Archive for the ‘Andy's observations’ Category

How Not to Freak Out and Get Humiliated When Pitching to Agents

February 22, 2014
San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

I just got back from the writers conference at San Miguel de Allende. The city was voted the number one travel destination in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. And I would rate this writers conference number one in the world as well.

As usual, I took a lot of pitches from writers. As usual, they were pretty nervous when they sat down. And probably some were pretty disappointed when I told them I didn’t want to represent their book.  As usual, a lot of talented people showed me some  good writing, but  I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell it to a publisher.  Of course, nowadays there are lots of alternatives to mainline commercial publishing. And  writers are exploring these alternatives.

When it comes to rejection, I’m a real wussy. I don’t think I could ever pitch my writing to an agent. I’m amazed at how courageous writers are, and I always feel shame when I know that I have hurt someone with a rejection. In my job, I get  plenty of rejection letters from editors  in response to my submissions. I estimate I have received over 5000 in my few years at this job. Sometimes it seems a little like my social life in high school.  (See my blog post on Publishers’ Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler.)

Many of the pitches at San Miguel were for memoirs and novels. Here’s what I can tell you about  how publishers evaluate these genres. So many of the published memoirs are driven by celebrity. These are,  in reality, book-like glitzy packages, usually written by someone other than the putative author. For those of you who like that kind of book, I refer you to Kardashian Konfidential, St. Martin’s Press (2010), written by God only knows who. For the rest of us, it’s almost impossible to find a publisher for a personal memoir. Certainly there are some examples of family memoirs that have succeeded. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls comes to mind. Or The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. These books rise to the level of high literature. They’re  the exceptions though, and I can only imagine the difficulty they must have had finding a publisher. I’ve represented some very good memoirs. Yes. As good as The Liar’s Club. I couldn’t get them published. No dishonor. Just disappointment.

Similarly with fiction. And I have written about this as well in a previous blog post. Literary fiction is especially difficult to get published for the simple reason that it rarely sells enough to be a profitable venture. Most editors evaluate 200-500 novels a year. All of them have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good enough to get published. An editor may acquire 10. And the rejection is usually based on marketing, not on aesthetics. (“This book is too dark for book groups.”  —  “This book seems too quiet.”) As a result I only represent a few novels a year. Most of the greatest novelists of our time have experienced these kinds of rejections.

Some agents are nice guys and have a warm and fuzzy vibe. Others may seem dour, forbidding, arrogant, or world weary. If you are fearful of laying yourself  wide open to an agent, here’s what I recommend: Don’t even try to pitch your book. It’s probably more effective  sending an agent a query letter and a sample when they get back to the office. Instead, just ask them some questions. Agents know about the publishing process and the market, and you can learn a lot by having a conversation with them. Ask them what they are looking for when they read a memoir or a novel. Ask them what turns them on and what turns them off.  Ask them for advice about finding the right agent. Try to find out what agents and editors are talking about with each other. Ask them what grabs their attention in the first paragraph. The information will be invaluable. And you won’t have to suffer the indignity of a face-to-face rejection. Of course, ask them at the end if you can send them a query and submission. More than likely they will put it at the top of their queue.

Most writers who attended the conference at San Miguel de Allende, most writers who pitch to agents at any conference, aren’t going to find a home with a big New York publisher. But it’s important to remember that the writing, itself, is the end, not the means. It’s the journey that counts. And a few people  will reach the end and receive the gold cup.  More likely though you will slip on a banana peel ten feet from the finish line. Ah, but what a trip it’s been. How much you must have grown in the process.  Writing is a profound journey of discovery. Publication, well, it’s  a business transaction.

Nobody said it better than Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird. She tells us:

“…publication is not all it’s cracked up to be.  But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

On the 25th Anniversary of the Rushdie Affair

January 14, 2014

nerudaFebruary 1 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of  Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the United States.  Two weeks after publication, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa (a religious ruling), that declared it permissible for Muslims to assassinate  Rushdie because of the “blasphemous” subject of the book.

Cody’s was bombed on February 28, probably the first incident of Islamic terrorism in the United States.

There was a lot of talk then and I’m sure there will be much written today about the meaning of the Rushdie Affair. Of course, in the narrative of events, the independent bookstores were the heroes. — Well, actually Rushdie deserves some credit as well. — The big chain bookstores pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves after the fatwa. But most independent stores continued selling it. David and Goliath stories are always compelling, and this was no exception.

