Posts Tagged ‘andy ross’

Mary Norris, The Comma Queen

April 9, 2015

comma queen

mary norris new small (1 of 1)Several years ago we interviewed Mary Norris, copy editor at The New Yorker.  It was our most popular blog post ever with over 50,000 views.  I think the success of the blog partially inspired Mary to put her thoughts and experiences on paper. This week, Mary’s book, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen was released by W. W. Norton. An excerpt of the book   recently appeared  in The New Yorker.  Mary tells us of the titanic battles over the elements of style: who vs. whom, that vs. which, the fate of the hyphen in the modern world, and all things having to do with the comma. It’s also very funny. I squealed with glee as Mary succeeded (as many in the past have failed) to explain the difference between restrictive versus non-restrictive clauses. She also includes lots of stories describing the punctuation battles at The New Yorker with such great writers as: Pauline Kael, Philip Roth, and George Saunders.

Andy: Mary, congratulations on Between You and Me. Every writer I know has been waiting for this book to get published. OK. Let’s not beat around the bush. Let’s begin with the mother of all punctuation battles, the controversy that has been causing the end of lifelong friendships, the issue of the Oxford Comma. Where do you and The New Yorker stand on this?

Mary: Hi, Andy. I can’t believe how passionate people are on this subject. I prefer to call it the serial comma, because the Oxford comma sounds sort of upper class, and though the use of the serial comma may mark a person or a publication as somehow particular or formal, it is really a down-to-earth practice, which keeps you from having to think about whether or not a series is ambiguous. It probably isn’t ambiguous, but that final comma before the “and” gives structure to a series, in my opinion. The use of the serial comma is The New Yorker’s preferred style, and I am sticking with it.

Andy: And while we are talking about commas, you seem to think that the world of writers can be defined by the general attitude toward the comma. There appears to be two schools on this, right?

Mary: Commas are for clarity. There are writers who use punctuation for cadence and writers who use it to reinforce grammar, and there are writers who blend the two approaches. There are many conventional uses of the comma that people waste time arguing about. I know it sounds stuffy to say that we use the comma because we’ve always used it—in a date, say (between the date and the year, and then again after the year, the second comma finishing what the first comma started; the British write the date before the month to avoid that comma), or between title and author (I’ll go with the obvious: Between You and Me, by Mary Norris)—but there really is no reason for some commas besides tradition. Untraditional punctuation can be fun, but it can also be distracting.

Andy: Since joining The New Yorker more than 30 years ago, what are the most interesting changes you have witnessed in grammar and usage?

Mary: I think the most persistent effort at change is going into trying to solve the problem of the genderless third-person singular pronoun. It is unlikely that a new pronoun will catch on, and people find it cumbersome always to say or write “he or she,” “him and her,” “his or hers.” Some have started using the feminine pronoun once in a while to fight sexism, and I’m for that. Others are talking about the “singular their,” which we use all the time in conversation (“Everybody takes their time on the subway stairs”) but try to avoid in print, because the grammar calls for a singular that doesn’t exist. The spoken language forges ahead while the written language, when carefully edited, is more restrained. I think it’s going to go on this way for a while, but the spoken language—common usage—seems to be winning, and some venerated copy editors are even trying out the “singular their” to see if anybody notices.

Andy: Give us writers some advice. If we have only one reference book on style, which do you recommend?  And the best dictionary?

Mary: I like Garner’s Modern American Usage. It’s thorough and clear on all the issues, and it has backbone: Garner is a conservative in matters of usage, yet he gives space to other points of view. His citations are numerous, and he uses an asterisk to mark the faulty passages, so that you don’t get mixed up. When I read Fowler, I sometimes can’t tell whether he’s citing a passage in approval or denigrating it. And Merriam-Webster’s is the great American dictionary. I still like to look things up in a desk dictionary, but the new online Webster’s Unabridged is superb.

Andy: Can you describe for us what a typical day is for you at The New Yorker?

Mary: The hours at The New Yorker are from ten to six, and I try to be on time, as it is embarrassing to be chronically late when you don’t have to be at the office till ten. We have a weekly schedule for closing the contents of an issue in an orderly fashion: fiction closes early in the week, critics at midweek, and the longer, more demanding pieces near the end of the week; Talk of the Town and Comment go to press last, on Friday. The head of the copy department, Ann Goldstein, parcels out the week’s tasks, matching up who is available with what needs to be done. If the lineup changes, we readjust.

There are four full-time O.K.’ers, as well as a team of about six proofreaders, some of whom act as O.K.’ers when we need them. Basically, on the day a piece closes, you read it, and give the editor your query proof, which will also contain the queries of a second proofreader, and after the editor has entered all the acceptable changes and sent the new version to the Makeup Department, you read that new version. There will sometimes be a “closing meeting,” when the editor, the writer, the fact checker, and the O.K.’er sit down together over the page proof and discuss final changes. The O.K.’er then copies these changes onto a pristine proof called the Reader’s (to keep the paper trail) and enters them into the electronic file, and sends the revised piece back to Makeup. The next version is read against the Reader’s proof by another layer of proofreaders, the night foundry readers. The system is full of redundancy and safety nets.

