SPOILER ALERT: If you don't want to know E.J. Copperman's true identity (and I'm guessing that category applies to no one at all), don't read any further. I wouldn't want to disillusion a reader. Or a non-reader. Or anybody else.
So here's the thing: As was discussed in some detail last week, THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD, the first Asperger's mystery featuring the fictional Samuel Hoenig, will be published by our very own Terri Bischoff's Midnight Ink in just a hair over three weeks, on October 8. It's a mystery involving and told by a man who has a high-functioning form of an autism related disorder, and it involves, as one might expect from the title, a missing head, in this case a frozen one.
It's also the first official collaboration between myself and E.J. Copperman, and that's sort of an interesting situation.
That's right, friends, it's the first book I ever wrote with myself.
The cover of the book clearly states the authors' names as, "E.J. Copperman/Jeff Cohen," as if that clears anything up. But the fact is I was alone in the room when it was written, although that's hardly a definitive indication that anyone called E.J. Copperman didn't write the book. E.J., after all, is me, and nobody's tried to keep that a secret for quite some time.
In and of itself (which is an expression that doesn't mean anything, but whatever), the fact that both of my names are up on the cover of the book is somewhat irrelevant. If you enjoy the book, it could be written by Hans Gruber and it wouldn't matter. If you don't enjoy the book, it could be a work of William Shakespeare (who as far as I know never knowingly wrote about Asperger's) and that would be equally unimportant.
But sitting down to write the book a few years ago (it took a while to find a home, and thankfully Terri liked it), I honestly didn't know if it was going to be a Jeff book or an E.J. book, and I do actually approach the two differently, even if I'm not conscious of the effort at the time. So in writing THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD (which had another title back in those days), I was sort of channeling the E.J. side of my brain even while the Jeff side was poking his nose into it just to keep things on an even keel. So it really is a product of both.
I got the idea when Evan Hunter and Ed McBain (both of whom were actually Salvatore Lombino) wrote a book together. Now, that seemed like a great idea! You get two author names on the book for followers of either previously published writer, and you don't have to split the royalties! What's not to like?
It does irk me when (as a number of review sites and an online retailer or two) some people consider THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD as strictly an E.J. Copperman book and leave my birth name off it entirely. I mean, I worked as hard as E.J. on it--harder even, since I was doing the typing--and I think I deserve a little credit, don't you?
Having just sent off the draft of the second Samuel book, whose title has not yet been confirmed (and I've learned to keep my mouth shut about such things), I can say the second time around it was more of a total collaboration because now I was aware both names would be on the cover. There was more give-and-take, but either way, I got or gave because there wasn't anyone else there. Except our new dog Gizmo, who is adorable but chews things a lot.
So I can tell you something I never knew before: Collaborating with yourself can be fun and rewarding. But the best part, without question, is writing the authors' acknowledgments, when I got to thank myself twice.
P.S.: Our sincere wishes for a quick and easy recovery to our own Josh Getzler, just now starting toward getting his shoulder back the way it should be. We want you back here ASAP, sir, so get to work!
P.P.S.: While we're on the subject of Josh, he has informed me that HSG Agency, of which he is the "G", will match my total donation to ASPEN, the Autism Spectrum Education Network, when we tally it all up from the MISSING HEAD CHALLENGE (announced here last week). Remember the rules: Buy a copy of THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD and have it in your hands on its publication day, October 8. Take a picture of yourself with said book (or e-reader title page thereof). Post said picture on Facebook or Twitter and make sure I see it. I will donate (and now Josh will match) $3 for every picture posted up to 100 pictures that day. Don't miss your chance to donate to a very worthy cause without spending any extra money! And thanks, Josh and everybody at HSG!
Like many of you (I’d guess most of you), I received a very cheerful email from iTunes this morning, letting me know that I was one of the lucky 500 MILLION account holders music lovers who received, free of charge, the new album by U2 in their iTunes library. Then they said the following:
Never before have this many people owned an album — let alone on the day it was released. This is a big moment in music history. And you're a part of it.
OK, let’s talk about this for real for a minute. What U2 did, fundamentally, was participate in a publicity program not unlike a Kindle free book promotion, only iTunes eliminated the step where you need to get the ebook into your device—it simply put it there. And frankly, that’s fine, if perhaps cheesy. But then to call it “a big moment in music history” where “never before have this many people owned an album” is eye-rollingly disingenuous. What’s more, it speaks to numerous arguments about value/worth/price of a product.
When I began to work in minor league baseball in 1996, I took over an organization in upstate New York which had, for five years, effectively given away its tickets to every game through a (badly thought-out and inefficient) coupon system that made it unnecessary for any fan to pay for a ticket. The previous operators reasoned that they would make their fiscal nut by getting people into the park for free, then having them purchase food, beer, and merchandise. Didn’t work. Going to a game was thought of as, first and foremost, a Cheap Night Out, and fans were not in fact spending more money on hot dogs because they had budgeted a certain amount for the evening and then had more because of the free tickets. Rather, they spent the same amount or less, because everyone knew that the tickets were going to be free—they had no value, so there was no real savings. The first thing we did when we arrived in town was to set a real value for tickets—albeit a very low number—and while fewer people came initially (because they resented paying for something all of a sudden which had previously been free), those who did actually spent more on food and merch because their expectations had shifted from being a Cheap night to a Fun night.
There have been lots of conversations recently, in the Hachette/Amazon fight, over the way Amazon has stated that less expensive ebooks sell more copies, and therefore will pass the break-even point with the current pricing models and make authors more money while charging less to the customer. I think there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of this. But there is also a significant danger in basing a policy on lowering prices all the time for all products. Amazon itself saw this a few years ago when WalMart stood up to it, and there was a Race To Free for a number of titles. For one or two instances, a retailer can deal with it (and the authors were receiving full royalties so they didn’t suffer, even as it cost Amazon and WalMart money—much as Apple is losing sales on U2 albums in the interest of a splash and enormous distribution). But as a policy…tough to maintain. Amazon clearly believes it has the winning algorithms to make more money for itself while charging its customers less and paying its authors more. If it emerges victorious, we will have to see.
Which brings me back to U2. I’ve been a fan of this band for more than 30 years (JEEZ!) I saw them for the first time at 16, and again at 43. I’ve bought all their albums, and worn out many of them. They haven’t been particularly in the forefront of my mind since I saw them at Giants Stadium a few years ago and thought they were…fine. But when I’m on shuffle and Sunday Bloody Sunday or Beautiful Day or Magnificent comes on, I realize that they are the hall of famers they are.
They also release a TON of odds and sods and remixes and dub versions and acoustic demos, so when I got word that they were releasing their new album for free, I figured it was one of those. Which is to say, because it was for free, I figured it had (virtually) no value. It was just going to be a gimmick, and would be worthy of the eye rolling, and would take U2 further out of the middle of my consciousness.
Then I actually listened to it, and thought it was terrific. It’s new, but hearkens back to The Old Stuff I Love, and feels like a real ALBUM, with an overarching theme (albeit a possibly pretentious one, but hey, it’s Bono) and soaring choruses etc. And I suspect, that by simply spamming it to half a billion people, they’ve actually UNDERSOLD it. How about that?
Quick Note: I’m going to be going on the Disabled List for a couple of weeks for shoulder surgery. This slot will be taken by some terrific guests—Danielle Burby will write next week, and author Todd Moss (The Golden Hour) the week after. See you down the line!
I’ve been having the funny feeling the last couple of weeks that I’ve been regressing back to high school. It’s not simply that I ALWAYS feel nostalgic this time of year, as the kids get ready to return from the summer. But this summer vacation has been filled with reminders of my days with big hair and long overcoats and bright yellow Walkmen.
First I read Eleanor and Park on the advice of the 12 YO, and it took me back to the Smiths and the Replacements and XTC (and bright yellow Walkmen); then last night we watched The Breakfast Club with the kids, and between the layers and overcoats and the Molly Ringwald Dance and Simple Minds I was back to Junior Year, wondering if I would also lose my soul when I grew up.
Tomorrow I’m going to Washington, DC for a couple of days of meetings and the launch of Todd Moss’s Golden Hour (had to get that in!), and I’m back to being a Congressional Page at 17, watching Live Aid and running around the Capitol Building in the roastingly hot DC summer. Then in the fall I’ll be seeing Sting’s new musical The Last Ship, and I’ll be back in my very enthusiastic high school band trying (enthusiastically!) to play So Lonely. And I just looked through the musical offerings in DC Thursday night. The Buzzcocks are playing a little club. The last time I saw them it was around 1988, and I was in college. And I just got my 25th Reunion notice. My son just finished watching Weird Science while my daughter was listening to Marlene On The Wall.
All we’re missing is a Soviet Premier threatening to use Nukes…oh.
So, have YOU been challenged yet?
Wait! Wait! Don’t click off. I realize that between summer and shoulders I’ve not been that active recently, and I missed the initial rosy glow of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Now, when I want to write something supporting it, I look around and see the Backlash. Money being raised will take away from other charities. Less funding will be available to use for developing cures for diseases with more victims. Why are we pouring ice on our heads when there are water shortages? When ALS uses genomes? When scientists test on animals? When we should be thinking about ISIS and Gaza and Ferguson and Ukraine and Ebola and…
Stop it. Pull back for a minute.
A few weeks ago, ALS—Lou Gehrig’s Disease—was mostly known about by friends and relatives and colleagues of people who have, or more likely died, of the disease. My wife’s aunt, the incorrigible, powerful Carol Kaufman, was my link. She died several years ago after a terrible, painful illness where the humiliation was only lessened by the incredible love and dedication of her family. But beside Carol, I have never been affected by ALS directly, as opposed to cancer or Parkinson’s or MS or many other illnesses. There are only (only…) a few thousand people suffering from ALS at any time. There is no cure, and researchers are not overly well-funded. Last year, at this time, the ALS Association had raised somewhere around $2.5 million.
And then someone dumped a bucket of ice over his head, made a donation, posted it on Facebook, and challenged some friends to do the same. And all of a sudden the game had changed. It was 50 Shades of Grey or Gangnam Style, but trying to help eradicate a disease. And it’s all done by taking a video, talking for a minute, dumping some cold liquid on your head, and paying it forward. And what is wrong with that? It’s been absolutely rejuvenating for my Facebook surfing (and by the way, it’s been fascinating to see, as in the article here (http://digiday.com/platforms/facbeook-twitter-ferguson/), how users are staying of Facebook for this, while tweeting the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown.) And it’s raised more than $80 MILLION in real money for ALS. And what’s wrong with THAT?
Well, folks are saying that it’s taking away discretionary charitable donation money away from other charities, and this is going to be a giant money suck away from other places that need it. Here’s the thing, though. The Challenge isn’t necessarily forcing anyone to give, or even suggest an amount. People are giving because they feel like doing good. It has felt to me (non-scientifically, so you can roll your eyes if you wish—but I suspect if you’ve read this far you likely aren’t going to do so) that this is the charity version of the impulse buy—the pack of gum or Us magazine at the checkout counter, where you aren’t going to stop buying bread (or, I suppose, the New Yorker, so stretch a metaphor until it screams) because one day you saw Oprah or Benedict Cumberbatch being shown doing something and feel like getting involved. I’m not going to give less to the American Cancer Society or my synagogue or my animal rights charities or my alma mater because I made a small donation to fight ALS because everyone else is doing it and it feels good.
Finally, another thing that’s happening is that people are starting to read about and understand ALS; and whether they are directly impacted by it or not in the future, they might have a little more understanding the next time they read about it or see a tv news story about it.
So that’s it. The ALS Challenge was a great, simple idea that took off unexpectedly. It has done good for the world. And it almost singlehandedly justified Facebook’s existence. There’s enough tragedy and despair in the world; let’s enjoy something good. OK?
So today it's going to be short, since I'm finding typing pretty painful. I've got something in common with the following people:
Yep, I'm a pitcher.
No, no. Rotator cuff issues. They suck. but make it hurt to throw a ball, sleep, hail a taxi, and type. Going to see an orthopedist Thursday, and hope not to be on the DL as long as these guys. In the meantime, enjoy your end-of-summer and join Jeff Cohen's email list! Or EJ Copperman's. Doesn't matter to me. or him. I mean them. :)
Today was one of those where the astonishing range of the writers I work with came out in force. It reminded me why this job, with its stress and never-shrinking inbox (Summer Slowdown? HA!) is so consistently fascinating.
Today, over the course of nine hours, I dealt with the following people and events:
1) A new author, who wrote a wonderful young adult novel filled with angst, poetry, and first love, agreed to let me represent her. When Danielle gets back from vacation she will dance, since she put this novel on my desk and said “READ THIS.” It’s called My Pablo Neruda Summer. Watch out.
2) While I was on the phone with New Client, I was handed an envelope from Putnam, with a first copy, hot off the presses, of Todd Moss’s The Golden Hour. It’s always such a thrill to hold a first copy, and this one stands to MOVE.
3) Once off with New Client, and done tweeting the picture above, it was time to go to a meeting at Oxford University Press with a client, Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit, whose examination of America’s fascination with the image of the Ten Commandments is going to come out in 2016. I was not simply the least intelligent person in the editor’s office; I felt rather that I was the least intelligent person in the building. On the way out I stopped for a moment at Tim Bent’s office. Tim, who’s now been editing at Oxford for many years, was a classmate of mine at the Radcliffe (now Columbia) Publishing Course in the summer of 1990. We realized that there might not be more than one other member of our class (Random House editor Jordan Pavlin) who made publishing his or her career. And I took a 13 year sabbatical!