There was a lot of histrionics in the literary community about how people were willing to take a bullet to defend the First Amendment. But the bookstores were on the street and were particularly vulnerable.

Well, I’m not ashamed to say that I never put the book in the window. Actually, before the bombing, I learned while I was out of town that someone had made a window of the book at Cody’s. I told them to take it down immediately. I had no intention of having a Cody’s employee taking a bullet for the First Amendment or for any other reason.

Still we continued selling the book. The staff at Cody’s voted unanimously to keep carrying it  even after we were bombed.

The only artifact I have of the Rushdie Affair is a copy of The Sea and the Bells, a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda. We discovered an undetonated pipe bomb rolling around the poetry section the morning after a fire bomb had been thrown threw the window. It was too dangerous to remove the bomb, so it was detonated in the store.  As you can clearly see. the shrapnel did some damage to the book, but it didn’t destroy it, not even a single poem.

I can’t think of a better symbol of what the Rushdie Affair was about, of it’s true historical meaning, than the image of this book.

Below are my recollections:

Remembering the Rushdie Affair

On February 28, 1989 Cody’s was bombed. I remember being awakened by the police who informed me a fire bomb had been thrown through the window of Cody’s. The fire department had broken into the store  to put out the fire. The firemen’s efforts at containment did considerably more damage than the fire, itself. I came down to the store at about 2 AM and  waited around most of the night. I made some phone calls to the American Booksellers Association and, I believe, my mother and brother informing them of the incident.

We  assumed then the bombing was associated with the so-called Rushdie Affair, although we  never learned exactly who was responsible.

Let’s backtrack a little. In September 1988, Penguin Books published The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in the UK. From the beginning it was considered a literary masterpiece and Rushdie’s most ambitious work. Sadly for him, it satirized some themes in Muslim history and theology. In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, issued a fatwa, a decree under Muslim Sharia law, declaring the book blasphemous and offering a bounty for Rushdie’s murder.

Rushdie went into deep hiding, although someone said they saw him in Hyde Park in disguise. When asked what Rushdie looked like, the person responded that he looked like Salman  Rushdie with a fake mustache.

The publication unleashed a fire storm, literally and figuratively. There were book burnings all over the Muslim world and fire bombs thrown into book stores in the UK. In the book world there was a veritable frenzy of people issuing pronouncements about defending freedom of speech from terrorists and fanatics. There was a lot of talk about people sacrificing their lives, if necessary, to protect this freedom. Writers’ organizations started handing out buttons that became ubiquitous in publishing saying: “I am Salman Rushdie!.” Of course with the death threats flying around, certain wags started wearing buttons saying: “He is Salman Rushdie!.”

The book was published in the United States at the beginning of February. Several weeks later, America’s largest chains; B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble; pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide. The writers’ organizations, led by PEN America and just about everyone else in publishing went ape-shit. PEN organized a public reading of Satanic Verses and a march to Dalton’s to picket the store. Susan Sontag was president of PEN. Norman Mailer was the past president. They were everywhere speaking about the outrage. There continued to be much breast beating  by writers and  public intellectuals  pronouncing their  willingness to give their lives for the cause.

I was watching all this with a lot more than detached interest. It was pretty easy for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to talk about risking their lives in support of an idea. After all they lived   fairly high up in New York apartment buildings. It was quite another thing to be a retailer featuring the book at street level. I had to make some really hard decisions about balancing our commitment to freedom of speech against the real threat to the lives of our employees. From  my vantage point, this was not such an easy decision.

Then Cody’s got bombed.  I spoke of the firebombing that occurred at 2 AM.  What came later was more alarming. The next morning, as we were cleaning up, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. Lawrence Davidson, who discovered the bomb, ran upstairs to warn me to leave the building. If I haven’t told you before, Lawrence, thanks.

As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. But there and then, I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent.

We all assembled across the street facing the building, which had been cordoned  by yellow tape.   The police bomb squad entered  to see if they could diffuse the bomb. Apparently they judged it too dangerous to remove. They decided to pack it with sand bags and detonate it in the store. We heard the bomb blast and watched as the building shook. I remember thinking this was unreal. It can’t be happening. Then I started crying. Of course the media vultures loved this and stuck a camera in my face to record the tears rolling down  for the six o’clock media clips.

We all pulled ourselves together and returned to the store. I called a meeting in the café. Jesus, what do you say after you have just watched your store get bombed? It isn’t like we learned how to deal with this situation in ABA booksellers’ school. We had, after all, just witnessed the first act of international terrorism in the United States. And it had been directed against us!

