Posts Tagged ‘literary agent’

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.”

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.

Nina Amir on How to Market Your Book

August 20, 2013

nina1-150x150Today we are going to interview Nina Amir who  will offer us  some tips on how to market your book on the  Internet.  Nina is  a writing  coach who motivates writers to  create   publishable  books and  to enhance their  careers as authors.

She is the  author of the bestselling How to Blog a Book: How to Write, Publish and Promote Your Work One Post at a Time (Writer’s Digest Books). She is also a  nonfiction editor, proposal consultant, author, and blog-to-book coach with more than 34 years of experience in the publishing field. She is the founder of “Write Nonfiction in November”, aka National Nonfiction Writing Month. Her new book, The Author Training Manual, 9 Steps to Prepare You and Your Book Idea for Publishing Success (Writer’s Digest Books) will be released in February 2014.  You can get a free strategy session with Nina on blogging, blogging a book, writing a book, achieving results, or  editing at  http://bit.ly/NA15free.

A good portion of my time as an agent is taken up with crafting book proposals. As you know, a book proposal is a highly structured business plan for your project which will convince the publisher that your book is important and that you know how to reach your audience. Publishers require a “marketing” section of the proposal laying out how you intend to promote your own book. I’ve written some blog posts on the subject. Most of my clients are, at best, intimidated and usually flummoxed in writing this section of the proposal. .

Once the book is out, the author learns the hard truth that publishers never promote the book as much as they imagine and usually stop promoting it a month after publication.

Andy: Nina, thanks for coming here today. Do you agree with my assessment above?

Nina: Yes, I do. For some reason, aspiring and published authors seem to cling to the outdated idea that a publisher will do the hard work of promoting their book for them.  That’s why writers often want to become traditionally published. But that’s  not a good  reason to pursue this publishing route.  If you want your book to succeed, you will have to do the same amount of work to promote your book whether you self-publish or traditionally publish. And the work begins long before your book is published.   You need to start building your platform at least three years before publication date, if not longer.

Andy: When I do get the marketing plan from the author, it’s usually pretty predictable. He will put up a book website; he will blog (maybe); he will set up a page on Facebook and perhaps Twitter. Publishers aren’t particularly impressed by this. Can you give us some tips about each of these  social venues and tell us how to make them rise above the conventional.

Nina: Well, you can blog a book. Many bloggers with huge readerships have landed book deals because they unwittingly test marketed an idea for a book. Later, an agent or acquisitions editor saw the potential for a book based on the material in the blog.  They then decide to repurpose the content of the blog into a book.  But also you can blog your book—or a good portion of it—from scratch. By this I mean plan out your book and publish it post by post on your blog. If you gain a large readership or subscriber base in the process, you can prove to a publisher that you have a great idea for a book—and a built-in readership.

Andy: But Nina, one of the big causes of rejections that I get is that publishers are skittish about taking on material that is already available for free on-line. Can you comment on this?

Nina: Some publishers don’t want “previously published” works.  But many are happy to have material that has been test marketed successfully.  If you do this correctly—following the plan in my book, you will have left out some material so the publisher has about 20% or more unpublished material to include in the book. Plus, you will edit and revise what was on the blog to improve it. This makes it “new” to some extent. You can also point to the many “booked” blogs that have been best sellers, like Julie & Julia, Stuff White People Like, and so many more.

Andy: What about Facebook and Twitter?

Nina: Your Facebook page can be used like a forum, especially if you write nonfiction. You can create courses around your book and drive your class  participants to the page. You can offer tips and advice there and generate discussions—real engagement. Your Twitter account can be used for a Twitter chat of some sort or for a tip series.

In other words, you must use your social media, including your blog, as a way to build more than just a following. You need to build a community and a brand. There must be name awareness. You have to see yourself as more than just the author of a book, and all you do—your blogging efforts, social media efforts, speaking, etc.—must build your visibility into an author brand as well as a platform. What this does is show that you have business savvy. Publishers are looking for good business partners, not just authors. Business people know how to sell books; more often than not, authors do not.

Andy: Since publishers rarely have the time, inclination, or money to reach out beyond the usual sending out of press releases, what else can the author do at the time the book is released.

Nina: I highly recommend a virtual book tour. Everything you do on the Internet makes you and your book more “discoverable.”. That means when someone searches on Google, using some sort of keywords or search terms related to your book, he is more likely to find you on the first Google search engine results page. So write a series of guest blog posts for bloggers in your category or niche. This could include having them interview you or review your book. Do 15-30 posts over the course of the month when you release your book! And land some Internet radio shows or podcasts as well, so you aren’t just doing a blog tour but a true virtual book tour.

Andy: Nina, there are so many blogs online. Give me some practical tips on how an author can sort through them and select the ones that make a difference and avoid the “moms-at-home” blogs.

Nina: You can do research. Check a blog’s ranking at blogcatalog.com or at Technorati.com. Go to Alexa.com, where you will find a single digit page rank a well as a global rank that can be in the millions. You want to blog for sites with page of 3 or above and with a global page rank in the six figures. You can also do Google research; almost every category has had one or more sites compile a list of the top blogs on a particular topic.

Andy: What about sending out press releases?

Nina:  Definitely. You can send them out to online and print publications. And you can contact local radio  and televisions shows personally. If you write nonfiction, I like to use ExpertClick.com to highlight my expertise to journalists and send out press releases that reach them as well as the general public. It’s less expensive than some services. There is a yearly expense but you can send a lot of releases for one fee. (Use my name to get $100 off…)

Andy: What else should authors be doing at publication time?

