Archive for the ‘Andy's observations’ Category

Advice to Beginning Writers by the Incomparable (and Hysterically Funny) Tawni Waters

October 19, 2016

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.



Me looking smug because after two years of book tours, interviews, and Q&As, I finally came up with a non-acid-reflux inducing answer to this question.  Go me!  

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.


One of my brilliant classroom drawings.  Oh, look at all the lonely people waiting to be connected through the miracle of literature.  

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.


Me drinking with writers.  That whole “writers who drink their sorrows away” cliche is bollocks.  

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?)


James Joyce looking smug because he penned a novel that has been torturing grad students for almost a century.  (I guess the girl who’s smug because she came up with an answer to a basic interview question should stop making fun of him.)


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:



Desk. Moonlight

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.

Grant Clauser’s Kick Ass Poems

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.


Milton Viorst on Zionism

July 29, 2016

zionismWe 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?

viorstMV: 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.

AR: Where did the Balfour Declaration fit in?

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.



Twitter Tips for Authors

February 19, 2016

 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.

circle-head-150x150Charlotte 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.


A Book Acquisition Editor Talks About Rejection

February 4, 2016


annaWriters 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.)

Elaborate Constructs

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 Vulnerable.

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.


July 22, 2015
tawni small (4 of 1)

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:

  1. Now I know what the phrase “smells like money” means.
  2. Maybe I should have put on a fresh T-shirt, one without the Jaws emblem.
  3. Is everything here made out of actual marble, or is that pen faux marble?
  4. 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.

After all, up until now, I was the riffraff.

Attorney Helen Sedwick on Legal Issues for Book Authors

April 2, 2015

sedwickToday we are going to interview Helen Sedwick, business attorney and author of Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook: The Step-by-Step Guide to the Legal Issues of Self-Publishing [Ten Gallon Press, 2014]. The book is available in paperback and as an ebook. It’s geared toward self-published authors, but the information equally applies to authors who are considering publishing with a small or large commercial publisher or a hybrid publisher. It has great advice. It’s easy to read. If you are intimidated by lawyers (or agents), this book will be indispensable.

Andy: Helen, welcome to “Ask the Agent”. Let’s start out by you telling us what you see as the biggest legal risks for writers?

Helen: Many writers assume their biggest risks are defamation and privacy claims, but I disagree.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of books are published, and only a few hundred defamation or privacy cases hit the courts. But tens of thousands of writers have signed on to unfavorable contracts they come to regret.

I have seen contracts where the author grants a self-publishing company or small publisher an exclusive license to exploit a manuscript in print, digital, audio and any other format, in any language for the life of the copyright. No reversion, no termination provision, little or no advance!

Yet, many writers don’t even read their contracts. One told me a contract looks like 5000 words run through a blender!

I am something of fanatic about this. I believe any writer who can master plot, character, and voice is capable of understanding key provisions of a contract, particularly the grant of rights clause. All they need is the right information. In the Appendix of Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook, I include a line-by-line explanation of key contract terms.

Andy: But many writers are afraid to show their manuscripts to agents, editors and film producers because they are sure their work will be stolen. Isn’t that a big risk?

Helen: In reality, industry professionals are not likely to steal someone’s work. Being accused of stealing work would damage their reputations, and maintaining a good reputation is worth more than an untested manuscript.

Protecting ideas is a different matter. The basic idea of a work is not protected by copyright. In some industries, ideas are protected by Non-Disclosure Agreements, but in the publishing industry these agreements are rare. From what I have heard, anyone who asks for an NDA is seen as a newbie. Andy, is that your experience?

Andy: I agree with you there, Helen. Sometimes I get clients who want me to represent them, but don’t want to tell the publisher what the book is about. I always tell them that  we can’t play “no peaky” when we are asking them to pay an advance.  How else can writers protect their copyrights?

Helen: Writers should understand that they own the copyright in their work as soon as they put it down on paper or a hard drive. It’s automatic, whether or not the work is published or the copyright is registered.

But it makes sense for U.S. writers to register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration establishes a record of the work and is required before an infringement suit is filed. Registration within three months following publication increases the damages recoverable in an infringement action. Online registration is $35 and easy. No lawyers required.