4) On my return I had meetings with our summer interns, one of whom was updating our editor database (editors change houses a LOT!) and was getting started on a new project to track foreign sales of Geoff Rodkey’s new, hysterical middle grade series The Tapper Twins, whose imagery is slightly less elevated at times than Jenna’s (dead fish in knapsacks, half-eaten cronuts…). Coincidentally, that was followed by a call from Geoff himself, with some questions about the second in the series.
5) Finally I had a chance to work on some emails. It was 4:30. These ranged from confirming a visit from the talented young writers from Writopia, to organizing a drop-in from Dead Guy Guru Jeff (“EJ Copperman’s CLOSE PERSONAL FRIEND”) Cohen, to downloading a new contract to asking for a new author to send me her debut Young Adult novel about teenage angst and love in 18th Century France. A lovely bookend to an always-interesting day.
And the inbox remains full.
So a friend of mine, editor and author Bryon Quertermous, late of Angry Robot and Exhibit A, took his family to Disney World. In his absence I'm going to be stepping in for him later in the week on his website (www.bryonquertermous.com), but I thought I'd tease it with a little background and explanation on the topic.
It started when I read a Facebook post by Ron Currie, Jr. last week with a link to the Warren Zevon song Boom-Boom Mancini (from the amazing album Sentimental Hygene https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZS3uDu8jy8) saying that the next time someone wants to know how to write stories, Ron would guide him to Zevon.
I would say that’s a great start. And it got me thinking about the artists I listen to whose songs are themselves narratives. These troubadours have always appealed to me, and I’m going to use my time on Bryon’s site to talk about several of my favorites.
But as I was thinking about which songs to discuss, it occurred to me that it was going to appear weird if I didn’t explain something: This particular set of artists—perhaps because I was riffing off Zevon—is specifically white, male, and (in a general sense) rock. Not hip hop, not country, not female (and Lord knows there are many great narrative voices in all three, so don’t comment about the lack of, say, Biggie or Johnny Cash or Suzanne Vega or Renaissance). Perhaps we’ll get there. And I’m not going to do Tom Waits because he’s kind of like Bonnie Raitt to me—I know I’m supposed to like them, and I understand their talent, but, I just can’t…
So check in tomorrow over at Bryon’s site. Then comment there, here, on Facebook—I’d love to hear your thoughts, opinions, people I missed, why I’m nuts, and why you’re all rushing to download the catalog of a broken up pub band from Australia that writes songs about cannibals and war and lovers finding time to talk between work shifts and a lonely divorced man who loves Saturdays because every Saturday is Father’s Day. (Teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYKNqftCkSQ)
And then maybe next time we’ll get into songs by female country rappers.
This week, I was lucky to have one of my newest clients, Nikki Trionfo, visit our Chelsea offices. Nikki has written a terrific, searing young adult novel about a girl in California who’s trying to investigate her sister’s death. The girl, Salem, is the daughter of a peach grower in California, and the novel, called Shatter, brings into play the conflicts among white middle-class growers, Hispanic migrant workers, unions, and gangs.
One of the things I enjoyed about Shatter is the way Nikki brings in characters of different races and socio-economic statuses and shows their interaction in a natural, unforced way. When I took her on, I told Nikki that one of the more sought after elements in fiction these days, both in children’s books and books for adults, is Diversity. My colleagues on both the buy and sell side of publishing are actively looking for books that address cultural, racial, and sexual diversity, and I felt that when she finishes her revisions and we go out on submission, we will have a very enthusiastic response from editors.
This afternoon I was looking on Nikki’s website, http://www.nikkitrionfo.com/, and I saw her latest blog post. It was fascinating. In it, Nikki brings up this conversation, and how it took her aback. She hadn’t thought she was writing a book with a Diversity theme in it at all. Rather, she was writing from her own experience growing up in the orchards of California, where different cultures mixed all the time—it felt so natural because it was.
Often, we spend our time in our own bubble of similar-looking and –behaving communities. And often writers, working off their own experiences, create homogenous casts. And part of the need for diversity in literature is to give future readers and writers role models to look to—so sometimes we strain ourselves looking for diversity. (And that’s not a bad thing, and has great cultural relevance and worth.) Which is why I’m so excited when I get a book like Nikki’s where the diversity is so second nature as to be that much more powerful. I can’t wait to see where it lands.
Greetings from...Newark Airport, on my way off to London for a week to recharge the batteries. It's a bizarre thing, too--my wife and I are in the unique position of traveling without children, and without them being with either set of grandparents. We dropped off The Boy at a monthlong theater program at Brandeis U, and the girls are still at camp.
So when we realized that we'd be alone, with the opportunity to take a little break, we decided to take a trip. We hadn't assumed we'd return to London--we'd taken the kids a couple of summers ago, and I'd been to the London Book Fair. But then we heard that adaptations of Hilary Mantel's brilliant Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were playing in the West End, and we decided to Go Tudor (I know, it's not a terrible surprise). We are spending the vast majority of our times exploring 16th Century tourist attractions, with breaks only to go BACK and visit Canterbury and take the Fifth Knight Tour (thanks for the advice, Elaine!), and forward to WW2 to visit the Churchill War Rooms. And we'll be staying right near Sam Thomas's Midwife's London Lodgings (it'll be in book 4, so you'll just have to wait to see how and why she gets there--but it's fabulous!)
The one sacrifice I'm making in taking this trip is that for the first time in five years I'll be missing ThrillerFest. So the intrepid Danielle gets to cut her teeth on Agentfest speed dating (she'll need that drink ticket for the cocktail party after!), and I look forward to following the tweets and the posts.
In the meantime it'll be interesting to visit the bookstores in London, wander the streets, and watch the finals of the World Cup at London's only vegetarian pub.
(Note From Josh: I welcome once again The Boy to take over as Temporary Tuesday Dead Guy. Joe's been working at HSG for a couple of weeks, reading manuscripts and generally hanging out looking Publishing-y. I believe that while he speaks for himself, Jacob and Rachel, our other Biblically aptly named interns (HA! Jacob, Rachel, and Joseph...) and many other interns, would probably find Joe's thoughts pretty familiar. And note to authors: Interns do read manuscripts, but (at least at HSG) are not entrusted with decision-making authority. Next week I'll go through Jeff Cohen's Better Query Letter.)
So, the summer has begun. Freshman Year ended for me almost a month ago, and words cannot describe the joy I felt when I finally exited my last final. I was all set for a summer full of rest and relaxation, and taking the time to watch the world go by and soak up the sun.
Well, while I will get to that, I had to work for my dad first.
Now, for a teenager, there are fewer things that appeal as much as money, and working as an intern for my dad at his literary agency promised at least a few dollars. Plus, I have a chance to spend the day doing what I love to do: reading and hanging out with my dear ol’ dad. So, I agreed to work for him for 6 days over the course of 2 weeks. Each day, I get up early and have two coffees with Dad (a hot one at home, and iced one once we’re close to the office). We hitch a crowded Subway, each partake in either a Metro or amNewYork (then switch when we’re finished), and get out at 34th Street.
At HSG I get to read, alternately, the 50-page excerpts that my dad and his assistant Danielle get on a regular basis, or one of the huge manuscripts that, were I not doing this for a job, would probably finish in a month. This can be either fun or taxing, depending on the manuscript. I must admit, until I started working with Dad, I had no idea how much action an author can cram within 50 pages, and I end the Partial wondering how long the actual manuscript must be, and how much more action must take place.
The best of the 50-pagers are like the best carnival barkers. They reel you in with promises of excitement, adventure, and altogether stellar storytelling, and once you reach the end, you’re almost falling over yourself trying to find out more; begging on your knees to sample more of the carnival's wares. At worst, it’s like you can already see the shadow through the tent that makes it clear that the “rare mermaid of Worcestershire” isn’t much more than a Barbie doll’s torso pasted to the tail of a fish. The writing is on the wall that there’s no desire to forge onward and that further reading will drain rather than enthrall. My initial reading has resulted in a balance of better and worse, and the happiness I feel when I give the “OK” to a good manuscript is proportional to the guilt I feel when I dismiss a bad one. But to me, it’s the journey, not the destination. My dad likes to say that when an author ties up a book nicely, they “stick the landing,” but the actual routine needs to impress me as much as the landing.
At the end of the day, it really is the principle of the thing. While I'm giving my opinions about real people's blood and sweat, I’m doing it in service for the dad I love. I’ve seen how hard he works: the man’s on the phone so often it’s a wonder his ear doesn’t fall off. He and I share the common goal of wanting a book to succeed. We both share the desire to never give up, and rather improve to a point where it can be either passable or perfect. It’s really been working with my dad that helps me understand how to edit and pass proper judgment without being nitpicky or cruel. Many books don't work, but how great it feels to help a book get better! Such are the thoughts of an intern desiring to help more books succeed, and ready to take on the next batch of possible success stories.
In September, 1996, my now-wife Amanda was my fiancée. Our first season running the Watertown (NY) Indians of minor league baseball’s New York-Penn League had recently concluded with a heartbreaking loss on a 2-out squeeze play to the hated St. Catharines Stompers. There was nothing to do in Watertown except freeze, so we were in New York getting ready for our October wedding.
I looked at the newspaper one afternoon and saw that the Mets were playing that night against the San Diego Padres at (the late, not-terribly-lamented) Shea Stadium. I turned to Amanda.
“Let’s go to the game tonight.”
She looked at me like I was a crazy person. I wasn’t a Mets fan, and we’d just been to 38 of our own games. The Mets weren’t anything special that year—they were on their way to going 71-91—and there were probably going to be 5,000 masochists in the stands that night.
“What brings this on?” She asked.
“It’s a chance to see Tony Gwynn. He’s getting older, he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame, and who knows when we’re going to get to see him again—he’s in his late 30’s (he was 36) and the Padres only come to NY once a year. So if we have the chance, we should be able to say that we saw Tony Gwynn.”
Honestly, I have no idea if Gwynn, who died of mouth cancer yesterday at only 54 years old, got a hit that night. My estimate of the attendance was, I believe, optimistic, and we were just happy to sit there, have a beer and a pretzel, and see a future hall of famer with a beautiful swing, 3,000 hits, no chip on his shoulder, and the utter respect of truly everyone in the sport.
And it’s funny. It’s been more than 18 years since we went to that game, and “you don’t understand: it’s seeing Tony Gwynn” has become a shorthand for Amanda and me every time we want to go see somebody who’s legendary and perhaps a bit past his or her prime, even if it’s inconvenient, because it’s simply worth it to have seen them.
“Oh Man, Steely Dan is playing at The Beacon but it’s $110 a ticket.”
“It’s Tony Gwynn.”
“Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart are in Waiting for Godot and the only tickets are the day before we’re leaving on a trip.”
“But it’s Tony Gwynn.”
A few months ago, there was a panel of Mad magazine writers at the east side Barnes & Noble, and my son Joe was hocking me to go because, among others, 90-something year-old Al Jaffe was going to be there. On a school night. Before a test. I hesitated, until my wife looked at me, and said all she needed to say.
I PROMISED myself I wouldn’t do it. I would read Jeff’s post and leave it alone—after all, he’s a smart guy, published many times, a client and friend, AND he got me this Tuesday gig. So I should really shut up. But I can’t, and so I’m going to tweak a couple (but only a couple) of elements of his Query Letter post.
First, though, the part that is 100% correct (we agents always start with the good news. Right. RIGHT?): Yes, when you write a query letter, you must say what your book is about, and in Jeff’s straw man letter, the author didn’t. Now, mind you, most of the time the problem is not that there isn’t enough about the story, but rather that there is too much. But no matter: it is important to say what your book is about. I’ve done this before in this space: You need to say whether the book is:
This can be done in a sentence or two: “My novel, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, is a 75,000-word historical thriller set in the forests of 19th Century Bavaria. Our protagonist, a crippled, miserable castrato known only as Moz, must save his mother when they are both buried alive by evil, jealous, but brilliant lutist Johannes Marr. ‘Oh Mother,’ he says with what he thinks is his last breath, ‘I can feel the soil falling over our head.’”
Quick, no? And with only a little self-indulgent wordplay.
Where I disagree with Jeff, however, is with respect to your biography. He indicates that you basically should put nothing in—it’s about the story and whether you can write. And that’s very true, and if we had a blind reading, it would be irrefutable. But I’ll take a step back: If you have something in your biography that makes you particularly qualified to write your book, by all means include it. My client Sam Thomas is able to get away with being an American man writing in the first person about a 17th Century British midwife because he wrote his Ph.D thesis on 17th Century British midwifery. It was in his bio and gave him immediate credibility. Sheila Webster Boneham has that much more credibility in writing her Animals In Focus mysteries because she’s written something like a bajillion nonfiction books about animals. So while Jeff’s right in that you don’t need to tell me how many cats you live with or the names of your children, if you are a bartender and write a series of cozies set in a pub, that matters to me. How Jeff could write about ghosts in the attic of a B&B…well, he didn’t include that in his bio.
Ultimately the old saw about query letters being around a page long, with the first paragraph being the basic stats about the book, the second (and sometimes third if it’s really complex) being a quick summary of the plot, and the third (and shortest, most of the time) being about yourself is about right. And you should ALWAYS address the letter to the specific person, not Dear Agent or (God Forbid) Dear Sir or (Heavens!) Hi. And even better is to say how you knew that I might be interested in your book (but I KNOW I’ve written ad nauseum about that), and where you saw my name.