When the staff had assembled, I told them we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or alternatively,  take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this.   It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was also the moment when I realized bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation; because, after all,  ideas are powerful weapons. I felt  just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But with the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Several years later, Salman, still undercover, came to the Bay Area. A secret dinner was arranged for him with numerous celebrities, politicians, and movie stars. Of course, the booksellers were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence,  had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole.” Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “Well, you know some people get statues, —- and others get holes.”

 ***

After the bomb squad detonated the bomb in the store, I hung around for the rest of the day watching the FBI sort through the rubble in their investigation. My wife, Joyce Cole, contacted the media who had been filming all this and told them my life was in danger and they should block out my face. That night we watched the 6 o’clock news and saw the interview of me with my face looking like a  Picasso  painting from his Cubist Period. Like Rushdie’s fake mustache in Hyde Park, this wasn’t going to fool anyone.

The same day Peter Mayer, the publisher of Penguin Books, called us and offered the services of their security advisory agency. The Satanic Verses had been out of stock at the publisher for a week, and almost no one in the country had it. The chains probably did, but they had taken it off their shelves. Peter said because of our courage (or whatever  it was),  Penguin was going to overnight our shipment of the next printing, so we would be the only book store on the street  (and probably in the country) selling it. This was a touching expression of gratitude, but one not likely to help me sleep  more peacefully.

The security consultant provided to us by Penguin had a lot of experience protecting companies against union organizers, but  I doubt he understood any more about terrorist bombings than I did. On his advice my family left home and settled in at  my friend’s house  for a week. Although the Ayatollah had issued a fatwa against me, we felt it was the prudent thing to do.

The next day there was a picture of Cody’s on the front page of The  New York Times. I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. Unfortunately, the picture they decided to use was of a janitor from the cleaning service sweeping up. I thought that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame.

I was advised by the security people to stay out of the news anyway. Though I ate bitter bile, I told the Cody’s folks to deal with all media queries by saying “Mr. Ross is unavailable for comment at this time.”That’s what they told  Dan Rather. That’s what they told The  New York Times. That’s what they told McNeill – Lehrer. For all I know, that’s what they  told the Pope.

For the next 2 days and nights, I sat at my desk designing a security plan for Cody’s to be implemented when we reopened after the FBI went home. When it was completed, it was a pretty impressive document. But  I knew then, as I know now, it was something of a formality to make the employees feel more at ease. It was going to cost a lot of money and be a big hassle and wasn’t likely to deter a serious or even a casual terrorist. The plan included specific procedures for dealing with “suspicious ” people, evacuation procedures, inspections at the front door, managing the media, and metal detectors in the shipping room.

The first scare we had was when we found a letter addressed to me. The bells and whistles went off when we scanned it with the metal detector. We evacuated the building. The police courageously told me to open it myself. It turned out it was a  cutesy note from Melissa Mytinger, the events manager, with a little smiley face metal foil sticker inside.

We did see a lot of customers with sort of  sinister Middle Eastern looks to them and shifty eyes.  It turns out there were a number Muslim individuals who came into the store looking to buy the book. The shifty eyes may have had to do with the fact they were doing something naughty. But I don’t know.

One of the most poignant  encounters I had was with a group of Muslim students at UC Berkeley who wanted to express their compassion for Cody’s and to tell me they were ashamed of all this. As you can imagine, any Muslim in America was getting a raw deal with the hysteria that was going on. I told them I wanted to apologize to them for what they must be suffering. I realized something important during this encounter.

We still kept getting calls from the media  who wanted six o’clock news clips of the security measures. For some reason, they all wanted to ask me if we were going to put the book in the window, as if I would risk getting by ass blown to smithereens so they could have a sound bite. I think what they really wanted was for me to get up on a soap box in front of the store facing a thousand cameras  and say: “Ayatollah Khomeini, Read…..My….Lips!”

Eventually things settled down. We slowly and in stages phased out the security plan. There was a lot of debate about eliminating each measure. The gist of the conversation at each step was something like: “What do you care more about? Human life or money?” But we moved on. We sold over 700 copies of  The Satanic Verses the week after we re-opened. I think it was more an act of solidarity than a desire to read the book. Some people wanted me to autograph it. I think I demurred. What did they want me to inscribe anyway? “I am Salman Rushdie!”