Andy: You have worked under William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Do you have a sense that there was a “golden age” of TNY or are we living in it now?

Mary: Hmmm. Sometimes when I have occasion to look back at an issue from the Shawn days, I am moved by the beauty of those vintage magazines: the lines of type were fitted character by character, the hot type is very alive, the black-and-white columns of print have a classic purity. Bob Gottlieb was careful to maintain that, though he introduced some changes. Tina Brown brought in color and photography, and shortened the length of pieces (and probably the attention span of the general reader). I think that what David Remnick has done is bring his newsman’s nose to the job. Remnick has succeeded in making The New Yorker a vital part of the national conversation. We seem to have found our voice after 9/11.

On the other hand, you find fewer quirky pieces that may not be particularly newsworthy but that readers love. For instance, “Uncle Tungsten,” by Oliver Sacks. (I still regret making him spell “sulfur” our way, with the “f,” when he wanted to spell it the old-fashioned British way, “sulphur,” which he’d grown up with.) Ian Frazier’s two-part piece on his travels in Siberia is a good recent example of a beautiful, funny, interesting, old-fashioned piece of writing. A good writer can make you care about anything.

Andy: What do you think are the most common mistakes writers make with style and punctuation?

Mary: Now that I am on the other side of the pencil, having my prose scrutinized instead of scrutinizing the prose of others, I think people should be more tolerant. You can be too rigid in matters of punctuation, and I continue to be bemused by how much people care about it and how sometimes a sentence’s punctuation gets more attention than its meaning. The letters I’ve gotten about an extraneous comma between the two elements of a compound predicate! The letters I’ve gotten about using “gotten” instead of “got” for the past perfect of the verb “to get,” and vice versa! (Some people can’t stand “had got” and prefer “had gotten,” which The New Yorker style book characterizes as “country style.” That is a usage I have started to defy.) But here I am, using up my lifetime quota of exclamation points, so I’ll just say thank you, Andy, for getting the ball rolling (cliché!). It’s heartening to see that there is such passionate interest in matters of style. Sometimes it looks as if everyone wants to be a copy editor.

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.

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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 http://helensedwick.com

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.

 

The Grateful Dead: A Cultural History

February 17, 2015

no simple highway2richardson Today we’re interviewing Peter Richardson, whose new book, No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, was released in January by St. Martin’s Press. There have been a number of books about the Dead over the years, but this one is special. From the beginning, I called it Thinkingman’s Dead. It’s a history of an iconic group, which is interesting in its own right, but it also helps us understand a distinctive strain of American culture in the second half of the twentieth century.

Andy: Peter, I love the fact that you organized the book around three utopian themes that have characterized aspects of American history and culture. Could you describe those themes, how they have played a role in our history, and how they help define the experience of the Grateful Dead?

Peter: My goal in highlighting those themes was to move toward a more interpretive history of the Dead and their project. Specifically, I wanted to account for their long-time success. To do that, I think you have to look outside of their songbook, albums, and concert tapes.

The first theme I identify is the drive for ecstasy, or the experience of total rapture. The Dead’s models (including the Beats) placed enormous importance on intense experience, and the advent of LSD supercharged that emphasis. Their penchant for ecstasy informs, but certainly doesn’t exhaust, the book’s discussion of the 1960s. Once the Dead had several successful albums in the early 1970s, they built their touring machine and incorporated mobility, another Beat preoccupation, into their operation but also into their mythology. In doing so, they tapped the American fascination with the open road. I highlight the third theme, community, in the final portion of the book. It’s very important throughout, but the Dead were especially successful at growing and consolidating their community in the 1980s. Of the three utopian ideals, community is probably the most important factor in explaining the Dead’s success.

Andy: You often describe the Dead as “tribal.” That is a word we used a lot in the sixties. What does it really mean and why is it important?

Peter: Much of the Dead’s success lay in growing the party, beginning with the Acid Tests in the mid-1960s. Even when they were selling lots of albums, they couldn’t support their scene through royalties alone. The community they built through nonstop touring underwrote their operation as well as their musical journey.

The Dead’s tribalism, by the way, presents authors with tough choices. When you’re writing about the band and their experience, you have this enormous cast of potential characters to consider. If you introduce too many characters, the major ones get lost in the shuffle. So I looked for characters who could advance the story at several different points or on multiple levels. I was looking for characters who paid their own way, so to speak.

Andy: What do you mean by “paid their own way”? Tell me about some of these characters.

Peter: I just mean that I was trying to avoid secondary and tertiary characters who appear one time and disappear. That makes for tough reading, even though it does reflect the Dead’s emphasis on community. But some characters, even those who aren’t strongly associated with the Dead, can help readers at several different points. Much to my surprise, one of those characters turned out to be Ronald Reagan. He was a perfect foil for the Dead and their project.

Andy: I’m glad you mentioned Reagan, because that brings up the important question of the Dead’s attitude toward politics. People sometimes criticize them for being apolitical.

Peter: Let me be clear about this, because it’s easy to get the Dead’s politics wrong. The Dead were constantly asked about politics, and they usually deflected those questions. They were outspoken about the environment, they criticized the war on drugs, and you can unpack their politics by reviewing their philanthropy, for example. But they rarely talked about electoral politics or politicians as such.

