Award winning novelist, poet, travel writer, editor, and teacher Linda Watanabe McFerrin and literary agent, Andy Ross are conducting a 6-day workshop on how to successfully prepare your fiction or non-fiction manuscript for publication in Scotland. The workshop will run from September 24-October 1, 2017.
Registration in now open. See details below. To register or get more information, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The workshop will be conducted in a picturesque country manor house or castle. The final venue has not yet been selected. If you have never been to Scotland, you are going to love this.
Most mornings after breakfast you’ll attend workshops from 10am to 12 noon devoted to literary craft and the preparation of book-length fiction and non-fiction projects for publication. You’ll also work on pitches, query letters, first pages, book proposals, and more. Afternoons will consist of exploring your environment, sampling the local fare, and finding the best spots to linger and write. Our evening “Literary Cafe” will be devoted to short literary talks by your workshop leaders, listening and responding to manuscripts in progress, and maybe even a short group performance or two.
Workshops will include editor and agent direction and the presentation of assignments on:
Finding your literary voice
Creating irresistible characters and centers of interest
Creating spellbinding plots and strategies for structure
Best literary bells and whistles
Preparing your manuscript for publication
Composing convincing query letters and book proposals
Linda Watanabe McFerrin is an award-winning novelist, poet, travel writer and contributor to numerous newspapers, magazines and anthologies. She is the author of two poetry collections, past editor of a popular Northern California guidebook and a winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction. In addition to authoring book-length fiction and an award-winning short story collection (The Hand of Buddha), she has co-edited twelve anthologies, including the Hot Flashes: sexy little stories & poems series. Her latest novel, Dead Love (Stone Bridge Press, 2009), was a Bram Stoker Award Finalist for Superior Achievement in a Novel.
Linda has judged the San Francisco Literary Awards, the Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence and the Kiriyama Prize, served as a visiting mentor for the Loft Mentor Series and been guest faculty at the Oklahoma Arts Institute. A past NEA Panelist and juror for the Marin Literary Arts Council and the founder of Left Coast Writers®, she has led workshops in Greece, France, Italy, England, Ireland, Central America, Indonesia, Spain, Japan and the United States and has mentored a long list of accomplished and celebrated writers and best-selling authors toward publication.
Andy Ross opened his literary agency in 2008. Prior to that, he was the owner of the legendary Cody’s Books in Berkeley for 30 years. His agency represents books in a wide range of non-fiction genres including: narrative non-fiction, science, journalism, history, popular culture, memoir, and current events. He also represents literary, commercial, historical, crime, upmarket women’s fiction, and YA fiction.
For non-fiction Andy looks for writing with a strong voice, robust story arc, and books that tell a big story about culture and society by authors with the authority to write about their subject. In fiction, he likes stories about real people in the real world.
Tawni Waters, author of the acclaimed YA novel, Beauty Of The Broken [Simon / Pulse, 2014], winner of the International Literacy Association YA Award, said this about Andy: “Since the day I signed with him, Andy has been an amazing friend, ally, and editor. He fell in love with Beauty of the Broken when it was in raw form and spent months helping me hone and polish the manuscript. He has a keen eye and is able to expertly assist both with global editorial issues and line editing. Before I met Andy, Beauty of the Broken had been represented by another agent and had failed to sell. However, within weeks of submission, Andy’s edited manuscript garnered interest from several major publishing houses. Shortly thereafter, we signed a contract with Simon Pulse. I have no doubt Andy’s edits were the thing that gave Beauty of the Broken the polish it needed to sell to a mainstream publisher.”
Andy is the author of The Literary Agent’s Guide to Writing a Non-Fiction Book Proposal. He has participated in writers conferences throughout the country and has taught classes about writing book proposals, composing query letters, working with agents, and getting published. His popular blog, “Ask the Agent: Night Thoughts About Books and Publishing”, has received over 400,000 unique views.
Authors Andy represents include: Daniel Ellsberg, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Anjanette Delgado, Elisa Kleven, Tawni Waters, Randall Platt, Mary Jo McConahay, Gerald Nachman, Michael Parenti, Paul Krassner, Milton Viorst, and Michele Anna Jordan.
Andy is a member of the Association of Author Representatives (AAR).
Price, Registration, and Details
The price for the workshop is $2375.00 per participant if you are sharing a room with another participant. That includes the full 6 day workshop plus 7 nights stay at a castle or manor house, 7 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 3 dinners. For a single room, the fee is $2900.00. Air and Ground transportation are not included. Plan to arrive by the evening of Sunday, September 24 and depart the morning of Sunday, October 1.
Deposit and Payment. In order to reserve your place, we require a deposit of $500 due with registration. This is non-refundable unless the workshop is cancelled for any reason. The balance of the payment is due by May 1, 2017. If we do not have a minimum of 10 registered participants by July 31, we will refund your payments at that time.
Prior to registration, we would like a bio and writing sample, so that we can evaluate whether this workshop is right for you.
Payment can be by Paypal or by personal check.
For more information, contact Andy Ross at email@example.com
I am so lucky that one of my favorite authors of all time, the supremely talented Tawni Waters, is my client. Tawni won the International Literacy Association YA Award in 2015 for her amazing YA crossover novel, Beauty of the Broken(Simon/Pulse 2014). If you want to read a good example of what MFA writing teachers call “a robust voice”, read the first paragraph of that book. Her newest novel, The Long Ride Home, is being published by Sourcebooks/Fire in June 2017. I lifted this post from Tawni’s blog.
MY REAL BEST ADVICE FOR BEGINNING WRITERS
Often, in interviews, I’m asked to give my best piece of advice for beginning writers. I always say something vaguely inspiring and possibly smarmy about believing in your dreams, but upon further reflection, I have come to realize that is far from the best piece of advice I have for writers, beginning or otherwise.
About five years ago, I began teaching poetry, fiction, and multi-genre writing workshops at a community college in Phoenix, Arizona. Since then, I’ve sold a few books and have been lucky enough to teach writers of all experience levels, from beginning writers to professional writers, at various institutions, universities, and writer’s conferences. I’ve read and critiqued hundreds of manuscripts, and in so doing, have learned that there are a few mistakes most beginning writers make over and over. And if you, like me (and all editors and agents), read veritable scads of manuscripts, bells start going off in your head the second you see those mistakes. Those bells, fair or not, ding-dong out the word “amateur.”
I don’t stop reading when those bells go off because I love beginning writers. It’s my job to teach them how to be better. I’m so glad someone took the time to teach me when I was a beginning writer, and I want to pay the favor forward. But agents and editors? When they hear those bells, you can bet they will throw your manuscript into the “no thanks” pile and move the heck on.
The biggest mistake most beginning writers make? Trying to be too fancy. I’ve said this a million times to various students, and I’ll probably say it a million more. “Never sacrifice clarity on the altar of pretty.” Beginning writers have heard the statistics. They know, for instance, that 1 out of every 4,000 books written gets agented, and 1 out of every 10,000 books written gets published by a major publisher. They understand they have to be really good to get noticed. They know they need to do something to stand out from the herd. So what they do almost universally is attempt to show off. They use big words when smaller words will do a better job of saying what they need to say. They use weird punctuation instead of adhering to more traditional rules. I’m not putting these people down. God knows I did the same things as a beginning writer. Just ask my teachers. But still. You asked for my advice. (Ok, you didn’t, but someone did, and I finally thought of an answer, so I’m giving it to you.)
Let’s start with wacky punctuation. If I had a penny for every time a student has tried to create tension using an ill-placed ellipses, I’d be able to retire from teaching for good. I do not allow my student to use ellipses unless someone dies mid-dialogue. This sentence is acceptable: “When I’m gone, take care of my goldfish,” Bob said, “and my beloved golden. . .” Poor Bob died. He expired mid-sentence, hence the ellipses. Bob, you are forgiven for the cardinal sin of ellipses use. Rest in peace, knowing we will take care of your golden retriever, or goblet, or whatever other gold-ish things you have schlepping around this place.
However, this sentence is not acceptable: “Sally had no idea why an ax murderer was crouching in her closet. . .” The tension comes from the ax murderer in the freaking closet, not from the ellipses. For god’s sake, put a period at the end of that sentence. Trying to create tension by using ellipses is like trying to be sexy by wearing a leopard print speedo. It’s desperate. It’s overkill. Just don’t.
In other news, don’t use a semicolon when a period will do. Don’t leave out commas to be cool. Your story will tell itself best if you aren’t busy drawing attention to your punctuation for no apparent reason. You dig? Punctuation should be invisible. People should be thinking about your story, not wondering why the hell you used 12 semicolons in your last sentence. (And if you don’t know what the traditional rules of punctuation use are, learn them. A writer who wants to get famous without learning grammar and punctuation is like a musician who wants to get famous without learning to play an instrument. You now what we call those people? Baristas.)
What beginning writers don’t understand, and professional writers do, is that your first job as a writer is to communicate. Writing is a two man sport. It’s always you and a reader. You are always working to make them part of your world. You want your reader to know what is going on at all times, no matter what. Making your words sound pretty is secondary to that goal. Readers will forgive you for not sounding pretty. They won’t forgive you for being confusing.
