Archive for August, 2009


August 31, 2009

In my line of work, I get a lot of rejection letters. I tell my authors that it is a little bit like my social life in high school. Rejection is painful to everyone.  Reading these letters  always feels like a stake in my heart. I can’t imagine how much it hurts the writers who have labored for two years on their life work only to have a capricious 2 line rejection.

 You read about these high profile deals in the newspaper: Sarah Palin (or Tina Fay), Dr. Phil, Stephen King. These deals are actually pretty simple affairs and mostly revolve around the concept of a lot of money changing hands. But the vast amount of publishing deals are something entirely different.

 Most of my projects are what is referred to in the trade as “midlist”.  The midlist books are the ones that aren’t lead titles. The midlist is most of the books that are getting published. The midlist appears to be what publishers are most shy about acquiring in bad economic times.

  Even though advances for the midlist are pretty modest (often less than $10,000),  publishers see these books as a risk. Like every other business in America, publishing is having a hard time. The lead titles seem to be holding pretty well, but the midlist is struggling. There are other factors involved in the decline of the midlist as well. Concentration of retail bookselling in the hands of chain stores and mass merchants, the cult of celebrity, a reading public that  has developed internet-inflicted ATD, irrational exuberance over all things media-driven.  All of this works against good books with smaller audiences.

  I try to send out a lot of submissions for any given project. As long as the title submitted seems appropriate to the mission of the publishing imprint and the taste of the particular editor, I like to give the publisher  a look-see.

 When you read about the big deals, the word “auction” usually comes up. But with most midlist books, you might find only one publisher who really falls in love with the book. – Or no publisher. So you can see why there are a lot of rejection letters in my inbox.

 My authors all want to see the rejection letters. We talk about them a lot. Authors seem to think that there is some hidden wisdom in the letters that can be uncovered through hermeneutical exercises.   I tell them that frequently there is very little to be learned. Sometimes these letters are simply polite ways of saying: “we aren’t interested”.

 I’m going to give you some examples of rejection letters I have received (I will protect the privacy of the author and the editor). And in true, post-modern fashion,  I will  try to explain the hidden meanings through exegesis of the text.

 Fiction submission: “Thanks for sending us _______. This is a beautiful and stirring look into the lives of people who are living in a time and place surrounded by tragedy. [The characters] are both very well-wrought and intriguing. That said, the pace was a bit too slow for me….. As you know, selling fiction is difficult these days, and I think a book as well-thought out as this one needs to move at a swift pace, in order to keep American readers interested. I’m sorry.”

 Analysis: Publishers are nothing, if not polite. And they always like to be as complimentary as possible. But when the phrase “that said” comes up, we know the ax is going to fall. In order to determine if a letter  is meaningful, one must look for something personal and unusual. Letters that begin with “This is beautiful and stirring”… [followed by] “that said” [followed by ] a rejection are usually of a garden variety. There is not much to be learned here except that fiction is difficult  these days and publishers really want fast moving stories. We already know that.

  Narrative Non-fiction submission: “Thank you for sending me the proposal for ______ She has had such incredibly fascinating experiences, and her perspective as a _______ in that volatile and dangerous location is captivating. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. ….”

Analysis: “I didn’t fall in love with this” happens a lot in this business. There is always some truth to this. In art,  de gustibus non disputandum est (I’m sorry. There is no accounting for taste). Even though publishing has become a highly rational business focused on the bottom line, at the end of the day the decision to acquire a book is ultimately based on a highly subjective and emotional response. And that  is how it should be, and I suppose this is some cause for optimism.

Memoir: “I took a look at this early this morning. What a story. Her commitment and passion are beyond admirable. It’s also a piece of history incredibly important to our generation, little known to people in their twenties and even thirties. But I feel memoired-out….”

Analyis: “Memoired-out”. I’ll say! I go to writers conferences. A lot of people are writing personal memoirs. Publishers are very cynical about them. They call them “ME –moirs” or “misery memoirs”  or the like. I tell my clients that memoirs are ok if the writer is looking outside themselves. I ask them to think about who is the audience for the  book. That is what the publisher is going to ask me. Most people think that their life is interesting. And, in fact, everybody’s life is interesting. But one must ask who will spend $25 and several weeks reading about it?  (BTW, I found a publisher for this particular memoir.)

Humor: “I don’t find it as funny as you do, and I don’t see much of an audience for this.”

 Analysis: Well, what is certain is that this rejection letter isn’t  trying to be too polite. It is blunt but honest, even if there is little that the author can learn from this. What I learn is that humor is especially subjective. What I see as one of the funniest books ever written may leave another person cold. Before I submitted this, I looked at every humor deal that had been made in the last 2 years. There is a data base where one can do this. Virtually every humor title was from a successful web site. Successful web site usually means more than 100,000 hits a day. If it’s less than this, chances of getting a publisher diminish.

 Humor: “Sorry.  I just don’t get this one.  I’ll pass, but thanks for thinking of me.”

 Analysis: Same as above but even blunter and more honest.

 Current Events: “Andy, I’m passing.  It’s so funny and smart and relevant but also, and obviously you’ve already found people who disagree with me, it felt like a lead article for New York Times Sunday magazine.  That’s no mean feat in and of itself, but I just worry it won’t have a big enough book audience. ”

Analysis:  The message in this is that this is an article, not a book. That is a big cause for rejection these days. As big as: “I just didn’t fall in love with it”. I have started telling this to my authors. That they really need to understand this concept. Some concepts for books  are probably better expressed in a 5-10,000 word article than in a 50,000 word book.

 Dating Memoir: “Many thanks for sending me this funny and candid proposal–I did enjoy myself, and I admire [the author’s]  verve and headlong sense of humor. She does have a great platform…. (I also want to acknowledge my own subjectivity here, ….I am about to give birth for the first time–my focus is just in a very different place than the territory this book covers, and I’m afraid I am rather self-absorbed at the moment!)”