Garcia made an exception for Ronald Reagan, whom he ribbed repeatedly in the media. Also, the Dead were never more popular than when Reagan was in power: first in Sacramento and then again in the White House. Did the Dead have a long, bitter blood-feud with Ronald Reagan? No, of course not. But I don’t think their success in the 1980s, with Reagan’s militarized drug war and “Just Say No” message, was a coincidence. The Dead recruited many new fans when the Reagan message was to say no to drugs, but also to rapture, adventure, bohemianism, and other things the Dead stood for.

Consider the lyrics to “Touch of Grey,” the Dead’s only top-ten single. It’s an anthem to the Dead’s own survival in the Age of Reagan. And Dead Heads wanted to hear it, because it was about their survival, too. And it was also about Garcia’s survival—literally, since he was in a life-threatening diabetic coma the year before. So Reagan was, as I said, a character who paid his own way, first as the anti-hippie governor of California, and then as commander-in-chief in the war on drugs.

And for those who are still skeptical about the political dimension of the Dead’s story, consider the hit pieces on Jerry Garcia when he died. I mention three in the book: by George Will, William F. Buckley, and Mike Barnicle. Those pieces weren’t really about Jerry Garcia. They were about the legacy of the 1960s counterculture, which Garcia and the Dead had come to symbolize. That legacy was still being contested in the mid-1990s, a quarter-century after Woodstock, when the Dead’s popularity was peaking. Those hit pieces suggest that the iconic power and media stereotypes that attached to the Dead were—and still are—distorting our picture of them. No Simple Highway was meant to challenge those stereotypes and replace them with a fresh portrait.

Andy: You mention the Age of Reagan, the war on drugs, and the Cold War. What other cultural backdrops are especially important in your book?

Peter: One backdrop that I never tired of researching was the back-to-the-land movement: Maybe because I still entertain fantasies about it. I mean, what good Californian doesn’t want to leave the city and move to a hip Mayberry? And of course Mayberry was a product of that period, a kind of televised hallucination, along with the Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and all the rest of it.

For the Dead, the back-to-the-land movement offered recourse to their roots in folk music as well as a path to commercially successful albums. In the late 1960s, they were hanging out with David Crosby and his new collaborators, who hit it big with Crosby, Stills & Nash. That album and their next one, Déjà Vu, really caught the back-to-the-land spirit—a connection to a simpler, more organic way of life. It was deeply nostalgic, but the nostalgia differed from Reagan’s, for example. And then the Dead scored big, too, with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

And once you start talking about that movement, you have to mention Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, which was a love letter to that pre-modern, agrarian America. Brand is another example of a secondary character who pays his own way. He was a Prankster who organized the Trips Festival, published the Whole Earth Catalog, and then founded the WELL, the first online community that attracted lots of Dead Heads in the mid-1980s.

The back-to-the-land movement also gave me a chance to write about Marin County. Some big battles over open space were waged during that time, and the Dead loved Marin’s pastoral element, which was a movement ideal. And even though most people think of the Dead as a San Francisco band, they didn’t live in the city very long. Less than two years, actually, compared to decades in Marin.

Andy: How do you explain the continuing popularity of the Dead? A lot of the fans are one or even two generations removed from the original fan base.

Peter: It turns out people want some ecstasy, adventure, and community in their lives. And I think the continuing popularity you mention testifies to the third thing in particular. The Beatles didn’t foster community, and Bob Dylan, for all his other points of contact with the Dead, most emphatically didn’t do that. Quite the opposite, in many ways; he was always the solitary artist who cultivated mystique.

Many critics didn’t understand that Dead concerts were an opportunity for that community to commune. That urge didn’t perish with Jerry Garcia, and its members still draw a lot of identity and significance from their association with the Dead. I’m pretty sure you’ll see that in action this summer in Chicago.

Andy: Thanks, Peter. People, you should go out and visit your local independent bookstore and pick up a copy of No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. I think you will like it.

 

 

Questions About Literary Agents Asked and Answered

February 7, 2015

I attend lots of writers conferences all over the United States. Almost all of them have “agent panels” where participants ask agents to address their questions. Here are some of the most common. And if you have other questions, send them to me and I’ll try to answer them.

1) Can I send my book to a publisher without being represented by an agent?   The legendary publisher, Alfred Knopf, once said “An agent is to a publisher as a knife is to a throat.”  Things have changed since then. Now the largest publishers will only accept agented submissions. They expect agents to filter out the  projects that are unsuitable for commercial publishing. Publishers  believe, probably correctly, that  agented submissions as a group  are more likely to be of higher quality. Many of the smaller publishers don’t require agent representation.

2)  Can an agent get me a bigger advance? Most writers think that an agent is in possession of secret alchemical powers that will get them more money. This is true to a certain extent. Going into negotiations  publishers usually have a sense of how much they are willing to pay for a book. An experienced agent will be more likely to know what the publisher’s bottom line is and secure it for you. Otherwise you might find yourself accepting  a very modest offer. Book deals and book contracts are loaded with “roadside bombs”.  You need to be aware of them or work with someone who is.

