Archive for July, 2012

Mary Mackey Talks About E-book Publishing

July 28, 2012

Mary Mackey is the author of six collections of poetry and thirteen novels, including New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle bestsellers. Her books have been translated into twelve foreign languages and over a million and a half have been sold in hard copy. This spring, nine of her novels and her latest collection of poetry Sugar Zone were simultaneously re-released as Kindle e-books.  By the end of the summer they will be available on Nook, Kobo, iPad, and Android. We are going to talk to Mary today about how she got these books back into print and what her experience has been.

Andy: Nine of your novels and Sugar Zone, your most recent collection of poetry, were recently published as e-books.  How did this happen?

Mary: The short version is that my agent Barbara Lowenstein first negotiated two deals: one with, which publishes Kindle books, and another with Vook, which publishes e-books in the Epub format on all other platforms. She could only do this because she had retained my electronic rights when the books were originally sold to traditional publishing houses. The moral of this story is that every writer needs a great agent to draw up contracts and make deals with publishers.

Andy: How did you get your books into Kindle and other e-book formats? Did you do it yourself?

Mary: No, thank heavens, I didn’t have to. Barbara’s assistants worked with me for several months to get the files ready, and then Amazon did the actual conversion. I had to proofread everything to catch errors and make sure nothing was left out.

Andy: Were most of these books out of print before they were published as e-books?

Mary: Yes, it was a kind of resurrection. Even A Grand Passion, my novel about ballet which made The New York Times bestseller list had been hard to get. But the strangest experience was having my first novel Immersion available again after being out of print for 38 years. Shameless Hussy Press had published about 1000 copies, but very few were still available and those were so expensive I could rarely afford to buy one for myself. Then, bang. Immersion came out as an e-book, and suddenly people who would never have stumbled on it in a bookstore were buying it.

Andy: How are the books selling?

Mary: Very well. They’ve only been available for a short time, but every month at least a third more units have been sold than in the previous month. The first month Amazon sold over 700 copies. This approaches bestseller status for newly released e-books if you don’t count blockbusters like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Andy: I understand that when most authors publish e-books, they only sell a few copies. To what do you attribute your success?  How are people finding your books among the more than a million books available on Kindle and the ten million in other e-book formats?

Mary: We think there are several factors. First, I’m a writer with a well-established readership. I already have a reputation—fans, readers who have enjoyed my work in the past and are interested in anything new I might write. Some of my novels, like A Grand Passion or The Year The Horses Came have a cult following Second, I’m a current writer. I’ve had two novels and a collection of poetry published in the last five years. If people have read The Widow’s War (Berkley Books, 2009), they might search for me by name and find my other books all priced at $2.99, and think: “Why not take a chance? I liked her other books, and if for some reason I don’t like this one, it costs me less than a small Frappuccino at Starbucks.” I mention the price because it’s the third factor and vitally important. To sell a lot of e-books you need to set a price low enough that everyone can afford them.

Andy: How can authors who don’t already have an established literary reputation help readers find their e-books?

Mary: The algorithm that Amazon uses to decide which books to recommend to readers is a secret, but certain things seem to help. For example, my books are highly rated. They’ve been given a lot of stars by people who liked them and been reviewed numerous times, mostly quite favorably. In addition, readers have tagged each novel with words they associate with it. For example, A Grand Passion is tagged with the words “ballet,” “bestseller,” “dance,” “historical fiction,” “Russia,” “romance,” “passion,” etc. Getting good reader tags is important because they guide other readers to your books. Anyone publishing on Kindle should also establish and maintain an Amazon Central Author Page. I say this with guilt because I need to find time to update mine. Other things that help are getting both your name and information about your work out there on the web, getting reviewed, establishing an author presence on Facebook, using Twitter, blogging, and so forth.

Andy: Is there anything else an emerging author can do?

Mary: Yes, be patient. Don’t publish your work as an e-book until it’s polished. Readers enjoy good writing. They like to read books by authors who care about craft and structure and who can create crisp, fast-moving plots and interesting characters.  If you’re self-publishing and can afford it, hire an editor. Great editors are like great agents. They’re invaluable. If your book is really good, sooner or later the word will get out.