In my classes, I often draw little, terrible drawings to illustrate my points. I’m a woefully ineffective visual artist, but I’ve never let a minor thing like incompetence get in the way of my aspirations.
At least once a term, I will be driven to draw a horrible river on the whiteboard. I tell my students that river is their story. Then, I draw a boat that looks a whole lot like an ice cream cone. Heated arguments often erupt about whether or not my boat is really a boat. I erase and redraw the boat until the majority of the class agrees it is a reasonable facsimile of a boat. Then I tell my students that boat is the words they put on the page, their narration. They are inviting readers to hop into said boat and allow themselves to be ushered through the world of the story. I draw happy little stick figure readers, gleefully riding in the writer’s well-crafted boat, digging the ride, enjoying the story.
“Readers expect to be carried safely and seamlessly through the river,” I tell my students. “Every time they have to stop to try to figure out what is going on, they fall out of the boat and start to drown.” Here, I draw stick figure readers, drowning grotesquely. Poor stick figure readers. They trusted the wrong writer. Sometimes they vomit as they die. People do that, you know. And it’s all your fault, confusing writer. You’ve broken your contract with them. And readers don’t like drowning. If you confuse them enough, they will swim out of your story for good. So before you learn to tell a pretty story, learn to tell a clear story.
What exactly does that mean? It means it’s way better to say, “Tom’s arm hurt, and he screamed,” than it is to say, “Tom’s right upper appendage throbbed with the vicious, stabbing brutality that had just been enacted upon his person, and he opened his cracked, supine, vivacious eating instrument and released a blood curdling howl which fell angrily upon the ears of all in the vicinity for miles and miles around that fresh, green, yon valley.” (You think I’m being ridiculous. If I had a penny for every time I read a sentence like that, I could retire from teaching for good and buy a modest castle in France.) If a sentence is confusing when it’s pretty, get rid of the pretty parts and make it simple. And clear. Clarity is your primary objective.
Sorry. I know it hurts. Kill those darlings, my loves. Whether you know it or not, those things you think of as your darlings right now are likely mutant gremlins looking to eat you in your sleep, working to sabotage your dreams, make sure you never publish anything outside your local church bulletin. You will thank me someday for making you murder the fuckers.
People probably think I’m just talking about prose. I’m not. Poetry needs to make some kind of sense too. It doesn’t need to make the linear kind of sense that prose needs to make, but readers do need to walk away from it with some impression of what the hell you were trying to say. You may want your readers to ponder your lines for hours, but you want that to be because your words resonated, because you effectively communicated something that felt authentic to others, not because they had no idea what in the name of all that’s holy you were talking about.
Two years ago, three professional writer friends and I went to a poetry reading at AWP. Knowing what we were in for, we sneaked in some whisky in our coffee cups. Thank God. A young writer got up to read. Wearing a beret. She said, “I’m going to read some poems about my feelings and the migration patterns of herons.” I’m not making this shit up. We all picked up our pens to scribble the sentence down because it was comedy gold. Then we took swigs of our whiskey and set our jaws, the way you do when you are getting a pap smear, and the only thing to do is stare in stoic silence and wait for the torture to end.
Every beginning writer wants to write poems about her feelings and the migration patterns of herons. Obscurely. The problem is, readers would rather undergo waterboarding than read them. Please believe me when I say this: no matter what your careful readings of “The Wasteland” have led you to believe, obscurity in writing is not a virtue, in and of itself. By and large, people read things for meaning–meaning that is clearly communicated.
The following bit of writing is an example of poems I often get from beginning writers, writers who believe that someday, ardent poetry students will be digging through their works and biography, trying to make sense of the line, “Fish can be good if cookies are bad,” when finally, one brilliant grad student will discover that the writer’s mother hated cookies, and her dad loved fish. Eureka! We finally understand Gwen! (That’s what I’ve spontaneously decided to name the writer of the upcoming poem.) Sorry, Gwen, my love. Nobody will give a shit about your fucking fish.
I know we’ve all spent years dissecting James Joyce’s obtuse writings, but there was already one James Joyce, and between you and me, one was more than enough. (Here, I apologize to my agent, Andy Ross, who ardently believes that James Joyce was brilliant. Maybe he was. But can we agree that whatever Finnegans Wake’s virtues may or may not be, we don’t ever need another one?)
Student-of-mine, make your words mean something to your reader, make your lines clear and bigger than self, or you will lose your audience. Again, writing isn’t a solitary endeavor. You are always trying to create a connection between you and someone else. Without further ado I give you:
GWEN’S SHITTY POEM
wanders; my sinking eyes
flit to him as tears course down. Fish
can be good if cookies are
bad. Teapot. . . Brew, brew, brew, little
one, Short and stout. . .My childHOOD. . .Years gone;
yon, yawn, brawn. She looks at me with Heavily
lidded eyes; I dream sex: Sex, sex, sEx. . .
More sex. Phallus palace. My father
was. . .They never knew WHY gravel
turned to stone. Heron calls. Oh,
mommy, the heron calls.
me. . .
Gwen, my little imaginary Gwen, whom I channeled when I wrote that poem and am now beginning to actively hate, that isn’t a poem. It’s verbal vomit. Within poetry, your words should be connected to one another by a through line of logic. Your nouns/pronouns should refer to someone/something we are consciously aware exists within the world of your poem. Your words must be capitalized for a good reason, and almost always, that reason should be that they fall at the beginning of sentences or are proper nouns. Even in poetry, you cannot sacrifice clarity on the altar of pretty.
Read the best poets you can to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Here are two poems by Grant Clauser, a favorite poet of mine, with whom I was lucky enough to teach at the Rosemont College MFA Retreat over the summer. His work blows me away.
Notice how you always know what Grant is talking about. Notice there is a through line to his logic. Notice that while his poems may cause you stay up all night pondering the meaning of life/eating habits of bats, you never once ask yourself, “What the hell just happened?” You don’t have the sick, sinking feeling you’ve just borne witness to the literary equivalent of a random drive by shooting, one that you will spend the rest of your life trying to make sense of. He does talk about his childhood. He does talk about his feelings. He even talks about winged creatures. But he does it in a way that engages others, that says something both fresh and universal about the experience of being human. We don’t need to dig into his biography and know his dad liked fish (or didn’t) to get what he’s trying to say.
Also, notice most of Grant’s words are little. He doesn’t use a “flighted mammalian creature” when a simple “bat” will do. Notice how powerful his work is, in spite of, or perhaps partially because of, his refusal to use fancy language, capitalization, and punctuation. Notice how you want to weep when he says, simply, “And yet we live under a sky/with the miracle of bats—”
Sigh. Poetic power always comes from meaning, not literary sleight of hand. Words move us when they clearly communicate truth that resonates with us, when they give voice to and evoke feelings we have experienced–in this case, awe at the natural world. What if Grant said, “And yet, we reside on a double hemisphered turquoise and emerald ball where flighted mammalian creatures oft take wing.” Not quite the same punch, right? Sometimes, most times, when it comes to writing, less is more. Simple is best.
So here it is, my best piece of advice for beginning writers (cue “Wind Beneath My Wings” now): My darlings, my pretty ones, my literary luminaries in the making, be like Grant when you grow up. Please. For the love of all that is holy, never sacrifice clarity on the altar of pretty. Ever.
We are privileged to have with us today, renowned journalist, Milton Viorst. His new book: Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal has been published this month from St. Martin’s Press. Milton is a journalist who has covered the Middle East for three decades as a correspondent for The New Yorker and other publications. I feel particularly privileged to be Milton’s literary agent for this new and important work of Jewish history.
AR: Milton, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on “Ask the Agent.” There has been so much written on the subject of Zionism. Why do readers need another book about it?
MV: There has not been a history of Zionism written for half-a-century, during which the Zionist movement has decisively changed. After World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, most of the world was sympathetic to the establishment of a Jewish state. Since then, Zionism has become the object of widespread criticism. Its moral standing has diminished, even among those who continue to believe in its aims. This book explores the events that explain why the world’s perception has been so dramatically transformed.
AR: How have the aims of Zionism changed?
MV: The Zionist movement was founded at the end of the nineteenth century, when anti-Semitism was beginning to rage in Europe. Its founder, Theodor Herzl, was convinced the Jews needed a state, preferably in Palestine, in order to survive, and history has affirmed his judgment. But to establish a state, Jews had to overcome the fierce opposition of the local Arab inhabitants. In 1948, after a bitter Arab war, Israel was founded in most of historical Palestine. Then, in the Six-Day War of 1967, the Jews conquered the remaining territory in which the preponderance of Arabs lived, and they have since refused to withdraw from it. The oppressive military rule that Israel has exercised over the Palestinian Arabs has cost them much of the international sympathy from which their earlier aspirations once benefitted.
AR: Do most Zionists concur in the current policy?
