The Singularity of Grove Press

July 16, 2013

 

groveToday we are going to talk with Loren Glass, author of Counter-Culture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde.  This book was recently released by Stanford University Press.  Loren is a professor of English at the University of Iowa.  His first book, Authors Inc.:  Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, was published by NYU Press in 2004.  Publishers’ Weekly calls Counterculture Colophon “a richly evocative and incisive history.”

Andy:  Loren, what’s so important about Grove Press? There are any number of great imprints in American book publishing. We all have heard of such publishers as: Random House, Alfred Knopf, and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Of course they have all been eaten up by multimedia conglomerates, but that’s another story. What makes Grove different and special?

Loren: Most people may have heard of those publishers, but  not many readers select their book purchases based on that knowledge. When we go into a book store, we don’t ask the clerk if they have any Knopf Books or Random House books.  What makes Grove different is that, for a time, an entire community of people, both in the United States and around the world, not only had heard of Grove but would buy books simply because they were published by Grove. By the mid-sixties, reading Grove Press books and the Evergreen Review came to signify being a member of the counterculture.  Thus my title, Counterculture Colophon—a colophon being the visual symbol or insignia of the publisher, usually placed on the bottom of the spine of the book—is intended to indicate how Grove established both brand identity and brand loyalty to a degree that is very rare in the industry.

Andy:  One of the things you write about in the book is how the success of Grove was linked to the growth of quality paperbacks and stores that specialized in these kinds of books. It was a phenomenon that really began in the mid-fifties. Can you explain this?

 Loren: Yes, the so-called “quality paperback revolution” constituted the second stage of the paperback revolution, the inception of which is usually traced to 1939 with the beginning of Pocket Books.  In the mid-fifties, starting with Anchor Books, publishers began publishing  larger size   paperbacks that focused on more literary titles (the format is now called trade paperback).  These titles were especially successful in urban centers and college towns, and bookstores emerged, such as Cody’s Books and City Lights, that specialized in this format.  Eventually, publishers began bypassing the hardcover stage entirely and issuing certain titles as “paperback originals.”  Grove’s Evergreen Originals imprint was highly successful and influential, and  included work by Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, and  Alain Robbe-Grillet.

 

Barney Rosset

Barney Rosset

Andy: Barney Rosset was the founder and key figure with Grove until he finally sold it in 1986. What kind of a guy was he? Was he passionate about literary publishing or did he just see a business opportunity?

 Loren: Barney was passionate, impulsive, charismatic, and completely committed to Grove, which both he and others saw as an extension of his literary tastes which tended toward the avant-garde, and his political convictions, which tended toward the far left.  As a result, his sensibilities felicitously overlapped with those of the emergent counterculture, which Grove grew in tandem with in the late fifties and early sixties.   Sure, there were also the censorship trials that  can be good publicity (particularly if you win), and Barney had some good business instincts, but neither he nor his co-workers saw Grove as a business.   Actually, Barney sunk his entire fortune (which was considerable) into Grove Press.  He died poor.

 Andy: It always seemed to me that there was a kind of salacious side to Grove Press. Of course, as you said,  there were the great literary modernists and the sixties new left theorists, but it seemed like the press was always fighting a battle around censorship. Why?

Loren: Barney’s strongest belief was in unfettered freedom of expression, regardless of content, and it is for his battle against censorship that he is most well-known, both in and outside the publishing industry. Barney despised censorship and he loved pornography, and this combination kept Grove mired in legal issues throughout the early sixties, and certainly contributed to their salacious image, especially in the later sixties, after Grove had effectively won the battle and Barney began publishing everything sexually explicit that he could get his hands on.  It’s also worth noting that much experimental modernist work was also sexually explicit.  This is, in fact, a longstanding connection dating all the way back to Flaubert and Baudelaire, both of whom were the subject of obscenity trials in 1857.

Andy: Grove also became involved in film in the late sixties.  Why did it move in that direction and what were the consequences?