Mary Bisbee-Beek, Freelance Book Publicist

July 22, 2012

Today we are speaking with independent book publicist Mary Bisbee-Beek. Mary has worked in publishing as a staff person with various literary presses as well as the University of Michigan Press, and Literary Ventures Fund. As an independent publicist, she works with publishers of all sizes and with individual authors.     I know a few of Mary’s clients and they rave about her. If you need an independent publicist (and we all know how  publishers never do enough for us!), contact Mary at:

Andy: Mary, every author I speak with complains about how little their publisher did to promote their book. This is true of authors whose books were positioned deep in the midlist as well as those with lead titles and high six figure advances.  This makes no sense. After a publisher has gone to all the trouble and expense of publishing a book, why are they just letting them hang?

Mary: This is a perplexing question, Andy. …. Some larger publishers really do seem to take a back seat approach to marketing and publicity or they spend their marketing budget on advance reading copies and a few well placed advertisements. But by and large I believe that most publishers do feel that they are doing the best that they can. One of the conundrums of publicity is that one can always do more.  It takes a lot of work before a book is actually published — but it can’t stop on the pub date nor even six weeks after the pub date. It is a rare book that will carry on it’s own momentum. It requires diligence, nudging, and the perfect storm of activity both from the author and the publicist. And, of course, a little bit of luck.

Andy: You are an independent book publicist. Could you tell us a little bit about what you do and the types of books you work with?

Mary: I prefer working on literary fiction, creative non-fiction, and cerebral yet readable non-fiction books.  I like coming into a book in the planning stage, so if there is a staff publicist working on the book, it’s a good idea to enter the conversation at the same time as this person so that we can figure out who is doing what.  Once the book is published and the author is actively doing readings and events I become more active and more hands on. This is generally the time that the staff publicist needs to move on to other books in the list or to a new list, but I can help to keep the conversation alive on the book beyond the six or eight week mark.

Andy: How does an author know whether she needs her own book publicist or whether she should just rely on the publisher? When should she start thinking about hiring one?

Mary: Once the book is in the design phase or out of copy editing an author should have a frank discussion with their publisher to determine what the publisher is asking of the author. Perhaps this has already occurred and the publisher has been clear on what they can and cannot do – if a publisher says we can publish your book but we can’t market it or we only do limited marketing,  then the author should start shopping for a publicist right away.

Andy: And what do you do that a publishers publicity department won’t do?

Mary: I am able to start with sending out advance reading copies to the industry media, the selected trade media, bloggers, helping the author to set up a Facebook page, to get started on Twitter and to consult on the layout and content of a webpage.  I will set up events. I do all of the media follow-up and I will shout out the book to booksellers when I can.

Andy: Describe a typical marketing plan that you would devise for a client.

Mary: Oddly, this is a tough question, Andy. There is hardly ever a typical scenario and it would depend on whether it is the first book by the author and whether it is  fiction or non-fiction.  I would encourage anyone who is shopping for a  a publicist to talk to me about what might be  appropriate for their book; their timeline; their budget; and whether or not they have the time to travel to spread the word on their book.

Let’s consider the following thumbnail sketch of a  marketing plan.  After reading the book, I would devise a list of most appropriate reviewers; if there were an advertising budget, I would  suggest  the best potential venues…. I am mostly not in favor of paid ads but sometimes they  make good sense. I would add special market possibilities (sales outside the book business), depending on what hooks the book’s story line presents; and then I would come up with a geographically savvy and budget conscious approach for the author. After mailing the advance readers copies,  I would do timely follow-up and start to work on a one-to-one basis with media and bloggers for author interviews. As we got closer to pub date I would start outreach to radio producers and television. I would be reaching out to libraries around the country for ALL COMMUNITY READING programs and I also work closely with reading groups for readings and potential author participation. Depending on the time of year, there are Book Festivals  that can be approached for reading and panel inclusion participation, so this can also be added to the list of possibilities.

Andy: How hard is it getting media attention these days?

Mary: It depends.  If we adhere to the schedules that reviewers and feature writers need , then we have a fair chance of receiving attention.  These days, there are more books for a reviewer to consider, for fewer pages of review space – so a publicist has to be savvy about the rules and deadlines.

Andy: What is the most effective media for book promotion?

Mary: I think  radio.  There is magic in the words, “I heard about it on NPR.”  Certain blogs carry enormous weight but I am also smitten with book review pages in major metropolitan newspapers; and glossy magazines, of course. And I’m very partial to PENNIE’S PICKS.  Pennie  Clark  Ianniciello is the book buyer for Costco and she shouts out an interesting title every month or so. That sticker on a book carries a lot of weight, as does Oprah’s Book Club…. I think everyone is happy that’s back.

Andy: What about Internet marketing? Do you do that as well? Describe it for us.