 Analysis: Now how can you feel bad about an editor as honest as this, even though it’s just another  rejection. When I read this, I wanted to give her a big hug and send her a teddy bear.  She’s having a baby! She isn’t interested in issues around finding the right man. Editors are like everyone else.  Sometimes they reject a book because they got up on the wrong side of the bed.

  History Book: “Andy: thanks for sending this to me.  She’s a great writer and it’s a terrific story but my fear is that this happened so long ago, I’m just not sure how you make 1989 of interest to people in 2010 or 2011, especially by a woman who’s not a household name, so I’m going to pass.”

Analysis: This rejection letter is extremely annoying. After all, the book is about a war and an important moment in history. The editor seems to be saying that she would be more amenable in an historical subject more current. But then, it isn’t history. And the current war in Iraq has been so over published, that there is simply no new way to slice it and dice it. But I was not able to get this book published. 20 other publishers said the same thing. They felt that there was not a sufficient audience for a subject  that took place 20 years ago. In this case, the message was loud, clear and unambiguous.

 Narrative Non-fiction.” I like the chapter and the idea of the book but to be honest, I’m not sure from the proposed chapters what makes this a book with a narrative arc of some kind rather than just a collection of essays.”

Analysis. The key concept here is “narrative arc”. This is a big reason for rejections. Alan Rinzler wrote about this on this blog several weeks ago. A good narrative non-fiction book must read like a novel. It needs a beginning a middle and an end. It needs an Act 1, Act 2, Act3. Just like a good play or a movie. That is “narrative arc”.

 Narrative Non-fiction. “Apologies for getting back to you so very late about this (I thought I had responded but can’t find the email).  I thought the writing was excellent and the subject intriguing, but ultimately I wasn’t convinced we’d reach a large audience with this project, so alas it’s not for me. ”

Analysis: There is the “A” word again: “audience”. Publishers keep asking me this and so I keep asking my clients. Who’s the audience? Who is going to read this? Authors really need to think pretty hard about this. And take some time to make a compelling case in the book proposal. Because if you can’t make a compelling case, chances are that there isn’t an audience.

 Non- Fiction Proposal. ” I didn’t receive it. We’ll check my spam filter for it, and we’ll let you know if we find it there.”

 Analysis: You would think that these big corporations have sophisticated logistics that make things work better, but clearly they don’t.

 Proposal: “Acquisitions are still on hold over here, so I’ll have to pass.”

 Analysis. This is pretty distressing. But publishing is suffering from the same economic problems as the rest of us. And there are some fine publishers who are having difficulties. [The publisher above closed its doors for the last time this year].

  Humor.”I’m sorry to be slow getting back to you about this. I found the illustrations and the story to be very clever and charming. But, it’s such a tough publishing climate right now and I worry that without authors who have a more visible platform, it would be a challenge for us to get the word out about this.”

 Analysis:  Platform, platform, platform. That is the word you keep hearing about from publishers. What is it? It means that the burden of promoting this book is going to fall on the author. And you better have fame, money or access for promoting your book, or the publisher won’t be interested. Sometimes, but not always, prestige will suffice for platform. As in having an endowed chair in a department at Harvard. Publishers love Harvard. I don’t know why. I have gotten books published by authors without platform. But not having one creates huge hurdles.

 Fiction: “Thank you for sending me ___________  [The characters] are engaging and likable, and this thoughtful examination of their relationship feels incredibly honest and revealing. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. ”

Fiction (letter from the same editor as above):“Thank you for sending me ____________This is an incredibly heart wrenching, moving perspective on________, and her brutal honesty is truly brave. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. I found it difficult to get entirely swept up by the characters, and without a stronger connection I’m afraid this didn’t capture my attention throughout.”

Fiction (letter from the same editor as above): “Thank you for sending me the proposal for_____________. She has had such incredibly fascinating experiences, and her perspective as a ____________in that volatile and dangerous location is captivating. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. As compelling as her experiences are, I never quite got to the point where I was really driven to turn pages, and so this didn’t entirely capture my attention throughout.”

Analysis: The 3 rejection letters above were all sent to me at different times by the same editor. Obviously  there is some serious cutting and pasting going on here. I’m tempted to make some snarky comment. But really, these letters tell us a lot about the life of an acquisitions editor. They get twenty proposals a week. Fiction editors probably acquire less than 1% of the proposals they receive. So it is not reasonable to expect a huge amount of nuanced analysis in a rejection letter. There really isn’t much to learn from these letters, except that the book was not for them.

And here is my favorite letter of all time from an editor

” Yes, I just got out of the meeting this minute, and the book was approved. Yay!”

 That’s  what makes it all worthwhile.


Tom Farber: Teaching Creative Writing

August 24, 2009

Thomas Farber teaches creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Among other awards and prizes, he is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and three NEA Fellowships for creative writing. He is the author of over 20 books of fiction, non-fiction, essays and a few oddities—books of the epigrammatic–thrown in.

He also founded and directs the non-profit publishing house El Leon Literary Arts, which publishes literary and graphic works that are perhaps just too economically risky for commercial publishing.

 We will be  talking to Tom about the art and science of teaching creative writing.

 Andy: Tom, let’s say I have a concept for a novel. There are these 4 brothers. One is a priest. One is an atheist. One is a moron. And one is a voluptuary. They have a father who is a schmuck, and he gets killed by the moron. There’s also some material in it about sin and redemption to make it look deep. If I take your class in creative writing, what can you do for me to make this into a serviceable novel?

 Tom: Andy, you well know this plot will never fly, not even in a Russian novel. But if it could…

 In my seminars, one of the things that gets conveyed is that prose is a recalcitrant form, almost always takes a number of drafts and much time to get to the heart of the story. There has to be a willingness or, actually, a great need, to bother. There are plenty of books in the world; the book market is cruel; and there are so many wonderful other things to do in the world. I myself don’t privilege books over, say, affection, gardens, music, dance, etc. etc.  Writing is only for the needy of a very particular sort. Writing may also create at least as many problems for the writer as it solves or ameliorates.

