Posts Tagged ‘book publishing’

Mary Mackey Talks about The Village of Bones

May 30, 2016

Today we are going to talk with Mary Mackey  whose new historical novel, The Village of Bones:mackey Sabalah’s Tale was released this month.  Mary is a bestselling author who has written seven volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of fourteen  novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. Mackey’s novels have been translated into twelve languages.

 Andy: Let’s cut to the chase, Mary: what happens in this novel? What’s The Village of Bones about?

Mary: Six thousand years ago, bands of marauding nomads from the northern steppes invaded what is now Bulgaria and Romania, bringing horses, male gods, and genocidal warfare to a peaceful, Goddess-worshiping Europe that had existed almost unchanged for thousands of years. This was a real invasion, with real consequences that we are still living with today.

In The Village of Bones I tell the story of a young priestess named Sabalah who conceives a magical child with a mysterious stranger named Arash. Sabalah names her child “Marrah.” Marrah will save the Goddess-worshipping people from the nomad invaders, but only if her mother can keep her alive long enough to grow up. Warned in a vison of the coming nomad invasion, Sabalah flees west with Arash to save her baby daughter, only to discover that she is running into the arms of her worst enemies. In the vast forests of northern France, other human-like species left over from the Ice Age still exist, and they are not—to say the least—friendly.

Andy: There are other best-selling books that take place in pre-historic times.  Is there anything in The Village of Bones that will remind readers of books or films they’ve enjoyed?

Mary: You’ll definitely be reminded of The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Mists of Avalon, and Avatar. Also, there are some scary giant sharks that eat anything in their path, including one another. When I say “giant” I mean really GIANT. I based them on the Megalodon sharks, which. lived 2.6 million years ago, were 45 feet to 59 feet long, weighed 50 tons, and had teeth seven inches long. If you heard the theme music from Jaws playing in your head as you read that, it’s no coincidence. Then there’s the Mother Book, an ancient, sacred text that contains all knowledge, past, present and future, including the knowledge of how to travel through time. As you read about Sabalah’s race to save the Mother Book from falling into the hands of the Beastmen, you may find yourself reminded of The Da Vinci Code.

Andy: You’ve said this novel explores the “original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures which appear so often in European folk tales.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

Mary: In the Village of Bones, I choose to imagine that other human-like creatures survived in small numbers in the forests of northern Europe. At present, we know about a number of ancient species that were human-like but not strictly human. The best known are the Neanderthals, who play a central role in The Clan of the Cave Bear. The Neanderthals actually interbred with humans, so we’re all a part Neanderthal. The lesser known Denisovans also seem to have interbred with human beings. Other human-like ancient beings we know about include Homo floresiensis, Homo erectus, and Homo habilis.

 As I began to write The Village of Bones, I came to wonder if perhaps small bands of these human-like beings survived long enough to be the original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures which appear so often in European folk tales.

Imagine for a moment that you are living 6,000 years ago, walking through the forest, minding your own business, when you stumble across a little man who is only three feet tall, covered with hair, and not quite human-looking. You might well think he is a magical creature, an elf, a fairy, a Hobbit.

Andy: Would you call this novel historical fiction, science fiction, or fantasy?

The-Village-Of-Bones-Low-ResMary: I’d call it all three. The Village of Bones crosses genre lines the way many of the really interesting books I love to read do.  Like Jack Finney’s Time and Again, and Audry Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife,  it combines historical fiction with science fiction. Like the characters in Diana Gabaldon’s wonderful Outlander Series,  the characters in The Village of Bones move in a world I’ve created by doing meticulous historical research, but they also take side trips into magic, prophecy, and fantasy. I’ve got giant talking snakes; I’ve got Goddesses who walk on water; I’ve got dolphins that will let you ride on their backs. But I’ve also got clothing based on materials found in ancient graves; houses based on the ruins of prehistoric houses; and forests filled with trees based on Neolithic pollen samples.

Andy: How did you become interested in the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe?

Mary: I didn’t know anything about them until I got a phone call one day from the head of HarperSanFrancisco. He had read my novel The Last Warrior Queen, which is about the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Sumeria. He told me he was about to publish a non-fiction book that dealt with the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe and asked me if would I be interested in writing a novel on the same topic. The manuscript of the non-fiction book he was about to publish turned out to be The Civilization of the Goddess by Professor Marija Gimbutas. Ten pages into it, and I was hooked. I began to write The Year the Horses Came about a week later.

Andy: Will Twenty-First Century readers find the story of these cultures relevant to their own lives?

Mary: Yes and no. Yes, because many of the issues my characters face are issues we face today. For example, the Goddess-worshiping cultures of 6,000 years ago considered the Earth both sacred and alive. We’re slowly killing the planet, and perhaps ourselves, by treating the Earth as a piece of real estate to be exploited instead of as a sacred trust to be tended.

No, because everything doesn’t have to be relevant all the time. Sometimes all we want is to put the troubles and anxieties of our everyday lives aside and go on vacation to some place new and exotic: back to the past, back to a world of magic and adventure where the mortgage never comes due, the computer never crashes, and interesting things happen.