3) Other than helping me get more money, what will an agent do? A good agent will earn her commission in a myriad of ways. There are dozens of publishers, big and small, who would serve as good homes for your book. A good  agent knows which publishers are appropriate and which editors within the publishing houses would be most open to your project. You don’t want to send your literary novel to an editor who specializes in science fiction.

Most novels and non-fiction book proposals aren’t ready for submission when an agent receives them. A good agent will work editorially on a client’s novel and will improve a book proposal to make it more convincing to a publisher. A good agent will work to enhance a client’s career as a writer and serve as an ally throughout the publication process and after.

A bad agent will do none of these things.

4) How can I tell a good agent from a bad agent? Sometimes you can’t, but here are some things you ought to be aware of. An agent should work for a commission only. If the agent can’t sell your book, he will receive nothing. The biggest red flag signaling   bad agents is that they charge money up front for such items as editorial services or  reading fees. Don’t work with these agents. Check out the website “Author Beware”. It has good advice about how to avoid unscrupulous agents.

More difficult to assess are agents who are simply too lazy or too busy to provide you with the kind of support you need to find a publisher. Many of these agents are very successful and have a large number of high profile authors they represent. I have frequently worked with extremely talented writers who had been previously represented by one of these “celebrity” agents. Those authors were not served well. One of them, for instance, had written a fine literary novel, a genre difficult to sell. His first agent sent it out to the usual 10 big houses. When the book was turned down, the agent gave up. I loved the book and decided to represent it. I found another 30 publishers who would have made a good home for the book. When you are looking for  agents, it is a good idea to ask them if they will go the mile to get  your book published, even if the likely advance will be modest.

5) How do I do the research to find the right agent for me? I wrote a blog about this called: “11 Steps to Finding an Agent”   which will give you more details. There are several good websites that provide resources for finding agents. My favorite is Agentquery.com.  It allows you to do searches based on defined criteria. You can specify that you only want agents who are actively seeking projects in your genre. Once you develop a list of possible agents, you want to go to each one’s website and try to evaluate further whether this agent seems right. Always look for their submission guidelines on their websites but also check out their list of books and authors to see if you are going to be compatible. Watch out though. Agents are inveterate name droppers. And just because they have some big name authors doesn’t mean they won’t be interested in your book.

6) How important is it to have a New York agent, a “celebrity” agent, or an agent from a big agency?  As we said above, having a “celebrity” agent may not be right for you. It’s impressive dropping their names at literary parties,  but that’s probably not your main objective.

Some authors still think that there is some advantage working with agents in New York. This isn’t true either. In the old days we heard that most book deals were the result of “connections”  and were consummated over the famous “publisher’s lunch.” It probably wasn’t true then, and it definitely isn’t true now. The big publishers are all owned by multimedia conglomerates. Editors are under intense pressure to acquire books that will meet the often unrealistic expectations of their corporate bosses.  Ask any editor and they will tell you that the single most important element for them in the acquisition decision is a good book proposal. For fiction, it’s all about the story. Of course an author’s previous track record will play an enormous role in the decision.

There are some advantages and disadvantages working with a big agency. Sometimes there is considerable collaboration within the agency and accordingly there may be useful collective wisdom. Some agencies have foreign rights departments or film /tv specialists who can work to sell subsidiary rights. A good independent agent, though, will have a network of foreign and entertainment co-agent specialists who will perform the same services. Regardless of the size of the agency, you need an agent with a passion for your project, a belief in your talent, and the will to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. There are no good agencies or bad agencies. There are only good agents and bad agents.

 

To be continued. We will ask and answer questions about query letters, book proposals, book deals, commercial vs. self-publishing, and more. Send me your own questions and I’ll try to address them.

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 Amazon.com.  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.

The Best Query Letter Ever Written

August 4, 2014

tolstoyRecently I attended the Taos Summer Writers Conference.  It was fabulous and I urge everyone to check it out.   I taught a class  in which the participants workshopped their query letters. Most of the queries were too long. The writers tended to delve into too much detail in the plot summaries. A number of people also wasted precious space – in the words of one of the students – “sucking up to the agent.”

A query letter is typically in three parts. The first paragraph should state the name of the book, the number of words, and the genre. You should try to use terms of art that are common in book publishing. It sends a message that you are serious and know the territory. In particular, avoid characterizing your book as “a fiction novel” and, for pete’s sake, don’t characterize it as “a non-fiction novel.”

The second part of the query is the so-called “elevator pitch.” You should briefly describe the story and why it is important or memorable.

The final section should be a short paragraph enumerating your qualifications to write the book. Be sure to mention previous publishing history, awards, and what you do in your real life. If your previous books are self-published, make that clear.

I get about twenty unsolicited queries every day. I try to look at them and get back to the writer in a timely manner. But that means I have a very limited time to think about each one. I prefer queries to be short, maybe 400 words or less. That means you need to make every word count.

As an exercise, I decided to compose the perfect query letter. I gave myself  an almost insurmountable challenge, to create a  query for the longest book in the western canon and to make the elevator pitch in six sentences. Here it is, my masterpiece (the query letter, not the novel):

***

 I am submitting War and Peace, a 350,000 word work  of historical fiction.

