Posts Tagged ‘book publishing’

Bad Pitches

October 9, 2014

I have written a number of blog posts on query letters. All of them get plenty of reads and shares. There are people who charge a lot of money to coach writers on how to write effective query letters. It seems as if every issue of Writers Digest has an article giving lists of tips on making the perfect query that will land you a 6 figure advance. I don’t think query letters are difficult to write. There are only about 9 things you really need to know. I have also said many times and continue to believe that a bad query letter won’t kill a good project and a good query letter won’t help a bad project.

All that being said, it’s important to remember that agents get dozens of query letters every day and tend to skim through them quickly. You need to have the right tone, to provide the relevant information, to avoid verbosity, and to sound professional. Here are some particularly bad pitches I see frequently along with some commentary by me.

“This is a fiction novel.” [Editors don’t like redundancy in writing. Agents don’t like redundancy in query letters. Rather say “This is a novel, or this is a work of fiction - and maybe include the genre as well.]

“This is a non-fiction novel” [More common than you would imagine and a particularly clueless pitch; one that elicits squeals of laughter when agents bring it up with each other and with audiences.]

“I know you probably won’t want to represent this book, but here goes.” [ It’s really a very convincing pitch. The writer has given a compelling reason for me to reject his project. If the writer doesn’t have confidence in his book, then why should I?]

“I’ve already been rejected by 25 agents, but here goes.” [Similar to the previous. Most agents are aware that writers make multiple query submissions and that is perfectly ok. You don’t have to call attention to how many rejections you have received, though.]

“There is nothing like this book that has ever been published.” [ This is the opposite of the examples above. It’s one of the worst pitches you can make. It sends the message that you have delusions of grandeur and will be a difficult client to manage. And it also raises the reasonable question of whether there is, perhaps, a good reason why such a book has never been published.]

“I am wondering if you might possibly be interested in considering….” [ Literary throat-clearing like this in a query letter is indicative of literary throat-clearing in the text of the project. It’s horrible style. Better would be “I am submitting” or “I am submitting for your consideration”]

“Because you represent NAME OF A GREAT SCHOLAR, FAMOUS POLITICAL JOURNALIST, etc, I thought you might be the right person to represent my work of erotic women’s fiction.” [This bad pitch needs no further comment.]

“I am looking for an agent to represent my film script.” [It's ok if the agent you are querying represents film scripts, but most literary agents don’t or else they work in collaboration with an entertainment agent.]

“I am submitting to you because you represent” GENRES THAT I DON’T REPRESENT.” [Similar to the previous bad pitch. Do your research and make sure you are sending projects to agents specifically interested in the genre of your submission.]

“I am looking for a New York agent who….” [A particularly hateful pitch to me. First of all, I have a big chip on my shoulder about “New York agents”, because it no longer matters whether the agent is in New York or elsewhere. Second of all, the author needs to do his research and find out if the agent is, in fact, a “New York agent.” Many of us are not, thank God!]

“I submit for your consideration my Literary-Commercial novel with YA possibilities.” [There are numerous variations of this. Although there are times when a project can only be described as cross-genre, frequently this pitch is simply indicative of the fact that the writer can’t decide who his audience is.]

“This book is bound to make a great movie.” [ I’ve never known an author who didn’t think his novel would make a great movie. And that’s ok. But you can probably leave it out of a query letter. Most book and entertainment agents are probably better suited for deciding if a story is a good bet for film adaptation than the author. It also sends a message that the writer may have delusions of grandeur.]

“Oprah/Terry Gross will love this book.” [Another indicator of delusions of grandeur. Avoid mentioning Oprah at all.]

“This book is like Eat, Pray, Love meets Malcolm Gladwell.” [These books are the most often cited comps. Realistically your book is not going to sell as well as Eat, Pray, Love or the works of Gladwell. And realism is a very important virtue in a writer.]

“This book is like Eat, Pray, Love meets Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” [I don’t particularly like this kind of blah blah meets blah blah kind of pitch. But some agents do. So if you are going to do it, try to at least make the comparables intelligible. Otherwise it’s just name dropping.]

“This is a combination diet book/ memoir” (or any other combo that includes a memoir). [Sneaking a memoir into a book of another genre is almost irresistible, and there are some rare instances where it makes sense. But if you aren’t, in fact, writing a memoir, it might be a good idea to leave yourself out of it. If you are writing about, say, how to discipline your child, the reader is looking for answers for themselves, and is likely not interested in your life experiences, fascinating though they may be.]

“This book was previously self-published, but I want to have the marketing power of a commercial publisher behind me.” [It is unrealistic to expect that a commercial publisher is going to put lots more resources into promoting your book than you already have as a self-published author. What is true, though, is that you are more likely to get review attention or get placed in a bookstore if your book is commercially published.]

“This book was previously self-published and had very good sales.” [Normally when I look into this further, I discover that the writer’s idea of “very good sales” means about 500 copies, which is to say it had not very good sales. You need to be honest in this business. Probably best to tell the agent exactly what those sales were. But even if your sales were very good, if you were selling your e-book for 99 cents or, as is often the case, giving it away for free, it isn’t all that impressive a pitch.]