Andy: How do you do research for a novel set 6,000 years ago? How close do you stick to the facts?

Mary: One reason I write historical novels is that the research is so much fun. To write The Village of Bones and the other three novels in The Earthsong Series, I traveled extensively through Europe scouting out locations so I could describe them accurately and visiting museums so I could see what was left from the cultures I was portraying. I saw the Great Nomad Gold Horde in Varna Bulgaria; statues of Snake Goddesses in Bucharest Romania; ancient cave paintings in southern France; Standing Stones in Brittany.

 Contrary to what you might imagine the realistic parts of the novel were actually the easiest to write because I had the extensive research of  Professor Marija Gimbutas to draw on. Professor Gimbutas, who taught for many years at UCLA, devoted her life to studying the Goddess-worshiping cultures of prehistoric Europe. Her two books The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess are gold mines of information. Professor Gimbutas generously helped me with the research when I was writing the first two novels in the Earthsong Series. Without her personal help and her work to draw on, it would have taken me a decade to write The Village of Bones instead of two years. She did all the hard work. All I had to do was pick up the bones she had uncovered, put flesh on them, and make them dance.

Andy: This is your fourteenth novel. Do you plan to write any more novels in this series?

Mary: Yes. The Village of Bones comes to an exciting climax and a satisfying conclusion, but I have  left some loose strings which I intend to pick up at some future date.

Andy: Tell us a little bit about why you write historical fiction. Do you read historical fiction? What are some of your favorite books in the genre?

Mary: I’ve always loved historical fiction as long as it’s meticulously researched, accurate, not preachy, filled with interesting characters, and tells a great story. Some of my favorites are: The Color Purple by Alice Walker; The White Queen by Philippa Gregory; The Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem; The Persian Boy by Mary Renault; A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Roman Blood by Steven Saylor, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The list goes on and on. I’m always looking for new ones.

 

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.

Authors Guild V. Google: Questions And Answers

December 31, 2015

Today The Authors Guild announced that it has petitioned The Supreme Court to review its ongoing lawsuit against Google Books for illegally copying and distributing copyrighted books without the permission of the copyright holder (the author). The lower courts have ruled against The Authors Guild. My personal   feeling (I realize this is kind of old fashioned in the Internet Age) is that people should be compensated for their work. And the work of the writer is as deserving of compensation as the work of – say – a person flipping burgers or a person selling derivatives of worthless mortgages.   Click here if you want to read more about this important case.

Here are some FAQs about this lawsuit.

 

Why is the Authors Guild still pursuing this case against Google?
Google copied 20 million books to create a massive and uniquely valuable database, all without asking for copyright permission or paying their authors a cent. It mines this vast natural language storehouse for various purposes, not least among them to improve the performance of its search and translation services. The problem is that before Google created Book Search, it digitized and made many digital copies of millions of copyrighted books, which the company never paid for. It never even bought a single book. That, in itself, was an act of theft. If you did it with a single book, you’d be infringing.

I’m a writer and I like Google Book Search. I use it all the time. What’s the problem?
Google Books itself is not the problem. We’re all writers here, and we generally like Google Book Search. Some of us use it for research all the time.

The problem is that Google used authors’ books for profit-making purposes without first getting permission from authors. It just went ahead and copied them many times over and extracted their value, without giving the authors any piece of it. There are lots of other great commercial uses of books; the difference is that most users abide by the law and get permission. If corporations are now free to make unauthorized copies of books for profit as long as there is some public benefit to the copying, then authors’ incomes will suffer even more than they have in recent years.

A truism of the digital age is: whoever controls the data owns the future. Google’s exclusive access to such an enormous slice of the world’s linguistic output cemented its market dominance and continues to this day to further its corporate profits.

Isn’t Google just acting like a giant library?
Not at all. Libraries are public institutions, generally non-profit, dedicated to readers and scholars. Even so, they know they have to pay for their books. Moreover, they are largely not-for-profits intended to serve the public good.

Google is in the business of books for commercial reasons only; it is more like a commercial publisher than a library. Like a commercial publisher, it seeks to profit from its use of books. While Google does this in a different way, by extracting value from data (from both the books’ language as data and data collected from users’ searches), it still should seek permission for these uses because it is extracting value from the authors’ expression.

But libraries lent Google the books in the first place, didn’t they? What’s wrong with that?
Borrowing the books was fine, but copying them without permission or payment was not. If you borrow a book from a library, it’s temporary. You can’t keep a copy for your own personal use. Google made a number of copies of each book—times millions. And they’re way past overdue. Just as a few years ago, some banks proved too big to fail, Google has, so far, apparently been too big to punish. 

Does the Authors Guild want to shut down Google Books?
No. A resounding no. We did not ask the court to shut down Google Books, we simply asked it to require Google to get permission from authors and pay them for the scanning and use of their works.