Andy: I should point out that a lot of the book contracts from commercial publishers obligate the publisher to register the work with the Copyright Office. But some publishers require the author to do this.  Let’s go to back the problem of defamation and privacy claims. How can writers use real people in their work without ending up in court?

Helen: Writers use real people in their writing all the time, either as models for fictitious characters or by name in nonfiction. If they couldn’t, I suspect 95% of books would disappear.

But there are legal risks in using real people; defamation, unauthorized disclosure of private facts, and misappropriation of the right of publicity. Here are a few measures writers can take to minimize the risks.

For starters, writers should not print, tweet, or post anything they would not say in a room full of lawyers, at least without consulting with a lawyer.

Fiction writers should mask distinguishing characteristics and avoid retelling life stories too closely. The more villainous the character, the more the writer should mask. They should also use the standard disclaimer in their novels: “This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”

Non-fiction writing involves more risk. Writers should take the time to educate themselves about the elements of defamation and disclosure of private facts. I summarize these claims on my blog.

For instance, writers should not say someone is criminal, sexually deviant, diseased, or professionally incompetent or use labels such as crook, cheat, pervert, or corrupt. They should stick to verifiable facts, and let readers come to their own conclusions. In other words, show, don’t tell.

Andy: Let’s look at a real situation. I represented an author, a former paparazza, who took a photo of a famous movie star smoking hash by her front door. The picture was all over the tabloids. Would the author have legal exposure if the picture were in the book?

Helen: Unlikely.

Writers may be liable for disclosing private facts about an identifiable person if the facts are “offensive to ordinary sensibilities” and “not of overriding public interest.” What is offensive and what is public interest? Ultimately, a judge or jury decides, but generally the information must be very private and damaging.

As a preliminary any conduct in public is not protected, particularly today when everyone carries a camera. Public figures have almost no reasonable expectation of privacy. The starlet in your client’s image should not have been surprised that cameras are pointing her way.

Information in publicly available court documents and news reports are also not private.

However, writers should be careful about the misappropriation of the right of publicity; namely, using someone’s name or image for advertising or promotional purposes. Writers should never use anyone’s name or image on a book cover, advertisement, or in any way that implies an endorsement without express permission. Using someone’s name or image within a book as part of the editorial or creative expression is different; writers have more leeway.

Only living people (and in some states companies) can make defamation and privacy claims, but in many states the right of publicity survives death. In California, for 70 years. In Indiana, 100 years.

When in doubt, writers should engage an attorney for one-on-one advice.

Andy: Writers love to use song lyrics as part of setting a scene. Is it safe for a writer to use only a line or two of lyrics buried deep in the body of the book?

Lyrics are intellectual property, like text and images. If a writer uses someone’s property without permission, whether it’s a car, a bicycle, or the words to a popular tune, he is violating their property rights.

Using lyrics is particularly risky, not because they are special in the eyes of the law, but because they are owned by music companies that aggressively protect their rights. A writer could get a “cease and desist” letter from some big law firm. Translation–shred every copy of the book, even though the infringing words are 25 out of 95,000. Worse, a writer could be liable for monetary damages.

There is no need for writers to take these risks. Asking for permission is not difficult or expensive in most cases.

On my website, writers can download a PDF with instructions on how to identify who owns a song and how to ask for permission, How to Use Memorable Lyrics Without Paying a Fortune or a Lawyer. I have a similar PDF for using images.

Andy: Helen, I’m a little surprised by this. I represent a biography of a recently deceased songwriter and performer. The title of the book is the title of one of songwriter’s most famous songs. And the author wants to use an occasional line or two of lyrics as chapter headings. Isn’t there a Fair Use Doctrine that allows you to use a minimum amount of lyrics or other copyrighted material without a permission? What about the title of the song being the title of the book?

Helen: I would encourage the writer to seek permission. If that’s not possible, then this is a perfect example of when someone should consult with an attorney on how to minimize risks. Sorry to punt here, but there is no one answer fits all.

While we are talking about titles, what if another  writer releases a book using the same title as mine? Are there any legal claims?

Most writers are surprised to hear that titles are not protected by U.S. copyright law.