Mary: I work with a number of bloggers who have solid sites that are exclusively shouting out books and they are powerful.. But this is not an either –  or situation, you need the full power of traditional and newer media in all forms to create a strong platform for your book.

Andy: And here is the $64,000 question. How much can an author expect to pay for your services? Can you give us a ballpark estimate and tell us what it buys?

Mary: I try to work with an author’s  budget and I believe I charge fairly for my services. Generally I ask for a six-month minimum agreement and my fees range from $1,000 to $1500 per month depending on how full-scale a program is needed or wanted. This is a personal discussion with each client, of course. This buys an active place on the desk, in all or as many pertinent media conversations as I have in a day, week, month and as many of situations as described above, from making lists, sending books, follow-up, to setting up events, conferencing on websites, etc.

Andy: Mary, thank you so much. Almost every author I have worked with complains that his publisher didn’t do enough for him. Sounds like authors have some options out there.

Mary:  Yes. Absolutely. Thanks for talking with me, Andy!

Eunuchs at an Orgy: Authors’ on Literary Critics

July 14, 2012

“Critics are like Eunuchs at an Orgy.” – origins unknown

 Writers don’t take kindly to criticism.  After all why should they be different from any of us?  For me there is something exquisite about reading author responses to reviews. The anger and the pettiness seem to inspire  masterful wit and style (at best) or  (even better) clownish buffoonery unworthy of  figures of  great cultural gravitas.

 For those who are connoisseurs of the literary contretemps, I recommend reading the letters in The New York Review of Books. You will uncover a universe of expressions that will serve you well in your own modest efforts at literary feuding.  Here are just a few treasures [along with my own deconstructions of their meaning]:


  •          “outrageously inaccurate”  [a hair splitting difference of opinion on a subject that no one else understands  or cares about]
  •           “rhetoric” [the writing style of the reviewer in question, usually as opposed to the reasoned arguments of the writer]
  •          “petrified academicism” [a favorite of mine, a characterization usually made by a petrified academic writer  about   a petrified academic reviewer]
  •          “crude” [the reviewer’s method of analysis, as opposed to the “subtle dialectics” of the writer]
  •          “mendacity” [a pompous way of saying that the reviewer is a liar, but with the implication that the flaw is deeply imbedded in his character.]
  •         “clique” [friends of the reviewer who have publicly defended the review]
  •        “heartwarming to hear” [Sarcasm. Usually said when the writer takes out of context a short phrase by the reviewer to make the reviewer seem foolish]
  •          “the reviewer surely knows…” [said when the writer patronizingly points out a particularly egregious mistake of the reviewer indicating that the reviewer knows very little about what he is reviewing]
  •          “shocking” [a very common and overused  characterization about things rarely shocking,  that always calls to mind the Claude Raines character in Casablanca]
  •          “unholy alliance” [people who usually disagree about most things but are united in their revulsion of the author’s writing]


I love this stuff!  Here are a few more of my favorites:

“I have your review in front of me and soon it will be behind me” – George Bernard Shaw

 Possibly the greatest put down ever of a reviewer (critical of Shaw’s play, no doubt). Magnificent double entendre. Unforgettable understatement.

 “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.” – Liberace

 Another classic that has become a cliché. Probably more honest than Shaw about the mental state of  the aggrieved artist.

Liberace was pretty blunt. But leave it to the inimitable Ayelet Waldman to bring out the universal humanity in a writer’s outrage at an unfair review of Michael Chabon’s [Ayelet’s husband] book:

 “To the fucking MORON Amazon reviewers giving Awesome Man 1 star [because] ‘It would be good for, like, a 2 year old’  — IT WAS WRITTEN FOR LITTLE KIDS”

 Getting back to The New York Review of Books, I find it puzzling why writers would ever respond to these reviews, given the fact that the NYR always gives the reviewer the final word. And the reviewer  almost always answers  with a tone of bored world-weary superiority at the overwrought, and implied, unbecoming comments of the writer.

 So I too  will give the reviewer the final word:

 “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good. ” – Samuel Johnson






Writers on Writing – My Favorite Quotes

July 9, 2012

I’m going to share some of my favorite quotes about writing. I know  it’s a little presumptuous on my part. I’m not a writer, unless you count this blog as writing.  But as an agent, I find myself doing a lot of editing. Publishers don’t have time to imagine how to make an imperfect manuscript perfect. So part of my job is to make sure it’s  pretty perfect before  it lands on their desk. That means I have to edit. And in order to edit, I have to think about writing that’s  good and writing that’s bad.  Telling the difference is pretty easy. I can usually do that on the first page. But  understanding why good writing is good and bad writing is bad, I  think that could take a lifetime.