Doesn’t Google say this is “fair use”? After all, it doesn’t display full copies.
That is Google’s self-serving legal argument, yes, and so far it has persuaded judges who, we believe, are not seeing the big picture. “Fair use” is the exception to copyright that lets people use portions of (and in rare cases whole) copyrighted works for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” When deciding whether a particular use is “fair,” courts should take into account at least four separate considerations and weigh them against each other. They are: (1) the “purpose and character” of the use, including whether it is commercial; (2) the nature of work that’s being copied; (3) how much of the work was copied; and (4) whether the copying eats into the potential value of the work that was copied. All these things—and anything else that the court deems relevant—have to be considered independently, and then weighed together to make the fair use determination.

In this case, Google’s use was commercial, the entire works were copied, and the market to bring back out of print books is completely devalued.  

But a lot of fair uses have a commercial element to them. Surely you can’t be saying that Google’s for-profit status prevents it from making fair uses?
We’re not saying that at all. Commerciality is just one of the factors to be considered.

Under the first factor, where the law expressly directs the courts to look at whether the use is commercial, the court focused almost exclusively on what it viewed as the transformative nature of Google Books. The Second Circuit disregarded the commerciality because of the perceived public benefit of Google Books. First, it looked at the public-facing use (the Google Books search engine) not any of Google’s internal uses. Then, looking at the “purpose and character” of Google Books, it decided the use “transformed” the books because the use was different than the use the books were written for. (We don’t agree that this kind of transformation should favor fair use.) Following that logic, it found that Google Books delivers a public benefit (which we don’t deny), and then weighed the whole factor in Google’s favor—regardless of the fact that Google Books was also blatantly commercial. (Even if we agreed the use were transformative, we think the factor should have balanced out as neutral at the very least.)

Then, the court went on to let this first-factor finding color its discussion of each of the other factors—essentially turning a multi-factor test into a one-factor test. The court did not consider each factor independently, nor did it balance them against each other in light of the purposes of copyright, as required by the law.

The multi-factor fair use test has evolved over more than a century and has survived the test of time—for good reason. It does an efficient job of identifying uses that are fair to make without permission. For instance, quoting from a book, criticizing it, or creating a parody of it are all traditional fair uses. But by straying so far from the statute, the Second Circuit reached a decision that cannot be considered fair, especially if you consider the precedent it will set.

If Google isn’t charging people to search for snippets in Google Books, or putting ads on the page, how can it be considered commercial?
Google didn’t spend millions on scanning these books as a charity project. Again, it did it to have access to all the language in those books, which it used to improve its search engine, allowing it to corner the Internet search market and drive more users to its site, which is based on a model in which visitors equal revenue.

Search engines do not make money by charging people for use; they make money by bringing traffic to their sites, collecting data from the users, and selling advertising. Google makes money in all of these ways from Google Books. The fact it has not to date posted advertising on the results pages from searches inside the books is irrelevant.

Moreover, since the Second Circuit decision, Google has integrated its book-buying service (formerly accessed as part of Google Play) with Google Books. Google Books is now a transparently commercial service, as we have always predicted would eventually be the case. 

Why is the Authors Guild taking this to the Supreme Court after it failed to convince so many lower courts?
See above.

We believe that the Second Circuit court took a myopic view of fair use law in its ruling and that the Supreme Court needs to step in and correct this. In the final analysis, the appellate court’s reasoning turns on its head the Constitutional purpose of copyright law. The Founders recognized that, for the benefit of the public, we need authors who can earn a living, independent of government, academic or other patronage. That’s the purpose of copyright: to benefit the public by enabling authors to be compensated for their work. But the Second Circuit, blinded by the public-benefit argument of Google Books supporters, overlooked the fact that it completely cuts authors out of the equation.

Moreover, if this case isn’t overturned, this case will become a rule of law; it doesn’t just apply to Google Books, in other words. The decision will be read by other entities as giving them free reign to digitize books (at least books where the author owns the rights) and create searchable excerpt-viewing services for those books. Other entities might decide to show more of the books than Google currently does, and they probably won’t have the security protections that Google does. As a result, many authors’ books could become widely digitized and available for free on the Internet.

Still, if Google Book Search points potential book buyers to your book, shouldn’t you be thanking them?
Why should Google have the right to decide how to market books for authors? Authors may have many other more profitable ways to make money from their out-of-print and other books, and they should have the right to make those decisions. Let’s say you put your house on the market and your neighbour decides it would be great to have a party there while you are away, without first asking you. He justifies it by telling you he invited a lot of people and so will help market your house. Not too many people would be thrilled with that, even if it did in fact end up leading to a sale. What Google did is very similar.

Google’s seizure of our work (and the courts’ blessing of it) represents a denial to authors of emerging and potential markets for our work. It revokes the promise of the digital age. If Google is allowed to swipe our entire work and profit from it, then so can others, in ways we cannot foresee now. That’s a problem because authors may want to write and create in ways we cannot foresee now, as we find new ways to transform—and profit from—our work.