It’s ironic, really. Anyone who has written a novel will tell you how difficult it is to come up with a title that is resonant and eye-catching. Yet titles are not protected under copyright law, because they are considered too short to contain sufficient “original expression.”

A very famous title or the title of a series may become a trademark however. If a writer’s title becomes as famous as The Da Vinci Code, then it’s time for to consult with an attorney about trademark protection. This a problem of success. I hope all our readers have this problem.


Writer and lawyer Helen Sedwick uses 30 years of legal experience to show writers how to stay out of court and at their desks. ForeWord Review gave her Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook Five Stars, calling it “one of the most valuable resources a self-publisher can own…well-written and authoritative yet unhampered by legalese.” Her blog coaches writers on everything from protecting copyrights to hiring freelancers to spotting scams. For more information about Helen and her work, check out her website at

Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is an attorney licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.


Rushdie, Charlie Hebdo, and Me

January 9, 2015

je suis deloquix


I’ve been reading peoples’ reactions to the Charlie Hebdo Affair in the media and on Facebook. There is a lot of soul searching going on about what is the appropriate response to the horrendous act and what is the proper way for people to express solidarity and outrage. For me, this is of more than a casual interest. As many of you know, my bookstore was bombed in 1989, presumably because  we were carrying Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. As best as I can tell, we were the first victim of Islamic terrorism in the United States. No one was killed, because the pipe bomb that was thrown through the window didn’t go off. But had it not been defective, it would have killed everyone in the store.


Much of the public pronouncements that were being made then  are being made again now in the international conversation about Charlie Hebdo. How do we respond to threats against freedom of speech? How can we best express our solidarity? How should government protect the people against terrorists in general and Islamic terrorists and Jihadists, in particular? What is the responsibility of the broader Islamic community and the Islamic religion in permitting these acts to occur? How much, if at all, should we be profiling Moslems as potentially dangerous? What should mainstream Moslem leaders do about  denouncing these acts? Is Islam a uniquely violent religion that is the true source of Jihadism?


Of course, the comments of right wingers, conservative politicians, and Fox News pundits are pretty much what we would expect. For them, this is an opportunity to wage a holy war against Islam. It also vindicates their contempt of the cowardly French and allows them to fulminate against liberals, Obama, Al Sharpton, and the United Nations. We need not waste time commenting on this.


Alan Dershowitz gave a particularly tasteless interview asserting that France was reaping what it had sown, and went on to view the entire affair from the prism of  what it all means for Israel.


A lot of people along the entire political spectrum are arguing that  it’s the responsibility of  all  Islamic people to denounce this act and it is particularly the responsibility of Islamic leaders to denounce it in language sufficiently strong to satisfy…..something and someone.


During the Rushdie Affair,  people in the literary world made eloquent pronouncements about how they  would risk their lives for freedom of speech. Most of these people didn’t have much skin in the game and were not likely to have an opportunity to risk much of anything. It was quite different for those of us at Cody’s. After the bomb squad detonated the bomb, we all met in the store and took a vote about whether we should keep carrying the book. The staff voted unanimously to continue selling it.


But the media and many public voices wanted more than that.  The media was looking for sound bites. Every newsperson I spoke with challenged me to put the book in the window. (I didn’t, and I didn’t put it on the front table either). Most of them wanted me to make grandiloquent public pronouncements about how we were willing to be martyrs for freedom of speech. (“Ayatollah Khomeini, read…my…lips”). I didn’t do that either. I decided that under the circumstances, discretion was the better part of valor. No interviews to the media, no manifestoes about freedom of speech in the front window. We just quietly kept selling the book.


I have no problem telling you today that I had no intention of being a martyr, that I was not willing to die for The First Amendment, and I certainly wasn’t willing to put my employees in harm’s way to make  a public point. People treated us like heroes for selling the book, and they still do. But honestly, if as a result of our selling it, my employees were killed. I would not be proud of our decision  at all. I would have thought it was reckless, not heroic.


I’ve been thinking a lot about Islamic leaders and clerics and what they should be doing.  I think it’s fine if they want to denounce the act, if they want to point out that almost all of the 1.6 billion followers of Islam are not Jihadists. Even if they want to apologize. That’s their choice but not their responsibility. What I would like to see them do is to engage potential future Jihadists in a way that would get them to calm down. But doing so would require considerable discretion.