 Andy: So maybe you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Can you make a better silk purse?

 Tom:  Yes. So much of writing is at the level of craft, like so many other crafts.  Much of the pleasure in writing is in the revising, making something truer in language. The process of discovery.

 Andy: My friend and I have been walking around Lake Merritt. She isn’t a writer,  but she has been writing a novel. We talk a lot about what is working and what isn’t. Most of our conversations revolve around: the plausibility of the concept and plot, the robustness and believability of the characters, the quality of the dialogue,  flow of the writing and  how to make it dramatic. Are we on the right track? Are there some other issues that we should address?

 Tom: Novels are quite an enterprise. Doctorow said there’s no way out of one except to finish, which can be a long haul. So many things to learn more or less simultaneously, so many things that affect each other. Probably better, if one can, to start with a shorter form—a story, taken from what would be the novel if extended—and master what one can at that length. As for these different variables you mention, plot is, I think,  the least important to worry about. That is, I think you can make any story tellable in the telling. It’s the telling, line by line, that binds the reader to the story. As for dialogue, one can learn so much from reading a writer who’s good at it. I think of the genre writer George V. Higgins, whose The Digger’s Game or The Friends of Eddie Coyle were almost all dialogue. You read them as a writer to learn how Higgins did it. Not quite the same as reading for pleasure. Finally, regarding characters, you simply want them as (virtually) alive as the living.

 Andy: If we were in your class, how would you advise us to work with these building blocks?

 Tom: A writer is someone who writes. There is no way a priori to know how good a book is until it is written. So you write one story, rewrite. Write another. Rewrite. Much is inevitably being learned, if only that one would prefer an easier path to happiness. I think it was Frost who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

 Andy: What do you think about writers conferences? Are there any you especially like?

 Tom: I’ve been a part of only two. One was the Berkeley Writers Conference, hosted by the late Lenny Michaels, at which I met the late Grace Paley and  had the pleasure of time with her. Such an amazing woman. Also met then-unpublished Elizabeth Tallent, read her extraordinary story ‘Ice,’ soon to be published by The New Yorker, the first of many of hers they took. I’d have to say that was quite a conference!

The other conference was when I read at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, a low residency writing program. Probably the most attentive and hungry audience I’ve ever read to. A marvelous eagerness in the people there to write and to write well. Also, a fine and committed staff.

 Andy: You know, the cliché is that publishing is a marriage between art and commerce. In my humble opinion, these days the commerce is the dominant partner, and it is looking more like S/M. Are things getting worse for good literature or is it business as usual?

 Tom: Well, as you know better than I, the industry is in disarray. At its best, publishing is where commerce and art intersect, but for all the well-known reasons both aspects are struggling. It’s a wonderful time to have a small non-profit press, however, to do just what one loves with a very, very low overhead. Perhaps New York publishing will reform with a business model somewhat closer to El Leon’s, though no doubt with far less pro bono…Our business travel and entertainment budget last year was less than $200.00.

 Andy: Gee, that is how much I have to pay for lunch with one of my big author / clients.

 Andy: Read any good books lately? What do you recommend? And are there any books that your writing students should read about the craft of writing?

 Tom: I just reread Grace Paley’s A Conversation with my Father, a story from which I never fail to learn more, both about our lives and about the craft of storytelling. Also, just reread Philip Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools,’ a miraculous poem, again, one that teaches me both about our mortality and about the craft of words. Updike said that a writer is a reader moved to emulation. One could do worse than to try to emulate Paley or Larkin. As for nonfiction books about writing and the writer’s life, I wrote one, originally published as Compared to What?, later reissued as A Lover’s Quarrel. Also, my latest book, Brief Nudity, is both a writer’s memoir, recounting aspects of life as a writer, and also an argument– by example—of how one might go about telling such a life story.

Alan Rinzler: The Art of Freelance Editing

August 17, 2009

This is a continuation of our interview with Alan Rinzler. Two weeks ago, we discussed his legendary life as an editor and publisher over the last 45 years. Alan continues to be a freelance developmental editor, one of the best.  Since I often tell people that they need a freelance editor, I thought it was time to try to get to understand the process a little better and to find out what a freelance editor can and can’t do.  This was a very short interview. And I learned an amazing amount about the process. You should read this one carefully.

rinzlerAlanAlan has his own blog called: The Book Deal.  It has a lot of information that you, gentle reader and writer, need to read!

 Andy: Alan, starting with the fundamentals. What is the difference between line editing, copy editing and developmental editing?

Alan: Copy editing is a process of technical correction done by free-lance professionals with an obsessions for spelling, grammar, punctuation and formal style – none of which I have. All publishers depend on outside copyeditors who do yeoman work on correcting errors and hopefully but not always checking facts.

Developmental editing is line editing, changing and polishing the text, but also larger conceptual problems like story, plot structure, characterization, visual description and other big picture choices and necessary revisions. The developmental editor has to enter the consciousness of the author and help make the book better wherever it needs it. This may mean suggesting language for new material, including dialogue. Or it may take the form of requests for explanation and amplification that only the author can supply.

Andy: When I first started as an agent, I used to get rejection letters saying that the acquisition editor “just didn’t fall in love” with the project. This didn’t give me or the author any real sense of where to proceed from there. Now I’m hearing that a book under submission  “doesn’t have a robust narrative arc”. I sort of understand what this means. But it is more like, “I know it when I see it”. Can you explain what editors mean by “narrative arc”? What are the pitfalls that writers fall into? And how do you work to improve this?

Alan: Acquisition editors are usually in a big hurry and don’t take the time to explain why they don’t like something. It may be for very idiosyncratic reasons that have nothing to do with the book itself, like their board or sales department is cranky this Tuesday, or they already have a book just like this, or they hate people named “Nancy” or “Harold”, who knows, but they say whatever comes to mind and forget about it.

