, 2010

When I became a literary agent three years ago, I simply wasn’t ready for the flood of publisher rejection letters flowing into my office in response to my submissions. It felt a little like my social life in high school. I can only imagine the shame and humiliation that my clients must experience from these letters. Four years of work on a novel reduced to a single line, a formula really: “I just didn’t fall in love with it.” Or: “We all felt it didn’t quite have the right narrative arc.” I decided to engage in a mental exercise of employing   the standard rejection templates as they might have been  used for some of the great  (or notorious) classics of Western Civilization.

Plato’s Republic

Andy,

Thank you so much for submitting The Republic by Plato. Certainly this book has much to recommend it. It asks some  serious questions and it doesn’t get bogged down in “jargon” like some of the philosophy books we see coming over the transom. That said, I am going to have to pass on this book. I’m not sure that the author has anything really new to say about the themes he discusses. The Good, the True, the Beautiful,  and the Just have been written about ad nauseum since the time of the ancient Greeks. There is really no new way to slice and dice this material. And although Mr. Plato seems quite adept at dialogue, I can’t help but wonder how he would hold up in the face of tough questioning by the likes of Bill O’Reilly.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Andy,

I don’t quite know what to make of this book. Six hundred pages of narrative about people in a tuberculosis sanitarium on top of a mountain, and for twenty years?  Really! I’m afraid that modern American readers need a little more action and excitement in their lives. They don’t want to come home and read about the over-ripe decadence of Central European culture in the early Twentieth Century. I certainly don’t mean to sound snarky, but in my humble opinion (and I have been  known to be wrong before), Herr Mann  is nothing but a gas bag.

 

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Andy,

Thank you for your submission of Mr. Sophocles’ drama, Oedipus Rex. Sophocles is an exceptional dramatist with many fine works to his credit  that have been both critical and commercial successes. And we feel privileged that you gave us the chance to consider this work. That said, I’m afraid we are not going to publish this book. Although I am a personal admirer of Mr. Sophocles, I feel that Oedipus is a minor work and, quite frankly, a little derivative. The  implicit theme, the idea that “from suffering comes wisdom,”  has become a little hackneyed and a little frayed at the edges, as it were. I think that after  seeing James Cameron’s Avatar, there really isn’t much left to say on this subject. But we would be delighted to look at anything newer and fresher that Mr. Sophocles might create in the future.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Andy,

I’m sorry. I just don’t get it.

 

 

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Andy,

Thank you for sending us Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Mr. Shakespeare certainly brings a fresh voice to the modern theatre and has a commendable mastery of plot and character. That said, I am not going to make an offer on this book. I think that Mr. Shakespeare has a certain  inelegance of style and his language skills could use some refining. I also noticed a number of careless misspellings in this work. The extensive “scholarly” footnoting with its endless references to “folios” and “quartos” was annoying and distracting.

I feel compelled to say, and I hope neither you nor your client take offense at this, that some of his “speeches” are just plain pretentious and not suited to the more casual sensibilities of our upscale readers. For instance:  Macbeth says: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Don’t you think this could be stated more clearly and succinctly? How about: “Life is pretty confusing. Sometimes I just want to shake my head and cry.”  Furthermore, I could not help but note an obvious unattributed locution from William Faulkner. Your author should try to be more careful.

Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

I am a big fan of Mr. Twain’s work. In fact, his novel, Huckleberry Finn, was one of the best books I read last season. So I approached your submission with considerable excitement. I’m sorry to say that I was not thrilled with Tom Sawyer. Compared to Mr. Twain’s other works, I felt that this was merely a bagatelle and perhaps a little (shall we say) jejune. Still I sent it around for some more reads and  I took it to the editorial meeting. The sales director pointed out that all of Twain’s novels since Huckleberry Finn have shown steadily declining Bookscan numbers. He felt, and the committee agreed, that it was unlikely that the chains would take a position on this book. But I encourage you to show us any new projects the author might develop in the future.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Andy,

Thank you for your submission of  Count Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I found it to be a very well researched and polished  novel. And I can certainly see how it would appeal to the  same readers who enjoy the works of Herman Wouk.  But I am afraid that I won’t be making an offer. As you know, our imprint is always looking for quality genre fiction. And certainly War and Peace falls squarely within the conventions of the historical novel. But, just between you and me, this manuscript just isn’t ready for prime time. For starters, it is a real door-stopper. 1500 pages plus change! I think the author needs to face the facts that he could do with some judicious freelance editing. Our readers lead busy lives and are looking for a more, shall I say, intimate reading experience. If the author could cut the plot by, say, 900 pages; if, for example, he could take out the sub-plot of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, we would be happy to review this submission again.

Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler

Andy,

I have to tell you that this one came pretty close. Personally, I loved this book. I took it to the editorial board. We almost had consensus. But the committee reluctantly decided to pass. There is much to admire in this book. We were impressed by the author’s passion, his strong sense of purpose, and his robust voice.. Some of us were moved to tears by the Youtube clips from the Nürnberg Parteitag rallys. Herr Hitler’s platform is most impressive, indeed. One of the editors said, only half jokingly, that it was too bad we couldn’t bottle Herr Hitler’s charisma and give it to some of our more pedestrian authors. And our marketing director was inspired by the book proposal that offered so many  innovative marketing strategies. The concept of   summarily executing any citizen of the Third Reich who didn’t purchase this book was  refreshing and indicates that your client is a very savvy marketer.

At the end of the day though, there was no agreement on how we could position this book in the marketplace. Some of us wanted to treat it as a kind of how-to book for people who were seeking to improve their public speaking and, at the same time, pick up some useful tips for world conquest. Others felt that the ideas were just a little too “weighty” for a trade house like ours. After some brain storming about possible merchandise spin-offs, we decided that we were the wrong home for this remarkable book.

We wish Herr Hitler the best of luck in his career as a writer and as a public figure and expect to see great things from him in the future.

Amazon v. MacMillan: The End of the Affair

February 6, 2010

Well, it looks like as of yesterday, Amazon has restored the “buy” buttons for books published by Macmillan.  During the past week, Macmillan has been negotiating terms with Amazon. Apparently they have reached an agreement. We don’t know the details. Two days ago, Macmillan CEO John Sargeant said: “Amazon has been working very, very hard and always in good faith to find a way forward with us.” Good faith, huh!  I’m not sure that pulling a publisher’s books from the digital book shelf  during negotiations is indicative of bargaining in good faith. It certainly showed no good faith to the Macmillan authors whose books were unavailable for a week and to the readers seeking those books.  As more major publishers revise their terms for e-books, it will be interesting to see whether Amazon will stop selling those titles while negotiating in “good faith”.

This entire affair has highlighted some very important issues that go well beyond the squabbling over crumbs by  two large corporations.  You can read some of the comments on this blog and others. What are the dangers of  monopolistic concentration  in the distribution of ideas? How important are e-books in the literary future? How do commercial values conflict with literary values? What is the role  of the community book store as books turn to digital? How will authors be fairly compensated for their work under the new e-book business model? What provides the better reading experience: e-books or paper books? Are the major publishers dinosaurs? How much is a book worth?

And then there is this  notion that “information wants to be free”. We have discussed this in a previous blog entry about the book, Free by Chris Anderson.

 Amazon was playing to the house throughout this affair by implying that they were trying to protect consumers by offering e-books at a good (i.e. loss leader) price. Amazon fans made their opinions known with numerous comments that books weren’t even worth $9.95.

Humorist Roy Blount Junior, who is president of the Authors Guild,

 made a brilliant and witty statement about this curious notion in the Authors Guild winter newsletter. I’ll quote it here:

“Then of course there is the school of thought that books shouldn’t cost anything, because “information wants to be free.” One thing wrong with that notion is that just as a pie is more than its ingredients (and does anyone other than a child living at home expect pie, or even pie ingredients, to be free?), a book is more than information. It’s someone’s –several people’s—work.

“Another thing wrong with “information wants to be free” is that it is espoused, it’s my impression, by three categories of people:

“One: People who are paid by universities to teach occasional seminars and write books that not many people would want to buy anyway if they could help it. To send one’s child to one of these universities costs (say) an author maybe $50,000 a year. How about College wants to be free?

“Two: People who have invented a high-tech gimmick that has enabled them not to need any more money the rest of their lives. How about High-tech gimmicks want to be free?