For me then and I imagine for them now, the decisions just aren’t that easy. And we should be respectful of that fact.


How Not to Flog Your Product on Facebook

December 5, 2014

Most writers seeking to get published for the first time have to think about  the challenge of developing platform. “Platform” is a big thing for publishers, particularly for non-fiction projects. Before you start having fantasies of speeches by Mussolini, I should point out that we are talking about  the kind of platform that gives you credibility or access to national media. I have said before that platform is either an endowed chair at Harvard or  you’re sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser.

There are a lot of people out there who will charge  money to tell you that you need to blog, twitter, and have a Facebook presence in order to develop your platform. I do hereby tell you the same thing for free.  But realistically, these tools are not going to help you sell thousands of books unless you have many thousands of Facebook friends and followers of your blog. And even then, those people have to care about YOU, not just whatever it is you are hawking.

You have to be careful about how you use Facebook to promote yourself. I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook. It’s a great way to  waste hours by engaging in errant political bickering, spreading celebrity tittle-tattle,  or viewing cute  pictures of kittens. Most of my 900+ friends on Facebook are associated with writing and book publishing. I  enjoy communicating with them and seeing what they are thinking about. I like to rant about  Sometimes I try to be funny or gently snarky. I try to be respectful, even when I am utterly contemptuous of an idiotic political position someone is espousing. And sometimes I take the opportunity to promote my business or the books of the authors  I represent. My Facebook friends  tend to root for me when I do.

And then there are people who just want to flog their product. They don’t seem to have much of an interest in me other than as a potential customer. And they assume that I don’t have much of an interest in them except to buy their… whatever. Some of them won’t even post pictures of their kittens, for crying out loud! When I see this, when I get dozens of posts each day  on my Facebook feed that just promote a person’s stuff, I kind of feel manipulated. I kind of don’t want to buy what they are selling. I kind of react to it like I do to telemarketers.[“Please, take me off your call list!”]

I guess what I want to tell you is that people spend time on Facebook because they like to talk to other people, to share ideas, to express their feelings, to be connected. It’s a  personal thing. And when people engage with you on that level, they will be interested in your work and might even be motivated to buy your book or watch your movie. But they don’t like being used. And they probably won’t want to support you if they feel like that’s all you are doing.

In other words,  if you want to make Facebook part of your platform, then remember the platform is YOU, not your product. And when your friends really care about you, well, they might even buy your stuff.

How Not to Freak Out and Get Humiliated When Pitching to Agents

February 22, 2014
San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

I just got back from the writers conference at San Miguel de Allende. The city was voted the number one travel destination in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. And I would rate this writers conference number one in the world as well.

As usual, I took a lot of pitches from writers. As usual, they were pretty nervous when they sat down. And probably some were pretty disappointed when I told them I didn’t want to represent their book.  As usual, a lot of talented people showed me some  good writing, but  I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell it to a publisher.  Of course, nowadays there are lots of alternatives to mainline commercial publishing. And  writers are exploring these alternatives.

When it comes to rejection, I’m a real wussy. I don’t think I could ever pitch my writing to an agent. I’m amazed at how courageous writers are, and I always feel shame when I know that I have hurt someone with a rejection. In my job, I get  plenty of rejection letters from editors  in response to my submissions. I estimate I have received over 5000 in my few years at this job. Sometimes it seems a little like my social life in high school.  (See my blog post on Publishers’ Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler.)

Many of the pitches at San Miguel were for memoirs and novels. Here’s what I can tell you about  how publishers evaluate these genres. So many of the published memoirs are driven by celebrity. These are,  in reality, book-like glitzy packages, usually written by someone other than the putative author. For those of you who like that kind of book, I refer you to Kardashian Konfidential, St. Martin’s Press (2010), written by God only knows who. For the rest of us, it’s almost impossible to find a publisher for a personal memoir. Certainly there are some examples of family memoirs that have succeeded. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls comes to mind. Or The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. These books rise to the level of high literature. They’re  the exceptions though, and I can only imagine the difficulty they must have had finding a publisher. I’ve represented some very good memoirs. Yes. As good as The Liar’s Club. I couldn’t get them published. No dishonor. Just disappointment.