Nina: Optimize your Amazon Author Central page. I go back every now and then to see what else I can add, and I’ve still not done everything possible. You can:

Add video,  add Twitter feed, add blog feed, share speaking events, create discussions, get reviews.

The last one is very important. Reviews can really help a book succeed.

Use Youtube and other easy video and photo options, like Instagram.  And don’t forget other social media, like Pinterest and Google+.

Andy: Should they be looking for a freelance publicist or consultant? Some of these people charge a lot of money.

Nina: I used a publicist and thought it was a waste of my money. But then I found  someone to help with one of my two blog tours, and that was well worth it.   That person found bloggers willing to either interview me, have me write posts for them or write reviews, so I didn’t have to do the research or contact them. She coordinated the dates and made all the arrangements. I just had to turn in the posts to the bloggers on time. This was much less work than doing it myself.

Andy: Thanks Nina. If you want to find out more about Nina’s ideas and how they can help you promote your book, you should buy: How to Blog a Book: How to Write, Publish and Promote Your Work One Post at a Time.

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.

 

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.”

Questions to Ask Before Starting to Write Your Book

January 11, 2013

I see a lot of non-fiction book proposals that are based on wishful thinking about whether the project is publishable. If writers asked some basic questions before beginning the process, they would save themselves a lot of time and grief. They would either refine their concept into one that is attractive as a commercial publishing venture, or they would realize that the idea is ill-conceived. Here are some questions you should be asking yourself.

1. How many books am I trying to write? You have no idea how often I speak to prospective authors who can’t decide which of their many fabulous ideas they want to write about. So they try to shoehorn all of them into a single book. I see short descriptions in proposals such as : “This book is a self-help book about curing back pain with elements of a memoir included.” My advice. Save the memoir for the next book. I always sense a problem when the proposal announces that the project “crosses genres.” Yes, there are some cross-genre books, but more often the author is just being lazy and is unwilling to choose what genre she really wants to write in. Publishers say they are looking for “fresh new approaches”, but if the approach is too fresh and too new, if the publisher can’t figure out what the book is about, if the bookseller can’t visualize what section the book will be shelved in, then they’ll just take pass on it. I know. I bought books at Cody’s for 30 years. When I couldn’t figure out where I’d shelve a book, I tended not to order it.

2. Is this a blog, not a book? Is this a long form article, not a book? I get a lot of rejection letters from publishers because of these concerns. A lot of us are blogging and we’d like to take our precious material and put it all together into something that will make us some money. There’s also the added benefit that the hard work has already been done, and it just needs a little slicing and dicing. Publishers don’t want books derived from blogs. Why would readers pay for stuff that is already available for free online? The question about whether the subject works better as a shorter journalistic piece is a little more complicated. But if your manuscript is less than 50,000 words, it probably is too short for a book. With e-books, publishers are exploring new formats and are doing projects with shorter word counts.

3. Who are my readers and what do they care about? A lot of writers don’t ask this question, but it is the single most important question that needs to be addressed in an effective book proposal. In the world of commercial publishing, the reader is sovereign. I once tried to sell a self-help book about how to deal with a variety of office injuries, written by an author with very good bona fides. It got rejected. Editors pointed out that readers who have back pain don’t really care about how to treat repetitive stress syndrome. The reader is selfish and self-absorbed. She wants you to speak to her concerns. That’s why she paid good money to read your book.

4. If there are no other books on this subject, is there possibly a reason for that? Most authors think that a great pitch is: “there are no other books out there like mine.” For publishers, this begs the question of “why aren’t there any?” And the answer for them is usually that there is no audience big enough to justify publishing on this subject. What publishers really want is a book on a subject that has been written about in other very successful books. But you need to prove that you have something special that will make this robust audience spend money to read what you have new to say.

5. How different is my book, really, from all the others on the subject? You need to ask yourself if the things which distinguish your book from all the others really make a difference to the reader. And this is important. You may have come up with an astoundingly original interpretation of Jefferson’s role in the expansion of the young American republic. And it may have led to much bloviation and vitriole amongst the Jefferson scholars at the convention of the American Historical Association. Publishers aren’t so subtle. Their evaluation of the proposal will probably begin and end with: “Sorry. We don’t need another book about Jefferson.” Or maybe something like: “Sorry. Barnes and Noble didn’t order our last book on Jefferson.”

6. Do I have “platform?” We have written at length about platform in this blog, because publishers are obsessed with platform in our media-driven age. In non-fiction genres, platform is very, very important. And publishers’ idea of platform is probably different from yours. I often tell audiences that platform is either an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser (the latter is vastly preferable). Being a local tv personality with an audience of 500,000 viewers is not impressive platform. It’s “regional” unless your audience is in Manhattan. Then it’s national. Winning the Pulitzer Prize is good platform if your project is about the subject you won the prize for (and if it isn’t regional). A blog with 5000 views a month isn’t platform. A blog with 50,000 views a month also isn’t platform. Get the picture? Celebrities operate by their own rules. Nobel Laureates, presidential candidates, and Lindsey Lohan can write any nonsense they choose.

7. Wouldn’t this book make [a great profile in The New Yorker? ] [a great movie?] [a great subject for Oprah?] The answer is easy. “Maybe, maybe not. It probably won’t happen anyway, so stop dreaming and get realistic.”


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