MV: From its very beginning, Zionism has been sharply divided, not so much on the need for a state as on the nature of the state. Herzl himself warned of the obstacles created by merging the many and diverse societies in which Jews lived. In Herzl’s time, the divisions were over how Jewish the Jewish state should be. Herzl was a sophisticated Westerner who envisaged a secular state, like most states of Europe. But Orthodox Jews, if they agreed to a state at all, could imagine only one that was ruled by Jewish law; while a majority of the Jews of czarist Russia, the most oppressed of Europe’s Jews, insisted on a state that was not necessarily religious but was richly imbued with Jewish cultural values. In time these Jews prevailed.
AR: Was religion the only significant division?
MV: Not at all. The widest split in Zionism developed between Vladimir Jabotinsky’s belief in the importance of the Jews using their own military force to obtain a state and David Ben-Gurion’s belief in the priority of building political and economic institutions that would serve as the backbone of the state. “Of all the necessities for national rebirth,” Jabotinsky declared, “shooting is the most important. ” Ben-Gurion, meanwhile, was busy organizing a political party based on social democracy, founding a national assembly and creating the Histadrut, a uniquely Zionist organization that was part labor union, part industrial corporation, and part social welfare society. It was Ben-Gurion’s vision that led to a modern, prosperous Israel.
MV: In fighting World War I, Britain believed it had an interest in cultivating worldwide Jewry, and in 1917 it promised a homeland to the Jews in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, it promised not to violate the rights of the Arabs living in Palestine, creating a contradiction that was never really resolved.
AR: How did the Balfour Declaration play out after the war?
MV: Britain, with second thoughts, retreated on its pledges to the Jews. Jabotinsky, convinced that Ben-Gurion was wasting his time building institutions, argued for a militance in taking over Palestinian territory. The two men were bitter personal rivals for Zionist leadership, but their contrasting philosophies were also irreconcilable. In 1934 Jabotinsky and his followers, known as the Revisionists, seceded from the World Zionist Organization, which Herzl had formed to govern Zionism. To this day, the rift has not been healed.
AR: How did Jabotinsky’s Revisionism and Ben-Gurion’s mainstream Zionism handle their conflict during the struggle for independence?
MV: Jabotinsky died in 1940, but by then he had established his leadership over Betar, a militant youth organization closely tied to the right-wing regime in Poland. Betar gave Revisionism a fighting component, which it used to wage a guerrilla war against the British while they were still fighting the Nazis. Ben-Gurion stayed faithful to Britain until the Nazis surrendered, and his forces attacked only after Britain refused to allow survivors of the Holocaust and their children to enter Palestine. Even after Britain announced its withdrawal from Palestine in 1947 and Ben-Gurion prepared to declare Israel’s independence, the rival Jewish forces could not compose their differences. Only after a brief but bloody civil war did the two camps, faced with attacks from their Arab neighbors, agree to fight together under the government’s — that is, Ben-Gurion’s– command.
AR: What did the Palestinians do to save their land?
MV: Not much. Convinced Jews had no rights to Palestine, and Britain had made it possible for them to be there, Palestinians insisted that both leave and allow them to found their own state. They initiated violence, in which blood was shed, but it was weak. More importantly, they created no governmental institutions, and organized no effective military forces. After the U.N. voted to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, they attacked the Jewish militias, but the competition was unequal. When Ben-Gurion declared independence, the armies of five Arab nations attacked the state, but the results were no more favorable to them. .
AR: Given Ben-Gurion’s success as a state-builder, how did Jabotinsky’s Revisionism wind up in power today?
MV: Many Israelis ask this question. Part of the explanation is that Ben-Gurion’s creation, the Labor Party, having been deluded by its earlier triumphs into letting down its guard, was held to blame for Israel’s near-defeat in the Yom Kippur war. But, in the long-term, Israeli politics changed because the Israeli electorate changed. A new generation of Sephardim– Jews from the Arab world– had now reached maturity, and was resentful that the Ben-Gurion camp had for too long ruled as if by a natural right inherited from Herzl. There also arose a militant religious movement , composed of observant young people who worked in the secular economy but were heir to the Religious Zionists of the Herzl era. After 1967, they embraced the doctrine that Palestine was holier even than the Torah, which inspired them to settle Arab land, though it often meant defying the state.
A decade later, Israeli voters transferred their long-standing loyalty from Ben-Gurion’s camp to Menachem Begin, heir to Jabotinsky. Begin was not just the Revisionist rival; he was the non-Establishment alternative who took Israel on a more militant course, more defiant of world opinion. With only a few interruptions, it has since remained on that course. Benjamin Netanyahu, scion of a family long loyal to Jabotinsky, is today the leader of this course. Jabotinsky would probably approve of it, but the instability of Israeli life seems far removed from Herzl’s Zionist vision of providing peace and security for the Jewish people.
Today we are going to talk with Mary Mackey whose new historical novel, The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale was released this month. Mary is a bestselling author who has written seven volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of fourteen novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle BestsellerLists. Mackey’s novels have been translated into twelve languages.
Andy: Let’s cut to the chase, Mary: what happens in this novel? What’s The Village of Bones about?
Mary: Six thousand years ago, bands of marauding nomads from the northern steppes invaded what is now Bulgaria and Romania, bringing horses, male gods, and genocidal warfare to a peaceful, Goddess-worshiping Europe that had existed almost unchanged for thousands of years. This was a real invasion, with real consequences that we are still living with today.
In The Village of Bones I tell the story of a young priestess named Sabalah who conceives a magical child with a mysterious stranger named Arash. Sabalah names her child “Marrah.” Marrah will save the Goddess-worshipping people from the nomad invaders, but only if her mother can keep her alive long enough to grow up. Warned in a vison of the coming nomad invasion, Sabalah flees west with Arash to save her baby daughter, only to discover that she is running into the arms of her worst enemies. In the vast forests of northern France, other human-like species left over from the Ice Age still exist, and they are not—to say the least—friendly.
Andy: There are other best-selling books that take place in pre-historic times. Is there anything in The Village of Bones that will remind readers of books or films they’ve enjoyed?
Mary: You’ll definitely be reminded of The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Mists of Avalon, and Avatar. Also, there are some scary giant sharks that eat anything in their path, including one another. When I say “giant” I mean really GIANT. I based them on the Megalodon sharks, which. lived 2.6 million years ago, were 45 feet to 59 feet long, weighed 50 tons, and had teeth seven inches long. If you heard the theme music from Jaws playing in your head as you read that, it’s no coincidence. Then there’s the Mother Book, an ancient, sacred text that contains all knowledge, past, present and future, including the knowledge of how to travel through time. As you read about Sabalah’s race to save the Mother Book from falling into the hands of the Beastmen, you may find yourself reminded of The Da Vinci Code.
Andy: You’ve said this novel explores the “original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures which appear so often in European folk tales.” Can you explain what you mean by this?
Mary: In the Village of Bones, I choose to imagine that other human-like creatures survived in small numbers in the forests of northern Europe. At present, we know about a number of ancient species that were human-like but not strictly human. The best known are the Neanderthals, who play a central role in The Clan of the Cave Bear. The Neanderthals actually interbred with humans, so we’re all a part Neanderthal. The lesser known Denisovans also seem to have interbred with human beings. Other human-like ancient beings we know about include Homo floresiensis, Homo erectus, and Homo habilis.
As I began to write The Village of Bones, I came to wonder if perhaps small bands of these human-like beings survived long enough to be the original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures which appear so often in European folk tales.
Imagine for a moment that you are living 6,000 years ago, walking through the forest, minding your own business, when you stumble across a little man who is only three feet tall, covered with hair, and not quite human-looking. You might well think he is a magical creature, an elf, a fairy, a Hobbit.
Andy: Would you call this novel historical fiction, science fiction, or fantasy?
Mary: I’d call it all three. The Village of Bones crosses genre lines the way many of the really interesting books I love to read do. Like Jack Finney’s Time and Again, and Audry Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, it combines historical fiction with science fiction. Like the characters in Diana Gabaldon’s wonderful Outlander Series, the characters in The Village of Bones move in a world I’ve created by doing meticulous historical research, but they also take side trips into magic, prophecy, and fantasy. I’ve got giant talking snakes; I’ve got Goddesses who walk on water; I’ve got dolphins that will let you ride on their backs. But I’ve also got clothing based on materials found in ancient graves; houses based on the ruins of prehistoric houses; and forests filled with trees based on Neolithic pollen samples.
Andy: How did you become interested in the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe?
Mary: I didn’t know anything about them until I got a phone call one day from the head of HarperSanFrancisco. He had read my novel The Last Warrior Queen, which is about the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Sumeria. He told me he was about to publish a non-fiction book that dealt with the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe and asked me if would I be interested in writing a novel on the same topic. The manuscript of the non-fiction book he was about to publish turned out to be The Civilization of the Goddess by Professor Marija Gimbutas. Ten pages into it, and I was hooked. I began to write The Year the Horses Came about a week later.
Andy: Will Twenty-First Century readers find the story of these cultures relevant to their own lives?