But we don’t need to look to the future to see the harm being done to authors. Even today writers are seeking to bring their out of print works back to market as print-on-demand editions, or e-books—but Google has made a significant amount of many of these titles readily available on the Internet, and for free. The amount Google displays is already enough to satisfy the demands of many readers and researchers, particularly when it comes to non-fiction books. And as libraries start to follow suit, there will be more and more text available from each book.

Wide availability of free books—isn’t that a good thing?
In the short run, for researchers—maybe. But think about what happens next: people won’t buy nearly as many books. That means all but the highest-selling authors won’t be able to make a living from writing books: many authors will have to take on other work to make ends meet. The result, we hate to say, is that fewer quality books will be written—and that’s a loss to us all.

Aren’t most of the books at issue in the case old, and the authors long dead?
Many of them are older works, but in publishing, “older” can mean just a few years off the press. When the books are old enough to be in the public domain, there’s no problem with Google making copies. The problem arises with the millions of books that are still in copyright. The current case involves books found in academic libraries where the copyright is owned by authors. The vast majority of these books are out-of-print, meaning the author generally had the right to reclaim the copyright. And as we mentioned above, authors are increasingly looking to republish and retool their out-of-print books and bring them back as e-books or print-on-demand. Google Books interferes with that market, plain and simple.

Why should readers care?
Readers should care because the Second Circuit decision waters down copyright protection, and if it stands, readers could face a culture in which authors won’t be motivated to create serious work, because it is simply too hard to sustain a writing career financially in a climate where anyone can use books without paying for them. Most serious writing, outside of academia, is done by authors who write as a profession—because, like any art, great writing requires a lot of time, learning, and practice. And readers should care because written works, as we all know, contribute immeasurably to the vitality of our culture. 

How complicated can it be for Google to ask an author permission to use her work?
Exactly our point: the rights are eminently clearable. The court refused to acknowledge this point or take it into consideration. For example, our sister organization, the Authors Registry, as well as the Copyright Clearance Center, find authors for royalties from overseas uses with little difficulty or expense. And there are innumerable collective rights organizations around the world who do this all of the time—without much difficulty, and with much less money than Google.

 

The Authors Guild on E-book Royalties

July 9, 2015

On June 17, we posted a statement by The Authors Guild about their new Fair Contract Initiative, in which they would be clarifying the issues in the typical book contract that are unfair to authors. Today The Authors Guild issued  their first analysis having to do with e-book royalties, which are substantially lower than the royalties on hardbacks, even though the costs of production and distribution of e-books is substantially lower. It’s worth reading. Here is the text in its entirety.

We announced our Fair Contract Initiative earlier this summer. Now our first detailed analysis tackles today’s inadequate e-book royalties. At the heart of our concern with the unfair industry-standard e-book royalty rate is its failure to treat authors as full partners in the publishing enterprise. This will be a resounding theme in our initiative; it’s what’s wrong with many of the one-sided “standard” clauses we’ll be examining in future installments.

Traditionally, the author-publisher partnership was an equal one. Authors earned around 50% of their books’ profits. That equal split is reflected in the traditional hardcover royalty of 15% of list (cover price, that is, not the much lower wholesale price), and in the 50-50 split of publishers’ earnings from selling paperback, book club, or reprint rights. Authors generally received an even larger share than the publisher for non-print rights (such as stage and screen rights) and foreign rights.

But today’s standard contracts give authors just 25% of the publisher’s “net receipts” (more or less what the publisher collects from a book sale) for e-book royalties. That doesn’t look like a partnership to us.

We maintain that a 50-50 split in e-book profits is fair because the traditional author-publisher relationship is essentially a joint venture. The author writes the book, and by any fair measure the author’s efforts represent most of the labor invested and most of the resulting value. The publisher, like a venture capitalist, invests in the author’s work by paying an advance so the author can make ends meet while the book gets finished. Generally, the publisher also provides editing, marketing, packaging, and distribution services. In return for fronting the financial risk and providing these services, the publisher gets to share in the book’s profits. Not a bad deal. This worked well enough throughout much of the twentieth century: publishers prospered and authors had a decent shot at earning a living.

How the e-book rate evolved

From the mid-1990s, when e-book provisions regularly began appearing in contracts, until around 2004, e-royalties varied wildly. Many of the e-rates at major publishing houses were shockingly low—less than 10% of net receipts—and some were at 50%. Some standard contracts left them open to negotiation. As the years passed, and especially between 2000 and 2004, many publishers paid authors 50% of their net receipts from e-book sales, in keeping with the idea that authors and publishers were equal partners in the book business.

In 2004, we saw a hint of things to come. Random House, which had previously paid 50% of its revenues for e-book sales, anticipated the coming boom in e-book sales and cut its e-rates significantly. Other publishers followed, and gradually e-royalties began to coalesce around 25%. By 2010 it was clear that publishers had successfully tipped the scales on the longstanding partnership between author and publisher to achieve a 75-25 balance in their favor.
   

