Archive for October, 2012

The Random House – Penguin Merger

October 28, 2012

Note. This is an update from yesterday’s post which was written before the announcement of the merger between Random House and Penguin.

The big news in book publishing this week, probably the biggest news all year, was the announcement that Random House and The Penguin Publishing Group are in negotiations over a possible merger.  Random House, owned by the German company, Bertelsmann AG,  is the world’s largest book publisher and the largest US book publisher by far. Penguin is owned by  the British company, Pearson PLC,  and is the second largest US book publisher.

What does this really mean? The new company will have sales in the US of over $2 billion dollars.  It would have an estimated 17% market share of the general book publishing  business. But expect the share of best sellers to be even higher. In 2011 Random House and Penguin together had 45% of all bestsellers on the Publishers Weekly list.

I think such a merger will be bad news for authors, booksellers, and book lovers. Both Random House and Penguin have a huge number of imprints. By my count, Random House has 56 and Penguin 39. (Imprints are units within these publishers that operate independently, essentially as separate publishers. For instance Knopf and Ballantine are imprints within Random House. They have their own editors and  their own styles and cultures. Sometimes they even compete against each other.)

A lot of these imprints overlap  with  one another. There is likely to be some consolidation and elimination of some of some  imprints that would allow the new super-publisher to reduce overhead. Agents are understandably distressed that less competition will mean smaller advances. That will certainly be true. But more significantly,  I worry   that fewer imprints with fewer editors is going to mean fewer books. The big name brand authors: Stephen King, James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, etc.  will always be there.

The pressure will be on the midlist. These are the books that never become bestsellers, but I suspect these are the books that most of you like and admire. There just won’t be as many slots in the catalogues for these kinds of books. It astonishes me, really. Whenever I go to New York to talk to editors, they are always telling me how much they want “new talent.” Smaller midlist opportunities mean fewer chances for new talent to break out and fewer chances for book lovers to discover this new talent.

Still,  these are but  the  parochial concerns of the editors, the people on the creative side of publishing. They have some rather quaint and old fashioned values. They love books, for instance. The mergers are being driven by the business side and probably at the level of the parent corporations, giant multi-media conglomerates.

There are probably a few silver linings  in all this. Certainly a lot of the midlist is going to be picked up by independent publishers. And we have to hope that all this available midlist  talent will help these midsize publishers to thrive. And since a lot of these midsize publishers will care more about these authors than the mega-publishers, it might even turn out to be a blessing in disguise.   One might even suppose that by strengthening these publishers, we will paradoxically end up with a more diverse and robust  commercial publishing universe. But one ought not to get smitten by this possibility.

This is probably very bad news for Amazon.com. (Which is usually good news for everyone else.) The new Random House/Penguin would be so powerful that Amazon couldn’t threaten to remove the buy button from their titles if they don’t agree to Amazon’s draconian trade terms.  I suppose that the best defense against Amazon’s monopolistic intentions is another monopoly.

In a related story, Simon and Schuster announced this week that they were merging 3 of their imprints into other imprints. Most notably the extremely prestigious Free Press is being combined with the Simon and Schuster imprint. Whether Free Press will still retain any independent identity is unclear. But several very good editors, I mean editors with towering reputations, have already left. Not a good sign.

The advocates of self-publishing, who issue jeremiads with increasing frequency  about the imminent  fall of  “legacy publishers”, seem to be excited about all of this. But for them, the misfortunes of other publishers  always seem to be a revelation of a new and radiant future. Self publishing will continue to grow with or without the demise of commercial publishing.  And there is much to be said for self-publishing. But  the choice to self-publish comes with some big negatives as well. However,  that is the subject for another blog on  another day.

How to Pitch to an Agent

October 23, 2012

I just got back from the Surrey International Writers Conference in Vancouver.  I loved it. I spent a lot of time taking pitches from the 400 participants.  But I also saved some time to attend some wonderful classes taught by writers. Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling Outlander series, gave a presentation on how to manage backstory in a novel. I’ve always felt that finding a way of getting the backstory out without just dumping it into a prologue is not easy.

The other class that I attended was about point of view and was  taught by mystery writer, Hallie Ephron. Most of us know that point of view has to do with the novel’s  narrator. Sometimes first person, sometimes third, rarely (thank God) second. But Hallie showed that the devil is always in the details, and that point of view is infinitely complex.  She told me after the class  that getting point of view right is the hardest thing in fiction writing. Even  harder than managing backstory. After taking her class, I think she’s right.

One of the best attended presentations of the conference was a workshop on making effective pitches to agents. It was given by a panel of 3 agents: myself, Vickie Motter, and Bree Ogden. The three of us are getting to be a bit of a dog and pony show. We gave the same presentation at the Willamette Valley Writers Conference last month. Vickie has a cool blog called: “Navigating the Slush Pile.” Check it out.