 War and Peace is the  epic story, written in a realistic style,  of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and how 3 characters, members of the  Russian nobility,  live their lives or die in the course of the novel.  In addition to the dramatic and interrelated stories of  Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and Prince Andrei Bolkosky,   I also bring in themes that try to explain how the events in the narrative help us to understand the inexorable truths of history. Some of the memorable secondary characters are  real historical figures, notably Napoleon and the Russian general, Kutuzov.  My description of the climactic Battle of Borodino is so realistic that  the reader can almost smell the gun powder.

The book has received enthusiastic praise from some of the most distinguished novelists of all time. Thomas Mann said of War and Peace that it was “the greatest ever war novel in the history of literature.”   John Galsworthy has called War and Peace “the best novel that had ever been written.”

I am a published novelist, author of the best selling novel, Anna Karenina that has been translated into every major   language in the world and adapted for film multiple times, most recently in 2012 from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law.  I have also written works of short stories, philosophy and social criticism.

The manuscript is complete and available at your request.

Count Leo Tolstoy

 

 

Laura Fraser Talks about Shebooks

July 26, 2014

Fraser-cropToday we are going to interview Laura Fraser, co-founder and editorial director of Shebooks, a new publishing company devoted to promoting works by women authors and journalists. Shebooks publishes short e-books, either by subscription at Shebooks.net (you download a free app for your tablet or smartphone from the app store) or individually, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Kobo. Shebooks is a new model for publishing, inconceivable only a few years ago. I think of it as sort of a hybrid that mixes up characteristics of traditional book publishing, long form magazine publishing, and self-publishing.

Check them out at http://www.shebooks.net

Andy:  Laura could you tell us something about yourself and the work you did before founding She books?

Laura: I’ve been a freelance writer for 30 years. I started in journalism and published many magazine articles. My first book, Losing It, was an expose of the diet industry. My next book, An Italian Affair, was a NYT-bestselling memoir. My latest memoir is called All Over the Map.

Andy: What made you decide to start Shebooks?

Laura: Even for someone like me with a fair amount of success in the publishing and magazine worlds, it was becoming increasingly difficult to make a living. The space for long magazine articles had shrunk in women’s magazines, and the top shelf long-form magazines publish mostly men, even in 2014. That means fewer intimate memoirs about women’s lives. My last book didn’t sell well, so I became unattractive to the publishing world. Even with a NYT bestseller under my belt, it was like, “What have you done lately?” So I wanted to create a platform for women like me, essentially, where we could write high quality work and get it published.

Andy: In this day and age, do you really think there is still that much bias against women in the media? I work with hundreds of book editors. These days they are almost all women. It wasn’t always like that. Comment?

Laura: There’s a huge bias against women in longform journalism. Just go to vida.org, the organization of women in literary arts, and look at the statistics on men being the vast majority of writers published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, etc. There is a bias toward what I would call external rather than internal stories, and women are more likely to write about internal adventures. Any broad stereotypes about male and female writers, of course, can’t be applied to everyone, but I think it’s fair to say that women’s experiences are under-represented in magazines in particular because so many more men are published. It’s less of a problem in the book world.

Andy: Tell me a little more about Shebooks’ publishing program. You aren’t like a typical book publisher. Most books are more than 60,000 words. Your books are a lot shorter. Why?

Laura: Digital publishing gives us an opportunity to publish things at the length they ought to be. Right now, there is a vast middle ground between, say, personal essays and a book. There are a lot of stories that should be told in less than the 80,000 words it takes to fill a physical object called a book. That’s why so many memoirs feel padded. I want to make a t-shirt that says “No padding.” Digital gives us flexibility. Also, people read digital on the go, in the little pockets of their lives. Many of us still like to curl up with a hard cover book, but if I’m traveling or commuting, I read on my device. I want to read high-quality stories rather than watch cat videos.

Andy: Ever thought about putting some of the best writing into an anthology? I think that would be cool.

Laura: Yep.

Andy: You have published two of my favorite clients: Mary Jo McConahay and Meghan Ward. Both memoirs. What other genres are you seeking?

Laura: Short memoirs are our sweet spot. We also publish journalism that isn’t very time-bound, as well as fiction. There are very few places to publish novelettes or novellas.

Andy: What’s the difference?

Laura: About 20,000 words.

Andy: Do you have any opinion about the big issues that are being debated in book publishing right now? Tell me what you think is the future of big New York publishers? Do you think self published books are the answer? Given the number of self published titles that sell in the high “two figures”, I’m not sure it is all it’s cracked up to be.

Laura: It’s all about flexibility and finding the right platform for your message. Sure, it’s great to go with a legacy publisher if you’re one of the 1% of authors they’ll pay attention to. Self-publishing still has the patina of being not good enough for the big houses. But that’s changing. As with digital vs. paper publishing, it isn’t an either/or situation.

Andy: It seems like Shebooks is kind of a hybrid. Something in the middle. Can you tell us about this?