The lowball e-royalty was inequitable, but initially it didn’t have much effect on authors’ bottom lines. As late as 2009, e-books accounted for a paltry 3–5% of book sales. Authors and agents ought to have pushed back, but with e-book sales so low it didn’t make much sense to risk the chance of any individual book deal falling apart over e-royalties. We called the 25% rate a “low-water mark.” We said, “Once the digital market gets large enough, authors with strong sales records won’t put up with this: they’ll go where they’ll once again be paid as full partners in the exploitation of their creative work.”

E-books now represent 25–30% of all adult trade book sales, but for the vast majority of authors the rate remains unchanged. If anything, publishers have dug in their heels. Why? There’s a contractual roadblock, for one: major book publishers have agreed to include “most favored nation” clauses in thousands of existing contracts. These clauses require automatic adjustment or renegotiation of e-book royalties if the publisher changes its standard royalty rate, giving publishers a strong incentive to maintain the status quo. And the increasing consolidation of the book industry has drastically reduced competition among publishers, allowing them more than ever to hand authors “take it or leave it” deals in the expectation that the author won’t find a better offer.

The elephant in the room

And then there’s the elephant in the room: Amazon, which has used its e-book dominance to demand steep discounts from publishers and drive down the price of frontlist e-books, even selling them at a loss. As a result, there’s simply not as much e-book revenue to split as there was in 2011when we reported on the e-book royalty math. At that time, publishers made a killing on frontlist e-book sales as compared to frontlist hardcover sales—at the author’s expense—because, as compared to today, the price of e-books was relatively high.

When we analyzed e-royalties for three books in the 2011 post, “E-Book Royalty Math: The House Always Wins,” we found that every time an e-book was sold in place of a hardcover, the author’s take decreased substantially, while the publisher’s take increased.

Since 2011, we have found that publishers’ e-gains have diminished. But the author’s share has fallen even farther. Amazon has squeezed the publishers, to be sure. The publishers have helped recoup their losses by passing them on to their authors.

These were our calculations for several books in 2011. The trend was obvious. Compared with hardcovers, each e-book sold brought big gains to the publisher and sizable losses to the author when the author’s royalties are compared to the publisher’s gross profit (income per copy minus expenses per copy), calculated using industry-standard contract terms:

Author’s Royalty vs. Publisher’s Profit, 2011

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Author’s Standard Royalty: $3.75 hardcover; $2.28 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss = -39%

Publisher’s Margin: $4.75 hardcover; $6.32 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain = +33%

Hell’s Corner, by David Baldacci

Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.20 hardcover; $2.63 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss = -37%

Publisher’s Margin: $5.80 hardcover; $7.37 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain = +27%

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.05 hardcover; $3.38 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss = -17%

Publisher’s Margin: $5.45 hardcover; $9.62 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain = +77%

What’s happening now? We ran the numbers again using the following recent bestsellers. Because of lower e-book prices, the publishers don’t do as well as they used to, though they still come out ahead when consumers choose e-books over hardcovers. But authors fare worse than ever:

Author’s Royalty vs. Publisher’s Profit, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doer

Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.04 hardcover; $2.09 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss= -48%

Publisher’s Margin: $5.44 hardcover; $5.80 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain: +7%

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

Author’s Standard Royalty: $3.90 hardcover; $1.92 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss= -51%

Publisher’s Margin: $5.10 hardcover; $5.27 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain: +3.5%

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

Author’s Standard Royalty: $3.89; $1.92 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss: -51%

Publisher’s Margin: $5.09 hardcover; $5.27 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain: +3.5%[1]

Exceptions to the rule

It’s time for a change. If the publishers won’t correct this imbalance on their own, it will take a critical mass of authors and agents willing to fight for a fair 50% e-book royalty. We hope that established authors and, particularly, bestselling authors will start to push back and stand up to publishers on the royalty rate—on behalf of all authors, as well as themselves.

There have been cracks in some publishers’ façades. Some bestselling authors have managed to obtain a 50% e-book split, though they’re asked to sign non-disclosure agreements to keep these terms secret. We’ve also heard of authors with strong sales histories negotiating 50-50 royalty splits in exchange for foregoing an advance or getting a lower advance; or where the 50% rate kicks in only after a certain threshold level of sales. For instance, a major romance publishing house has offered 50% royalties, but only after the first 10,000 electronic copies—a high bar to clear in the current digital climate. But overall, publishers’ apparent inflexibility on their standard e-book royalty demonstrates their unwillingness to change it.

We know and respect the fact that publishers—especially in this era of media consolidation—need to meet their bottom lines. But if professional authors are going to continue to produce the sort of work publishing houses are willing to stake their reputations on, those authors need a fair share of the profits from their art and labor. In a time when electronic books provide an increasing share of revenues at significantly lower production and distribution costs, publishers’ e-book royalty practices need to change.