Then get to the sample—and know what the agent wants from you. I, for example, want five pages (can be four, can be six, but around five) so I can figure out whether you can write. It’s the most basic test: will Danielle or I like the first, presumably most impactful bit of the book well enough to ask to read more. And we ALWAYS want to. It’s what we love most about the job: We want to find something wonderful, ask for the full, love it, sign you, and sell it.
OK, Jeff, back to you!
During the past several months, we’ve been noticing around the office that an interesting trend has been popping up, particularly in our suspense fiction manuscripts. Authors, in order to ratchet up tension and leave the reader guessing, plant secrets in the front of their stories, then tease them out for most of the book, finally revealing the answer in Act 3.
Sounds reasonable, no? Suspense novels ought to be, you know, suspenseful.
But the problem is that there is such a thing as overdoing the tease. It’s perfectly fine, for example, to indicate that there might be something meaningful in a glance between two friends when the Yankees come on the TV—and then play it out for a hundred pages—if one of them (perish the thought) had been the mother of George Steinbrenner’s love child. Less so if the reveal on page 325 is that she had grown up a Mets fan.
Yes, that is ridiculous, and most aren’t that egregious, but they illustrate a point. Suspense works, and books are interesting, when the teases have real payoff. If you plant a tease simply in order to keep the reader going, wondering why Cousin Jimmy hates marigolds, then if it’s because he knows they are Aunt Jane’s favorites, , you are simply being manipulative. However, if you find out on page 325 that he is the only one who knows Aunt Jane is deathly allergic to them and she just dropped dead of anaphylactic shock, then you have made the right decision to wait to tell us.
Besides being manipulative, the other issue with the Unimportant Tease is that it makes the Important Reveals MUCH less exciting. You want to give the reader enough information throughout so they are almost figuring it out. You don’t want to hold too much back. It’s OK to say that the protag won’t drink gin because he had a bad experience with it when he was young and almost had his entire teen-tour group evicted from the Holy Land Hotel—that doesn’t need to hold through to the end of the book, when the murder has to do with ancient relics and nothing to do with underage alcohol consumption.
So I guess the conclusion is this: When you are trying to decide what to hold back and what to reveal, remember that the “aha” moment is just that: Momentous. Think about whether that hold-back is going to truly surprise the reader and enhance the story, or whether it’s merely—as it often is—a gimmick.
There’s been a lot of talk and outrage the past week or so about the conflict that is currently going on between Amazon and Hachette, which is very similar to the fight several months ago between Barnes and Noble and Simon and Schuster.
The short version in both cases is this: The retailer either a) believes that it is paying too much for the publisher’s books, or b) believes it is able to use its leverage as a large distributor of the publisher’s books to improve its purchasing terms with the retailer. Whatever the reason, the retailer says to the publisher, “Hey, until you give us better terms, we are not going to sell your books as well or as efficiently, and you will suffer. Readers won’t be able to find your books. We won’t put them out on the front tables/best landing pages. Your sales will drop. Your authors will not be happy. We have enough other customers that we won’t be materially harmed, but you will feel the pain. So improve your rates, and we’ll go back to normal.”
The publishers then need to decide what to do. Do they hurt their business one way, by giving in to the pressure of the retailer and lowering their rates? Or do they hurt their business in another way by sticking it out and trying to outlast the retailer? After all, the retailer’s not helping its own bottom line by selling badly and inefficiently.
There is, of course, great hue and cry by the readers and authors, who are caught in the middle. The readers just want to find and purchase the latest Philippa Gregory or James Patterson novel, and the authors want them to. Of course, readers want reasonably priced books, and authors want to sell as many books as possible at the maximum reasonable price, in order to have a chance to earn out their advance and make a few bucks in royalties. So on some level the readers ought to be somewhat on the side of the retailer--after all, the better the deal the retailer gets from the publisher, the more likely it will be (theoretically) to pass long those savings to the purchaser--ie the reader. On the flip side, the author should hope for the highest price that will still allow maximum sales.
In many ways, this conflict is the same as any price negotiation between supplier and retailer, where each side uses its leverage to get the best deal. It's even the same thing, fundamentally, as the negotiation that just took place in my apartment building between our co-op and its building staff. The staff's union wanted its workers to get a raise; our co-op wanted to keep rates more or less the same, otherwise it would need to raise our monthly maintenance. We received a notice that this negotiation was taking place, and that if an agreement couldn't be reached, there would be a strike.
Really, the issue was between the union and the Board, not between the tenants and the staff. We'd go downstairs and commiserate with the super and handymen, find out how things were going. We were slightly on the side of the Board, since we didn't want our monthly costs to go up, but we certainly didn't begrudge the workers the chance to make a decent living. The workers wanted to run the building efficiently and well, but didn't want to undervalue themselves.
They didn't end up striking--the sides sat down and hashed out a deal before it started to get nasty.
This scenario is the basis for what's going on with Amazon and Hachette now, and what happened between B&N and S&S. it's not fundamentally more nefarious than that. The tactics are visible, however, and seem heavy-handed in both cases--but also effective. It's business, and business isn't necessarily sweet. And in both cases, I think the optics were particularly bad for the retailer because it LOOKS like Amazon and B and N are punishing specific authors for no good reason, when what they are actually doing is using the authors and their books as bargaining chips against their publishers.
There's not an obvious outcome here, except that at some point the sides will make a deal and the Hachette Slowdown will end. And unfortunately it looks like, whatever the result, neither the reader nor the author will win in the end.
Last night, my wife and I went to see The Heir Apparent, an adaptation by David Ives of the 18th Century French farce by Jean-Francois Regnard. It’s hysterically funny, consistently entertaining, and in verse. One of the more interesting aspects is that Ives sprinkled in an awful lot of contemporary references and even slang within the formal structure of the play.
This led to a conversation over dinner about historical fiction and the use of colloquial language. I feel like I’ve been talking about this quite a bit with clients and potential clients, since a) I have a large number of novels that take place across history; b) It’s one of the trickier aspects of historical fiction to get right; and c) there are several ways to do it.
When writing historical fiction, there is a tendency to use the colloquial of the time, particularly in conversation. The thought is that it adds authenticity and credibility to the story. The thing is, most of the time it creates what we call a “Forsoothly” tone. It feels forced and choppy, particularly when overdone, and often undermines the whole purpose of the device—to take the reader to a different time and place. Instead many times it actually takes the reader OUT of the story, particularly when it feels like a parody or homage rather than an authentic story of the time. (Obviously there are counterexamples, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.)
When I talk to clients and other writers about this, my advice most of the time is for them to write in what I call “Flat contemporary.” That’s a style that purposely largely eschews the colloquial of BOTH the 21st Century and the period being rendered. It gets the point across that we are in a different time through descriptions of dress and movement and plot, rather than through “fancy talk,” as one of my clients put it. It doesn’t mean that conversation needs to be vague or non-descriptive—just not flowery. And sprinkling in the language of the time, with authentic vocabulary, then enhances the story rather than detracts from it. It’s an incredibly tricky line to walk (in the same way, incidentally, that writing contemporary dialect of any kind can be), and one that requires great restraint and discipline in order to succeed. And when it does, it’s magical.
Josh Getzler (and Danielle Burby)
So when I got back from vacation this past week, I found out that in my absence, the Marvelous HSG Associate Danielle had gone through several hundred queries, organized the Inbox, and interviewed a slew of intern candidates. She was quite pleased with her productivity (and with good reason), until she turned around two days later to find 130 queries in the To Be Read folder (the result of my clearing out my own inbox of ten days’ worth of correspondence).
But as we talked about what she'd been doing, she started to bring up trends in communications from folks we are dealing with—first-time querying authors, writers from whom we requested partial or full manuscripts to evaluate, and candidates for internships. We realized that we could do us both a service by talking about some dos and don’ts of the process. Some of these are instinctive (or ought to be) and some are the results of the quirks of the process. Danielle wrote down her most common points, and I’m going to comment occasionally.
Please realize, if you are reading this (um, which you are), that in exactly zero of these cases are we talking about one particular person. All of these are common points. If you find yourself nodding along, though, in the rueful realization that you’ve violated some of them…well good, now you know. Finally, the typical caveat: These are our particular feelings. Other agents may feel differently. I suspect, however, that we are not outliers at all.
OK, so here we go:
Make sure to state the genre of the book and the intended audience. (JG: “This is a Middle-grade historical mystery for girls.” Not “This is a sweeping epic that has such a broad audience that everyone from 9 to 90 will appreciate my tale of a wizard and his dwarf rabbit. It’s based on a true story.”)
Follow our guidelines--they are clearly stated on the website. (JG: This means email only, FIRST five pages (not the BEST five), and certain genres need not bother.)
Send queries from your own email address/don't have someone else send queries on your behalf. (JG: We get a TON of emails from a KELLOGSVC email address. They may do fine work, but they keep sending me queries for picture books, which I basically don’t represent. So their research isn’t up to date, and they are carpet-bombing the agency population.)
If you're in the process of self-publishing or submitting to indie publishers, don't query us.
Don't query us until you have a completed manuscript to share. (JG: This is HUGE, and, for the most part, folks are pretty good about it. We get the “almost done” queries more often when we meet authors in person at conferences.)
Response time is eight weeks. Do not check in before that time unless you've received an offer of representation. (JG: And this is a bottleneck zone for us, and we often are not done after 8 weeks, as hard as we try. After that point, though, it is fine to follow up. Really! But not daily, and please do understand that there are times that we have a bunch of client manuscripts that come in, and they need to jump the line. The exception is…)
Do not accept an offer of representation without alerting us and giving us a deadline to respond by. That's unprofessional. (JG…The exception is when you have an offer. Then we will make every effort to read right away. That way if we do like it, we can talk to you about the project and give you a real chance to think about your options (and choose us J). I lost a project just last week partly because I didn’t in fact read it in sufficient time, and the author (justifiably) went with the other agent rather than give me more time. I will kick myself for my own inefficiency when that book sells.)
Don't self-publish your book while we have your materials and you're waiting for our response.
Do reply to emails professionally and with a friendly tone. If we reject your manuscript, responding in anger will burn bridges. You may want to send us your next project so think of the impression you've left us with. (JG: Here’s the thing: we all talk to each other. And we all have that special group of colleagues all over the industry whom we will pass on particularly nasty responses with a “Wow, SOMEONE needs a hug.” And most of the time, we find that if a writer has written a nasty or snide response to us, he or she will have done so to other agents, and we’ll get a knowing response back from our friends.)
If we take the time to give you editorial feedback, even if it's in a rejection, it's polite to respond with at least a thank you. (JG: Not everything works. Sometimes we will give suggestions and spend time with you, and ultimately just not be able to pull the trigger. Often that will mean if we see something else from you down the road, we’ll be predisposed to like it. But not if you sulk.)
(JG: This is a HUGE mistake for a candidate!!! ENORMOUS!!) Don't mention your dreams of becoming a writer. This is a difficult industry to break into and we only take interns who actually have a goal of working in publishing. Wanting to make connections for your future writing career doesn't count.
Always send a thank you email and/or card after an internship interview and after you've completed our internship program. If you don't, we will take note. (JG: EVERY time I have lunch or a drink with an editor, the first thing I do when I get back to the office is shoot off a thank you email. It takes three minutes. We don’t need fancy stationary. But acknowledging that we met is good business, and it makes us think of you as appropriate and professional. This is, unfortunately, a common issue.)
We very clearly state in all intern postings that the email address to send applications to is firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a test. If you do any research on HSG at all you can figure out who that email address belongs to. If you send an email to that address and write To Whom It May Concern (or any variation of that), it shows that you haven't done your research on the company. (JG: And you really ought to know that you’d want to work for us if you apply to work for us. You should know what we do, you should know that if you are in love with high-tech fantasy picture books you’re likely in the wrong place, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, you should know that the D in Dburby is Danielle, and not Dave or Diane or To Whom It May Concern.)
There you have it. Hope this was helpful!
So after the endless winter, with months of parkas and gloves and boots and depressing dreariness, it's spring break. We go away for Passover each year, which makes sense since my wife and daughters are in a Jewish school and this coincides with spring break. The Boy, in his secular high school, just gets to miss some time (which does not upset him, even though he is schlepping all of his schoolbooks and papers with him, and is going to need to communicate with his somewhat cranky-about-this teachers by email. They are particularly cranky, since his March and April basically consisted of two weeks of his own spring break; a week of dress rehearsals for his musical, where he missed considerable time getting ready to bring down the house in Drowsy Chaperone; and now this.).
We are all pretty beat. Amanda's been finishing grading 104 exams and first drafts of term papers (all of which seem to be about Hatshepsut's sexuality and the Six Day War, albeit not in the SAME paper). My work's been busy and intense, with lots going on and manuscripts pouring in both from new clients and more established authors. We're putting the finishing touches on five new deals, some of which are more complicated than they have any right to be. It's never boring, and it's relentless.
So when we decided to take the family, Getzler-side, to Costa Rica, it became a Holy Grail. "Just two more weeks till Costa Rica," we said, sitting down to dinner at 10 PM. Again. "It's going to be quiet in Costa Rica," we said as the girls yelled at us that something wasn't Fair. Again. "We'll be able to sit and relax in Costa Rica we said as we sat next to each other yesterday afternoon, Amanda finishing her last paper-grading and me going through the third draft of a slightly unusual agreement and loading the sixth manuscript into the Kindle.