Similarly with fiction. And I have written about this as well in a previous blog post. Literary fiction is especially difficult to get published for the simple reason that it rarely sells enough to be a profitable venture. Most editors evaluate 200-500 novels a year. All of them have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good enough to get published. An editor may acquire 10. And the rejection is usually based on marketing, not on aesthetics. (“This book is too dark for book groups.”  —  “This book seems too quiet.”) As a result I only represent a few novels a year. Most of the greatest novelists of our time have experienced these kinds of rejections.

Some agents are nice guys and have a warm and fuzzy vibe. Others may seem dour, forbidding, arrogant, or world weary. If you are fearful of laying yourself  wide open to an agent, here’s what I recommend: Don’t even try to pitch your book. It’s probably more effective  sending an agent a query letter and a sample when they get back to the office. Instead, just ask them some questions. Agents know about the publishing process and the market, and you can learn a lot by having a conversation with them. Ask them what they are looking for when they read a memoir or a novel. Ask them what turns them on and what turns them off.  Ask them for advice about finding the right agent. Try to find out what agents and editors are talking about with each other. Ask them what grabs their attention in the first paragraph. The information will be invaluable. And you won’t have to suffer the indignity of a face-to-face rejection. Of course, ask them at the end if you can send them a query and submission. More than likely they will put it at the top of their queue.

Most writers who attended the conference at San Miguel de Allende, most writers who pitch to agents at any conference, aren’t going to find a home with a big New York publisher. But it’s important to remember that the writing, itself, is the end, not the means. It’s the journey that counts. And a few people  will reach the end and receive the gold cup.  More likely though you will slip on a banana peel ten feet from the finish line. Ah, but what a trip it’s been. How much you must have grown in the process.  Writing is a profound journey of discovery. Publication, well, it’s  a business transaction.

Nobody said it better than Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird. She tells us:

“…publication is not all it’s cracked up to be.  But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

On the 25th Anniversary of the Rushdie Affair

January 14, 2014

nerudaFebruary 1 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of  Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the United States.  Two weeks after publication, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa (a religious ruling), that declared it permissible for Muslims to assassinate  Rushdie because of the “blasphemous” subject of the book.

Cody’s was bombed on February 28, probably the first incident of Islamic terrorism in the United States.

There was a lot of talk then and I’m sure there will be much written today about the meaning of the Rushdie Affair. Of course, in the narrative of events, the independent bookstores were the heroes. — Well, actually Rushdie deserves some credit as well. — The big chain bookstores pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves after the fatwa. But most independent stores continued selling it. David and Goliath stories are always compelling, and this was no exception.

There was a lot of histrionics in the literary community about how people were willing to take a bullet to defend the First Amendment. But the bookstores were on the street and were particularly vulnerable.

Well, I’m not ashamed to say that I never put the book in the window. Actually, before the bombing, I learned while I was out of town that someone had made a window of the book at Cody’s. I told them to take it down immediately. I had no intention of having a Cody’s employee taking a bullet for the First Amendment or for any other reason.

Still we continued selling the book. The staff at Cody’s voted unanimously to keep carrying it  even after we were bombed.

The only artifact I have of the Rushdie Affair is a copy of The Sea and the Bells, a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda. We discovered an undetonated pipe bomb rolling around the poetry section the morning after a fire bomb had been thrown threw the window. It was too dangerous to remove the bomb, so it was detonated in the store.  As you can clearly see. the shrapnel did some damage to the book, but it didn’t destroy it, not even a single poem.

I can’t think of a better symbol of what the Rushdie Affair was about, of it’s true historical meaning, than the image of this book.

Below are my recollections:

Remembering the Rushdie Affair

On February 28, 1989 Cody’s was bombed. I remember being awakened by the police who informed me a fire bomb had been thrown through the window of Cody’s. The fire department had broken into the store  to put out the fire. The firemen’s efforts at containment did considerably more damage than the fire, itself. I came down to the store at about 2 AM and  waited around most of the night. I made some phone calls to the American Booksellers Association and, I believe, my mother and brother informing them of the incident.