This book will sell millions of copies.” [Delusions of grandeur.]

“Anyone interested in women’s health will buy this book.” [I see this frequently in book proposals. You need to be able to distinguish between an “audience” and a “demographic”. There are, for instance, about 4 billion people in the world interested in women’s health. In all probability, most of them will not be reading your book.]

“This book is side-splittingly funny.” [Humor is difficult to write and very subjective. This pitch is another indicator of delusions of grandeur. I have represented a number of books that to me actually were side-splittingly funny. But I failed to sell them, because the acquisition editors didn’t “get” it.]

“This book is darkly comic.” [I hear the pitch for “darkly comic” a lot. To me that usually means “not particularly funny”.]

I have written about pitches and query letters in a number of blog posts. You can check these out:

How to Pitch to an Agent
The Art of the Pitch
The Best Query Letter Ever Written
9 Tips for Effective Query Letters

Tawni Waters on Beauty of the Broken

October 1, 2014
tawni headshot

photo copyright Joe Birosak

beauty of the broken coverEvery once in awhile, you read a book that grabs your heart and won’t let go. It doesn’t happen very often. When it does, it stays with you forever. For me that book is Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters, released this week by Simon/Pulse. I suppose you could say this is a YA lesbian coming of age novel. But that’s a little like saying Moby Dick is a book about fishing. It’s the story of Mara, a 15 year old girl growing up in a small town in New Mexico in a family that raises the meaning of “dysfunctional” to a new level. On the first page, Mara’s drunken father smashes her beloved brother, Iggy, with a two by four causing permanent brain damage. The stakes are raised when Mara  finds herself falling in love with the new girl in a town where lesbians are considered “abominations”. The scene describing Mara’s recognition of this first love is one of the most memorable portrayals of that universal experience I have ever read.

Early readers have characterized Beauty of the Broken as “heart wrenching”,  “devastating”,  and “unforgettable”.  And, indeed, when I read it, I found myself finishing the book at 3 AM and sobbing like a baby. But it’s also a triumphant and  life affirming book and one that gives a universal message of the virtue of human courage. Beauty of the Broken is an astonishing book.

Today we are going to interview Tawni Waters and talk to her about her creative process.

Andy: Tawni, can you tell us a little about how you conceived of Beauty of the Broken.

Tawni: Honestly, I didn’t conceive of the novel.  I conceived of a character named Mara, a brilliant, tormented girl who was dealing with some really ugly abuse, trying to come to terms with her identity in a hyper-religious small town.  It’s so cliché, but I swear, I didn’t invent this thing.  Mara told me her story, and I wrote it down.  She was that real to me.

I didn’t originally write Mara as a lesbian character–that part of her emerged slowly, as I was writing later drafts of the book.  She would wax poetic about Xylia [the new girl in the school], and finally one day, I said, “Hey, wait.  I think Mara is in love with Xylia.”

Beyond wanting to write a story about this character who just grabbed hold of my heart , I wanted to write a book about the struggle between love and dogma.  I always say, “If your dogma is stronger than your love, you are in danger of atrocity.”  Mara’s sexual orientation only heightened the themes that were emerging as I wrote the first draft.

Andy: When I read the book, I knew on the first paragraph that it was special. But you wrote it years ago. Why did you wait so long to try to get it published.

Tawni: Because I thought it sucked.  Not really.  Actually, I thought it was good in the early years.  I tried to publish it, but when nothing came of it, I stuffed it in a drawer and forgot about it.  I’d take it out and dust it off every once in a while.  But for the most part, I let it lie fallow.  It was nothing more than a faint memory by the time I sent it to you, believing you’d think it sucked too.

Andy: How has the book changed from your first draft.

Tawni: Where do I start?  In the first draft, Iggy [Mara’s brother] remained lucid throughout the book and died in a war.  Xylia was his girlfriend.  Mara and Xylia’s love affair didn’t really develop until late drafts of the novel.  In the early drafts, they were just close friends.

The only thing that has remained constant during the various drafts is the Stonebrook family dynamic and Mara’s character and voice.  Everything else was a crapshoot.  You know that Stephen King quote, “Kill your darlings.  Kill your darlings.  Though it break your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”  Well, I’m a professional darling killer.  There are probably a thousand pages of Beauty of the Broken lying on the cutting room floor.  Very little of what I wrote made the final draft.

Andy: People are just beginning to read BOTB. The reactions by readers is unbelievably emotional. The book seems to be touching them in some deep place. Can you describe that and maybe explain it?

Tawni: I was talking to my students about this subject today.  I told them a story from my life–the death of my beloved father–in all its gory detail, and almost cried as I was telling it to them.  I wasn’t trying to manipulate them emotionally, nor was I trying to cry.  I just let myself be vulnerable and honest.  I let myself feel the emotion of the memory.   Because I was so deeply invested in my story, they all became emotional too during the telling.  Then, I told them that the intensity and emotional connection I displayed during that telling is where they have to go if they want to touch readers in a deep, true place.