And as I sit on the airplane, two hours from San Jose, the tension is already melting away. Part of it is the knowledge that we are at last out of town. But the other part of it is that, while they are in the midst of the hell that is tween-and-teen-dom, our children are, fundamentally, good kids. And while being 10, 11, and almost 15 makes them sullen and grouchy and argumentative (SOMETIMES, my wife is making me add, punching me), it also makes them a hell of a lot easier to travel with.
And it's not just the fact that they are able to find their way to the bathroom and can ask for sodas all by themselves (which is marvelous!), and don't need to hear Green Eggs and Ham four hundred times consecutively so they don't scream (happened!). It's also the way they go about planning the trip, and what they are going to take with them.
Yes sure, part of the packing involved choosing cute outfits and accessories (particularly for the girls--Joe would be content to wear the same Green Lantern t-shirt all the time, including for seder), and downloading inexplicable albums onto their devices. (Sweeney Todd? Queen's Greatest Hits? One Dir--OK, THAT one makes sense.) But part of it involved the discussion surrounding, and the choosing of, Vacation Reading. In addition to the manuscripts--which are among the reasons I love my job, and are the best kinds of work a person could have--I promised middle daughter JJ that I'd finally read A Fault in our Stars this vacation, so she and I could be Movie Buddies together when the film comes out. As I was taking it off the shelf to put it into my suitcase, The Boy saw and actually showed interest in something unrelated to histories of film studios or Dave Barry collections and said "Oh man, I've been wanting to read that. If you take it, give it to me when you are done."
The ten year-old has it easy. She's bringing Harry 5, which will last the vacation. Amanda the history teacher has a fun take on British history called 1000 Years of Annoying the French, and Amanda the Wife of the Agent is going to take breaks by reading Blue Sea Burning, the final installment of The Chronicles of Egg series by my incredibly talented client Geoff Rodkey. My mother has The Goldfinch. My father, a bunch of magazines and whatever I download for him once we get there...
There are other bits of reading material in our suitcases too, along with bathing suits and running shorts--middle grade novels involving cupcakes and Woody Allen's Side Effects, The New Yorker and Bop and Vanity Fair and Seventeen and Entertainment Weekly. And Amanda stole the Sky Mall. We are on vacation.
I's Tuesday night, and I'm waiting for my 10 year old daughter to finish her homework so we can watch the NCAA women's basketball championship game between UConn and Notre Dame. Both teams are undefeated, having gone a combined 68-0 this year. Neither team has lost in more a calendar year--and each team's last loss was to the other. The players don't like each other much. The coaches don't either. It stands to be a brilliant game.
So as I was sitting around waiting to start watching, I decided to check my Twitter feed.
And now I'm depressed. Here's what the responses are to ESPN's tweet of
Both UConn and Notre Dame have not lost in more than a calendar year (!!). And each team's last loss was to the other. Talk about a RIVALRY.
Here are the respoonses:
@SportsCenter lebrons a pussy tho.
@SportsCenter i send NUDES to my new FOLLOWERS FAV if you want them
@SportsCenter who cares honestly?
@SportsCenter nobody cares about womens basketball
@SportsCenter Sound fraud but it's not
@SportsCenter yet again, a cooking and cleaning national championship needs to be on HGTV, not ESPN
@SportsCenter no one gives a fuk
@SportsCenter just stop
@SportsCenter Too bad IDGAF
@SportsCenter that's crazy shit
@SportsCenter Who watches women's basketball? 100 people?
@SportsCenter ya you would think, but it's not cuz it's women's basketball
That’s the first THIRTEEN responses. And it starts young (my daughter’s friends scorn her Liberty tickets from FIFTH grade, even though she can take most of them in a game of 1 on 1.) Just pathetic.
And then I think about the terrific lunch I had today with a young editor—a guy—who’s building a list. He was talking about the frustration he feels when he receives “guy books” because he’s the new young male editor, despite the fact that he is uninterested in pigeonholing himself as the bro-diter (not his term, but it works). I talked about the fact that I say over and over that I am looking for badass women and strong girls and historical fiction, but it’s taken a long time for that to stick.
Fundamentally, we live in a gendered society with particular expectations and assumptions about us. That’s nothing new. But there are times that I sit in my apartment in Manhattan, with my highly empowered daughters and my son who’s as likely to wear his Liberty shirt to school as his Punisher hoodie, and I forget what a long, long way we have to go. And unfortunately, all I need to do is look at Twitter before arguably the best athletic contest—men or women—of the year, and I’m reminded of the distance we need to bridge before we can just look at each other as people, with talent and skill and game. I think the game is about to start. And I hope Jakobee and Bigg Poppa give it a try.
I thought that perhaps I would try to prank my readers today. (One thought I had was to come out of the closet...as Authoress. But I can't do that, and Ms. A would be mad at me.) But I can't do an earnest publishing advice column, and my kids are not being overly funny today. So instead, I give you three of my favorite representations of April 1:
Happy April Fool's Day
Recently, Danielle and I were discussing a number of queries we had received where the setup and buildup were outstanding, the manuscript was rolling along, we were wondering “hmm, I wonder how this will play out,” and then…
BANG—Conspiracy of Templars!
BANG—The evil bully is actually an alien!!
BANG—The GOVERNMENT is out to get the 12 year old!
(No, this is not about any specific query, but a type. If you think this is about YOUR query, read on, then revise!)
OK, so here’s the thing: If you are writing a big international thriller, a YA adventure with Save-the-world written all over it, or epic fantasy, then fine. Go ahead with the Uncle Who’s Really a Triple Agent from the 28th Century.
But the books we were reading where this was happening were smaller in scope; mysteries and domestic dramas and YA novels that were, in some fundamental ways, cozier than that. It’s not necessary for a kid to find enough nitroglycerine to destroy the world three times over in the neighbor’s garage; he can find a stash of porn or a couple of kilos of coke. The bad apple down the block could have issues smaller than being three light years from the planet Xenon.
My point is pretty basic. Most novels have a built-in scope, where the reader is nodding along and where the suspension of disbelief is reasonable. When a writer, for reasons of ambition or because it seems cool, or in order to work out a tricky plot point, goes beyond scope, it is jarring. Eyes roll. We ask “Why????” We don’t want to read further, or we ask the author to walk it back.
Sometimes the writer will make a reasonable point: “We always hear that books need to be BIG in order to ‘make an impact in the market,’ and that’s what I was trying to do.” OK, fair enough. But almost all the time, the issue is far less about the true Bigness of the story and more about trying to compensate for a plot deficit.
And also understand, I’m not saying don’t be ambitious. I don’t want only tidy dramas in small towns or, you know, Good Expectations. But when you are thinking “OK, what if the dog can fly?” PLEASE be sure that you set it up that the spaniel drank a whole mess of magical non-poisonous jet fuel for dinner.
As I wandered past the ever-diligent Danielle's desk this afternoon, I saw her lean back and shake her head.
"This is impossible," she said. "I know I need to stop asking for partials, but I don't want to miss any, and I could read for a month and never catch up."
Danielle's issue is a common one in the literary agent's world, and reflects one of the real conundra in trying to evaluate manuscripts. You NEVER want to miss a Great One, and so the temptation is that every time you come across a query with potential, you want to ask to read more. The problem is that, well, you then need to find the time to go through these partials.
It's a problem because these are neither the M and Ms of initial queries, where we read a handful at a time; nor are they the meals of full manuscripts, where we invest a great deal of time and energy to satisfy ourselves. So they end up in the queue, like the large slices of pie in a diner's rotating display, where we really want to eat them, but where they are too big for a snack and too small for a meal. But we know, in our hearts, that they can be delicious.
This post is related to my last one, which was about why agents sometimes ask potential clients to edit their material before taking them on; and Jeff's about the teamwork involved in publishing a book. As with Jeff's, this one deals with traditional publishing issues, and also with novels for that matter. Many of the things I talk about here are transferable to indies, but not all. I mean, all manuscripts ought to be clean before they go out into the world. How we get there, and who's paying for it, can be different in independent publishing circumstances.
So I've taken you on as a client, which means that you've stuck the landing on your draft, and I'm ready to work with you to send your baby out to publishers. Almost certainly, we will have a conversation that goes like this:
Me: So I think you need to go through your manuscript one more time and fix the section where the girl is exposed as the spy. It's almost there, but not quite, and I think you need to add a couple of sentences here or there beforehand that kind of seeds the idea in the reader's head that this is happening.
Author: I don't get it. I've been editing this (bad word)ing manuscipt for three years, and for you alone for nine months. Won't the editor get it? If they like the idea of the book, won't they take it on and, you know, edit it? That is their job title, you know. (Eye roll, shoulder shrug, like my eleven year old daughter.)
OK, so here's the thing. I get it. I understand the issue. And if you were, say, Jeff, and were on book 97, and had an editor who has worked with you for ten years like Shannon, then you can submit a book before it's completely clean. It's also likely that a) you have a contract already, and b) you've proven already that you are capable of following your editor's directions and fixing things that are almost there when you send in your draft.
But if you are most clients, then you are a debut author. You are still proving yourself at every freaking level. You had to stick the landing to get an agent, and you need to be even BETTER, even CLEANER: perfect, in fact, in order to get an offer from a publisher when I send it in. Here's the fact of it: Writers are in very large supply. You know this--if you are reading this blog you are literate in Publishing and likely understand many aspects of the business. Editors are swamped with manuscripts, all of which have stuck their landings while been vetted by agents and have gone through many additional drafts after being taken on (like yours). If you want yours to stand out, to make it through, to be undeniable, you have to, absolutely MUST, dot every I and cross every T. You have to go through that manuscript another time and another, answer all the questions, so that when the third sales rep during Editorial Board asks the editor "So, can we tell beforehand that the girl is the spy?" the editor can say "only if you really pay attention." There is no time or effort available if the answer is "well, not yet, but maybe she will fix it in editorial, but I don't know if she can."
When I was in high school, my college advisor gave me the following advice about my application essay: "Think of it this way: The college admissions guy has been reading applications for six hours. He's sitting at his kitchen table, and it's ten o'clock at night. There is a cold Heineken in the fridge, which he has promised himself as a reward when he finished the pile in front of him. Your application is the bottom of the pile--the only thing that stands between him and his Heineken. If you want him to spend more than ten seconds on it before opening that fridge, you fucking BETTER be perfect."
Editors, in one way or another (sometimes literally) are waiting for their Heinekens. If your manuscript is clean, undeniable, you just might get her to step away from the fridge.
Today my topic is R&R, which I've heard standing for several different things in the publishing world, and none would be either restful or relaxing. I've heard Rewrite and Resubmit, Rewrite and Reread, Rewrite and Revise...several different versions. But it means this: There are times when agents get manuscripts that we think are terrific...mostly. But there are still issues. Sometimes the writing is great but the plot doesn't move fast enough. Sometimes the setup is great but the payoff doesn't work as well (we call it "sticking the landing"). Sometimes we simply know that there is a great story with good writing stuck inside bad organization.
Whatever it is, we know that as is, we couldn't sell it. And we know that it's going to take a bit of heavy lifting in order to get the manuscript into shape to submit to publishers, who want manuscripts to be VERY tight and clean.
And what we DON'T know, is if the author can do it. We have no experience with the author; we don't know whether he or she can take direction or mesh with our editorial style and demands. We don't know, at its base, whether the manuscript we will get back after an editorial letter and phone call is going to progress sufficiently that we will be confident that it will sell. (And look, it's hard out there--there are plenty of clients who DO do all of this and still have a hard time clearing the hurdles to offer, contract, and publication.)
So we get part of the way there. We offer comments. A letter, sometimes a phone call. Sometimes several, and follow-ups if we need to clarify. We start to develop a rapport with the author. But we can't offer representation until the revision is done (occasionally more than one revision), and we know that it is headed inexorably toward Ready. There have been any number of times where the revision has gone in the wrong direction and we reluctantly stand aside and hope that our comments were constructive. And there have also been, certainly, a bunch of authors who have done it and we have been able to offer representation and start on the road to publication together.
One thing to know, though, if you are a writer and reading this and wonder: If we offer you, the IDEA is to end up offering you representation. We are willing to give you our time, which is one of our most precious commodities, and guide you in a way that we think, if we were to represent you, that we could sell you. We want you to stick your landing like Kerry F'n Strug. Is it a hedge? Of course it is. We DON'T know you, don't know your resilience or capability beyond the not-quite-ready manuscript we've read. We make a huge commitment to each author we take on, and we want to be sure that we will have the best chance for success.
So if you send us a query, get a response of "we're reading and enjoying your book but think there's still more to be done--do you have time to chat about some possible changes?" and then hear that we'll be happy to look at another draft and see whether the book will be right for us to submit, then you should feel heartened. Take a deep breath, straighten your shoulders, run down toward the vault, and stick that landing.
I was talking with my fabulous assistant Danielle this afternoon (it’s her one-year anniversary today, so congratulate her on social media!), and we were discussing the way we negotiate contracts. It came up that often, particularly when only one publisher has been looking at a book, we negotiate from a position of weakness, and often can’t retain rights or control the level of the advance we get for the particular project. I decided to tell her my favorite negotiation story, which would have been genius if it hadn’t happened to me, and it explains the value of leverage.
The story has to do with when, in my Past Life, I was working on moving the minor league baseball team I’d owned from upstate New York down to Staten Island. We had to make a deal with the Yankees in order for them to approve the move, and the cost to us was almost half the franchise. We talked with Hal Steinbrenner, then not quite 30 and still learning the trade from his still-very-active father, The Boss, and he asked my father and me to come up with a price that would be fair, but, as he put it “not market value.” (There was no way to negotiate with anyone else, as the Yankees controlled the territory of Staten Island exclusively. And they didn’t really care whether they moved our team to Staten Island or some other, which they could potentially control as well. So they held all the cards in the negotiation, and knew it.)