A few months later, I was called by the National Association of Newspaper Editors and asked if I would be on a panel at their convention to talk about my experiences. I told them I had been trying to avoid the media. They told me not to worry. It was going to be quite discrete. I can’t imagine how I believed  a speech in front of every major editor of every newspaper in the country could ever be discrete. I was on a panel with Larry McMurtry and Robin Wright, a distinguished journalist covering Iran. I should have known there was nothing discrete about the meeting when I saw the prime minister of Israel who was giving the presentation before  us, followed later by the Palestinian representative to the UN.

I got on the podium  and saw the whole show was being broadcast on C-SPAN. I told them my “Ayatollah, read my lips” line and got a lot of laughs. Then I went home and watched myself on national TV. As you can see, I lived to tell about it.

The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association  Convention. I went there hoping at last she would acknowledge Cody’s did something special. In the course of her talk, she was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The  New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out  one in Berkeley, California:….. Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.

Do Editors [and Agents] Edit

November 18, 2013

When I first decided to become an agent, I had an image of my job as being something between  a  real estate broker and a judge on American Idol.  It hasn’t  turned out that way at all. I find  most of my time is devoted to shaping and editing book proposals and manuscripts. In other words, I’m an editor.

The conventional wisdom you hear at literary cocktail parties is that editors no longer edit. It’s not true, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But what is true is  your book better be perfect when it goes to the publisher, because the acquisition editor is not likely to spend a lot of time visualizing how to reshape a flawed project. Well, ok. I’m sure when Sarah Palin presented her editor with a real stinker of a manuscript, HarperCollins did some significant editorial work; although, as they say, “you  can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

I just read a fascinating essay in Publishers Weekly by Marjorie Braman, who was an editor at several of the large publishing houses for 26 years. Recently she left publishing to devote herself to freelance editing.  The title of her piece is: “What Ever Happened to Book Editors?”  She says some pretty damning things about the role of editors (and of agents)  in commercial publishing today.  Listen to this:

 “A publisher once said to me, almost in passing, ‘We don’t pay you to edit.’ The real message was: ‘Editing is not crucial. If you’re an editor, what matters is acquiring.’ After I’d left in-house editing and was being courted by an agency, the owner/agent said to me, ‘Remember, you can’t sit in your office and edit.’ In other words, ‘If you’re an agent, what matters is selling.’ One thing these comments imply is that editing is no longer the editor’s main function; editing is done on your own time….

“I’d been through a lot of upheavals in the business, and one of the more insidious, but telling, things I’d seen happen as publishers cut back on staff was the expansion of the role of editors. Need a copywriter? No, we’ll get the editor to write the flap copy. Is the art department understaffed and overloaded? No problem, the editor will come into the art meeting cheerfully armed with ideas.

“Need a blurb for the book to get the sales department excited? The editor…  will get just the right quote from just the right author (whom she’s never met, but for whom she somehow has a home address). It’s a snap. Oh, and bring some publicity and marketing ideas to the launch meeting, too, while you’re at it. And that’s what editors get paid for. It’s fun, but it’s not editing. Working with the authors—which most editors love to do—has become something the editor must do ‘on the side.”

This is not what I expected when I first became an agent. As a bookseller on the outside, I imagined the structure of publishing as a kind of a dualism: the creative side (writers and editors) and the business side (sales, financial, and executive). Or to cite the old cliché, “publishing is the marriage of art and commerce.” Well, according to Marjorie Braman, it’s become kind of an S&M relationship with commerce holding the whip.

Maxwell Perkins

Maxwell Perkins

When we think of the editor as literary hero, we always come back to Maxwell PerkinsA. Scott Berg wrote a brilliant biography of him in 1977, Max Perkins: Editor of Geniusthat helped cement his iconic status.   Perkins was an editor at Charles Scribner from 1910 until his death in 1947. He worked with some of the greatest writers of the  century; but he will always be remembered as the man who edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. It’s probably safe to say that Perkins’ role in the creative life of these three geniuses was fundamental to the masterpieces that each of them created.

There is the famous story of Perkins’ work with Thomas Wolfe, a great writer but one without discipline. In Wolfe’s first book, Look Homeward Angel, Perkins induced Wolfe to cut 90,000 words (about 300 pages) from that novel.

My experience with editors is a mixed bag. Although I haven’t worked with anyone like Perkins, there have been some who have done  brilliant and detailed editing and have made good books into great books. There have also been the other kind that Braman describes.