Every conference seems to have a class on techniques for presenting effective pitches to agents. I don’t agree with a lot of what is getting passed off on this subject. When I get pitched at conferences, too often I find that the attendees have been so over-coached that by the time they get in front of the agent, they act like their heads are going to explode. They read from note cards, they recite  from memory in a sing-songy way, they stare at me with an intensity that spooks me out. A lot of times they are taught that the 10 minutes they get to spend in front of an agent will determine whether their book will get published. AND EVERY SINGLE WORD THEY SAY DURING THE PITCH MUST BE PERFECTLY CRAFTED AND CALIBRATED.

Oh, puh – lease!  I certainly don’t want a writer to sit down with me and present a rambling and  incoherent description of his book project. But I find that most of the people who do that have an incoherent book concept. If you have a good book, you need  to convey the virtues of that book during a pitch session, but you should be able to do it in a more relaxed and conversational way. This says to me that you have confidence in the quality of the book. So when  authors sit down with me, I tell them to put away their notes and let’s just talk.  I think that makes us all feel a lot better.

I find that pitching fiction is particularly difficult. Usually the author sits down  and proceeds to rattle off the plot for 10 minutes. Hard as I try, I just can’t follow it. And neither can any agent I’ve spoken to about this. For me there is no way I can judge whether a novel is good or not by being bombarded with a plot recitation. It’s been said that there are only 10 plots in all of literature. That might be an exaggeration. But for me good fiction is not  just a plot but how you tell the story. And it’s pretty hard to get that across during a 10 minute pitch.

The best an author can do is to give a very short description of the story  and try to convey  something meaningful  about it even though that is, ultimately, ineffable. I always want to know something about the writer too. Has he published before? Has he won any awards? Is he respected by his peers?  That’s important.

Let’s try this for a pitch:  “I’ve written an historical novel. It’s long. About 300,000 words. It is the epic story, written in a realistic style,  of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and how 3 people, members of the  Russian nobility,  live their lives   or die in the course of the novel.  Readers have told me that the 3 protagonists, Prince Andrei, Natasha, and Pierre are among the greatest characters in all of literature.  I’ll let you decide that for yourself. But I’ve tried to make those characters come alive in a way that all readers can engage with them. I also bring in some themes that try to explain how the events in the narrative help us understand the inexorable truths of history. You know, kind of weighty stuff.  Some of the secondary characters are major historical figures, notably Napoleon and the Russian general, Kutuzov. I think my description of the Battle of Borodino is memorable. I tried to make the battlefield come to life so that the reader can almost smell the gun powder. I’ve tentatively titled the novel, War and Peace. The publisher may want to change it though. That Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is a big fan of this book. He said it is the greatest novel in all of literature. He’s something of a crank, but  he said he was willing to write a blurb to that effect.”

That takes about a minute and says about as much as I can absorb. Of course, I may think that the author making the pitch suffers delusions of grandeur. You might want to tone it down a bit and show a little modesty. At least, if you aren’t Count Tolstoy. Actually, that’s an important point. I really get turned off by people who try to convince me that their book is unique in the annals of mankind. Or that it will definitely be made into a movie, or that Oprah will kneel before him and wash his feet. Managing clients’ expectations is always tough, and I insist that they take a realistic approach to getting published and remember it’s a business and, at least at some level, the book is treated like a product.

Non-fiction pitches are a little easier. What I need to know is what the book is about, why is it important, who’s going to buy it, and what authority does the author have to tell it. This is all information that I will need to consider later on in a book proposal. But maybe you can pique my interest so that I’ll ask you to send one.

So potential authors, I recommend that you relax a little bit and just be yourself. If you have a great idea for a book, you will probably be able to communicate that without resorting to notes and gimmicks.  I don’t really care if your pitch isn’t perfect,  as long as your project is.

I Just Published an E-book, and It Was Pretty Easy

October 12, 2012

Recently we did a blog interview with author Mary Mackey talking about how her agent  republished  all of  Mary’s  out-of-print  novels as e-books. A lot of agencies are doing this now.  Some of them manage thousands of titles, and they are bringing them back in print, usually at very attractive prices. That’s good news for readers.

I decided to do the same thing with my clients’ books. I’d like to describe the steps that I took to get  an out-of-print  book converted and published. It was really quite easy.

The book  I worked on was  Face-Time by Erik Tarloff.  He is a client of mine. I first read Face-Time when it was published in 2000. I loved it then and I still do.  The story is about a presidential speech writer  in Washington who learns that his girlfriend is  having an affair with the President.  Erik’s voice comes through loud and clear. It is very funny and very smart. It  moves effortlessly between high culture and low farce.

Erik had some pretty good inside knowledge that gave this book a lot of verisimilitude.  Erik’s wife is Laura D’Andrea Tyson who was Chair of both  The Council of Economic Advisers and later The National Economic Council under Clinton, both cabinet level positions. Erik, himself, wrote speeches for the President.  Erik is also quick to point out that this book is in no way  a roman a clef.

 

 You can download either the Kindle Edition or the EBUB edition that can be read on all non-Kindle readers. The price is $2.99 (as Mad Magazine would say — cheap!)

So let’s talk about how I got this book published.