Mary: Yes and no. Yes, because many of the issues my characters face are issues we face today. For example, the Goddess-worshiping cultures of 6,000 years ago considered the Earth both sacred and alive. We’re slowly killing the planet, and perhaps ourselves, by treating the Earth as a piece of real estate to be exploited instead of as a sacred trust to be tended.
No, because everything doesn’t have to be relevant all the time. Sometimes all we want is to put the troubles and anxieties of our everyday lives aside and go on vacation to some place new and exotic: back to the past, back to a world of magic and adventure where the mortgage never comes due, the computer never crashes, and interesting things happen.
Andy: How do you do research for a novel set 6,000 years ago? How close do you stick to the facts?
Mary: One reason I write historical novels is that the research is so much fun. To write The Village of Bones and the other three novels in The Earthsong Series, I traveled extensively through Europe scouting out locations so I could describe them accurately and visiting museums so I could see what was left from the cultures I was portraying. I saw the Great Nomad Gold Horde in Varna Bulgaria; statues of Snake Goddesses in Bucharest Romania; ancient cave paintings in southern France; Standing Stones in Brittany.
Contrary to what you might imagine the realistic parts of the novel were actually the easiest to write because I had the extensive research of Professor Marija Gimbutas to draw on. Professor Gimbutas, who taught for many years at UCLA, devoted her life to studying the Goddess-worshiping cultures of prehistoric Europe. Her two books The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess are gold mines of information. Professor Gimbutas generously helped me with the research when I was writing the first two novels in the Earthsong Series. Without her personal help and her work to draw on, it would have taken me a decade to write The Village of Bones instead of two years. She did all the hard work. All I had to do was pick up the bones she had uncovered, put flesh on them, and make them dance.
Andy: This is your fourteenth novel. Do you plan to write any more novels in this series?
Mary: Yes. The Village of Bones comes to an exciting climax and a satisfying conclusion, but I have left some loose strings which I intend to pick up at some future date.
Andy: Tell us a little bit about why you write historical fiction. Do you read historical fiction? What are some of your favorite books in the genre?
Mary: I’ve always loved historical fiction as long as it’s meticulously researched, accurate, not preachy, filled with interesting characters, and tells a great story. Some of my favorites are: The Color Purple by Alice Walker; The White Queen by Philippa Gregory; The Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem; The Persian Boy by Mary Renault; A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Roman Blood by Steven Saylor, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The list goes on and on. I’m always looking for new ones.
Ok. I admit it. I just don’t get Twitter. My promotion savvy brother, Ken Ross, advised me when I was becoming an agent, that I should market myself on social media, which means Twitter. So I signed up and waited around for followers. After the first 20 prostitutes tried to contact me, I gave it up. Today we are having a guest blog from Charlotte Ashlock, who is digital editor at Berrett-Koehler Books in Oakland. She likes to tweet and seems to be having more luck at it than I had. Here’s her advice.
Use what you already know
I’ve introduced a lot of beginners to Twitter, and they always have anxiety about how to behave in this new environment. My answer? Use the social skills you have been practicing for decades of your life! Those skills will serve you just as well on Twitter, as they do at your workplace’s water cooler or your friend’s cocktail party. You’re not as ignorant as you think you are. Sure, you might be worried you don’t know the right hashtags— the ones the cool kids are using. But what do you do when you’re dropped into a new environment “in real life?” You’re super nice, you listen a lot, and sooner or later, you just pick up the vocabulary that is unique to that environment. Trust me; mastering Twitter will be MUCH less stressful than mastering the middle school cafeteria back in the day!
Build relationships, not followers.
Many authors are focused on building their follower count because they think they need big numbers to impress their agent, publisher, or readers. I understand and sympathize with the pressure to become more impressive, but I think it is misguided. My own Twitter name is CrazyIdealist, and maybe it’s the crazy idealism talking, but I feel the point of life is to give love, not receive popularity! If you have 10,000 followers and not a single one of them cares about you, what’s the point? It’s a common strategy for authors to follow a bunch of people, just so those people will follow them back. This kind of self-serving behavior is ultimately a waste of time. I think you should follow people you would enjoy talking to, and take the time to really have good conversations with them. That way you have 100 real relationships instead of 10,000 fake relationships. 100 people who recommend you is worth more than 10,000 people who don’t know you.
Your most important tweets are your replies
So how do you build relationships, and “have real conversations?” Spend most of your Twitter time replying to the tweets of others. Twitter is a place where too many people are talking and not enough people are listening; so if you’re a good listener, you’ll stand out from the crowd! People will remember you more for responding to them, than for the most clever tweet you could possibly write praising yourself. “Focus on the other person,” is not just marriage advice, sales advice, and mental health advice— it’s also social media advice. It’s good all-purpose advice!
Be as classy online as you are offline
I see a lot of authors who think that just because they’re online, the rules are different. That leads to weird behaviors, like spamming people with commercial tweets, insulting people who don’t agree with you, or even just thanking people obsessively. If you wouldn’t say, “buy my new book!” twenty times over at your friend’s baby shower… don’t say “buy my book!” twenty times over on Twitter! And if you see hotheads losing their heads over politics— that doesn’t mean you have to lose yours! Conduct yourself with the grace and poise you would exhibit in a real life situation. And finally, although thanking people occasionally is nice, you are not obligated to thank people for every retweet, comment, or favorite. In real life, you wouldn’t say “thank you!” every time someone spoke to you. That wouldn’t be necessary. Use real life as your guide.
Sell your message, not yourself
A lot of writers struggle with building their online presence, because they don’t want to be self-promotional. Let me tell you, your instincts are sound; being self-promotional does turn people off. But you know what doesn’t turn people off? Being promotional about a cause, message, or higher purpose, is usually something people respect immensely. So instead of saying how great you are, talk about the importance of a message or theme within your book. This applies to both fiction and nonfiction. Is your character self-conscious about his/her appearance? Tweet about body positivity! Did you write a book of time management tips? Talk about what you like to do with the time you save: more time to bake cakes, hug the dog, etc. If you rant about your passions, instead of about yourself, you’ll stay interesting!
Remember, Twitter is not Facebook
Sometimes Facebook users get frustrated by Twitter because they’re not used to having a length limit on their writing. But don’t be discouraged! Often, removing the meaningless filler words from your sentences is enough to get you below the character limit: which is great practice for writing tighter generally! If that doesn’t cut it, simply write multiple tweets, each one a reply to the last, to link them all nicely together. Or, my favorite hack of all: type what you want to say in a text editor, take a screenshot of it, and tweet the screenshot. There are so many ways around the length limit, it’s not even worth thinking about.
Here’s what I think is actually the crucial difference between Twitter and Facebook: Twitter is designed for forming new relationships, and Facebook tends to be more focused on building existing relationships. On Facebook, reaching out to people who don’t know you, can come across as bizarre (or even creepy!) if you don’t do it right. On Twitter, there’s nothing weird or creepy about starting a conversation with a stranger. After all, people are there because they want new connections! So long as you avoid the obvious no-nos (selling, flirting, and politically attacking) people will be absolutely delighted to hear from you.
And always stay interesting, my friends.
Charlotte Ashlock is the Managing Digital Editor and Treasure Hunter of Ideas at Berrett-Koehler Publishers, a nonfiction publisher specializing in business, current affairs, and personal development. For more valuable social media advice, check out the book she edited: Mastering the New Media Landscape, by Barbara Henricks & Rusty Shelton.
Writers spend a lot of time and energy fretting about and suffering over rejection. That’s understandable. As an agent, I get rejection letters every day for my clients’ submissions. It feels a little like going to the dentist. We have a lot of posts on “Ask the Agent” analyzing this painful subject. Today I want to repost an article by a book acquisition editor, Anna Leinberger, of Berrett-Koehler Books. It’s good to see what the other side has to say about this.
On Vulnerability and the Submissions Process
Submitting your written work to a publisher or an agent is one of the most terrifying things a writer experiences and, even worse, one that any writer must constantly repeat. Vulnerability is an inextricable element of the publishing process, and it is not something that humans particularly like, and not one we do well. An author is virtually guaranteed to be rejected most of the time, especially when starting out. Adding insult to injury, the rejection does not necessarily end once you have been published. Truly, it does not end until you are E.L. James; the editors I work with regularly reject book proposals from authors we have already published if we think the new proposed book is not ready, if their last book did not sell well, or we don’t think there is a market for the new topic (etc.)
Humans are really good at protecting themselves from this traumatic experience. We build glass castles around ourselves- elaborate constructions built of justifications, defensiveness, and preemptive strikes. Query letters are full of flashy language designed to get an editor to take note; letters contain demands: “respond promptly” in an attempt to grasp some power in the relationship. Here is the thing though- none of those tactics work. Tactics don’t work. The only thing that is going to catch my eye is a great idea that is plainly stated. That is it. There is no secret, no elaborate scheme that will convince me that your idea is great if it is not great. If it is, and a host of other elements are in place (people know who you are, you have credibility, the market is not already saturated, we did not just publish two other books on the topic, I am personally interested….and on) you will have a shot at being published.