My father and I worked for two weeks on an appropriate number to ask for, running every number we could think of. Then cutting it in half. Finally, the day arrived for the phone call.
Understand, the Alex Duffy Fairgrounds in Watertown, New York, does not contain luxurious Executive Offices. Our space was a cinderblock room near the parking lot, approximately eight feet wide by 15 feet long. Our general manager and I each had a desk in it, and he chain-smoked. It was a pleasure, particularly in the middle of winter, when opening a door for ventilation would result in immediate frostbite. That day, however, it was approximately a million degrees, with my wife and both parents cramming into the office with the GM and me. A swarm of flies left over from the previous week’s Jefferson County Fair joined us, still hanging out because it wasn’t crowded enough. The phone rang and it was Hal.
There were no pleasantries.
“So, what’s the word?”
I took a breath, gave a short explanation, and named the number my father and I had massaged for two weeks. There wasn’t even a pause.
“You don’t want me to take that number to George.”
It was masterful. I could have said a million dollars or a buck and a half, and the answer would have been the same: “You don’t want me to take that to George.” Apparently, I turned extremely white. I asked him to hold, put my hand over the phone, and said “He says we don’t want to him to take that to George.”
As my father said “Ask him what he wants,” our GM spoke for the only time during the meeting.
“Get Yankee tickets. Behind the dugout.”
Which is how I sold half my team for a fraction of its value, but watched the New York Yankees win three World Series from two rows behind Mayor Giuliani.
Note From Josh: This week I'll be talking cats in cozies on Rocco LoTempio's blog http://catsbooksmorecats.blogspot.com/. So I decided to give my tireless, talented assistant Danielle the chance to step in and make her Dead Guy debut. And those of you expecting the musings of a semi-exhausted father of three will be in for a surpise--and a LOT of fun. See you next week. JG
I have a confession to make: I tried online dating. (This is book related, I promise!) While the part of me that cares about narrative squirms at the idea of romance starting on a website, the part of me that lives in NYC understands how impossible it is to actually meet someone in the chaos that is Manhattan. So, awhile back, I bit the bullet and set up a profile. And…it wasn’t terrible. But that’s a story for another day.
As a bona fide fiction addict, I developed a highly scientific method for evaluating the men who sent me messages. Their future with me rested on one thing and one thing only. What did they list as their favorite books? (Well, if I’m being honest, first I looked at their pictures and then their life goals, but taste in novels was a close third.)
Again, scientifically, I identified six different groups of men: The ones who never read; the ones who only read nonfiction; the ones who listed books that they’d studied in high school, but had probably never actually read; the pretentious ones; the ones with a nice mix of classics and current books (aka the only ones worth responding to); and, finally, a very perplexing group of confused men who probably thought they were being impressive. This post is a PSA of sorts to those poor unfortunate souls who, for the good of the world, must be stopped.
The first time I read a profile in which Lolita was listed as the guy’s favorite book, I smirked a bit, shook my head, and moved on to the next person. But then it happened again. And again. And again. And again. Before long, I realized a trend was forming. After reading what probably amounted to hundreds of profiles, two books stuck out as the most frequently listed titles. The first was The Great Gatsby, which made sense because the movie had just come out. The second was Lolita. That choice remains a real head scratcher. (If the guy is a doctoral candidate writing his dissertation on Nabokov, I guess I can give him a pass. Although, to be honest, I’ll still question his taste in literature.)
Everything you put on your online dating profile is an advertisement of yourself to the person you’re hoping to attract. Each choice says something specific. My own list of favorite titles was carefully curated to attract the kind of men I was looking for. I mentioned Game of Thrones and emphasized my undying love for Tyrion, for example. I love Tyrion, which means I root for an underdog and choose brains over brawn. See what I did there? Strategy.
So what exactly is the strategy behind listing Lolita as a favorite book on an online dating profile? Why have countless men decided that this is a novel that will attract women? I genuinely want to know. Have these guys ever actually read Lolita? I almost hope the answer is no. If they have, what about it is supposed to appeal? It makes no sense on pretty much every level. The content speaks for itself—do you want me to think about Humbert Humbert when I look at your picture? Am I supposed to interpret something about your preferences? (That’s as far as I’m going to take that thought, I promise!) Beyond that, if Russian authors are suddenly the must-read sexy choice, you could go with Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. What about Proust? Swann in Love is an excellent alternative. I can only speak for myself here, but it doesn’t get much less romantic than Lolita.
And, really, why limit yourself to the Russians? Although I guess there are minefields in pretty much every country and literary movement. It’s probably true that no author will ever be completely safe to claim as your favorite. For example, I’m not a Hemmingway fan so I’ll pretty much discount anyone who lists him. If you list Jane Austen, for better or worse, I’ll suspect you of pandering. If you mention Jack Kerouac—or any of the Beats—I’ll assume that you’re pretentious. So I guess there is something to be said for just going all out and claiming a book that just unapologetically and unabashedly goes for it. I mean, if you’re going for morally questionable or, you know, reprehensible, Lolita is probably the best option.
However, if you or anyone you know genuinely wants to meet someone literate and is considering listing Lolita on an online dating profile, please, I beg of you, take a step back from the ledge and think this one through. There is a vast world of amazing literature to choose from. Make the right choice. Stand out from the crowd of terribly misguided people who wrongly believe that they’re making an attractive statement. You have other options!
Of course, all of this from the girl who makes a point of listing Virginia Woolf as her favorite author because anyone she dates will play second fiddle to Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.
I guess it could be worse; at least they’re not worshipping Fifty Shades of Grey.
So the snow is falling, the wind is blowing, the kids got out early, and I have seventeen manuscripts to read (plus one more I just asked for despite myself. Sue me, it's a Tudor thriller, with an Abbey.)
As I settle in with the Kindle and a glass of Uncomplicated Red (and no, Everyone I'm Supposed To Be Reading, I'm not putting your ms aside for the Tudor Abbey...), I leave you with a photo of Chelsea out my office window, when New York City is just so beautiful.
So we’ve been back from Winter break for a couple of weeks now, and it’s given me time to think about the reading I did on vacation. I read a number of manuscripts, some from clients and some requested projects from folks we’ve been considering, trying , Sisyphus-like, to make a dent in the “to-read” queue.
Much of what I read fell, one way or another, into Dark Young Adult for Girls. Some had elements of science fiction, some were historical, some were straight-ahead contemporary. But I found myself noticing a trend which, as it came up again and again, I felt warranted public comment.
The trend was the situation where the lead girl, who’s been traumatized by a particular illness, life circumstance, or by just being a teenager, is paired with the Sidekick Who Can Help, and then spends half the book misunderstanding the SWCH’s motivations (almost willfully), thus slowing down Progress until it’s almost too late.
OK fine, so this is the setup for buddy movies, rom-coms, and stories forever. But I’m seeing two things going on now. The first is that it seems to be taking longer—too long—for the Protagonist to get on board. It’s becoming a primary plot point (possibly designed to try to show the protag’s depth and personality). The Second is that it feels like a crutch, like the authors have manufactured conflict because they are not confident enough in the basic plot. And that’s ironic, because in each case over the break (and there were more than five of them), the overarching plot was fine—terrific, often—and the character-conflict served only as a distraction. The plots were complicated enough without unnecessary misunderstandings. I wanted to say to these girls “STOP IT! JUST STOP IT! (S)he can HELP you. (S)he’s proved loyalty to you , like, a hundred times. Get over yourself and get on with solving the murder/saving the world/finding the boyfriend/protecting the treasure!”
I guess my point to writers is this: Unless your story DEPENDS on conflict between a mistrustful protagonist and a secondary character who’s very different from the protagonist, don’t overplay this plot point. It served to make the protagonists less likable—I grew annoyed with their rigidity and unwillingness to forgive or get with the program. Have faith in your plot, and don’t get bogged down in petty bickering. Sure tension between characters (particularly if they are potential love interests) is useful and important. But resolve it and allow for cooperation before the reader wants to smack your protagonist.
I hope that’s helpful. It is not saying that everyone needs to be pliant. Just that it’s a plot point that ought to be resolved in time for the Team to work smoothly and for the people to trust each other.
So we’re on vacation in Florida, and my son Joe, who’s pinch hit for me before, told me as we took a walk that he’d like to write the year-end post. Since I really had written my Last-of-year post last week, I figured it would be OK. So this is where my always-unique freshman son is on December 31. I hope we all succeed in our hopes and dreams for 2014, and that our expectations are realistic. Happy New Year, everyone!
On the Cusp of the New Year
By Joe Newman-Getzler
Well, folks, in mere hours 2013 can be officially known as “last year” and 2014 will be upon us. I have to say, 2013 was a very mixed year, and at times like this I like to look back at the old year and think of the positive things in my life. After all, I’m an optimist, and who likes thinking of the lowlights when we can celebrate the highlights? In the previous year, I:
So, you might be wondering: what are you going to resolve for the new year, and, for that matter, what am I going to resolve? Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in making huge, lifestyle-changing resolutions for the new year. I fear that too often I’ll forget them and resort to old habits. For instance: you can’t just go out and say, “I’ll never argue with my sisters again.” You could never live up to that. It’s easier to say, “I’ll try harder not to argue with my sisters.” And don’t set huge goals like, “As soon I can, I’ll lose 50 pounds!” Start with 5, then 10, then 15, and move up. It’s easier to receive gradual gratification than immediate. So my new year’s resolutions are relatively small. They aren’t huge lifestyle changes, just little things I’d like to do or improve on.
You see? All of these goals aren’t impossible to reach. No, I can’t do them all at once, but that’s what so many people don’t understand about new year’s resolutions. They think the moment the clock strikes midnight, their goals must be set into action and they can never go back. This isn’t realistic! It will make them feel pressured to meet the expectations immediately, and when they forget or change their minds, they’ll feel immensely unsatisfied and guilty. Be gradual, and set realistic expectations. Good things come to those who wait.
In closing, let me wish everyone, on behalf of my dad and the folks here at Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room, a happy and safe new year. Let’s hope you all set good goals and achieve all of them. Bonan Novjaron!
I always write my last Dead Guy post of the year from Florida, where my family spends winter break with my in-laws. As I look back on these past few years on the blog, I see that sometimes these posts are a recap of the past year's ups and downs; or a somewhat statistical recapitulation of the year's deals and new clients. This year, given the date, I want to talk briefly about what I've learned from the most important newcomer of 2013: Pope Francis.
I've followed the Pope from the sidelines as a kind of interested spectator--as a Jew my immediate skin in the game is limited. But the articles and analyses about his election and first months as Pontiff have been irresistible and fascinating.
And most importantly, in a year in America infused with cynicism and ugliness, with civility and kindness and person-to-person respect taking blow after blow, the Pope's very public repudiation of this breakdown in kindness has been a refreshing counterbalance. It was the perfect time for him to come in, at a seeming nadir, to remind not only his own flock what the spirit of their religion might be about; but also to remind us all--Catholic, Jew, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, humanist, whatever--that kindness, humility, and respect for everyone will make this world a better place.
Make no mistake: the Pope isn't going to fix Congress or likely stop the bloodshed in Syria one the Central African Republic or end despair in Greece or end the brinksmanship in the South China Sea. But the overwhelmingly positive reaction by the millions of people he influences indicates a degree of weariness toward the negative, polarizing rhetoric that bombards our lives every day. And that is something to grasp, and is a cause for optimism at the end of this year.
Merry Christmas to my friends who are celebrating, and Happy New Year to everyone. See you in 2014!
For the last three months, I’ve had the fascinating and unique opportunity to watch something very unusual: I watched something Go Viral.
It started when my officemate and client Anthony Weintraub came in one day and said “You know that this year Thanksgiving and Chanukah overlap for the only time in any of our lifetimes?” I said I had heard, and what of it.
“(His 9 year old son) Asher thought of something last night, and we may try to see how it goes. He thought that it would look cool to make a menorah in the shape of a turkey. He wants to call it a Menurkey. (You see where this is going…) We told him to design one, and he did. You think it could sell?”
That started a journey for Anthony, his wife (and also our officemate) Caroline, Asher and their younger son Emmanuel. Because as soon as they put the Menurkey on Kickstarter (another idea of Asher’s, along with giving a percentage of the revenue to charity), their project took off. They thought they would struggle to raise their initial $18,000 to produce a few hundred Menurkeys. They raised it in a couple of days. They went up to $25,000, then $45,000. And the media began to notice. Thanksgivukkah started to become a Thing, and the Menurkey became its symbol. Anthony and Caroline started to struggle to keep up with orders, tried to find new vendors. They were on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and on the hipster Grid in New York Magazine. The Today Show. The Food Network. On and On. Anthony began to look tired. The rest of his work (he and Caroline are filmmakers and app developers) started to take a back seat to the Menurkey. Interns who thought they were going to work on a Pilot started to create spreadsheets to track Menurkey sales.
Then Anthony got a call from the Jewish Museum looking to be the exclusive New York retailer, with initial orders of several thousand. He just shook his head. The Menurkey was viral. It was in hundreds of newspapers and posted about on websites. When the holiday finally arrived, Instagram’s top-posted feed was devoted to pictures of lit Menurkeys.
Then came the apotheosis of the Menurkey. I walked into the office one day last week and found Anthony shaking his head.