Loren: Barney had been interested in film since WWII, when he was in the Army Signal Corps in China, and after the war he produced a film called Strange Victory, about race relations in the US.  Once Grove got on its feet as a publisher, he began looking into ways to get involved in film.  He solicited a number of his authors to write scripts, one of which resulted in Beckett’s Film, which was made in the US, and produced and distributed by Grove.  He also purchased Amos Vogel’s legendary Cinema 16.  Most famously, though, Grove imported the Swedish film I am Curious, Yellow, which was an enormous success-de-scandale in 1969, and netted the company 14 million dollars, which Rosset promptly proceeded to invest in all sorts of foreign, experimental, and pornographic film.  But he could never replicate the success of I Am Curious, and it’s clear that his investment in film was an economic drag on the company.  Grove also brought out a number of illustrated film books which, I argue, were important in enabling the growth of cinema studies programs in advance of the rise of VHS and DVD technology.

Andy: Finally Grove was sold, improbably, to Lord George Weidenfeld and Ann Getty. This seems like an odd couple to carry on Rosset’s tradition. How did Grove change with them? What did Rosset think about it?

Loren: Barney was in debt and the company needed a cash infusion, and both Weidenfeld and Getty had access to essentially unlimited funds (I don’t know how their partnership arose).  While they did try to maintain Grove’s avant-garde reputation, they didn’t want to deal with Barney, and one of the first decisions they made was to fire him.  Not surprisingly, Rosset regretted his decision to sell.

Andy: The Grove name lives on today with the independent publisher, Grove-Atlantic. I have enormous respect for their publisher, Morgan Entrekin. But are they in any way carrying on the spirit of Grove? Is any publisher?

Loren: Not only is Entrekin committed to maintaining Grove’s avant-garde reputation, he also relies on Grove’s backlist of steady sellers, so to that degree he is carrying on the spirit.  On the other hand, the publishing industry, as you noted, has been completely transformed by corporate consolidation and the larger cultural environment is entirely different from the sixties, so it’s not really possible to achieve what Grove did back then.  This is partly because Grove was so successful, so that there isn’t really any risk in publishing sexually explicit material.

Andy:  If Barney Rosset were starting out today in publishing, how would Grove Press be different?

Loren: Grove Press was a product of a very particular time and place.  If Barney, or someone like him, were starting out today they would probably just be another small press on the margins of a massive culture industry run by a handful of large corporations.

 

Flaubert’s Kettle

June 24, 2013

“Human Speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” – Gustave Flauflaubertbert,  Madame Bovary

 

I see a lot of writing coming over the transom from people who seem smitten by metaphorical imagery. Unless you can write it like Flaubert, I recommend finding another way to depict whatever it is you are trying to describe. The metaphors and similes I see usually don’t work that well. When you start using these figures of speech, it’s easy to fall into cliché. (I advise writers to “avoid metaphorical imagery and clichés like the plague.”) Editors and agents tend to view this kind of writing as characteristic of the novice and a sign of the writer’s insecurity. Like you’re trying too hard. You don’t have to model yourself after Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. But still… to paraphrase Freud, sometimes the best way to describe a green tree is to just call it a green tree.

How to Organize Your Own Book Tour

June 2, 2013

LENNERTZToday we are going to talk about how  authors can organize their own book tour. We’re speaking with book marketing maven, Carl Lennertz.

Carl has worked with Random House, Knopf, and HarperCollins, as well helping independent bookstores through the American Booksellers Association. He is now Executive  Director of World Book Night U.S.; more on that in a moment. Over time, he has helped organize over a thousand author tours.

Andy: Carl, when my clients prepare a marketing plan for their book proposal, they usually have something in there about their willingness to go on an 8 city publisher organized book tour. I have to tell them that this is probably unrealistic these days unless you are a very big celebrity. When I owned Cody’s, we had touring authors every night. What’s happened?

Carl:  Cost. Hotels, airfare, gas; they all went way up in price. At the same time  authors and agents didn’t have the right frame of mind about them. It all became about selling stacks of books and making ‘the list’ – which was a recipe for disaster. I’ll come back to this, but author events are NOT about selling  large numbers  of books at reading events; they are ALL about making relationships with the booksellers and reaching a few new readers each time.

Andy: I always thought  publishers in these hard times encourage authors to organize their own book tours, right?  But some of my clients have tried to do this and have gotten flack from their publishers. Why is that?

Carl: No, please don’t. The publisher is on the hook for hundreds of  dollars in promo money owed to the store for an event, AND there is no guarantee the books will arrive in time if not coordinated with the publisher. There’s a better way; read on.