Part of this probably goes back to my dramatic training.  I was an actor for years, so I think sometimes my acting bleeds into my writing.  I know how to authentically emotionally connect to artistic material.   But beyond that, I just have a gift for living in the moment, for really feeling things.  (I call it a gift now, but ask me if it’s a gift after a couple of glasses of wine, or after some cruel creature has broken my heart.)

Ultimately, I think that people respond emotionally to my writing because I am responding emotionally when I write.  I am giving them an authentic, vulnerable piece of myself.  I think our society often conceives of art as this thing that elevates an artist over her audience, but I think of it as a bridge that connects equals.  The first storytellers were connecting with their clans around campfires.  I don’t put a literary method on the page.  I put my heart on the page.

Of course, I’ve taken years to hone my craft, so I’ve learned how to go back and clean my heart up after it’s on the page.  This is important too.  Hearts are pretty, but they’re sloppy sometimes.

Andy:  I like Nietzsche. In his Birth of Tragedy, he talked about Greek tragedy as being a combination of the rational spirit of Apollo with the ecstatic sensibility of Dionysis. The words of the play being Apollonian and the music, the chorus, being Dionysian. I see this same dichotomy in the creative work of writers, particularly writers like yourself who seem so in touch with an inexplicable creative spirit. It seems to me that stories come to you almost effortlessly, but then you need to do the hard work of perfecting them.  Can you tell me about this?

Tawni: You had me at Dionysus.  Really.  I’m a sucker for all things Greek.  I think for me, creative writing requires two distinct processes.  During the first, I let down all my walls, write whatever comes into my pretty little head.  I barely lift my fingers from the keyboard.  I don’t censor myself.  I just let whatever wants to be written–good, bad, or ugly–make its way onto the page.  I think of creating a literary work of art as being something like creating a sculpture.  You can’t make a sculpture without clay, so during the first draft, you are just throwing clay in a box.

But during the second draft, the second process, you are really starting to shape the clay.  You are cutting out the ugly stuff.  You are moving things around.  You are killing the hell out of your darlings.  I have great reverence for art, so I take my darling killing seriously.  If the writing isn’t masterful, it hits the cutting room floor.  And I don’t stop at a second draft.  I worked on Beauty of the Broken on and off for fifteen years, so you can imagine how many drafts went into hat.

Andy: Barnaby, New Mexico is the small town where Mara lives. The spiritual life of the community is dominated by Reverend Winchell a fire and brimstone preacher, who sees homosexuality as an “abomination”. Your father was a clergyman. I don’t imagine he shares any similarities with Reverend Winchell.

Tawni: Actually, my father, the late, great Timothy John Hackett, was the antithesis of Reverend Winchell.  He was the most loving human being I have ever known, and if I can be remembered as being even a tenth of the human being he was, I’ll be happy with my life’s accomplishments.  He was the one who taught me unconditional love, who taught me the difference between a loving God and cruel religion.  I deliberately dedicated this book to my parents, saying they taught me the way of love, so that no one would ever confuse them with Reverend Winchell.  I feel like I owe everything that is good in me to the influence of my wonderful parents.

I actually based Reverend Winchell on a preacher I heard once in Roswell.  He screamed, “God hates fags!” from the pulpit.  I sat there trying to pick my jaw up off the floor, utterly astounded that there were people in the world who were that dark and closed-minded, and outraged that he was foisting his bigotry and hatred on God.  If you’re going to be that stupid, dude, at least take responsibility for it.  Don’t drag God into your idiocy.  (That preacher had a big truck.  I think he was compensating for something.  I’m just saying.)

Andy: Beauty of the Broken has been characterized as a lesbian coming of age story. As I said at the beginning, that doesn’t begin to do credit to the book. But that’s a big part of the story, Mara’s discovering her attraction to Xylia. Are you a lesbian? Is this a story that is mostly going to resonate with lesbians? Or is there something more universal here?

Tawni:.  As I said, I didn’t set out to write a lesbian novel.  I set out to write a story about the battle between love and dogma.  Mara’s character emerged as a lesbian, but that was secondary to her humanity, as well it should be.  Anyone’s sexual orientation should be secondary to his or her humanity, yes?

Am I a lesbian?  Every time I tell people I have written a lesbian coming of age novel, they ask me this question.  The answer is no, I am not a lesbian.  I am not a huge fan of labels, at least not for myself.  I believe firmly in love.  I believe love–true, selfless love–is holy in all of its manifestations.  I love who I love, regardless of the package they come in.  I am a love-ian.

Andy: Tawni, that’s a good note to leave on. Tawni is going to be doing events at various venues throughout the country. Here are a few:

October 4: Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Arizona

October 18: Bookworks, Albuquerque, New Mexico

November 7: Book Passage, Corte Madera, California

November 10: Rosemont College, Rosemont, Pennsylvania

 

 

The Best Query Letter Ever Written

August 4, 2014

tolstoyRecently I attended the Taos Summer Writers Conference.  It was fabulous and I urge everyone to check it out.   I taught a class  in which the participants workshopped their query letters. Most of the queries were too long. The writers tended to delve into too much detail in the plot summaries. A number of people also wasted precious space – in the words of one of the students – “sucking up to the agent.”