[1] In calculating these numbers and percentages for hardcover editions, we made the following assumptions: (1) the publisher sells at an average 50% discount to the wholesaler or retailer, (2) the royalty rate is 15% of list price (as it is for most hardcover books, after 10,000 units are sold), (3) the average marginal cost to manufacture the book and get it to the store is $3, and (4) the return rate is 25% (a handy number—if one of four books produced is returned, then the $3 marginal cost of producing the book is spread over three other books, giving us a return cost of $1 per book). We also rounded up retail list price a few pennies to give us easy figures to work with.

Likewise, in calculating these numbers and percentages for the 2015 set of e-books, we are assuming that under the agency model—which is reportedly the new standard in the Big Five’s agreements with Amazon—the online bookseller pays 70% of the retail list price of the e-book to the publisher. The bookseller, acting as the publisher’s agent, sells the e-book at the price established by the publisher. The unit costs to the publisher are simply the author’s royalty and the encryption and transmission fees, for which we deduct a generous 50 cents per unit.   

 

The Author’s Guild on the Book Contract

June 17, 2015

Most of us who have ever negotiated a book contract will tell you that these agreements are unfair to authors. Contracts are classic asymmetrical agreements whereby the publisher gets the rights to exploit your writing in all possible manner and in all possible venues for the term of the copyright (life plus 70 years). They have the right to keep you from publishing any other book that they deem will compete against the contracted work. They will attempt to restrain you from showing your next work to another publisher until they have had an exclusive opportunity to look at it and make an offer. They will claim the right to reject the book for any reason and require you to return the advance paid. In exchange, they will give you a teeny bit of money. No wonder authors are claiming that they are better off self publishing.

To combat this, The Authors Guild, my favorite author organization, has developed a new program to shine a light on the unfair elements of the book contract. Today they published an outline of the Fair Contract Initiative and describe the areas that they will be analyzing going forward. It’s worth a read.

***

“On May 28 we announced the Authors Guild Fair Contract Initiative. Its goal is to shine a bright light on the one-sided contract terms that publishers typically offer authors and to spur publishers to offer more equitable deals. This is not an abstract issue: today’s contracts directly affect authors’ livelihoods and ability to control their works. As standard terms have become less favorable to authors in recent years, their ability to make a living has become more precarious.

Authors are among our more vulnerable classes of workers. Book authors receive no benefits, no retirement income or pension, and there are no unions to protect them. They live or die by copyright—their ability to license rights to publishers in exchange for advances and royalties. While copyright is meant to give authors control of how and on what terms others can use their works, publishing agreements tend to be negotiable only around the edges, and even then only by well-represented authors.

“Standard” contracts—the boilerplate offered to un-agented (or under-agented) authors—are even worse than those that most authors with agents or lawyers sign. That’s because agented agreements traditionally start off with the many changes that the agent or lawyer has previously negotiated with a particular publisher. One agented contract we’ve seen includes at least 96 changes from the original “standard” language, plus seven additional clauses and two additional riders. Every one of those changes is a point that the agent has negotiated in the author’s favor.

Why do publishers insist on offering their newest partners more than a hundred conditions so dubious that they’ll quickly back down on them if asked? It largely boils down to unequal bargaining power and historic lethargy. Anxious to get their works published, authors may wrongly believe that the contract their editors assure them is “standard” is the only deal available, take it or leave it. And much of that “standard” language has been around for years thanks to institutional inertia; as long as somebody signs an unfair clause that favors the publisher, the firm has no interest in modifying it. But even contracts negotiated by agents and lawyers often include longstanding “gotchas” that live on only because “it’s always been that way.”

It’s time for that to change. We’ll be highlighting particular clauses in the weeks to come. For now, here are just some of the issues we’ll be looking into:

Fair Book Contracts: What Authors Need

Half of net proceeds is the fair royalty rate for e-books
Royalties on e-books should be 50% of net proceeds. Traditional royalty rates reflected the concept that publishing is a joint venture between author and publisher. But despite the lower production and distribution costs associated with e-books, publishers typically offer only 25% of net. That’s half as much as it should be.

A publishing contract should not be forever
We think contracts should expire after a fixed amount of time. Publishers may pretend to consider this an unreasonable request—yet it’s precisely what they demand when they license paperback rights to others. Today’s contracts are generally for the life of copyright (meaning they essentially last at least 35 years, at which point copyright law gives the author the right to terminate the agreement). That’s too long.

Thanks to clever contractual language, it has become increasingly difficult for authors to get their rights back if the book goes out of print. “Out-of-print” clauses may be easily manipulated in this day of e-books and print-on-demand technology. At the same time, it’s more important than ever for authors to reacquire their rights so they can make e-book and print-on-demand titles available from their backlist. Unfortunately, we have heard too many stories of publishers refusing to revert rights or to make their authors’ books meaningfully available. Publishers should not be allowed to hold a book hostage; their contracts should provide clear language stating that if a specific royalty minimum is not paid within a certain period of time, then the book is defined as “out-of-print.”