Glass Houses Are Not Actually Safe.
Humans love these glass houses because they offer us the illusion of safety. “I must have messed up the cover letter!” or “My hook was not strong enough!” or “My idea is genius, it is just that I don’t have a platform and that stinking publisher is only after money!” But it is a fallacy. When the glass house shatters, the only thing you are left with is that the idea or your platform was not ready. It is the most human thing to try every mental trick possible to protect yourself from the idea that your book was not up to snuff. But in blaming it on a typo in your cover letter, rather than facing the cold hard truth, you are losing a profound opportunity to face reality and choose to make your project better.
Be terrified. Put your work out there. Accept the news that it is not ready yet. Take every piece of feedback you can get your hands on, and be brutal with yourself. Don’t waste brain power creating elaborate judgments and justifications. As painful and scary as you might find it, face the rejection, look it in the eye, and squeeze every last piece of useful information out of it. When you have done that, move forward again. Be vulnerable again, and again, and again.
About Anna Leinberger
Anna is a writer and editor at Berrett-Koehler Publishers in Oakland, CA. You can follow her on twitter or Medium for more on writing, editing, and literary witchcraft.
Today The Authors Guild announced that it has petitioned The Supreme Court to review its ongoing lawsuit against Google Books for illegally copying and distributing copyrighted books without the permission of the copyright holder (the author). The lower courts have ruled against The Authors Guild. My personal feeling (I realize this is kind of old fashioned in the Internet Age) is that people should be compensated for their work. And the work of the writer is as deserving of compensation as the work of – say – a person flipping burgers or a person selling derivatives of worthless mortgages. Click here if you want to read more about this important case.
Here are some FAQs about this lawsuit.
Why is the Authors Guild still pursuing this case against Google? Google copied 20 million books to create a massive and uniquely valuable database, all without asking for copyright permission or paying their authors a cent. It mines this vast natural language storehouse for various purposes, not least among them to improve the performance of its search and translation services. The problem is that before Google created Book Search, it digitized and made many digital copies of millions of copyrighted books, which the company never paid for. It never even bought a single book. That, in itself, was an act of theft. If you did it with a single book, you’d be infringing.
I’m a writer and I like Google Book Search. I use it all the time. What’s the problem? Google Books itself is not the problem. We’re all writers here, and we generally like Google Book Search. Some of us use it for research all the time.
The problem is that Google used authors’ books for profit-making purposes without first getting permission from authors. It just went ahead and copied them many times over and extracted their value, without giving the authors any piece of it. There are lots of other great commercial uses of books; the difference is that most users abide by the law and get permission. If corporations are now free to make unauthorized copies of books for profit as long as there is some public benefit to the copying, then authors’ incomes will suffer even more than they have in recent years.
A truism of the digital age is: whoever controls the data owns the future. Google’s exclusive access to such an enormous slice of the world’s linguistic output cemented its market dominance and continues to this day to further its corporate profits.
Isn’t Google just acting like a giant library? Not at all. Libraries are public institutions, generally non-profit, dedicated to readers and scholars. Even so, they know they have to pay for their books. Moreover, they are largely not-for-profits intended to serve the public good.
Google is in the business of books for commercial reasons only; it is more like a commercial publisher than a library. Like a commercial publisher, it seeks to profit from its use of books. While Google does this in a different way, by extracting value from data (from both the books’ language as data and data collected from users’ searches), it still should seek permission for these uses because it is extracting value from the authors’ expression.
But libraries lent Google the books in the first place, didn’t they? What’s wrong with that? Borrowing the books was fine, but copying them without permission or payment was not. If you borrow a book from a library, it’s temporary. You can’t keep a copy for your own personal use. Google made a number of copies of each book—times millions. And they’re way past overdue. Just as a few years ago, some banks proved too big to fail, Google has, so far, apparently been too big to punish.
Does the Authors Guild want to shut down Google Books? No. A resounding no. We did not ask the court to shut down Google Books, we simply asked it to require Google to get permission from authors and pay them for the scanning and use of their works.
Doesn’t Google say this is “fair use”? After all, it doesn’t display full copies. That is Google’s self-serving legal argument, yes, and so far it has persuaded judges who, we believe, are not seeing the big picture. “Fair use” is the exception to copyright that lets people use portions of (and in rare cases whole) copyrighted works for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” When deciding whether a particular use is “fair,” courts should take into account at least four separate considerations and weigh them against each other. They are: (1) the “purpose and character” of the use, including whether it is commercial; (2) the nature of work that’s being copied; (3) how much of the work was copied; and (4) whether the copying eats into the potential value of the work that was copied. All these things—and anything else that the court deems relevant—have to be considered independently, and then weighed together to make the fair use determination.
In this case, Google’s use was commercial, the entire works were copied, and the market to bring back out of print books is completely devalued.
But a lot of fair uses have a commercial element to them. Surely you can’t be saying that Google’s for-profit status prevents it from making fair uses? We’re not saying that at all. Commerciality is just one of the factors to be considered.
Under the first factor, where the law expressly directs the courts to look at whether the use is commercial, the court focused almost exclusively on what it viewed as the transformative nature of Google Books. The Second Circuit disregarded the commerciality because of the perceived public benefit of Google Books. First, it looked at the public-facing use (the Google Books search engine) not any of Google’s internal uses. Then, looking at the “purpose and character” of Google Books, it decided the use “transformed” the books because the use was different than the use the books were written for. (We don’t agree that this kind of transformation should favor fair use.) Following that logic, it found that Google Books delivers a public benefit (which we don’t deny), and then weighed the whole factor in Google’s favor—regardless of the fact that Google Books was also blatantly commercial. (Even if we agreed the use were transformative, we think the factor should have balanced out as neutral at the very least.)
Then, the court went on to let this first-factor finding color its discussion of each of the other factors—essentially turning a multi-factor test into a one-factor test. The court did not consider each factor independently, nor did it balance them against each other in light of the purposes of copyright, as required by the law.
The multi-factor fair use test has evolved over more than a century and has survived the test of time—for good reason. It does an efficient job of identifying uses that are fair to make without permission. For instance, quoting from a book, criticizing it, or creating a parody of it are all traditional fair uses. But by straying so far from the statute, the Second Circuit reached a decision that cannot be considered fair, especially if you consider the precedent it will set.
If Google isn’t charging people to search for snippets in Google Books, or putting ads on the page, how can it be considered commercial? Google didn’t spend millions on scanning these books as a charity project. Again, it did it to have access to all the language in those books, which it used to improve its search engine, allowing it to corner the Internet search market and drive more users to its site, which is based on a model in which visitors equal revenue.
Search engines do not make money by charging people for use; they make money by bringing traffic to their sites, collecting data from the users, and selling advertising. Google makes money in all of these ways from Google Books. The fact it has not to date posted advertising on the results pages from searches inside the books is irrelevant.
Moreover, since the Second Circuit decision, Google has integrated its book-buying service (formerly accessed as part of Google Play) with Google Books. Google Books is now a transparently commercial service, as we have always predicted would eventually be the case.
Why is the Authors Guild taking this to the Supreme Court after it failed to convince so many lower courts? See above.
We believe that the Second Circuit court took a myopic view of fair use law in its ruling and that the Supreme Court needs to step in and correct this. In the final analysis, the appellate court’s reasoning turns on its head the Constitutional purpose of copyright law. The Founders recognized that, for the benefit of the public, we need authors who can earn a living, independent of government, academic or other patronage. That’s the purpose of copyright: to benefit the public by enabling authors to be compensated for their work. But the Second Circuit, blinded by the public-benefit argument of Google Books supporters, overlooked the fact that it completely cuts authors out of the equation.
Moreover, if this case isn’t overturned, this case will become a rule of law; it doesn’t just apply to Google Books, in other words. The decision will be read by other entities as giving them free reign to digitize books (at least books where the author owns the rights) and create searchable excerpt-viewing services for those books. Other entities might decide to show more of the books than Google currently does, and they probably won’t have the security protections that Google does. As a result, many authors’ books could become widely digitized and available for free on the Internet.
Still, if Google Book Search points potential book buyers to your book, shouldn’t you be thanking them? Why should Google have the right to decide how to market books for authors? Authors may have many other more profitable ways to make money from their out-of-print and other books, and they should have the right to make those decisions. Let’s say you put your house on the market and your neighbour decides it would be great to have a party there while you are away, without first asking you. He justifies it by telling you he invited a lot of people and so will help market your house. Not too many people would be thrilled with that, even if it did in fact end up leading to a sale. What Google did is very similar.
Google’s seizure of our work (and the courts’ blessing of it) represents a denial to authors of emerging and potential markets for our work. It revokes the promise of the digital age. If Google is allowed to swipe our entire work and profit from it, then so can others, in ways we cannot foresee now. That’s a problem because authors may want to write and create in ways we cannot foresee now, as we find new ways to transform—and profit from—our work.