“We just heard from the White House. Guess who’s going to President Obama’s Holiday Party?”
My point in telling this story, beside the fact that it was REALLY COOL to sit there and watch this unfold, to actually see something become part of the zeitgeist in front of me, is that it was absolutely impossible to predict. Because that is what Going Viral is. I hear authors and publishers talk and write all the time about setting out to go viral; to try to create something that will be as popular as the Menurkey. But the thing is, the Menurkey worked precisely because it wasn’t calculated, and it would not have worked if all the elements hadn’t been there—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event. That combines two uniquely family-oriented holidays. That had a funny name. And involved a cute symbol. That was created by a nine year old boy! (It would NEVER have gone viral had Anthony created it—it just wouldn’t have been such a good story that the Today show and the Journal both would have wanted to interview Anthony. But Asher, with his nine-year-old baffled pose, was irresistible. And he was giving a percentage to charity.)
This morning we were sitting in the office, a few boxes of returned Menurkeys scattered around (hey, you can’t please everyone!!). Anthony was back from Washington; Asher, back in fourth grade. We were rehashing their last three months. Anthony said that had they planned better they might have sold more Menurkeys. I disagreed. I believe that sometimes there IS magic, that you hit something perfectly, that there is a wave that you need to ride and just hang on and enjoy the rush, and simply enjoy it and appreciate it. If Anthony had started planning six months before, there was just as much of a chance that our office would have been overrun by plaster menorahs, beaks out and pristine. Instead it seems to me that they sold exactly as many as they ought to have sold. And got to meet the President.
Baker's Dozen 2013 Report
Today was the annual Baker's Dozen Auction, an online contest run by children's book blogger extraordinaire (and, full disclosure, awesome HSG client) Authoress.
For several weeks, Ms. A and her partner in crime Jodi (INCARNATE) Meadows go through a slew of submissions consisting of a tagline and the first 250 words of an unpublished manuscript. They choose 60 submissions, post them on Authoress's blog--Miss Snark's First Victim--and watch the magic happen.
There is magic because Authoress, in her winning yet determined way, has convinced (roped in) 13 agents to evaluate and bid on the exclusive right to consider either parts or all of the most promising of the submissions. That day was today.
This is the third year I've participated in Baker's Dozen, and it's one of the more fun days of my year for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is because over the years the agents have taken to talking some serious smack before and during the auction, both on Twitter and on email (which is BRUTAL. Looking at YOU Brooks Sherman and Lauren MacLeod and Michelle Wolfson).
The second is that it allows us to let our hair down and show the kind of public enthusiasm for manuscripts that we always WANT to show but so rarely get the opportunity to do in public.
I was looking at Facebook this afternoon, and my friend, author M.J. Rose, was asking what the point is of this auction. Isn't publishing a buyer's market? Can't we just take our pick of the best manuscripts anyway? Why are we competing? Rather than recreating it, here's what I said:
M.j. Rose--it's fun as much as anything else. We (the agents) get to talk smack with each other while we give writers an indication as to the kinds of books we like to read (and at times how effective a tag line or first 250 words can be). We spend so much time being the voice of negativity to querying writers that it's nice for us to show even for an hour or two why we got into this in the first place--because we WANT to be excited by a query, by a beginning, and when we are we can get giddy. Every so often one of us finds a client from the auction (the pages are chosen by a panel run by the blogger Authoress in consultation with some writers or editors she knows), and it kind of helps everyone--drives traffic to her site, gets the agents' names out there, that kind of thing...
And there it is. We get happy. We are doing our job and can pull aside the curtain. We can (virtually) hang out with our friends. And who knows? Maybe we'll take one all the way. And wouldn't that be just great? I won auction #56 today. It's a young adult novel set in Paris. We'll see...
This morning I had a fun and instructive Twitter conversation with a whole bunch of people after I read the first page of a query and Tweeted the following (somewhat grouchily)
Writers: There is rarely a reason for "penetrate" in any of its meanings to appear in the first sentence of your manuscript. That is all.
Within a few minutes, more than 20 people had favorite and retweeted the admonition, reaching close to half a million people by the time you count secondary and tertiary viewers. Pretty cool (and I had a couple of brave—and well-published—writers take up the challenge, with admirable results (although “pierce” might have worked as well). So that’s one piece of advice that I hope writers will thank me for this day before Thanksgiving (and the exclusion of which will make me thankful).
Now let me give a couple of additional “don’t”s, which I hope will be as helpful in the beginning of manuscripts and Query letters: (NOTE:This is personal preference with anecdotal backup from my colleagues.)
The first is that we don’t like queries that begin “Imagine you could…(taste fear, see smells, hold your own internal organs, sing flight). Well 12 year old Television Jones can.” We hate that. It goes with the “What if” query (often followed by “The Germans had won World War 2” or “The Cubs won the World Series” or “you could taste fear, etc.”). We understand that it’s a mechanism to separate your query from the other 25 we got today, but ultimately, as I’ve said before on this blog, we really are looking for the basics of genre, time period, who you are, and that you think that we, specifically, would be the right agents for the book.
If you’ve done that, and then I’m reading the beginning, there are a couple of other frequent pitfalls (beside using “penetrate” in your first sentence). The most significant, as everyone who reads this column knows, is starting with weather, particularly bad weather. It’s not that I don’t necessarily want to know what the weather is. I just don’t want three sentences describing it, unless the book is about a meteorologist or a blizzard (at which point short descriptions go a very long way). Similarly overly detailed descriptions of The Important Other Person (and god forbid several people, including unimportant people). Again, there is a difference between giving an initial idea with a truly salient attribute of two and going on about it. You have a novel to describe her. Don’t do it all at once. It’s more interesting over the space of a number of short descriptions.
Finally, and this really wraps the rest of the advice in the bow, is don’t overuse adjectives. I’ve gone on and on about the Modifier Zone, and it holds true as much now as it did a couple of years ago when I talked about it the first time.
OK, so there you go. I hope everyone has a wonderful, happy, safe Thanksgiving (and where appropriate, Chanukah), and back at you next week.
Since the advent of electronic books and the simultaneous contraction of the bricks and mortar bookstore franchises, authors have had to alter their strategies for touring behind their newest books. Last week I attended consecutive tour stops for different books: one for Mad Magazine, held at Barnes and Noble; one for my client Helen Wan’s The Partner Track, held at the office of the law firm Paul, Weiss. The vibes were totally different; as, I suspect, were the practical results.
At Barnes and Noble, five editors of Mad, flogging their latest anniversary volume of reprinted parody, sat in the basement in front of a traditional crowd of author appearance audience members: part fanatics (including my enraptured 14 year old), part random walk-ins (the German couple who stayed for five minutes until they started talking about Spy VS Spy, and part bookstore regulars, who come and listen either in order to learn something or because it’s simply a Place to Go. The editors were great: funny, erudite, and in the case of 92 year-old Al Jaffee, legendary. As a longtime reader of the magazine (never mind the father of a future comic artist—if he has his way), I was thoroughly entertained for 45 minutes, and left with four new (hardcover!) books.
But my overwhelming impression, when I left the bookstore, was one of depression. The Mad guys seemed to know that there was little energy in the room, that they were putting on an incredibly smart, professional presentation, with a Power Point presentation and great stories, with little hope of really moving the dial on sales. And it was a Thursday night with good weather in Manhattan. I can’t imagine what the crowd would have been like on a rainy Tuesday in, say, Kansas City.
The next night I went to Paul, Weiss, and looked in on Helen Wan. Helen’s book is about an associate at a (very Paul, Weiss-like) New York law firm who is coerced into becoming the face of Diversity and Inclusion at the firm after a racist event at the summer outing. Helen is a well-connected lawyer herself, having started at the very firm she was presenting to and now working as an in-house counsel for Time Inc. This appearance was her 31st out of 60 this fall and winter, all at law schools, law firms, and large corporations. She’d launched at Green Light bookstore in Brooklyn, but that was her only store appearance.
When I walked into the offices, I was immediately greeted by a buffet, with a bar in the back of the room and 55 attorneys, each of whom had been given a hardcopy of the book when he or (more typically) she had responded positively to the emailed invitation to the event. Helen was interviewed by a partner, and led a lively and highly interactive chat for 45 minutes. I didn’t need to ask how she’d do in Kansas City because she’d been there the week before, with similar success.
Now look: Helen’s circumstance is VERY, VERY unusual. She has the fortunate combination of experience, connections, and a book that dovetails perfectly with a large professional (and wealthy) audience. But it’s for precisely that reason that her publisher and I decided that the best strategy was to ignore the traditional appearance route and concentrate on this particular strategy: she would be able to promote her first book by trying to capture the most likely audience that would find it interesting, in the most efficient fashion, rather than trying to capture the Browsing market.
And I’ve found in the past several years that this has become the preferred, and often most effective way, for authors to market their books. Sometimes this is via a blog tour (particularly effective when in a genre with a lively online community, like British historical mysteries). In those circumstances an author can find interested readers throughout the country and even the world through the portal of a popular website. Sometimes, particularly in children’s books, this is by visiting schools, where the audience is large, if captive (and sometimes more concerned with preventing cooties than listening to a grown-up talk about a book).
And this is not (before Marilyn Thiele gives me the evil eye over the Dead Guy Internet Tubes) in place of a well-organized bookstore appearance. There are stores and booksellers (ask Jeff Cohen about Cathy Genna sometime) who absolutely GET writers, know their community, and understand well how to put on a successful, enthusiastic event. And there are writers who can command an audience anywhere they travel.
But much of the time, we are looking for ways for authors to segment their market, to put themselves in front of the most people at a time who will buy their book. As the habit of browsing through bookstores decreases and Discoverability becomes a more and more important (if oddly distasteful by its own jargon-y existence) term, we find ourselves thinking outside the box toward law firms, or churches, or knitting circles or (I suspect one day) covens. This is hard work. And it’s almost always the author’s responsibility (the publisher needs to connect the more traditional knots most of the time, though they will typically support a creative approach within reason). But when a debut novelist with a plan and a platform can outdraw more than a century of The Lighter Side of… experience, it is vital for authors (and their agents and editors and publicists) to sit up straight and notice, and learn.
...So I'll ask that you all just look below this post, wish Jeff and his CLOSE PERSONAL friend EJ Copperman a Happy Pub Day, and also Happy Pub Day to all the writers with new books out today. (Special Shout out to Steve Hockensmith, whose Nick & Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab also launches today; and a wistful congrats to Keith Raffel for A Fine and Dangerous Season.)
So I had a ton of great ideas for tonight’s blog.
I thought I could write about the fact that I’ve been thinking that so many of the best books deal with protagonists who go outside their economic class/social status/level of education and need to interact as Other in order to succeed and grow from the beginning of a book to the end.
I thought I could write about the fact that while you can’t count on them anymore, reviews can move the dial in sales (so why are there now something like three pages of poetry reviews every week in PW, but only a page and a half of mysteries?—Sorry Jessy Randall!)
I thought I could write about the question of whether Big Publishers who are setting up digital imprints (or did so and are now seeing their first lists come out) will learn from the more nimble digital-only publishers and start to be more flexible with their seasons (yes I know there are reasons to have Lists, but I have a couple of books which have sold tens of thousands of digital copies before their print editions would even have come out, and I feel like there ought to be room for a few lists per year, particularly as the number of bricks-and-mortar retailers shrinks.)
I thought I could write my annual “don’t send me your NaNoWriMo draft before you NaNoEdMo it in December” post. Consider it written.
I thought I could write a “please Please PLEASE don’t query me on Twitter” post after someone did last night. (That makes most agents INSANE with anger, except during the very specific times we ask for queries there, which is almost never. We really really want your queries, but we want them in particular ways, which are typically found on our websites. And you will almost never see in a Submissions Guidelines paragraph, “But what I really want is for you to tag me on Twitter with “I have a novel I’d like to show you.”)
Finally, I thought I could jump up and down and talk about the fact that SOMEONE is going to make it big SOON with an historical New Adult book, and I want it to be one of MINE, DAMMIT!
Instead, I spent much of my day dealing with a faulty Alternator (which is apparently the part of the car that runs down a battery if it decides to be a jerk and break two hours before the miraculous alternate side of the street spot on 83rd street turns into a pumpkin, and requires triple-A to come and tow it to 54th Street and charge me a LOT of money for a new part I don’t even understand.) It was frustrating and boring and annoying and made me want to tear my hair out. But now I have a new battery and, thank god, a new alternator.
(I’m pretty sure I’ve written on this topic before, but it’s worth a rehash.)
This week, we’ve been going through our unsolicited queries, asking for some manuscripts and passing on many more. I can always tell when my ever-patient assistant Danielle has been sending these emails, because I receive many emails reacting to my pass.
First, let me say this: Our generic passes are, by their nature and on purpose, vague. We do make sure to address the author by name , and mention the book queried (different from the old days of printed letters to Dear Author). But the response is short, and it is unambiguous: We are declining to represent the project queried.
Most authors, when they receive our passes, either say nothing or, often, send a quick “Thanks for your time” email. That’s very nice, though certainly unnecessary.
Sometimes, though, we get one of two kinds of email that we really aren’t looking for: The Request for More Information or the Rude Email.
The request for more information is often polite and respectful, and is the result of a perfectly reasonable instinct: The agent didn’t want my book, but what about it was unacceptable? Is it the writing? The plot? The market? Did I do something wrong in my pitch? Help me so I can do better next time, and my work will be more enticing.