A manuscript’s acceptability should not be a matter of whim
In standard contracts, whether a manuscript is acceptable or satisfactory is often in the “publisher’s sole judgment”; that means a new editor or management can reject a book on a whim and refuse to let the author publish it elsewhere until the entire advance is refunded. This can happen after an author has invested several years of work in the book, foregoing other opportunities in the meantime. Under some contracts, the publisher can even have the book rewritten at the author’s expense, decide whether or not to credit the new author, and maintain its own copyright to the additions and revisions. This is patently unfair. A publishing agreement based on a proposal is not an option, it is a contract to publish and pay, assuming the author delivers.

Advances must remain advances
Once upon a time, advances were typically split into two payments: one on signing of the contract, and one on acceptance of the manuscript. In recent years, we’ve seen three-part payment schedules: one-third on signing, on acceptance, and on publication. Now we’re seeing four-part payments: signing, acceptance, publication, and paperback publication. Slower payments shift risk from publisher to author. They also defeat the whole purpose of advances: to enable authors to devote themselves to completing their books without having to take on other work to make ends meet.

Publishers should share legal risk
No author can afford to put his or her entire net worth on the line, but that’s what many authors do when they sign publishing contracts. Authors are asked to assume the risk of suits for infringement or libel. This is true even where the publisher has lawyers who have vetted the book. Investigative journalists are most at risk. Forcing authors to assume the risk of a lawsuit can amount to a restraint on their speech. Publishers’ liability insurance should also cover authors. The author’s share of the risk, if any, should never exceed the total amount of the author’s advance.

Non-compete clauses must let the authors write
Authors must be free to write. The non-compete clause—an attempt to restrict the author from publishing work elsewhere that might cut into the current title’s sales—is no longer reasonable in the era of instant publishing. The clause should be simple: only the publisher can publish the current title, long excerpts from it, or a substantially similar work. Anything more is an unfair restriction on the author’s livelihood.

Options must be fair and paid for
Anything that keeps writers from publishing is simply unacceptable. That means option clauses should disappear. If a publisher wants an option on a future book, it should offer a separate payment for it and a quick decision on whether to offer a contract on it. Today’s standard option clauses often let the publisher delay the option decision until the current work is published. That can keep the author in limbo for years; it’s deplorable.

The author must have final say
When it comes to the text of the book, the author should have the final cut—that is, no changes in the text should be made without the author’s approval. The publisher should submit jacket flap and advertising copy to the author for approval. And the author should have the chance to approve any biographical material used in the book and/or publicity produced by or for the publisher.

Payments must move into the 21st century
Publishers’ methods of accounting have inevitably favored the publisher. Royalty statements and payments to authors typically appear only twice a year on income the publisher received between three and ten months previously. And the publisher can delay payment still further by invoking what is inevitably called a “reasonable reserve for returns”—that is, an estimate of how many books it will get back—without ever defining what “reasonable” means. The result is that it can be up to two years before an author is paid royalties for a sale. We think it’s time for royalties to be paid at least every three months with a limited delay and that every contract should clearly define “reasonable.”

“Special” book sales must not be at the author’s expense
Book contracts include a variety of royalty rates for different types of sales. Contracts routinely allow high-discount deals (such as selling a bulk load of books to a big-box store or a book club) to reduce the basis of the author’s royalty from the list price of the book to the much smaller net amount the publisher receives. Crossing the discount threshold from “normal” to “high” can magically reduce the author’s cut by more than fifty percent, giving the publisher a strong incentive to take that step. Why should an author accept this?

The above is just a taste of what we’ll address in the coming months. In addition to the standard book contract, we’ll also be identifying unreasonable provisions in self-publishing and freelance journalism agreements.

We’d like to hear from you. If a publisher has handed you especially egregious contract terms, please let us know. You can contact us here. But if your contract includes a non-disclosure clause, please don’t violate it. By the way, we don’t like those clauses, either.

Ultimately, we hope this initiative will create a climate of “just say no” to egregious contractual terms. We’d like you, the authors, to understand what you’re giving away when you sign your contracts, what you’re getting in return, and to make self-interested judgments about what’s fair. Of course, you just want to sign that agreement and get on with writing, but in the long run it’s in your interest to take a deep breath and to stick up for your rights, and for those of your fellow authors.”

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.

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.

Bad Pitches

October 9, 2014

I have written a number of blog posts on query letters. All of them get plenty of reads and shares. There are people who charge a lot of money to coach writers on how to write effective query letters. It seems as if every issue of Writers Digest has an article giving lists of tips on making the perfect query that will land you a 6 figure advance. I don’t think query letters are difficult to write. There are only about 9 things you really need to know. I have also said many times and continue to believe that a bad query letter won’t kill a good project and a good query letter won’t help a bad project.

All that being said, it’s important to remember that agents get dozens of query letters every day and tend to skim through them quickly. You need to have the right tone, to provide the relevant information, to avoid verbosity, and to sound professional. Here are some particularly bad pitches I see frequently along with some commentary by me.

“This is a fiction novel.” [Editors don’t like redundancy in writing. Agents don’t like redundancy in query letters. Rather say “This is a novel, or this is a work of fiction – and maybe include the genre as well.]