 Andy: I’m all ears, Carl.

Carl: Let me suggest something different, something I call a muffin and coffee tour. Get in your car (yes, book sales and book buzz can be built locally/regionally), and just visit some stores. Do this before publication date, if you can, with some galleys from the publisher. If you’re doing this  after publication, do NOT stroll in and ask to sign your books. Just introduce yourself and state specifically that you are NOT there to sign books (this lowers bookseller stress significantly). Instead, walk in with some locally made cookies or muffins, or even ground coffee (and yes, I’ve known authors who put images of their book cover on the coffee bag!) Just say you wanted to thank the booksellers for their hard work…and then let it flow from there. The owner or manager may or may not be free to greet you, but let serendipity reign. You might get the part-time info desk person with attitude, or your new best friend. Then walk the store. Enjoy yourself; you’re a booklover, right? Half the time, they will find you and say, hey, we have 2 of your books; would you sign them? And you will, and thank them profusely.

Andy: As a former bookseller, I can vouch for that. Cookies make a difference.  It didn’t happen all that often, but when it did, I never forgot that author or that book. I remember whenever Meredith Maran had a new book out, she kept coming into the store with homemade cookies. And by the way, she also bought books on consignment from us whenever she did a reading and sold them for us at her readings. In return we promised to report the sales to Bookscan. You better believe that everyone in the store knew about Meredith and her book.

But still, my authors want readings! What do they do?

Carl: Now, say you DO actually get a reading booked. Rule # 1: It’s not about the reading; it’s about the things that happen because you go there, especially making a bookseller friend who will hand sell your book afterwards. Expect 0 people  to come to the reading and be surprised. If it’s 1 person, give the reading of your life. Don’t read for more than 10 minutes; talk about the book, how you came to write it; be funny, and take questions. And feel like the luckiest person in the world. Do you know how many authors want to be in your shoes at that moment?

Andy: Carl, again I can speak from experience as a bookseller. Cody’s had over 5000 author readings during the time that I owned it. Particularly with debut fiction but sometimes with National Book Award winners, we’d get 10 or 20 people in the audience and sell 5 books. Of course, if you are a local author, you could pull in all of your friends and contacts. And they’d buy books for sure. But I digress. Let’s assume you have scheduled a tour at your own expense. How do you collaborate with the publisher to make that experience successful?

Carl: The publisher will get books there, if you keep them advised. And send along press materials. And please, pick tour cities based on where the book is set, where you have friends, where you may have lived at one time or gone to college. And let the publicist know if any friends now work in the media in the area. Disgorge every connection you can think of. (I got the front arts page of the St. Louis paper for my lil’ book because I’d lived there years ago and was friendly with the booksellers there.)

Still – and I love publicists; they are genuinely helpful but overworked people – it still falls to you to work your social media before and after the event. To visit other stores in the area (with muffins), depending on time and geography. And, dear god, send a written thank you note afterwards.

Andy: Do you have any other wisdom to impart?

Carl: The key is still managing expectations: yours, that is, and appreciating the hard work of the booksellers in each store. Meet them, talk, be generous. Don’t mention some other website while there. And most important, work your social media before and after the event. Praise the store on Twitter and Facebook, and yes, broken record, mention other authors’ works to the bookseller, to those in attendance, and on FB, etc. It’s not all about you or that day; it’s about all those who can help sell your book for many moons to come if you build up a reservoir of good will. Take the long view. Praise others.

 Andy: You are director of World Book Night. Can you tell us a little about this event.

Carl: It’s a volunteer, grass roots effort to hand out a half million books in the US all one day: April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday. It started in the UK 3 years ago, and we just finished our second year here. 25,000 volunteers applied online via essay, telling us where they would go to find light or non-readers. We did it all by social media: ourselves, indie booksellers, librarians, and publishers, and it was extraordinary. We got books to shelters, underfunded schools, food pantries, and hundreds of other locations. Don’t take my word for it: check out our FB page of testimonials and our YouTube 52 second videos. There is also a book list, FAQ’s, notes about process and materials at our website – and you can sign up for a newsletter so you can here when to apply to be a giver next year:

 World Book Night books are chosen by a panel of independent booksellers, Barnes and Noble buyers,  and librarians in two rounds of voting, working off a  long list of paperbacks drawn from IndieBound picks, BN Discover picks, ALA prize winners, Pulitzers, ReadingGroupGuides.com favorite picks and Above the Treeline top category sellers.  The previous year’s givers also vote, and there are no publisher nominations for the title selection. The voting gets down to 50 books and I choose the final 30 in order to insure balances in gender, ethnicity, subject matter, age group, and geography, as well as a literary and commercial balance. We also want at least several indie press books in there, as well as books in Spanish.