Again, please understand: These are absolutely reasonable questions. But if you ask them of me, you almost certainly won’t hear back, and it’s not because I’m a hard-hearted jerk who doesn’t want to help you. It’s because I get a LOT of queries and a LOT of requests like that. I also have something like 52 clients. If I tried (or split time with Danielle trying) to give advice to authors I’ve declined to work with, I would have even less time for each of the clients I have accepted. So our basically blanket policy is therefore to answer none of these requests. If we are close to accepting a project, or if there is something glaring that is the difference between acceptance and rejection, we might say so, but we’d do so without being asked. But fundamentally, a pass is not, unfortunately, an invitation to further discussion. And please believe me when I say that we really do feel bad when we don’t respond.
The other email we get is the Rude email, which comes in a couple of forms. There is the “Fuck you, you wouldn’t recognize quality writing if it whacked you in the head.” There is the “that’s OK, I didn’t really want to work with you, anyway.” And there is the “Fuck you, you wouldn’t recognize quality writing AND I didn’t want to work with you anyway.”
Well that makes two of us. Ultimately, there’s little purpose in being nasty about a pass-response, other than possibly making the writer feel good for a minute. But we’re pretty thick skinned, most of the time. And we get rejected CONSTANTLY by editors. And we typically throw up our hands, curse to ourselves (or out loud in some particularly painful circumstances), and then write a nice, polite, “ah well, thanks for the read” email to the editor. It’s what you do.
I was having lunch with an editor today, discussing a proposal I am currently submitting to publishers.
"So," he said, "are you out wide with it?" He continued. "I always think you guys (agents) have a real decision to make every time you go out with something. Is there a time you only go to one or two people? To five? How does it work?"
And I knew I had today's blog post.
It is in fact one of the more interesting decisions to make when a book is ready and I'm thinking about where to send it. Sometimes I feel like there are particular editors who are perfect for it--certain novels, when I describe them to my assistant Danielle, get a "well THAT one has Prime Crime written all over it." (Or Midnight Ink. Or Knopf. Or Mulholland. Or Touchstone.) And she will tell me which editor she thinks I'm going to approach. And most of the time, at this stage, she is correct.
But why, then, don't I just send the book to that editor alone, wait for the offer, and be done with it? Well, for a couple of reasons.
The first, certainly, is that I'm not always right (shocking, I know). A great example was when I was submitting a novel where a real, famous, historical character, and it felt perfect for a particular editor at Simon and Schuster. I called, smugly, got around 30 seconds into my spiel when she interrupted. "Oh my God I HATE when people do that. HATE it. Send it somewhere else." Um, ok.
Another reason a First Choice Editor doesn't work is because the book IS up her alley--so much so that she has three other books just like it and her list is full.
Finally, of course, there is always the chance that the FCE will simply not like the particular projection have submitted--and these are the times we are reminded that this is an art, not a science.
So, then, how do we do this? How many people at a time is the "right" number?
Well, when I started in publishing for my first sojourn, in the early 90s, manuscripts were printed out and submitted by mail. There was expense and physical effort involved--printing, copying, mailing--and agents did small rounds of submissions. The problem with this method is that it has a tendency to be inefficient. Now, with advent of electronic submissions, there is an ease to the process (which we also see on the agent side, when authors regularly query tens and tens of agents simultaneously. I’m not saying this is wrong, although if you’re a writer you should not indiscriminately carpet bomb agents any more than we should send, say, a cozy to Crown Business.). The trick (which is also true for writers) is not to send a book to EVERYONE just because you can, but send to enough reasonable places so there is the best chance for the most people to like it. Then there can be what we call a Competitive Situation but writers call an auction.
So what's the "right" number? Most of the time, for a reasonably commercial novel or nonfiction proposal, I want to send to at least one imprint at each of the Big Six (five? Four?) houses (and most of the time more than one imprint each), and then to the relevant independent publishers (for literary fiction that could be Grove or Algonquin, for crime, Midnight Ink or Pegasus...). In the end, most of the time I settle at between 12 and 15 editors for a round.
Of course, many agents have different philosophies--some still prefer smaller, shorter rounds with only the absolutely most likely editors first. I feel like that’s overly limiting, and I like sending my manuscript to a “reach” or two (although not the cozy-to-Business example from before). The litmus test, I always feel, is that I don’t want an editor to read the first 50 pages of my submission, throw up his hands, and say “why is he wasting my time?” Then the next time I send him a submission he will have a bad attitude before he even starts.
This is all only an overview, of course, and different books require different numbers of editors. But it’s a reasonable generalization, and I suspect I’m within the industry norm. And I know I am glad—and my interns, too—that we’re no longer printing, copying, and mailing out the manuscripts. Although there is something classic about getting a padded envelope with a manuscript box, and wondering if THIS is IT…
Over the last several weeks, I've felt like I've been on some kind of nostalgia tour. I went to Mariano Rivera's retirement game at Yankee Stadium, where all the of players I lived and died with (and some of whom played for me in my Previous Life in Baseball) came on the field and honored Mo. The next week we went to see Mike Piazza inducted into the Mets' hall of fame (where among the old-timers honoring Piazza was Bud Harrelson, the shortstop from 40 years ago whose replica jersey was the first I ever wore--and which I got in exchange for giving up my Blanket...). This evening my wife and I saw Steely Dan play songs from junior high; tomorrow we're seeing Sting; and Thursday, Rodriguez (from Searching for Sugar Man), whose 1970 album became a thoroughly improbable hit in South Africa and whose career was resurrected in 2011.
Besides being our entire entertainment budget for the second six months of 2013, these events tell me something I think of when I hear of a new gimmick in books or music or art. Ultimately, and overwhelmingly often, talent will out. Mariano's cutter was his one pitch (basically--don't quibble, Cohen), which he threw over and over. Steely Dan played 40 year old songs and messed with them enough that they were fresh but still recognizable. They were jazz; ephemeral and improvisational, where Mo was relentless and repetitive.
And they were both brilliant.
Around five years ago, I began to attend writers conferences around the country. I went to Indiana and Boston, Oklahoma City, Florida, Chicago, all over Manhattan. And everywhere I went, I would appear on agent panels, or agent-editor panels, or agent-author panels, and hear the same questions:
"E-books are going to kill publishing, right? Amazon is destroying books, right? In a few years, there won't BE books any more, right?"
And every time, I'd look around and see so many aspiring writers nodding, arms folded. And I'd go to the bar at the writers conferences and hear people talk to each other.
"Well of course, I would NEVER buy a Kindle. It's not really reading. I need the heft of the book, the smell of the book, the tactile feel of the book, and you JUST CAN'T get that from the cold, impersonal screen."
Then I'd hear "And my agent/editor/husband tells me I need to tweet. And be on Facebook. Why do I want to do THAT? Why does anybody care what I say? It's all a waste of time. My publisher will promote my book, right? And that's how it will sell. And if they don't, and my book tanks, then it's THEIR fault."
It's now five years later, and the New York Times has ebook best seller lists. Even reluctant authors have websites and twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and generally understand that book marketing has become a partnership of sorts between author and publisher, where the author is typically required to shoulder a far greater percentage of the effort than ever, and is unlikely to succeed without self-promotion (even if he isn't a natural, and wants simply to be a writer).
And look, we're still figuring it out. We're figuring out how to get word out to the most people most effectively and efficiently. We're segmenting the market into thinner and thinner slices in order to manage our time best and allow writers to be, you know, writers. The world of books has changed irrevocably. The horse has left the barn. And you know what? There has yet to be a zombie apocalypse. Writers are still writing books, and readers are still reading. Many are finding it inexpensive and efficient to read electronically--and enjoying it. Writers and readers are finding large and vibrant communities on line, where they discuss their interests with people all over the country and world.
And that's why it was so surprising to read both the Guardian interview with Jonathan Franzen a week or two ago, disdaining authors who tweet (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/13/jonathan-franzen-wrong-modern-world); and the renewed conversation surrounding the validity of the Brave New World of books and the experience of reading, writing, and promoting literature. Why are we talking about this? Why is it even worth spending time bemoaning the digital present? When I read the chatter about Franzen's words, I kind of rolled my eyes and shrugged, vaguely annoyed, sort of the way I do so when people will only permit their kids to watch TV that's (subjectively) "good for them" or only listen to music on old record players without also owning an MP3 player.
I think the reason I get this way (and I DO think it's better for kids to watch Sesame Street than Power Rangers, and Miles Davis on LP is awesome) is because I don't fundamentally believe that technology (or a technology company) is anthropomorphic. Nooks are not Evil. Amazon is not Evil--or Good! There are people who run companies that provide distribution of material. You may or may not like their policies of their philosophies. You may or may not approve of the policies that affect the price or availability of that material. In terms of marketing, there are new platforms that help or hinder a writer (or artist or musician) in getting word out to the public about their art; but again, these are value-indifferent. You can use them well, or you can use them poorly, or you can choose to ignore them (and deal with the consequences of ignoring them)--and that's fine. It's a choice. You can choose only to read hardcovers and that's fine--clearly enough people still do that publishers haven't stopped printing books in great numbers. And I love to feel the heft and the smell of a good book as much as anyone, even as I read a large percentage of my books digitally. But railing against it (or railing in favor of digital exclusivity, either), it seems to me, is ineffectual at best, and often simply curmudgeonly or even pathetic. Why "despair" when you hear about another author "gone to Twitter?" It's simply another way--a new way, yes, but a platform like a radio interview or a newspaper article (and at times more direct and effective) to get word out about a product or a book or a philosophy or a song, And ultimately, what's wrong with that?
We have Kindles and Nooks and iTunes and Bookish and Barnes & Noble (and B&N.com) and hardcovers and trade paperbacks and digital singles. We have great authors, and readers who read them in every which way.
It's all there, and the choice is ours, and indiscriminate and all-encompassing hatred and disdain simply isn't worth the effort.
First of all, I didn’t expect to be writing this particular column today. I’ve spent the past two days working on the launch of my client Helen Wan’s fabulous novel The Partner Track, which has had an amazing narrative and a unique marketing and publicity angle. Helen has had the first two of her appearances in the last 24 hours, and we’re getting some great momentum. And I will write about this process, because it deserves writing about and makes me intensely happy.
But then I was on Facebook and I saw a post by another of my clients, Mary McCoy, who’s a librarian in California when she isn’t writing searing YA noir.
The post had to do with Meg Medina and Rainbow Rowell, both of whom have written children’s books dealing with tough situations of bullying, coming to terms with growing up, kids trying to navigate adolescence. Both authors speak all the time at schools. And both recently were uninvited to appearances because small, small-minded groups of parents determined that the words in their books—“Ass” in the title of Medina’s “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass” and a number of curse words in Rowell’s Eleanor and Park—made the messages of perseverance and tolerance in their books irrelevant: Their children needed to be protected from the word Ass.
Medina was told she’d still be allowed to read at the school—provided she neither stated the name of her own book or showed a picture of the cover (see above). This was the way she responded:
I’ll say only this: I make absolutely NO APOLOGIES for the title of my book. The title is bold and troubling, and it suggests exactly what’s inside. Besides, we can fret all we want about the word ass, but that word isn’t the real trouble, is it? What’s hurting our kids is the savagery on their phones, and Facebook pages and in their classrooms. That, and the reluctance of those around them to step up and do the tough work of pulling the issue out into the open and talking about what bullying really looks and sounds like and about its radioactive impact that lasts for years into the future.
Rowell wasn’t even certain she’d been uninvited, until her contract with the State of Minnesota was returned. She said in an interview here (http://the-toast.net/2013/09/17/chat-rainbow-rowell-love-censorship/), that
“The Parents Action League is mostly responding to the cursing in the book – there’s a lot of it.
But it’s so bizarre to me that they’re objecting to the cursing because Eleanor and Park themselves almost never swear. I’m not anti-profanity, personally, but I use profanity in the book to show how vulgar and sometimes violent the characters’ worlds are. The very first line of the book is:
XTC was no good for drowning out the morons at the back of the bus.
Park pressed his headphones into his ears.
He’s trying to block out the profanity! And Eleanor hates that her stepfather curses so much. She complains about it throughout the book.
There’s also some pretty vulgar sexual language that the parents have objected to: Someone harasses Eleanor by writing gross things on her school books. It’s one of the more traumatic things that happens to her.”
So let’s get this straight: Two authors, writing books they are hoping will be read by children and teenagers who can empathize with the bullied and abused kids portrayed, are prevented from talking to these same kids because there is cursing (which is pretty broadly defined if you use “ass” as a line in the sand). It’s astonishing. Bullying, both in person and online, is such a massive problem now that you end up seeing heartbreaking articles like this one (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/queens-girl-12-hangs-citing-harassment-article-1.1352387) and this one (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/14/us/suicide-of-girl-after-bullying-raises-worries-on-web-sites.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).
I’ve got two daughters. One is 10, the other, 11. They have had their run-ins with bullies. They are young, but growing up really quickly. They have access to social media, and they have lockers in the hall of middle school. They are now on a break for ten days for the end of the Jewish holiday season. I’m going to Barnes and Noble tomorrow morning and I’m buying them each a copy of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, and my whole family is going to read it and talk about it. And it’s tragic that the kids in the school Meg Medina is not going to visit won’t have that same opportunity.
For more information, click here http://megmedina.com/2013/09/04/author-uninvited-a-school-decides-im-trouble/ and here http://the-toast.net/2013/09/17/chat-rainbow-rowell-love-censorship/
Greetings from January 2!