A query letter is typically in three parts. The first paragraph should state the name of the book, the number of words, and the genre. You should try to use terms of art that are common in book publishing. It sends a message that you are serious and know the territory. In particular, avoid characterizing your book as “a fiction novel” and, for pete’s sake, don’t characterize it as “a non-fiction novel.”

The second part of the query is the so-called “elevator pitch.” You should briefly describe the story and why it is important or memorable.

The final section should be a short paragraph enumerating your qualifications to write the book. Be sure to mention previous publishing history, awards, and what you do in your real life. If your previous books are self-published, make that clear.

I get about twenty unsolicited queries every day. I try to look at them and get back to the writer in a timely manner. But that means I have a very limited time to think about each one. I prefer queries to be short, maybe 400 words or less. That means you need to make every word count.

As an exercise, I decided to compose the perfect query letter. I gave myself  an almost insurmountable challenge, to create a  query for the longest book in the western canon and to make the elevator pitch in six sentences. Here it is, my masterpiece (the query letter, not the novel):

***

 I am submitting War and Peace, a 350,000 word work  of historical fiction.

 War and Peace is the  epic story, written in a realistic style,  of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and how 3 characters, members of the  Russian nobility,  live their lives or die in the course of the novel.  In addition to the dramatic and interrelated stories of  Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and Prince Andrei Bolkosky,   I also bring in themes that try to explain how the events in the narrative help us to understand the inexorable truths of history. Some of the memorable secondary characters are  real historical figures, notably Napoleon and the Russian general, Kutuzov.  My description of the climactic Battle of Borodino is so realistic that  the reader can almost smell the gun powder.

The book has received enthusiastic praise from some of the most distinguished novelists of all time. Thomas Mann said of War and Peace that it was “the greatest ever war novel in the history of literature.”   John Galsworthy has called War and Peace “the best novel that had ever been written.”

I am a published novelist, author of the best selling novel, Anna Karenina that has been translated into every major   language in the world and adapted for film multiple times, most recently in 2012 from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law.  I have also written works of short stories, philosophy and social criticism.

The manuscript is complete and available at your request.

Count Leo Tolstoy

 

 

Laura Fraser Talks about Shebooks

July 26, 2014

Fraser-cropToday we are going to interview Laura Fraser, co-founder and editorial director of Shebooks, a new publishing company devoted to promoting works by women authors and journalists. Shebooks publishes short e-books, either by subscription at Shebooks.net (you download a free app for your tablet or smartphone from the app store) or individually, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Kobo. Shebooks is a new model for publishing, inconceivable only a few years ago. I think of it as sort of a hybrid that mixes up characteristics of traditional book publishing, long form magazine publishing, and self-publishing.

Check them out at http://www.shebooks.net

Andy:  Laura could you tell us something about yourself and the work you did before founding She books?

Laura: I’ve been a freelance writer for 30 years. I started in journalism and published many magazine articles. My first book, Losing It, was an expose of the diet industry. My next book, An Italian Affair, was a NYT-bestselling memoir. My latest memoir is called All Over the Map.

Andy: What made you decide to start Shebooks?

Laura: Even for someone like me with a fair amount of success in the publishing and magazine worlds, it was becoming increasingly difficult to make a living. The space for long magazine articles had shrunk in women’s magazines, and the top shelf long-form magazines publish mostly men, even in 2014. That means fewer intimate memoirs about women’s lives. My last book didn’t sell well, so I became unattractive to the publishing world. Even with a NYT bestseller under my belt, it was like, “What have you done lately?” So I wanted to create a platform for women like me, essentially, where we could write high quality work and get it published.

Andy: In this day and age, do you really think there is still that much bias against women in the media? I work with hundreds of book editors. These days they are almost all women. It wasn’t always like that. Comment?

Laura: There’s a huge bias against women in longform journalism. Just go to vida.org, the organization of women in literary arts, and look at the statistics on men being the vast majority of writers published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, etc. There is a bias toward what I would call external rather than internal stories, and women are more likely to write about internal adventures. Any broad stereotypes about male and female writers, of course, can’t be applied to everyone, but I think it’s fair to say that women’s experiences are under-represented in magazines in particular because so many more men are published. It’s less of a problem in the book world.

Andy: Tell me a little more about Shebooks’ publishing program. You aren’t like a typical book publisher. Most books are more than 60,000 words. Your books are a lot shorter. Why?

Laura: Digital publishing gives us an opportunity to publish things at the length they ought to be. Right now, there is a vast middle ground between, say, personal essays and a book. There are a lot of stories that should be told in less than the 80,000 words it takes to fill a physical object called a book. That’s why so many memoirs feel padded. I want to make a t-shirt that says “No padding.” Digital gives us flexibility. Also, people read digital on the go, in the little pockets of their lives. Many of us still like to curl up with a hard cover book, but if I’m traveling or commuting, I read on my device. I want to read high-quality stories rather than watch cat videos.