Andy: Carl, thank you so much for sharing this with us. And keep doing that good work with World Book Night.

 

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.

 

The Absolutely Most Important Agent’s Tip For Writers: First Impressions Count

May 17, 2013

Readers of Ask the Agent know  I’m suspicious of the seemingly endless stream of  publishing tips that you read in writers publications, blogs, and workshops. Given my skepticism about this kind of shorthand advice, my tips tend to be framed with a lot of ironic and self-deprecating humor.  And I also try to be realistic to the point of blunt. This blog is not for the faint of heart. Those seeking flittery feel-good inspiration will likely be uncomfortable here.

 But there is one tip that is as indisputable and immutable as  a law of physics. That is: first impressions count. And your first paragraph will be the agent’s first (and possibly) last impression of your work. So it better be better than good.

 When I  started working with fiction, I found that I usually could decide by the end of the first paragraph if a writer had talent. I was a little ashamed of this, so I asked around with other agents and editors. They agreed. This is not to say that I can tell by the end of the first paragraph whether a book is publishable. If the first paragraph makes me fall in love, I’ll keep reading until that first blush of romance disappears. It usually does at some point. Sometimes in the second paragraph. Sometimes on page 100.  Only rarely do I find myself reading the last line at 3 in the morning crying like a baby. But when that happens, it makes everything all worthwhile. 

 First impressions with an agent are no different than anything else in life. If you were going for an interview at Knopf, you probably wouldn’t show up wearing a NASCAR t-shirt and a John Deere hat. (Unless, you were looking for a job as an editor of a new imprint on ironic detachment.) If your first paragraph is characterized by clunky style, pretentious and flowery figures of speech, clichés, literary throat clearing, descriptions of the weather, clumsy efforts to shoehorn backstory into the narrative,  or other stylistic bads, it’s going to take a lot of brilliant writing to dispel that first impression. And chances are editors and agents aren’t going to afford you that much more time.

 This may seem harsh and unforgiving, but here’s my advice. Make that first paragraph sparkling and brilliant. And after that, make the second paragraph sparkling and brilliant.

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.

Eleven Steps to Finding an Agent

March 18, 2013

 

I teach a class on finding and working with agents. A lot of prospective authors who attend the class are a little intimidated by the process and need to know the basics of agent research. So here are the steps you need to follow to find the right agent for your book.

1). Decide if you really want to work with an agent in the first place. I recommend you read my blog post on writers’ misconceptions of literary agents. Agents are going to charge a 15% commission on your income. Smaller publishers don’t require agented submissions. Some even refuse to work with agents. Large publishers will almost never accept unagented submissions. And even when an editor is interested in your project, she might insist that you find an agent before proceeding with her.

2) Make sure your project is ready to submit before seeking an agent. If your book is non-fiction, have a complete and polished book proposal and sample chapter. If fiction, the manuscript must be in final form. (Frequently publishers will insist on a finished manuscript for memoir as well.) If you are preparing a book proposal, do your homework on how to write a good one. Read some books about it, attend some classes, or get a freelance editor to work with you. Books are sold based on the proposal, and it has to answer the questions that the agents and publishers will be asking. Having a compelling idea isn’t good enough. Agents have to know that the idea works as a book, not just as a magazine article or a blog. Publishers need to know that they will make money on this book, not to make to fine point. To get a better idea of what agents are looking for, check out my blog post, Think Like an Editor.

3) Be careful about bad agents and scammers. Before preparing a prospective agent list, do a little research on things to watch out for. Check out the Writer Beware website. They have some very good advice on avoiding unscrupulous agents.