So that leaves me having to do a lot of editing. This is particularly true with fiction. Fiction is hard to sell, and there are many talented writers out there. So everything that I submit has to be perfect. And, yes, a good acquisition editor will then make it more perfect. Editing didn’t come easy for me. In my career as a bookseller, I spent much more time opening boxes than shaping imaginative works.

What I found astonishing when I started working in fiction was how little perspective the author has. But after all, why should she? The stories and the characters have been living in her mind sometimes for years. These characters have probably taken possession of the consciousness of the author. But what does the reader think? An author doesn’t have a clue. That’s where I come in.

There is  a concept in Zen Buddhism called “beginner’s mind”.  It means one should approach a subject with no preconceptions, techniques, or methods. In his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki describes it perfectly.  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”.  So when I start to edit a manuscript, I try to put myself in the role of  the simple reader who is, after all, the only person who really matters. I read the manuscript out loud and listen to my voice and try to think what the reader thinks. Am I bored? Do I believe this character? Do I care? Can I visualize this scene? Does the dialogue sound natural? Is the language powerful or clunky? Readers are unforgiving. If they get bored, hate the character, find the story improbable, anything where they fall out of that trance-like state that we call “willful suspension of disbelief”, the reader will throw the book down and never pick it up again. (And probably tell all her friends not to bother to buy it.)

As I’ve gotten more experience working with fiction, I find that I’m losing that ineffable quality of the beginner’s mind. I’m becoming more mindful of things like, point of view, how back story is managed, voice, overuse of literary clichés,  the kinds of things people learn about at writers workshops and conferences. Craft.  And those are important too. But I  still always want to put myself in the role of the reader. That’s what’s crucial.

Editing has been fulfilling for me. Sometimes I feel like I have made an important contribution to the creative process. Maybe I’m not Maxwell Perkins. But when an editor calls me up and says, “I want to make an offer on this book. It’s brilliant!”, it makes me feel pretty good.

Sometimes I Really Do Discover Writers at Conferences

May 25, 2013
Tawni Waters

Tawni Waters

The first time I met Tawni Waters was  at the  San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference this February. I  was  participating in  the workshop on “voice” given by Dinty Moore. At the end of the class, Dinty asked us to do an exercise, to write a short piece  and read  it to the class. Just before my turn to speak, a woman in back stood up to read what she had written. That was Tawni. It was electrifying and astonishing, particularly given the fact that we only had ten minutes to write it. When I stood up, I was nervous. I’d never given a public reading of my own writing. What made it worse was  having to follow Tawni. I felt as if I was the guy who had to give the speech after Lincoln at Gettysburg.

I returned to Oakland to find Tawni’s manuscript for her literary novel in my email. When I started reading it, I could tell right away that she had talent  — a lot of talent. But for a number of technical reasons, I didn’t think I could sell it. She asked me, almost apologetically, if I would look at another novel that she had written some years before.

When I started reading  Gold Dust, I knew at the end of the first paragraph  this was something  special. As I continued, I became more excited with every page. But I also kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. That usually happens with novels. They sort of peter out after about 50 or 100 pages. But Gold Dust just kept getting better and better, until late at night, when I reached the end, I  was crying like a baby.

When I told Tawni this was an amazing young adult novel and I wanted to represent it, she was excited to find an agent, but she didn’t realize the novel was YA. It’s the story of a teenage girl growing up in a small town in New Mexico, living with a violent and abusive father, and, at the same time,  discovering  she is a lesbian. The town is dominated by a fire and brimstone minister, who is particularly homophobic. The book tells how the heroine, Mara Stonebrook,  finds the courage to triumph over these obstacles.

We sent it out and started getting lots of interest from multiple publishers. Last week we sold it to Simon/Pulse, one of the most successful and prestigious YA imprints. They are thrilled with it. So am I.

Tawni Vee Waters is a writer, actor, college teacher, and gypsy.  In 2010, she won the Grand Prize in the Solas Awards Travel Writing Competition. Her travel essay on San Miguel de Allende was featured in The Best American Travel Writing 2010.  She teaches creative writing at Estrella Mountain College in Phoenix.  Her young adult novel, Gold Dust, is being published by Simon/Pulse in Spring, 2014.