“This is a non-fiction novel” [More common than you would imagine and a particularly clueless pitch; one that elicits squeals of laughter when agents bring it up with each other and with audiences.]

“I know you probably won’t want to represent this book, but here goes.” [ It’s really a very convincing pitch. The writer has given a compelling reason for me to reject his project. If the writer doesn’t have confidence in his book, then why should I?]

“I’ve already been rejected by 25 agents, but here goes.” [Similar to the previous. Most agents are aware that writers make multiple query submissions and that is perfectly ok. You don’t have to call attention to how many rejections you have received, though.]

“There is nothing like this book that has ever been published.” [ This is the opposite of the examples above. It’s one of the worst pitches you can make. It sends the message that you have delusions of grandeur and will be a difficult client to manage. And it also raises the reasonable question of whether there is, perhaps, a good reason why such a book has never been published.]

“I am wondering if you might possibly be interested in considering….” [ Literary throat-clearing like this in a query letter is indicative of literary throat-clearing in the text of the project. It’s horrible style. Better would be “I am submitting” or “I am submitting for your consideration”]

“Because you represent NAME OF A GREAT SCHOLAR, FAMOUS POLITICAL JOURNALIST, etc, I thought you might be the right person to represent my work of erotic women’s fiction.” [This bad pitch needs no further comment.]

“I am looking for an agent to represent my film script.” [It’s ok if the agent you are querying represents film scripts, but most literary agents don’t or else they work in collaboration with an entertainment agent.]

“I am submitting to you because you represent” GENRES THAT I DON’T REPRESENT.” [Similar to the previous bad pitch. Do your research and make sure you are sending projects to agents specifically interested in the genre of your submission.]

“I am looking for a New York agent who….” [A particularly hateful pitch to me. First of all, I have a big chip on my shoulder about “New York agents”, because it no longer matters whether the agent is in New York or elsewhere. Second of all, the author needs to do his research and find out if the agent is, in fact, a “New York agent.” Many of us are not, thank God!]

“I submit for your consideration my Literary-Commercial novel with YA possibilities.” [There are numerous variations of this. Although there are times when a project can only be described as cross-genre, frequently this pitch is simply indicative of the fact that the writer can’t decide who his audience is.]

“This book is bound to make a great movie.” [ I’ve never known an author who didn’t think his novel would make a great movie. And that’s ok. But you can probably leave it out of a query letter. Most book and entertainment agents are probably better suited for deciding if a story is a good bet for film adaptation than the author. It also sends a message that the writer may have delusions of grandeur.]

“Oprah/Terry Gross will love this book.” [Another indicator of delusions of grandeur. Avoid mentioning Oprah at all.]

“This book is like Eat, Pray, Love meets Malcolm Gladwell.” [These books are the most often cited comps. Realistically your book is not going to sell as well as Eat, Pray, Love or the works of Gladwell. And realism is a very important virtue in a writer.]

“This book is like Eat, Pray, Love meets Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” [I don’t particularly like this kind of blah blah meets blah blah kind of pitch. But some agents do. So if you are going to do it, try to at least make the comparables intelligible. Otherwise it’s just name dropping.]

“This is a combination diet book/ memoir” (or any other combo that includes a memoir). [Sneaking a memoir into a book of another genre is almost irresistible, and there are some rare instances where it makes sense. But if you aren’t, in fact, writing a memoir, it might be a good idea to leave yourself out of it. If you are writing about, say, how to discipline your child, the reader is looking for answers for themselves, and is likely not interested in your life experiences, fascinating though they may be.]

“This book was previously self-published, but I want to have the marketing power of a commercial publisher behind me.” [It is unrealistic to expect that a commercial publisher is going to put lots more resources into promoting your book than you already have as a self-published author. What is true, though, is that you are more likely to get review attention or get placed in a bookstore if your book is commercially published.]

“This book was previously self-published and had very good sales.” [Normally when I look into this further, I discover that the writer’s idea of “very good sales” means about 500 copies, which is to say it had not very good sales. You need to be honest in this business. Probably best to tell the agent exactly what those sales were. But even if your sales were very good, if you were selling your e-book for 99 cents or, as is often the case, giving it away for free, it isn’t all that impressive a pitch.]

This book will sell millions of copies.” [Delusions of grandeur.]

“Anyone interested in women’s health will buy this book.” [I see this frequently in book proposals. You need to be able to distinguish between an “audience” and a “demographic”. There are, for instance, about 4 billion people in the world interested in women’s health. In all probability, most of them will not be reading your book.]

“This book is side-splittingly funny.” [Humor is difficult to write and very subjective. This pitch is another indicator of delusions of grandeur. I have represented a number of books that to me actually were side-splittingly funny. But I failed to sell them, because the acquisition editors didn’t “get” it.]

“This book is darkly comic.” [I hear the pitch for “darkly comic” a lot. To me that usually means “not particularly funny”.]

I have written about pitches and query letters in a number of blog posts. You can check these out:

How to Pitch to an Agent
The Art of the Pitch
The Best Query Letter Ever Written
9 Tips for Effective Query Letters


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