4) The next step is to start doing research on agents who are most likely to be appropriate for your specific genre and project. Remember that you can and must send multiple submissions. Almost all authors, from Joe Schmo to J. K. Rowling, have gotten lots of rejections from agents before finding the right one. I recommend that you make a list of 25 agents who would seem to be a good fit and proceed from there.

5) Begin by mining the data bases. I have a blog post about the resources you can use for finding agents. You might want to start with the list of members of the Association of Author Representatives. The AAR is the trade association of literary agents and has some strict requirements for membership including a code of ethics. For a larger list, I recommend Agentquery.com. In all of these lists you can limit your search only to agents who are working in your genre. Most of the agents will have brief statements that give you a more subjective feel for their sensibilities. You can also get links to the agents’ websites for further research. I went into some detail on a previous blog post about resources for writers.

6) After you have developed a tentative list of agents, it’s time to move on to the agents’ websites. Almost all agents have websites and almost all agent websites have a similar structure. You are likely to find:

• a page describing the agent’s orientation including a fuller description of the types of books she is looking for. Sometimes this will give you a better feel for the agent than simply a list of genres she works with.
• background information about the agent. This might include her education, previous occupations, honors and awards, and personal interests. Sometimes you want to go with your feelings on this. Your relationship with your agent will be very personal.
• A list of books that the agent represents and/or recent book deals. It’s important for you to see if these books seem compatible with your project. An agent whose list is primarily cookbooks might not be the best agent to represent your political journalism. But you need to find out if that agent in moving into other areas that would be more appropriate for you.
• Submission guidelines. This is crucial. Every agent website will have a page on submission guidelines that will tell you: how much and what information they want in query letters, whether submissions should be electronic or paper, some specific requirements about book proposals, and how long you can expect to wait before hearing back.

If you want to delve deeper into the dark recesses of an agent’s mind and soul, some agents will have blogs that could be revealing and always provide useful tips for prospective authors. Check out my blog post on agent blogs.

7) Next compose your query letter. The number of articles, books, and podcasts on this subject is legion. Some of this stuff though is mystification and hype. Don’t let a query letter guru tell you that a good query letter will result in publication. It won’t. But it is important to present your query in a format that is familiar to an agent, that provides the specific information an agent is looking for, and in a style that is clear and intelligible. Always sound professional. Never indicate that you suffer delusions of omnipotence. (Avoid mentioning: Oprah; Eat, Pray, Love; or movie deals.) Don’t be dumb. (Don’t say you are offering a “literary fiction novel”. That’s redundant. And for God sake, don’t say you have written a “narrative non-fiction novel.”)

8)Most writers want to know how long they should expect to wait before hearing back from an agent and how they should go about nudging those agents who haven’t responded. Response times are all over the map. I generally read queries every day and respond within 4 or 5 days. Other agents may take weeks or even months. Usually agents will give an indication on their website how long they take to respond. And….a lot of agents aren’t going to respond at all. It’s rude, but that’s life. Don’t expect agents to give you incisive advice on how to rewrite your book. And don’t ask them to refer you to other agents. You need to do your own research. Agents get 10-100 queries a day. Rejections tend to be pro forma. I recommend that after a few weeks, start sending out more query letters. It’s ok to send a follow-up after a month or two though.

9)If an agent is interested in your project, be responsive. If your project is non-fiction, she will usually ask for a complete book proposal. If it’s fiction, an agent will usually ask for the first 10 pages. And those 10 pages had better be good. Most agents and editors can tell good writing by the end of the first paragraph. If the agent gets excited, she will ask for the complete manuscript.

10) If you are in the enviable position of having interest from multiple agents, you can and should do your due diligence. Ask for references from other authors the agents have represented. If an agent tells you she can get you a 6 figure deal, she’s probably lying. She doesn’t know. That’s a bad sign. Having a New York agent is no longer important. Having an agent from a big agency is less important than having a good agent who believes in you.

11). You will get rejected. You will probably get rejected by dozens of agents. Get used to it. Authors get rejected by agents; agents get rejected by publishers; publishers get rejected by book sellers; and booksellers get their books rejected by consumers. That’s show business.