 

Ask the Agent — The Book

April 25, 2013

If you look over there on the right, you will see the cover for my new (and only) book, Ask the Agent: Night Thoughts on Writing and Book Publishing. It’s an e-book  collection of the best writings from this blog.   It required a considerable amount of editing and rearranging, and I added some new material as well.  Last week I launched a “that attack” on the manuscript,  managed to identify the word “that” over 500 times, and eliminated 350 of them. Designing the cover was easier than I thought. Of course, I had to use Photoshop, which takes months to learn. I took some old leather-bound  books off my shelf and photographed the spines as the background and then superimposed the text. I had to crop it so that the ratio of height to width was 3:2.

Since Amazon won’t cooperate with anyone else, I had to format it and upload it twice. Once for Amazon’s Kindle Direct and once for Smashwords. The Amazon edition only works on Kindles. All the other major readers (iPad, Sony, Nook, Kobo) use the epub format which is available on Smashwords.  It should be  up on iTunes, Sony, Kobo, Indiebound, or from your local independent bookstore in the next few days.

Preparing it  for Amazon Kindle Direct was easy. You take your MS Word manuscript and make a few formatting changes  using Amazon’s simple instructions. When you upload the file, you can preview it on a viewer and see exactly how it will look on the various Kindle readers. That’s important to make sure the formatting is correct. Then you upload your cover and provide copyright information.

A few hours after I uploaded the file, I received an e-mail from Amazon telling me that they saw   that much of the information in the book was already posted on line. They requested that I email them back with an explanation. Since I wrote all of  the material and it is  on the blog, there were no copyright infringement problems. But it’s good to know that Amazon is trying to do something about piracy. I wrote them an explanation and was back in business within 24 hours. I’m not sure how the technology for identifying this works, but it is nifty.

Formatting for Smashwords is more complicated but very do-able. Since Smashwords makes the text available in a wide range of formats, it has more stringent formatting requirements. Smashwords provides a step by step style manual that is written in plain English. When you upload the file, Smashwords will inform you if there are specific formatting issues.

I hope some of you will buy the book. I arranged it so that it’s much easier to read than the blog. I organized it into 4 sections that more or less coincide with the topics I’ve been writing about. The first section includes my agent-y advice to writers on getting published and finding an agent. There are  numbered tips on query letters, book proposals and the like.  The second section has writings about writing. The third is about book publishing. And finally I have written some recollections about my 35 years as a bookseller.

Thanks for reading this blog. I’ve had almost 200,000 page views since it began in 2009. I hope you enjoy the book.

Descartes, Plato and E-Books.

April 2, 2013

On February 7, Amazon.com announced that it had patented a way to sell “used e-books, music, videos, and other digital objects”.  I was puzzled by this. Digital files aren’t really “used” in the same sense as a physical book or a music cd. They don’t get dog eared. They never have disgusting stains or other unknown but probably unsanitary items stuck to the pages. They don’t get mildewed like Leslie’s boxes of old feminist tracts from the 70s still moldering in our basement. Hmmm. What’s going on with this?

My mind started to spin. I began thinking about the great philosophical systems. Plato. Buddha. Aristotle. Descartes. Immanuel Kant. The English empiricist Bishop Berkeley (pronounced “Barkley”) who famously said that if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, there was no sound. But there is the even more famous anecdote by Samuel Johnson who said to Boswell as he kicked a stone: “Thus do I disprove Bishop Berkeley.”

What is real? That is the first and fundamental question of all philosophy. And now, thanks to the endless ingenuity of Internet entrepreneurs in their ongoing efforts to exploit all potential digital markets, we now bring this question to the virtual world. Is a digital file a physical object or is it an idea in the mind of the creator (creator, that is, the creative artist, not the Lord our God).

Let’s backtrack. There is a legal concept ( section 109 of the Copyright Act) called “the first sale doctrine”. Under this provision, ownership of a physical copy of a copyright-protected work permits lending, reselling and disposing of an item but does not permit reproducing the material, because transfer of the physical copy does not include transfer of the copyright to the work.

Can one legally sell a used copy of a digital product or is it simply a reproduction and a violation of the Copyright Act? On March 30, Judge Richard Sullivan of the First District Court of New York issued a judgment in Capital Records v. ReDigi in which he categorically rejected the right to apply the “first sale doctrine” to the reselling of digital products. The issue before the court was music downloads, but the language in the judge’s decision would equally apply to e-books.