Jargon like “robust  narrative arc”, however, actually means something. All narratives, fiction or nonfiction, should have a beginning, middle, and end. You know: Act One, boys meets girl, John Adams meets Thomas Jefferson; Act Two, they quarrel and become alienated. Act Three, everyone kisses and makes up, including  John and Thomas. Proposals need to show this progression or the story doesn’t usually work unless you’re James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, and I’m not really sure about their sales these days either.

Unfortunately, however, when an editor plays the narrative arc card, it may still be an act of avoidance and obfuscation. The reasons may actually be because they’re fighting with their marketing manager and can only submit a presold brand name guaranteed best seller for their next proposals meeting. But “doesn’t have a robust narrative arc” sounds a lot smarter.

Andy: You are  a  freelance editor, and   I know you enjoy  working with fiction. What are the kinds of flaws that you frequently encounter with fiction writers. How to you work to improve them? Do you try to get them to improve their literary values? Do you try to make them more suitable for a publisher? Are these goals at odds with each other?

Alan: I’m glad you asked because it’s uncanny how many draft novels have very weak and boring opening sentences, paragraphs and pages, which make you want to stop reading and lie down immediately. Or huge information dumps, meaning tedious back story explanations of what happened before the book started and who are two dozen  characters and their ancestors. Another common flaw is no dialogue, all telling what’s happening from a distance. Or dialogue where all the characters talk like the same person and you can’t tell them apart. Or all dialogue and no visual description, no pause between quotes to explain what else is going on, where they are, and what they might be feeling internally.

Another major flaw for many beginning writers is too much material, stories that are hugely but unnecessarily complex, flashbacks within flashbacks so you can’t tell where or when anything is taking place, and a general sense of a writer being unfocused and overwhelmed by his material.

As a developmental editor I go through page by page making deletions, edits, polishes, suggesting specific new language and material, and requesting explanation or amplification for text that only the author can supply.

I don’t think this approach is at all unsuitable for either the author or potential publisher since their goals are the same: to publish a good book that sells copy.

Andy: What about other non-fiction genres: narrative, social commentary,  journalism, self-help? Do each of these (and others) have their own challenges and requirements?

Alan: The need to be original and directly competitive with prior books in the field is more essential a challenge in nonfiction. So many ideas and proposals I receive, even 400 page manuscripts, are almost exactly like something already written. Writers can save themselves a lot of grief if they do their homework and see what’s already out there on the same subject. And they need to be honest with themselves about doing something new and better in their own work.

Aside, from that, however, I edit non-fiction pretty much the same way as fiction. Nonfiction still has to tell a story that makes sense, like how to do it, here’s the history, or this is what I believe about this or that – it’s really all the same to me, except that you can use headings in nonfiction which I love, as signposts for topics and subtopics. You can also make lists, add boxes with side-bar materials, and use other techniques that wouldn’t usually be appropriate for fiction.

Andy: As an agent, I am looking for 3 things: good concept, good platform, good writing. I like to tell people that the last of these is the easiest to deal with. I frequently refer them to an editor. Frequently, you. Am I just being glib here?  Does your experience in publishing give you an inside track on how to improve writing to make it more attractive to the acquisition editor? And can you help them refine an imperfect concept as well?

Alan: I wouldn’t put good writing last but first. And it’s the hardest, not easiest, to deal with. Readers will usually put bad writing down, no matter how powerful the concept or big the platform. As a developmental editor I can make a million suggestions, half of which may be spot on, but they’re all no good unless the author can write. I can definitely refine an imperfect concept and improve writing that isn’t that bad to begin with. But no one can make a silk purse out of a proverbial sow’s ear and anyone who says they can is a ghost writer not a developmental editor. Most authors don’t want to use a ghost or co-author, but I do recommend it when there’s no chance an author can produce writing at at least an A minus level.

Andy: I’m always afraid that when I tell a writer that they could benefit from a freelance editor,  they will take it as an insult. I tell them that even the most experienced writers need a good editor. And frequently they submit their work to one as a matter of course. Am I right about this?

Alan: Yes. The best writers I’ve worked with all want high quality professional editing whenever and wherever they can get it, either before selling their books, or from the publishers once acquired. That goes for Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson, Irv Yalom, Shirley MacLaine, Lenore Skenazy, Michael Gurian, Michele Borba – all writers I know. Tell your writers it’s a compliment to say their book is worth editing, not an insult but a necessity.

Andy: And going back to your experience over the years in trade publishing, would you say that publishers are less likely to accept a flawed book knowing that they can doctor it up in the course of  the editing process? It seems to me that they are too busy to do this and want something publishable right out of the box.

Alan: Publishers are probably more willing to take a flawed book but they may not take the time to doctor it up, which is why so many books fail and lose money. You’re right about them being too busy and wanting something right out of the box. This is why free-lance developmental editors are often the only chance an author has to improve a flawed book that could do a lot better.

The Art of the Pitch

August 12, 2009

This blog is called “Ask the Agent”. But I haven’t been dispensing much agently advice yet. There are some excellent books out on how to write book proposals, how to find an agent and how to get published. But I am here to give some tips as well. It is a tough world out there. And if you aren’t a disgraced ex-governor of Alaska, it is pretty hard to get a book contract. So here are some tips and examples of weak and strong pitches to make in your book proposal.

Weak: I am willing to go on an 8 city tour (they probably won’t send you, and this indicates  that you might have unrealistic expectations. They used to let you travel first class and stay at the Ritz Carlton. They’re hard up now, so expect to go by Greyhound.)

 Strong: I am willing to schedule an 8 city tour at my expense (or  any other ideas that include:  “at my expense” are always popular with publishers)

Weak: This would be a great story on Oprah (uh-huh. It’s also the oldest story in the book. Similarly unrealistic)

Strong: I am sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. ( If you are going to pitch media connections, they should  be concrete and have reasonable expectations of results. But don’t oversell yourself. They can smell bull shit.)