Andy: Ever thought about putting some of the best writing into an anthology? I think that would be cool.

Laura: Yep.

Andy: You have published two of my favorite clients: Mary Jo McConahay and Meghan Ward. Both memoirs. What other genres are you seeking?

Laura: Short memoirs are our sweet spot. We also publish journalism that isn’t very time-bound, as well as fiction. There are very few places to publish novelettes or novellas.

Andy: What’s the difference?

Laura: About 20,000 words.

Andy: Do you have any opinion about the big issues that are being debated in book publishing right now? Tell me what you think is the future of big New York publishers? Do you think self published books are the answer? Given the number of self published titles that sell in the high “two figures”, I’m not sure it is all it’s cracked up to be.

Laura: It’s all about flexibility and finding the right platform for your message. Sure, it’s great to go with a legacy publisher if you’re one of the 1% of authors they’ll pay attention to. Self-publishing still has the patina of being not good enough for the big houses. But that’s changing. As with digital vs. paper publishing, it isn’t an either/or situation.

Andy: It seems like Shebooks is kind of a hybrid. Something in the middle. Can you tell us about this?

Laura: We are a highly curated collection of short e-books. We’re closer to a legacy publishing model than self-publishing. We pay close attention to quality, to copyediting, to design. But we give our authors a 50-50 revenue split, which gives them incentive to help publicize the books. They make more; with legacy publishers, it’s about an 85/15 split. So we’re not like self-publishing at all, though there is less barrier to entry for a good writer who hasn’t sold a lot of books. The fact that we are a subscription service means that we don’t have to be hit-driven like the legacy publishers. We can publish a lot of beautiful little books and they don’t have to be bestsellers.

Andy: Any thoughts on the big bad Amazon.com? They have certainly been a windfall for ebook publishing. Do you think that maybe they are becoming too powerful though?

Laura: Amazon takes a 30% bite of everything anyone buys on their site. That leaves precious little margin for anyone else. You can’t just bitch about Amazon, though; it’s a big reality, so you have to work with it, or do a workaround so you can make money—as we’re trying to do, by subscription from our own e-reader app, leaving Amazon out of the picture.

Andy: Ok. Let’s talk about your Netflix-like subscription model. Describe that and tell me how it’s working.

Laura: We have a growing library of short e-books, publishing at a rate of 2 per week. When you subscribe, you get access to our whole library. When you stop subscribing, poof, they’re gone. Right now we have 60 short e-books in our library that you can’t find anywhere else. Yes, Amazon has more, and so does Oyster, but we’re like a boutique where you can walk in and know that everything is quality.

Andy:  Since Shebooks is so different from traditional book publishing, how do you go about promoting it? Who’s your audience and how do you reach them?

Laura: We’re still figuring all of this out, but of course we rely a lot on social media. We are also doing deals with women’s magazines and brands to help leverage our brand. For instance, we had a memoir contest with Good Housekeeping which brought Shebooks in front of 25 million readers. We’re doing more partnerships like that.

Andy:  Shebooks are available at the usual online venues, but you are also selling them yourself. What is working the best for you?

Laura: It’s financially better for us if people subscribe directly from our website so Amazon doesn’t take a big bite. But we’re happy to have people read our books wherever they find them.

Andy: How can writers submit to you?

Write@shebooks.net. We take only well-written, polished submissions of about 10,000 words, give or take. My sole criterion as editorial director is that I have to feel compelled to keep reading!

The Amazon – Hachette Dispute: What’s at Stake for Authors?

May 23, 2014

bezos_bookstore-620x412The book industry has been abuzz with the latest news of Amazon bullying book publishers. According to an article in The New York Times on May 8, Amazon has been involved in tough negotiations with Hachette Book Group, the fifth largest publisher in the United States. In order to pressure them for better deals, Amazon has engaged in a number of practices to make it harder  for Hachette to sell books through Amazon. This includes “slow walking” Hachette titles — delaying reorders of out of stock books in order to  slow down delivery. Normally Amazon ships books within 24 hours. On some Hachette titles, Amazon is saying that delivery will take as long as 5 weeks. Examples include new and backlist titles and even some best sellers.

Today we learn Amazon has removed the pre-order function for many not yet published Hachette titles. Also typically Amazon discounts books 20-40%. Since the dispute began, there are many Hachette titles being sold at list price.

In the past Amazon has taken the “buy” button off titles — making them effectively unavailable  in order to pressure publishers for better terms. They seem to be doing the same thing but using subtler methods in this instance.

No doubt Amazon is trying to induce authors to pressure publishers into capitulating to Amazon demands. If an author’s book is not available on Amazon for 5 weeks, it could be quite distressing, particularly if it is a new title with sales being driven by publicity. But in this instance the industry –  including the authors –  seems to be outraged by Amazon and inclined to support Hachette hanging tough.

There is another possible threat to author royalties in all this. Every publishing contract has a so-called  “deep discounting” provision. Typically the contract stipulates that if a publisher sells a book to a retailer at very high discount, then the royalty to the author will be cut, in some cases as much as 50%. These kinds of transactions have traditionally been limited to wholesalers and non-returnable bulk sales to big box stores like Target, Wal-Mart, and Costco. But if Amazon is successful in extracting ruinous terms from publishers, we can expect more sales to fall under these deep discounting provisions and author royalties to be reduced accordingly.