Laura: We are a highly curated collection of short e-books. We’re closer to a legacy publishing model than self-publishing. We pay close attention to quality, to copyediting, to design. But we give our authors a 50-50 revenue split, which gives them incentive to help publicize the books. They make more; with legacy publishers, it’s about an 85/15 split. So we’re not like self-publishing at all, though there is less barrier to entry for a good writer who hasn’t sold a lot of books. The fact that we are a subscription service means that we don’t have to be hit-driven like the legacy publishers. We can publish a lot of beautiful little books and they don’t have to be bestsellers.

Andy: Any thoughts on the big bad Amazon.com? They have certainly been a windfall for ebook publishing. Do you think that maybe they are becoming too powerful though?

Laura: Amazon takes a 30% bite of everything anyone buys on their site. That leaves precious little margin for anyone else. You can’t just bitch about Amazon, though; it’s a big reality, so you have to work with it, or do a workaround so you can make money—as we’re trying to do, by subscription from our own e-reader app, leaving Amazon out of the picture.

Andy: Ok. Let’s talk about your Netflix-like subscription model. Describe that and tell me how it’s working.

Laura: We have a growing library of short e-books, publishing at a rate of 2 per week. When you subscribe, you get access to our whole library. When you stop subscribing, poof, they’re gone. Right now we have 60 short e-books in our library that you can’t find anywhere else. Yes, Amazon has more, and so does Oyster, but we’re like a boutique where you can walk in and know that everything is quality.

Andy:  Since Shebooks is so different from traditional book publishing, how do you go about promoting it? Who’s your audience and how do you reach them?

Laura: We’re still figuring all of this out, but of course we rely a lot on social media. We are also doing deals with women’s magazines and brands to help leverage our brand. For instance, we had a memoir contest with Good Housekeeping which brought Shebooks in front of 25 million readers. We’re doing more partnerships like that.

Andy:  Shebooks are available at the usual online venues, but you are also selling them yourself. What is working the best for you?

Laura: It’s financially better for us if people subscribe directly from our website so Amazon doesn’t take a big bite. But we’re happy to have people read our books wherever they find them.

Andy: How can writers submit to you?

Write@shebooks.net. We take only well-written, polished submissions of about 10,000 words, give or take. My sole criterion as editorial director is that I have to feel compelled to keep reading!

Interview With Authors Guild General Counsel, Jan Constantine

April 30, 2014

constantineToday we are going to speak to Jan Constantine, general counsel for the Authors Guild.

The Authors Guild is the largest and oldest organization representing authors in America. I love the Authors Guild, and as an agent, I am proud to be a member.  It is an amazingly robust, sometimes even militant, advocacy organization that fights for the rights of all writers. They engage in numerous activities including lobbying Congress on copyright and book piracy issues and advising writers on how not to get taken advantage of by publishers. In this brave new world of the Internet, where tech gurus tell us that “information wants to be free,” The Authors Guild fights for the quaint notion that the work of the writer, like all work, has dignity and deserves to be compensated. Everyone reading this blog should join. It’s only $90 a year.  Check out their eligibility requirements.

Andy: Jan, welcome to “Ask the Agent.”  I think the $90 membership fee for the Authors Guild is a pretty good investment for any writer. Can you tell me what that buys you?

Jan: Absolutely, Andy, and thank you for having me.  One of the things our members find most useful is our Model Book Contract.  It’s a manual that goes through a publishing contract clause-by-clause.  For every provision, we provide members with what we think of as a “model” clause, and then next to the model clause we provide a running commentary educating authors about what exactly is at stake in each part of the publishing contract.  It’s a very empowering tool that gives authors the knowledge and insight to successfully negotiate with publishers.

Andy: As an agent, I have to negotiate book contracts all the time, and I find the Model Contract an indispensible reference. Not to put too fine a point, a book contract is an asymmetrical agreement where the publisher agrees to give the author a pathetically small amount of money in exchange for the author’s intellectual indentured servitude for the term of the copyright. The Model Contract is a great tool for helping the author avoid the pitfalls. Of course the Model Contract and  representation by a good agent is even better. Can you just tell us a few of the issues in a book contract  that authors should be watching out for?

Jan: Our Model Contract advises authors to be wary of a number of one-sided provisions that are often present in publisher’s boilerplate forms.  One to look out for is a so-called “joint accounting” clause, which provides that any money the author might owe the publisher under contracts for other books can be deducted from payments due to the author under the current book contract.  Our position is that each publishing contract and book should be treated as a separate venture.

Non-competition clauses, if broadly-worded, can also be troublesome. Most book contracts have non-competition language that restrains the author from publishing a “competing” work.   We counsel authors to define a “competing work” as narrowly as possible, especially if they think they might write subsequent works on the same or a similar subject.

Another potential hazard is  the “satisfactory manuscript” clause, also present in most publishing contracts. It can be unfair to authors if it allows the publisher to reject the manuscript for any reason at all.  You don’t want a publisher to be able to reject your manuscript just because of a change in market conditions or a perceived shift in readers’ tastes.  You want to insert some sort of objective standard here, such as a clause stating that your manuscript must be “professionally competent and fit for publication.”

Those are a few issues that come to mind.  The bottom line is that a publishing contract is a joint venture between author and publisher.  A well-negotiated contract should reflect their mutual investment in each other.