Weak: I am willing to go  to book signings at my local bookstore (They know that anyway. And this won’t sell books).

Strong: I have arranged presentations with the staff at Google. Steve Jobs loves my book and has agreed to purchase 5000 copies to give to the key employees at Christmas time. They are also interested in purchasing non-verbatim electronic multi-media rights as an app for the I-pod. (This is too good to be true, so you better get Steve to write a letter to that effect. Publishers love sales outside of bookstores. It is like extra money.)

Weak: I will reluctantly agree to be on Fresh Air, schedule permitting.  (If you are not going to aggressively flog the product, this will not be well received. )

Weak: This will make a great movie (see Oprah above).

Strong: Film rights for this product have been optioned to Stephen Spielberg (there might be a possibility here, but there are many options out with few movies ever made).

Very Strong: Film Rights have been sold to Stephen Spielberg.  Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are signed up. Currently being filmed on location in Montana. (This pitch doesn’t happen very often).

Strong: I am the extremely charismatic and controversial governor of Alaska and vice-presidential candidate. (Don’t worry that she is inarticulate, has nothing to say, and can’t write).

Almost as strong: I am the extremely charismatic and controversial governor of Alaska who has quit with disgrace and lack of dignity. (Hey, it’s all about celebrity).

Weak: My neighbor will host a publication  party. (See booksigning above)

Strong: My neighbor is Barack Obama, and he will give a publication party at the White House (nuff said)

Weak: My friends loved this book. (Your friends won’t tell you the truth).

Strong:  My friend, Bill O’Reilly (Rachel Maddow) loved this book. (Connections, connections connections).

Weak: My mother and spouse loved this book. (Oh, come on!)

Strong: My mother is the disgraced former governor of Alaska and she loved this book. My former boyfriend hated this book and will go public and tell tawdry and salacious tales about me. (In this business, there is no such thing as bad publicity.)

 Weak: I’ll set up a blog and a website (whoopee!)

 Very Weak: I have a blog that gets 50,000 hits a day and will promote my new biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. My blog is called (All blogs are not equal. All successful blogs are not equal).
Strong: I have a blog that gets 50,000 hits a day and will promote my new biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. My blog is called

Weak: Your  readers are going to love this book. It is like Petrarch meets Robespierre. (Although publishers are infatuated with pitches premised on dubious and glib equivalencies, the pitch must be based on subjects that are readily recognized – usually in the Safeway checkout line.)

Strong: Your readers are going to love this book. It is like the Bronte sisters meet the Olson Twins.

 We welcome examples of Good pitch / Bad pitch from our readers

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson Speaks about Freud

August 10, 2009


 jeffJeffrey Masson has led at least 3 adult lives and a childhood that could inspire an army of psychoanalysts. (And we will get to them later). Jeff has a PhD in Sanskrit, one of the few Americans to have such a degree. He moved to Canada and became a Professor at the University of Toronto. While in Toronto, Jeffrey trained as a psychoanalyst. In 1980 he became projects director at the Freud Archives. Jeffrey’s research led him to the conclusion that Freud made a mistake in turning away from his insight that human misery was fueled by childhood sexual abuse. There was, in his opinion, a large number of documents, chief among them letters by Freud which had been kept from public view, and that showed the full extent of Freud’s original valuation of the reality of sexual abuse.  Masson speculated that Freud gave in to peer pressure rather than acknowledge a truth that would have harmed his career.  For such heresy, he was subsequently excommunicated (I use the term advisedly) from the Psychoanalytic movement, 


 During the last 20 years, Jeff has turned his formidable intelligence to the study of emotions in animals and in advocating animal rights. His newest book: The Face on Your Plate: The Truth about Food was published by W.W. Norton this past spring. 

Jeff lives on the ocean in New Zealand (aka paradise). Check out Jeff’s website.

  Andy: Jeff, I want to talk about Freud in this interview. It seems that the people who remember your critique of Freud don’t know much about your work on animal emotions. And those who are your current readers can’t remember what you did with Freud.

 Let’s go back and talk about your revision of Freud. I have to say that I read part of your book and all of the reviews. As a layman, the dispute seemed sort of like medieval hair splitting. Why was your discovery so important and why did it enrage the entire Psychoanalytic profession?

 Jeff:  It was hardly a trivial point.  I was maintaining that fantasy did not create neurosis, only reality has that power.  This was not simply my opinion, but was supported by historical documents of which analysts preferred to remain ignorant.  If I was right, then they had been unfair (verging on malpractice) to female patients who told them they were abused only to be assured it was merely a fantasy. 

 Andy: Some people think that your work was the beginning of the end of the Freudian dominion of Psychoanalysis. I know you are a modest person, but can you claim some credit here? Most psychotherapists aren’t Freudians any more, right. Hasn’t Freud primarily been relegated to literary theory and intellectual history?

Jeff:  It was not my work, but the documents themselves.  After all, you could not simply wish away letters by Freud that had been deliberately removed from the public record.  I put them back, and when people began to become aware of the implications, Freud’s reputation suffered as did that of subsequent analysts.  Eventually analysts recognized the damage that was being done by their “denial” and they switched camps.  But it was a bit late in the game.  Feminists like Florence Rush and Judith Herman and several others had been saying the same thing I did for years.  Once these new letters came to light, it gave true gravity to their views.  That said, I abhor the term “Freud basher” so often thoughtlessly applied to me.  While I have fundamental criticisms, I also acknowledge that Freud did indeed have many fascinating insights into human nature and he could write far better than perhaps any other psychologist before or since.  No mean achievement!

 Andy: But you moved on from there too. You went from being a psychoanalytic heretic to being a very eloquent (if sometimes provocative) critic of the entire psychotherapeutic enterprise. And you have expressed no less withering contempt for psychopharmacology. It there nowhere left to turn in the Massonian Universe to restore one’s mental health? 