Today the Authors Guild, the largest organization representing the interests of book authors, came out with a statement unequivocally attacking Amazon’s strong arming Hachette. They characterize Amazon’s tactics as “blackmail”.

Indeed.

Interview With Authors Guild General Counsel, Jan Constantine

April 30, 2014

constantineToday we are going to speak to Jan Constantine, general counsel for the Authors Guild.

The Authors Guild is the largest and oldest organization representing authors in America. I love the Authors Guild, and as an agent, I am proud to be a member.  It is an amazingly robust, sometimes even militant, advocacy organization that fights for the rights of all writers. They engage in numerous activities including lobbying Congress on copyright and book piracy issues and advising writers on how not to get taken advantage of by publishers. In this brave new world of the Internet, where tech gurus tell us that “information wants to be free,” The Authors Guild fights for the quaint notion that the work of the writer, like all work, has dignity and deserves to be compensated. Everyone reading this blog should join. It’s only $90 a year.  Check out their eligibility requirements.

Andy: Jan, welcome to “Ask the Agent.”  I think the $90 membership fee for the Authors Guild is a pretty good investment for any writer. Can you tell me what that buys you?

Jan: Absolutely, Andy, and thank you for having me.  One of the things our members find most useful is our Model Book Contract.  It’s a manual that goes through a publishing contract clause-by-clause.  For every provision, we provide members with what we think of as a “model” clause, and then next to the model clause we provide a running commentary educating authors about what exactly is at stake in each part of the publishing contract.  It’s a very empowering tool that gives authors the knowledge and insight to successfully negotiate with publishers.

Andy: As an agent, I have to negotiate book contracts all the time, and I find the Model Contract an indispensible reference. Not to put too fine a point, a book contract is an asymmetrical agreement where the publisher agrees to give the author a pathetically small amount of money in exchange for the author’s intellectual indentured servitude for the term of the copyright. The Model Contract is a great tool for helping the author avoid the pitfalls. Of course the Model Contract and  representation by a good agent is even better. Can you just tell us a few of the issues in a book contract  that authors should be watching out for?

Jan: Our Model Contract advises authors to be wary of a number of one-sided provisions that are often present in publisher’s boilerplate forms.  One to look out for is a so-called “joint accounting” clause, which provides that any money the author might owe the publisher under contracts for other books can be deducted from payments due to the author under the current book contract.  Our position is that each publishing contract and book should be treated as a separate venture.

Non-competition clauses, if broadly-worded, can also be troublesome. Most book contracts have non-competition language that restrains the author from publishing a “competing” work.   We counsel authors to define a “competing work” as narrowly as possible, especially if they think they might write subsequent works on the same or a similar subject.

Another potential hazard is  the “satisfactory manuscript” clause, also present in most publishing contracts. It can be unfair to authors if it allows the publisher to reject the manuscript for any reason at all.  You don’t want a publisher to be able to reject your manuscript just because of a change in market conditions or a perceived shift in readers’ tastes.  You want to insert some sort of objective standard here, such as a clause stating that your manuscript must be “professionally competent and fit for publication.”

Those are a few issues that come to mind.  The bottom line is that a publishing contract is a joint venture between author and publisher.  A well-negotiated contract should reflect their mutual investment in each other.

Andy: So, Jan, what else does the Authors Guild do?

Jan: Of course there’s our lobbying, which you mentioned in your introduction, and our lawsuits.  Members also receive our quarterly Bulletin, which covers the publishing industry from the author’s perspective, and they have access to legal services, such as contract reviews and intervention in publishing disputes, at no cost.  Then there’s the Author’s Registry, a not-for profit that secures foreign royalties for U.S. authors.  All members are automatically enrolled.  Since 1996 the Registry has distributed more than $22 million to authors.  We have a program called Backinprint.com which lets authors sell their out-of-print books as print-on-demand paperbacks.  We offer web services that allow authors to build full-featured websites.  We host in-person and phone-in seminars to educate authors on all aspects of their profession.   That’s a long list.  We like to think that membership is a great value.

Andy: And you get all that for $90 a year!  Let’s talk about “information wants to be free.”  This cliché seems to express a kind of ethos going around the Internet. It’s exemplified by “Wikipedia.”  It’s a world where all people are experts and where people’s intellectual work is accordingly devalued and not worthy of compensation.   Do you care to comment on this?