But we don’t need to look to the future to see the harm being done to authors. Even today writers are seeking to bring their out of print works back to market as print-on-demand editions, or e-books—but Google has made a significant amount of many of these titles readily available on the Internet, and for free. The amount Google displays is already enough to satisfy the demands of many readers and researchers, particularly when it comes to non-fiction books. And as libraries start to follow suit, there will be more and more text available from each book.
Wide availability of free books—isn’t that a good thing? In the short run, for researchers—maybe. But think about what happens next: people won’t buy nearly as many books. That means all but the highest-selling authors won’t be able to make a living from writing books: many authors will have to take on other work to make ends meet. The result, we hate to say, is that fewer quality books will be written—and that’s a loss to us all.
Aren’t most of the books at issue in the case old, and the authors long dead? Many of them are older works, but in publishing, “older” can mean just a few years off the press. When the books are old enough to be in the public domain, there’s no problem with Google making copies. The problem arises with the millions of books that are still in copyright. The current case involves books found in academic libraries where the copyright is owned by authors. The vast majority of these books are out-of-print, meaning the author generally had the right to reclaim the copyright. And as we mentioned above, authors are increasingly looking to republish and retool their out-of-print books and bring them back as e-books or print-on-demand. Google Books interferes with that market, plain and simple.
Why should readers care? Readers should care because the Second Circuit decision waters down copyright protection, and if it stands, readers could face a culture in which authors won’t be motivated to create serious work, because it is simply too hard to sustain a writing career financially in a climate where anyone can use books without paying for them. Most serious writing, outside of academia, is done by authors who write as a profession—because, like any art, great writing requires a lot of time, learning, and practice. And readers should care because written works, as we all know, contribute immeasurably to the vitality of our culture.
How complicated can it be for Google to ask an author permission to use her work? Exactly our point: the rights are eminently clearable. The court refused to acknowledge this point or take it into consideration. For example, our sister organization, the Authors Registry, as well as the Copyright Clearance Center, find authors for royalties from overseas uses with little difficulty or expense. And there are innumerable collective rights organizations around the world who do this all of the time—without much difficulty, and with much less money than Google.
Excellent statement from The Author’s Guild analyzing the odious “option clause” in the book contract. Most book contracts are “asymmetrical” in favor of the publisher. I.e. an agreement whereby the publisher gets the right to exploit the work of the author for the term of the copyright, life plus 70 years. In exchange they give the author a very small advance (usually) against rather small royalties. One of the most asymmetrical conditions is the option clause, which requires the author to submit the next book exclusively to the contracted publisher for a given period of time, but doesn’t require any additional responsibility on the publisher to accept it. Sometimes a very limited option clause is ok. But there are some truly horrible ones out there. Here is the complete text.
A few authors are lucky enough to sign multi-book deals worth six or seven figures. But many more writers, without really thinking about it, tie themselves to unprofitable multi-book deals in the form of one-sided options or “next book” clauses—and they do it for free.
Option clauses in publishing agreements vary, but generally they give the publisher first dibs on the author’s next book. Some options are relatively benign, granting the publisher rights of first look or first negotiation (i.e., the right to see the next book first and negotiate for a limited period of time after reviewing it). Others are never fair, in our view, such as clauses that grant the publisher a right of last refusal (i.e., even if the publisher turns it down at first, it can come back and match any other publisher’s offer) or the ability to wait until after the first book is published, or the second book completed, to make up its mind. Clauses that do so unfairly impede an author’s ability to write and publish.
We get that publishers want their investments in authors to pay off. When a book does well, it may be a credit to the publisher’s marketing efforts, as well as the author’s. In cases where the publisher actively builds the author’s brand, it may be fair to give it the right to further recoup its investment on the next book. But the terms have to reasonable. We have seen too many option clauses that overreach, binding the hands of an unwitting author for longer than she can afford when it comes time to sell the next book.
Option clauses can wreak havoc on authors’ careers. First, and most obviously, they prevent an author from selling her book on the open market and getting the best deal possible. In cases where the first book sold particularly well, unless and until the publisher passes on the next book, an option certainly precludes an auction from developing. And what if the publisher failed to market the first book effectively, or the author was dissatisfied with the edit? The author is left without recourse.
An option can also hold up the author’s ability to get a new advance—a necessity for full-time authors. Particularly egregious clauses require the author to submit a completed manuscript (as opposed to a proposal) of the next book for the publisher’s consideration. To make things worse, they give the publisher way too long to decide whether to publish the manuscript. The author is not permitted to submit a proposal to other publishers until after delivering an entire new book to the original publisher, which is given ample time to review it and, of course, to reject it. This means that the author is writing the entire book without an advance—defeating the very purpose of an advance, which is to provide an author with money to write the book in the first place.
Even worse are options that give the publisher the right to the author’s next book-length work “on the same terms” as the first. That is, if the publisher elects to exercise the option, the author must sign a contract with the publisher with the same provisions and payment structure as the current contract. This completely eliminates the author’s right to negotiate before the next book’s subject matter, length, and market potential are known. No writer should ever agree to such terms.
For absolute intolerability, option clauses including “last refusal” rights take the cake. These, as discussed above, actually allow a publisher to match a second publisher’s offer, even if the publisher who holds the option declines the author’s work initially. We don’t think a publisher should receive even one bite of this apple. But several? That’s crazy. Once a publisher passes on a book, no author should be obligated to disclose any offers received from others to the original publisher.
One Authors Guild member whose option required submission of an entire manuscript spent ten years without any financial compensation while working on a research-intensive non-fiction manuscript (an early advance for the “next book” is almost never part of the deal). His contract prohibited him from approaching any other publisher until the entire manuscript was done—a decade later. It’s preposterous to ask authors to bear that kind of risk.
Fiction writers aren’t immune. A few years ago, a major publisher used a next-book option (together with a non-compete clause, like the ones we’ve called out here) as an excuse to pull the plug on a novel already scheduled for publication. With her agent’s knowledge and blessing, the author decided to self-publish a previously-written but unpublished short story collection in order to make ends meet before the next installment of the advance for the novel was due. When her publisher—which had already rejected the story collection—found out, the author received a termination letter demanding immediate repayment of the advance, claiming that “by ignoring these essential terms of the Agreement and not informing your editor of your intentions, you have not only breached the Agreement, but also demonstrated your unwillingness to work in good faith with us toward the successful publication of the Work.” The novel clearly didn’t compete with the self-published short story e-book. And earlier, when the author presented the publisher with an outline for her next novel, the publisher had insisted on waiting until after the current novel’s release to see how it was received and whether it was worth picking up the next one.
Or consider the romance novelist who took a break from fiction to write a non-fiction book. Her non-fiction contract required her to submit her next book—a romance novel—to that same publisher, despite the fact that the non-fiction publisher had absolutely no experience with romance novels. The upshot was that the author was required to delay submission of the novel to publishers who would actually know how to handle it.
Fair “next book” clauses do exist and may be appropriate where the publisher invests in marketing, but they must be strictly limited. The clause should grant only a right to negotiate with the author for a next book of similar subject matter for a limited period of time. If the author and publisher can’t reach an agreement in that time frame, it is crucial that the author be free to quickly seek another publisher. Additionally, a fair option agreement generally will:
require that the publisher base its decision on a proposal or sample chapters of the next book (not on a completed manuscript);
require the publisher to make a decision within a certain number of days (e.g., 30) of receiving the author’s proposal or sample chapter(s);
allow the author to go elsewhere if no agreement is made within a limited number of days (e.g., 15) of the publisher’s offer;
allow the author to submit a proposal or sample from the next book for the publisher’s review when it is ready (the author should never be forced to wait until some period after publication of the first book, which may be way too far out for an author living on book writing alone); and
provide for new terms to be negotiated for the next book (the second deal should never be based on the terms in the contract for the first book).
If the publisher wants an option in any other circumstances, the publisher should pay an upfront option fee for it. We recognize this is not an industry practice—not yet, at any rate. But it should become one. A publisher should never have the right to prevent or delay an author from selling her next book unless it pays an additional amount to hold up that work for some period of time, as a film studio would when buying film option rights on a book.
Bottom line: option clauses are almost always in the sole interest of the publisher and not the author. In some cases, the option clause can hold the author’s writing career hostage to the publisher’s schedule for years. This amounts to an unacceptable restriction on an author’s freedom to write. If an author is agreeable to providing the publisher an option, it should be subject to the limits described above.
Tawni Waters accepting the International Literacy Association YA Award for Beauty of the Broken
Below is an essay my client, Tawni Waters, wrote on receiving the International Literacy Association Award for the best debut YA novel. I always thought that Tawni was the most heart wrenching novelist writing today. It turns out that she is also the funniest. Read it and laugh.
I am sitting next to Meg Cabot eating chicken. The conversation is going well. I’m totally playing it cool, like I have no idea she’s a bestselling author. I even get a little piece of parsley stuck between my teeth, you know, to solidify my “we are just two regular chicks chatting over chicken” routine. She says something about her books, and I say, “Oh, are you a writer?”
She smiles graciously. “Yes, I am.”
“Cool, what do you write about?” I ask, throwing back a swig of tea.