I have a philosophy about editing. I like to come to  a manuscript with a “beginner’s mind.”  That’s a concept in Zen Buddhism that means  one should approach a subject with no preconceptions, techniques, or methods. In his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki describes it perfectly.  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”  So when I start to edit a manuscript, I try to put myself in the role of  the simple reader who is, after all, the only person that really matters. Writers aren’t always in the best position to understand the reader. I’d like to believe that I can help them out.

Now on to my favorite quotes:

  • “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  • “I don’t understand anything about the ballet; all I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.”
  •  “Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.”
  • “One should not put a loaded rifle onto the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

– above quotes by Anton Chekhov

“Show, don’t tell” has become a cliché.  But it is also fundamental. Not quite a law of nature. Great writers can break the rules. I think these wise words by Chekhov say it better than all the articles you read  on this subject in Writer’s Digest. Actually the quote about the ballet doesn’t really address this concept, but I liked it so much I decided to include it. And it’s only a little bit of a stretch to say that the stink of the ballerinas tells – no, excuse me – shows you a lot about their art.

  • ” The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” –Stephen King
  • “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” –Mark Twain
  • “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”  – Elmore Leonard
  • “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…he admonished gravely.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” –Elmore Leonard

When I was in New York last month for the book convention, I had dinner with Susan Sutliff Brown, freelance editor, Joyce scholar, and friend.  At some point in the evening, Susan stated pontifically that good writers of literary fiction don’t use adjectives and adverbs. I was astonished.  Of course, we all look down on  Tom Swifties, those ungainly adverbial tags used by the novice writer. (“Let’s get to the rocket ship, Tom said swiftly.”) But banishing adverbs and adjectives altogether? Unimaginable, even in an alternative  universe designed by Raymond Carver. Susan’s pronouncement ruined my reading for several weeks. Rather than getting lost in a good book, I poured over  texts counting modifiers.  But now I must admit that Susan was on the right track. Again, it’s all about “show, don’t tell.” Excessive use of adjectives and especially adverbs is a sign of lazy writing. Check it out yourself. (Now, I hope  this hasn’t ruined your experience of reading for the next few weeks.)

  • “Avoid prologues.” – Elmore Leonard

Editors believe  how you handle or mishandle “backstory” is a marker for your ability as a writer. Back in the 19th century when people had more time, you could get away with spending the first 50 pages, say, setting setting up the story. If you don’t believe me, check out Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. Jean Valjean doesn’t even come on stage until page 55. You can’t do that today. Backstory needs to be insinuated into the narrative, obliquely,  as it unfolds. And it’s devilishly hard to do. Prologues are the lazy man’s way of getting all the crap out and onto the page, so that the you can proceed to roll out the plot without any messy explanatory back tracking. Book editors call this an “info dump”.

You see prologues a lot in movies. And it makes sense.  Screenplays are much more compressed than novels.  A typical screenplay has about 20,000 words. A very short novel will have 70,000. A movie doesn’t have time to allow a backstory to subtly unfold and bore an audience. But you can’t do  that in fiction. Well, that’s not entirely true.  Looking for graceless, awkward, lazy, and inelegant management of backstory? I recommend The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown.

But on the other hand –

  • “Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.” –  Rose Tremain
  •  “Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.”

– Rose Tremain

Don’t laugh when I say that learning how to write  is a lot like learning how to play golf. There is a very profitable  industry out there of golf tip books, magazines,  and videos by the super stars. Millions of words written on how to execute the perfect swing or how to make your drive fade. But mastering this information won’t make you Tiger Woods. Similarly with writing, the great novelists are a practical group, always willing to give and receive tips. Here’s some quotes I like:

  • “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.” –  Baltasar Gracián
  • “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” – Agatha Christie
  • Try to be accurate about stuff. ” – Anne Enright

Ok. So the golf comparison is pretty sucky. And you might just perceive in these quotes a tone of  post-modern self-reflective irony that one would not likely hear at the British Open. But there is something about these sentiments that make me feel pretty good, like these writers are  experiencing the same struggles as we mortals. Compare this to:

  • “If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” –  Anais Nin
  • “To withdraw myself from myself has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all.”  – Lord Byron
  • “I am a man, and alive…. For this reason I am a novelist. And being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.” – D.H. Lawrence

No offense to the great Lord Byron and these other fine writers, but their characterizations of themselves as writers strike me as gaseous nonsense.

To be continued……