Andy: So, Jan, what else does the Authors Guild do?

Jan: Of course there’s our lobbying, which you mentioned in your introduction, and our lawsuits.  Members also receive our quarterly Bulletin, which covers the publishing industry from the author’s perspective, and they have access to legal services, such as contract reviews and intervention in publishing disputes, at no cost.  Then there’s the Author’s Registry, a not-for profit that secures foreign royalties for U.S. authors.  All members are automatically enrolled.  Since 1996 the Registry has distributed more than $22 million to authors.  We have a program called Backinprint.com which lets authors sell their out-of-print books as print-on-demand paperbacks.  We offer web services that allow authors to build full-featured websites.  We host in-person and phone-in seminars to educate authors on all aspects of their profession.   That’s a long list.  We like to think that membership is a great value.

Andy: And you get all that for $90 a year!  Let’s talk about “information wants to be free.”  This cliché seems to express a kind of ethos going around the Internet. It’s exemplified by “Wikipedia.”  It’s a world where all people are experts and where people’s intellectual work is accordingly devalued and not worthy of compensation.   Do you care to comment on this?

Jan: Well, I think Wikipedia may not be the real enemy here.  That’s a situation where people are donating their expertise with no expectation of financial compensation.  We’re more concerned with piracy—theft—making copyrighted works available for free, in violation of the author’s right to distribute her work and her right to make a living from her work.  And yes, this type of piracy does seem to be encouraged by those who rally behind that slogan, “information wants to be free.”  But you know what?  That’s only half of it.  They get that slogan from Stewart Brand.  But what Brand was talking about was this tension that won’t go away.  Information wants to be free, he said, because it’s so cheap to distribute now.  But on the other hand, he said, information wants to be expensive.  Why?  Because it’s so valuable to the recipient.  And this is a tension that is embodied in our nation’s copyright laws in a very productive way.  The author has exclusive rights, sure, but there’s also fair use, and exceptions for schools and libraries, and the fact that copyright doesn’t last forever.  It’s a tension that’s expressed in the Copyright Clause in the Constitution, and it’s a tension acknowledged by Congress every time it brings different stakeholders to the table to discuss what needs to be changed in our copyright law.

Andy:So what kinds of things is the Authors Guild doing to combat piracy?

Jan: Well, I just mentioned Congress.  The Authors Guild has been working with legislators and private companies for years to develop a more comprehensive solution to online piracy.  Two bills proposed in 2012—SOPA and PIPA—would have done something to diminish Internet piracy, and we supported them.  Search engines and Internet service providers are profiting daily from linking to and hosting pirate sites, and the  Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the 1998 law that addresses this problem, is doing little to stop them; the Copyright Alert System is doing little to stop them; and they certainly aren’t policing themselves.  For example, an international recording industry group recently announced it sent its 100 millionth piracy notice to Google—with no noticeable demotion of pirate sites in search results.

Andy: I hear a lot of people who seem to think book piracy is no big deal. I think it’s stealing and no different from shoplifting books from a bookstore. What do you think? (That’s a rhetorical question, obviously.)

Jan: We couldn’t agree more.  The only difference is the extent to which this type of theft is accepted, or at least ignored.  And that seems to be at least in part a result of the “information wants to be free” ethos.

Andy:  One of my pet peeves is Amazon.com. It seems to me that they have cultivated a notion that books cost too much, that e-books have a kind of inherent value of about $2.99. I don’t think this price recognizes the value added that goes into a professionally written and published book. Can you explain why books, electronic and paper, might merit a higher price?

Jan: The real problem is that Amazon is selling books at an artificially lowprice.  A look back at Amazon’s tactics over the years makes it very clear they’ve always used books as a loss leader.  Amazon has sold print books at a loss for years in order to drive its market share.  It’s doing the same thing with e-books.  It’s an artificial market.  This shields it from competition with any but the biggest competitors and makes it incredibly difficult for brick-and-mortar bookstores to enter the e-book market. And you’re right, the danger is that consumers get the notion that the inherent value of a book is cheaper than it actually is.

Andy: Recently the United States sued Apple and the major publishers for trying to fix prices. The publishers lost. The Authors Guild was supportive of the publishers in this instance. How come? Shouldn’t we be encouraging free market competition?

Jan: Well, our position was that the strategies pursued by Apple and the publishers were increasing competition.  Apple and the publishers were offering a new model for the sale of e-books, where Apple would act as the publisher’s sales agent, with no authority to discount e-book prices.  In the two years after this new “agency model” was introduced, Amazon’s share of the e-book market fell from 90% to 60%.  Barnes & Noble introduced a tablet to compete with Amazon’s Kindle during this time.  Brick-and-mortar stores began partnering with Google to sell e-books to their customers at the same price they were being sold from Amazon.  These look to me like the effects of a free market.

Andy: Jan, thanks. This is just a small sampling of what the Guild is doing. You should check out their website and blog.