 Jeff:  Yes, I did take a look at other therapies, and was even less impressed with them than with Freudian therapy.  I still maintain, after all these years, that the best shrink is a dog.  I really mean that too, as you know!

 Andy: Whenever we talk about intellectual history, it seems that you still maintain an admiration for Freud as a thinker who contributed immeasurably to our understanding of ourselves. Can you explain your (seemingly) contradictory feelings about Freud? What is your assessment of his contribution?

 Jeff:  I answered this partially above, but let me add that I am writing the new introduction to the Sterling Illustrated Edition of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.  I believe that among his great achievements was:  the recognition of the importance of childhood for later human unhappiness (or trauma if you prefer); the mechanisms of defense, especially denial, repression, and counter-phobia – a marvelous idea when you think about:  we become mountain climbers because we fear heights!; the unconscious; the importance of sexuality; the primacy of dreams; the reality of internal suffering.  I could go on and on.  But I never am given the chance any longer!

 Andy: In the early 90’s, you moved in an entirely new direction. You started writing about the emotions of animals. Your first book, When Elephants Weep, was an international best seller. What led you to this fascination with animal emotions?

 Jeff:  I was disappointed with human emotions and wanted to study those of another species.  Was it possible that other animals felt more deeply than we do, or even felt different emotions?  It is an ever-fascinating question.  I did not answer, but I attempted to, and this resonated with the public.  People who lived with animals generally knew they had profound feelings, and liked seeing this view vindicated. 

 Andy: And that was followed by Dogs never Lie About Love, a book that sold over 1,000,000 copies worldwide. It really changed the way people thought about emotions in dogs. 

 Jeff:  Yes, nowhere is it more obvious that we take second place when it comes to the ability to love freely, deeply, unconditionally, than with dogs.  They are undoubtedly our superior in realms like friendship, loyalty, depth and ease of affection, and so on.  Again, I was not saying anything unknown to dog lovers over the centuries.  

 Andy: You are back to dogs again, too, aren’t you? You have a new book about love between humans and dogs scheduled for release next year. Can you tell us something about this? You must know that dog books are a cottage industry. But I think that, against the odds, you actually have some important and original to say.

 Jeff:  I hope so.  I maintain that we have become the species we are only because we co-evolved with dogs.  Dogs have been with us longer than any other animal, by far.  We go back at least 40,000 years and perhaps longer.  So there was time for us to grow in tandem, and I believe we did, which is why we are the only two species who make friends so easily across the species barrier.  I don’t think we would be the species we are without dogs. 



Alan Rinzler, a Legend in Publishing, Shares His Memories

August 4, 2009

rinzlerAlanAlan Rinzler is a legendary figure in publishing. He began his career in 1962  as assistant to Robert Gottlieb, then the managing editor of Simon and Schuster.. He has worked as an editor at Bantam Books, where he was Director of Trade Publishing, Macmillan, Holt, and Grove Press.  He was the creator and director of Straight Arrow Press, the book division of Rolling Stone Magazine, where he was Associate Publisher and Vice President during its formative years.  During the course of his career, Alan edited an amazing list of the great writers of our time: Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson, Jerzy Kosinski, Claude Brown, Shirley MacLaine, Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Irv Yalom, Woody Guthrie,  and Andy Warhol. Alan is currently executive editor of Jossey-Bass Publishing in San Francisco, a division of John Wiley & Sons. He’s also the Academic Director for Trade Book Publishing at the Stanford Professional Publishing Courses.


Alan is also a freelance consultant and developmental editor.  One of the best. And we will talk to him about this later. If you want to see  Alan in action, here is a list of his upcoming workshops. Also I highly recommend looking at his website and blog. It has lots of information and advice about freelance editing.

When  I have a client that needs some good freelance work (and let’s face it, most of us can use it),  Alan is the guy I recommend. I would like to do 3 interviews with  Alan. The first will be a conversation about his life in publishing. We will then go on to talk about the role and the value of freelance editing in the work of a writer. We will also talk to him about his editorial work in publishing and try to get him to help us understand what publishers are looking for these days –and how they think.

  Andy: Alan, let’s start at the beginning.  How did you get into publishing and   what were your first jobs there?

Alan: The year after I graduated from Harvard I was living on the Lower East side, writing terrible plays and loading trucks as a fur freight dispatcher in the garment  business. My former English Tutor at Lowell House knew I needed direction, and said I should be in the book business, so go see this guy, who turned out to be Bob Gottlieb at S&S and he hired me.

 Andy: When did you start doing editorial work?

Alan: Right away. Gottlieb saw me for the callow, jejune puppy I was, and tried to show me the ropes. He let me work with his authors like Joe Heller, Jessica Mitford, Sylvia Ashton Warner, Sybil Bedford, and Rona Jaffe. “Give the reader a break…” he had framed on his wall, so at his feet I began to stifle my ego and enter into the consciousness of the author to help them be clear, useful, and to struggle to put out the best they could. He also gave me the freedom to start signing my own ideas, since no author or agent was sending me anything.  I began commissioning “youth culture” titles, since I was young and connected to that sixties revolutionary material from the inside. I brought in the likes of: Bob Dylan, Lorraine Hansberry, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,  Fair Play for Cuba, and other lefty, civil rights, rock and roll, so-called radical stuff. Then  Bob and I had to break up our Oedipal relationship (I wanted to kill him, or was it the other way around?) so he got me a job at Macmillan, which led to Claude Brown (Manchild in the Promised Land), Vine Deloria Jr. (Custer Died for Your Sins), Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel, Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Shaft, and eventually Rolling Stone.

 Andy: What was it like working for Rolling Stone?