“Oh, princesses,” she says.
“That’s awesome,” I say without missing a beat. “Are they published?”
“Yes,” she says.
“I should totally look those up,” I say and move on to my potatoes.
I could chock my wonderful performance up to the fact that I’m a trained actress, but that would be dishonest. My spot-on “I don’t know you are rich and famous” performance actually comes from the fact that I don’t know she is rich and famous. I guess I should have put two-and-two together. A man in a tuxedo led me to this reserved table at the front of the banquet hall. I am here to receive the ILA Book Award for Young Adult Fiction, and Meg Cabot is scheduled to speak at the luncheon. So when this beautiful, poised, funny woman sitting beside me introduced herself to me as Meg, I should have said, ‘A-ha! This is Meg Cabot, writer of the gazillion-dollar earning Princess Diaries.” But I didn’t. I didn’t because this whole weekend has been overwhelmingly hard-to-believe, so I seem to be coping by subconsciously deciding not to believe it. I feel like Dorothy transported to Oz, muttering, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” ad nauseam. I think I may be suffering from mild shock.
It all started when I arrived at the Four Seasons in St. Louis after a two day road trip from Minneapolis. My publisher, Simon & Schuster, had offered to fly me in for the event, but I wanted to bring my friend Polyxeni, you know, for moral support, so I wouldn’t make an idiot of myself in front of Meg Cabot or anything. Polyxeni is a book buyer for the St. Paul Library System, and from the minute I found out I won the ILA, she told me it was a big deal. A huge deal. A life-changing deal. So did Simon & Schuster. So did my agent, Andy Ross. I didn’t believe any of them.
“Last year’s winner was Rainbow Rowell,” Polyxeni said slowly over coffee, as if talking to a brain-damaged child. “Do you get that? Rainbow Rowell?”
I nodded. Sure, I knew who Rainbow Rowell was. Who didn’t? What did that have to do with me?
“Her book is being made into a Pixar movie now! This award changes the career trajectory of everyone who wins it!” Polyxeni enthused.
I wondered why she was being so pushy. And why was she using big words like “trajectory”? Did she think I was a scientist or something? Show off. Suffice it to say, out of self-preservation, I decided to miss the point. I think it was because I had been a struggling artist for so many decades, the thought of all that changing seemed impossible to me. I didn’t want to get my hopes up only to find them dashed. It was easier not to believe.
We arrived in St. Louis looking just about like people who have been driving and eating Pringles for two days should look, which is to say, dead shmexy. I knew Simon & Schuster was going to be putting me up at the Four Seasons, but I didn’t know what that meant. I guessed Four Seasons was sort of like Holiday Inn—nice, clean, probably no roaches in the showers. When we walked through the doors, I thought four things:
Now I know what the phrase “smells like money” means.
Maybe I should have put on a fresh T-shirt, one without the Jaws emblem.
Is everything here made out of actual marble, or is that pen faux marble?
I hope that mini-van-sized chandelier doesn’t fall on my head.
After checking in, Polyxeni and I stepped onto the elevator. “Why do you have to put your key in?” she whispered.
“To keep the riffraff out,” I said. “Which is weird, because until now, I was the riffraff.”
We laughed and rode the elevator to the 15th floor where a beautiful woman was waiting for us with our luggage (a very stained polka-dotted roll-along and an army green duffel bag, respectively). She showed us around our room, making sure to point out the television hidden in the bathroom mirror, just in case we wanted to watch Seinfeld reruns while we were freshening up, after which she offered to bring up bath salts and bubble bath, should we decide to take advantage of the amenities. She pointed at the marble encased tub, as if we could miss it. The bathtub was roughly the size of the Aegean Sea. I suddenly understood why rich people so often drowned in their bathtubs. I asked Polyxeni if she had brought our life jackets. She hadn’t. We decided to take our chances with the drowning and said yes to the bath salts.
After the woman left, Polyxeni and I glanced around our room in awe, commenting on the St. Louis arch glinting in the sun just outside our window. Then we flopped on the giant bed at its center.
“It feels like a cloud!” Polyxeni giggled. She was right. It did. I was pretty sure we’d been transported to heaven. We bumbled around for a bit, smelling shampoos and tasting pillow mints and acting like a scene from The Beverly Hillbillies.
That night, Polyxeni and I went to the hotel restaurant for a celebratory dinner. Our waiter was a lovely girl. She seemed to know who I was. As she poured my champagne, she called me Ms. Waters with a sort of reverence I am not used to. Sometimes, my community college students would say my name that way at the end of a semester, when they deserved an F and wanted a C. But this felt sincere. During the course of dinner, every waiter in the restaurant came to meet me. They brought me a little dessert plate that had “congratulations” written on it in chocolate. Polyxeni assured me that she hadn’t told them about my award. That’s when I started to think that maybe, just maybe, Polyxeni and Simon & Schuster and my agent hadn’t been lying when they said this award was a big deal.
The next day’s events were even more surreal. I had a signing at one. Rewind with me for a minute:Beauty of the Broken was released almost a year ago. I have pretty much been on book tour since then. I am not new to signings. I have signed books all over the USA, in coffee shops and bookstores and libraries and schools. What I have learned about book signings is that they are very unpredictable things. Sometimes, 50 people show up (if you are signing in your hometown). Sometimes, two people show up, and you take them out for wine and Chinese food because you are embarrassed they bothered to show up when no one else did. So I warned Polyxeni at lunch. “Don’t expect much from the signing. I’m not sure people will show up.”
“Oh, they’ll show up. Trust me,” she said. Poor Polyxeni. She just didn’t understand the nuances of the publishing business.
Or maybe she did. The second I sat down to sign, a line formed. A long line. It stretched out of sight. People gushed as I signed their books.
“You’re my daughter’s favorite author. I can’t believe I get to meet you!”
“Make it out to my wife! She’s your biggest fan!”
“Can I get a picture with you?”
I handled all of this with the grace and dignity of a seasoned author, which is to say, I didn’t throw up on anyone. After 20 minutes, we had to end the signing, not because the line had dwindled, but because we ran out of books. I don’t know how many books we had to start with, but I can tell you we had bunches. Bunches and bunches. I walked away dazed. Again, it occurred to me that this award might actually mean something. Could it be that my career was really going to change?
That night, Simon & Schuster hosted a “family dinner,” which meant that they brought a handful of really cool marketing people and authors together in a posh restaurant and fed them amazing food. (Full disclosure: I had never been invited to a Simon & Schuster family dinner before.) It was beautiful. I ordered steak and three glasses of champagne because I could. (I noticed another author ordered four neat whiskeys, so I figured I was ok.) After we were well into the main course, Candice, the extraordinary library and marketing person who had organized the event, suggested we go around the table and introduce ourselves. We did. Everyone said his or her name, the title of his or her latest book, and the name of his or her editor. When my turn came, I said just those things. Candice looked at me expectantly. “Don’t you have something else to tell them?” she asked. What was she talking about? I looked at her blankly.
“Your award?” she prodded. “I think we can tell them even though it’s a secret. No one will say anything.”
My award? It was a big enough deal that I could say it to this room full of important people and expect them to be impressed? “Well, Beauty of the Broken won the ILA Book Award for Young Adult Literature,” I said, feeling almost sheepish, expecting everyone to nod politely and go back to nibbling cheeses. I probably will never forget that moment as long as I live. The expressions on the faces at the table changed. They were impressed. Amazed even. Everyone clapped and congratulated me.
“Thank you,” I said, learning to love the attention.
And then, a bunch of naked guys rode by the window on bikes and stole my thunder. No, I’m not making this up. There was a nude bike rally in St. Louis that night, and it happened to pass the restaurant where we were eating. Everyone forgot my award, ran to the window, and started shrieking, “Oh, my god! Did you see his ______?” (Sidenote: if you ever want to be cured of the demon of lust, watch a naked bike rally.) Which made me go, “Ok, now I get it! This is a dream!” But it wasn’t a dream. I don’t think. Maybe it is. Maybe I just haven’t woken up yet.
The next day, I accepted my award shortly after I realized who Meg Cabot was. “Oh, my god! You’re that Meg!” I said, looking at the giant screen behind us, onto which was projected a God-sized picture of Meg, along with photos of her zillion best selling novels.
“Yes,” she laughed.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I feel so dumb.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I get tired of that other stuff anyway.”
I don’t know if I will ever be Meg Cabot. I don’t know if I will ever get enough of this “other stuff” to get tired of it. Right now, two days after coming home from the ILA Conference, I’m still blown away that any of that “other stuff” is coming my way at all. Already, people care about Beauty of the Broken in a way they never have. People I don’t know are Tweeting about me. I’ve already been asked to speak at a major conference. Facebook, the litmus test of all that is good and likable in this world, tells me that people like me way more than they did two weeks ago. And this is just the beginning.