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing

March 4, 2013

elmore 2As an agent, I get a lot of fiction submissions. Usually I can tell if I don’t like them by the end of the first page. Sometimes by the end of the first paragraph. I’m a little embarrassed to make this admission. Some people might think that my method makes me a literary philistine. And sure, there are lots of examples of masterpieces that I probably would mistakenly throw out because I was bored on page one or even page 10. Most of the great novels of the nineteenth century might not pass muster. As an example, just look at Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We all know the story, don’t we? Well, in the likely event that you loved the play or movie, as I did, you probably tried to read the book but gave up. The hero, Jean Valjean, doesn’t even show up until about page 50. And the stuff before his entrance is deadeningly, crushingly boring.

When I talk to inexperienced writers, I usually tell them to read Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing. And if you don’t treat the rules inflexibly, they are all very sensible. We’ll let Victor Hugo get by with a few peccadilloes. Well, actually Les Mis has about 800 pages of peccadilloes. So here is Leonard’s list with my modest annotations:

1. Never Open a book with a weather report. We all remember the most celebrated bad first line in literature: “It was a dark and stormy night.” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford. The novel was considered a masterpiece when written. Now it has become a subject of ridicule and condescension by high culture snoots. There isn’t anything wrong with writing about the weather if you are building a scene. But for me this kind of beginning smacks of the equivalent of novelistic throat clearing, a sign that the author lacks the self-confidence to jump into the story.

2. Avoid prologues. Screenwriters love prologues. But then screenplays are usually about 20% as long as even the shortest novel. Movies have to get backstory information out quickly and concisely, and the prologue is an obvious vehicle for this. But novels are different. Again, prologues were ok in the nineteenth century. Probably the most influential artist of that time was Richard Wagner. His masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelung, runs for 4 nights and is over 14 hours long. The entire 2 1/2 hour first opera, Das Rheingold, is a classic prologue written entirely to bring out the backstory of the epic myth. Wagner gets to break the rules; but you, gentle writer, do not. Editors in New York are pretty demanding about how authors should handle backstory. They expect it to be dribbled out on a “need to know basis”. Editors condescendingly refer to backstory prologues as “info dumps”. Another sign of an inexperienced author.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Ok. This is a little extreme. I’m sure Elmore wouldn’t have a problem with “asked” or “thought”. But it’s probably a good idea to avoid most other tags. Plain vanilla tags like “said” are transparent to the reader and keep the reader’s attention on the dialogue and the story. More complex and descriptive tags like “he wondered” or “he mused” or “he regurgitated” [unless, of course, the subject is actually tossing his cookie] are distracting. An exercise in “telling” rather than “showing.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. Same as rule #3 above. Adverbs tend to be clumsy and lazy. That said, I just finished rereading The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald loved adverbs. And who am I to criticize Fitzgerald? So, like Wagner, we’ll give him a literary “get out of jail free” card.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. YOU HEAR THAT RULE, BUB?! You try using those exclamation points with me, and you’re outta here!!!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” What Elmore is really saying here is that you should avoid clichés like the plague (ha, ha. joke). Another sign of lazy writing. And you might also take the advice of Strunk and White and not use “weak” adjectives like “nice”, “beautiful”, or even “weak”.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Dad gummit! I agree with Elmore on this. It’s another example of how good style should be invisible. A novel should draw the reader into a kind of trance-like state. When the style distracts the reader from the story, she falls out of the story. I see a lot of stuff by inexperienced writers who are smitten by the need to flaunt their style. Excessive alliteration and misplaced similes, for example. There are lots of examples of great writing where style trumps substance, but in general this is a good rule.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I’m not sure I would agree with this as a general rule. But what I think Elmore means is that characters are best described by their actions and their words in dialogue. Another admonition of “show, don’t tell.” But go ahead, you can break this rule if it works.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. I’d really like to make a snarky remark about Henry James right now, but I will forgo that temptation. As above, sometimes this rule is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Sure, if you are writing like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, or even Elmore Leonard, rule #9 is sound advice. But there is room for other styles in good writing. Certainly you should avoid unnecessary detail. Actually you should avoid unnecessary anything.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. This rule speaks for itself –uh– Henry James? Are you listening?