ReDigi dubs itself as “the world’s first pre-owned digital marketplace.” The model is simple. Users can upload their old iTunes to ReDigi servers, a process which at the same time removes the tracks from the user’s computer. The company then offers the music for sale at a “used” discount keeping a commission on the final sale price. ReDigi claims that it migrates a file from the user’s computer to its Cloud Locker, so that the same file is transferred and no copying occurs.

Judge Sullivan rejected this argument, calling ReDigi “a clearinghouse for copyright infringement”. He said that “when a file is moved from one material object to another, a reproduction has occurred….Similarly, when a ReDigi user downloads a new purchase…yet another reproduction is created.”

He made an interesting distinction by pointing out that digital files can still be sold if it resides on a hard disk, an iPod, or other device onto which the file was originally downloaded and which is being sold a the same time.

Who wins and who loses? It’s a big victory for authors, publishers, and copyright holders. A defeat for ReDigi and probably for pirates. And I guess you would have to say it is the triumph of Descartes over Plato.

The Day I Debated Grover Norquist (And Whipped His Ass).

November 29, 2012

Grover NorquistIt’s true. In 2000, I debated Grover Norquist,  The Lord of Darkness, himself,  and   got the better of him, thank you very much. The subject of the debate was whether Internet companies should collect sales tax.

It was a big legal and economic issue back then. Remember that America was smitten with Internet – mania driven by the irrational exuberance of stock speculation.  Internet gurus were getting interviewed on TV and saying in all seriousness that the Internet was the most important invention since the wheel.

The  Supreme Court had weighed in on this issue in Quill v. North Dakota (1992) before the Internet even existed  and had ruled that under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution a state couldn’t require an out of state business to collect state sales tax.  But  back in 2000 there were a lot of brick and mortar businesses that had  created related Internet sites but were still not collecting sales tax for online sales. Barnes and Noble had the chutzpah to argue that their Internet subsidiary, barnesandnoble.com,  had no real relation to the physical stores. (They were  totally separate  entities, the BN spokesman said, that just happened to be owned by the same family, run by the same executives, and shared the same offices and warehouses. Sure.)

Of course the big enchilada, then as now,  was Amazon.com. Amazon didn’t have physical stores . And they made sure to put their warehouses in states that didn’t collect sales tax. But they did have hundreds of thousands of affiliate programs in every state. Pretty much every PTA and church group signed up as affiliates and   were actively soliciting orders for and receiving generous commissions from Amazon.

Amazon was putting out  a lot of  grandiose pronouncements to justify its practice, which in reality  was simply a strategy  to undercut competition. Sometimes Amazon  described the Internet as a juggernaut that was “driving the new economy”  and  taxes would kill the goose that laid the golden egg. At other times they said that the Internet was a sort of frail bird that could be crushed if  Internet commerce had to collect  sales tax. I pondered how the Internet could be both a juggernaut and a frail bird simultaneously. Amazon  also seemed utterly flummoxed about how they could possibly calculate  the various sales tax rates that existed in different districts. This,  from a company that knew the individual  reading habits of 20,000,000 customers.

I got involved in the issue because I thought Cody’s was getting a raw deal. But as is often the case with me, I very quickly lost perspective and became obsessed with the issue. I pretty much   came to know more about the subject than anyone in California. Leslie got very concerned that I was alienating all our friends by  droning on about the details of tax policy till they were stupefied with boredom.

A number of businesses and trade associations got together to form The e-Fairness Coalition. The mission statement  said that it represented small businesses nationwide.  The American Booksellers Association was a member in good standing. But the real money for this operation was coming from the International Council of Shopping Centers and Walmart.  Normally not my favorite people. But as they say in the Middle East, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

They needed a spokesman and felt that probably the vice president of Walmart for tax issues would not be an effective voice. So they enlisted me. My first job was to show up at a debate before a large business group in Walnut Creek. I would be speaking in support of the principle of  Internet   sales tax collection. And the spokesman for the other side would be Grover Norquist.

Norquist was a pretty formidable figure even then.  He was a little too intense for my taste. He hated all taxes and loved the Cayman Islands.  And he was an early and passionate advocate for Internet sales tax evasion. I knew what his arguments were. The usual stuff that Amazon put out, the juggernaut driving the new economy, etc.  He also ranted about  how whenever liberals discover something cool, they just want to tax it.

It was pretty easy for me to refute   these arguments. All I had to do was lay out the classic conservative economic nostrum that government should not be picking winners and losers. The free market should be picking winners and losers. I also pointed out the corollary,  that tax policy should be based on the principle of a level playing field. It was an irrefutable argument politically, economically, morally.