Jan: Well, I think Wikipedia may not be the real enemy here.  That’s a situation where people are donating their expertise with no expectation of financial compensation.  We’re more concerned with piracy—theft—making copyrighted works available for free, in violation of the author’s right to distribute her work and her right to make a living from her work.  And yes, this type of piracy does seem to be encouraged by those who rally behind that slogan, “information wants to be free.”  But you know what?  That’s only half of it.  They get that slogan from Stewart Brand.  But what Brand was talking about was this tension that won’t go away.  Information wants to be free, he said, because it’s so cheap to distribute now.  But on the other hand, he said, information wants to be expensive.  Why?  Because it’s so valuable to the recipient.  And this is a tension that is embodied in our nation’s copyright laws in a very productive way.  The author has exclusive rights, sure, but there’s also fair use, and exceptions for schools and libraries, and the fact that copyright doesn’t last forever.  It’s a tension that’s expressed in the Copyright Clause in the Constitution, and it’s a tension acknowledged by Congress every time it brings different stakeholders to the table to discuss what needs to be changed in our copyright law.

Andy:So what kinds of things is the Authors Guild doing to combat piracy?

Jan: Well, I just mentioned Congress.  The Authors Guild has been working with legislators and private companies for years to develop a more comprehensive solution to online piracy.  Two bills proposed in 2012—SOPA and PIPA—would have done something to diminish Internet piracy, and we supported them.  Search engines and Internet service providers are profiting daily from linking to and hosting pirate sites, and the  Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the 1998 law that addresses this problem, is doing little to stop them; the Copyright Alert System is doing little to stop them; and they certainly aren’t policing themselves.  For example, an international recording industry group recently announced it sent its 100 millionth piracy notice to Google—with no noticeable demotion of pirate sites in search results.

Andy: I hear a lot of people who seem to think book piracy is no big deal. I think it’s stealing and no different from shoplifting books from a bookstore. What do you think? (That’s a rhetorical question, obviously.)

Jan: We couldn’t agree more.  The only difference is the extent to which this type of theft is accepted, or at least ignored.  And that seems to be at least in part a result of the “information wants to be free” ethos.

Andy:  One of my pet peeves is Amazon.com. It seems to me that they have cultivated a notion that books cost too much, that e-books have a kind of inherent value of about $2.99. I don’t think this price recognizes the value added that goes into a professionally written and published book. Can you explain why books, electronic and paper, might merit a higher price?

Jan: The real problem is that Amazon is selling books at an artificially lowprice.  A look back at Amazon’s tactics over the years makes it very clear they’ve always used books as a loss leader.  Amazon has sold print books at a loss for years in order to drive its market share.  It’s doing the same thing with e-books.  It’s an artificial market.  This shields it from competition with any but the biggest competitors and makes it incredibly difficult for brick-and-mortar bookstores to enter the e-book market. And you’re right, the danger is that consumers get the notion that the inherent value of a book is cheaper than it actually is.

Andy: Recently the United States sued Apple and the major publishers for trying to fix prices. The publishers lost. The Authors Guild was supportive of the publishers in this instance. How come? Shouldn’t we be encouraging free market competition?

Jan: Well, our position was that the strategies pursued by Apple and the publishers were increasing competition.  Apple and the publishers were offering a new model for the sale of e-books, where Apple would act as the publisher’s sales agent, with no authority to discount e-book prices.  In the two years after this new “agency model” was introduced, Amazon’s share of the e-book market fell from 90% to 60%.  Barnes & Noble introduced a tablet to compete with Amazon’s Kindle during this time.  Brick-and-mortar stores began partnering with Google to sell e-books to their customers at the same price they were being sold from Amazon.  These look to me like the effects of a free market.

Andy: Jan, thanks. This is just a small sampling of what the Guild is doing. You should check out their website and blog.

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.

Bill Petrocelli -Bookseller and Novelist

November 11, 2013

circle of thirteenpetrocelliToday we are going to interview Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of the legendary Book Passage in Marin County. Bill has recently written a novel, The Circle of Thirteen that has just been released by Turner Publishing to rave reviews. Lisa See said of it: “In The Circle of Thirteen, Bill Petrocelli has created a story that flashes forward and backward through time, creating a futuristic world that bears some striking similarities to today. The Circle of Thirteen is a true celebration of the power of women in the face of great odds.”

 Andy: Bill, thanks for letting me interview you on “Ask the Agent.” We’ve been friends for a long time as booksellers. Probably more than 30 years. And we fought all the great fights together defending independent bookstores against the corporations. But you never told me that you wanted to write a book. When and why did you decide to write The Circle of Thirteen?

Bill: I guess I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, more than anything else. Although I’ve been heavily involved in bookselling for many years, during that time I managed to write two non-fiction books as well as a lot of articles.  As to The Circle of Thirteen, I began thinking about that story six years ago. And once the idea formed in my head, I couldn’t let it go.

Andy: The novel is bold and unique in structure. It’s sort of a science fiction novel, but not really (even though it takes place in the future). You structure it with flashbacks, but both the “then” and the “now” take place in the future as well. I don’t see that very often.  It’s a political novel with a strong feminist message that addresses real issues of today. Weren’t you trying to keep a lot of balls in the air? It must have been pretty hard to shape the story.

Bill: It takes place in the future, but I don’t really consider it science fiction. Probably it should be called “future fiction” – or maybe even “speculative fiction.” The idea for the book was to look at the expanding role of women and the potential backlash against them. I decided to set the story a couple of decades into the future, because I thought that would give me the best setting – really, a better perspective on things.