We  assumed then the bombing was associated with the so-called Rushdie Affair, although we  never learned exactly who was responsible.

Let’s backtrack a little. In September 1988, Penguin Books published The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in the UK. From the beginning it was considered a literary masterpiece and Rushdie’s most ambitious work. Sadly for him, it satirized some themes in Muslim history and theology. In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, issued a fatwa, a decree under Muslim Sharia law, declaring the book blasphemous and offering a bounty for Rushdie’s murder.

Rushdie went into deep hiding, although someone said they saw him in Hyde Park in disguise. When asked what Rushdie looked like, the person responded that he looked like Salman  Rushdie with a fake mustache.

The publication unleashed a fire storm, literally and figuratively. There were book burnings all over the Muslim world and fire bombs thrown into book stores in the UK. In the book world there was a veritable frenzy of people issuing pronouncements about defending freedom of speech from terrorists and fanatics. There was a lot of talk about people sacrificing their lives, if necessary, to protect this freedom. Writers’ organizations started handing out buttons that became ubiquitous in publishing saying: “I am Salman Rushdie!.” Of course with the death threats flying around, certain wags started wearing buttons saying: “He is Salman Rushdie!.”

The book was published in the United States at the beginning of February. Several weeks later, America’s largest chains; B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble; pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide. The writers’ organizations, led by PEN America and just about everyone else in publishing went ape-shit. PEN organized a public reading of Satanic Verses and a march to Dalton’s to picket the store. Susan Sontag was president of PEN. Norman Mailer was the past president. They were everywhere speaking about the outrage. There continued to be much breast beating  by writers and  public intellectuals  pronouncing their  willingness to give their lives for the cause.

I was watching all this with a lot more than detached interest. It was pretty easy for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to talk about risking their lives in support of an idea. After all they lived   fairly high up in New York apartment buildings. It was quite another thing to be a retailer featuring the book at street level. I had to make some really hard decisions about balancing our commitment to freedom of speech against the real threat to the lives of our employees. From  my vantage point, this was not such an easy decision.

Then Cody’s got bombed.  I spoke of the firebombing that occurred at 2 AM.  What came later was more alarming. The next morning, as we were cleaning up, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. Lawrence Davidson, who discovered the bomb, ran upstairs to warn me to leave the building. If I haven’t told you before, Lawrence, thanks.

As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. But there and then, I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent.

We all assembled across the street facing the building, which had been cordoned  by yellow tape.   The police bomb squad entered  to see if they could diffuse the bomb. Apparently they judged it too dangerous to remove. They decided to pack it with sand bags and detonate it in the store. We heard the bomb blast and watched as the building shook. I remember thinking this was unreal. It can’t be happening. Then I started crying. Of course the media vultures loved this and stuck a camera in my face to record the tears rolling down  for the six o’clock media clips.

We all pulled ourselves together and returned to the store. I called a meeting in the café. Jesus, what do you say after you have just watched your store get bombed? It isn’t like we learned how to deal with this situation in ABA booksellers’ school. We had, after all, just witnessed the first act of international terrorism in the United States. And it had been directed against us!

When the staff had assembled, I told them we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or alternatively,  take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this.   It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was also the moment when I realized bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation; because, after all,  ideas are powerful weapons. I felt  just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But with the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Several years later, Salman, still undercover, came to the Bay Area. A secret dinner was arranged for him with numerous celebrities, politicians, and movie stars. Of course, the booksellers were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence,  had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole.” Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “Well, you know some people get statues, —- and others get holes.”


After the bomb squad detonated the bomb in the store, I hung around for the rest of the day watching the FBI sort through the rubble in their investigation. My wife, Joyce Cole, contacted the media who had been filming all this and told them my life was in danger and they should block out my face. That night we watched the 6 o’clock news and saw the interview of me with my face looking like a  Picasso  painting from his Cubist Period. Like Rushdie’s fake mustache in Hyde Park, this wasn’t going to fool anyone.