Alan: Very scary. We had no idea what we were doing and nearly went into Chapter Eleven bankruptcy when we were just getting started. I opened the NYC office, then packed up my young family and moved to California. The notorious Jann Wenner was the boss of Rolling Stone then and now, nearly everyone who’d worked on the first few issues had walked out in a huff, so the situation was perilous and unstable. Jann and I were the only so-called grown-ups around for the first few years, so the office culture was treacherous  and deeply crippled by too many self-indulgent and immature bad habits which shall remain nameless. We had no idea how to make a financial plan, no calculators or knowledge of managing a business with modern accounting methods So we’d line up green thirteen-column book-keeping sheets and budgets which were filled with math mistakes and preposterous financial projections. Nevertheless, through the kindness of grownups like Ralph Gleason, who persuaded record companies to advertise, and avuncular family friends with some money, and a lot of really good writers, we survived and did great issues.  Eventually we published  books by the likes of Hunter Thompson, Annie Leibovitz, Jonathan Cott, Joe Esterhaz, Ben Fong Torres, David Dalton, David Felton, Jon Landau, and others.

 Andy: This was all back in the Sixties. I kind of had this image of  publishing as  a bunch of scrungy hippies, taking a break from the  editorial work and going into the back room to get stoned. Lots of free love too. This is certainly the way it was when I was studying German Intellectual History back then. And publishing seemed to be a lot more fun than that. Is my R Crumb image of life in publishing back then  a fantasy?

 Alan: Not really such a fantasy. It was, in fact, a lot of fun in many ways. The corporate bean counters had not yet taken over at S&S, Bantam, Rolling Stone,  and Grove Press. Consequently the editors had much more independence and power. The dark side of letting the lunatics run the asylum, though, was a lack of structure, control, and an unbridled recklessness that led to a lot of internal politics, competition, and nasty behind the scenes machinations.

 Andy: Can you tell us some memorable stories about some of the great writers you discovered and edited?

Alan: Working with Hunter Thompson, the Prince of Gonzo, nearly killed me, and did leave permanent scars that I hope are not life-shortening. For three of his books (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, The Great Shark Hunt, and the Curse of Lono), we stayed up all night for weeks doing terrible stuff and taping our interviews, which we then transcribed and edited into book form. Discovering Toni Morrison was really something. Claude Brown had just written Manchild, which was hugely successful and still sells 43 years later. He had a big crush on his English teacher at Howard, Toni Morrison, then a cute divorcee with two small sons who were working as face models in the advertising business. She lived in a tiny house on the landing flight pattern at JFK Airport so when the jets thundered over us a few hundred feet up, the cups and glasses would all rattle. Claude wanted to marry her but she kept him at arm’s length, until finally admitting she had “this novel” she’d been working on for years that turned out to be The Bluest Eye and the rest was history. Toni has become such a diva now, however, that I have to admit she stopped returning my calls a few years ago. Oh well. Dylan was impossible to edit, going on and on, but Andy Warhol was a peach. Every idea I had was “fabulous” and we’d put it in his “Index Book”, including pop-ups, early plastic recording of group grope interviews, “terrific art”, photos, spin-out balloons, a 3-D cover and other mixed media bells and whistles we’d brainstormed and slapped together at his silver-foil “factory”, while dodging 24 hour film crews and the first generation Velvet Underground.

 Andy: What was the most important book that you were responsible for publishing?

 Alan: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a beautifully written elegiac revisionist history of the American Indian, which was number one on the NY Times best-seller list and sold millions around the world, changing the universal perception of the Native-American and revising American history for the better.

Andy: What job was the most fun?

Alan: The one I still have. No kidding. Not so glamorous, but for seventeen years, I’ve worked with people I love and respect who are totally honest, ethical, and upfront – which turns out to be the most important thing about any office culture.  Jossey-Bass is a place where I can be myself without fear or embarrassment, and still feel accepted. This is my best and last job.

Andy: We all know that publishing has changed over the past 40 years. I have always seen it as a decline from a sort of “golden age”.  That it has become dominated by corporate culture, the obsession with unrealistic profit expectations, a fetish for media driven mass merchandising values, and a disregard for quality books with more modest audiences. What do you think about this? Are the barbarians at the gates (or inside the gates?) Or have I been selling books in Berkeley for too long?

Alan: When I had my first office with a window in 1962, Max Schuster was down the hall and Alfred and Blanche Knopf across the street. They had just been  acquired by TV personality and “random” publisher Bennett Cerf. But those guys were none of them golden paragons of intellectual literary art. S&S had started reprinting and making a lot of dough from the New York Times crossword puzzles. Knopf and Cerf had a reputation for hustling books that made money, and that has always been the name of the game. I don’t think the quality of writing or number of good books per year has declined. It’s always been hard to find great art that made money too. I do agree totally, however, the pressure for  quick profits, and  return on investment  that the book business has never been able to achieve, has put excessive pressure on serious people to come up with mass market books that sell fast but don’t build into long-term back-list titles.  So there’s a tendency to pay huge money for the blockbuster sure things, if you can land them, at the expense of the more marginal, mid-list proposals with promise. Having said that, however, you know that last year more first novels were published than ever before, and all publishers today would like nothing more than to find a new author with a great future. So ultimately I deplore B list celebrity book publishing, the proliferation of mediocre repetitious rip-offs and imitations, and victim memoirs for the Oprah market. Nevertheless I think it’s a wonderful time for the book business, filled with tumult and turbulence, panic and alarum, challenges and opportunities, and big changes coming towards us like a tsunami. 

 Andy: So tell us some ways in which the book business is different today. What about the impact of the chains, of mass media, of the Internet?

Alan: Book chains were at first heralded as the death of good writing and intelligent publishing, which turned out not to be true. Book chains made it possible for more people to find books where they shop and work.  One result was that best-sellers moved up from thousands to millions sold, good for everyone. The bad news was only for independent stores, which is a tragedy, with one half nationally already gone, closed and boarded up like Cody’s. And by the way, this  still upsets and makes me sad every time I see or think of it. There are some wonderful independent book stores left where I live in Berkeley, including Moe’s, Mrs. Dalloway’s, Diesel, Pegasus and Pendragon, with Book Passages and others nearby. But it’s tough, I don’t have to tell you of course, to survive and compete without a lot of us forsaking the few bucks discount and supporting our neighbors.