That's what it feels like, at least--today, the Tuesday after Labor Day, is like the Day after New Year's Day, when everyone's back from vacation, the kids return to school, and it's time to Work.
Except this year, when for those of us who are Jewish get a day and a half, then need to turn right around and leave the office mid-submission (either giving or receiving) for Rosh Hashana--interestingly, the New Year. For me it's going to be inconvenient and disconcerting--typically we get a few weeks of Getting Back From Summer before the holidays start. But there is, I suppose, a silver lining.
They'll be over before October. Shana tova, y'all.
Traditionally, Publishing is very quiet and lazy in the summer, with editors and agents loosening up (and sometimes heading to a summer place with water for long weekends that occasionally stretch into weeks).
As a young editor back in the day and am inexperienced agent more recently, I used the summers as an opportunity to play while the more more experienced mice were away--I'd get my submissions in, lots of reading and editing, and the occasional early afternoon hooky-play for an adult beverage with the other junior level folks.
Then, in 2009, things changed. Folks were afraid, after the financial collapse, that their next long weekend would be their last intentional one, and they stayed firmly at their desks, not really buying much but not wanting to be the odd man out in the next round of layoffs.
As things on a macro level chilled out a bit, and a modicum of stability poked its head out, there was a bit of an industry-wide exhale, and out of office messages started to return. There was a change, though: what I've found in the last two summers is that vacations are now rolling--there's not a mass exodus in August, but rather a trickle of absences from late June through mid August.
What that has meant is that I've been as busy as ever--can't stop submitting manuscripts because most people are at their desks. But it has really been difficult to close. Editorial Meetings have seemed sporadic, one level of Boss is always just gone or playing catch up. It's as if everyone's at 2/3 capacity all the time, which is worse than being at 100% and then dead. I felt all summer like I was running on a hamster wheel, emailing and calling and writing and nudging, and through no fault other than vacation timing ended August with as much on my sub list as I did in June.
And now we approach Labor Day, which is followed immediately (and bizarrely) by Rosh Hashanah (and for me all the other fall Jewish holidays). We're going not from 0-60, but 66-125, all at once. The usual rush of September submissions will show up, and the inbox will be still more engorged. Should be interesting...
I do want to end with one little shout out, to an HSG summer intern named Eric Sturgis, who was with us for a few months, realized he hated being in a big Eastern city more than he loved publishing, and moved to Denver. Eric's a smart guy, a good reader, and did a super job. When he left on his last day he gave an honest assessment of the program with both praise and suggestions for future groups of interns. When he closed the door to the office, we had no expectation of seeing him again.
The next day, my assistant Danielle and I got a lovely email thank you note. Not effusive, not pro forma. Just a nice couple of honest lines of appreciation. We don't always get that, even from terrific interns, and this isn't really an indictment of people who don't, particularly when they are often on their way back to school. But I have to say, it's really good form.
OK, so yesterday Jeff Cohen wrote a terrific post here--so terrific, in fact, that I thought it deserved to be up for nearly two whole days! Actually it had to do with the busyness of my Tuesday and the fact that it's now almost 10 pm before I can sit down and write before the clock runs out and the estimable Lynn's next post takes primacy.
But Jeff makes a number of points in his post about what happens between the time that a writer completes a novel and said book finds a home with a publisher (or Doesn't and the consequences of that Doesn't need to be confronted).
Before I get into the Agent take on the process, I wanted just to give a little tweak on one of Jeff's points. He says that when a manuscript doesn't sell it's due to one of two things: either a publisher can't figure out how to market the book and recoup its advance, or the book isn't as good as the author thinks it is. Jeff's thesis is that the latter is more likely than the former, and I suspect that often that's true, though I would add "and agent" to that sentence, since most of the time the agent is putting the book out there and believes in it, and we are also baffled by the fact that no editor is recognizing our client's genius/marketability/foresight/astonishing good looks.
But it's Jeff's next point that I want to address, and largely reiterate: before you send out your book, whether to agent or publisher, it is extremely incumbent on you to be absolutely certain that the book is the best it can be at this point. Your agent will (or at least ought to) work with you to get the book in shape. And he or she will likely go through it with you any number of times to be sure it's Ready. But before you give the final OK to your agent to let it go to publishers (or, for that matter, if you need to act as your own agent when you are ready to send it out for representation), you need to be sure that you set your best foot forward.
That means, besides filling your plot holes and character flaws and pacing issues, that you have read it ONE LAST TIME all the way through as a reader, not an author. Did you like it? (Forget that you are sick of it and want to put an ice pick through the skull of your romantic lead.) Don't say "Eh, I'll just attach chapters 4, 7, and 9--they're the good ones." Be prepared to stand behind every single word. Your agent will have to if he or she is asked about it by an editor, and will only do so if he or she knows you have given it absolutely 100%.
Then we, as your agent (getting the singulars and plurals right in this post is TOUGH!), will look through our editor database and match your work with what we know our editor colleagues have told us they like over lunches or drinks or on the phone or at conferences. We look through our lists of deals and through Pub Marketplace. We will ask our colleagues at our agencies or in other agencies who might be best (and we do talk. All the time. And help each other out with all best hopes for our friends' success.) And we make our calls and write our pitches and email over our manuscripts and we sit around and wait for The Call and want desperately to then turn around and make The Call to you.
And if it doesn't work, and all of our ideas, and those of our colleagues and friends don't work, and we become the Voice of Death to you and you can't stand to see our emails any more, we know that at some point we will be blamed. It's part of the job, and that's ok. We just hope that that blame isn't the last stage of grief, and that the author takes everything--including our efforts and intentions--into account. And then moves on. And then perseveres and succeeds the next time.
This summer, more than anything else professionally, I’ve had the opportunity to explore the periods just before—and after—a book is published, and really analyze what an author, a publisher, and now also an agent need to do in order to position a book for success.
Look, until a certain period of time in the past, an author wrote a book, attracted a publisher, signed a contract, and was more or less able to assume that the publisher would take it from there. Now, there are certainly many folks who say that that period ended very recently, but I recall differently.
In 1991, I was working as an editorial assistant at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich under the legendary, irascible Anne Freedgood (one of the few people I know for whom “irascible” is both a condemnation and a compliment). I ended up leaving Harcourt and publishing and going to business school because I was so frustrated that, as editors, I felt our hands were tied by conservative and short-sighted policies toward marketing and publicity. We were publishing a marvelous, beautiful, fanciful novel called A Case of Curiosities by Allen Kurzweil. We had paid very good money for it. It had received terrific reviews. The author had written a gorgeous book. Anne had edited well, and the designers and production folk had put together an excellent package.
And it was absolutely dying on the vine.
I couldn’t fathom why there was no money for ads in the New York Times. (I know, I know, it’s a waste of money…most of the time.) I saw the sales dwindle after a few weeks, stopped seeing it on the front tables in the bookstores, never saw anyone read it on the subway or the beach. I despaired, and I went to get my MBA specifically in order to understand how to sell books.
And now it’s 2013, and so many of the problems still exist. Authors still write gorgeous books, which are packaged well and at times given reasonable advances—and die on the vine in precisely the same way that Allen Kurzweil’s novel did in 1991, and so many have before and since. And I wonder why, and at times I despair for this business, for its seeming randomness.
So this summer we started thinking about the differences between 1991 and 2013, and most specifically how an author can work to promote his or her book both before and after publication in order to create the elusive buzz and to achieve sales success through either pre-sales or sales after publication. Sometimes the publisher takes the lead; sometimes it is up to the writer (who most of the time hasn’t bargained for a position of such primacy in the marketing—after all, isn’t it enough to write a book strong enough to be released into the public???). Sometimes there is support and enthusiasm from the publisher, sometimes the author is made to feel like he should be grateful just to get a deal, and should go back home and be satisfied.
So we think, and we analyze, and we adjust. When we can find a particular market segment to target and the author has a platform within that segment, we try to exploit that advantage. We see if television exposure works (not terribly often if you are a talking head, in terms of resulting in folks actually clicking the Buy button on Amazon; but more likely if you are the subject of a story). We see if posting on genre-appropriate blogs work. We see if Tweeting and sharing on Facebook make a material difference, and for how long prior to publication you need to build up your base (hint: it helps if you have an established web presence, at least within your genre, from the get-go, but it’s certainly possible to make up for lost time as long as you aren’t perceived as overly craven).
Finally, we try to find places—not bookstores—where the author can appear and speak to the end user. For a children’s book writer, that’s often a school or a library. For a lawyer or a business author writing with expertise about a particular industry, that could be to conferences or firms or to different divisions of large companies. In these circumstances, what’s often the difference between success and leaving money on the table (as it were) is the combination of time, energy, and resources. We have brought on interns and part-timers to call schools and law firms and coordinate appearances, and work with the publishers to ensure that there will be books available to purchase at the events. We help create a degree of buzz.
But what causes the tipping point between a nice tour and a long, extended sales arc? Seemingly it’s the confluence of everything—the book, the package, the reviews, the appearances…and the support by the publisher. And that can be alchemy. Sometimes it’s throwing money at a book (which is nice, certainly). Sometimes it’s a galvanized sales force that goes to its retail accounts and gets the elusive traction. Sometimes it’s ads in the paper or on Amazon or on the subway. Sometimes it’s simply making the book ubiquitous.
And that part, what goes into the elements of that last paragraph, is REALLY HARD. So few authors get all of it. My clients laugh at me because at some point in my relationship with every client I tell them straight out that I am managing their expectations. I’m not subtle. And when I do, I try to figure out what the first point is where that author will be happy, and start by trying to exceed that point. Sometimes it’s simply seeing a book in print. Sometimes it’s earning out an advance. Sometimes it’s getting enough sales to ensure a next contract. Sometimes it’s a specific number of sales, or an Edgar, or a spot on a best seller list. Often those marks are very difficult to hit. Often those marks are unrealistic. Occasionally we exceed them. Sometimes I feel like I’m reliving Allen Kurzweil’s experience over and over, and need to go back to business school to try to figure out a new way to help these books succeed.
But then we close a new deal, and a new book starts the process, and we start to parse the markets, and I think, “This is the one where we figure it all out.” But even if we figure it out once, it’s not necessarily replicable throughout publishing—a cozy needs something different from a middle grade fantasy, which needs something different from women’s fiction. It keeps things interesting, even if it feels like I’m constantly rolling that rock up the hill and waiting for it to slip. But once in a while, you get traction, and then you go back down the hill and start over with the next rock.
Greetings from August break, where I'm writing this post while waiting for a kayak to arrive for a couple-hour Berkshire adventure (a slow, relaxing adventure) before an afternoon and evening of music.
It's a lovely break in the quiet of August before the girls come home from camp, school starts back up, and the publishing industry wakes up. There had been a few years--around 2008-2011--when folks didn't take their breaks because they were concerned that when they got back they wouldn't have a job. But oddly, in this period of transition and uncertainty, there seems to have been a return to the sleepy summer. There's a bit of a difference, in that everyone is talking about how busy we are (and we are--everyone is catching up on their eighteen manuscripts they haven't been able to read for three months). And rather than everyone going on vacation simultaneously there appears to be a sequence of rotating vacations. As a result, it's been difficult to gain traction on submissions even when I sent in my books (seemingly) early enough in, say, June, to have received closure by this point.
One of the things that happens right as August turns to September is that many writers on academic calendars complete heir manuscripts and send them to me and to my agent colleagues for consideration (we typically get bursts in early January and late May as well). In anticipation of this, and as a public service to both other agents and to first-time authors, I want to go back through a couple of useful guidelines for submissions to agents, if you've not done so before. Some of these may seem obvious. But they're on this list because they are violated time and time again. Also, these are guidelines for novelists, not nonfiction writers; and for prose stories and not picture books.
1) Finish the book before you send out a submission. Not "mostly done," not "it'll be complete in 3 months but I wanted to gauge interest. Done so if I like it you can attach it and send it right back and it can either join the queue or jump the line if it's exactly what I'm looking for. And done means proofread, formatted, in Word.
2) To the point of "exactly what I'm looking for:" I have submissions guidelines on my website and on my Publishers Marketplace page. It says what genres I represent, and also what I do not. Many agents do the same. It also says exactly how I like to receive a submission--letter, first five pages, no synopsis, no middle sections. Here's the point: if I say on my website that I don't like, say, fantasy with dwarves, that's specifically not an invitation for you to write "I know you SAY you don't like fantasy with dwarves, but that's only because you haven't read mine. So to prove it, I've included a synopsis of the 300,000-word first book of the trilogy, along with chapters seven and eight because that's when the story really gets going."
3) I realize that #2 sounded snarky, but here's a gentler way of putting it: there are a lot of agents out there. Most of us have certain kinds of books we do well, and others we don't have as much experience or comfort with. But for every genre and every style, there are multiple agents who will be open to loving the book. Your trick, as a writer, is to do the research and figure out who those agents are, and not to carpet-bomb New York with your novel. It does help, and makes me that much more receptive, when I see a line in the query letter saying that an author looked at my guidelines and thought that because I like historical suspense, I might like her novel of a murder in 14th Century Belgium.
4) The final thing, of course, is that you need to be ridiculously patient. We are all trying to read our queries in reasonable amounts of time, and there are periods of the year where that's easier and more difficult. If you get interest from an agent, let the other folks it's with know (interest means an offer of representation, typically), and perhaps give them the chance to scramble and read it before you make a final decision.
In the meantime, good luck getting those books done (and proofread and formatted!). We look forward to seeing them--as long as they don't have elves!