The challenge was to find a time that was far enough removed from the present to get away from day to day politics but still be close enough to seem relevant to the present moment. I decided that I couldn’t write the story in the form of a saga – a story with just one event after another – because I needed to maintain the tension and keep the important elements of the story at the center of things. That’s why I decided on one main narrative line that occurs over a period of two weeks with a series of flashbacks that feed into that story.

Andy: And that  raises the question of how to write flashbacks in a future setting.

Bill: You’re right – that’s a big challenge. And you’re the one who first pointed that out to me several  years ago. After we talked, I went back and reworked the story to try to do two things. First, I wanted to make sure that all of the transition signals were clear – dates, places, and all that. Readers needed to know where they were at any given moment.

The second thing, I believe, was even more important. I had to be relentless in maintaining the point of view of the narrator at key points in the story. I re-wrote most of the book so that it was the first-person voice of my principal character, Julia Moro, who is the Security Director for the United Nations. So when the flashbacks occur, they are  mostly told through her recollection. That allowed the reader to listen to her re-counting of earlier parts of the story with just enough information to get the feel and texture of what happened.

Andy: When I left bookselling, I became an agent, and   started working at the other end of the publishing food chain. It was pretty eye opening for me. What have you learned from this experience? How has it made you view the process of publishing differently?

 Bill: I’ve learned all kinds of things that I hadn’t really focused on before. A lot of it has to do with timing. How much lead time do you need for submission? For editorial feedback? For book promotion? Each of these things operates on its own calendar, and they’re quite different than the calendar that booksellers follow.

Andy: Book Passage is probably the most marketing driven bookstore in America. You have events practically every night. You have classes being taught by famous writers, book fairs, writers conferences. It’s a real three ring circus (in the best sense). Now you have to market your own  book to bookstores. How has your own bookselling experience helped you do this?

Bill: My experience in the book business has helped a lot – there’s no way to deny that. Mainly, my years as a bookseller have given me an entrée into bookstores. It’s also made it easier for me to talk with the people who report on books and bookselling. The people at the blog: “Shelf Awareness”, for example, have been incredibly helpful.

But even with all that, I’ve had to do a lot of the same things that other authors have to do. I have a wonderful agent, Lisa Gallagher, who helped open a few doors at key moments. But I’ve had to create my own website, hire a publicist – and even work with a publicist who specializes in book blogs.

Andy: You’re also a legendary figure in retail bookselling. Is that helping you get the book into the stores? What are other booksellers saying about it?

Bill: Legendary? I don’t know about that. If anyone is legendary, it’s my wife, Elaine, who really understands bookselling as well as anyone in the country. But I do know other booksellers, and I’ve gotten a lot of nice support for the book from many of them.

Andy: When I first became an agent, I avoided representing fiction. Now I have dipped my toes in it. It’s really tough to sell. There are a lot of good writers out there who can’t find publishers. Publishers are making their acquisition decisions based on marketing, not aesthetics. And they will tell you that most of their fiction titles aren’t selling. Any thoughts why?

Bill: Now that I’ve been promoting my own novel, I have a better idea why it’s  so difficult. It’s different than promoting a non-fiction book. With  non-fiction  you can talk about your credentials on the subject, you can stress how important the book is, and you can focus your message to specialized audiences. But none of that is true with fiction. You can talk all you want about your book, but until someone reads it they don’t know how good it is. The real test is the quality of the writing.

Andy: Any thoughts about how to get these books to readers better?

Bill: I have no secret formula for making it easier. I think the only answer is to get as many advance reading copies in the hands of booksellers, other authors, and prominent people – anyone who can read it and give a positive blurb that can then be used in marketing.

Andy: Ok, Bill. Here’s the $64,000 question. I couldn’t help notice that your book is for sale at Big Bad Amazon and almost as Big and Bad Barnes and Noble. Want to share your discomfort with us?

Bill: I have no discomfort with that. I want the book sold through as many places as possible, but I haven’t done anything to encourage sales through Amazon or through the chains. I’m trying as hard as I can to get people to buy it through their local independent stores, In fact, if you go to my website at http://www.williampetrocelli.com, you will see that my buy-link goes directly to the websites of about forty independent bookstores. I’m hoping that more authors will pick up on this idea and link to the independent stores whose support for their books is so important.

Andy: Are you working on your next novel?

Bill: I am, but I put it aside while I’m been trying to promote The Circle of Thirteen. Every now and then I find those characters talking to me, though, asking me where I’ve been. I need to get back to it. It’s a different kind of story, but hopefully it will be just as provocative. One of the characters is a bookseller, so that should give us something to talk about next time.

Bill will be speaking and reading from The Circle of Thirteen at the following venues:

Tues. Nov. 12, 7 PM. Powell’s Books, Portland, Or.

Thurs. Nov. 14,  7 PM. Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, Ca.

Sat. Nov. 19, 7 PM. R. J. Julia Books, Madison, Cn.

Wed. Nov. 20, 7 PM. McNally Jackson, New York, NY.

Sun. Nov. 24, 11 AM. Miami Book Fair, Miami, Fl.


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