First, a word about e-book formats. There are two major digital formats for e-books. The first and most popular is the Kindle Format. It is proprietary and controlled by Amazon. com. Books in the Kindle format  can only be read on Kindle readers (or a Kindle App from the i-Tunes Store)  and only purchased at Amazon. Right now about 65% of all e-book sales are for Kindle Editions. The other major format is Adobe EPUB, an open source format. Most other major e-book retail venues and platforms (i-Pad, Nook, Kobo, Sony, Android) use the  EPUB format. This means that if you are going to make your book available, you will need to go through the conversion process twice, once for each format.

Ok. Let’s go through this step-by-step.

1) Create a word file.  If  Erik already  had a .doc file of the text, I could have gotten it up in a few hours. But he didn’t. So the first thing I had to do was to send the  physical book to an optical character recognition (OCR) service that  scans the book and converts the text to a digital file.  I chose Blue Leaf Scanning , a widely used service for this job. The price  is based on the number of pages in the book. Face-Time had about 250 pages and the price was $26.95. I sent them a copy of the book. And two weeks later they emailed me back a word file and a .pdf of the text.

2)Review and Re-edit. The good news about optical character recognition scanning is that it is at least 99% accurate. The bad news is that it is  only 99% accurate.  What that means is that on any page of the scanned book, there are likely to be about 35 incorrect letters and consequently 35 misspelled words. Re-editing is essential and is the most tedious part of the process.  So I turned it over to Erik.

3)Designing a cover. This is important for marketing. You really need one of those postage stamp size covers so that the book looks professionally published. I referred Erik to my friend and fellow-agent, Natanya Wheeler. She is an agent  at the Nancy Yost Literary Agency and she’s  great.  She also manages their large list of re-published e-book titles and knows how to create a properly designed and formatted book cover. She agreed to design the cover  for us.  She  charged Erik about  $100 and produced a gorgeous cover in the form of a .jpg file.

4) Formatting for Kindle Editions.  Amazon has made it pretty easy to get your book into the Kindle Store. Their program is called Kindle Direct. Publishing through Kindle Direct is free. Amazon will take a percentage of all sales.  Go to the link  and register. Then read the simple step-by-step instructions  for formatting and publishing.   It will lead you through a few formatting requirements, all of which  can be done using Microsoft Word. These  include: paragraph formatting, line spacing, preparing a title and copyright page, table of contents,  and adding addition materials like author bios and blurbs.  Then they show you how to convert your word file to a html file using your own MS Word program.

5) Enter title and product details.  After you have formatted the book on your computer, you need to go back to the Kindle Direct Page and enter   author and title information along with some descriptive catalogue copy and some other copyright details.  You will also have to confirm that you control the rights to the book and are not infringing on anyone else’s copyright.  (If you try to publish a digital edition of Twilight to help get you through the economic downturn, you might run into trouble.)

5)  Upload and Convert. The next step is to take your html file  still on your computer and upload it using Amazon’s simple instructions.  You will also upload the jpg of your cover art.  Doing this is a lot like uploading photographs on Facebook. You can then preview your book on a viewer on the Kindle Direct page  that will make the text look identical to what you will see  on the Kindle Reader. If there are  formatting problems or other errors, you can correct them at this point.

6) Pricing.  Amazon then directs you to a pricing page where you can determine how you want the book priced. It’s your choice. You can give it away for free or price it at $1000 and see if anyone buys it. (They won’t). I priced Face-Time at $2.99. I see a lot of books on sale at that price point. It’s low enough to avoid issues of price resistance. Typically the amount that Erik will receive on each sale is going to be 70% of the price.

7) Publishing. Hit the button and you are now a published author. It will probably take 12 hours before your book will have its own page on Amazon.

9) Formatting and Publishing in the EPUB format using Smashwords.com. A lot of authors and agents are going to Smashwords.com to publish on platforms other than Kindle. The nice thing about Smashwords is that you only have to format and upload once  and they will make sure that the book is available for sale at all the other important venues (Apple, Sony, Nook, Kobo, Android).  I won’t go into all the details of publishing on Smashwords. The process is very similar to the steps used for Kindle. Like Kindle, you need to set up an account with Smashwords.  Then follow the step-by-step instructions for formatting your  .doc file.  If you have the edited word file that you used for Kindle, you will need to make a few formatting changes. But you should be able to upload it to Smashwords in about an hour.  And as with Kindle, publishing on Smashwords is free and the royalties are 70-80%

10) Wait for the big bucks to start rolling in. Both Amazon and Smashwords have very user friendly systems for sales reporting and payment of royalties. You can check these out on their websites.

The hardest part of all of this is the writing. And if you look at most of the self-published books that are available, the quality is (how shall I say this politely?) spotty.  But if you have a manuscript,  regardless of the quality, it’s easy, cheap and fast to get it published. Of course no one’s going to read it if they don’t know it exists. And you probably aren’t going to get review attention for a self-published book, and you aren’t going to get an e-book into the bookstores. Since you’re the publisher, it’s your job to do the marketing. Good luck.


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