“Three: People who live at home with their parents.”

Good for you, Roy Blount! Once again the best weapon against bombast is ridicule.

Amazon v. Authors: Let the Punishment fit the Crime

February 4, 2010

 The “buy” buttons on Amazon.com for Macmillan authors have still not been restored. It has been 7 days. In 1989, Barnes and Noble pulled all the books by Salman Rushdie from their shelves nationwide. People were not happy. Authors set up picket lines at BN stores. At least then Barnes & Noble was motivated by a concern for the safety of their employees. This week Amazon has effectively taken the same action. Their motivation is somewhat less humane . They are using authors as pawns in a strategy to maintain a monopoly.

I offer a modest proposal. With apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, I ask authors to consider doing for Amazon what Amazon has done for them. Remove the Amazon link from your author website. Don’t restore their “button” until they restore your “button”. There are lots of other on-line booksellers who will be happy to sell your books on-line. Let me know what you think of this idea.

Amazon vs. Publishing 3: Authors Guild Weighs in

February 2, 2010

 

The Authors Guild, the largest advocacy organization for authors in America, weighed in on the Amazon-MacMillan affair yesterday. Their position is, I believe, a fair and balanced position on the interests of authors as it relates to the controversy. In a rare show of solidarity, Author’s Guild has given unqualified support to the position of large publishing.   Authors Guild linked to another article by Fast Company that is a little less nuanced but probably a little more articulate of what this fight really means.

Their statement addressed a point that is worth considering relating to the long-term interests of authors on this issue. Amazon pulled the plug on Macmillan Books without notifying Macmillan or its authors. This was done on Thursday, January 28. On Sunday, January 31, Amazon made a smarmy statement characterizing Macmillan as having a “monopoly” on their books and insinuating that they were going to lose the battle. We all assumed they were conceding. As of this morning at 8:30 PST, the buttons have not been replaced on Macmillan titles. This is becoming a real problem for Macmillan authors who rely on Amazon to sell 75% of all sales on their book on-line.

Clearly Amazon is throwing its weight around and continuing to send the message to publishers that they, like the Wall Street banks, are “too big to fail”; or, at least, too big to cross. Their position is arrogant and points out eloquently the correctness of the concerns of publishers, authors, and agents that Amazon has  asymmetric market power that has become a danger to our industry. It is Amazon, not the commercial publishers, who are seeking to establish a monopoly.

 This is not the first time Amazon has removed buttons from titles, but it is the first time they have done it with all titles of a publisher.

This affair is not a tiff between quarrelling parties. It is really a struggle for the future of book publishing. Stay tuned.

Battle of the E-book models (a follow up)

February 1, 2010

Yesterday we posted a blog on the week-end brouhaha of Amazon pulling the “buy button” plug on all titles from Macmillan Publishing.

Things are beginning to sort themselves out. Amazon pretty much admitted that they were capitulating because Macmillan had a “monopoly” on their books. Although this is technically true, the use of the loaded term, “monopoly” was artful and paradoxical; since Amazon’s strategy all along has been to establish a monopoly on the distribution of the e-book to the consumer.

I have gotten some questions about some of the technical issues , specifically the economics of the conflicting models, who gains and who loses and what will be the competitive impact on  the physical book and the community bookstore. I would refer you to Mike Shatzkin’s blog, “Ideological” which offers some very detailed answers to some of the questions. Mike’s language is pretty technical and seems to speak to industry insiders, but it is also pretty incisive.

Mike just emailed me and made a significant point, an error in my observations. He said that the Amazon model is “sustainable”. They are only selling about 25% of their e-book titles as loss leaders. E-books are actually profitable for them. The reason that publishers are fighting on this (and will probably prevail) is that they are concerned that Amazon will be the only retail channel for sales. They do not want this to happen.

One other issue to consider is that under both plans, the price of e-books will be heavily discounted off the price of physical books, at least in hardcover. Ideally publishers would like there to be parity in price so as not to discourage the consumer’s choice. This does not appear to be happening. On the other hand, there is no indication at the moment that the e-book price will be reduced at the time that a paperback will come out. The e-book price will be much closer to the price of the paperbacks.

We’ll be bringing you updates on this important issue. Stay tuned.


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