My Stern Lecture to a Client

February 7, 2013

Sometimes I can’t sell a book to a publisher. Actually, a lot of times I can’t. Even after doing this job for 5 years and getting an estimated 5000 rejection letters explaining why the editor turned me down; even after my rigid filtering process where I reject at least 500 unsolicited author queries for every one that I decide to represent; even when I have become so smitten with a project that I am convinced the publisher will offer a seven figure advance and Spielberg will be on the phone next day begging me to make a movie deal; I still have projects I can’t sell. All agents do. Even the coveted celebrity New York agents who have daily lunches with the coveted celebrity executive editors. Whenever any agent is representing an unknown author, taking a risk, trying to sell a book based on the merits of the project, not just on the author’s celebrity status, there will be rejections.

And when I do sell a book, sometimes for a lot of money, it is usually after I have received 30 rejections from other editors saying: “it’s a really great book, but I just didn’t fall in love with it”, or “it’s competing with another one of our titles”, or “the author has too modest a platform”.

And authors can be even less realistic than I am. After all, they look at the bookstore shelves and see a lot of dreck. They read lots of literary novels that are all well crafted but have a feeling of being sort of the same. They see some really horrible exploitative celebrity memoirs. Really crappy social analysis by gas bag political pundits. And some of these book deals really are getting seven figure advances.

So now what I do just before I submit the project to the publisher is give my client this stern lecture:

“Today I am sending out your book. I believe in it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have worked with you for 4 months polishing the proposal, refining the concept, and (in my humble opinion) making it perfect.

“But you must be realistic. It’s hard to get books published these days. You should hope for the best but expect the worst. I have experience in these matters and will make sure that your book gets to the right editor at the right imprint. I don’t just send books to the same 10 editors and then give up on it. I will send it to all major and not so major publishers who would have an interest in your book. If I can’t sell this book, you can be assured that all avenues have been explored.

“If I can’t find a publisher, it doesn’t mean that your book isn’t good. Sometimes, most times, the decision to publish a book comes down to issues of marketing, not quality or aesthetics.

“But even though your book is good, there are also a lot of other good projects going around. Editors may look at 10 proposals a week or 300 fiction manuscripts a year. Most of them have been heavily vetted by agents. And most of them are publishable. In other words, there is lots of competition.

“You have asked me several times how much your advance will be. I won’t venture a guess on that because my estimates have been wrong so often. Sometimes I expect $20,000 and get an advance for $100,000. Sometimes I get an advance for $7,000, even from the big publishers. Times are tough for publishers just like for the rest of us. The big ones are owned by multimedia conglomerates who are putting a lot of pressure on the publishers to make a lot of money. So publishers have become skittish about big advances. As an agent, I probably can get a publisher to sweeten the deal a little. But publishers base advances on their calculation of sales. They always have a figure in their head of the maximum they will pay. My job is to find out what that figure is and try to find other ways of sweetening the deal when they won’t budge on the advance. I’m an agent, and I don’t have secret alchemical wisdom. I can’t turn lead into gold.

“Don’t expect your publisher to spend a lot of time and energy promoting your book. All those full page ads in The New York Times usually are focused on a very few name brand authors. The publisher really expects you to do the heavy lifting and to promote your own book. They used to send a lot of authors around on 7 city tours. They don’t any more. I have never met an author, no matter how successful, who was satisfied that their publisher promoted their book well. You might ask yourself what kind of added value you get from having a commercial publisher as opposed to self-publishing. It’s a reasonable question to ask. But the answer is complicated.

“I know you would give a great interview on Oprah, Fresh Air, or The Daily Show. And a lot of publishers will make contacts to these and other “A” list venues. But competition for this is fierce and these shows have their own criteria that are often hard to fathom. Again, hope for the best but expect the worst.

“And then there is the Big Enchilada, the Holy Grail. I mean the call from Spielberg. Even though your novel would make a great movie or a tv series, it might not happen. There are a lot of “option” deals for books. Most of them are for very little money, and most of them never go beyond the option. Just like Oprah, movie producers have their own calculations that are not easy to comprehend. Does the book have the kind of 3 act structure that producers want. Will the character in your novel fit with a star who could attract financing? Would the subject of the book require so much resources for production that the film couldn’t make money? Has the producer gone into drug rehab and become unavailable for an indeterminate amount of time? Hope for the best, expect the worst.

“So now I’m sending out the book. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for that seven figure deal. But….remember my #1 rule: be realistic.”


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 441 other followers