Author Mary Mackey Interviews a Celebrity Agent (That Would Be Me)

April 25, 2014

Mary Mackey, AuthorToday I am reprinting an interview by myself and Mary Mackey originally published in her fabulous writer’s blog: “The Writer’s Journey.” Mary  is a bestselling author who has written six volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of thirteen  novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. Mackey’s novels have been translated into twelve languages including Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Greek, and Finnish. Her poems have been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Marge Piercy, and Dennis Nurkse for their beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. ”     Her newest book,  a collection of her poetry entitled Travelers With No Ticket Home was published this spring by Marsh Hawk Press.

***

Mary: Andy, you’re a famous, successful agent. Given this, I suspect the most common question people ask you is: “How do I get an agent?” Let’s answer that one first. Could you please tell us in two sentences or less what writers need to do to get an agent? Also, I’m sure people will want to know if you are currently accepting clients.

Andy: You get an agent the old fashion way,  by having a fantastic, original idea for a book  and a brilliant writing style.  I have a blog that explains the steps you need to take to find an agent.  Check out my Eleven Steps To Finding An Agent. And yes, I am actively seeking new clients. I want query letters by email. You can send them to:  andyrossagency@hotmail.com.

Mary: Before you became an agent, you owned several bookstores including Eeyore’s in Cotati, California, and Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.  Tell us about your early experiences as a bookseller. How did you get into the business? What did you love about it?

Andy: I got into it for all the wrong reasons. I was a graduate student in European history. I liked to hang out at bookstores.

Mary: How did you come to buy Cody’s Books?

Andy: Like most of my important decisions in life, it was pretty impetuous. I was visiting my friend, Neal Coonerty, who owned  Bookshop Santa Cruz. He told me that Cody’s was for sale and that I should consider buying it. I told him probably not. It was daunting.  I was only 29 at the time, and Cody’s was already a legendary bookstore. I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge or confidence. The next morning he asked me again if I would consider it. Again I said, “no”.  But as I was driving home, I decided I would do it.  A month later, I owned the store.

Mary: What were the best things and the worst things about being a bookseller?

Andy: Well, everybody I know has the fantasy of owning a bookstore. Being surrounded by books.  Wow! But when I think back on my 30 years at Cody’s, I realize that a lot of my time was spent on pretty mundane stuff. The bad plumbing on Telegraph Avenue comes to mind. And I was never very good at supervising employees. I was always trying to make people happy, and I never seemed to be able to.

Mary: When you owned bookstores, what was your best-selling book?

Andy: Probably my best seller was Bill Clinton’s memoir.  It helped that he came to the store to sign it.

Mary: How did you make the transition from bookstore owner to literary agent?

Andy: It was another impetuous decision, but one I never regretted. I had been a bookseller all my adult life.  When I left Cody’s in 2007, I thought that I was probably cut out for sacking groceries at Safeway.  I woke up one morning and decided I’d make a good  literary agent. At first I was worried that I didn’t know anything about it. But then I realized that I’d been learning the job for 35 years. Being a bookseller all that time was pretty good experience for being an agent. Most agents come out of publishing. I have the advantage of having spoken to book buyers all my life.

Mary: How is your relationship to authors different at present than it was when you were selling their books?

Andy:  Now I’m working at the other end of the literary food chain. I’m involved much more in creative work. I like that a lot.  The process of writing, particularly writing fiction, is a mystery to me and really quite miraculous. When I first decided to become an agent, I thought that my main job would be making deals. But I spend much more time working with authors and helping them polish their book. It’s tough getting published. You can’t submit a project unless it’s perfect.

Mary: What are the major problems you see in the work of clients you decline to represent? In other words, what do writers need to do to make their books better and more saleable?

Andy: That’s really the $64,000 question. Publishing has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. I saw that happening at Cody’s, and I’m seeing it now as an agent. Most of the commercial publishers have been bought up by multimedia conglomerates. The pressure to produce huge profits is intense.  The word that keeps coming up in publishing is “platform,”  which means you have a recognized national or international  authority  in the subject you are writing about or you have the kind of celebrity that gives you the  ability to garner media attention. I like to tell people that platform means  you either have an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. Platform is less important with fiction.  But the hurdles are even more challenging. The writing has to be exceptional. But that is only the beginning. Almost all the novels that are submitted to fiction editors have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good. Publishing decisions tend to get made based on marketing rather than aesthetic considerations. A literary fiction editor might look at 300 novels a year. They will probably decide to publish 10.

Mary: What is your favorite book of all time?

Andy: Probably War and Peace.

Mary: What are you reading right now?

Andy: Something trashy. I’m too embarrassed to say.

Mary:  What books by your clients are coming out in the near future?

Andy: Sometimes its better to be lucky than smart in this business. But it’s  even better to be both. The most recent book I represent is Water 4.0 by David Sedlak published by Yale University Press. It’s the most important book yet published on the challenges of drinking water. The book was released the week Governor Brown declared a drought emergency in California.  Bloomsbury Press has just released Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. It’s a profound and important book, one that will have a huge impact on the way we think about animals.  Also Sourcebooks has just released Shooting Stars: My Life as a Paparazzi by Jennifer Buhl. Definitely the most fun book I have ever worked on. Also one of the funniest. She was recently interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. I have three magnificent novels being published this fall. I can’t wait.


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