After the banquet, I attended a panel where a brilliant professor taught people how to teach Beauty of the Broken in the classroom. I looked down at the worksheet she handed me, taking in phrases like “feminist critique” and “Marxist analysis” in relation to my characters. Stay with me here: Those weird little figments of my imagination are now going to be used to torture high school and college students everywhere. Someday, a few months from now, a year from now, some poor NYU freshman will be popping No-Doz, analyzing the socio-economic implications of Iggy’s quilt. “Why do you think the author used Iggy’s quilt so often in the text?” some well-meaning teacher will ask, and the student will write an essay about this, a terrible essay, an essay that mixes up “you’re” and “your” and postulates that Iggy’s quilt is a symbol of the various facets of bourgeois oppression in the 21st Century.
And I will be sitting at home saying, “Ha, suckers! The author used Iggy’s quilt so much because she knew she needed to write a few physical details to help readers visualize the scene, and she was way too hopped up on caffeine to think of anything fresh, so she referenced the dumb blanket again!”
Maybe I shouldn’t write that down. Maybe I should just pretend I meant all the profound things students will someday say I meant. Thanks to the ILA, I am a serious writer. But the transition is hard.
On June 17, we posted a statement by The Authors Guild about their new Fair Contract Initiative, in which they would be clarifying the issues in the typical book contract that are unfair to authors. Today The Authors Guild issued their first analysis having to do with e-book royalties, which are substantially lower than the royalties on hardbacks, even though the costs of production and distribution of e-books is substantially lower. It’s worth reading. Here is the text in its entirety.
We announced our Fair Contract Initiative earlier this summer. Now our first detailed analysis tackles today’s inadequate e-book royalties. At the heart of our concern with the unfair industry-standard e-book royalty rate is its failure to treat authors as full partners in the publishing enterprise. This will be a resounding theme in our initiative; it’s what’s wrong with many of the one-sided “standard” clauses we’ll be examining in future installments.
Traditionally, the author-publisher partnership was an equal one. Authors earned around 50% of their books’ profits. That equal split is reflected in the traditional hardcover royalty of 15% of list (cover price, that is, not the much lower wholesale price), and in the 50-50 split of publishers’ earnings from selling paperback, book club, or reprint rights. Authors generally received an even larger share than the publisher for non-print rights (such as stage and screen rights) and foreign rights.
But today’s standard contracts give authors just 25% of the publisher’s “net receipts” (more or less what the publisher collects from a book sale) for e-book royalties. That doesn’t look like a partnership to us.
We maintain that a 50-50 split in e-book profits is fair because the traditional author-publisher relationship is essentially a joint venture. The author writes the book, and by any fair measure the author’s efforts represent most of the labor invested and most of the resulting value. The publisher, like a venture capitalist, invests in the author’s work by paying an advance so the author can make ends meet while the book gets finished. Generally, the publisher also provides editing, marketing, packaging, and distribution services. In return for fronting the financial risk and providing these services, the publisher gets to share in the book’s profits. Not a bad deal. This worked well enough throughout much of the twentieth century: publishers prospered and authors had a decent shot at earning a living.
How the e-book rate evolved
From the mid-1990s, when e-book provisions regularly began appearing in contracts, until around 2004, e-royalties varied wildly. Many of the e-rates at major publishing houses were shockingly low—less than 10% of net receipts—and some were at 50%. Some standard contracts left them open to negotiation. As the years passed, and especially between 2000 and 2004, many publishers paid authors 50% of their net receipts from e-book sales, in keeping with the idea that authors and publishers were equal partners in the book business.
In 2004, we saw a hint of things to come. Random House, which had previously paid 50% of its revenues for e-book sales, anticipated the coming boom in e-book sales and cut its e-rates significantly. Other publishers followed, and gradually e-royalties began to coalesce around 25%. By 2010 it was clear that publishers had successfully tipped the scales on the longstanding partnership between author and publisher to achieve a 75-25 balance in their favor.
The lowball e-royalty was inequitable, but initially it didn’t have much effect on authors’ bottom lines. As late as 2009, e-books accounted for a paltry 3–5% of book sales. Authors and agents ought to have pushed back, but with e-book sales so low it didn’t make much sense to risk the chance of any individual book deal falling apart over e-royalties. We called the 25% rate a “low-water mark.” We said, “Once the digital market gets large enough, authors with strong sales records won’t put up with this: they’ll go where they’ll once again be paid as full partners in the exploitation of their creative work.”
E-books now represent 25–30% of all adult trade book sales, but for the vast majority of authors the rate remains unchanged. If anything, publishers have dug in their heels. Why? There’s a contractual roadblock, for one: major book publishers have agreed to include “most favored nation” clauses in thousands of existing contracts. These clauses require automatic adjustment or renegotiation of e-book royalties if the publisher changes its standard royalty rate, giving publishers a strong incentive to maintain the status quo. And the increasing consolidation of the book industry has drastically reduced competition among publishers, allowing them more than ever to hand authors “take it or leave it” deals in the expectation that the author won’t find a better offer.
The elephant in the room
And then there’s the elephant in the room: Amazon, which has used its e-book dominance to demand steep discounts from publishers and drive down the price of frontlist e-books, even selling them at a loss. As a result, there’s simply not as much e-book revenue to split as there was in 2011when we reported on the e-book royalty math. At that time, publishers made a killing on frontlist e-book sales as compared to frontlist hardcover sales—at the author’s expense—because, as compared to today, the price of e-books was relatively high.
When we analyzed e-royalties for three books in the 2011 post, “E-Book Royalty Math: The House Always Wins,” we found that every time an e-book was sold in place of a hardcover, the author’s take decreased substantially, while the publisher’s take increased.
Since 2011, we have found that publishers’ e-gains have diminished. But the author’s share has fallen even farther. Amazon has squeezed the publishers, to be sure. The publishers have helped recoup their losses by passing them on to their authors.
These were our calculations for several books in 2011. The trend was obvious. Compared with hardcovers, each e-book sold brought big gains to the publisher and sizable losses to the author when the author’s royalties are compared to the publisher’s gross profit (income per copy minus expenses per copy), calculated using industry-standard contract terms:
Author’s Royalty vs. Publisher’s Profit, 2011
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Author’s Standard Royalty: $3.75 hardcover; $2.28 e-book.
What’s happening now? We ran the numbers again using the following recent bestsellers. Because of lower e-book prices, the publishers don’t do as well as they used to, though they still come out ahead when consumers choose e-books over hardcovers. But authors fare worse than ever:
Author’s Royalty vs. Publisher’s Profit, 2015
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doer
Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.04 hardcover; $2.09 e-book.
It’s time for a change. If the publishers won’t correct this imbalance on their own, it will take a critical mass of authors and agents willing to fight for a fair 50% e-book royalty. We hope that established authors and, particularly, bestselling authors will start to push back and stand up to publishers on the royalty rate—on behalf of all authors, as well as themselves.
There have been cracks in some publishers’ façades. Some bestselling authors have managed to obtain a 50% e-book split, though they’re asked to sign non-disclosure agreements to keep these terms secret. We’ve also heard of authors with strong sales histories negotiating 50-50 royalty splits in exchange for foregoing an advance or getting a lower advance; or where the 50% rate kicks in only after a certain threshold level of sales. For instance, a major romance publishing house has offered 50% royalties, but only after the first 10,000 electronic copies—a high bar to clear in the current digital climate. But overall, publishers’ apparent inflexibility on their standard e-book royalty demonstrates their unwillingness to change it.
We know and respect the fact that publishers—especially in this era of media consolidation—need to meet their bottom lines. But if professional authors are going to continue to produce the sort of work publishing houses are willing to stake their reputations on, those authors need a fair share of the profits from their art and labor. In a time when electronic books provide an increasing share of revenues at significantly lower production and distribution costs, publishers’ e-book royalty practices need to change.
 In calculating these numbers and percentages for hardcover editions, we made the following assumptions: (1) the publisher sells at an average 50% discount to the wholesaler or retailer, (2) the royalty rate is 15% of list price (as it is for most hardcover books, after 10,000 units are sold), (3) the average marginal cost to manufacture the book and get it to the store is $3, and (4) the return rate is 25% (a handy number—if one of four books produced is returned, then the $3 marginal cost of producing the book is spread over three other books, giving us a return cost of $1 per book). We also rounded up retail list price a few pennies to give us easy figures to work with.
Likewise, in calculating these numbers and percentages for the 2015 set of e-books, we are assuming that under the agency model—which is reportedlythe new standard in the Big Five’s agreements with Amazon—the online bookseller pays 70% of the retail list price of the e-book to the publisher. The bookseller, acting as the publisher’s agent, sells the e-book at the price established by the publisher. The unit costs to the publisher are simply the author’s royalty and the encryption and transmission fees, for which we deduct a generous 50 cents per unit.
The Literary Agent’s Guide to Writing a Non-Fiction Book Proposal. Ebook: $3.99. Paperback: $8.95
This book will guide you through the process of writing a non-fiction book proposal. It lays out the essential information you need to construct a proposal that will address the questions agents and acquisition editors are asking and help you to present the most compelling case you can make for publication. It includes examples from real book proposals and describes the challenges that these writers faced in presenting their strongest argument for publication.