I’d been listening to Norquist going around the country laying out  his talking points. He said that people in California shouldn’t have to be subject to decisions by tax administrators in Alabama. I still  have no idea what that meant except that it had something to do with states rights. But when I heard it, I sensed opportunity.

I knew he was going to bring it up in our debate. And I was ready for it.  And of course he played right into my diabolical plan. As soon as he said it,  I looked down at the podium, shaking my head with an expression more of sadness than anger. Then I looked up at the audience and very slowly said: “You know….that’s old argument…and not a pretty one…. In 1860…they said that to justify slavery…. A hundred years later….they said it again to defend segregation…. And now my friend here is using it to justify this discriminatory tax policy…

I have to say my timing and the cadence of my voice were perfect. Norquist went wild. He started screaming.  It was terrifying to behold. I tried to breathe slowly and evenly to quiet my heart, to find my center. Norquist’s face turned red. Beads of perspiration started dripping down his cheek. A stench came off his body like the carcass of a rabid dog rotting at the gates of Hell. — Hmm. Maybe not quite.

He finally recovered and started on the next sound byte, the one about the Internet being the most important invention since the wheel. I was ready for that one too. I responded by asking the audience a simple question: “When your toilet overflows, what would you rather do, call a plumber or surf the Web?”

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.

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.

Eunuchs at an Orgy: Authors’ on Literary Critics

July 14, 2012

“Critics are like Eunuchs at an Orgy.” – origins unknown

 Writers don’t take kindly to criticism.  After all why should they be different from any of us?  For me there is something exquisite about reading author responses to reviews. The anger and the pettiness seem to inspire  masterful wit and style (at best) or  (even better) clownish buffoonery unworthy of  figures of  great cultural gravitas.

 For those who are connoisseurs of the literary contretemps, I recommend reading the letters in The New York Review of Books. You will uncover a universe of expressions that will serve you well in your own modest efforts at literary feuding.  Here are just a few treasures [along with my own deconstructions of their meaning]:

 

  •          “outrageously inaccurate”  [a hair splitting difference of opinion on a subject that no one else understands  or cares about]
  •           “rhetoric” [the writing style of the reviewer in question, usually as opposed to the reasoned arguments of the writer]
  •          “petrified academicism” [a favorite of mine, a characterization usually made by a petrified academic writer  about   a petrified academic reviewer]
  •          “crude” [the reviewer's method of analysis, as opposed to the "subtle dialectics" of the writer]
  •          “mendacity” [a pompous way of saying that the reviewer is a liar, but with the implication that the flaw is deeply imbedded in his character.]
  •         “clique” [friends of the reviewer who have publicly defended the review]
  •        “heartwarming to hear” [Sarcasm. Usually said when the writer takes out of context a short phrase by the reviewer to make the reviewer seem foolish]
  •          “the reviewer surely knows…” [said when the writer patronizingly points out a particularly egregious mistake of the reviewer indicating that the reviewer knows very little about what he is reviewing]
  •          “shocking” [a very common and overused  characterization about things rarely shocking,  that always calls to mind the Claude Raines character in Casablanca]
  •          “unholy alliance” [people who usually disagree about most things but are united in their revulsion of the author's writing]

 

I love this stuff!  Here are a few more of my favorites:

“I have your review in front of me and soon it will be behind me” – George Bernard Shaw

 Possibly the greatest put down ever of a reviewer (critical of Shaw’s play, no doubt). Magnificent double entendre. Unforgettable understatement.

 “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.” – Liberace

 Another classic that has become a cliché. Probably more honest than Shaw about the mental state of  the aggrieved artist.

Liberace was pretty blunt. But leave it to the inimitable Ayelet Waldman to bring out the universal humanity in a writer’s outrage at an unfair review of Michael Chabon’s [Ayelet's husband] book:

 “To the fucking MORON Amazon reviewers giving Awesome Man 1 star [because] ‘It would be good for, like, a 2 year old’  — IT WAS WRITTEN FOR LITTLE KIDS”

 Getting back to The New York Review of Books, I find it puzzling why writers would ever respond to these reviews, given the fact that the NYR always gives the reviewer the final word. And the reviewer  almost always answers  with a tone of bored world-weary superiority at the overwrought, and implied, unbecoming comments of the writer.

 So I too  will give the reviewer the final word:

 “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good. ” – Samuel Johnson

 

 

 

 

 


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