 As for the internet, it’s good for the author to be able to go directly to the reader, for information, inspiration, ongoing feedback and marketing. Publishers have been too slow to realize this as well as to fully embrace the value and potential opportunities of digital publishing with new content, old content repurposed, and new diverse platforms that deliver titles on Ebooks, cell phones, MP players, laptops, and who knows what next?

  Andy: I also have a bad feeling about the state of literacy in America. Again my own sense about this comes from the change of reading habits that I saw over the 30 years at Cody’s. It really seems that the Internet has had a huge impact on the way readers read. Reading requires patience and a long attention span. It is the medium where ideas can be expressed in all their complexity and with nuance. I’m wondering whether the Internet has created a world with attention deficit disorder.  Got any thoughts about this? Am I a hopeless dinosaur? How are these new behavior characteristics manifesting themselves in publishing decisions?

Alan: Yes, Andy, you are a hopeless dinosaur but charming and funny, so we love you anyway. Kids still read, just in different ways and forms. Reading will never die, it’s hard-wired. New evolutionary and neuroscientific research tells us that we have to tell and read stories or the species won’t survive. Never fear, there will always be print books and also more and more digital versions and types. And hey, as an editor I’m all for the discipline of having to fit thoughts into short forms like the 140 character tweet. Try it, it’s not that easy to do well.


More Recommended Books from Cody’s Archive

August 2, 2009

The Dream of Scipio. Iain Pears. This is a brilliantly conceived and magnificently executed novel, both an historical novel and a ethical and philosophical puzzle.  It is also a gripping story.  The action takes place in 3 historical periods, all of which are times of cultural dissolution: the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the Fifth Century, the time of the great plague in the Fourteenth Century, and Vichy France.  Each story is interrelated by characters who, as scholars, have studied the other characters in the novel.  Each character must face parallel ethical dilemmas. The book asks whether action in the world that is imbued with ethical wisdom makes a difference. 

The Seven Ages of Paris. Alistair Horne.  Alistair Horne is one of the great historians of France writing in the English language. For the past 25 years he has devoted himself to writing this book, a history of everyone’s favorite city, Paris,  from the 12th century to its liberation in 1945. As in all of Horne’s books  this work is imbued with a masterful narrative sweep.

Master of the Senate. Robert Caro. Caro’s Johnson is epic, larger than life,  great in his flaws, endlessly fascinating.  Just as the other great Johnson in literature was defined by the genius of his biographer, Boswell; so Lyndon Johnson will be remembered through the ages by this masterpiece of biography. This, the third volume in his story, takes us through the years in the Senate. It is as much a history of that great institution as it is of Johnson’s life. It is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History for 2002. Also read the equally spellbinding first two volumesThe Path to Power and Means of Ascent.

 Hotel Honolulu.  Paul Theroux. This is a funny, mesmerizing and touching collection of related stories about Hawaii.  The author has  created a character, a composite of himself and his imagination.  The stories all center around a somewhat long at the tooth hotel off Waikiki Beach.  Guests come and go. All  seek a kind of paradise, but inevitably bring their own flawed existences with them.  

 War and Peace. Leo Tolstoy.  This is arguably (unarguably) the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy’s epic of Russia during the Napoleanic Wars contains both grand historical sweep and minute psychological detail. The characters are so real and so compelling that they practically walk off the pages. It is both profound and accessible. When you have finished, read Tolstoy’s no less magnificent novel, Anna Karenina.

 The Name of the Rose.  Umberto Eco. The English friar, William of Baskerville (his name, a pun on the Conan Doyle tale), is called to a monastery to employ his mastery of Aristotelian logic to solve a number of perplexing murders.  The brothers in the monastery represent the entire range of medieval thought. This book is a brilliant novel of ideas, a profound recreation of an historical epoch,  and a superb who-dunnit.

 Death Comes for the Archbishop. Willa Cather.  This enduring masterpiece is Willa Cather’s greatest achievement. It is the story of the French cleric Father Latour, who is sent to convert the American Southwest to Catholicism. He eventually becomes Archbishop of Santa Fe. With elegant simplicity of prose, we follow the life of Father Latour for 40 years, during which time he struggles with derelict priests, a beautiful but forbidding land, and his own loneliness.

 .A History of Warfare. John Keegan.  In this time of war, we all seek to comprehend how the activity of war, which is at once so horrifying, can yet be so embedded in the human condition.  The world’s preeminent military historian has written a masterpiece.  There are no long and boring descriptions of battle tactics and no indecipherable maps with black and white squares.  Instead, Keegan examines the role of warfare in all cultures from stone age to atomic age.  He shows that the history of warfare is really the history of human nature’s darkest side. This book is an eloquent and absorbing work of cultural history.

 A Thousand Acres. Jane Smiley. This book, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature of 1992, is Jane Smiley’s greatest work. It is the retelling of the King Lear legend transposed to a contemporary American family farm and told from the point of view of one of the older sisters. Smiley interweaves mythic themes with issues of family dysfunction. Throughout we are dazzled by the work of a master literary realist.

 Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte.  Is this literatures greatest love story? I think so. It is the tragic tale of timeless love between Cathy and the magnificent and mysterious Heathcliff.  It is written with beautiful descriptive language of the moors on which the action takes place.   The story builds slowly in momentum and volume of emotion until it reaches the climactic doom  of Heathcliff. Be sure to keep some hankies at your side.

 Gone to Soldier., Marge Percy.  Marge Piercy has written a sweeping epic of the Second World War. It is not a blood and guts battle saga, but more a tale of the other war, the men and women who were not on the front lines but on the assembly lines, the food lines, and behind enemy lines.The Second World War gave birth to our own age. No book has demonstrated this so well as Gone To Soldiers.