The same day Peter Mayer, the publisher of Penguin Books, called us and offered the services of their security advisory agency. The Satanic Verses had been out of stock at the publisher for a week, and almost no one in the country had it. The chains probably did, but they had taken it off their shelves. Peter said because of our courage (or whatever  it was),  Penguin was going to overnight our shipment of the next printing, so we would be the only book store on the street  (and probably in the country) selling it. This was a touching expression of gratitude, but one not likely to help me sleep  more peacefully.

The security consultant provided to us by Penguin had a lot of experience protecting companies against union organizers, but  I doubt he understood any more about terrorist bombings than I did. On his advice my family left home and settled in at  my friend’s house  for a week. Although the Ayatollah had issued a fatwa against me, we felt it was the prudent thing to do.

The next day there was a picture of Cody’s on the front page of The  New York Times. I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. Unfortunately, the picture they decided to use was of a janitor from the cleaning service sweeping up. I thought that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame.

I was advised by the security people to stay out of the news anyway. Though I ate bitter bile, I told the Cody’s folks to deal with all media queries by saying “Mr. Ross is unavailable for comment at this time.”That’s what they told  Dan Rather. That’s what they told The  New York Times. That’s what they told McNeill – Lehrer. For all I know, that’s what they  told the Pope.

For the next 2 days and nights, I sat at my desk designing a security plan for Cody’s to be implemented when we reopened after the FBI went home. When it was completed, it was a pretty impressive document. But  I knew then, as I know now, it was something of a formality to make the employees feel more at ease. It was going to cost a lot of money and be a big hassle and wasn’t likely to deter a serious or even a casual terrorist. The plan included specific procedures for dealing with “suspicious ” people, evacuation procedures, inspections at the front door, managing the media, and metal detectors in the shipping room.

The first scare we had was when we found a letter addressed to me. The bells and whistles went off when we scanned it with the metal detector. We evacuated the building. The police courageously told me to open it myself. It turned out it was a  cutesy note from Melissa Mytinger, the events manager, with a little smiley face metal foil sticker inside.

We did see a lot of customers with sort of  sinister Middle Eastern looks to them and shifty eyes.  It turns out there were a number Muslim individuals who came into the store looking to buy the book. The shifty eyes may have had to do with the fact they were doing something naughty. But I don’t know.

One of the most poignant  encounters I had was with a group of Muslim students at UC Berkeley who wanted to express their compassion for Cody’s and to tell me they were ashamed of all this. As you can imagine, any Muslim in America was getting a raw deal with the hysteria that was going on. I told them I wanted to apologize to them for what they must be suffering. I realized something important during this encounter.

We still kept getting calls from the media  who wanted six o’clock news clips of the security measures. For some reason, they all wanted to ask me if we were going to put the book in the window, as if I would risk getting by ass blown to smithereens so they could have a sound bite. I think what they really wanted was for me to get up on a soap box in front of the store facing a thousand cameras  and say: “Ayatollah Khomeini, Read…..My….Lips!”

Eventually things settled down. We slowly and in stages phased out the security plan. There was a lot of debate about eliminating each measure. The gist of the conversation at each step was something like: “What do you care more about? Human life or money?” But we moved on. We sold over 700 copies of  The Satanic Verses the week after we re-opened. I think it was more an act of solidarity than a desire to read the book. Some people wanted me to autograph it. I think I demurred. What did they want me to inscribe anyway? “I am Salman Rushdie!”

A few months later, I was called by the National Association of Newspaper Editors and asked if I would be on a panel at their convention to talk about my experiences. I told them I had been trying to avoid the media. They told me not to worry. It was going to be quite discrete. I can’t imagine how I believed  a speech in front of every major editor of every newspaper in the country could ever be discrete. I was on a panel with Larry McMurtry and Robin Wright, a distinguished journalist covering Iran. I should have known there was nothing discrete about the meeting when I saw the prime minister of Israel who was giving the presentation before  us, followed later by the Palestinian representative to the UN.

I got on the podium  and saw the whole show was being broadcast on C-SPAN. I told them my “Ayatollah, read my lips” line and got a lot of laughs. Then I went home and watched myself on national TV. As you can see, I lived to tell about it.

The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association  Convention. I went there hoping at last she would acknowledge Cody’s did something special. In the course of her talk, she was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The  New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out  one in Berkeley, California:….. Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.